Saturday, September 14, 2013

Movie Reviews-The Iceman, Now You See Me

The Iceman
directed by Ariel Vroman
There are some actors who either through their looks or their skill at their chosen craft bring an unique intensity to all of their roles. Michael Shannon is such an actor. I first became aware of him as the self-loathing tightly wound Treasury Agent in Boardwalk Empire. His large almost Cookie Monsterish eyes allowed him to project a lot of emotions, mostly nervousness, hidden rage and desperation. He also had a funny turn reading the letter of an angry and EXTREMELY PROFANE sorority girl. So when I read that he was going to take the role of Richard Kuklinski, a serial killer who moonlighted as a mob hitman, or maybe he was a mob hitman who moonlighted as a serial killer, I thought that was a good role for him. Having watched The Iceman I can now say that not only was this a good role for him but was also was the role he was seemingly born to play. 

The film's makeup department did a great job at making Shannon look like Kuklinksi. Shannon is close to the same height as the gigantic Kuklinski was. The majority of the credit must go to Shannon himself, who via his body language, carefully swallowed vowels, ominous silences and sudden sarcastic asides, manages to become Kuklinski, or as he was known, The Iceman.

The Iceman, (his nickname referred to his cold blooded nature and his innovation of freezing the corpses of his victims to prevent coroners from determining time of death), was a murderer who worked for the East Coast Mafia as a contract killer from the 60's thru the 80's. He also killed people for his own reasons. Annoying him was dangerous. He occasionally killed someone just to see how a particular weapon or technique worked. He was both a serial killer and a profoundly professional and mercenary one.

As with any movie based on real life organized crime figures the truth is pretty hard to determine. Kuklinski claimed involvement in murders that he was almost definitely not part of, most outrageously that of Hoffa. The film wisely ignores some of the outlandish claims and builds a character drama about a coldblooded introvert who just happens to be an excellent killer. This film is primarily based on the Anthony Bruno book but it looks like it might also draw somewhat on the Phillip Carlo biography, if you are so inclined to look deeper into the story. 

Shannon plays Kuklinski as an evil man but one who has the evil within him carefully chained and caged. His lovely wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) has no clue what her husband does for a living other than he's some sort of currency trader. She doesn't ask too many questions as she's not exactly a feminist. Richard is not forthcoming. He provides well for his family. Generally that's all Deborah wants to know. And that is all Richard ever wants her to know.

Richard runs across Gambino soldier Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta in a meaty role) and is introduced to the world of contract killing. Richard's only rules about killing are no women and no kids. Other than that he'll kill anyone for any reason or no reason at all. One person who doesn't share Richard's scruples but becomes his partner for a while is Robert Pronge (Chris Evans), an Irish-American contract killer who has a cover as a ice-cream truck driver. Pronge shares new ways of murder with Richard. They briefly bond as non-Italians in an organized crime milieu run by Italians. 

For a while things are okay with Richard's world. But when DeMeo and he have to temporarily part ways, Richard keeps on killing for money and finds himself out of his league. The film sketches the physical (sexual??) abuse Richard and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, and asks the viewer if evil truly begets evil. As Richard's brother Joseph (Stephen Dorff) reminds Richie, his work for the Mafia was not the first time Richard killed, tortured or beat people. Joseph is in prison for the rape and murder of a 12 year old girl. Richard truly despises his brother. Joseph thinks that Richard is just like him and will wind up in the same prison. Grim yet enticing movie. I loved it. This is a movie which will make you think about how well you know your own family. The years have been very kind to Winona Ryder. James Franco, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, John Ventimiglia, and Erin Cummings also star. The trailer is a good gauge of the violence in this film.

Now You See Me
directed by Louis Leterrier
Do you like heist/caper movies? Because that's what this movie is. I like these sort of films so I was positively inclined to this film even before I saw it. Again I want to be very careful about what I write here because the film deliberately is evasive about what's really going on at various points in the story. And that's important. There are plenty of plot twists that you might not see coming. Well you might, after all there aren't too many truly original stories but the fun in these kinds of movies is in getting there, not necessarily knowing ahead of time how it's done. 

I guess you could say the same thing about the dance of life between men and women, eh? And that's also a very minor plot point in this movie as well.
Although this film is star packed, along with a mini Zombieland reunion of sorts, the stars are not all that important. I mean they look good and are very convincing in their roles but this film's value is found in the director's set pieces, great dialog, stunts that feel realistic and a well written script that has plenty of surprises along the way, even for a jaded film goer. Maybe I'm gushing too much but suffice it to say I liked this movie. It was long but I never felt it dragged. I wanted to see what happened next.  Whether a story is short or long I think the best thing you can say about it is that it kept your interest.

Ok, just shortly then because I really think you ought to see this movie if you haven't done so already, let's quickly review some of the plot. There are four magicians/scoundrels who make their living doing tricks that have generally already been done by other magicians. They're good but they're not necessarily breaking new ground. These magicians are Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and Merritt McKenny (Woody Harrelson). After they've all done a trick or in some cases while they're doing a trick they all get a tarot card and instructions that lead them to a New York apartment. A year later they are world famous magicians who perform as the Four Horsemen. Daniel and Henley have some history with each other. More to mess with Daniel than anything else Merritt offers his (ahem) "physical capabilities" to Henley but he's probably not serious. Probably not. 

Anyway as the Four Horsemen they perform in Las Vegas. They ask the audience how they would like to rob a bank and pick a man out of the audience. The group picks a man out of the crowd and seemingly teleport him to the vault of a French bank. There he activates an air duct that shoots money over the delighted crowd before the Horsemen bring him back.

When the authorities find out that money really is missing from the bank and the man is convinced he was teleported to France, obviously they have some questions for the Four Horsemen. That kicks off a game of cat and mouse and increasingly bigger stunts, robberies and events that appear to be impossible. As Daniel boasts, the secret to being a magician is to always be sure you're the smartest guy in the room. 

One person who thought he was the smartest guy in the room is the FBI agent assigned to the case, one Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). He's assisted by French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) and congenitally bemused magician and debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Common, Elias Koteas, Michael Caine, Michael Kelly and David Warshofsky also star. If you haven't seen this film, check it out but leave your cynicism at the door.
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