The Iceman

Cool? Daddy-O, we are fuh-rozen

Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder“It’s bad luck to toast with water,” says Deborah (Winona Ryder) as she concludes a promising first date with Richard Kuklinski (the incomparable Michael Shannon), who states that he does not believe in luck, then goes through with the toast.  As the opening few seconds of the film shamelessly give away, Kuklinski does not go on to have the best of luck.

The Iceman follows the more or less true-to-life story of Kuklinski’s exploits as a contract killer in the employ of the Gambino crime family, namely Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta, in yet another gangster role), and more interestingly, his attempt to maintain a wholesome family life in spite of his profession (not to mention the fact that his wife and two daughters have no idea what he does for a living).  After he’s hired by DeMeo for some high profile hits, he sets some ground rules for himself: he does not kill women or children, and has an especially vicious aversion to killing female children (due to the genders and ages of his own kids), to the point that he seemingly cannot control himself if he sees someone go after a girl.

DeMeo temporarily “fires” Kuklinski when mob infighting complicates things, leading the latter to partner up with Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), an obnoxious ice-cream-truck-driving killer also in the former employ of DeMeo.  The partnership is strained due to the differing methods of the two killers, but the audience cannot be expected to care about that – we side with Kuklinski because of Shannon’s warm portrayal of him and the character’s insistence on leaving innocent girls out of his reticule.  Freezy could care less.  The two begin the practice of dismembering their victims and freezing the body parts (hence Kuklinski’s moniker).  In the meantime, Deborah and the girls perceive their husband/father’s latest successes as “job promotions,” which isn’t a total lie, but would I tell my family if I began killing for money?  Everyone has a different threshold when it comes to lying, but it’s almost unbelievable that such a steadfast family man could be such a different person when he’s “working.”  Many cases state that the real-life Kuklinski abused his family, which one might assume, but none of that is touched on here.  Shannon portrays the Iceman as a soft-hearted father and devoted husband who has no problem disposing of bad people in order to support his loved ones.

Shannon’s adept performance doesn’t stop director Ariel Vromen from deploying the time-honored trope of rendering a character sympathetic simply by introducing characters who are far worse (though he doesn’t need to here).  Mob boss Leo Marks (Robert Davi) and Evans’ Mr. Freezy are just about the nastiest characters to populate a screen this year.  Evans’ turn from Captain America to an evil hick is an incredible surprise, and Davi plays one of those “untouchable” mafia bosses who realizes he’s just as human (read: killable) as anyone else far too late.  James Franco even appears as a target Kuklinski claimed (in real life) that he regretted killing, simply for the fact that he allowed the man to pray for God to save him before shooting him anyway.

The film’s biggest misstep is that Vromen just can’t resist the temptation to make his own mob movie alongside the movie about Kuklinski – DeMeo becomes something of a tritagonist, leading his own misplaced scenes wherein he must decide if protecting Josh Rosenthal, an employee he considers a son (based on the real-life Chris Rosenberg and played by the inexplicably-cast David Schwimmer) is worth a major falling out with powerful criminal colleagues.  The scenes would have been fine in another movie –  Liotta’s millionth role as a mob boss stock character, as good as he is, is exhausted.  None of it goes anywhere, because neither Kuklinski nor Deborah have anything to do with him after the film’s two-thirds mark.

The other gear-grinder is the director’s refusal to take responsibility for the story’s content once the film reaches its end.  He so ardently aligns with the very humanely-depicted Kuklinski, but then throws him to the wolves once he’s captured and ends the film with a few lines of onscreen text: Kuklinski, these titles tell us, received a life sentence, got tossed in the cell block where his child-murdering brother also lived, and never saw his family again.  This is as if to say, “Hey, family man or not, crime is crime.”  It’s sharply dismissive, and the mostly-great film that comes before it deserves better.  Don’t leave us to interpret story content; maintain a narrative trajectory.

As with most of Shannon’s films, he carries the whole package on his shoulders, and Winona Ryder matches him every time she’s allowed to try.  These bits are what I hope viewers will recognize this film for.  I doubt anyone was begging for a movie about Kuklinski, but as Shannon’s name skirts house-holdedness, may plenty of aficionados backlog it.

The Iceman (2013); written by Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land; directed by Ariel Vromen; starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, and Ray Liotta.

Stand Up Guys

Black suits you

Walken, Arkin, PacinoImagine a film similar to Superbad, but with male retirees as a target audience.  Now picture the lead characters as people who in their younger days aspired to be Michael Corleone and/or any of the dual-pistol-wielding badasses of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films.  You’d expect the result to be an amusing admixture somewhere between a crime film and a buddy comedy, right?  If you answered yes, Stand Up Guys will not surprise you, but if you’re still with me so far, you’ll be happy to get exactly what you expect.

The set-up involves Doc (Christopher Walken) ponderously puttering around before picking up Val (Al Pacino), an old criminal accomplice, from prison, where the latter has just finished serving a 28-year sentence for accidentally killing the evil progeny of criminal mastermind Claphands (Mark Margolis), whose name signifies that he…really wants approval, I guess.  The duo hang around Doc’s apartment and deliver some stiff dialogue (skirting Island Syndrome for the first few minutes), and then Val decides he will do some partying to celebrate his release, even though the Doc he once knew is now an old man with old man habits and an early bedtime.  Soon comes the kicker that gets the main story arc moving: Doc has been ordered by Claphands to kill Val posthaste and deliver his body.  Apparently, the SOB wanted Val to serve every minute of his sentence before being dealt the ultimate payback.  Doc, however, (despite not seeing Val for 28 years) is gentler than he once was, and has fond memories of Val, whom he now realizes is his only friend.  Val, it turns out, only did all of this partying because he suspected he was to be killed by Doc, and wonders why his friend hasn’t just gotten it over with already.

The movie is directed by Fisher Stevens, who guest-starred as the ill-fated George Minkowski on LOST.  Stevens structures his movie like any other buddy comedy: through a series of vignettes involving the same protagonists and multiple supporting characters who only appear in their respective segments (I did the same thing with Slices a few years ago, when I was required to follow a set structure, and it’s surprisingly difficult to pull off, namely because you have to justify each segment’s existence in the overall plot; many are inevitably cut).   Claphands breathes down Doc’s neck and makes clear that he must kill Val before 10am or suffer the consequences.  With a full night of freedom left, Doc and Val go on an adventure that begins when Val steals a “sweet-ass” car.  They soon rescue their former getaway driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin) from a retirement home, and he immediately goes from breathing through an oxygen tank to whipping across the highway at 90+ miles-an-hour.  From here, I got the sense that there were some script revisions concerning how disparate and madcap each mini-adventure would be.  Perhaps Stevens realized he had Walken, Pacino, and Arkin in the same movie, and decided to do everything possible with them.  This leads us to some genre sampling, including Ferrell/Apatow-style screwball comedy (brothel humor, the inevitable old-man-on-Viagra joke, and a pup-tent erection); GoodFellas-era Scorsese black humor (a naked woman is found in the trunk of a stolen car and the gang must decide what to do with her), which leads to a bizarrely lighthearted and totally-played-for-laughs version of the infamous rape-and-revenge genre films (aforementioned woman reveals that she was kidnapped, sexually abused, and released by a gang, and the Stand Up Guys, being stand-up guys, beat the crap out of the gang and allow the woman to do what she will with them afterward); Tarantino-ish table chat scenes (which come off more as deliberate opportunities for these three veteran actors to be onscreen together and play off of each other for longer); and even Hong Kong action for a short time, in a finale that delivers not enough and possibly too much at the same time, but I leave that to you.

The supporting cast includes Vanessa Ferlito (!), who I haven’t seen since Death Proof, and whose effortless natural strength (not to mention her wonderful Italian attitude, a woman after my own heart) can steal any show, even when performing with these guys.  Julianna Margulies plays Nina, a doctor and the daughter of Hirsch, who gets a bit more screen time than most of the supporting women.  Lucy Punch, who also appeared in Grindhouse, plays Wendy, the proprietor of the brothel (previously owned by her mother, the former romantic partner of Val), and has a warm presence in the movie until a somewhat ludicrous scene involving Arkin’s character, which would be funny if not for how obligatory it seems – the “feeble old man happens to be a sex god” joke has worn out for me, sorry.  It’s old hat and reliably disrespectful to the women involved.

Perhaps most interesting among the supporting characters is Alex (Addison Timlin), a waitress who happens to be working at the diner (and busing the exact table at which the group sits) every time they come in over the course of nearly 24 hours.  She’s young, pretty, and loves chatting with Doc, who sits in her section every single morning.  She appears as a sort of mystical character, is always at the perfect calm, and is the only character who can draw out the softer details of Doc’s character, and thus convinces us to sympathize with him throughout (not that Walken’s acting doesn’t do a good enough job).  Her true identity is, like most things in this story, what you would expect, but the film’s adherence to structure is what keeps it from skirting farce (despite a Surprise Demise in the middle of the story and the aforementioned finale).

Al Pacino needs to choose his roles carefully now, and acting with Walken and Arkin again is a good one.  His voice is gravely and despondent.  He knows time is running out, and his more emotional scenes hit home, in spite of the fact that the “ticking timer” trope is shopworn and synthetic.  It means something to us only when it means something to the characters, and there’s a good sense of urgency here thanks to the secondary situation: not only does Val only have a few hours to live, but he and Doc only have a few hours to rekindle their friendship.  Walken, who had a good year in 2012, continues to play roles he’s comfortable in, but that don’t bring him into the territory of self-parody.

Throughout the story, characters reminisce for the sake of depth and exposition.  It’s worth noting that when the guys reminisce about their back-in-the-day criminal escapades, it’s nowhere near as interesting as when they (and other characters) reminisce about meaningful memories together.

A few bafflers: why/how does Claphands, a criminal mastermind with tons of money, keep his office in a building that looks condemned?  Why does he only seem to have two henchmen?  Why aren’t his henchmen imposing?  If he only has two non-imposing henchmen and his fortress is in the middle of the (nameless) city, why is Doc so petrified of him?  Why are the owners of the “sweet-ass” car, who are purportedly so tough and infamous that they don’t even lock their car because no one would be dumb enough to steal it, a bunch of wiry white dudes who end up easily pushed over?  Why is Alex trusting enough to go alone to a stranger’s apartment?  Again, it goes back to why most things in this movie happen: because it’s necessary to the film’s House of Cards plot, which would collapse should one detail be altered.  If you’re involved in the story and willing to go with it, none of this is very distracting.

The film’s title is one of those Road Sign Game opportunities.  Place punctuation, and the whole meaning changes, and you don’t feel bad about it because the words didn’t make much sense in the first place (remember “No, U turn”?).  Stand Up Guys doesn’t refer to the name of their gang; it’s a term referring to a responsible person, which Val claims to be, and which Doc certainly strives to be.  Do they succeed?  If you don’t think so, you can always call it Stand Up, Guys!  They do sit around a lot.

Stand Up GuysStand Up Guys (2013); written by Noah Haidle; directed by Fisher Stevens; starring Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Vanessa Ferlito.

Reservoir Dogs

You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize

In celebration of twenty years of filmmaking on the part of Quentin Tarantino (and the upcoming release of his newest film, Django Unchained, which I’m tempted to dodge family holiday obligations in order to see), I was finally able to see Reservoir Dogs, a film that has topped my list for the better part of a decade, in the theatre for the first time.  Instead of the theatre’s usual shameless ads and blockbuster trailers, viewers were shown the original trailers for Quentin’s previous films (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, etc.) and a bunch of Tarantino trivia.  There were also ads for a new Tarantino Blu-Ray box set, but as Miramax hasn’t yet realized that not everyone has/needs/wants a Blu-Ray player, I tuned out.  The VHS-DVD transition was organic and took decades.  Stop trying to force the next magic discs on us; forcibly rendering the current generation of technology obsolete creates endless waste and yard-sale fodder (plus you’re expediting the takeover of the machines).

It occurs to me that despite my years-long love of Reservoir Dogs, I have yet to write a word about it.  I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t been said in the past twenty years, but it would seem that in a case like this, people want to know if an old movie “holds up.”  Of course it does, dummy.  But this has also been a big year for anniversaries and re-releases and general love for the cinema (look at the Oscar winners from February): with the somber 100-year anniversary of the Titanic sinking, the film holding its namesake was screened in theatres for the first time since I was in eighth grade.  With twenty years of Quentin behind a camera, we get to see ‘Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the theatre again.  The best part of the overall experience, maybe, was that several moviegoers around me had not seen the film.  They knew Quentin’s name, they’d probably been told that filmmaking was forever changed after his first two films, they’d heard of Mr. Blonde, but hadn’t actually sat through what Quentin once referred to as his equivalent of Kubrick’s The Killing and what many consider to be the greatest independent film of all time.  The reactions, which included gasps, cackles, and plenty of audible occurrences of  “jeeeeezus” said it all.

Reservoir Dogs is a heist film without a heist.  We begin in a diner, with a bunch of guys in identical black suits – Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) – eating breakfast and hashing over the meaning of Madonna songs.  The exceptions to the suits are the two “bosses”: Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn).  The “diner scene,” as it’s known, has come to be one of the most quotable sequences in film history.  I’ll spare you direct quotes (because your friends surely haven’t), but the scene remains a diamond of screenwriting that sets a precedent for the rest of the movie: dialogue, not contrivance, deepens characters and pushes scenes forward.  Buscemi’s legendary “tipping” vignette is something few of us can avoid thinking about while computing gratuity at a restaurant.

I have always considered Reservoir Dogs to be two separate films.  The diner scene (i.e. everything before George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” and the famous slow-motion walk under the opening credits) is one film, whose attack, rising action, conflict, and resolution are all composed and accomplished through dialogue.  Then, we’ve got a relentless crime film.  Keitel’s character, Mr. White (arguably the only character with any sort of conscience, and I include the police characters in that statement) drags a gut-shot Mr. Orange into a warehouse where Joe, the boss, has instructed everyone to rendezvous.  After Mr. Pink arrives, we learn (through dialogue) that something went wrong with what was supposed to be a simple, two-minute robbery.  An employee set off the alarm, Mr. Blonde executed several innocent people, Mr. Orange was shot by a civilian during the getaway, a legion of police showed up out of nowhere, and Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue were killed.  Most of this, at least at the outset, is not shown, and we are left to imagine the horrific events.  White and Pink deduce that someone in the group must be a rat (i.e. an undercover cop).  White rules out Orange, who is slowly dying from his wound, and doubts that Joe knew anything about the setup.  Mr. Blonde, who casually arrives drinking soda from a paper cup, dismisses their theory, dodges questions about why he became a psychopath at the jewelry store, and reveals that he has kidnapped a police officer (Kirk Baltz), whom the trio savagely beat for information (and also out of boredom, as they are to wait for Joe and Nice Guy Eddie to meet them for further instruction).

Through a series of flashbacks that play like the three acts of a stage drama (complete with titles over a black screen), we witness Joe’s recruitment of Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange, each of which reveal something else about where the story is headed.  The film’s events (in the present) are pushed along by accidents and severe mistakes, which turns the film into a comedy of errors that is anything but funny (as much as we may laugh and grin at the amusing dialogue).  The biggest mistake since the initial heist happens when Eddie decides to leave Mr. Blonde alone with the unconscious Mr. Orange and the tied-up cop.  This gives way to the iconic “ear-cutting scene,” which many exclusively remember Mr. Blonde (and Madsen) for, and which rendered “Stuck in the Middle with You” virtually unlistenable without picturing Blonde’s sadistic antics.

The longest and most well-crafted of the flashback acts belongs to Mr. Orange, who is revealed to be the informant after gunning down Blonde in defense of the cop, and contains the only story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story I’ve ever seen done on film (Inception doesn’t count).  The story plays out violently, yet controlled, when the others discover Orange’s identity, and the final smash-cut to the credits and Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” leaves the audience fatigued, somber, and still thinking.  Consider the fact that in 2012, the most expensive of indie films (the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas) can only accomplish two of those.

The film’s violence is the primary struggle of the film’s detractors, aside from the rough and unapologetic language.  It’s not because of gratuity or the sheer amount of red Kool-Aid seen smeared all over the backseat of Mr. White’s car and the floor of the warehouse; it’s because the violence is portrayed in such a realistic and disturbing way.  Here, we do not have James Bond twirling around and gracefully blasting supervillains over bridges with only a hole in the enemy’s shirt to indicate damage taken.  Here, people bleed when shot, the wrong people die, and the cops aren’t the good guys – in fact, without police involvement, no one would have been injured (much less killed) in the heist.  An anecdote told by an L.A. Sheriff in Mr. Orange’s flashback in which he finds humor in verbally brutalizing and threatening to kill a “stupid fucking citizen” still haunts me more than most of the shooting.  The film’s realism is also bolstered by the fact that there are very few, if any, reshoots and retakes.  Most of the shots are long and wide.  Buscemi, speaking at 100mph, stumbles over lines and loses his breath.  Tierney, bookending his career as a crime actor, repeats lines and thinks so hard about what he wants to say that we’re not sure he’s actually acting.  The lack of jump cuts makes us forget that we’re watching a scripted film and not just a bunch of guys in a room trying to find their way out of a life-and-death predicament.

To those who count the film’s disturbing portrayal of violence as rendering the film somehow unwatchable, I’ll say this: you should not be comfortable while watching Reservoir Dogs.  Not at any point.  Not even when you know what’s coming.  I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and I have yet to eat during it or to find amusement in the in-and-of-itself facts of what happens.  Discomfort during a movie like this, the act of looking away when a guy has his face slashed by a straight razor, might be a glimmer of hope in disguise: perhaps we are not completely desensitized to blood and gore and murder, not when it’s shown to us as it actually exists.  I called out the violence of Cloud Atlas for being gratuitous and unnecessary, but in that case it’s done for a different reason – Reservoir Dogs is not an action epic nor a film during which to cheer; it offers more than violent spectacle.  There are no stylish flourishes during shootouts.  There’s cinematic artwork involved.  There’s something you can take away besides fatigue, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what that is.

Reservoir Dogs is a 101 course on film structure, and its re-release will net a few new fans for Quentin (not that he’s got a deficiency).  The re-release is also a breath of cool air for those of us who just want to see a higher ratio of good films to disappointments when we go to the theatre; for the rest, maybe it’s a nudge into the correct queue line.  All that’s left is for the corporate theatres to mimic this event and put a serious damper on all the shameless advertising.  Blu-Rays reign supreme?  Tell that bullshit to the tourists.

Reservoir Dogs (1992); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen.