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.

Premium Rush

Have I got the ticket for you!

It’s been a good year for biking.  Cyclist Rachel Vaziralli (an acquaintance) holds the current throne on the internet’s search for the next American fitness star, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon find themselves in a movie that glorifies cycling.  We never see Shannon on a bike, but considering his role in this film, no foul.

The story of Premium Rush resembles the type of narrative presented in Vantage Point or the TV series LOST: we begin by focusing on one character who seems to be the game’s main player, but we are then thrust back and forth in time in order to experience the story according to other characters who may have seemed, at the outset, less than vital.  The film uses this structure to tell a relatively formulaic MacGuffin story revolving around a mysterious envelope holding an object only ever referred to as “the ticket.”  Everyone wants the ticket; that is, everyone except the one carrying it in his pack – Wilee (Gordon-Levitt), a bicycle messenger who has very much the same take on bikes that I do on cars: an old one is trustier despite the cost of the inevitable repairs.  Unlike a car, however, Wilee’s bike has no brakes; he claims that bicycle brakes contributed to the greatest injury he ever received (we’re spared, however, from this scene).  Wilee has been dispatched to deliver the ticket for Nima (Jamie Chung), who happens to be the roommate of his girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).  Relationships between the three are rocky.  Nima wants Vanessa to move out on short notice; we don’t know why.  Vanessa is considering breaking up with Wilee; we don’t know why.  Wilee suspects that the package contains “drug stuff” and doesn’t trust Nima.  He’s delivering the package as usual when he is accosted by Bobby Monday (Shannon), a dirty cop with a gambling problem and a name from 1990.  Monday almost gets Wilee to fork over the package, but his temper gets the best of him and Wilee decides to continue with the delivery.

What follows is a cat-and-mouse game around Manhattan, and the outcome depends fully upon allegiances.  The aid of Mr. Leung (Henry O), a Chinese money launderer with a team of enforcers, could tip the scale in anyone’s direction, but he and his right hand man (Kin Shing Wong), a completely silent (and classically inscrutable) man who does nothing but play Sudoku, remain relatively impartial in spite of the money owed to him by Monday.  The cops, aggravated by the consistently reckless bikers and unaware of Monday’s dastardly nature, remain an obstacle from beginning to end.  Fellow bike messenger Manny (Wolé Parks) should be on Wilee’s side, but antagonizes him due to non-reciprocated feelings for Vanessa.  We know the key to the ticket reaching its destination for its intended reason (which ends up being a little deeper than we may need to go in a film so light) is to achieve full cooperation between Wilee, Vanessa, and Nima, but to get there, the three of them need to come to an understanding while two-thirds of the equation is speeding through New York City traffic at speeds I’d rather not even consider.

Even better than the film’s structure is its tendency to map out Wilee’s decision-making process when he’s in danger: years of biking through Manhattan have seemingly given him a sort of sixth sense about where taxi cabs, pedestrians, UPS trucks, and any number of other hazards will be in relation to him when he reaches a bustling intersection.  These parts of the film are quick and happen often enough that they seem unique to the film but not often enough to bore or overwhelm an audience; filmmakers too often fall into the Trap of the Clever Trick, mistaking novelty for genius.

Michael Shannon makes an interesting switch to a villainous maniac after giving 2011’s best male performance in Take Shelter, but it’s a good warmup if you’re following Shannon’s work this year, because he’ll soon be appearing in The Iceman as infamous contract killer Richard Kuklinski and as the villain in the newest iteration of the Superman franchise.  Gordon-Levitt is having an eventful year as well, appearing in four films (including Spielberg’s Lincoln, which, if the Academy is as predictable as ever, will be in the running for Best Picture – sad that we know that before the film is even made).  Ramirez makes an effective heroine, and though the film’s characters only allow us to know them on the surface, she does a fantastic job of ensuring us that she’s acting on what she thinks is right, not out of obligation.  Also appearing in the film are Aasif Mandvi (in one of his better performances) as Wilee and Vanessa’s dispatcher, and Lauren Ashley Carter in a mostly-background role as the dispatcher’s assistant, Phoebe.  Despite her scarce screen time and involvement, she stands out.  Anthony Chisholm appears as Tito, a veteran messenger described as being “like ninety-eight years old,” and who brings back fond memories of Peter Boyle as the grizzled old “Wizard” in Taxi Driver.

With its speedy, decently-written dialogue, the film gives its actors a chance to deepen the characters through conversation, (somewhat) filling the hole opened by lack of background information.  Oddly, though, the hole doesn’t take away from the enjoyment or really distract much at all, as long as you’re willing to accept the fact that none of the characters are going to surprise you by the end.

Ultimately, Premium Rush is a good summer post-blockbuster whose existence is justified by the fact that, unlike ninety percent of the blockbusters I see, the screenwriters seem like they’ve actually written a screenplay before (don’t take that as too high a compliment, but it is a compliment).  The most difficult part of this film?  Trying to maintain the speed limit while driving home afterward.

Premium Rush (2012); written and directed by David Koepp; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, and Lauren Ashley Carter.

Take Shelter

There’s a storm comin’

2011_take_shelter_003Take care when choosing what company to bring along for Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, the writer/director’s first film since 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which also featured Michael Shannon.  This is not to say the film should be avoided by anyone – after all, it’s nonviolent, passionately delivered, expertly directed, and has respect for its characters – but folks who scare easily may be burying their faces when the lightning strikes.

I don’t think I took a single breath during this film.  Billed as a “thriller,” Take Shelter casually swats any attempts at genre pigeonholing.  The story centers around Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a couple living on the outskirts of a small Ohio town.  They are the parents of a hearing-impaired child, Hannah (Tova Stewart), planning a cochlear implant operation, which will require the aid of Curtis’ health insurance policy.  Curtis has a good job in construction, where he not only enjoys excellent benefits, but works with his best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham).  As the film begins, Curtis begins having terrible dreams.  The dreams begin with a storm, and then chaos ensues.  Rain becomes motor oil.  Tornadoes rip his house from its foundation.  Black birds swarm overhead.  Hannah is taken from him.  His dog attacks him, and the pain lingers throughout the day.  Curtis fears that these may not be just dreams (he describes them as “feelings”), and begins to prepare for the worst.

The tension in the film lies in the fact that Curtis does not give Samantha the chance to understand what he’s feeling: he hides it from her, even when he takes out a risky bank loan to pay for an addition to his storm shelter.  Still, he isn’t arrogant or self-important enough (as male movie protagonists often are) to consider himself a prophet: he knows his family has a history of mental illness, so he visits his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was Curtis’s age.  Curtis takes books on the subject from the library, sees a counselor at a free clinic, tries a prescription medication for sleep, and (illegally) borrows equipment from work to dig his shelter.  Dewart, concerned but a friend first, helps however he can.  Eventually, Curtis must reveal what he’s seen to Samantha, and the real tests of faith begin.

Michael Shannon gives one of the strongest performances of the year.  What a step away from his other current role (that of Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire).  His voice sparks with power, and even in his possible madness, he deserves the highest degree of sympathy.  Jessica Chastain, an actress I cannot say enough about, shines in her seventh major role this year.  The story of Take Shelter is just as much about Samantha dealing with Curtis’s problems as it is about Curtis dealing with it himself, and Jessica stifles absolutely no emotion.  She, more than anyone, makes the viewer want everything to work out in the end.  What an amazing collection of characters she is assembling.

Nichols exercises a subtle, yet absolute, mastery over his domain.  As I mentioned earlier, he has an undying respect for his characters, and this comes through in every scene (e.g. no one is killed by zombies or turned into a child-napping maniac, regardless of what Curtis’s dreams may suggest).  There are no abrupt genre exercises or contrived “twists.”  The family feels like a family.  There are long, hovering shots that seem to challenge the viewer to find something wrong, something off, something that should not be there (as Curtis is).  A scene in which Curtis loses all sense of reticence at a community benefit and throws a histrionic fit feels obligatory, but his pontificating is so genuine, so desperate, that it’s not only acceptable, but necessary.  The lens stays expertly focused on Curtis while we wait to see the most important shot: Samantha’s face.  Can she continue to deal with this?

It should also be noted that Samantha, not Curtis, is given the responsibility of making economic decisions for the family after Curtis’s situation jeopardizes his job.  “I’ve made a decision,” she says.  Eventually, a real storm starts.  Without spoiling anything, what follows is a scene scorched with drama, the most genuine display of trust between film characters I’ve seen all year (and after Another Earth, that’s saying something).

Take Shelter (2011); written and directed by Jeff Nichols; starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

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