The Iceman


Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

(2012) True Crime Drama (Millennium) Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi James Franco, Stephen Dorff, Danny Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Ryan O’Nan, McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill, Hector Hank, Zoran Radanovich, Shira Vilensky, Kelly Lind, Erin Cumings, Ashlynn Ross, Weronika Rosati, Christa Campbell. Directed by Ariel Vromen

It’s always the quiet ones, the ones who lose it and go on a killing spree. Contract killers are another case altogether. These are men with ice in their veins, able to kill without remorse or emotion. It’s a job for them, no less upsetting than someone who sells cars for a living.

Richie Kuklinski (Shannon) is a family man, married to the beautiful but volatile Deborah (Ryder). He works dubbing films – cartoons he tells his wife but porn films in reality. The mobster who runs the porn operation Richie is working for – Roy DeMeo (Liotta) – is impressed by Richie’s coolness under fire, so he decides to take Richie on as a contract killer. Roy and his buddy Josh Rosenthal (Schwimmer) take Richie out and order him to kill some random homeless guy which he does.

This is the start for a whole new career for Richie as he ices guys on Roy’s say-so. When a coke deal is botched by Josh who kills the dealers involved, Roy is forced to lay low for awhile, leaving Richie unemployed. As money gets tighter and Richie’s temper gets more volatile, Richie hooks up with Mr. Freezy (Evans), a freelance contract killer who works out of an ice cream truck. He teaches Richie the proper use of cyanide and the trick of freezing bodies and then thawing them before dumping them, throwing police off on the correct time of death. It is for the latter practice that Richie is given the nickname “The Iceman.”

When DeMeo finds out about Richie’s new freelancing scheme, he goes ballistic which doesn’t bode well for Richie’s future state of health. When Roy brings in Leonard Marks (Davi) from one of the big crime families in New York, it looks like Richie’s days are numbered but Roy and Marks have forgotten one prime directive – never ever piss off a contract killer.

This is pretty standard stuff for the true mob killer movie. Yes, Richie Kuklinski was a real person who claims to have killed between 100-250 people during his heyday from 1948 to 1986. He was also a family man who’s arrest stunned his neighborhood.

While the story remains pretty typical, the acting here is superb. Shannon, an Oscar nominee, shows that there are many more of those on the way (and likely a statuette somewhere down the line) with a powerful performance here which is doubly commendable because he doesn’t have a lot to work with. The real Richie was by all accounts a strong, silent type who wasn’t much of a communicator. He was more or less a psychopath who was paid for crimes he probably would have committed eventually in any case. Shannon gives Richie at least some personality, with cold eyes that erupt into volcanic fury when pushed. It’s a marvelous juxtaposition that gives the character depth that the real Richie probably didn’t have.

Ryder, who has been an infrequent screen presence of late, is absolutely amazing as the willfully oblivious Deborah. She knows that her husband is hiding something horrible, but chooses to ignore it. There’s nothing wrong if she doesn’t know there’s anything wrong, so she chooses to ignore it until it’s right in her face.

Schwimmer is the anti-Ross here, stocky with a hippie ponytail, a 70s porn star moustache and a mean streak, although there is a bit of Ross-like nebbishness as he begins to realize he is in far over his head. Liotta gets a standard Ray Liotta crime figure and does with it what he usually does, which also adds to the overall quality of the picture.

In fact the performances are what makes the movie. This is strongly acted throughout, from the barely-recognizable Evans to Franco in a brief cameo. It’s Shannon however who carries the movie and he does so with ease. He may well be this generation’s De Niro – not a traditional leading man sort but who elevates every movie he’s in. While Vromen is no Scorsese and this no Goodfellas it nonetheless doesn’t disgrace the genre created by that film. In fact, it’s a solid follower in it’s footsteps.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Michael Shannon.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really add much to the true life mob movie genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of violence and a bit of gore, lots and lots of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Franco was originally cast as Kuklinski but had to take the smaller role as Marty Freeman instead; Maggie Gyllenhaal was likewise cast as Deborah Pellicotti but had to drop out due to her pregnancy and Winona Ryder got the part.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; solid good reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill the Irishman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The History of Future Folk

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Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted


Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Children, if you learn one less from this movie, remember this – Monte Carlo is relatively easy to invade by sea.

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Frances McDormand, Jessica Chastain, Martin Short, Bryan Cranston, Vinnie Jones, Paz Vega. Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon

 

I think it’s relatively easy to entertain kids, from the standpoint of animation. I mean, just look at most of the programming on the Cartoon Network; the animation is godawful, the humor gross, and little to recommend it other than it gets kids out of their parents hair for a little while. If my parents had gotten a gander at “The Regular Show” and some of the other more popular shows on the network, they would have chucked the TV out the window but since we lived in a ranch house, my Dad probably just would have taken an axe to the damn thing instead.

While there are some really good animated movies out there (thanks, Pixar) that both parents and children can watch together, there is also a lot of crap as well. For a long time, I put the first to movies of the Madagascar franchise in that category so to say the least, I wasn’t looking forward to the third installment in the series. Boy was I pleasantly surprised.

The renegade zoo animals from the Central Park Zoo – Alex the Lion (Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Rock), Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Smith) – are where we left them at the conclusion of Madagascar: Escape2Africa; stuck in the savannah with the natives while the Penguins have flown the monkey-powered super-plane to Monte Carlo to raise enough cash to get them back to New York. Alex in particular is suffering from homesickness. Even a birthday gift of a mud brick model of the Big Apple doesn’t seem to help.

The four friends decide that the penguins have had long enough to complete their mission and decide that they’ll go to Monte Carlo themselves to find the penguins and take the super-plane back to New York. How did they get to Europe from the African savannah? They walked (presumably) to the coast and then they swam. Snorkeled, actually. No, don’t question it. You’ll only get a headache. Just go with it. Tagging along are King Julian (Cohen), Maurice (Cedric) and Mort (Richter) who are now joined at the hip with the New Yorkers.

Anyway, things go horribly wrong and the appearance of a lion, a zebra, a hippo and a giraffe inside a posh casino causes a bit of a stir. This sets the French animal control expert Captain DuBois (McDormand) – the principality apparently having no animal control of their own that they have to import it from another country – on the case. DuBois has always wanted to mount the head of a lion on her wall to join the other creatures that have crossed her path to complete her collection and she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants, including singing Edith Piaf standards. Yes I know- it’s horrible.

The animals, having hooked up with the penguins and the monkeys, manage to escape the clutches of DuBois but crash the super-plane in the process. Fleeing for their very lives, they manage to sneak aboard a circus train to blend in; Vitaly the Tiger (Cranston), the leader of the circus animals, is reluctant to let them aboard but after Gia the Leopard (Chastain) convinces him that the refugees are indeed circus animals themselves, bolstered by the less-than-smart seal Stefano (Short). The circus has a shot at an American tour if they can impress a promoter in London to finance it. However, the circus has fallen upon hard times the only way to get the animals to New York is to buy the circus from the owner, which the penguins do using their ill-gotten gains at the casino. However, it’s going to take a lot of work to get this circus back in shape. It might be more than even Alex’ can-do attitude can accomplish.

Some of the elements that had left me cold about the first two movies remain – most glaringly, the animation. While I don’t think every CGI animated feature needs to attempt to be photorealistic, this is just plain badly animated. If you think mid-90s videogame style works in the second decade of the 21st century, we really need to have a talk. The animals have few expressions and this looks decidedly dumbed down for the Cartoon Network crowd.

Considering the star power here, the voice acting is fairly by the numbers. Short is a bit over-the-top as Stefano but actually injects a little emotion where it is sorely needed; likewise for Chastain who is a little more subtle than the Canadian comic. It all comes together in the circus sequences which are dream-like, brightly colored, and entertaining (not to mention fun). They are frankly the most enjoyment I’ve gotten in this series, which has been not high on my list of animated features to be honest.

However, the story is a vast improvement over the first two. It gives us a recognizable villain and some conflict. There is also a bit of emotional resonance that was lacking in the first movie. Yes I know kids will be thrilled by the bright colors and blank faces of the talking animals, but for once adults who have to go see it with their progeny won’t be squirming in their seats and checking their watches.

REASONS TO GO: So far, the best of the series. Circus sequences genuinely fun and colorful.

REASONS TO STAY: Animation is still clunky compared to other major franchises.

FAMILY VALUES: While there’s a bit of rude humor and some fairly tame action sequences, otherwise this is plenty fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The style of the animal-led circus echoes that of Cirque du Soleil, which features no animals whatsoever.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are mixed but mostly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Greatest Show on Earth

EDITH PIAF LOVERS: One of her most beloved songs, “Non, je ne regrette rien” is sung by Captain DuBois to her injured men during the hospital scene, the power of the music healing them of their wounds. It is listed on the official soundtrack as being sung by Frances McDormand but it sounds suspiciously like Piaf singing it.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: JCVD

New Releases for the Week of June 8, 2012


June 8, 2012

PROMETHEUS

(20th Century Fox) Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Rafe Spall, Patrick Wilson, Benedict Wong. Directed by Ridley Scott

A team of scientists discovers a particular glyph common to most of the ancient cultures of the world and interpret it as an invitation to join a higher intelligence among the stars. An expedition is put together to find out perhaps clues to the origins of life on Earth – and run into beings that might just put an end to life on Earth. While this is set in the same universe as Alien it is not a direct precursor to it.

See the trailer, promos, featurettes, a clip, an interview and a viral video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for sci-fi violence including intense images, and brief language)

Madagascar 3:Europe’s Most Wanted

(DreamWorks) Featuring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith The wayward zoo animals – Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Gloria the Hippo and Melman the Giraffe accompanied by King Julien and the nutty penguins are trying to get their way back to New York City and home but will have to make their way through Europe to do it. What better way than to disguise themselves as circus animals but of course these guys can’t do anything the way you’d expect.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some mild action and rude humor)  

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words