The Turin Horse (Ágnes Hranitzky, Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2012)

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The turin horse

A masterpiece but one which may require a big screen to fully appreciate. The film begins with an anecdote about how, in trying to save a horse from a whipping, Nietzche fell and that fall may have spurred the serious mental illness that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. The anecdote ends with a question: what happened to the horse? And then the film begins and goes on to show us a peasant and his daughter with that horse, living through a storm in a barren land, day-by-day of poetic harshness: they get visited and threatened by gypsies (who also leave them a holy book), the horse refuses to work, the water runs out, they try to leave but the storm pushes them back. We see them eating an uncooked potato and certain to starve. It’s repetitive, slow, harsh, bleak, shot in black and white; the poverty grinds, albeit in classic, and classically beautiful, compositions that ennoble the attempt to keep on going on in the face of all evidence. János Derzsi as the father has one of the most beautiful and expressive faces, a leonine one, I’ve ever seen on screen. The harshness of life is everywhere and relentlessly present. No other film has so vividly and remorselessly highlighted to me how basic food, shelter and clothing mustn’t be taken for granted. The film is ennobling of its characters, shaming of its audience. Very beautiful.

José Arroyo

The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1974)

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The Parallax View Is a marvelous, paranoid conspiracy thriller. It has wonderful set-pieces: the opening, the end, the subliminal programming, the judgment, the scene at the damn; and even a pretty good car-chase. Gordon Willis did the cinematography and it is beautiful; some of the most interesting lighting of any film from the 70s, sparsely modernist, with an almost geometric composition, and all in the vernacular of noir. Warren Beatty is good as the lead but he is almost too beautiful: I kept staring at his lips. The 70s clothes and haircuts were not really attractive on men though he pulls it off as well as anyone ever did. The film is so bleak it’s hard to imagine anyone thought it could be hit. Also the story doesn’t quite work; or I didn’t get it; who’s behind the conspiracy and why? It’s an important question to leave unanswered. And yet, the film does seem great to me – at any rate, a visual masterpiece.

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José Arroyo

The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, USA, 1973)

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A film that is beautiful and great.  I’d heard how terrific Nicholson is in it; I don’t remember reading anything on Randy Quaid; and, to me, he’s Nicholson’s equal here. He’s got this great baby face on this very tall — and at this point in his life, lanky — body and he makes you feel like giving him a hug, though he’ll probably pick your pocket whilst you do so. He doesn’t necessarily need what he steals, but he can’t help himself. He’s like a greedy and gleeful baby who simply wants more of what he likes. Quaid possesses the rare quality of looking innocent and vulnerable whilst also seeming unquestionably heterosexual. The Last Detail is also more interesting visually than generally acknowledged; each shot is thought through and planned yet unobtrusively so; you have to look at it mindfully to see how well designed it is; and to appreciate how much its mise-en-scène brings to the story it is telling. Ashby appears briefly (he’s a surprisingly tall bloke) and Carol Kane, she of the high whiny voice, a 70s Betty Boop, is any filmgoer’s delight as the young hooker. A humanist film about the injustice of the law and about the importance of kindness in the face of systemic unfairness; a film that makes one sad and hopeful; a film to love.

José Arroyo

Looper (Rian Johnson, USA, 2012)

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Visually disappointing but narratively enthralling film about a Looper, an executioner who kills people from the future in the present. Time travel doesn’t exist in the present but it does in the future, thus people from the future get shipped back to the film’s present, the looper shoots them as they appear, disposes of the body and gets paid. No one is looking for the bodies in the present and nobody can find them in the future. But who is disposing of these bodies and why? That’s what the rest of the story tries to tell in this dystopian futuristic thriller in which one can detect elements of The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976) and The Fury (Brian de Palman, USA, 1978). The story lacks tension and feels a bit long but it does fascinate. The drugs, the want, the sense of a failed state with no law and order, with hungry people rummaging the countryside and those prairies full of rotting fields are a subtle critique of America now and, like many contemporary films, Looper deals with current anxieties by depicting, denouncing and somewhat resolving the most hateful aspects of this new Depression we’re living in, albeit tangentially. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a subtle imitation of a young Bruce Willis, it’s mostly the nose, but with a few mannerisms thrown in; then he shows what a truly brilliant actor he is because he can let go of the disguise; it’s not straightforward imitation. Emily Blunt disappoints; sadly, because she’s so sympathetic one wants her to be good. Looper is intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that offers well-executed action and also leaves audiences with an interesting set of ideas to think about and discuss.

José Arroyo

In Praise of Flatpack

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Gaynor and O'Brien dance in 'Sunrise'
Gaynor and O’Brien dance in ‘Sunrise’

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), screened to a live score by Alcyona Mick at The Arena venue of the Midlands Arts Centre, made for a magical and very English Summer evening on the 28th of June, 2013. People gathered on this outdoor yet intimate performance space, obviously modeled on a miniature Roman arena but reminding me a little of the  small ‘plaza de toros’  of the village I’m from in Spain, with seating built into the space itself out of rock and cement: basic, functional, social. There were grandparents, families, kids running around, groups of friends. A Murnau film had drawn a lot expected film types and some queer folk; the jazz trio, quite a lot of music lovers; everyone at ease with each other. The forecast had dissuaded the mob but there was still a good crowd. There was indeed a gentle drizzle that accompanied the screening, seeming to fall or not, in weightier and lighter drops, as the mood took it; umbrellas came up, went down, came back up again. But the film so enraptured the audience that no one left.

Ian Francis introduces the screening and the musicians (on the left)
Ian Francis introduces the screening and the musicians (on the left)

Ian Francis, founder of Flatpack, was on hand to introduce the screening, which he did with a soft voice and with information so humbly presented one might not easily notice how clever it was, and how well thought-through various elements of this event had been put together. He told us that we were watching a copy of Sunrise which had recently been discovered in an archive in the Czech Republic; that  at 79 minutes it is considerably shorter than the official 97 minute version; that it was nonetheless of great interest because it was edited differently, not only to make it shorter, but to allow for shots not included in the original;  that the original version had had a Fox Movietone sound-on-film soundtrack,  but that this 79 minute version had no official score, thus handing Flatpack and Birmingham Jazz an opportunity in 2010 to commission a score from Alcyona Mick; that this lovely score had been performed once before at a special screening in St. Martin’s Church and here it was being performed again, for us, by Alcyona Mick on piano, Calina DeLa Mare on violin and Jon Wygens  on guitars.

An outdoor screening in England
An outdoor screening in England

 

I want to pause here for a moment to praise Ian Francis and Flatpack because they are excellent at doing all the things film festivals are expected to do: put together an excellent programme; discover and nurture new talent, introduce new works to audiences; create a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas; create new audiences for new, different and difficult types of works; draw people from other localities at home and abroad into the city for the event, generate press, etc. But they are also superb at doing what film festivals sometimes see as beneath their remit and which should by rights be fundamental to it: to contribute to and enrich  the cultural life of the city, and not only on the dates the festival is scheduled for.

Kids waiting for the screening to start
Kids waiting for the screening to start

This screening of Sunrise was an example of the multitude of ways Flatpack is contributing to Birmingham’s cultural life and indeed simply making of Birmingham a more pleasant place to live in. It’s an instance of Flatpack being involved not only in programming, distributing, publicizing, exhibiting etc. but of commissioning and, furthermore, from the moment of commissioning to the screening I saw, of collaborating with at least three other city institutions (Birmingham Jazz, The Midlands Arts Centre, St. Martin’s Chruch); of introducing jazz fans to film, film fans to jazz, young audiences to Silent Cinema, audiences of all ages to one of the great screen classics and in a new and interesting version. The archival, the historic, the cultural and the social all brought together for our attention and pleasure at this event.

Czech credits
Czech credits

Flatpack has introduced me to new parts of the city, places that after living here for ten years I’d never actually been to (I’d been to the MAC but not to the Arena, I’d seen St. Martin’s Church, but only from the outside, I’d never been to the Ladywood Broadway Cinemas). Thus it wasn’t just that Flatpack is introducing Birmingham to festivalgoers arriving for the first time in the city but also a way of re-introducing Brummies into the riches Birmingham has to offer, amongst which Flatpack, both as conduit and as a destination in itself, must be counted and treasured.

Groundbreaking cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss
Groundbreaking cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss

As the sun went down and the film began, as we saw George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor try to rediscover what they’d once loved about each other, as the plastic macs went on and the umbrellas up, as the band played, my mind turned to humans making magic. Sunrise is the result of  Murnau’s orchestration of a whole army of people  arranging particular  imprints of light on celluloid, and that now once more needed the absence of light and then more light to bring it to life. The music, the physical effort, breath even, evident in the bending of every note, of the choice of particular rhythms by a group of people making sound out of notations; sounds that surrounded these very beautiful images and connected them to us in a newly designed way; then the event itself, the result of a combination of state (funding for MAC), church (the original site for the first screening in Birmingham), arts organisations (Flatpack, Birmingham Jazz) and the whole team of volunteers who contribute to Flatpack.

The comic bit in the dance-hall
The comic bit in the dance-hall

The Sub-title of Sunrise is ‘A Tale of Two Humans’. This screening was the result of many humans coming together over time (at least 80 years), space (Hollywood To Birmingham), across many different organization, both state-funded and community-led, professional and volunteer, to create something beautiful. At the end of the screening, when the musicians seem both shy and delighted by the mad applause that accompanied their efforts, I felt gratitude to everyone involved for having taken the trouble. It does take an army. It was worth it. I felt very lucky to be there and to have benefitted from everyone’s efforts. They deserved even more applause than they got.

Listening to Sugarfoot Stomp play (mostly) jazz before the screening.
Listening to Sugarfoot Stomp play (mostly) jazz before the screening.

José Arroyo

Safe House (Daniel Espinosa, USA, 2012)

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There is a very marked disillusionment with politics and the world in the better American films of the moment; Safe is a good example. It presents a world where no one is to be trusted, nothing is what it seems, and ‘idealist’ is another name for patsy. The film has an interesting look: the image is too white but also high contrast and slightly grainy. Cape Town has never looked uglier, even the beach scenes. However, it is nice to see a thriller set in Cape Town and the film makes very good use of its locations: one gets a sense of pent-up danger amidst a world not completely known, slightly sleazy and with aspects of developing world infrastructure overlaid with cutting-edge technology. I was lured to the film because it was publicized as Denzel Washington playing a villain but it’s a ‘villain’ as played by a star, i.e. one understands him, the rationale for his actions, and really, he’s the only person with integrity in the agency (aside from the second-ranking star, Ryan Reynolds). Reynolds is the revelation here; with enormous close-ups of him crying, wetting those lovely lower lashes he’s got, a face that seems slightly freckled but worn, the no-longer boyish face of someone in the process of losing his innocence. The telephone sequences with between him and his girlfriend are truly moving and he gives a fully-fledged star performance: he makes you understand, empathise and feel with him. I’ve never quite been taken in by Sam Shepard’s charm; he’s tended to get by on laid-back nonchalance — which sometimes seems like sheer not-giving-a-damn — and handsomeness made palatable by being less than pretty; here he’s definitely cast as the usual WASP prototype but seems to bring something more to it than he usually does; grasping, calculating deceit laced with gravitas (though my mind was mainly focused on how much he’d aged). Ruben Blades appeared and the sound of his voice alone made me happy. I was sad to see him killed. A good thriller.

José Arroyo

Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo García, USA/UK/Ireland/France, 2011)

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Albert Nobbs is almost unbearably sad, Glenn Close’s performance almost too uncompromising, but I was very moved by the film. I almost walked out several times as you know something horrible is just about to happen and then it really does and you just can’t bear it. The life depicted is so sad, so hopeless, an example of such self-denial that the problem goes beyond unfulfilled desire. The film is set in 19th Century Dublin. Albert Nobbs is already in late middle-age, barely making a living as a waiter and then falls in love with a beautiful young girl. The problem is that Albert Nobbs is not quite a man and because he’s ‘passing’ as one and knows no other way of living independently, s/he can’t afford to allow him/herself the luxury of mere and basic human wants. Everything is confined, repressed, reined in, closed-up. When those wants are finally acknowledged it seems as if in opening him/herself up to the world he also enters a process of becoming, of finally being, of being human. It turns out that what s/he wants is a wife but s/he doesn’t really know what that involves; s/he wants company and a parlour; but s/he is too damaged to even think of love. When s/he does, the narrative unfurls into tragedy and engulfs one with sadness. Glenn Close’s performance is extraordinary; she totally loses herself in that part and really makes you imagine, think, feel for that wo/man. Mia Wasikowska is naïve, fresh, very appealing; Pauline Collins brings greed, a wink and much-needed humour to every shot she’s in; Janet McTeer will surely become a big new lesbian icon (if she isn’t one already). It’s an actors’ movie and I’m very glad I saw it. It’s a film that honestly earns whatever tears it garners.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, USA, 2012)

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Amateurish, self-indulgent, inept – I gave it £7.50 and 45 minutes before walking out.

José Arroyo

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, USA, 2012)

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Brad Pitt’s final monologue in Killing Them Softly, a kind of aria from a gangster that’s a brutal indictment of what America’s become, is absolutely great and is the film’s raison d’être. His last line, the last one in the film, is bound to become as famous as that of I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn Leroy, USA, 1932), that iconic movie of the previous Great Depression where Paul Muni’s asked ‘ How do you live’ and the film ends with him responding from out of the darkness: ‘I steal’.

Pitt’s ‘Give me the money’ and Muni’s ‘I steal’ are almost the inverse of each other in terms of meaning: one an imperious public demand for services rendered; the other the furtive and clandestine theft survival requires from those who can’t get work. The juxtaposition of those lines, and indeed of the two films, is interesting in terms of what they tell us about America in the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the economic meltdown of 2008, which along with the presidential elections that same year, are the key contexts for Killing Them Softly. Each film shows us the gap between an idea of what America should be and what it actually is. A comparison between what that difference is in 1932 and today, and the different ways in which each film condemns the actual in the light of the ideal is also not without interest.

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The film begins and ends with Obama talking in the soundtrack. ‘America’ Obama says at the beginning as the film chops up the soundtrack so that the words seem cut and spliced, as if from different speeches, ‘I say to the people of America (Cut to ominous music) ….This moment is our chance to (more cut-up sound over a visual track ostentatiously edited to seem  fragmented, almost broken before settling on the word ‘Killing)..(‘Them’).. enough..(Softly) to make of our own lives what we will…/the American promise is alive…/…that promise that is always setting this country apart/ it’s a promise that each of us has a chance to make of our own lives what we want. ’ The way these phrases are broken up and the particular images, also chpped-up by editing, that they accompany begin a critique of America, a condemnation.

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The first few shots are abruptly cut, drawing attention to Obama’s voice but with a new way of seeing and understanding and with a different, a changing, context for it. They instantly alert you to a new perspective.  In the beginning of the film, Obama’s voice is heard first over a square of light surrounded by darkness, the square of light getting larger as the camera moves first towards and then through it, following Frankie (Scott McNairy), a small-time crook through what looks like floating paper flotsam from the election campaign. We then see wide shots of derelict buildings, of badly dressed individuals across lonely de-peopled streets; of election posters.

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Obama’s oration, that in America each has a chance to shape their lives, is the claim the film will dramatise and investigate, what we will see Frankie and his mate Russell (Mendhelsohn) attempt and fail at. At the end of the film, we hear Obama’s voice again, this time as cue to a gangster asking for his pay in a bar, and as background to Pitt’s aria. In between, the film takes us on a journey where politicians’ empty promises are background to the lives of another set of gangsters; where politicians use flowery patriotism to throw money at bankers whilst people are killed in the streets of the worst neighbourhoods in a manner that seem almost ordinary if not quite banal. Killing Them Softly has to be one of the most cynical films ever made.

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The actors, really good ones such as James Gandolfini, Ben Mendehlson, Ray Liotta, and Brad Pitt, are given great dialogue; and they riff on it; they come alive as they give it life; they bring poetry to the meaning. The sight of Gandolfini, laid to waste like Welles in Touch of Evil, his layers of fat unable to hide the despair and loneliness that brought him there, is one to behold. It’s magical acting, a kind of alchemy great actors bring to parts that enables them to evoke both a real person living a recognizable situation, one that is both immediately transparent and understandable but also evanescent, that seems to resist reason as soon as it’s emotionally grasped whilst also making of  the character a symbol for a situation. I can’t remember Gandolfini better and I can’t remember anybody better than Gandolfini is here.

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Much of the attention has focused on Pitt and he is very good as the hitman who’s professional to his fingertips but whose very professionalism is a means of making money. He’s like an inverse Hawksian character.  But Pitt has been at least as good if not better in other films (most recently Moneyball).  Here, his acting is all externals. You get the sense of who this man is by what he wears, how he walks, smokes, the way he speaks and from what he says. When he’s told not to kill, he exclaims in exasperation, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake! Whose fucking running the show…The country’s fucked!’ Yet, he can’t stand feelings. He has to kill a particular way, softly, because he doesn’t want to be involved in all the begging pleading etc that goes on with a more direct approach. He’s a person who finds it easy to kill but hard to get emotionally involved. Yet with Pitt, the performance remains external, you never really get a sense of what’s going on in his character’s head and heart.

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Gandolfini and Mendehlson, as the heroine addict, are a class apart. The great tragic performance though is Gandolfini’s. His gangster has menace, he could easily cut up the prostitute as he hints is his pleasure, but he is also so in love with his wife that the thought of her leaving him is derailing him; his love, self-destruction, violence, all seem to appear simultaneously as a smear of damp.

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Mendehlson brings a goofy joy to his character; why can’t the world just let him do his drugs and leave him happily to his own devices? He makes us understand, enjoy, feel for that person. The playing between Mendehlson and McNairy, particularly when they get to glide on such brilliant dialogue, is sublime: it’s what dirty straight boys talk about when women are out of earshot; and women won’t like it. The only woman in Killing Them Softly is a black prostitute who’s lucky to leave Gandolfini’s room alive. Women exist in this film, barely, as  the cause of men’s ruination or for sex, and even worse, only that aspect of sex that has exchange value.

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The film has a wonderful look with wide-angle shots of urban decay. I loved the sensuous, intermittently panicky, somewhat sleepy depiction of Mendehlson coming in and out of his high. The moment towards the end when Pitt walks,  seemingly through fireworks, to demand his pay is also very striking. The film feels almost episodic; each scene clearly delineated, little chapters, but fabulous visually. Special note needs to be taken of the music which some have accused of being used too literally (Lour Reed’s ‘Heroin’ over shots of Mendehsohn taking heroin or the use of ‘Money primarily for its lyrics: ‘They say the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees. I need money. That’s what I want’; but to me, the songs seem to be a mourning for an American way of life, with the key songs being Great Depression classics such as ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries, and perhaps more significantly, (It’s only a) Paper Moon: ‘‘It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, as phony as it can be’

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This obviously relates to Obama’s campaign promises and people have found this aspect of the film heavy-handed and facile. Perhaps they’re right. Certainly the film was not a hit. When I saw it, the audience gasped at the violence, which is sometimes startling, sometimes funny in a quasi-Tarantino-esque way,  but too raw to dismiss as cartoony: it induces audience recoil in a way that has become unusual. Three girls left mid-screening clearly conscious that they were in the wrong Pitt movie but also poking fun of the rest of the audience’s clear enrapturement by that which they dismiss.

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In the great last scene as Obama is praising ‘The enduring power of our ideals, democracy, liberty, opportunity, an unyielding hope’ and speaking of community, Pitt as the professional killer responds, ‘Jefferson is an American Saint because he wrote the words ‘all men are created equal’, words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He’s a rich white snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits; so, yeah, he wrote some lovely words so he could rouse the rabble so they could go and die for his words whilst he laid back and drunk his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.’

What the film’s been showing us  throughout is that America is not a country, that it is just a business; that appearance affects business more than actions; and that the key to American business running smoothly is murder. Pitt’s last aria is a  set of ideas rarely heard in popular American cinema: they’re great words to a great ending to another movie that is a superb critique of America in this new not-so-great Depression.

***

Addendum: I was interested to read in Anne Thompsons’s The $11 Billion Dollar Year, From Sundance to the Oscars that Killing Them Softly was classified as a ‘Recouper’, which she describes as films of various budgets that break even or come close to doing so. According to her data, the film had an estimated production budget of 15 million and grossed 38 million at the box office.  So it seems there might be a market for this type of film, at least in world terms.

 

José Arroyo

The Godfather, Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1990)

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Sofia Coppola has a lovely ripe presence here but she’s too shy and not very good. Adolescence is an awkward time but awkwardness is the one thing she manages to convey — she makes for uncomfortable viewing and thus quite a bit of the film suffers by her presence. Talia Shire to me is as much a face of the 70s, as representative of that era, as bigger stars (The Godfather Films and the Rocky films ensure that). I love the way she grows into a Lucretia Borgia figure in this. I also love the relish Raf Vallone brings to his Machievellian churchman. Andy Garcia , whom I love to look at, is not good enough really (he suffers in comparison to James Caan. James Caan! That’s how insubstantial he is here). Yet, the film is somehow magnificent in spite of its relative inadequacies. It’s only not good in comparison to masterpieces; in comparison to what I saw in the cinema this week, it’s a masterpiece: it looks beautiful, has novelistic texture, it’s about character, has a view of life and a view of society that it articulates with grandeur. I love the helicopter shootout that wipes out a whole gang of mafiosi, and the opera scene at the end (clearly echoing the Baptism scene in the first film though not as good). Keaton has a lovely look in the film, teary, chic but somehow gemutleich and klutzy-chic.  Is the steps scene inspired Cagney’s death in The Roaring Twenties? I think that here Keaton outshines Pacino but to me it’s really Talia Shire’s movie, and Coppola’s and that of the gorgeous design that is characteristic of all the Godfather films. The montage of the three films at the end, an unnecessary, elegiac and  sentimental coda,  seems somehow unworthy of the trilogy.

 

José Arroyo

 

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1972)

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It was a joy to rediscover this. I was too young to see it when it came out, though I remember the excitement in grade school when they broadcast the first and second film knitted together with additional footage and, if I remember correctly, in chronological order, as a television miniseries. The opening, the closing, the baptism, the killing in the restaurant: all are great and it’s hard to fault the film. It has a beautiful gravitas and is to me a clear example of  lean, classic, filmmaking. It is often described as operatic, and of course in a certain sense it is, but very sparse in comparison to the current bombast. With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton.

José Arroyo

Lords of Dogtown (Catherine Hardwicke, USA, 2003)

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This is now, after Twilight and Thirteen, the third Catherine Hardwicke film I’ve seen and the third I’ve liked. Twilight-bashers should have a look all of these films together, particularly so that they can see what was lost by not having Hardwicke direct the Twilight sequels: women’s longing for a romantic ideal, the desiring female gaze, men depicted as quasi-Byronic figures of romance; Hardwicke shows us how men are seen by women who like them. In each of these film she shows a real feel for adolescent yearning and competitiveness, mostly set in working class milieus of one kind or another. She shows an understanding of moms trying to keep things together (Holly Hunter is magnificent in Thirteen; Rebecca de Mornay just as good here, and unrecognizable) and has a lovely way of capturing adolescent beauty on that borderline between innocence and transgression. Hardwicke’s good at depicting rivalry too, particularly between girls.

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Lords of Dogtown has some well-realised sequences (the girls singing to Cher’s  ‘Half-breed’), some lovely performances (Heath Ledger, but all the boys as well) and the director sure has an eye for discovering talented unknowns: Jeremy Renner in an early role, Jimmy Knoxville, Sofia Vergara in what must be one of her first roles also – uncredited, though I swear it’s him, is Jon Hamm as a delivery man. The two leads of Thirteen, Nikki Read and Rachel Evan Wood, play rivals here. There are images of an industrial working-class-verging on sub-prole communities that look as if seen through a seductive drug-hazed glow and help evoke the milieu, place and period in which it is set: skate and surf-boy culture in the Santa Monica area of Dogtown in the 1970s. Lovely.

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José Arroyo

Flowing/ Nagareru (Mikio Naruse, Japan, 1956)

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My first Naruse film and  it is a revelation: an exquisitely beautiful movie. The river flows at the beginning and the end. Time moves on. But the world is changing. Business gets the upper hand. Family helps but at a price. A restaurant will take the place of the geisha house. There is no room for geishas in the modern world except on the other, grubbier side, of the river. The performances are very moving, with Haruko Sugimura, the coarse and unfeeling daughter from Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, Japan, 1953), here a stand-out as a drunken fifty-year old geisha. The compositions are a work of art; and the end, where the maid knows all that the characters sense but don’t yet fully realize, made me well up a little.

José Arroyo

World War Z (Marc Foster, USA, 2013)

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It’s so much better than I expected, so intelligent and visually impressive that I almost had to remind myself that World War Z  isn’t quite good. The film is about zombies — that’s what finally got me to the cinema. They’re everywhere at the moment and I like them in almost all their variations: on TV in the wonderful The Walking Dead (created by Frank Darabont, USA, AMC, 2010-); as quasi-teen romantic horror played for laughs in Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2013); in foreign films, even from Cuba, such as Juan of the Dead/ Juan de los Muertos (Alejandro Brugés, Cuba, 2011) and even in the most far-out variations such as The Happiness of the Katakuris [Takashi Miike, Japan, admittedly a while ago, 2001) — musical zombie films from Japan anyone? Just as interestingly, they’ve become a political symbol for the Chilean Student Movement, with masses of students protesting against the government dressed as zombies doing gigantic flash-mobs to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

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This particular take on zombies is based on Max Brooks wonderful 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but is very different to it. Brooks’ book has no central protagonist but is instead structured like Studs Terkel’s classic books on World Word II and the Depression such as Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. The influence is clear from the title of the books alone and Brooks’ novel is indeed structured as an oral history of the Zombie War, told by different survivors of it from different countries and from different walks of life. The idea is to evoke with panoramic sweep yet retain all the particularities; to not lose sight of the big picture but to also focus on people. This permits Brooks in his novel to allow for  allegory whilst also keeping a sharp eye on narrative and action. One can see why the book was so attractive to producers (though its natural form seems to be more as a basis for an HBO series than what is permissible in feature film form).

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Film buffs may be interested in knowing that Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Zombie fanatics will already know about his also being the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. What is interesting to me about Brooks in relation to the film is that he’s also written for comic books such as The Extinction Parade and even new takes on established franchises such as his Hearts and Minds graphic novel in the G.I.Joe franchise. What interests me about Brooks’ work here, his curt no-nonsense noir dialogue, the political point-of-view necessary for allegory and critique, the brutal, corrupt world in which all is not yet hopeless, the superb marriage of story/action/dialogue evident in his work for comic books, is only as a measure of the extent to which it is absent in the movie of World War Z.

2013-07-01 20.11.09Marc Foster’s take on World War Z does make you glad that you are watching it in a cinema and does seem to provide what a smaller screen can’t quite, a travelogue of spectacular disasters in various, and variously exotic, parts of the world — those masses of zombies swarming, climbing on top of each other like ants jacked up on methamphetamines, jumping into cars and even planes- — sometimes in really thrilling areal shots that reveal a world unraveling — whilst being able to see every element of these composition of disaster in great detail. You can definitely see where the money went. (estimated cost is  $190 million after tax breaks).

It’s not boring either. The narrative has a melodramatic basis: Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt)  family is being sheltered only because of his skills; and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two girls are under threat not only from the zombies but from the authorities, as they are in an ‘essential-personnel-only’ facility. Their  presence in the shelter is conditional on Brad’s continuing existence and eventual success.

In ‘Brad’s War’, a very interesting cover story on the troubled production of the film that made the cover of the June issue of Vanity Fair, Laura M. Helson tells us ‘What the ending of World War Z needed was for its hero to be re-united with his wife and children’ According to Helson,  when screenwriter Damon Lindeloff was asked in to view a 72 minute rough- cut of the picture that didn’t work and to offer some possible solutions, he noted that, “Lane (Brad Pitt) has to ‘save the world’ to get back to his family,” said Lindelof, adding, “It is an emotional task.”

However, though the family is central to the film’s functioning as melodrama, World War Z never puts what family might really mean to the test:  What would have happened if his wife had been rendered a zombie and was on the verge of converting his child, what would he do? or, if both of his children where to be converted and he could only choose one?

The film doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. And because it doesn’t, it is never once as moving or as complex in terms of human feeling of survival, loss, and transformation as various episodes of AMC’s Walking Dead . The series tangled with really important questions (what is society? What is community? What is it to be human? What does it mean to love? What is morality? How does one live ethically in a chaotic world filled with disasters?) that this film, busy as it is with its pile-up of disasters, doesn’t even begin to broach.

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World War Z  has a nice central idea; that survival depends on movement and change; but if films don’t work emotionally, they simply don’t work, no matter how much they cost.  This particular film works in terms of immediate sensation rather than of depth or complexity of feeling; though here even the sensational elements succeed only up to a point: it’s only mildly scare, a little creepy, somewhat horrifying; it’s the kind of zombie film people who don’t like zombie films will enjoy, which I suppose is the kind of audience a film budgeted at World War Z’s level is aiming for.

There is no question that it is spectacular, and that it has some terrific set-pieces such as the zombies on a plane (which could be the basis for an entire, very exciting film). But overall, I found it much better than I had expected and then not as good as it had led me to hope. Pitt is effective and has a very good moment when his eyes well with emotion at the thought of never seeing his daughters again. But it’s almost the only time we get a hint of anything happening underneath his practical façade (contrast Pitt’s performance here to Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead). As an actor, Pitt is a little like World War Z is as a film: all externals, spectacular to look at, moves thrillingly, but with something unfathomable and likely to be blank under the surface.

…And yet, as David Denby so interestingly notes in his New Yorker review in the July1, 2013 issue, ”the movie…evokes  the hectic density of modern life; it stirs fears of plague and anarchy, and the feeling everything is constantly accelerating. At times, it has the tone and tempo of a panic…The zombies aren’t like us; they are us, just degraded a little’. That sense of the film being a refraction of who we think  we are; and  also a refraction of how the world we live in makes us feel, is part of what makes it so interesting; much more interesting than one initially thought.

José Arroyo

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, USA, 2011)

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William Friedkin’s new film begins strikingly with the stark, harsh beams of truck-lights illuminating darkness, transporting us instantly into a world of noir and showing us Gina Gershon making one of the all-time great star entrances. As she demonstrated in the unforgettable Bound (Andy and Lena Wachowski, USA, 1996), Gershon makes space noir just by walking through it —  a combination of sex, danger, maybe death, seems  to vibrate from her; to lure and threaten. The film owes a lot to the Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, USA, 1955) – the stranger, the threat, the child, the sordidness wrapped up in quasi-religious feeling. Killer Joe is very disturbing and somewhat sordid and I think a lot of the creepiness is due to a real underlying misogyny. Regarding Mathew MacConaughey,  I can see why people are praising him. The role is indeed a departure from his usual persona. But to me he still looks like a smug lump onscreen. He’s had excellent roles lately (Magic Mike and Mud in the last year alone) but he’s still better at choosing than performing in them. I would have preferred someone more uptight, more sinister in the role (Michael Shannon say). However, MacConaughey is indeed effective and so is the film. Killer Joe is the work of a real artist though not one you’d invite for brunch.

José Arroyo

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, USA, 2013)

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Before Midnight is adult, focused on character and relationships; with smart non-stop dialogue, almost musical in the jazzy way characters riff on ideas and interact and improvise with each other, that dramatises, hides, highlights, symbolizes, but is nonetheless recognisably the way emotionally intelligent and highly educated people speak. It’s filmed in long fluid takes that focus on people and show off the skill of the director and the actors.

It’s a film about the important things in life: love, loneliness, family, sex, children, work; one that requires patience. It insists you submit to its gentle beat but then rewards you with laughter, emotion and thought. It’s modern in the way Celine (JulieDelpie) fights for her choice of life and in the way it shows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) giving in to her whilst still seeming so ruggedly male; it’s old fashioned in the way she flirts and in the way he courts.  The bickering is the bickering in all relationships; the preference to remain two solitudes together, and the wisdom of that choice, is not.

I didn’t like seeing Patrick (Walter Lasally – is he based on Patrick Leigh Fermor? Leigh Fermor is the British war hero who also wrote two famous books on his travels walking through Europe as a young man – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – and who ended up living in Greece), the semi-sage in the writer’s colony or the rest of the Greeks we see at a writer’s colony – they seem to prick a pin through the bubble of charm that is my idea of Before Sunrise (1995), the first film; as if introducing other people darkens the warm romantic glow. But Before Midnight is a more sombre,  more mature film than even the equally touching Before Sunset (2004). I suppose the film had to be opened up in some way but the other people seem to prick a pin through the bubble of  romance, though I suppose that’s the point — it’s no longer a bubble, it’s no longer a holiday romance, it’s no longer a romance —  it’s a relationship. And love. But love in a relationship, as the film so beautifully dramatises, is not quite the same..

The film begins with Jesse saying goodbye to his 14-year old son at the airport. The talk is awkward and loving. He leaves his son so that he can  go back to his mother whom Jesse has a terrible relationship with. Celine seems to be part of the problem. She’s too opinionated, self-centred, can only see her point-of-view, has obviously poured oil on flame. She gets some of the best laughs in the film. He’s overwhelmed with sadness and self-doubt. Has he been a good father? Should they move from Paris to Chicago to be near his son? Her whole life and that of their daughters is in Paris, and the very question threatens Celine’s whole life and  begins a questioning of the relationship itself.

It all takes place in one day, once again in a beautiful location, this time the Peloponnese, full of ruins of civilisations past and of beautiful churches with murals choc-a-bloc with icons that have had their eyes removed. They talk about Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, and what to make of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1954) seeing those skeletons wrapped in an eternal embrace in Pompeii. They know they are not the ideal or romantic lovers but maybe they too are blind to what is in front of their face: that they still love. American directors in the 1960s used to look enviously at the works of art being produced in Europe and wonder what cinema they might be able to create had they the same freedoms. Just as with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Before Midnight would have proved a very satisfactory answer.

José Arroyo

Stoker (Chan-wook Park, USA, 2013)

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The poster for Stoker doesn’t tell you that it’s a Park Chan-Wook film; nor that Nicole Kidman’s in it. The film itself is super-stylish, rather creepy, and with snaps of violence that makes one yelp with queasiness. Mia Wasikowska is marvelous as the pervy schoolgirl. It’s written by the hottie from Prison Break, Wentworth Miller.

José Arroyo

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2013)

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In Soderbergh-world, the big city is full of dangerous lesbian killers that prey on soft decent men like Jude Law: Law restores law and re-balances Sodebergh-world by making sure nasty lesbians end up in jail or the insane asylum where they belong, just like in movies from 1945. Side-effects is a handsome, expert film; it’s got interesting things to say about drugs and pharmaceutical companies; but the most entertaining element in it is also what makes its representational politics so very nasty. Law is no longer pretty but who cares about pretty when he can play human and swayed and slightly weak but pushed to fight back and sometimes all of these things simultaneously and transparently? He is superb. Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones seem to relish playing, respectively,  women who are not quite in the distress they first appear to be; and women who are not quite in as much control as they initially seem: both are terrific. Channing Tatum is likeable but out of his league; the film itself is occasionally superb but generally unlikeable.

 

José Arroyo

 

Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2007)

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Shotgun Stories

 

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Three brothers, Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid ( Barlow Jacobs) are abandoned by their father when children and left to be raised by a ‘hateful woman’, their mother . The father starts a new family in the same empty-ass town. ‘If I owned this town, I’d sell it,’ says one of the brothers. But since their father abandoned them they don’t own ‘the square root of shit’.  When he dies, the eldest (Michael Shannon) goes to his funeral, says some nasty words about him, spits on his grave, and starts a feud that will destroy both sets of brother. There’s an interesting idea at the heart of this film, which reads with a soupçon of naffness, e.g. ‘We’re All Brothers’ or as Michael Jackson sings, ‘We Are the World’ but which the film dramatises with real depth and feeling.

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Shotgun Stories first depicts their economic and emotional context: Boy is living in his van; Kid wants to get married but has no truck or house and is living in a tent in Son’s backyard; and Son has a gambling problem which he sees as a system and which results in the woman he loves and who loves him leaving with their child to her mother’s. The place is rural Arkansas, wide-open spaces, between field and river, in the midst of an economic dowturn. It’s a place where taking a date out to a buffet marks a special occasion; where button-down shirts are such a rarity, the ability to borrow them becomes a delight; where a burrito is a breakfast treat, and where a beat-up air-conditioner comes in handy outside.

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The people and the place are the context through which the film gets real dramatic tension as the feud between both sets of brothers unfolds. Those boys are carrying the burden of a code of manliness and also a history of a shared past. Both are damaging. Eventually even Son will realize that the protecting of his own brothers results in death or injury to another set of brothers, but since they are also his own kin, hurting that other set of brothers is also hurting his own. It’s a no-win situation.

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Shotgun Stories is set in a different kind of America than we’re used to seeing, rural, small town; a welcome view of it that finds beauty in the ordinary; all these wide-angle shots of industrial detritus in open-spaced fields, mobile homes, tract housing. But we are shown beauty in those falling-down buildings in that overgrown landscape, in the rust that crops up in the image regularly, even in the fishing scenes by the river. It’s a rural America that’s gone to seed. Everything that man has built is ugly but the wind and the vegetation and the rust are in their own way transforming, returning the place and the people to something beautiful and true but not without first undergoing change, pain, and various kinds of destruction.

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The transformation begins with detritus, rust, anger; at a fight that starts in a funeral and sparks a feud.  Images from nature abound. The opening  image is that of cotton (I didn’t realize the flowering bud could be so beautiful) which then gets harvested, the gorgeous water-lillies that we see near the fish farm, and lastly a startling red flower at the end. There’s lots of reaping and sowing in this film: of cotton, of fish, and of people’s actions. But we’re also allowed to see the beauty inherent in nature and in people.

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The quasi-hillbilly feud at the heart of the film is told with a gentle and open-hearted tone that brings to mind a combination of elements of slacker culture and a good-old-Southern-boy setting, as if Richard Linklater had tried to look into Burt Reynold’s heart in Smoky and the Bandit and found it brimming with pure pioneer spirit.  Shotgun Stories brings in some mythic elements ( the very names of the brothers, the speculation around the shotgun wounds on Son’s back vs how how he really got them – the ‘Shotgun Stories’ the film ends up telling) but with a tight touch and always in the service of showing us the beauty in, and depth of, people’s feelings.

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Michael Shannon as Son reminds me of Henry Fonda; the same lankyness and understated masculinity; a similar low, soft drawl; the transparency with which both actors convey an unspoken but complex interior life; but Shannon is more rugged, less pretty than Fonda. Shannon speaks softly and slowly, always a beat after what his face tells us so clearly, with the words he speaks sometimes slightly at odds with what his face has just said. It’s a beautiful performance.

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Nichols is wonderful at showing the relationships amongst and between men; the brothers in a way are all men just trying to get by and barely hanging in there. They simply want to build a decent life for themselves but only nature and kin give them any bliss (the sunsets, the fishing, sharing a beer on the porch). The depths of emotion they feel for each other is largely unsaid but beautifully evoked. They all just want a girl, a home, some kids. But history is against them. It’s wonderful to see a film where the focus is on men feeling rather than merely doing, and where what’s at stake is simple things like jobs, housing, relationships, a dream of a slightly better future, the building and maintenance of family and community (the feud is just a catalyst). It’s a lovely film, beautifully directed, with the director not afraid to hold a shot in which nothing much seems to happen, and with an eye for beauty both visual and internal. I found it very touching

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José Arroyo

The Iceman (Ariel Vromen, USA, 2012)

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Littered with spoilers so do not read if you don’t want to know the ending.

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From the first ten minutes of The Iceman we know that Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is ‘in a lonely place’, that he’s got ‘a touch of evil, that he’s got ‘no way out’: that he’s ‘D.O.A.’ Perhaps only in the period of post-war noir has American cinema been bleaker or better than it is at the moment: Blue Valentine (2010), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011), Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011), Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012), The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) , Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik 2012), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012), Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012), to name but a few examples. Dystopian views now are not just limited to genres like science-fiction or horror but seem to have seeped right to the centre of the culture. However, although other films might have as bleak an outlook, none has a darker look than The Iceman.

 

 

Our Cultural Past as Mythos of a Fictional World

 

            The film spans the period of the early 60s to the early 80s but most of the action takes place in the 70s in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra was born, and in the various boroughs of New York where he started his career. Atlantic City, in the middle of getting a gambling license that will enable it to try to compete with Vegas, is another Sinatra association and buying a condo there is Kuklinski’s dream. The film references the Gambinos, the Calleys, the Lucchese and other legendary Mafia families Sinatra’s name was often linked to. The places where Kuklinski lives and kills are ones John Travolta’s Tony Manero might have walked through on his way to the disco at this time, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Manero working for DeMeo (Ray Liotta), the gangster who’s got Kuklinski on hitman retainer,  or even in porn if his dancing career in Manhattan had fizzled out.

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The world of The Iceman is like the underbelly of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, USA, 1977), ethnic working men strutting in platform shoes, tight high-wasted flared trousers over printed shirts with pointy collars, on the fringes of society and trying to get out of their situation in different ways in the same streets and to a similar disco beat. The Iceman makes much of Kuklinki being of Polish origin and its mix of Poles, Irish, Dutch, Italian, and Jewish characters, probably because it’s an accurate historical reflection, but perhaps also because it enables the picture to makes claims about a world and not just one community within it (the way it seems in other mafia films and TV shows from The Godfather films to The Sopranos). The Iceman is telling the story of an individual and one within a very particular context but it’s also operating within and making use of a very potent American mythos – that of the urban gangster — and making use and a particular formal vernacular — that of film noir. I’ll return to the genre and cultural tradition through which the Iceman tell us its story later. But let’s first look at the beginning.

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Beginning Thesis:

‘Mr. Kuklinski, do you have any regrets for the things you’ve done?’ asks a nameless voice over a tight close-up of Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski, famed mafia hitman. We are shown Shannon’s head slightly to the side, half-hidden in darkness; a still, strong, tightly-coiled face with calm calculating eyes; a rough grit-and-granite face, all angles that simultaneously illuminate and enshadow. It’s a perfect question to start the narrative. The diegetic sound has already indicated he’s in jail, so what has he done? And what’s to regret? That play of light and shadow on the sharp planes of Shannon’s face constitutes an ideal image with which to start giving shape to Kuklinski and his world. The Iceman will return to the same scene at its end, when Kuklinski will give us his answer and the film its final nudge to the audience’s judgment of Kuklinski as a person and of Shannon as an actor.

The film then cuts to April 29, 1964 via a high wide shot of a dark urban setting at night; lampposts shine brightly but can barely pierce the darkness. We’re then shown the outside of a cheap diner in a dark street. As we go inside, however, the lens seems to soften and makes the people we see inside seem young, attractive, vulnerable. When I first saw Shannon in Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2007), his lanky frame, soft and measured way of speaking, his ability to be emotionally transparent and unquestionably masculine, reminded me of Henry Fonda. He brings a little of that to this scene: Richie, for that’s what Deborah (Winona Ryder), his date, calls Kuklinski, is soft-spoken, awkward, bashful. ‘You ask a girl for coffee, you should have something to say,’ she tells him.

When Kuklinski looks at Deborah, and this is a testament to Shannon’s achievement as an actor in this part, his face seems to melt and soften as if from metal to flesh. He’s got a neatly combed side-part and wears a mod polo with geometric white piping on the collar. He’s been after her a long time and wants to impress her but can barely get a word out. She’s also neatly dressed; hair bouffed up as was the style then, but not extravagantly so; she wears a neat blouse with a lacey collar — she’s a respectable girl. He likes that kind of good girl. Kuklinski finally finally mumbles that she reminds him of Natalie Wood, only prettier; she ‘aw shucks’ the compliment but she likes it; and as Natalie Wood’s Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1955) most certainly would, Deborah gets a little thrill from the kind of guy that’s got a grim reaper tattooed between thumb and forefinger. He offers a toast but it’s with water, and she pulls back, saying toasting with water is bad luck. ‘I don’t believe in bad luck,’ he tells her. In fact he doesn’t believe in anything except her.

Just as her aunt arrives to pick her up, he asks Deborah whether he can see her again and she says yes and pecks him quickly on the cheek, even if her aunt is looking: they’re in love. The film is so precise in telling us day, month, and year because it’s the day that changed Kuklinski’s life, brought meaning to it: Deborah’s love, and later that of his children, along with his own love for them, will enable him to latch onto whatever humanity he has left to him.

Second Scene: Anti-Thesis

The second scene shows us Kuklinski playing pool with his buddies. Here it’s all elegant, extreme wide-angle shots of frames within frames within frames, in light browns and muddy yellows. Kuklinski and his buddies hustle a guy who refuses to pay. Kuklinski’s cold stare makes him change his mind but the guy doesn’t know when to shut it and he can’t resist a final insult before leaving, one involving Deborah. In The Iceman, when someone pushes Kuklinsi to the point of no return, his face becomes still and hard. In this case, the first instance we see it, the camera moves in to one of the great images in this film, a key one, in another tight close-up. Kuklinski’s shown to us slightly from below, his face turns to his right, digesting what the fool’s just said, then to his left as he makes a decision. As he does so, his face and the camera come to a stop, the face lit so that exactly half of it is in darkness. The image could be that of Two-Face in the Batman comics with darkness replaces the scarring. Kuklinski’s scars, as we will soon find out, are all internal but this sense of being split into darkness and light in a consciousness that can barely contain that polarity and is always threatening to explode because of it is very important in the film.

I’ve taken some time over the first two scenes of the film not only because they’re crucial in the depiction of the fictional world we will be seeing and in introducing us to the main character but because they also set out the structure of the film and its main themes. First we get the questions. Then we get nice Richie in love followed by the ‘rise’ of Killer Kuklinski. This idea of the double or, perhaps better put, the dark half of a split whole is a structuring idea in the film. It not only enables the type of story already familiar to us from The Sopranos (David Chase, HBO, USA, 1999-2007), the Mafia hit man who’s leading a double-life as a happy family man in the suburbs, but goes deeper into more existential questions: Is evil inherited, is it shaped, why bother to be good at all in a world without God?

‘You gotta feel something for somebody’

When Richie first meets Deborah he tells her that his job is dubbing movies  (as in the making of copies rather than the lending of his voice) for Disney but really it’s dubbing porn for the mob. One day when they come to collect and he doesn’t have them ready (they have the wrong date), they rough him up. Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is so impressed by Kuklinski’s cool, even with a gun on his face, that he puts him to a test. A few days later, Roy takes him for a ride, makes his sidekick Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) give a homeless person some money, then points a gun to Kulinski.  ‘Look at that fucking guy, he’s cool as ice’ he tells Josh. Then turning to Kuklinski, ‘you gotta feel something for somebody’. ‘I’ve got a wife and children’. With that Demeo puts the gun away and offers him a deal: if he can kill the homeless man they’ve just given change to, he’s got a job working exclusively for him.

The moment when Kuklinski kills the helpless hobo is an early turning point in the film, one that propels the rest of the narrative until another turning point, on which more later. At this moment, however, the darkness enshrouds the image and half of Kuklinski becomes what the film tells us he might always have been, the ruthless unfeeling hit-man, steeped in a darkness so deep that the screen fades to black. This is then followed by an exciting montage –  thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline. A leap into the dark, an embrace of it, can quicken the pulse and carry its own excitement

 

A Visual Relationship to Noir

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The film looks like a combination of The French Connection (William Friedkin, USA, 1972) and a television documentary: the image is thin and underexposed; sometimes hand-held, sometimes with elegantly composed images, always with a loose feel that foregrounds character against lots of black, as if darkness is oozing into Kuklinski’s world and threatening to swamp it. The hand-held camera is usually used during a hit; the steadier but usually still-mobile shots characteristically showing Kuklinski with his family. Light levels are designed to communicate as well, darkness alternating with light but even the light within the home getting thinner and darker as the film progresses. There are moments where a scene fades completely to black (the murder of the homeless person for example); other moments were the characters turn and become two-dimensional, hard silhouettes momentarily disembodies of their humanity like in that moment in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946, USA) where Ballen George Macready) subtly threatens Johnny (Glenn Ford). The Iceman is a tour de force of expressive cinematography (by Bobby Bukowski).

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Doubling, Halves, Structural Opposites

Ideas of doubling, of complementary halves, of equal but opposites seem to structure almost every aspect of The Iceman, from minor points to themes to structuring elements. For example, De Meo likes to meet at The Gemini Club; Deborah to Kuklinski is his better half and saving grace; the film asks us to compare Kuklinski to his brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) in Kuklinski’s favour (he’s not sadistic and doesn’t accept contracts on women and children) and the same later on, when Demeo puts a momentary halt on business and Kuklinski has to team up with a scarier, more brutal and sadistic hitman , Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), from whose practice of freezing bodies so police can’t trace the time of death Kuklinski is misnamed ‘The Iceman’. Kuklinski believes he’s better than them, more moral.

The film’s point-of-view and the spectator’s understanding are not always the same as Kuklinki’s. Winona Ryder’s sideways glances, and her hiss at him when their daughter gets run over, hints at her knowing more about what her husband does for a living than she lets on; that her ignorance is as much a feign as his currency dealings. Also, his brother is right when he says Kuklinski will end up right there in Trenton State Prison with him. Lastly, Mr. Freezy might be more sadistic than Kuklinski but Kuklinski has no problem adopting his methods when his condo in Atlantic City’s at stake.

From the moment that Kuklinski starts working for DeMeo until the film’s other turning point, when he’s hired to kill Marty Freeman (James Franco) but leaves loose end, we see first an exciting montage — thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline; after this, such hits are alternated with a happy home sequences of suburban family life in Jersey, as if the dual sides of his nature are perfectly  balanced. He seems to be a happy commuter Dad (though I’m sure some of his hits must have taken place closer to home). But it’s interesting that the film’s second turning point, the beginning of his descent conjoins two ideas, both pertinent to American culture now, but not usually brought together: that of a loss of faith and that of a loss of job.

The Second Turning Point and Descent

Kuklinski, by his own terms, leads a balanced life; he manages to alternate the happy suburban home life and the urban killing very successfully until the film’s other important turning point. Plot-wise the context for it is that Josh Rosenthal, the local capo’s best friend and right hand man, has not only been waving Demeo’s name around without authority and at some risk, but has actually just gone and robbed large amounts of cocaine from two Hispanic dealers. However, those he thought were merely lowly Spics end up being connected to one of the ‘families’ and thus their death requires extracting traditional restitution from DeMeo: the body of the person that did it in a bag. Marty Freeman (James Franco) has been blabbing about that person maybe being Rosenthal. Earlier in the film, when Demeo caught wind that Rosenthal was using his name he told him: ‘You and I have a history together. It means something to me’. Because of that, Demeo, in order to protect Rosenthal and himself, puts out a hit on Freeman; and to make sure it gets done, and without Kuklinski’s knowledge, he puts another hitman on the case, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans).

Thematically, the turning point is set-up by a scene where Richie and Deborah are spending family time with their children. They’re in the bedroom, the television news is showing coverage of the Vietnam War, and Kuklinski’s eldest girl says that, according to one of the nun’s at school, it’s God’s will for people die in Vietnam. The family has a discussion about this with Deborah saying that God is so busy that he can’t take care of everyone and thus the family has to look after each other. But Kuklinski was an altar boy; ideas of Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, and the existence of God are what he was raised with. When he goes to kill Marty Freeman and Marty begs for his life, Kuklinski makes him an offer, he’ll give him thirty minutes to pray and if God stops him, he’ll spare his life and take the consequences.

One of the wonderful things about American cinema at the moment is that we see actors’ hunger to perform in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time. They’re taking risky roles in small films, seemingly for the love of it. Here we get the opportunity to see an unrecognizable David Schwimmer as Rosenthal (the audience does giggle when they finally recognize him but only briefly. He’s superb); Chris Pines looking almost unattractive but more manly and dangerous than I’ve ever seen him on screen as Mr. Freezy; a magnificent Stephen Dorff, also completely unrecognizable and truly creepy, slimy, dangerous – I’ve loved him more in other films such as Somewhere   (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010) but I don’t remember him ever being better. We also get to see Robert Davi, whose very face is as Demeo tells him, an association with bad news, a reason he’s now been a joy to filmgoers for decades; and of course Ray Liotta, who must have recently hired the best script-reader in Hollywood because after years of working in dross, in the last year alone he’s appeared in Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines, which is to say the very best of current American cinema. And not least, a much desired return of the glorious Winona Ryder to the screen in a leading role. One just sighs with pleasure at the sight of her; and she’s very good here – there’s a core of steel under that lace collar. But the greatest scene in the movie is almost ruined by James Franco.

Detour into Franco

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I love James Franco and think he’s been unjustly criticized for interests that should in fact be praised: an interest in art in general first; then for actually writing, painting, performing, directing; then for wanting to extend himself as an actor in a variety of parts. I loved him in Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, USA, 2012) and thought nobody else could have captured the shabby, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, gauche, sweet not-innocent Oz; the loveable, sexy but not dangerously so, two-bit conman: He’s just perfect in that role. But he’s not here. His performance as Marty is lazy, as if he’s just arrived from something more important on his way to something more important still, plopped himself on his knees and told Ariel Vromen to hurry up and get on with it.

This, in the most important scene in the film and playing with and against Michael Shannon, whose performance here must stake a claim to his being one of the very finest actors working in American cinema today. Star or not, if Franco, can’t deliver, particularly in a small but crucial role such as this one, he should have been re-cast; and I hold it against the production that such a crucial role should end up so amorphous and lifeless on screen. As if, instead of Rod Steiger, it was the winner of some hick high-school acting contest that ended up opposite Brando in the ‘I could have been a contender’ scene in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, USA, 1954).

Existential Kuklinski

Kuklinki’s a walking existential question. Like Camus’ Merseault in The Stranger  (1942) he feels no connection to others, but he doesn’t particularly seek meaning, though his family gives him that. Yet in his offer of mercy to Marty he’s pushing his daughter’s question, ‘why does God let innocent people die?’ further: Does God exist at all? Whilst Franco’s busy being an inert blob, Shannon, filmed from below, like Satan himself challenging God, urges him to pray. ‘Go ahead’ he says quietly, ‘Our father….’. ‘I’m not feeling nothing,’ he warns Marty, ‘nothing at all’. ‘Pray harder’. ‘Your last chance,’ he warns .

Jean Paul-Sartre dramatized alienation in works like Nausea (1938)and more systematically explored the question of Being in a world without God in works of philosophy like Being and Nothingness (1943). But films, even not quite great ones like The Iceman, sometimes offer moments of better emotional understanding of such existential questions, of understanding and feeling, even if only briefly,  the void that opens up in the moment that Kuklinski tells Marty, ‘I think God’s busy’ and offs him.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, ‘“I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help.’ Arguably, Kuklinski has known this from the very beginning.  But it is from this moment that his sense of responsibility for his family supersedes, erases, justifies, a loss of taking responsibility for his own actions; it’s the moment where he stops to shape his world and it starts to shape him.

From then on, it’s a descent into the same place we first met his brother both physically and emotionally, though Kuklinki is perhaps more aware of this, and will feel it more acutely. First, Richie loses his job, and the loss of his job, leads to a lack of self-worth and a loss of status in the home. To recover some of that, he becomes ‘The Iceman’. But the stresses of doing this type of work, then means he loses his family (the one thing he regrets) when they start seeing him as Jekyll and Hyde figure (which he’s never been in his own mind).  Finally we’re made aware of the full extent of loss of self when his square face turns almost to the camera at the end to assert that hurting his family is the only thing he regrets.

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It seems that recently I’ve seen a whole series of films about men in America (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing them Softly) where the loss of a job is tied to crime, or the job is crime. What types of ways men are allowed to perform a  particular type of masculinity is tied to their having a job or not, to them being criminalized or not and when that happens. There’s a racial and ethnic dimension to this as well that The Iceman hints at through its ethic mix but doesn’t quite explore. James Baldwin has a wonderful passage in The Evidence of Things Not Seen where he quotes a black spiritual that goes ‘When a woman gets the blues Lord, she bows her head and cries/ When a man gets the blues lord, he takes the train and rides.’ But Baldwin reminds us that we should ask ‘Why does the black man take the train and ride, why does he flee from his responsibilities’. Baldwin’s answer is that America posits normative and idealised ways of being men in America and then doesn’t allow Black Men inhabit those norms or ideals, thus the ‘take the train and ride’. I think these films are raising very similar questions today. What is an ideal way of being a man in America today and does a normal working joe have to kill someone in order to be that guy.

The Iceman is not a great film but it’s a serious and satisfying one, with Shannon’s performance sure to become legendary. It has  a beautiful use of light and shadows from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, and memorable dialogue. Immediately after I saw it, my view was that Shannon was superb but the film itself no great shakes. I still think that to a degree; but it’s a rare film that inspires me to write at this length, rarer still in a film I don’t particularly like. It’s a film that but for the actors, and that of course is the biggest but, one can’t divorce them from the film, but if one could, The Iceman is almost more interesting to think about than to see. Maybe further viewings will bring out yet more. It’s a film to ponder, and in thinking about Shannon, to ponder with awe.

José Arroyo