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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Littered with spoilers so do not read if you don’t want to know the ending.
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.
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 fromThe 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.
‘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
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).
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
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).
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.
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.
Henry Cavill in Man of Steel looks more like the Superman of my imagination than Brandon Routh ever did in Superman Returns; he’s got the better curls; more defined cheekbones and squarer jaw; a beefier, hairier and more masculine body. Routh looked too nice and insubstantial, like a scared rabbit suddenly comforted by a gentle stroke. However, Christopher Reeve’s gee-gosh Superman remains the definitive one; and that goes for Margot Kidder’s klutzy Lois and Terence Stamp’s glamorously decadent Zod as well. No one I’ve seen since has erased my memory or lessened my affection for those three actors in those roles.
Man of Steel also suffers in comparison to the earlier films in other ways: it lacks the sense of wonder and amazement we felt when watching Superman fly or use his super-powers in the 1978 film directed by Richard Donner; it also lacks the wit and charm Richard Lester brought to Superman II (1980), though to be fair, wit and charm is not what’s aimed for here: Zac Snyder was probably chosen to direct because of the ‘mythic seriousness’ he brought to Wachmen; but he unfortunately also ends up bringing way too much of the heavy-handed portentousness evident in 300 .
The film is long and feels it. The myth of origin story that would be periodically retold in comic books since the 1940s via only a few panels is here slow to get going and then ends up taking almost two and half-hours to finish. There is some flashy design: I particularly like how the Krypton story is visualized as molten metal that looks like fascist coin reliefs. But quite a lot of the film drags There’s not a single joke. The only time the audience seems to react to the movie at all is when a young female soldier can’t stop staring at Henry Cavill because ‘he’s hot’. He is indeed, and the film has some dazzling scenes, mostly towards the end with the aerial fight sequences. I also like how Michael Shannon brings an air of Boris Karloff to his playing of Zod. But there’s not much that truly delights.
Man of Steel looks grayish-blue, as if darkening everything made it ‘deeper’. But really, it just means we neither see well not get to experience the aesthetic pleasure of a fuller colour palette. There’s so much destruction of buildings and cars that one gets beyond caring. Special effects were once prized because they filled the audience with awe and wonder; in seeming to make us see the impossible they evoked feeling; now effects seems to have lost touch with affect; there’s nothing at stake in all of these bombs blowing up and buildings falling; it just seems to be a matter of perspective and scale, as in drawing. Explosions are bigger, we can see costumes and space ships with greater clarity. But the effect of bigger and clearer does not end up being more intense, or complex or more fun.
I can see what attracted Russell Crowe to the part of Jor-El — the challenge of filling Brando’s shoes — but they weren’t very big shoes in that role, and they remain unfilled – Brando’s performance was pretty lazy but he had that zaftig silvery look that connoted something extraterrestrial or deific. Crowe is fine but doesn’t erase the memory of Brando or add anything new. And what I truly don’t understand is why they go to so much trouble to avoid saying Superman, it’s almost always Clark or Jor-El, they also pretty much avoid association with the American flag (which would have been unthinkable once; Superman was as much a symbol of America as the Red, White, and Blue) but the film still can’t help getting all misty eyed with the boys in uniform. It looks like the filmmakers spent a lot of time thinking through these changes but they didn’t resolve them well.
I suppose when I think of it, one can’t resist going to see it. It’s a big-budget spectacle with lots of big stars and a name director on one of the great visually iconic myths of 20th Century pop culture. The connection to Christ is clunky and explicit but woven in so tightly on so many levels of the narrative that it’s bound to keep fan boys and scholars busy ‘interpreting’ for years to come. On another level, there are also interesting connections that can be made in relation to the Galactus figure in the Silver Surfer and how some elements of those story-lines are woven here. Viewers may be interested in the casting of Larry Fishbourne as Perry White; or that the Jimmy Olson character is now named something else and runs a website; or that some fool decided to cast the glorious Diane Lane as Ma Kent (MA Kent!). Admittedly, the set-pieces are good, with the areal fight between Zod and Superman better than that, genuinely exciting in fact. But really, it’s a dud of a film.
Kids of all ages should enjoy this story of teenagers who fall in love but belong to different warrior clans. It’s like a Romeo and Juliette story but here each member of the family has special warrior skills (superpowers really). The Lord whom they serve decides they are too powerful and sets them in conflict against each other with the aim of wiping them out. The protagonists struggle to reconcile their love for one another with their loyalty to their family and clan; sadly, the latter wins out. A difference between at least some Eastern and Western cultures is the way that this narrative plays out in narrative: in my experience, in movies from the East the protagonists always, ultimately, finally, and in spite of any number of always motivated rebellions, bow down to authority. It is worth mentioning here the superb special effects that can now be created on smaller budgets. Hollywood better wake up or it will soon be playing on an even playing field and start losing. It’s losing now. With Yukie Nakama, Jô Odagiri, Tomoka Kurotani
Sylvester Stallone has had so many facelifts he now looks like an unsexy version of the cartoons Mad Magazine used to do of him in the 70’s. Yet he’s now been starring in big-budget movies for close to 40 years. Bullet to the Head (James Bonomo, USA, 2012) also had a theatrical release earlier this year and is now out on DVD plus there are two more films currently in postproduction. The man’s career is unstoppable. Why that is so is a mystery: I can’t think of another star who’s sustained that kind of career for that long with barely two good films in his filmography — The Expendables 2 isn’t one of them. Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren and other 80’s action stars parade through the film like a taxidermist’s prize exhibit. Jet Li and Jason Statham figure as more recent generations of action stars. Liam Hemsworth presumably wants to join the club. It was a hit.
This lingers interestingly on the mind for a while after one’s seen it. The design, cinematography, the whole look of the film is sublime if rather different to the gorgeous play of light we got to see in Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2010). It was extraordinary to see Tom Cruise with flushed cheeks at his age, every pore on his face clearly made visible by Claudio Miranda’s crack camerawork and lighting. The film too is beautiful to look at, with a spare aesthetic that empties the frame of things and fills it with wonderful use of line and striking and original compositions. Andrea Riseborough, displaying nervy intelligence and emotional neediness, and Tom Cruise, iconic yet also emotionally transparent, are both wonderful. Olga Kurylenko obviously needs to prance as she did in To the Wonder (Terece Malick, USA, 2012) in order to be watchable at all because here no prancing, dud performance, and rather dull to look at in spite of her beauty.
Oblivion suffers from a story that isn’t properly dramatised. I loved the minimalism of the first half but then, when more people arrived on the scene, it made the film seem less interesting. People have been saying it’s dull, and I do know what they mean; if one isn’t particularly attuned to the various delights cinema can offer on a purely visual plane, the film can seem slow as it doesn’t really compensate or underline story points or dramatise tension effectively with other dimensions of cinematic storytelling. However, I think Joseph Kosinski is a most fascinating director and would happily see this again, preferably on a big screen.
It’s a mess of a movie, superficial but attractive in an oversaturated way and with the driving energy of pulp. There’s a superb cast, all at or near their best (John Travolta, Benicio del Toro) or a delight to the eye (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively). I’ve never seen Selma Hayek better than she is here as a Mexican drug-cartel Queen. The beginning is a complete cock-up, with a badly spoken narration that could come straight out of a noir parody. The end is such a muddle we’re in fact offered two (the one the film would like to have and the one it was probably made to have, neither very original). In between nothing is believable but all is sexy, glamorous, violent and fun if ultimately also somewhat unsatisfying and rather cheapening.
Michael Shannon is Curtis, the small-town construction worker who begins to have visions of a gathering storm. His wife, Samantha, is played by Jessica Chastain; an actress with the great gift, a star’s gift, of embodying ordinariness whilst looking exceedingly beautiful. They have a deaf daughter, Hannah, whom they both love. Money’s tight; the cost of providing Hannah with the special needs education and treatment she needs is a strain; but they are a happy family.
When Curtis’ visions begin, the good life that was once the envy of their friends starts to unravel. Because he sees a gathering storm, he begins to build a shelter his family. But in the process of building a physical refuge against what the future might hold, he threatens the security of his present home, not only the house but also that emotive and affective idea of home that anchors Curtis’ sense of self and gives his life meaning.
Curtis’ source of income, his place in the community and his hold on the affections of those he love, all come under threat. In order to build the shelter he first takes out an expensive loan that puts the family home at risk; then he ‘borrows’ equipment without permission from his work which results in his losing his job; later, he even begins to have visions that the wife he loves and who we are shown loves him is going to carve him with a knife.
Are his visions real or are they due to the mental illness his mother suffered from? Curtis’ mother left him and his brother in a car when he was ten and was later found scavenging for food in a garbage dump in another state. She was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and is now living in assisted accommodation. Curtis is worried the same thing might happen to him and it’s shattering his nerves because, in the light of his past, his vow and lodestar has been to never abandon his own family.
Is he going crazy? The film renders the ambiguous relation of his visions to reality beautifully through use of point-of-view and almost biblical imagery of the apocalypse: birds dying, clouds gathering, strong winds gathering force, storms approaching. But is it really all in his mind? The agony of Michael Shannon’s face as he ponders this question, and of Chastain’s looks at Shannon whilst he undergoes doubt, are very evocative and seem immediately understandable. But these scenes also lend themselves to different interpretations and thus different answers to the question. It’s a richly textured film.
The ending is a weakness; it makes some of the earlier plot befuddling. The film might have been truly great had it had the strength of its convictions and remained a study of schizophrenia rather than end up on the edges of a sci-fi apocalypse; it raises many interesting questions but perhaps need not have raised so many or at least provided more answers to at least some.
Taking Shelter nonetheless reveals a director with insight into the relations amongst men and between men and women; and one with a great feel for small-town life, for character interiority and for poetic imagery. I found it touching and beautiful.
Kiera Knightley and Sam Worthington play a well-to-do couple tempted into adultery. She’s a journalist. He works for a property company. His rival is Gullaume Canet, a writer. Eva Mendes is the alluring femme fatale who does indeed lure. The film aims for maturity and complexity but fails and feels rather inept. Worthington is charmless. Knightley is almost good but not quite. The film seems prudish both in what it shows physically and what it depicts psychologically and verges on the dishonest. It doesn’t look good enough either and Mendes and Knightley are sometimes shot in what seem to be their worst angles: Mendes with a bottom-heavy face, all round cheeks; and Knightley with an almost masculine, heavily delineated jaw-bone. Last Night aims for louche glamour but just feels a bit cheap.
The dullest Tim Burton film I can remember. It is visually handsome but it didn’t seem as sumptuously textured as most of his others films (Edward Scissorhands, his Batman films); it looks expensive but doesn’t feel it; maybe the projection, or the use of digital, or the new type of effects works against the warmly expensive glow a big-budget production usually suffuses an audience with. You know this cost a fortune but it feels cheap: a creaky adaptation of a not-too-well remembered TV show. It’s interesting in that it somehow seems to signal that the knowing ironic distance that has passed for a kind of charm in America since the 1980s might in itself now be retro. It certainly isn’t enough. The cast is wonderful and provides what pleasure there is to be found. Helena Bonham-Carter and a delicious Eva Green steal the show right from under Johnny Depp’s fangs.
The Purge is a B-movie in conception and execution but, as is often the case with B-movies, it is also a timely and entertaining commentary on present-day America.
The film is set in 2022. The economy is booming, unemployment is barely 1% and America seems to have recovered from the violence and unrest of its recent past (i.e. our present). Why is that? Well because once a year Americans are legally allowed to go and kill anyone they feel like for a 12-hour period. This ‘purge’ is seen as a patriotic duty as it gets rid of all the criminals, all who are seen as ‘detritus’ (here black, poor, homeless) and simply anyone who is hated (which could include pretty much everyone, even in, or especially in, a gated community).
This purge is believed to flush out all bad people as well as all bad feeling leading to both social and psychological well being for the rest of the 364 days. Households are allowed to protect themselves against those who want them purged from this world of course…but that takes money. Thus at the heart of this seemingly banal sci-fi horror is a scathing critique of race and class in contemporary America. It’s been released under the title of American Nightmare (not Le cauchemar Américain).
The film is rather wonderful at inverting some of the conventions of the genre (What happens to nubile young girls who do naughty things? What’s the cost to the hero of protecting his family?), at re-attributing symbols (what it does here with the Occupy movement masks) and at indicating how close the language of politics, society, identity and community in America now is to that depicted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The Purge is also excellent at communicating a sense of social hatred for the poor, for the failures, for the different or simply for those that have what you want.
The Purge cops out at the end (it wants to do the moral thing but also keep the diamond rings), its analysis and critique are a bit muddled and it is perhaps not as scary as it should be. I note that some message boards find the premise unbelievable because they can’t imagine emergency services not running for 12-hours (though welcome to most of the rest of the world friends!) or, as the film rather underlines, because of the psychological, social and economic cost of those 12-hours of purge.
If you allow yourself to buy into the film’s premise, however, you’ll find that the film moves well; that Ethan Hawke is rather wonderful as an ordinary, slightly put-upon middle-class father; that he makes a good couple with Lena Hedley (best known for her Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); that Rhys Wakefield is a superbly chilling villain and that the film is enjoyably scary whilst leaving you with a thing or two to think about.
It sometimes feels cinema today is making the world a muddier, greyer place. That may be why animated films rule the box-office: they’re bright, colourful; they create and convey a world of romance, action and adventure, a cheerful one. All the romance, action and adventure in most other types of cinema take place in a world made grey or yellow/brown by digital. It’s all the colour of steel and smog. This is part of the problem with Total Recall. It has fantastic sets; when you look closely you see how marvelously designed they all are …but they’re so grey and unattractive; and as the original Total Recall from 1990 showed, the depiction of dystopia can go together with a more cheerful colour palette and pleasing design, at least for the world above-ground. Also, the action here doesn’t quite work. Each individual shot is fine but the architecture of a scene seems arbitrary. One doesn’t know who’s shooting whom and why; or why one has to shoot someone at all; or where one has to go to in order to escape being shot. One ends up simply not caring. Everyone (Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston) is ok in it but no one is really good and there are no audience moments, like the jokes we got in the original; the Paul Verhoeven version included the audience in on the joke and gave them something else (it’s like an existential quest within a cartoon; between Arnie socking people it’s not afraid to ask what is being? what is a person? who am I? how do I know? – it’s a great movie). Here, one asks why was this movie made? Who was it made for? Why am I bothering with it? There was almost no reaction from the audience to any of it.
The story is still enthralling and affecting but David Lean’s 1946 film with John Mills, Jean Simmons and Martita Hunt remains the cinematic benchmark. This version renders the Gothic dimension of the story well and it’s visually interesting. However, director Mike Newell has no feel for melodrama. His version of Dickensian London is all grimness; the delights of the era are shown to us as merely gross, excessive, and yet somehow not up to current standards. As is to now to be expected, the cast is stellar (Helena Bonham-Carter, Ralph Fiennes Jason Flemyng amongst many others); and it’s wonderful to see this bunch of actors tackling classic roles — all do well with the exception of Helena Bonham-Carter: asking her to do Gothic is like asking Carmen Miranda to put a little more oomph in her cha cha. Her Miss Havesham is a camp caricature and her failure in that part becomes the film’s; for if one can’t understand, empathise and feel something for Miss Havesham at the end, the drama loses an important dimension (though Ralph Fienne’s Magwitch somewhat compensates). Robbie Coltrane, however, is absolutely great — the very best Mr. Jaggers I’ve ever seen; so good that his cool pragmatic heartlessness comes to dominate our memory of the film and is thus also emblematic of how and why it fails. A cool, academic, rather heartless exercise.
A vampire movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill, doesn’t arouse and isn’t romantic cannot be counted a success. And yet, I feel I wouldn’t mind seeing Byzantium again. First of all, there’s a really interesting and attractive cast that brings something quirky and off-center to the material: the preternatural stillness of Saoirse Ronan, the way Jonny Lee Miller can turn his face to a profile shot and all of a sudden go from syphilitic middle-aged man to everyone’s idea of a cruelly sadistic ‘Mills and Boon’ archetype, or the way Gemma Arterton’s cheekbones and accent permit her to get away with a line like ‘let’s kiss in celebration of my wickedness’; or simply the sound of Sam Riley’s voice. And those are just the leads: there’s also Daniel Mays and Thure Lindhart and Caleb Landry Jones; all doing rare and interesting things with their body language and line-readings. The acting in the film is a fascinating ‘Experiment in Performing Gothic Now’. Lots of risks are taken and not all of them pay off but it’s riveting.
The film depicts a once grand, now seedy, seaside town in the Regency period and in the present, above and below ground. It also comments on the roles of men and women; then and now; in daytime and at night; in the seaside, in the town, and beyond; when they’re got souls and when they haven’t. Women then and now are shown to be at the mercy of men. We see them soliciting under the docks or fucked to exhaustion on billiard tables; we see them in Jane Austen gowns and in fuck me pumps; We see them giving birth in dirty beds or being born in streaming waterfalls, and it is significant that both types of birth are bathed in blood. Everything is shown at an oblique angle, through skylights or through the bars of windows and lifts, partially and at odd angles, that shows us intensely and richly coloured areas of a world obscured in darkness, and blurred by motion. Visually, the film dazzles and earns its name: it’s deeply coloured, there’s an orientalism to its conception (as there is to Dracula’s), and one is only shown things partly, tangentially, obliquely because they’re mysterious, unknown and perhaps unknowable.
The film is tautly structured as a process of revelation. Two women: one a whore, the other a prissy young girl who was bred for other things; one an angel bent on vengeance, the other an angel of mercy; one who wants to keep her secrets, the other who wants to write hers out. One a mother, the other a daughter; both raped by the same man: both chased by an order which wants to deny women the right of giving life. Moira Buffini’s screenplay, based on her play, is really a model of structure. Two thirds of the way through, the film seems to run out of steam, as if the marvelously structured screenplay and its dazzling telling, seemingly perfectly aligned initially, had each leapt into different and discordant dimensions.
The film directly references Hammer films but is too serious to offer the same pleasures (though it does have Arterton glorying in a waterfall of blood, an image worthy of any Hammer Horror). But the film’s very seriousness, which in some ways is a shortcoming, is also what makes it rich. Byzantium is a quasi feminist film that has very interesting and evocative things to say not only about gender politics but also about loneliness which is perhaps its central theme. You can see why the director of Mona Lisa (1986) and Interview with the Vampire(1994) would be drawn to this material and why he succeeds in extracting so much depth and beauty from it. Byzantium doesn’t quite work but it’s richer and more interesting, visually and thematically, than other films that on the surface seem to work better.
The chase sequences in Fast and Furious 6 weren’t good enough to warrant hearing Vin Diesel’s voice and I walked out. But that wasn’t the only reason. The film seems to be an index of all that’s wrong with America at the moment and it made me wonder if Americans realize what their country looks like when films like this circulate in the rest of the world: it’s an ugliness not on only of sights and sounds but of culture, thought and spirit. If anyone involved with this film has any concept of shame, I hope they’re feeling its sting.
If you like Almodóvar circa Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the ‘Think Pink’ number in Funny Face, 1950s clothes, cha-cha music, the look of Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movies, or ironic romances laced with a dash of camp, you’re likely to find Populaire charming .
It’s a relief to see a pretty romantic comedy that doesn’t assume its audience is moronic. However, this is a film where the heroine’s idea of romance and adventure is to simply find Mr. Right; so the sexual politics of the film can at times seem as retro as its chic. It might be best to approach Populaire with the same amused, affectionate and ironic sense of wonder with which the film itself presents its characters and its world.
That said, Populaire is a sustained achievement in that most difficult of elements to get right – tone: light, buoyant, gurgling with glamour but morally girdled. The effect is as if Samantha from Bewitched had twinkled her little nose at Don Draper, squeezed all the sourness out of him, and found him a princess who could type.
Romain Duris and Déborah François play the couple as if the only thing blocking their waft towards a billowy nest of love is their (gentle) butting of heads. The typing contest, filmed like a gunfight at the ok corral if the ok corral were a gleaming art deco hall, is a joy. The whole lovely confection is directed with great precision and crack timing by Régis Roinsard.