What more could we possibly learn about hitmen? It’s a profession egregiously over-represented on the big screen, considering its microscopic per capita employment level. And it’s a job that most movies, from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to Pulp Fiction to In Bruges, mine for excitement, with the hitman himself as the embodiment of cool. Rarely does the portrayal of paid killers onscreen offer much resembling critical perspective.
That’s what makes Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman so exciting. It actually does offer up perspective, a moral point of view. The Israeli-born director's third feature stars Michael Shannon as the real-life Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer who murdered over 100 people from 1964-1986. At first glance, it may feel like Breaking Bad — the story of an ordinary schlub with a particular set of skills who enters into a criminal enterprise to provide for his family. But unlike Breaking Bad, which has it both ways by encouraging our cathartic identification with Walter White while half-heartedly condemning his crimes (hence why people like Walter more than suffering wife Skyler), The Iceman neither glamorizes nor identifies with its subject. One horrifying moment when Kuklinski’s partner in crime (Chris Evans) suggests that they kill each other’s families, as the cops are closing in, shows how down and dirty, uncool and unfunny, how thoroughly banal both these guys, Kuklinski included, really are. The Iceman is a slightly detached, clinical case-study of pathology, with Michael Shannon’s Kuklinski as its stone-faced test subject.
If it wasn’t already clear that Shannon is one of the finest actors on the planet, based on his towering perforamnces in Revolutionary Road, Shotgun Stories, and Take Shelter, The Iceman will unfog your glasses. Vromen’s film is Shannon’s De Niro-in-Raging Bull moment. He and his director have found a way to translate a true-crime story into a deconstruction of masculinity. The reptilian, tough-guy reserve Kuklinski projects to be taken seriously as a manly man to his wife (Winona Ryder), daughters, and friends — the emotional constipation that’s transformed his face into a craggy mask — aligns perfectly with the job requirements of being a killer: stereotypical masculine gender identity revealed to be akin to sociopathy and conducive to criminality. The most terrifying scene from any movie this year occurs when Kuklinski, in a fit of road rage, chases at high speed after a rude motorist who insulted his wife and daughters….while his wife and daughters are screaming terrified in the car. He’s defending their honor at the same time he’s recklessly endangering them.
Unfortunately, not much else surrounding Shannon in The Iceman is on par with Raging Bull. Instead of Joe Pesci, we have David Schwimmer as a mustachioed thug. Dispiritingly, Ray Liotta, as Kuklinski’s mobster employer, has decided these days to play only one kind of clench-jawed heavy from film-to-film. And Vromen has an affinity for the brown, tan, and orange hues in fashion and interior design of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but doesn’t find any way less clichéd to convey the passage of time than to continually alter Shannon’s facial hair or show the progression of the then still-under-construction World Trade Center towers.
Robert Davi as a pock-marked Don is arrestingly ruthless, however. James Franco leaves an impact as a pornographer Kuklinski forces to pray for deliverance from God, right before killing him. And Winona Ryder, soft, sincere, and incredibly vulnerable has given us her best performance in years. Her beautiful fragility opposite Shannon’s unwavering stolidness is what reveals Vromen’s ambition here to be a damning critique of gender roles and how, to some degree, we all perform them.
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The Amazing Spider-Man would prefer if you didn't call it the fourth Spider-Man movie. See this ain't the Spider-Man your older brother knew from ten years ago — it's a reboot. The latest adventure to feature the comic book webslinger throws three movies worth of established mythology straight out the window swapping the original cast with an ensemble of fresh faces and resetting the franchise with a spiffy new origin story. "New" in the loosest sense of the word — the highlights of ASM mainly a sleek new design and spunky reinterpretation of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and gal pal Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) are weighed down by overpowering sense of familiarity. Nearly a beat for beat replica of the 2002 original with some irksome twists of mystery thrown in Amazing Spider-Man fails to evolve its hero or his quarrels. The film has a great sense of cinematic power but little responsibility in making it interesting.
We're first introduced to Peter Parker as a young boy watching as his parents rush out of the house in response to a hidden danger. Mr. and Mrs. Parker leave their son in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Fields) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) who raise him into Andrew Garfield's geeky cool spin on the character. Parker's a science whiz but faces the challenges of every day life — passing classes talking to girls the occasional jock with aggression issues — but all of life's woes are put on hold when the teen discovers a new clue in the mystery behind his parents' disappearance. The discovery of his dad's old briefcase and notes leads Peter to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a scientist working for mega-conglomerate Oscorp and his Dad's old partner. When they cross paths Connors instantly takes a liking to the wunderkind and loops him into the work he started with his father: replicating the regeneration abilities of lizards in amputee humans (Connors is driven to reform his own missing arm). But when Parker wanders into Oscorp's room full of spiders (a sloppily explained this-needs-to-be-here-for-this-to-happen device) he receives his legendary spider bite that transforms him into the hero we know.
Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) desperately wants Amazing Spider-Man to work as a high school relationship movie but with the burden of massive amounts of plot and mythology to introduce the movie sags under the sheer volume of stuff. Stone turns Parker's object of affection Gwen Stacey into a three-dimensional character. Whenever they happen upon each other an awkward exchange in the hallway a flirtatious back-and-forth in the Oscorp lab (where Stacey is head…intern) or when the two finally begin a romantic relationship the two stars shine. They're vivid characters chopped to bits in the editing room diluted by boring franchise-building plot threads and routine action sequences. Seriously Amazing Spider-Man another mad scientist villain who uses himself as a test subject only to become a monster? And another bridge rescue scene? Amazing Spider-Man desperately wants to disconnect from the original trilogy but it's trapped in an inescapable shadow and does nothing radical to shake things up. Instead it settles for the same old same old while preparing for inevitable sequels instead of investing in its dynamic duo.
There's a sweet spot where the film really hits his stride. After discovering his spider-abilities Peter hits the streets for the first time. He's superhuman but still a headstrong teen full of obnoxious quips and close calls with shiv-wielding thugs. The action is slick small and playful Webb showing us something new by melding his indie sensibilities with big scale action. If only it lasted — the introduction of Ifans reptilian half The Lizard implodes Amazing Spider-Man into incomprehensible blockbuster chaos. A gargantuan beast wreaking havoc around New York City promises King Kong-like escapades for the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man but the lizard man has other plans: to rule the world! Or something. Whatever it takes to get Lizard and Spider-Man fighting on the top of a skyscraper over a doomsday machine — logic be damned.
Amazing Spider-Man peppers its banal foundation with great talent from Denis Leary as Gwen's wickedly funny dad and the police captain hunting down Spider-Man to Fields and Sheen as two loving adults in Peter's life to Garfield and Stone whose chemistry demands a follow-up for the sake of seeing them reunited. But it's all at the cost of putting on the most expensive recreation of all time with new demands imposed by the success Marvel's other properties (except that franchise teasing worked). Amazing Spider-Man introduces too many ideas that go nowhere undermining the actual threat at hand. No one wants to be unfulfilled but that's the overriding difference between the original movie and the update. You need to pay for the sequel to know what the heck is going on in this one.
Stop us if you think you’ve heard this one before: Alex Stillman (Bret Harrison) is a college kid who shows a real talent for poker. He is discovered by legendary player Tommy Vinson (Burt Reynolds) who at the insistence of his wife (Maria Mason) retired from the game 20 years earlier but sees a younger version of himself in Alex and offers to train him for some major tournaments. Although their meeting of minds seems initially promising the whole thing falls apart when Alex starts a brief fling with a girl (Shannon Elizabeth) he later finds out is a prostitute Tommy paid off to keep the kid happy. The two are eventually reunited in a different way when Tommy decides to make a comeback on his own and ends up competing against his protégée in a televised tournament worth $8 million to the eventual winner. Although Reynolds has top billing on the end credits marketing materials list Bret Harrison in first position above Burt in the hope that the bland TV star (Reaper Grounded For Life etc.) can draw his young fans. NO one is likely to turn out for this mis-guided Color of Money wannabe. That 1986 film had a different game (pool) and an identical plotline but it also had Tom Cruise Paul Newman in an Oscar winning role and direction by Martin Scorsese. Here you have Reynolds and Harrison sleepwalking through the banal dialogue and pedestrian situations. Reynolds’ toupee shows more interest than he does! And Harrison is thoroughly unconvincing as a guy we are meant to believe can jump right from college to the very top of the poker world in no time flat. Elizabeth actually makes the strongest impression in the film but she has an underwritten part and three scenes. Mason has the thankless role of Reynolds’ long-suffering wife while Charles Durning and Jennifer Tilly can probably find most of their almost non-existent roles on a cutting room floor somewhere. Director Gil Cates Jr. does no favors for his own screenplay (co-written with Mark Weinstock) with static unimaginative shots and coverage of the numerous poker games so sloppy that he makes Lucky You look like a masterpiece. The performances all clearly suffer from his by-the-numbers direction as well. To be fair it is extremely difficult to make card games compelling to watch on screen but most of his shots look like he just set the camera up in one position called ‘Action’ and went out for a smoke. He should have rented Steve McQueen’s 1965 poker classic The Cincinnati Kid to see how a real director (Norman Jewison) could make this stuff visually interesting. Cates is the son of the veteran producer who runs the Oscar show. On the basis of Deal at least Cates Sr. won’t have to worry about finding seats for his son at next year’s ceremony.
Jonathan and Sara meet when they reach for the same pair of black cashmere gloves in a crowded Manhattan department store five days before Christmas. After pleading their respective cases for who should rightfully get the gloves Jonathan concedes. Sara buys him a coffee at a bakery called Serendipity to thank him and the two hit it off but--alas--both are seeing other people. Sara a firm believer in fate jots her name and telephone number down in a book and says she will sell it to a used bookstore the following day. If she and Jonathan are destined to be together she rationalizes the book will find its way him. Fast forward the story into the future: Sara and Jonathan have spent the passing years pining away for each other the memory of that magical night etched on their memories. Audiences meanwhile can fast forward to 85 minutes of the couple's efforts to find each other again.
The actors save Serendipity from its banal off-the-rack plot. John Cusack plays Jonathan with enough conviction to make his character's search for his soul mate less idiotic than it actually is. The same can be said for Kate Beckinsale who proves she has the stuff to play a romantic lead. Jeremy Piven is a wonderful actor and provides us with some of the best laughs in the movie as Jonathan's best friend Dean an obituary writer for the New York Times who spends a little too much time quoting from the Greeks. Molly Shannon's physical brand of comedy might be a bit much for the role of Sara's pessimistic and disapproving best friend Eve; like Shannon's Saturday Night Live character Mary Katherine Gallagher klutzy Eve is forever getting knocked around--though here the culprit tends to be sports paraphernalia. Eugene Levy has a small but hysterical part as a department store clerk fully mastering the comportment of a stressed out salesman.
Because this is at heart a highly formulaic romantic comedy everyone knows Jonathan and Sara will end up together despite the fact that circumstances conspire to keep them apart. They always seem to just miss each other after being separated by a passing bus or some other coincidence. Everyone knows that the Jonathan and Sarah's current partners are completely wrong for them. Thankfully director Peter Chelsom assembled a cast with enough talent in the genre to pull it off. Between syrupy candlelit scenes and rose petal wedding proposals audiences will hear some really funny and well-delivered dialogue. But the film never strays from its boring story line and inevitable conclusion and ends up being just another Sleepless in Seattle. Chelsom instead wastes a talented cast on a lame script and churns out another love-conquers-all movie.