Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mob City

I like Frank Darabont, perhaps not as much as some do, (The Shawshank Redemption is great, but it's no Cool Hand Luke) but he's a talented guy that always makes a good looking, professional product. (And I love his ending for "The Mist") It's a shame that his latest venture "Mob City" is colored as him having something to prove after the fall out from "The Walking Dead." How anyone could compare the two shows is beyond me, as they couldn't be more different. If anything, that huge difference is only a tribute to his range.

It's news to no one, that zombies are popular right now and Darabont brought the Walking Dead to life at a perfect time to tap TV watchers' fascination. Since then the vision has changed hands many times, and from all appearances it'll just keep going until there's a spin off for every living character. It's all in the premise, it's set to go on and on until everyone is sick of it, and then probably another couple years. Darabont may well count himself lucky one day, that he got to exit before we've all had way too much of it. As far as I'm concerned, if Darabont had something to prove, he did it very well both times, bringing the Walking Dead to life, and now with Mob City.

"Mob City" is a closed story, caught at a very specific point in the past, 1940's L.A., in the days of Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, a hopelessly corrupt police force and Chief William Parker's attempts to clean things up. Once Siegel, Cohen and Parker are gone, so is the story. I think this kind of story can bring out the best in a director and it does here, giving a framework, and certain character sketches, but also enough room for invention within. The invented characters like Joe Teague and Sid Rothman give an easy access point to the story. While they may not be exactly true to facts, they're certainly based on guys who would have been around. The fact that they haven't been written about however, gives them the freedom to do anything including complicate their lives, as long as they don't alter the facts we know.

And, there are plenty of stories inside that time frame. Darabont chooses the viewpoint of bit player, Detective Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal) a guy involved in the battle between Chief Parker (Neal McDonogh) and Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) only because Siegel is the Department's main business. Teague is mostly a good cop who came back from the war as damaged goods. He served with Bugsy's current fixer Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia) who he still talks to now and then, which turns out to be both a good and bad thing, when he agrees to take a side job as intimidation for a lousy comedian who has an idea to make some money from Bugsy. If you've ever seen a noir story in your life, you'll know that this simple idea goes off the rails pretty quick, which leaves us with the interesting parts, the "how," "why," and "then what?"

We've seen most of these characters before, but not exactly like this. They're based on stock cop/ gangster characters but they take on their own dimensions. Teague, by strict definition could be seen as a dirty cop, and we're shown that being a dirty cop at this point in time is the norm. But in "Mob City" the reasons matter. Teague is a dirty cop that will do Siegel a favor if it serves his own interest, but he won't pretend he did it for Siegel. He won't take a pay off for doing so, regardless of the consequence. Bernthal gets the character just right, and his Teague is a worthy addition to the L.A. lore. He gets the stoic loner who doesn't play well with others down perfectly, a wild card, but more competent and informed than you might think.

Period gangster pieces always struggle to find a huge audience. Consider the fact that L.A. Confidential, the contemporary masterpiece of L.A. period gangster films didn't even make back twice its budget. 1991's "Bugsy" ended up in the same boat. "Gangster Squad," the most recent all star attempt still hasn't made its budget back. There's a devoted audience for these stories, but they're clearly not for everyone. Perhaps that's as it should be, the important thing is that they succeed in satisfying the audience they're made for, and Darabont does that incredibly well, giving us an authentic looking update of the noir story, which, in 1940's L.A. is a shadow cast from a bright orange shape. This is Hollywood Noir, make no mistake, and it looks fantastic to showcase the rot underneath. Inspired by John Buntin's "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City" it informs itself with the facts as a framework and then asks if we really know the whole story.

Simon Pegg not a TV regular, does a surprising turn here as Hecky Nash, a desperate comic who gets events rolling by making a bad choice. As loathsome as Nash is, Pegg makes him distinctive, and we don't wonder why Bugsy Siegel stopped hanging around with him when they grew up. I was surprised at how good Edward Burns was as Bugsy Siegel, as it's not a role I would ever expect from him. The unexpectedness makes him stand out, but in a way that only helps the character, he comes across as a complete wild card too, too hotheaded to know or care that he's in trouble.

Milo Ventmiglia's Ned Stax helps us ease into this world as the welcoming face of the organization, always calm and collected, but he can't help it if you don't listen to him. He reinforces the focus on the smaller players as being pivotal to events. His ties with Joe Teague, and his understanding of Teague's motives place him in a precarious position. It's obvious there is a real loyalty and friendship between the two, but much like Bugsy, Teague is not into advice, giving Stax the real rock and a hard place predicament.

Robert Knepper plays Sid Rothman, Cohen's muscle and the most direct foil to Joe Teague. He's very clearly a sociopath that loves the whole cops and robbers game. Rather than mindless thug, he always makes the smart play. He'll kill you without hesitation, but not if it doesn't serve his interests. If it makes more sense, he'll just kill you later. Alexa Davalos plays Jasmine Fontaine, the complicated and mysterious love interest that can't help but cause trouble for everyone concerned. Neal McDonough is somewhat underused, but he portrays the cop that won't be corrupted quite well, with as many enemies in the department as he has among the gangsters. I only hope they make more of these as Parker's future seemed to be shaping up in interesting ways. An of course, Jeremy Luke's Mickey Cohen was also great, not as flashy as Bugsy, but not afraid to get his hands dirty either, like Parker another character who is well set up for the future.

With six hours to tell the story "Mob City" managed to keep me interested the whole time, making it feel more like an event than a series. While some may have trouble with the initial pacing, I enjoyed having the time to take in all the details of this Los Angeles, it's police force and underworld. It was also interesting to note the beginnings of many events that would only pay off much later, like Siegel's quest to make Las Vegas the biggest thing around while his bosses' enthusiasm waned when the money went more out than in. Knowing what happened doesn't make the story any less compelling, instead it fills in some blanks, and enjoys working with some mysteries of the time.

Mob City stretches the limits of what's possible on TV, and having six episodes in three weeks made it feel as close to cinematic as possible. I'm hoping they come up with more, but whether they do or not, it's encouraging that a project like this could come out in the first place. This is a top notch cast, with amazing attention to period detail, from the sets and clothes to the speech patterns. The quality of the production is astounding for television. It may not make everyone happy, but it's a triumph nonetheless. Anyone who loves noir stories as much as Darabont apparently does, will have a lot to be happy about.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Iceman

Based on an account of the real life of Richard Kuklinski, "The Iceman" attempts to portray what real life might be like for a professional killer. While  a lot of "based on a true story" films sensationalize their subjects, "The Iceman" takes the opposite approach, leaving much of the sensational out in order to maintain some focus. The real Kuklinski was killing people from the 60's into the '80's and while the dates may all be presented in the film, the condensing makes his career feel much shorter than it was. Director Ariel Vromen also chose not to focus on different aspects of his career, instead presenting his adopting a new career under the employ of Mob figure Roy Demeo and the fall out from Kuklinski going independent which ends up severing that employment. Some rather famous jobs (reputed anyway) are not mentioned, such as his possible involvement in the murder of Jimmy Hoffa. More strangely, Vromen omits Kuklinski's rumored killing of Roy Demeo, which would certainly fit in the film very well. Perhaps he didn't want Kuklinski's story to appear as a revenge film, preferring to focus on the conflict in Kuklinski's character. It's hard to say but I was left wanting more of the details.

However, the focus on Kuklinski itself works wonderfully, and Michael Shannon makes the character seem very real. Shannon is the perfect choice for this man of few words, who doesn't seem bothered by anything, at least until he gets angry, at which point he's almost uncontrollable. At the beginning of the film, we see Kuklinski murdering a guy outside a pool hall for mouthing off about his girlfriend, this serves to tell us that Kuklinski was killing people before he did it for a living. It doesn't get across the length of his amateur career as Kuklinski spent a long time murdering for nothing, seeing it as research or a skill to perfect. But, taken as representative, the scene works fine, showing us that here is a guy who isn't in the least bothered by the thought of murder. At that time, he works dubbing porno films, an enterprise connected to the mob, as we see when Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) pays him a visit, unhappy about a snag in production. Demeo soon shuts down the porno dubbing operation and puts Kuklinski to work as a hit man. He initiates Kuklinski by having him kill a random homeless man on the street while Demeo waits in the car.

Demeo's job offer is inspired by  Kuklinski seeming unfazed as Demeo is holding a gun to his head. This prompts the mobster to describe him as "ice cold" When Kuklinski tells Demeo that he's married, Demeo wonders "Then how come you act like you don't give a fuck?"  This sums up the contradiction, which is the focus of the film, Kuklinski's attempt to be a family man and a contract killer and the difficulty making those worlds work together.

As Kuklinski doesn't have much interest in talking about his inner angst, we get glimpses ofthe events that have shaped him from his behavior. Of particular interest is a scene with Kuklinski visiting his incarcerated brother, Joey Kuklinski (Stephen Dorff) who calls Richard and gets an unhappy visit. Joey is in prison for murdering a little girl. The two share memories of their abusive father, but Richard makes it clear that he's not welcome to be an uncle to the family, as he would rather not acknowledge his brother's existence at all. Joey reminds Richard that he is from the same stock however, and laughs that he thinks he's different. He doesn't believe Richard can be a family man and recounts a few of Richard's youthful acts of depravity.

We also see in one of his hits that Richard Kuklinski doesn't want to hurt women or children, perhaps an attempt to distance himself from his brother and his heritage. This guideline sets him up for some problems, and the job he's on gives him his first contract with another contract killer, Robert Pronge or "Mr . Freezy" (Chris Evans) who was given the same hit by Roy Demeo.  Mr. Freezy sees Kuklinski leaving the scene of the killing and notices a young girl who witnessed it, leaving at Richard's urging. Mr. Freezy attempts to run her over while Kuklinski insists that he stops, finally shooting out a window to force the point. Mr. Freezy agrees, although he goes back for her later and keeps her frozen in his ice cream truck along with the ice cream he sells the local kids. Demeo isn't happy about the girl however, and puts Kuklinski on leave despite Richard's protests that he's good at what he does.

Demeo's actions are in part due to concerns placed on him by the Gambino family representative Leonard Marks (Robert Davi), who is upset that Demeo's good friend Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) killed a couple of connected drug suppliers in order to keep their product without paying for it. Demeo is held responsible because Rosenthal presents himself to everyone as a Demeo to boost his self importance. This pressure comes becomes increasing paraoia (although perhaps justified) which makes him hesitant to tolerate any risk at all, including witnesses, thus leading to Kuklinski's suspension.

The time off starts making Kuklinski tense and causes stress at home, prompting him to approach Mr. Freezy about a partnership.Unlike Kuklinski who is exclusive to Demeo, Freezy is a freelancer working for many different clients. Mr. Freezy agrees to set up the jobs, while Kuklinski performs them and they split the profits 50/50. Kuklinski picks up a few things from Mr. Freezy including the use of cyanides and other poisons in order to make hits appear to be deaths from natural causes. He also learns to freeze victims bodies in order to obscure time of death and make it more difficult for investigators. Their partnership runs well for a time, until a friend of Kuklinski's recognizes him as he's escaping from a hit in a busy club. His friend heard from another friend that Kuklinski is connected to Demeo, and asks Richard to get him some work. Although uncomfortable with this information being known, Kuklinski agrees. Hi friend then happens to run into Demeo and drops Kuklinski's name. This leads to Demeo making a threatening visit to Kuklinski's house during his daughter's birthday party. Demeo severs their relationship angry at the name dropping and at Kuklinski's freelance work.

Kuklinski arranges to meet with his friend and kills him rather than get him a job. He then has a problem collecting on his latest job from Leonard Marks who considers it botched. When Marks mentions Kuklinski's family, Kuklinski shoots him dead. He then hears that his daughter was in a hit and run accident which his wife insists was intentional. He suspects Mr. Freezy, when Freezy proposes they kill each others families and reveals he knows Kuklinski's address. To satisy his suspicion he shoots Freezy dead as well. From there it seems a short step to Kuklinski's downfall and when he agrees to a hit for an undercover cop he's quickly apprehended with his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) in the car, oblivious to what's happening.

Ryder's performance is also terrific in the film, although her character is a shallow one. For the most part she plays happy housewife, insisting from time to time that Richard share his problems with her, prompting furious outbursts which frighten her but leave her physically unharmed. This is another interesting choice from Vromen as accounts indicate that Kuklinsi's temper didn't prevent him from savagely beating his wife. (She never equated this with him being a contract killer, just an abusive husband) In this film, the only danger within Kuklinski's family unit was the thought that one day his temper might go too far. I suspect that Vromen left out the marital abuse fearing that this would compromise the family man/ contract killer contrast that was indicated in all the marketing for the film. It could also make the lead character completely unsympathetic, which, outside the family behavior in mind, wouldn't take all that much. Kuklinski's wife is for the most part proud of him, accepting his story that he works in finance. She's not looking to question anything, just to enjoy the rewards of his pay, which he encourages her to do. Even when things start getting dangerous at home, it's easily explained that he did business with some shady characters. Ryder makes the family element work. Her look of realization when a friend tells her that a wife can question her husband when things are going badly, gives us a good look at her. She wants to believe that he has everything under control.

The performances in this film are enough to make sure that a fan of crime films doesn't waste his time. As I mentioned, Shannon is perfect for the role projecting enough menace and devotion to family in turn that what happens to him is interesting even though it's not easy to relate to him. The idea of Kuklinski trying to be something more than he is, but only on a part time basis, is a compelling one, and it would be even more so if the film captured the sweep of his career, rather than watching the downfall of a guy who's just out of his first steady job. Shannon does a great job playing a haunted man, struggling with both sides of his life. In the end he seems shocked that he couldn't make it work, as if it never occurred to him that he could be stopped.

"The Iceman" also has a fantastic supporting cast. It's always wonderful to see Ray Liotta acting in his wheelhouse. His presence here is strong, and few are as effective as he is with the minimal screen time that he has. He's in fine form here. The only downside is that his presence can't help but recall "Goodfellas" clearly an influence here. This made me want a little something more from the film, but Vromen did a fine job with the time period details and the overall mood, making the comparison not entirely wasted. But, witnessing Demeo, we want more of his story. And based on the real life possibility that Kuklinski killed him the omission seems strange, as anyone who's watched a few crime films would assume that's where the film was headed all along. David Schwimmer has a puzzling amount of screen time and does a fine job of what he has, but I feel like he should have had either less or more time on screen, as his one major scene seems to imply directions in the story that we never reach.

Chris Evans is very satisfying as Mr. Freezy., a more professional killer than Kuklinski and from this film we would conclude, more practiced. The two partners have interesting chemistry and it's perhaps more frightening to think of the affable Mr. Freezy selling ice cream to kids, and on the other hand calmly suggesting that Kuklinski murder his family. His cheeriness suggests that he's not conflicted about what he is. He's one character in the film that I thought had just the right amount of screen time. He feels significant and his presence develops the story, adding his own touch besides.

All in all, I'd call "The Iceman" a good film, although not a great one. There are great ideas and great performances, but it pales next to movies like "Goodfellas," or even other hitman movies like "Le Samourai," or the more recent "The American." It seems to me that it's a film made to entertain two crowds, dedicated crime film lovers, who might enjoy the interesting twist on the hit man role, and casual watchers who want the Cliff Notes. While it entertains, I doubt it will fully satisfy either one. Its problem is that it's good enough to make you want it to be a little better. There are hints of what it could be throughout, such as Kuklinski telling his daughter that despite what the nuns who teach her at school say, God has nothing to do with Vietnam, followed by a scene where he tells an intended victim he'll give him a little time to pray for God to stop the hit from happening. (it doesn't work.)

The real Kuklinski had a long enough career and there's enough written about him that he could easily support an epic film. Of course, an epic film about a contract killer who started out as a serial killer and was free to kill people for many years might understandably be too heavy for most viewers. We debate over nature/nurture, but how much do we really want to think about the question? Here's a guy who was used by a psychiatrist as an example of the worst of both factors. I can see why such a film might not make any money, but there is a definite preoccupation with killers as evidenced by the successful series of Hannibal Lecter movies (and direct to DVD films about every serial killer.) A figure like Kuklinski could be a serious look at what's broken in some people and could ask some great questions. As it is, it's more of a sketch than a detailed portrait, which doesn't diminish what Michael Shannon does.

In Kuklinski we have a character, like most human predators who started out as a victim. We see that here but only as a glimpse, the same way we see his career. Of course, if "The Iceman" aimed to be the epic, it would likely be difficult to view the family man at all seriously, as we'd have to admit that his darkness was fully entrenched in the family side as well. It's also interesting that Vromen doesn't mention that the real Kuklinski ended up in prison next to the same brother that he had earlier tried to ignore, as that would make a strong statement. I get the sense that Vromen was committed more to a certain character and dynamic than a firm message though. The character is not Kuklinski, but Vromen's version as superbly portrayed by Michael Shannon, which in Vromen's defense, might be plenty dark enough for many audiences, and is certainly something worth watching. If you want more of the true story, there's always HBO's "The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer" "The Iceman" is a success in a limited way, but I almost wish it was a far worse film, because then I wouldn't feel quite so bad that there wasn't more to it.