Movie Review ~ The Quarry


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After murdering a traveling preacher, a fugitive drifter assumes his identity and becomes the new cleric of a small-town church. While he wins over the congregation, the police chief starts to link the mysterious stranger to a crime investigation.

Stars: Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Bobby Soto, Bruno Bichir, Alvaro Martinez

Director: Scott Teems

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  There are times when big screen adaptations of novels feel too workmanlike, simply going through the motions like chapters are driving the characters forward rather than real motivations.  Internal narratives are filled in with action so audiences don’t get restless and you feel as if you’ve lived the book rather than experienced the movie.  Every so often, though, you come upon a film that’s made the leap from page to screen and the transition works to its advantage because it lets the book dictate the rhythm and pace of what develops.

No one is going to watch the indie drama The Quarry and get an adrenaline rush from the viewing because writer/director Scott Teems hasn’t set out to create a fast-paced crime noir set in a Texas border town.  This is a carefully considered character study and before you roll your eyes a second time let me reel you back in and say that as dime a dozen as those may be, this is one to take a chance on.  Though the action that takes place over the 103 minute run time may not be the most original or, let’s be honest, exciting, it’s at least compelling in a way that many similar films aren’t.

Picking up The Man (Shea Whigham, Vice) after finding him on the side of the road, a preacher (Bruno Bichir, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) running away from his past toward an unremarkable future makes the mistake of thinking he can save one last troubled soul.  In short (non-spoiler-y) order, The Man kills him, dumps his body, and assumes his identity in the small dead-end town near the Mexican border, first as a way to hide from the law he’s clearly running from but eventually because he finds some salvation in the response he gets from the town’s residents.  Much like 2019 Best Foreign Language Nominee Corpus Christi, the townspeople have a positive reaction to this supposed man of God because he speaks to them in a way no on has spoken before…as one of them, which, we know he is. Taking room and board with Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, A Most Violent Year) who sees the police chief (Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water) regularly puts a spotlight dangerously close to him…a situation made more tense when a body is discovered in the local quarry.

It’s interesting to note that Damon Galgut’s 1995 novel has been made into a movie once before in 1998 that maintained the book’s original setting: South Africa.  Teems has skillfully moved the action to Texas which provides an opportunity to further explore the themes of the book involving the police trying to pin the murder on local minorities (blacks in the novel, Mexicans in the 2020 movie) which only makes The Man’s growing anguish over his crime grow.  You don’t have to look very hard to see a little Les Misérables action happening, with a man living under a false name pursued by the law weighing his options when another man is arrested and tried for a crime he himself committed.

You may not know his name but you’ve definitely seen Whigham before (and you’ll see him again next week in a small role if you check out the excellent To the Stars) and he’s afforded a swell leading role here.  He hasn’t made the leap in Hollywood to A-list, but I always have the feeling he’s one great role away from getting recognized for his strong showings wherever he turns up.  His quiet, nearly silent, role speaks to a deep well of hurt within the convict and though you know you shouldn’t be on his side, you silently root for him to win.  Never truly capitalizing on her Oscar-nominated role in 2004”s Maria Full of Grace, Sandino Moreno is excellent in her supporting turn as the lone female presence in a male dominated town/movie.  Shannon’s lawman could very easily have gone cliché but he kept surprising me, whether that was the script or the actor, I’m still not quite sure.  Another actor to look out for is Bobby Soto (A Better Life) as Celia’s cousin.  Soto begins the film heading in one direction but takes a surprising twist halfway through.  Going toe-to-toe with nearly everyone in the movie, Soto often manages to come out the winner in his scenes…a not small feat considering his co-stars.

You’ll hear the term “slow-burn” thrown around a lot when people talk about the movie but don’t take that to mean it won’t hold your interest.  I was initially put off by what I thought would be another tale of “how long can a man who isn’t who he says he is fool everyone into thinking he isn’t a bad guy” and was pleased to find how much the movie pulled me in and took me along for the ride.  For fans of these types of crime dramas and assured performances, you’ve got a good option in The Quarry.

Movie Review ~ Knives Out

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, K Callan, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Raúl Castillo

Director: Rian Johnson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Readers, there’s a mystery to solve and I need your help finding the solution.  Who killed the whodunit?  The suspects are as follows.  Studio execs that didn’t see the value in continuing to produce mid-range budgeted films that would often make their money back but didn’t have franchise possibilities.  Screenwriters that grew lazy with their material and started to rehash well-worn plots that didn’t keep viewers guessing as much as it did counting down the minutes until the inevitable twist was introduced.  Audiences that stayed away, preferring their trips to the theater be reserved for spectacles of populist entertainment.  The death was slow but not unexpected, with the last gasp occurring in the dead of a summer’s night in the mid 2000s.

A life-long fan of mysteries, I’ve been starving for an old-fashioned whodunit, the kind of jigsaw puzzle of a movie that wasn’t just about unmasking a teen slasher but doing some detective work to get answers.  It’s probably why I welcomed 2018’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express with an extra warm hug (more than most critics) and why I was eagerly anticipating the release of writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.  Here was the pre-Thanksgiving feast I’d been waiting for and if the early previews delivered on its promise, there was a distinct possibility it could lead to more of its kind in the future.  Boasting a star-studded cast, cheeky humor, and a solid but not entirely complex enigma at its core, Knives Out is decidedly entertaining but curiously lacking in connection.

You’re in a spoiler-free zone so read on with confidence knowing nothing not already presented in the trailers will be discussed. 

Famed mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World) has been found dead the morning after his birthday party where his entire family was in attendance.  Originally ruling the death a suicide, the police have gathered the family for another round of questioning when an anonymous tip attracts the attention of famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, Skyfall).  One by one, every family member recounts their memory of the last night they saw Harlan alive, each producing a slightly different take on the evening.  Only Harlan’s young attendant/nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) seems to be able to speak the truth, but then again she has a physical aversion to lying that causes her to…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

The first forty five minutes of Knives Out is occupied with Blanc and Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, The Girl in the Spider’s Web) getting to know the family better, giving us a chance to see their internal dynamics as well.  Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween) is a self-made businesswoman married to loafer Richard (Don Johnson, Paradise) and their charming but churlish son Ransom (Chris Evans, Avengers: Endgame) is the clear black sheep of the family.  Running his father’s publishing house is Walt (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and he grows frustrated with his dad’s refusal to take advantage of the profitable endeavors he has been proposing.  Married to a third sibling that passed away, Joni (Toni Collette, Krampus) and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford, Love, Simon) are kept close even if behind closed doors they aren’t truly considered family.  Then there is Harlan’s mother (K. Callan, American Gigolo), a near silent crone that’s always watching and definitely always listening.

That’s a lot of people to juggle, and I haven’t even discussed a few extra bodies, but by some miracle Johnson’s script manages to make time for all of them.  Still, it never quite feels like enough.  Viewers will be surprised how little certain stars are participatory as the movie unfolds.  Sure, they have an impact on the plot and get moments to shine but with an ensemble this large it’s natural to miss out on featuring everyone all the time.  Thankfully, Johnson (Looper) learned a thing or two from his time on Star Wars: The Last Jedi and knows how to pepper the movie with spikes of energy if the pacing is starting to drop off.  Each time the plot seemed to be hitting a bit of a wall, it pivoted in some tiny way to keep you off kilter.  I would have liked there to a bit more, ultimately, to this family.  The way it’s scripted, they are slightly walking jokes waiting for a set-up and punchline.

As for the mystery of what happened to Harlan Thrombey, well I wouldn’t dream of giving that away.  What I will say is that I appreciated Johnson didn’t cheat when all was revealed.  Having seen enough of these movies over the years I can easily start to piece together the clues and so when I saw them pop up I started to place the important pieces to one side.  When it was time to step back and see the big picture, it was nice to see it all fit together…and not precisely in the way I thought it was going to.  The performances and cinematography are key to pulling this kind of sleight-of-hand off more than anything and Johnson’s cast of experienced professionals all are more than up to the challenge.

The biggest take away I have for you is this: Knives Out is a lot of fun.  In a movie-going era where so many films that get released are dependent on existing intellectual property, it’s a welcome relief that a studio like Lionsgate went the extra mile with this and supported Johnson in his endeavor to try something old but in a modern way.  It’s a little light, if I’m being honest, and I’m not sure what a second viewing will be like.  I know I do want to see it again and that’s saying something.  It’s supposed to snow this Thanksgiving weekend where I am in the Midwest and I can’t think of a better way to spend a gloomy snow day than in a warm theater watching a movie like this play out — the community experience for this one should be fun.

The Silver Bullet ~ Knives Out



Synopsis
: A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.

Release Date: November 27, 2019

Thoughts: This November, writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is hopefully going to give this Agatha Christie murder-mystery loving guy something to be thankful for when Lionsgate releases the star-studded whodunit, Knives Out.  Packed to the brim with A-listers and a few solid B-list mainstays, this looks like a cheeky and fun black comedy with a bit of death thrown into the mix.  With favorites like Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding), Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame), Daniel Craig (Skyfall), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special) among the suspects and sleuths, all bets are off on what Johnson has in store for us but I expect some twists to be turned and rugs to be pulled as we get to the final reveal.  Fingers crossed this is as entertaining as it looks.  Though I’m sure this must contain some sort of spoilers – the first look at Knives Out is fairly sparse and feels like it’s holding back big reveals for the finished product.

Movie Review ~ The Shape of Water


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a 1960s research facility, a mute janitor forms a relationship with an aquatic creature.

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: First impressions are everything and the underwater opening shot of The Shape of Water got in good with me.  Over the credits, director Guillermo del Toro navigates us through hallways submerged in water as if hazily coming out of a dream before revealing that’s exactly what’s happening.  It’s a beautifully artsy way to introduce his adult fairy tale and it sets a tone that’s well-maintained throughout.  This is an artisan that knows his way around strong visuals but sometimes struggles with a narrative to match those impressive sights.  Over-indulging with Pacific Rim but bouncing back nicely with the criminally underrated Crimson Peak, del Toro reaches new heights (or depths?) with The Shape of Water.

Living above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) has been mute since an injury as an infant left her unable to speak.  It’s a quiet life ruled by routine, whether it be her standard breakfast or her “personal” time she makes sure to take every day.  Her job is mundane but she has a friendly co-worker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station) and Giles, a kindly closeted neighbor to keep her company.

The lives of all three are altered significantly by the arrival of a secret experiment into the research facility.  A living, breathing sea-monster has been captured in South America and has been brought to the test center to be studied, observed, dissected.  Under the watchful eye of the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and the scholarly interest of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Trumbo), the creature is kept chained in a tank and routinely tortured by his captor.

While cleaning the laboratory one night, Elisa connects with the creature and sees kindness in him where others see fear.  Over the next days they find a common language that leads to deeper understanding and maybe…love.  Set during the height of the Cold War with the threat of Russian spies everywhere, Strickland takes no chances in protecting his find at all costs, so when Elisa hatches an escape plan for the creature and brings Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins, White House Down) along as her co-conspirators, they face an obsessive hunter out for blood.

As is typical of a del Toro picture, the period details are precise down to the backsplash tiles in Elisa’s apartment.  An ardent fan of monster movies from Universal Studios, del Toro has intelligently put together this picture as a loving homage to his youth while relaying a very present message of acceptance at the same time.  The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), is filled with main characters that would be considered outsiders, or “other”, yet their position in the plot isn’t there to exploit what makes them different.  There’s even a sweet scene where fantasy and reality collide when Elisa imagines herself in a big budget Hollywood musical, featuring the creature as her dance partner.  It’s these bits of whimsy that parallel nicely with the darker turns the film takes in its final half hour.

Hawkins has next to no dialogue but conveys so much in her expressive face.  It’s difficult stuff to invite an audience so far inward but Hawkins has the goods to captivate us throughout.  While Spencer has played (and will continue to play) this type of whip-smart tough cookie roles before, there’s an added layer of angst in her personal life that ups the ante for her.  Jenkins continues to be a value add to any project he’s involved with, his gay illustrator longs for any kind of connection and his personal and professional rejections are heartbreaking to watch.  If all goes to plan, Stuhlbarg will be in three movies nominated for Best Picture this year (Call Me by Your Name and The Post being the others) and as a man harboring dangerous secrets he’s resplendent as always.  No one plays a nasty villain quite like Michael Shannon and while I’d long for a chance to see him play a Giles-like role someday, he’s a nice nemesis for Hawkins and company.

There’s going to be those that find the romantic relationship that develops between Elisa and the creature (marvelously played by Doug Jones, Hocus Pocus) to be troubling.  On the way out of the screening I heard one audience member remark they weren’t aware the movie was about bestiality and honestly, to reduce the movie to that is missing the mark entirely, especially when you take into account the open-for-further discussion ending.  I found the relationships between all of the characters incredibly moving and authentic, especially the dandy scene with Elisa pleading with Giles to help her save the creature.  If they know what’s happening is wrong and do nothing to help him, what makes them any better that Strickland and others who want to destroy something that is different?  It’s a lesson our country needs to hear right now and del Toro knows it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shape of Water

Synopsis: An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963.

Release Date:  December 8, 2017

Thoughts: This just shows you how much I’ve been paying attention.  I mean, I had no idea that The Shape of Water was even a thing much less that Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was behind the whole affair.  That being said, now that I’m aware of it I’m looking forward to it.  As usual, del Toro’s stories feel like dark fairy tales that push back at pre-conceived notions of darkness and light.  So as fans of the auteur we know it will be different and we know it will look great…but will audiences take a chance on a hard-to-pin-down flick like this?  I know I will, but del Toro’s track record has been spotty with attracting a crowd…which is too bad because he’s one of the very best filmmakers working today.  Starring Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), The Shape of Water surfaces just in time for the holidays.

Movie Review ~ Midnight Special

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.

Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Hot on the heels of 10 Cloverfield Lane comes another film where spoilers and too much information will pretty much ruin your enjoyment.  My best advice, dear reader, is to go in to Midnight Special with the least amount of knowledge available.  Even if that means you bookmark this page and come back to it after you see it, I won’t mind because I want you to get the maximum impact out of the newest feature from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter).

OK…you’re either brave enough to trust in my spoiler-free pledge or you’ve just returned from seeing Midnight Special…either way…thanks for being here!

Let’s start off with what I can divulge, which is that Midnight Special is one of those rare movie-going experiences where the filmmakers are wise enough to not let audiences get too far ahead of the events that transpire.  In fact, don’t be ashamed to admit when the movie starts you have no clue what’s going on…it’s ok…I felt the same way.  Nichols plunges you right into the middle of the cross-country pilgrimage of a father (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel) and his son (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent, Aloha) that turns out to be a trek into the unknown.

Nichols draws on elements from old-school paranoid chase films and Steven Spielberg’s late 70s/early 80s sensibilities to fashion his tale of a boy who may or may not possess special powers that the government wants to exploit and who members of a religious cult in the Texas boondocks use to guide their sermons and instruct their belief system.  Shannon has taken the boy from the cult and roped in his childhood friend (Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby) to help transport them both to an unnamed location only the boy seems to know.

Picking up the boy’s estranged mother (Kirsten Dunst, Bachelorette) and avoiding a curious NSA analyst (Adam Driver, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) along the way leads to more unexplained phenomena that keep the military and spiritual disciples in hot pursuit.  Through it all Nichols never tips his hand as to what the outcome will be, throwing in multiple surprise moments that act as nifty curveballs in an already eventful ballgame.

Nichols is making his large studio debut with Midnight Special and it would have been easy to style an easily accessible commercial feature and pick up a swell paycheck.  Instead, Nichols has produced a crowd-pleasing sci-fi drama that’s exciting, entertaining, and downright refreshing in its execution.  Even the ending, which could have gone oh so wrong and still may be hard to swallow for the more jaded flock amongst us, feels just about perfect.

One of the nicest surprises here is Shannon’s sensitive turn as a father willing to protect his son at all costs.  Shannon tends to give me the willies but he’s arguably the least creepy he’s ever been here.  Edgerton continues his run as a dependable presence whether in a supporting role or as the leading man. He’s given a lot of good material here and makes the most out of what could have been a low wattage auxiliary role. Driver is well-cast too, though he tends to come up lemons when he’s asked to play overly nebbish and Dunst nearly outshines them all with her understated and delicate performance that’s believably maternal.  The film revolves almost entirely around Lieberher and he proves again he’s a young actor to watch, infusing every line or wordless moment with a truth that’s hard to fake.

They say the fun is in the journey, not the destination and that’s apropos here.  While the ending to Midnight Special is sure to divide audiences, there’s little denying that the events leading up to it are mighty captivating.  Definitely check this one out.

Movie Review ~ Freeheld

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The Facts:

Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell

Director: Peter Sollett

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Why didn’t I like Freeheld more? That’s a question that hasn’t necessarily kept me up at night since the screening but it’s one that has stuck with me over the course of the last several days. As an advocate for equality for all and a sucker for a triumphant true story (not to mention a dedicated fan of Julianne Moore) I thought going into it that I’d emerge with a tear-stained face and strong sense of due justice…but instead I left dry-eyed and frustrated.  What should have been a slam dunk missed the net entirely.

The story of a lesbian couple fighting for equality regarding pension benefits has some mighty heft to it, so much so that it inspired the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name. In a solid, moving 40 minutes we met Laurel Hester, a 23 year veteran of the New Jersey police force battling terminal lung cancer and the system that says she can’t leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree. As Laurel’s health fades and the odds stack up, a community of support forms around the women, changing the law in the process.

That’s a story! And the dramatization of that short should at least come close to the emotional impact the documentary had. Sadly, it’s a terribly clumsy affair that loses its footing early on and can’t rally enough to make it to a satisfying finish line. Though it features typical good work from Moore (Still Alice), Ellen Page (The East), and Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), it has its share of performances painted with broad strokes, weakening the overall effectiveness of a movie that never feels organic or personal.

Most of the problem likes with Peter Sollett’s stodgy direction and Ron Nyswaner’s ham-fisted script. It’s especially surprising that Nyswaner stumbles as hard as he does considering her wrote the far more effective Philadelphia in 1993. That movie was about justice and this one is about equality but Nyswaner doesn’t seem to know the difference because there’s a lack of overall tone. One moment it’s a tender love story and the next it’s a camp-fest with Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) woefully miscast as a gay Jewish civil rights activist played like an even more amped up version of his character from The Office. Carell is so very bad that he overwhelms everyone whenever he’s onscreen, no small task when you’re sharing space with the likes of Moore.

It’s a film with dialogue that seems taken verbatim from a sensitivity training video or a pamphlet on the gay rights movement. The “bad guys” tote religious beliefs and incredibly general stereotypes, unmoved by any example presented showing that gay people love their partners just like everyone else, the “good guys” dole out mighty preachy sentiments about acceptance and equality. It just never feels honest, even though it’s well intended.

Another big problem I had was that I never bought Moore and Page as a couple. Both actresses capably portray their characters but we’re supposed to believe in their bond and I never did. So it made it harder to relate to the situation the real-life couple found themselves in. Instead it becomes a film about Moore dying before justice is served, instead of the struggle for equality that Hester herself wanted to be front and center.

It says something when the most memorable thing for me was the song played over the end credits.  “Hands of Love” was written by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes and performed beautifully by Miley Cyrus and it’s the one chance the film has for an Oscar contention.

Is the film important to see?  Sure, if you’re wanting to have a larger discussion with someone on the continued fight for equality for all.  But as a dramatization of real life events that led to a landmark change in the law, it’s an overall letdown.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Night Before

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Synopsis: In New York City for their annual tradition of Christmas Eve debauchery, three lifelong best friends set out to find the Holy Grail of Christmas parties since their yearly reunion might be coming to an end.

Release Date:  November 25, 2015

Thoughts: I think I’m really getting old…because at one time I think this trailer might have generated some excitement in my movie-going bones.  As it is, it looks like another exhaustive exercise in excess from the team that brought you This Is The End, Neighbors, and (shudder) The Interview.  As annoying as Seth Rogen (The Guilt Trip) is, I know that he’s capable of more than these types of dumb-ass stoner roles and I surely know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) can do better.  Rogen and Gordon-Levitt reteam with their 50/50 director Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) for this act-your-age comedy and Anthony Mackie (Pain & Gain) completes the triumvirate of stars.  This foul-mouthed red-band trailer lets us know that audiences are in for some drug-fueled ribaldry this holiday season…joy to the world.  Wake me up when these three actors find a worthier project to peddle their wares in.

The Silver Bullet ~ Freeheld

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Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Release Date: October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Julianne Moore (Still Alice) might want to pick out another redhead friendly clothing ensemble because Freeheld could nab the actress another season pass for end of the year rewards. Starring alongside fellow Oscar nominees Ellen Page (The East), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel), this true life drama concerns the fight for equality by two lesbian life-partners. While the trailer dips into some TV-movie-of-the-week-ish maudlin speechifying, I’m hoping that screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who penned the similar Philadelphia, also Oscar nominated) finds the honesty in the midst of the sentimentality.

Movie Review ~ The Iceman

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man. When finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor daughters have any clue about his real profession.

Stars: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Danny Abeckaser, Stephen Dorff, James Franco

Director: Ariel Vroman

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While everyone is all abuzz about the Scorsese-lite 70’s crime drama American Hustle, there was another true crime film released in 2013 that featured another impressive cast list decked out in period attire – and for my money it winds up dancing circles around the overlong Hustle.

Michael Shannon (Man of Steel) leads the parade of familiar faces masquerading behind wigs and porn ‘staches as Richard Kuklinski, a New Jersey family man that leads a double life as a hardened contract killer.  The film follows Kuklinski over three decades as he marries his sweetheart (Winona Ryder, Frankenweenie, Homefront), gets wrapped up in shady dealings with Ray Liotta (The Place Beyond the Pines), and offs a formidable amount of character actors.  Kuklinski treated his work like any other 9 to 5 job; he shows up for an assignment, dispatches an unlucky soul, and makes it back in time to have dinner in suburbia with his wife and two daughters.

Eventually given the name The Iceman because of his habit of freezing his victims for later disposal, he also earns the moniker for his unwavering dedication to his role.  You see, this work puts food on the table and clothes on the backs of his family so anyone getting in the way of that can’t be let off with merely a warning.  The film doesn’t glorify the violence enacted by Kuklinski but doesn’t shy away from showing the bullets to the head.

When your lead is someone we’re not supposed to feel sympathy for, casting is everything.  You need an actor that can play a duality that makes you understand his rationale for his proceedings while condemning it at the same time.  Shannon is the perfect fit for this type of role and the actor becomes one with the character in frightening ways.

He’s matched well by the ageless Ryder, slowly advancing her comeback after taking a few years away from the lights of Hollywood.  Her Jersey housewife is no Carmela Soprano; she’s clueless to her husband’s second life but also isn’t naïve enough to think that their quaint life is the picture of perfection.  Her concerns are more about her marriage and family than anything her husband has going on the side.

Popping up in smaller roles are Chris Evans (Marvel’s The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Robert Davi (Licence to Kill), James Franco (This is the End, Lovelace), Stephen Dorff, and David Schwimmer.  All are solid performers that serve their purpose in giving Shannon room to breathe life into a villainous anti-hero in director Ariel Vroman’s hard-boiled drama.

While the film is set over a large time period, it wouldn’t be that hard to imagine the events taking place in the present.  Vroman gives his film a timeless feel, which winds up adding to its authenticity.  The production design is handled with a lighter touch than most period films so rather than pounding our eardrums with endless tunes of the era or dressing our actors in excessively retro costumes there are hints here and there about where we are in history.

While audiences and googly-eyed critics may be doing the Hustle at your local cinema, fire up The Iceman (available on Netflix) and watch how to make a solid character study that’s more about performance than production.

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