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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Movie Review ~ Homefront

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former DEA agent moves his family to a quiet town, where he soon tangles with a local meth druglord.

Stars: Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth, Frank Gillo, Izabela Vidovic

Director: Gary Fleder

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  What possessed the filmmakers to put star Jason Statham in such a hilariously awful wig for the ten minute prologue of Homefront is a mystery akin to the whereabouts of the remains of Jimmy Hoffa.

If you can make it past the truly awful first moments of Homefront (and trust me, it’s reach for the remote bad), you’ll find that a better movie emerges after the opening credits have run.

Sylvester Stallone (The Expendables 2) had long wanted to bring DEA Agent Phil Broker to life on screen and had held the rights to Chuck Logan’s novel Homefront for years.  After renewing his option to the material several times, Stallone wisely realized that he was too long in the tooth and heavy on the filler to play the middle aged agent and adapted the screenplay into a star vehicle for friend Statham (who also turned in another good 2013 performance in the undervalued Parker).

Statham has never been called on to use much in the way of actual acting chops before, favoring karate chops instead so this was a nice departure for the action star.  Though the screenplay maybe takes the actor too far into sentimental territory, it’s bursting with Stallone’s “integrity above all else” morals that he’s so in favor of putting into his screenplays.

After a small potatoes incident on a school playground puts Statham’s single father at odds with the hick-ish parents of a bully, he gets into even more trouble when the bully’s uncle (a small time drug kingpin played by James Franco, This Is the End) is called in to teach Statham and family a lesson.  When Statham strikes back, it sets into motion events that will put his idyllic life in jeopardy as Franco and his girlfriend (an ageless Winona Ryder, Frankenweenie) make a play for the big time by turning Statham over to some bad guys out to settle an old score.

Though the film has about five climaxes (all more than decent sequences, I should say), there’s no escaping the fact that there’s more loose ends in the film that there are complete sentences.  Characters (like a pretty schoolteacher that Statham and his daughter take a shine to) appear and disappear, never to be heard from again and there’s an element of convenience in every twist the film introduces.  Even so, the film works almost in spite of itself.

Let’s be clear: there’s absolutely nothing new in the film as directed by Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls) or in Stallone’s script.  Whatever opinion you’ve formed about the movie from the preview is exactly the kind of movie you’re going to get…and that may not be a bad thing if you know what you’re getting into.  You may actually feel better about the film waiting to watch it on Netflix or picking it up from Redbox.  Miss it in the theater but consider giving it a look when it’s easier to fast forward through the prologue.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

It’s funny but there are certain trailers that just stick with you over the years…maybe it’s because it was your first glimpse of a film you were looking forward to or maybe it’s all about where/when you saw it. In the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was both.

I have a confession to make.  Long before Edward and Bella came around and before Buffy staked her claim in Sunnydale, I was a huge vampire fan…Dracula to be exact (or as the four year old Joe used to say “Drak-lee-la”).  So when 12 year old Joe heard there was another Dracula movie coming out in a big way you know he was excited.

I remember seeing the first teaser for this before a Sunday matinee screening of A League of Their Own at Centennial Lakes 8 and though I liked Penny Marshall’s baseball comedy all I was thinking about throughout was how much longer I’d have to wait until the tale of Count Dracula was arriving.

A well-produced teaser, this actually wound up being removed from theaters because it was deemed “too intense”.  Watching the first images from Francis Ford Coppola’s film that wound up being art-directed to the hilt, you’ll probably be scratching your head as to what’s so intense about it but we live in different times now.

Catch-up!  Check out my look at the teasers for MiseryAlien!

The Silver Bullet ~ Homefront

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Synopsis: A former DEA agent moves his family to a quiet town, where he soon tangles with a local meth druglord.

Release Date:  November 27, 2013

Thoughts:  Just looking at the poster for this thriller you’d get the impression that this was merely another Jason Statham (Parker, The Expendables 2) beat-down movie.  While the latter half of the preview indicates that butts will be kicked by Mr. Statham, I was impressed that the set-up seems deeper than similar movies that have come out of Statham’s wheelhouse.  Boasting an impressive stew of actors (and James Franco, Oz the Great and Powerful), Homefront is mysteriously arriving during Thanksgiving where I’m wondering if it will have any target audience available to buy a ticket when other higher profile films are releasing around that time.  Time will tell if Turkey Day will find crowds lining up for this or Frozen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Oh, did I forget to mention this was adapted from Chuck Logan’s novel by Sylvester Stallone for his old pal Jason Statham?  It actually makes me more interested…

Mid-Day Mini ~ Star Trek (2009)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The brash James T. Kirk tries to live up to his father’s legacy with Mr. Spock keeping him in check as a vengeful, time-traveling Romulan creates black holes to destroy the Federation one planet at a time.

Stars: John Cho, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Winona Ryder, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Leonard Nimoy

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  When it was announced that J.J. Abrams was going to be helming a re-boot of the popular Star Trek franchise for Paramount, more than a few eyebrows were raised.  That’s no indictment on Abrams, only on the fact that the Star Trek films/television shows have a devoted following and starting from scratch seemed like it could cause a ruckus in the Trekkie-community.  Though the big screen series movies had seemed to run its course with its current Star Trek: The Next Generation crew, there continued to be interest in moving a later television cast into a feature film.  Paramount, however had a different idea.

That idea proved to be a smart one because this refreshed Star Trek from 2009 is a slam-dunk for fans of the series and newcomers alike.  Even if you’d seen every episode, read every tie-in novel, lined up for each film, there’s no denying that what Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman did with Gene Roddenberry’s original set-up was a gamble that paid off.  What continues to be so pleasing about the film and the way it was handled was that it didn’t wish away the other films/series nor did it negate the characters that audience have come to love.  By playing a tricky game with time-travel, what came before could still exist in the same universe as this new entry.

Abrams went back to the drawing board when casting the film, choosing some relative newcomers for the key roles of Kirk and Spock.  Chris Pine (People Like Us) has that same handsome all-American charm that William Shatner had as James T. Kirk but wisely sidesteps his predecessors famously mock-able line delivery.  With his clear blue (and slightly crossed) eyes, Pine steps into leading man territory with a lot of the confidence that the role requires, showing us a troubled man that’s haunted by the shadow of his late father (Chris Hemsworth, right on the cusp of his own stardom from Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Marvel’s The Avengers, and 2013’s upcoming Rush). 

Zachary Quinto had perhaps even bigger shoes (well, ears) to fill as Spock, the intelligent Vulcan that struggles with his half-human side taking over when emotions come into play.  It would be easy to play Spock with a straight-laced monotone but Quinto keeps him interesting even when he’s getting in the way of Kirk’s mission. 

The other crew are nicely rounded with Karl Urban’s Bones, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, and Simon Pegg’s Scotty making the biggest impression without merely feeling like a spoof of the actors that played these parts before they stepped in.  Only Eric Bana’s villain Nero feels a bit out of place, mostly because his plot line feels underdeveloped and only created to test the crew as they battle black holes, revenge plots, and each other amid time warps into deep space.

This being a reboot, I was worried that too much time would be spent introducing characters and that this first film would serve more as an introduction rather than feel like the beginning of something new.  While the first half of the film is largely devoted to getting us up to speed with the characters, I didn’t mind it as much because Abrams keeps things moving at a rapid pace.  Before you know it, you’re catapulted into an impressive final half that’s filled with Oscar winning make-up and Oscar-nominated special effects that blow previous Star Trek films out of the water.

An auspicious start to a truly next generation of Star Treks, this is one that holds up on repeated viewings and provides the kind of entertainment that’s rarely found in blockbusters of this nature.  It’s appealing, engaging, and has always kept me on the edge of my seat though I’ve seen it half a dozen times since its initial release.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Mermaids

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An unconventional single mother relocates with her two daughters to a small Massachusetts town in 1963, where a number of events and relationships both challenge and strengthen their familial bonds.

Stars: Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder, Christina Ricci, Michael Schoeffling

Director: Richard Benjamin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Maybe not so much a hidden gem as an underappreciated one, Mermaids is a quirky comedy about an eccentric single mom nomadically raising her daughters in the early 1960’s.  The film was a perfect fit for the talent involved…though there were several key players that weren’t originally signed on when the movie moved into production.

First off, director Richard Benjamin was the third director of the movie after Lasse Hallström and Frank Oz both were ix-nayed by star Cher.  Speaking of being replaced, blonde brit Emily Lloyd was supposed to play Ryder’s role until it became clear that Lloyd bore little resemblance to the woman supposed to be playing her mother.  So Benjamin and Ryder stepped in and I can’t imagine the film any other way.

For all the jokes and jibes Cher has received over the years, she’s a damn fine actress and hasn’t really turned in a performance that was an embarrassment.  As Mrs. Flax, she’s relaxed and carefree…keeping the kind of home we’d probably like to visit if she was the mom of our best friend.  A bit of a man-eater, she meets her match when she arrives in a small New England town and takes up with Hoskins’ lovable sh0e-salesman.

The story is seen through the eyes of Charlotte (Ryder, Frankenweenie) as she struggles with her love of all things holy and a burgeoning attraction to a local caretaker (Schoeffling).  Not wanting to turn out like her mother and feeling like she has to be a surrogate parent to her sister Kate (Ricci, in her first film), Charlotte takes several missteps that have ramifications both humorous and dramatic.

Based on a novel, Mermaids has a fair share of laughs that go in tandem with some serious exchanges.  Cher and Hoskins have an opposites attract chemistry that glows as does Ryder with the handsome Schoeffling who knows how to play conflicted with the best of ‘em.

With Benjamin’s sensitive direction, a nice attention to the early 60’s time-period, and a greatest hits soundtrack, Mermaids is received swimmingly whether it’s your first or thirty first viewing.