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.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Top Ten Gambling Movies

The world of gambling is a fixture in crime movies for obvious reasons. The idea of luck and "easy" money will always draw out the criminal element. The casino world in particular can support any number of shady figures and occupations, including loan sharks, leg breakers, card cheaters, and heisters, not to mention organized crime figures, who like nothing more than high volumes of money pouring in as a natural means to clean money obtained from other enterprises, combined with the profit factor from a never ending stream of losers. The gambling isn't always conventional either, any career criminal is gambling in a way, trying to come out ahead when their occupation contains dire and possibly fatal consequences. They continue though, convinced they'll get lucky. Some can't resist the idea of an enormous payoff, no matter what risk is in the way. Even more troubling though, are those for whom no payoff is enough, as if self destruction is the best pay off of all. A real gambler just can't quit while he's ahead because then he would lose the power to risk it all, and wouldn't be gambling anymore.

Here are my top ten picks. Feel free to add your own suggestions, as there are many others out there I'm sure I've overlooked.

10) Heat

Burt Reynolds is Nick Escalante or "Mex," an ex mercenary well known for his skill with his hands and with knives.He lives in LasVegas where he has a "chaperone" business, taking odd jobs that involve his skill set such as bodyguard gigs. Mex has his own set of standards determined by his moral code. When an ex girlfriend is abused by an entitled mobster, she turns to Mex to get payback. At the same time, he's hired by a mild mannered young guy, Cyrus, (Peter McNichol) who has money, but wants to know how to be tough. Mex and Cyrus start becoming friends and Mex shares his goal of moving to Venice. Although he briefly has enough money to accomplish his dream, we get a glimpse of Mex's real problem when he immediately gambles it away. His dealings with DeMarco get increasingly violent until a predictable final showdown, where everyone gets what's coming to them.

Luck is riding on my shoulders. Luck is right here with me.I want you to hit the nineteen with a two, because 19 and 2 is 21. That means I win. Give me my two, Cassie. -Mex

9) The Cooler

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is a "cooler" in Las Vegas at the Shangri La Casino, working for Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) who once cured Bernie's gambling problem by breaking his knees. He lives a dreary and lonely life, showing up at the casino to rob the luck of any customer on a hot streak, and then going back to his small apartment with little interaction with anyone. When a waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello) becomes interested in Bernie, everything starts changing, starting with his luck, which greatly compromises his abilities as a cooler. Shelly isn't willing to let Bernie off the hook however, as he's already frustrated with his business partners pushing to modernize the Shangri La. He discovers that Maria falling for him is not quite what it appeared to be and he has to decide whether to trust her or not, as well as how to reconcile his obligations, hoping to start things over if his new luck holds up.

Lootz is Kryptonite on a stick.-Shelly Kaplow

8) The Cincinnati Kid

Steve McQueen is The Cincinnati Kid, a poker player convinced he's the best there is. To prove that though, he has to beat the renowned Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson.) While he has offers to help him get an unfair advantage, he insists that it only counts if he beats Lancey fairly. His focus is challenged by his girlfriend, Christian (Tuesday Weld) who wants more from him, and his friend Shooter's (Karl Malden) wife, Melba (Ann Margaret) who also has an interest in The Kid. Lancey's success has gained him many enemies, and the pressure for the Kid to accept a little help increases, making it difficult for him to stick to his


Listen, Christian, after the game, I'll be The Man. I'll be the best there is. People will sit down at the table with you, just so they can say they played with The Man. And that's what I'm gonna be, Christian.-The Cincinnati Kid

7) Owning Mahowny

Dan Mahowny (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a very successful assistant bank manager at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.To all appearances, he's serious about his work and mild mannered otherwise. They don't realize that Mahowny has a serious gambling problem, which is only made worse by the easy access to funds that his job gives him. Mahowny figures out ways to get money from the bank undetected and gambles it away in Atlantic City as soon as he gets it. No matter how much he wins, he keeps betting it all again, until his obsession catches up with him, his luck runs out, and others catch on. If a problem is big enough you can't keep it hidden forever.

I have a... financial problem. A shortfall. -Dan Mahowny

6) Croupier

Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) imagines himself a writer, except that he can't seem to write or pay the bills. He's surprised to be offered a job via his estranged father, as a croupier at a casino, which is an easy fit for him as he had croupier experience in the past and has a clear talent for it.He soon finds himself immersed in the gambling culture, including the schemes and drama of his fellow employees and the gamblers around him. While he professes a strict code of ethics, his behavior shows more flexibility than he admits. He soon sees himself as a character in the novel he's been planning to write, and his disconnect puts him in the middle of what seems to be a more exciting life, although not without great cost to the guy he used to be.

Welcome back Jack, to the house of addiction. -Jack Manfred

5)The Gambler

Axel Freed (James Caan) is a literature professor who loves the work of Dostoevsky. He's also a guy with a serious gambling problem. He's held in high regard by everyone around him, his girlfriend Bille (Lauren Hutton) and his supportive family. Axel ends up deeply in debt to his bookie, Hips (Paul Sorvino) who promises consequences if Axel doesn't take care of his debt. He borrows money from everyone who can get it, mostly Billie and his mother, only to gamble it away again, leaving him as broke as he was before. Finally he thinks of a scheme to straighten things out, although it has a high moral cost for him, and a student who's involved. It becomes clear that as low as he is, Axel has a long way to go before he hits bottom. He won't stop until he destroys himself.

"I play in order to lose. That’s what gets my juice going. If I only bet on the games I know, I could at least break even.” -Axel Freed

4) The Hustler

Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a gifted pool hustler who's too big for his surroundings. He thinks he's the best there is until he's beaten by the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) Fast Eddie spends a long time rebuilding his confidence, with the help of Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie,) a young girl who falls in love with him. Of course it's only a matter of time before Fast Eddie becomes obsessed with going after Minnesota Fats again. He enlists the help of shady manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) to arrange it, although Bert makes no secret of the fact that he thinks Eddie is a talented loser. It becomes clear that win or lose the match and his obsession will cost him more than he ever imagined.

I'm the best you ever seen, Fats. I'm the best there is. And even if you beat me, I'm still the best. 
-Fast Eddie Felson

3) Intacto

Samuel Berg (Max von Sydow), is a casino owner who also holds an annual high stakes contest, which ends every year with him being the luckiest man alive. His employee Federico (Eusebio Poncela) grows tired of living in Berg's shadow and decides to go out on his own. Before he leaves, Samuel touches a horrified Federico, removing his luck. This sends Federico in search of the luckiest people alive, singling out Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia) the lone survivor of a plane crash. Federico takes Tomás on a tour of an underground circuit where their paths cross with others who trade in luck, in hopes of returning to Samuel's casino to beat him in his annual contest. Of course, everything doesn't go as planned and luck isn't quite everything Federico assumes it is.

Nobody's ever come here out of love. -Samuel Berg

2) Casino

Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) is the mobster in charge of the Tangiers casino,
and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) is his psychotic muscle. We watch their individual fortunes, and the greater mob involvement, change in the 70's and 80's. Ace's biggest problem is Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) a grifter who he knows is only out for his money, yet he can't free himself from her. Nicky's temper and lack of loyalty to his employers is his main source of misfortune. As the FBI starts showing more of an active interest in the casinos, the pressure on the Mob increases until the glory days Ace and Nicky and their bosses disintegrate.

In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.-Ace Rothstein

1)Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler)

Bob (Roger Duchesne) is an aging ex con, who has been around the block.While he's comfortable being a criminal, he lives his life with a certain code of decency and presentation. He's well liked in his community, especially by young Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) who looks to him as a mentor. Bob hears about an opportunity for the perfect heist and starts planning. his life is complicated when he rescues young Anne (Isabelle Corey,) from a pimp. She soon ends up involved with Paolo, who seeking to impress her, tells her about the heist. She in turn tells the pimp, who tells Police Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble.)  Ledru resolves to stop the heist and tries to find Bob to warn him not to do it. Bob, however, is already occupied in the casino with an unbelievable winning streak, at least until everyone else arrives. Bob Le Flambeur was also remade by Neil Jordan's as "The Good Thief" and P.T. Anderson, as "Hard Eight."

Look, my luck's coming back! -Bob

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I'm Christian Okoli

Last year, I took a look at "Joshua," a short film directed by Tim Porter, and starring Cyrus Trafford. Recently, Cyrus got in touch with me to let me know he'd directed something of his own, a 7 minute film called "I'm Christian Okoli"

The film was written by and stars the actor, Christian Okoli, playing the character of himself. The concept is straightforward and reminiscent of a stage production. "Christian Okoli" sits in a dark room telling a story about an event in an internet cafe. Another customer who is frustrated with his computer challenges Okoli to take 30 seconds to physically express his anguish at anything in the world. Okoli agrees and does his part, making a show of throwing papers around and finding the exercise amusing the more he gets into it.

When the stranger takes his turn, he lets twenty seconds go by before doing anything, explaining to Okoli that he only needs ten seconds to express his anguish.  The source of the stranger's frustration is Okoli himself and what he "represents." (Okoli is gay.) Rather than throw papers around like Okoli, the stranger chooses violence. Watching Okoli reenact the scene, both throwing and receiving punches from memory is an interesting experience. Okoli remembers where he got hit, but we know that the same force isn't there in the blows, although we can imagine it very easily.

The short nature of the story gives us a surprising look at how little time it takes to hate someone and to turn a seemingly friendly interaction into a traumatic experience. When Okoli begins telling the story of this encounter, I assumed it would be a friendly exercise in frustration management, and perhaps a meaningful moment of interaction between strangers. While it certainly is meaningful, the meaning drastically changes. We have to consider the implications of a man so frustrated by the existence of another's possible sexuality that he needs to resort to violence, creating an elaborate frame to use it when none exists, like a childhood game with added cruelty.

This short is focused on essentials, relying on Okoli's expressiveness, the room and the story. While the room is dark, Okoli is lit clearly and brightly, We see him look to a light poked in the wall, as if telling his story is a chance to puncture the darkness around him a little bit. While it always surprises me that these stories still need to be told, violent hate crime still happens all the time, so there's no question that they do. Hopefully one day we'll reach a point where no one is threatened by another person's lifestyle, but we still have a long way to go. It certainly helps that people like Okoli and Trafford insist on telling their story and I'm hoping they find some new listeners. "I'm Christian Okoli" proves that you don't need a huge budget to tell an important story well.

"I'm Christian Okoli" is currently circulating at film festivals, and special screenings. For more from Cyrus Trafford and Moment2Moment Pictures visit his website http://www.m2mpictures.com/ You can also get in touch with him on twitter http://twitter.com/cyrusTrafford

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Man of Steel

Comic Book Movies are big right now, that isn't news to anyone. The trend only makes sense, as the studios love nothing more than an already known property to bring to life via film. Done well, what could be better for a summer blockbuster than super humans in colorful costumes fighting just as colorful villains? This of course means big explosions, lots of action and a good opportunity to push the capabilities of the special effects crew and wow the audience.

Since the big two comic companies (Marvel and DC) are both parts of huge multi media empires, the push from page to film is only getting more urgent. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Companies exist to make money, the alternative is not being a company anymore. We can't fault Disney or Warner Bros, for using their properties to make a profit. We can, however complain when they use a property poorly. That's the other side of using a property that has name recognition before it becomes a film. Since film began, I suspect, people have said "The book was better." That factor is amplified when you're dealing with a story that's been around for decades, and in that time has been revamped countless times to stay in touch with contemporary sensibilities. If you're going to make a movie about Superman or Spider Man, first you have to decide, which one.

I've always been partial to Marvel Comics. Their characters are just more grounded and relatable. I've heard the difference described as, Spider-man Stories are always about Peter Parker, while Superman stories are all about Superman, and for the most part, I agree with that. DC has always focused on the costume side, and I never liked the idea that when I picked up a copy of the Flash, or Green Lantern for example, that for whatever reaso, there's another guy in the suit. I liked Barry Allen (The Flash) and Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) so picking up their comics and finding someone I didn't know always turned me off, as I'd invested in these characters only to be told that the guy in the suit didn't matter.

I do understand that many people grew up with the newer characters and felt the same way about the guy I didn't know. I get that, but it never made me feel any better. Combine that with the fact that DC feels compelled to wipe out their characters histories every few years and I just don't have any way to connect to that universe. With Marvel, I always felt that I could pick up a comic at any time and get the same character I knew (They'd put a new guy in the suit now and then, but it was always understood we'd get the "real" guy back before long.)

DC's practice of shuffling history usually spared two of their characters, Batman and Superman. They'd get rebooted but always ended up recognizable, more or less the same guy I always knew. Like Captain America at Marvel, Superman was the impossibly good guy that every hero wanted to be. He's one answer to the nature/nurture debate, an unimaginably powerful alien that gets raised by an outstandingly decent couple in Kansas, and embraces everything he learns from his upbringing, going on to champion "Truth, Justice, and The American Way." Obviously it's tough to tell dramatic stories about a guy that can do anything. I discussed this with my son at great lengths when he was younger and we concluded that most Superman stories consist of Superman getting knocked around by any given street punk until someone is in danger and then he remembers "I'm Superman." and puts an immediate end to the nonsense. That isn't to minimize any of the truly great Superman stories told over the years, just to illustrate that writing for an all powerful character often requires some handicapping.

Not coincidentally, Batman and Superman have been mainstays in the film universe and had film franchises before it was the expected thing to do. The first Superman movie has long been considered one of the finest superhero films ever made. Christopher Reeves seemed like the perfect Superman and the promise of the tag line "You Will believe a Man Can Fly" was delivered on, long before CGI made every visual effect you can think of achievable. There were a few sequels, and unfortunately the quality dropped with every one, but that takes nothing away from the first one. They didn't include every detail about Superman, but they got the spirit right. They tried to go back to the drawing board in 2006 with "Superman Returns" and while they got a few things right, (Brandon Routh, the plane rescue) they had overall disappointing results from the bizarre choice to adhere to the original Superman film universe while going strangely off topic, and being largely unexciting. Of course, when Christopher Nolan made a lot of money with his Batman trilogy and Marvel enjoyed unbelievable success with their Avengers film franchise, they tried to answer the fact that against all odds, "Iron Man," Thor," and Captain America," were massively successful by bringing out the misguided CGI film "Green Lantern." When that tanked, they must have been frantic to get Superman on track again. This eventually resulted in "Man of Steel."

I understand why they chose Zack Snyder to direct, although I had reservations about the result. While I enjoyed his "Dawn of the Dead" remake, I was less enthusiastic about "Watchmen," and "300." That isn't to say I didn't enjoy them at all, but my problem with his directing is that his film technique seemed centered on adaptation, bringing a comic to the screen as opposed to making a new film of the property using his own vision. The heavy handed CGI, and his lack of independent imagination made both of those films feel like a step up from motion comics more than films. Enjoyable in parts, but not a real film experience in my mind. With "Man of Steel" my hope was that he would use those CGI style tools to ramp up the action and since the screenplay wasn't based on a single graphic novel, hopefully put his own imagination to work.

After seeing "Man of Steel," I can say that he's probably made his best film yet. I can't really say that it made me happy though. He gave us an action packed version of Superman and he used his imagination. The Sci Fi elements are great, and without a doubt, the strongest part of the film. The heavy presence of Krypton really works here for the most part, particularly Russell Crowe as Jor-El, who manages to be an interesting character long after he's dead. His rivalry with General Zod (Michael Shannon) is well done. Shannon does a great job with his character, bringing with him a sense of real fanatical danger.

And then we look at Earth where Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) is trying to figure out what to do with himself. He drifts around taking different jobs until something happens and he's forced to use his powers to intervene, saving lives or righting some wrong like Caine in Master of Kung Fu magnified a thousand times. He disappears when the job is done and goes on to the next thing. We also have the benefit of flashbacks, showing us how his Earth Dad Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his mother Martha (Diane Lane) shaped him while he grew up. Costner and Lane do a great job portraying the Kents as decent people through and through. However, Jonathan is puzzling in parts, such as an incident where young Clark saves a bus full of his school mates and ends up revealing his powers.
"Should I have let them die?" Clark asks his very displeased father.
"Maybe." Jonathan says.
While this is only one moment in the film, it's stressed as a pivotal one, and this answer doesn't match the character we see otherwise. Couldn't he have simply told Clark to be more discreet? This bit of dialogue seems placed there simply to introduce a "grey area" to the film.

We see it again, when he tells Clark  " One day, you're going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it's going to change the world." The character we briefly see doesn't match the character speaking. He raises Clark well, and has no cause to question whether he'll have good or bad character (particularly when Clark only gets in trouble for saving a bunch of kids.) I've often assumed that it was the Kent's conviction that people are good, that instilled the same belief in Superman. Here, that idea gets twisted around a bit. We're shown the goodness of the Kents but then Jonathan feels compelled to say something cynical. This strange character quirk shows up even more in contrast with Jor-El, who hasn't seen his son except as an infant, yet tells General Zod, he has no doubt about his son's goodness or his ability to defeat him.

Still, the relationship with the Kents comes through in tone if not always in sensible words.Snyder and his cast do manage to get the affection between the Kents and their adopted son, who they think of as their own. Jonathan's obsession with keeping Clark's alien origins a secret also makes sense in its way. Fame changes people and the fame of being the only alien from outer space on Earth isn't something you'd want to be known for before you're ready. Jonathan's final scene shows us that he's willing to protect the secret with his life, and that Clark is willing to listen to him, despite his eagerness to help.

When an alien ship is discovered in the Arctic, Clark/Kal-El checks it out and finds his Superman suit as well as the consciousness of Jor-El, which is stored in the ship. He also meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams) there, in pursuit of a big story. After saving her from the ship's defenses, he tries on the suit, and soon discovers that his interaction with the ship has called General Zod and his crew to Earth, in pursuit of the "Codex" which contains the genetic information to restart Krypton on another planet. Zod demands that Earth surrender Clark (although Earth is not aware of his existence.) with a very well done "You are not alone" announcement to the whole planet. Superman decides that he'll split the difference and surrender not to Zod but to Earth's military, who take him into custody while they figure things out. He eventually surrenders to Zod, once he gets Lois Lane into custody. Lois and Clark soon realize they're in trouble when Zod's ship depowers Superman. With a little help from the consciousness of Jor-El they escape. Jor-El tells Lois how to send the bad guys back to the Phantom Zone, but before they can get to that Zod decides to start terraforming the Earth to be a new Krypton, using an Engine in the Arctic which passes energy back and forth through the Earth to Zod's ship in Metropolis.

This process starts destroying Metropolis on a massive scale. Snyder shows us people in the street watching as skyscrapers collapse like dominoes, presumably filling hundreds by the second. Superman heads to the Arctic to stop the engine, although they assume he'll be weaker near the engine as it simulates the atmosphere of Krypton. Lois points this out, and we get a glimpse of Superman as he tells her he still has to try. Superman stops the Engine and heads back to Metropolis which now looks as uninhabitable as the world of Mad Max. The military with help from Lois who has Jor-El's instructions has defeated Zod's crew, with only Zod escaping a black hole created from the Kryptonian technology.

Superman and Zod fight, knocking down most of the buildings that were left. After a huge super powered battle, Superman has Zod in a headlock when Zod starts using his heat vision, attempting to incinerate a group of a few people close by. Superman for some reason, decides he's had enough and snaps Zod's neck, he then sobs about it and Lois shows up to console him.

To me, this final series of events is a black mark on the film. It's here Snyder's fascination with the possibilities of CGI get in the way of his storytelling. While I'm not crazy about having Superman kill the bad guy, there are possible ways to have it happen. This however was not a satisfying way to reach that point. One of the reasons that Superman has all the ridiculous powers he does, is so that he can avoid killing people. By his very nature, Superman is the Deus Ex Machina personified. Even Jor-El comments that "he'll be a god to them." (Not to mention the tons of Christ imagery in the film) Not here though. While Snyder makes it clear that Superman is powerful, he makes that power seem a minor thing compared to the problem he's confronting. While that certainly opens up the possibility for action and high powered fighting, it also makes Superman feel a bit useless.

Scale is the biggest problem when dealing with this film's final showdown. Everybody knows from fairly recent experience what a tragedy it is when one skyscraper goes down. Here, Superman and company seem  unaffected by it. Certainly he rushes to stop the engine causing it, but his mood hardly seems changed by surveying the wreckage of Metropolis. Zod promises he'll kill lots of people and Superman doesn't think to point out that he's already killed many thousands. In the wake of all the CGI carnage, the impact of Zod's laser beam homing in on potential victims James Bond villain style barely registers and the emotional urgency feels contrived as if Snyder, Goyer and company decided while making the film that they needed this scene to happen and then filled in haphazardly to get to it. The combination of disaster overkill and the unclear showing of Superman's abilities, and sense of obligation gives him the weakest possible showing.

Even worse, this lack of impact is added to by Superman himself who gets mad and knocks villains through gas stations, IHOPs and tall buildings. He fights another Kryptonian while surrounded by civilians, which would seem to be asking for casualties to happen. He saves someone who falls out of a helicopter, while letting everyone inside the helicopter die in an explosion. His urge to save people seems inconsistent at best, particularly when it's painstakingly pointed out to us that he is hyper aware of his surroundings. He sees and hears everything, yet decides that plowing through an IHOP is preferable to an occupied building. "Man of Steel's" failure in this respect, is all the more painful in that it's not far from being a great Superman movie. It seems they just forgot that it was Superman. This isn't a Superman that's determined to save everyone, but a Superman who seems committed to Jonathan Kent's "Maybe."

While I typically enjoy anti heroes and stories that deal with moral grey areas, every story can't be that one, or that story stops being possible. I personally don't think Superman stories are the place for those dilemmas. He's supposed to be firmly on the "Hero" side of the equation. Without that certainty, he's just another character, not the icon that DC comics is built around, and has influenced every superhero since.

That being said, the last few minutes seem to introduce the guy who was supposed to show up for the film. "You can trust me. I'm from Kansas." Superman tells the military after all is said and done. They seem to accept that although the clean up of Metropolis is probably just getting started and I found myself wishing the story started there. Maybe he'll be in the sequels, but I don't accept sequel set up as a justification for anything in this film. I don't believe that Superman needs to be mostly ineffectual to be relatable. Save that for the other superheroes, or Superman won't stay Superman for long.

Monday, June 17, 2013


It's easy to forget the impact that "Dirty Harry" had, as well as how much it fit into many people's concerns about criminals, cops, and the law. While it may seem a bit of a caricature now, the themes of violent criminals getting set free due to technicalities caused by rulings concerned with civil rights was very real in the minds of the public. That concern was given a face when Harry Callahan was introduced. His unstoppable pursuit of criminals was constantly hindered by his bosses fear of getting sued or having prosecution fall apart due to the criminal's rights not being honored to the letter of the law. At the time, the expectation was that we would soon have a new generation full of unstoppable psychopaths, a natural crime wave that was sure to take over every city. In hindsight, that crime wave didn't happen but the concerns have remained, only taking different form. The street punks we were worried about are no longer the main concern, but terrorists are. And so, "Dirty Harry" became "Jack Bauer." But, before that happened, we had many different cinematic cops modeled after Harry.

Judge Dredd, however was a little different, in that it looked at what the future would look like if Dirty Harry's logic was taken to the logical extreme. In 1977, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (created a future where crime was everywhere. Rather than be stopped by civil rights concerns, the powers that be decided that cops would be "Judges" with the power of judge, and executioner on the spot. The comic book character "Judge Dredd" was the future of Dirty Harry. Judge Dredd dispensed justice (and still does) in Mega-City One (New York City, if urban sprawl was allowed to spread it from Boston to Washington DC)
Unlike Dirty Harry, Judge Dredd is a faceless figure allowing him to symbolize justice without getting mired down in personal issues. Since his introduction, the character has spread throughout popular culture, becoming recognizable all over the world, as Dredd spread throughout popular culture to people who knew nothing of his comic book history, via surprising sources such as the band Anthrax, whose song "I Am The Law" helped Judge Dredd infiltrate consciousness everywhere via denim jackets and posters.

For better or worse, there was also an adaptation that made its way to film, via Danny Cannon, and starring Sylvester Stallone, who didn't really get the faceless nature of the character. While it used elements from the Judge Dredd universe it couldn't have been further from the spirit of Judge Dredd. It also largely failed to attract anyone's interest, becoming an infamous failure both critically and commercially. 

Luckily, the character of Judge Dredd is too iconic to be ruined by such treatment. He continued in the comic books, and finally made his way to film in a treatment that gets him, with Pete Travis' 2012 film, "Dredd" Made with half the budget of Cannon's failure, it was clearly more familiar with the source material. From the start, we see that Mega City One is a gritty future where a Judge has plenty to keep him busy on any given day. The opening shows us Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) in action, as he chases minor criminals who upgrade themselves to homicide and they get brutally sentenced on the spot.

Judge Dredd is assigned to evaluate a prospect for a new Judge, Cassandra Anderson, (Olivia Thirlby) a mutant and a powerful psychic. She's told the criteria for her evaluation and they take off into the streets. They respond to a multiple homicide at Peach Trees a 200 story slum compound, which is ruled by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) a former prostitute who became a powerful drug lord. She's the manufacturer and distributor of the drug "Slo-Mo" which as the name suggests, changes the users perception of real time, to seem like slow motion. The homicide that Dredd and Anderson respond to is Ma-Ma's handiwork. She gave the offenders a dose of Slo-Mo before flaying them and then throwing them from the top story into the street as an example. 

They enter Peach Trees and thanks to Anderson's psychic ability, they quickly find Kay, (Wood Harris,) one of the men who did the killing and take him into custody, intending to bring him in for interrogation, since Anderson's psychic gift is not proof. Ma-Ma, however can't afford to have Kay give up what he knows about her operation and manages to lock down the building, commanding everyone in it to take down the Judges. The wisdom of this decision comes into question as Dredd and Anderson must know shoot their way up to Ma-Ma herself in order to leave the building. 

While "Dredd" is not a huge budget film, it's visually very impressive. While I saw it in 2D it's easy to tell that it was shot for 3D, largely due to the Slo-Mo sequences, and falls from great heights. None of this takes anything away from the film, and makes the viewer sit with the violence a little longer than they might like, even drawing attention to the visual beauty of the actions. Having a predictable plot doesn't hurt it either, as this is a very old kind of story. The novelty here, is what constitutes "normal" for a Judge in this future. While Dirty Harry and his descendants in present day are seen as "loose cannon cops," in  Mega City One, Harry's inheritor, Judge Dredd is the standard. The predicted crime wave has happened and flourished, and at this point it's hard to argue with the necessity of brutal justice. 

However, as with any cop story the biggest argument against Judges comes from within their ranks. We know Dredd follows the law, but inevitably, Judge's powers end up in the hands of the morally challenged. In the future, they haven't managed to eliminate police corruption and this raises big questions about the whole system. Using trainee Anderson as our entry point we are also able to look at the possibility that "justice" can have different interpretations, a fact which Judge Dredd himself remarks on by allowing an act of mercy to pass, seemingly accepting Anderson's argument that one particular criminal is really a victim. Of course in this story, we have the benefit of Anderson's ability to read minds and Judge Dredd's moral code. That fact points out that there are many other possible stories that end less justly without those factors. Where authority exists, it will be abused, and it happens all around our central characters, but luckily not through them.

Karl Urban's portrayal of Judge Dredd is pitch perfect. He never takes off the helmet, and gives a great restrained performance. His Judge Dredd is a man who has become his job. We don't hear any of his personal details from him. He speaks in a gruff voice, without overdoing it, recalling Eastwood's Dirty Harry, and Christian Bale's Batman, (although it plays naturally here, not as unintentionally comical as hearing Batman growling.) This version of Dredd will kill without hesitation, but  we see him offer terms, offerring a criminal life in prison as an incentive to surrender. The criminal mistakes this for uncertainty and then realizes too late that it was only a courtesy.

The only questions he asks are for the benefit of Anderson. Olivia Thirlby's Anderson also comes through very well. While she's clearly in the story to help us see Dredd for the first time, she reacts well to the balance of duty and conscience. She has a scene where the law requires her to execute a man, and we see her strain, but ultimately complies, reinforcing the fact that in this future, execution is a very real part of the law and being a Judge. She still has the ability to weigh a moral dilemma though, as we see when she decides at a later point to be merciful to a man who is more a victim. Telepathy helps with that.  Lena Heady is wonderful as the merciless Ma-Ma, a character created for the film, that feels as if she's always existed in this universe. She's as uncompromising as Judge Dredd, coming from the other side of the law.

I would imagine that Director Pete Travis has some affection for the comic book character, as he went to great lengths to create a film that's true to Dredd in spirit. This is an instance, I think, where the film version is created to highlight the character and is served very well by creating a new story for film rather than blindly adapting a story line (Watchmen.) All the elements are put into place here, and we understand the bleakness of this universe and its inhabitants. It would be a wonderful first installment of a series. Unfortunately, there's some question as to that happening since it didn't do as well at the box office as desired. Hopefully, DVD and On Demand sales can make a difference as I'd love to see more of these characters.

"Dredd" comes through as a great action movie that's true to it's source. It prompts the same questions that "Dirty Harry" did, only a little further down the road. It doesn't pretend to answer these questions, as it isn't philosophy or policy, but a story which uses these questions to entertain us. Certainly there are good questions in here to consider, just the same as when we hear any instance of abuse of authority in the news. While we don't have any predictions of an oncoming criminal generation, we'll always have some oncoming crisis to justify increased security powers, and that will always be at odds with the rights of the individual. I'm not sure that there will ever be an easy answer to this dilemma, but it calls to mind Benjamin Franklin's quote,  
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Apparently, we've been struggling with this idea a long time, but it has shifted and evolved. I only hope that we decide on retaining a little liberty as I doubt a complete lack of it, will make anyone feel safe. Personally, I wouldn't bet that any real Judges would be as trustworthy as Judge Dredd.

Friday, June 7, 2013


The coming of age film is a long tradition, but it's not often done well. Most of the time, it's an excuse to tell a formulaic story of small challenges wrapped up with a tidy moral (see Superbad, most Pixar and Disney Films.) Sometimes it seems to me that there's an understanding that "family" films must be bland and reinforce a limited moral code, as if "children" can't handle complex thought, or perhaps that there's a magical age when they suddenly become capable of reasoning although it was never asked of them earlier.

Personally, I've always felt that good coming of age stories are the best films of all, giving us a chance to look at our lives with a fresh perspective long after we've forgotten what it was like to grow up. Films such as, "Stand By Me," "Rebel Without A Cause," "The Return," "Mysterious Skin," and "My Life as a Dog,"  to select a handful of examples, agree that an important step towards manhood is realizing that nothing comes easy, and the adults don't have the answers either.

"Mud" is a movie in that tradition. It centers on two friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loflan.) Ellis lives on a houseboat in Arkansas, where he helps his father deliver fish to local customers. His father is stern and strict about rules but it becomes more and more clear that he and Mom aren't getting along. Neckbone doesn't have parents, and lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) who spends most of his time chasing women, providing a safe place to live and more friendship than a parental role.

Ellis and Neckbone spend their free time cruising around the river. They're fascinated to find a boat stuck in a tree on an island, and attempt to claim it as their own. They soon find that the boat has already been claimed, when a mysterious man named "Mud." (Matthew McConaughey) appears on the beach, after they notice his footprints, which leave a cross imprint in the sand (for good luck he tells them.) "It's a hell of a thing, a boat in a tree." he says, and proposes a deal. If they help him by bringing food, they can have the boat when he leaves, which is supposed to be after his "true love," Juniper, (Reese Witherspoon) a beauty with birds tattooed on her hands, arrives to meet him.

Mud tells them half stories and shares his superstitions including the story of his lucky shirt. They get a hint that he may be more dangerous than he appears, as he has a gun tucked into his pants, and takes offense when Neckbone calls him a "bum" telling him that he could call him "homeless" or even a "hobo" as neither of those terms imply worthlessness or laziness. Ellis is more impressed by Mud than Neckbone, but he goes along with his friend's wishes.

At home, we see that Ellis is caught in the middle of his parents' bitterness, although when he asks his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon) about their loud disagreements, he's told to mind his own business. That situation rapidly degenerates as his father heads towards a breakdown and finally admits that his mother wants to move away from the river and into town. This would mean they'd lose the houseboat as she technically owns it. His father presents it as his way of life on the river being taken away, but it's not as simple as that. When pressed about it, Ellis' mother reveals that she's been keeping the family afloat for years, although Senior likes to believe otherwise for the sake of his masculine pride.

Visiting Mud becomes an escape for Ellis, even when it becomes clear there's more to Mud than he first presented. After the FBI arrives in town looking for Mud with "Wanted" posters, Ellis lets him know. He tells the boys that he killed a man who was cruel to Juniper. This only strengthens Ellis' resolve to help even as Mud changes plans, deciding he'll need to get the boat out of the tree and escape. Ellis sees all Mud's actions as performed for the sake of true love. Ellis himself is experiencing his own love at the time, and punches an older kid for harassing the girl he has eyes for in order to start a conversation.

Ellis and Neckbone discover Juniper in town and act as a third party for Mud's messages. This gets them into a tense situation with a gangster, the brother of the man Mud killed looking to exact retribution. Soon we see that the murdered man's powerful father, described by Mud as "the devil himself"  is in town as well with lots of help.Mud asks them to get in touch with Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) as well, referring to him as an "assassin." Tom goes with the boys to the island, but rather than help he scolds Mud and tells him he's not getting involved. He tells Ellis later that Mud has always gotten into trouble over Juniper, who has a habit of leaving Mud and picking up with dangerous men until Mud gets her out of trouble, only to do it all over again.

Tensions mount as the FBI, the gangsters close in and Juniper is hesitant to leave with Mud. Ellis has his own battles as he has a meaningful moment with the girl he likes only to have her ignore him later on when she's with an older boy. He tries punching the older kid but it doesn't work as well this time. They find Mud drunk and not wearing his lucky shirt anymore as if he's given up. The set progression is altered however, when Ellis is the victim of a snakebite and Mud has to leave his island to rush him into town before it's too late, setting up the circumstances that reveal everyone's true character.

"Mud" is a visually beautiful film, clearly focused on the river. Jeff Nichols proves again (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) that he's a gifted storyteller. Small touches like boat landings, and puddles full of snakes and houseboats give it the feeling of authenticity. Mud's boat in a tree set up calls to mind the treehouse in "Badlands" although this time inhabited by someone capable of living in nature. The characters as well, are all informed by the river, Ellis' family and Neckbone's Uncle Galen both make their living from the river (though Galen seems to have it down a little better than Senior) This way of life, it seems is not an easy one and on the verge of disappearing. Mud himself seems a throwback to another time, and we can't help but wonder how rare it is to find a place where a man can hide out on an island and only by chance be discovered by a couple kids. McConaughey makes this role his own, as he's had a habit of doing recently. This character is a guy who has become so wrapped up in his own superstitious persona and destructive pattern of behavior that he's forgotten about many things that most people live with, (such as the law, and consequences.) As much as Ellis is blinded to danger by the idea of true love, Mud has taken it to whole different level. His exhilaration and disappointment concerning Juniper have become his life by force of habit. His hideout on the island is significant however, as we learn it's where he and Juniper first met, perhaps a sign that he's looking at where he's been.

Ray McKinnon's senior is a tragic figure in a different way than Mud. He presents us with a portrait of a proud failure. Like Mud, he seems to long for another time, but simply isn't the man he'd like to be. He presents himself as a traditionalist who wants to preserve a way of life, but we learn that he adopted this way of life from his wife and her traditions and this doesn't pay the bills. Mary Lee, has had all she can take of the river, as she grew up with it never feeling the need to mythologize.

Tye Sheridan does a tremendous job as Ellis. He sees everything that's happening and we catch him at a pivot point. Everything he knows about the world from being a child is being challenged. His mother and father aren't staying together, his father's work ethic appears to be pointless, and his ability to see love as a worthy motivation is severely challenged. He wrestles with these issues internally and by his own direct actions for mostly little reward.

Reese Witherspoon is another twisted character, as caught in habit as Mud, who she says she loves but can't live with. It's easy to see why Tom Blankenship thinks poorly of Juniper, as she certainly seems bound for ruin, damaging everyone around her on the way. Yet, Juniper's behavior is a known quantity. We know that she has a pattern, so while Blankenship blames her for Mud's misfortune, Mud can hardly be surprised. We do in fact see that Mud eventually accepts reality but certainly not easily.

The figure of Mud offers possibilities to Ellis. While boys typically see their fathers as a preview of what they might become, Ellis isn't happy with that. He knows his own father is miserable, powerless and broken in ways he isn't able to understand yet. Senior is also resigned to the fact that everything is crumbling. Ellis is young and wants to believe in things, possibility and true love. He isn't impressed by Neckbone's Uncle Galen, a figure of manhood who appears very limited in his expectations. Mud, at least on the surface presents a purer picture. To Ellis, here's a guy who lives by his superstitions and risks everything for the girl he loves. Of course, he learns eventually that Mud's ways are partly an act he uses to escape accountability. Ellis is hurt when Mud gives up on Juniper, despite the fact that he has little choice if he'd like to avoid prison or death.

Nothing works out the way Ellis would like it to, but his good faith is still rewarded when Mud saves his life at great personal cost and he even risks everything again to say goodbye before leaving town. Maybe Mud is still a fraud, but he has some good points too, that came out because the unexpected happened. In "Mud" nobody has all the answers. Mud knows as little about love as anyone, including Ellis' parents or Ellis himself.   But that isn't to say there aren't people who come through for you, Mud does in his way, and Tom Blankenship does the same thing for Mud. Despite washing his hands of Mud's latest campaign, he comes through when it counts in a real and surprising way. And Senior stays there too, even as the way of life he imagined he'd wanted is gone. It's all a risk, and everyone is both more and less than they first appear, but it isn't hopeless. Everything can change, but there's plenty around to believe in if you want to.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Driver

"A guy with an attitude like yours, really ought to carry a gun." says a thug with a gun trained on the man, known only in this film as The Driver (Ryan O'Neal.) Being a big proponent of the show don't tell philosophy, the Driver surprises the thug by his agreement with that statement, quickly pulling his weapon and shooting the man dead. He tells us at another point in the film that the hates guns, but that fact comes second to being good at his job. We know that if the gun wasn't necessary, he wouldn't carry it. The Driver is the ultimate professional criminal. He's the best getaway man there is, because he knows how to drive, and he follows the rules that work.In the film's opening, after leading what seems like the whole police force on a chase through the city, he takes his pay from the men who were pulling a heist. They seem relieved, that he isn't injured from the bullets the police fired at them. "We've got to keep you safe for next time." one of the criminals says. "There won't be a next time. You were late." the Driver informs him and that's the end of the matter.

Of course a criminal as good at his job as The Driver is bound to attract attention. He's become known as "the cowboy that's never been caught." to the man known as The Detective (Bruce Dern.) He hauls in The Driver, knowing he was involved with the last heist, but in a scene reminiscent of Melville's "Le Samourai" The only person who saw him clearly was the woman known as The Player (Isabelle Adjani) a gambler in the Casino that was held up. She claims that it wasn't him though, serving as his alibi.

While the Detective is shown to be quite formidable, he's much harder to like than The Driver. While the Driver has no need to boast about his skills, electing just to show them if need be, the Detective suffers from a need to announce his competence at every opportunity. During a conversation with the Driver, he says, "I respect a man that's good at what he does. I'll tell you something, I'm very good at what I do." The Driver hears him out, but isn't terribly bothered, not any more than he needs to be. He's aware that the Detective is on a quest to bring him in and he factors that into his plans.

Whether the Detective is good at his job or not is debatable, and rests largely on what you'd consider his job.   If you'd consider it catching bad guys then he makes a fair showing, however if you'd consider his job being an officer of the law, than "good at his job" goes out the window. He's determined to catch the Driver and confident that normal means won't do it. He decides to use a couple of bank robbers he's recently arrested to set a trap. They're to rob a bank and enlist the Driver for the job. Afterwards, they're to meet the Detective at a certain place and turn the Driver in, at which point the Detective will set them free.

Sounds like an effective plan on paper, but much like the Detective, these criminals don't feel they need to follow the rules. The plan is complicated even more by the fact that the Driver doesn't like them and doesn't want to work with them, due to their gun fondness and general personalities as "second raters." One of the heisters questions how they know his skills justify his paycheck, and once again, rather than respond with words, he tells them to get in the car and proceeds to drive at high speed through an underground parking garage, demolishing the car piece by piece without slowing down. They're terrified and beg him to stop, but he stops when he's done and advises them to change their license plate if they're going anywhere in that car.

The Driver initially refuses to help with the bank job, even beating one of the men who attempts to convince him at gunpoint. The lead robber explains to the Detective that the Driver won't help them. The Detective pays The Driver a visit and tells him "I really like chasing you." He responds, "Sounds like you've got a problem." He then challenges the Driver to play against him saying "You win you make some money. I win, you do 15 years.How about it?" The Driver next meets with the thugs and tells him his price is doubled.

When the bank robbery happens, the lead robber, kills another of his crew in the bank, and then decides to skip the Detective's rendezvous, choosing another place to park where he tries to bump off the Driver, and ends up dead himself because the Driver is just that much better at the criminal thing than he is. Of course, complications ensue. The Driver leaves the money in a locker at a train station. The Player assists the Driver in exchanging the dirty money from the heist for clean money, by meeting with The Exchange Man who replaces the bag of dirty money in the locker with a bag of his own.

The Detective follows the Exchange Man, and shoots him trying to escape from a train. Meanwhile one of the robbers who wasn't at the heist, starts looking for the Driver to claim his share (and likely more) of the money. He learns about the exchange and steals the key for the locker containing the money from The Player. The Driver chases him down with the Player riding along. He kills the robber and returns to the locker for his money. He's surprised to find the Detective waiting for him with many officers, just waiting to celebrate. He's surprised however when the Driver shows him the case he picked up is empty.
Detective: What happened?
Driver: Looks like we both got swindled.
Detective: looks like we both got ripped off, by the Exchange Man.
Driver: Lot of crooks around these days.
The Driver, knowing the Detective has no evidence, walks away.

The Driver is a fascinating variation on the heist film and film noir conventions. While most heist films involve a getaway driver, his part is usually the smallest one, almost an afterthought. Here, however we're asked to consider what would happen if the Driver was the strongest link in the heist chain. Driver is aware of what it's doing, the use of titles instead of names, clueing us in to the idea that we're looking at these people as elements of a story. Once we've decided on the viewpoint character, we know how we'll be viewing these elements. While the Driver has historically been the least used character for viewpoint, the focus here means that we get lots of car chases, and that the story is all about him. After all, everybody is the main character in their own story. Keeping that in mind also explains the behavior of the obnoxious narcissistic Detective. He's as unscrupulous as any criminal, perhaps in part because this is a criminal's story, and therefore colored by the Driver's judgment.

Hill leaves out everything that isn't vital to the story. To the Driver, everything is about events that are happening. He can't be bothered to say one more word than necessary because his energy is better spent on doing something. As the Detective observes, he has no friends, no girlfriend or extravagant habits. He doesn't do what he does for the money either, although he charges a premium price for his services. His fee seems to be more about respect than what he needs to spend. He enjoys his legendary status, and doesn't find many challenges. When the Detective urges him to accept the bank job, he accepts because there's a possibility he's found a worthy opponent. The Detective is driven by a similar need and he is quite open about it to the Driver. Bruce Dern does a terrific job making the Detective unlikable in many ways. Even his subordinate officer can't stand him, although he does what he's told begrudgingly. He makes up for the Driver's lack of words and then some, never using one word when he can use three, and never missing the chance to make those three tie in to how good he is at what he does.

The Driver also uses another film noir convention, by making our Driver adhere rigidly to his own code. While this is most often used in hit man movies, it works well here, and that's really the heart of the story, one man following his own code with discipline, while everyone around him bends their own rules to suit their own convenience or agenda. The Driver as a character has much in common with Melville's Jef Costello, from "Le Samourai" a fact which Hill points to in a couple of scenes; the Player refusing to identify the Driver in a line up, and the Detective finding the Driver still on his bed, in his small apartment in the middle of the day. Ryan O'Neal. "Le Samourai" itself was a variation on similar themes, and there wasn't a new story there, or in "The Driver," just a different focus.

Ryan O'Neal shows us his character mostly by keeping his composure. His expression is the same whether being held up at gunpoint or talking with an associate.  He exists in a class of his own, as far removed from most criminals as he is from the cops, although we can assume that there are other first rate criminals in his world, or he wouldn't have a job.

One staple of these genre that Walter Hill skips is the usual problems with an employer. Usually the protagonist is doublecrossed by an employer to avoid arrest, avoid paying, or just to eliminate the knowledge that he gained during the job. "The Driver" makes it clear that The Driver is independent and mostly not bothered by such concerns.Although he is double crossed, he's not in any danger as it was a predictable part of working with "second rate" robbers, and he remedies the situation quickly. The big double cross is not from a boss at all but from the "Exchange Man." who leaves an empty case in the locker rather than a case of clean money as agreed. This doublecross however only works in the Driver's favor, keeping him from being arrested. It's an interesting choice to have the ending hinge on such a twist, when most of the film is establishing that the Driver always gets away due strictly to his own abilities. My take on that is a reminder that chance is always a factor, no matter how skilled you are, and the best you can do by following your code is to keep the odds in your favor. The presence of The Player, whose defining trait is being a gambler leads me towards that conclusion. If it's a game, than some amount of luck is involved.

The other interesting departure from the norm is that the Driver doesn't have a death wish. I believe this is simply due to his occupation. While we can expect a hitman, who deals with death as an occupation to have a death wish, the Driver in some ways is his opposite. The Driver's function is to get away, and while he kills a few people, he has no interest in doing so, only resorting to killing when there is no other way around the obstacle. Certainly his occupation has its own drawbacks, constant movement preventing him from forming attachments, but welcoming death isn't one of them. Given his character, and the manner with which he handles gunplay, he views death much like he views the Detective, just another opponent to play the game against.

"The Driver" was Hill's second film and in keeping with the stories he's playing with, most of it happens in dark rooms and on dark streets. Even in the daylight this world is rough and dirty. one advantage of choosing  The Driver is that he gets to spend a good amount of time on his car chases, and there are some great ones here, my favorite, being his demonstration to the robbers in the parking garage. While there's plenty of violence in the film, it comes across as unexciting. There's far more energy in the Driver beating up a man who pulls a gun on him, than when when he actually has to shoot back. He doesn't like guns, that comes across.

The film has received renewed interest since the release of Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive." which isn't a remake but uses many of the elements from "The Driver."  THis is fitting I think, as "The Driver" did the same thing with the noir films it expanded on. THere aren't any new stories, just new approaches and viewpoints. Hill's film isn't nearly as polished or stylized as Refn's. He presents the character, the situation, and then lets it go. For fans of heist films and neo noir, it's very satisfying experience and a sign that Hill took his influences seriously.