DVD review: The Iceman

the iceman
 ‘The Iceman’ tells the true story of mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, based on the book ‘The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer’ by Philip Carlo. He is said to have murdered over one hundred people, mostly contract killings but some for pleasure or just because he could; all of which he kept hidden from his wife and two daughters, with whom he lived with up until his arrest in 1986. Michael Shannon stars as Kuklinski, alongside Winona Ryder as wife Deborah, and Ray Liotta as crime boss Roy DeMeo. The relatively unknown Ariel Vromen directs with a clear, yet unoriginal vision, the style brooding but slick, the violence bold and frequent, but does it stack up alongside the many gangster films that have come before it?
  To think a man can keep his dark line of work completely unnoticed from his loved ones suspends disbelief, which can lead us to forget we’re watching an adaptation of real events. Kuklinski initially balances life as a caring family man, and as an evil assassin with relative ease but the moments where his two lives bleed together lend the film its most memorable scenes. Notably, as the journey home from a family ice skating outing is interrupted by an argumentative foul mouthed motorist, Kuklinski sees red when his wife is threatened, showing a glimpse of his hidden persona, but not enough to garner suspicion of the true depth of his disturbed state of mind. The character study raises the question of whether or not he was truly mad. This is alluded to when he visits his jailbird brother, imprisoned for killing a little girl. Is the destructive sickening condition genetic, or brought on by an upbringing filled with ill-treatment and abuse? Instead of exploring these issues in full, ‘The Iceman’ choose a more conventional gangster film structure, a loose biopic stitched into familiar plot. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, and as an addition to the heavily used genre, it is well above average.
  Borrowing from crime drama masters such as Scorsese and Mann, the violence is strong and bloody, but handled well and without overdoing it. A lot of visual contrast is effectively implemented, dark silhouettes in doorways of light, aesthetically representing the constant crossovers between his two facades. Due to the complex central character and Shannon’s portrayal, the story maintains a bubbling intensity throughout, and although the dialogue is less than wordy, and at times from Kuklinski, monosyllabic, when the tension boils over, it is a delight. Taking aspects from his troubled Boardwalk Empire character, Nelson Van Alden,  Michael Shannon steals every frame he is in, and furthers his reputation as a magnificent villain. Despite his questionable facial hair, he can be forever taken seriously in his role, chillingly dispatching of victims, earning the ambiguous title he was given by the media. The name coming partly for his unnerving expression, and partly for his trademark of freezing corpses only to dispose of bodies years later to prevent traces of his crimes. By the end, the deaths do become repetitive, but this maybe cleverly deliberate, showing that violence was a career choice for Kuklinski, the recurrence reflecting the day-to-day nature of his actions.
  Aside from the eponymous role, Ray Liotta reminds us how good he can be as organised crime boss DeMeo. Fondly remembered for his depiction of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, here he switches sides, taking on a role more closely associated with the De Niro or Pesci ‘made men’ figures in the Mafia. After a string of average turns in one dimensional parts, Liotta is back on form, as a conflicted leader, torn between his Mafioso principles and his loyalty to weak link foot soldier Josh (David Schwimmer) of whom he feels responsible, having raised him as if he was his own son. Also impressive is Chris Evans, as Mr Freezy, a manipulative killer who forms an alliance with Kuklinski, introducing him to the use of cyanide as well leading him to earn his nickname. Mr Freezy, as you may suspect, also kept his victims cold, using an ice cream van as cover, serving from a freezer with human remains stored under the sugary snacks. Leading the support cast in Kuklinski’s not-so-violent segments as his loving but utterly clueless wife is Winona Ryder who put in a decent performance but alongside her co-star she appears rather anonymous, as she buckles under Shannon’s screen presence. The two daughters also struggle under the weight of their father, serving as an annoyance but are nonetheless important to the development of the story.
  As a gangster flick, ‘The Iceman’ is entirely watchable. It may be predictable in where it ends up, but that does not take away from the path it takes to get there. The brutal killings are a joy, and the host of interesting side characters carry a lot of weight. Kuklinski is given a slight back story which could have been built upon, and although the character arc features a definitive beginning, middle and end, the potential is there to offer just a bit more if the character study was left to thaw a little longer. With Shannon, he’s shown he can do the multi-layered with past credits including Take Shelter and the aforementioned Boardwalk Empire, and we will soon see how he interprets the ‘superhero villain’ as the deadly General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Even if somewhat hollow in its investigation of the man, ‘The Iceman’ is carried out as immaculately as one of Kuklinski’s many executions.


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DVD review: The Great Hip Hop Hoax

great hip hop hoax
 A fascinating and hilarious true story of two Scottish rappers who pretended to be American to pursue their dream to be the next big thing. Jeanie Finlay directs, documenting through interviews and shaky archive footage shot by the lads themselves. Back before the UK hip hop scene had taken off with the likes of Plan B, Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, Gavin McBain and Billy Boyd met at Dundee University and instantly formed a connection, however there was no room for Scottish hip hop – it wasn’t marketable. After a disastrous 2002 audition in London where they were stereotypically branded ‘the rapping Proclaimers’, they thought they had blown the big chance for a breakthrough into the industry. Months later, ‘for a laugh’, Boyd put on an American accent when trying to secure a gig claiming to be over from California to promote an EP and to his amazement, it worked. From then on, they were no longer Bill and Gav from Arbroath. They were Silibil n’ Brains from LA. ‘The Great Hip Hop Hoax’ takes us on their unique journey through the dizzy heights of Sony record deals and appearing on MTV, to the inevitable combustion, and carries it off with style, humour and most importantly honesty, creating an intriguing watch that has you questioning how on earth they pulled it off.
  What makes this piece so interesting is the lie that holds it all together, and this is what drew Jeanie Finlay to the project. To completely assume new identities for what was a number of years is astounding to the point that most guys lost sight of who they were and why they were doing it. The talking head segments from Billy’s fiancée, friends and the music moguls who were taken in by their creation are really key in shedding light on how dedicated they both were, never breaking character and even avoiding phonecalls from parents to maintain the new facades. The well developed new characters are also given wacky cartoon personas, the cleverly made zany animation offering a different aspect to the film. There is a great sense of authenticity running through the whole production, Billy and Gavin telling it how it was, ahead of the release of their new EP ‘Eat Your Brains’ which is available to download now on iTunes.
  After the screening, I had the pleasure of attending a Q&A session and after party with the director, Billy and Gavin, and it was staggering to see how driven they both still are. Perhaps Gavin more so than Billy as he has now settled down and had a couple of kids. Whilst performing at the after party, Silibil n’ Brains were as captivating as ever, now openly Scottish and proud but keeping up the Beastie Boys attitude and accents, spitting comedic lines to extremely catchy beats. Maybe they haven’t achieved what they set out to originally, but they are treated with respect now in the industry they longed to be a part of, having a lot of fun at the same time and ‘The Great Hip Hop Hoax’ documentary is a worthy account of the brilliant story.
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The Adjustment Bureau: Making a Philip K. of it

Film Title: The Adjustment Bureau
It is never an easy feat to develop a book into a successful film, maybe because of one’s closer attachment with literature as you would spend longer with that medium. In saying that, the films adapted from the works of American novelist Philip K. Dick tend to go down well such as Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report which have all translated relatively well to the big screen. In 2005, Bourne screenwriter George Nolfi directed The Adjustment Bureau which is based, albeit loosely, on the short story The Adjustment Team. This was said to have been Dick’s ‘tunnel under the world’ themed tale in which our day-to-day existence is manipulated by an unknown higher power. His directorial debut, Nolfi clearly had a vision but it is a far cry from the complexities of Dick’s, taking the unique concept and running with it to Hollywood convention, squeezing a political action thriller and a rom-com into the mix, whilst trying to stay true to its science fiction origins.
  Matt Damon stars as reckless Brooklyn Congressman David Norris alongside Emily Blunt as aspiring dancer Elise Sellas. After failing in his run for United States Senate, David has a chance encounter with Elise and typically, it is love at first sight, which doesn’t bode well with the manipulative Adjustment Bureau. They have a set path for everyone, and watch over from city rooftops as the world goes by, stepping in to tweak as need be, to ensure the human race get the predetermined future they are meant to. For such a menacingly dark premise, there is room to explore the matters further on a cinematic format but instead The Adjustment Bureau plays it safe, which is enjoyable enough but doesn’t take advantage of the original notion.
  The romance angle feels forced and unconvincing despite the best efforts of the leads, and this true-love-conquers-all mentality dominates the plot, which leaves the interesting sci-fi stuff looking cool but underdeveloped. The poster tagline reads ‘Bourne meets Inception’ which instantly sets the production up for a fall as by trying to be the best of both, it never matches the quality of either. The action sequences are few and far between with David lacking the charisma of action man Jason Bourne and where Nolan’s dream delving narrative asked questions of its audience, here we are almost led through step-by-step with members of the secret society, explaining the twists as they come and go. When the feared Thompson is mentioned in hushed tones and introduced as villain of the piece, expectations rise but in walks Terence Stamp who looks like he would be more likely to offer David a Werther’s Original than to cause him any great torment. It promises so much and delivers little possibly due to the 12 certificate restriction.
  The Adjustment Bureau will, for me, go down as a wasted opportunity, as it fails to capitalise on the potential of Dick’s intriguing twisted conspiracy theory. With so many avenues to venture down, a television series or even a film trilogy probably could have offered enough hours to satisfy the idea rather than glossing over in a film that doesn’t do it justice.

DVD review: Mud


I have avoided the work of Matthew McConaughey in the past, his associations with romantic comedies have put me off to the point that when I see his name attached I tend not to show any interest at all, but as his career has since taken an expected twist, I was intrigued to see ‘Mud’, a story in which two young boys meet a dishevelled man living in a boat come tree house on a deserted island on the Mississippi Delta. Citing Mark Twain as an influence, writer director Jeff Nichols attempts the great American film where adolescent intrigue and curiosity steer the teenage friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) to meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey) befriending and assisting him, despite the ‘wanted’ posters in town bearing his face.
  Beginning as a Stand By Me-esque adventure tale, Ellis hopping on the back of Neckbone’s dirt bike for a summer of fun, romance at the forefront of the formers pubescent mind, and ‘titties’ on the agenda of the latter. The friendship is magnificent to watch, capturing the humour to a tee but with a genuine essence, and Ellis’ idealistic but naive notion of love holds the narrative together. Though the light-heartedness is short-lived, hinted at early on with symbolic shots of spiders and eerie suspenseful score. The cinematography sweeps us off to the ominous island, crucifixes in the sand leading to the suspenseful encounter with Mud, who with his dirty exterior and scraggy features earns his title. Striking a bond with Mud, going back to the island alone providing food and drink, Ellis escapes from his home life difficulties. His parents are in a turbulent marriage, he has an unrequited crush on the ‘popular one’ in the neighbourhood, and when Mud recounts his quest for happiness with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) it triggers his true-love-must-prevail attitude which pits him against his family and the criminals searching for Mud.
  The performances in Mud are of the highest order throughout, with McConaughey delivering straight from the top drawer. Initially coming across as arrogant, and perhaps a little over confident, as his character develops, his past unravelling, the portrayal continually keeps up, climaxing with a gripping finale. Unwilling to be outshone completely are the two youngsters, Sheridan and Lofland, who are outstanding. It is the norm for these kind of performances to either seem overplayed, or rather flat but the two get the balance spot on, and I think their chemistry helps boost one another, both giving heartfelt, and at times hilarious. With Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon and usual Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon filling the back seat in supporting roles, the towering stature of the cast is undeniable. Shannon, for me, was a little underused, as I really enjoyed him in a less serious role, taking the part of Neckbone’s deep sea diving, womanising uncle, offering words of wisdom. It was also very interesting to see Witherspoon used with a different approach, a darker, beautifully trashy side shown, clashing with her customary ‘girl next door’ depictions.
  The only criticism I have of Mud is that it overstays its welcome somewhat, the pace dragging along through certain segments, the two hour ten minutes running time perhaps could have benefited with twenty or so shaved the sides. Despite lagging through the domestic scenes in Ellis’ broken home, which I felt were quite heavy handed, the script is at its best during the interchanges between Ellis, Neckbone and Mud, the dialogue exceptional with acting to boot, and it is the connections between these characters and between these three which are long lasting and pull you in, immersing us in their adventure.


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