Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shirley Reeves Puts on Dynamic Show

 SHIRELLES VOCALIST STORMS THROUGH A DIFFERENT KIND OF AMERICAN SONGBOOK
Reeves performing in Saugus, MA. Photo by Phil Hopkins
"I sing oldies because that's all I know," Shirley Alston Reeves said from the Kowloon stage last night. "People ask me if I know anything up to date, and I proudly say 'no.'"

Reeves, founder of the  Shirelles, the groundbreaking girl group that scored 11 top 40 hits in the early 1960s, does something far more important than updating her sound. Instead, as she demonstrated in Saugus on Sept. 27, she revels in her own era. Halfway into the show you realized Reeves' set list was a sort of American songbook. Not the usual songbook associated with Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, but the songbook of Kennedy-era American radio. Along with stirring renditions of her own hits, she marched out the best of Chuck Berry, Sam Cook, Frankie Lymon,   Fats Domino, and dozens of other golden age rock & roll acts. At times it appeared Reeves planned to sing every song written between 1957 and 1963.

Reeves also included songs by other girl groups (ie. 'Chapel of Love' by The Dixie Cups; Da Doo Ron Ron by The Crystals). A surprising showstopper was Reeves' version of The Spinners' 1972 hit, 'I'll Be Around," hinting that Reeves could easily do a 1970s soul revue if she desired.

But it wasn't just the breadth of Reeves' song selection that was startling. Her voice was in top form, and her band pounded along like a freight train behind her. ("They're playing too fast," Reeves muttered after a supercharged version of 'Everybody Loves a Lover.' "No more hot mustard for them!") Reeves was also accompanied by two backing singers (including former member of The Orlons, Madeline Morris) who provided not only sharp harmonies but occasional comedy.

Still, if there was one thing to take away from the evening it was the undeniable strength of the old tunes.  We were reminded time and again of the strong melodies and poetic lyrics that dominated the airwaves in Reeves' day. Each song felt like a mini-opera about teen love, yet, lost nothing when interpreted by a singer who just celebrated her 72nd birthday. The Shirelles' hits, in particular, have sometimes been written off as simple tunes for teen girls, but last night these old numbers sounded strangely powerful and expansive, beautiful odes to the outsized emotions that all teens experience, until the audience was enveloped by a warm blanket of pure American pop.

Naturally,  The Shirelles were well represented in Reeves' set. 'Soldier Boy,' 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow,'  'Foolish Little Girl,' 'Mama Said,' and 'Tonight's the Night' still sounded fresh. 'Dedicated to the One I Love' wasn't included, possibly because the original singer on that beautiful cut, Doris Coley, passed away in 2000. 

Reeves occasionally played the role of master of ceremonies, scoping the room for retirement parties and newlyweds,  inviting audience members to get up and dance. A few Scorpion Bowls into the evening, and Kowloon was transformed into something resembling an out of control wedding party.

Unfortunately, just as the momentum was growing, just as the burly old-timers in the crowd were tapping into some long forgotten muscle memory to do The Twist and The Slop, just as Reeves seemed about to embrace the entire audience in a big ol' hug, the lights came up. Kowloon owner Andy Wong decided the time was right, even though Reeves still had a few rounds left in the chamber. Who knows what else this seasoned professional had up her sleeve.  A tribute to Dusty Springfield? A Tina Turner medley?

But not even the abrupt ending could dispel the magic of the music. The show, smartly co-ordinated so one classic song flowed seamlessly into the next,  reminded us of why The Beatles started out imitating black girl groups, and that the music of the 1960s couldn't have existed without the sturdy foundation of the 1950s to lean on.
  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

SAVOY BROWN IN ROCKPORT, Sept. 21, 2013

CURRENT LINEUP AS STRONG AS ANY IN THE BAND'S 48 YEAR HISTORY:
Kim Simmonds' guitar prowess should be acknowledged, pronto...





Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown purchased a mail order guitar at age 13. He'd seen an ad in the back of a crossword puzzle magazine proclaiming that learning the instrument would help a boy make friends. The guitar was more appealing than his other option - the Charles Atlas muscle-building course on the next page - so he gathered his paper route money and, in that familiar coming of age ritual that has spanned time and time-zones, he "sent away" for the item that would change his life. When it arrived, a clunky acoustic thing he had to assemble himself with glue, he hunkered down in his room and practiced Chuck Berry licks with a monkish solemnity.

"Two years later, I'd not made a single friend," he says, "but I could play the guitar!"
Simmonds, 65, is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other Brit guitar legends, but as he showed last night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, he's not only the equal of Clapton and Beck, but clearly still loves the blues and still has the power to astonish.

The band opened with "A Hard Way To Go," a chestnut from the 1970 LP, Raw Sienna. Simmonds sounded road weary as he delivered the old lyrics by former Savoy member Chris Youldon:

"Ain't got time for doubts or fears
Ain't got time for shallow tears
Ain't got time to bare my soul
Because I still got a hard way to go..."


Hampered somewhat by a neighborhood ordinance regarding volume - the Shalin Liu, a venue built for classical music, is plunked in the middle of a sleepy residential area - Simmonds played the first part of the show with a large, hollow-bodied guitar most often associated with jazz, yet, he was able to wring staccato blues sounds from it, a feat akin to playing major league baseball with a softball bat and hitting home runs. During the second half of the show he switched to a full blown electric sound and boosted the volume, unleashing on Rockport a kind of multi-colored blues hell.

Songs from the Savoy Brown catalog were given full treatments - 'Needle and Spoon,' 'Tell Mama,' 'Savoy Brown Boogie,' - along with newer material, but with Savoy Brown it's not the songs that matter so much as the feel. Playing with twice the range and vocabulary of the average blues guitarist, Simmonds was a wonder, treating listeners to long, fluid solos, occasionally squeezing out a propulsive flurry of notes, coaxing hypnotic melodies out of pulsating grooves, and then bringing it all gently back to Earth.

Peering over his glasses like a fun-loving Welsh headmaster, Simmonds paused the show a few times to chat with the audience and tell stories, but admitted that self-revelation is not his cup of tea. His preferred mode of expression remains the guitar, and in Rockport he offered everything from grinding boogie, to jazzy flourishes, to mind shattering slide work. Even the tone of his instrument seemed to change from one song to the next, ranging from the clean sound of B.B. King to the dirtier tones of John Lee Hooker. At times Simmonds created so much ringing sustain that simple guitar notes sounded like barbed wire being dragged through his amplifier.

Perhaps the evening's most memorable moment came late in the show during bassist Pat DeSalvo's epic solo spot. As DeSalvo piled one harmonic riff upon another, carefully layering what turned out to be a show highlight, Simmonds stood quietly off to the side. Rather than sneak away for a moment to drink water or towel down his sweating face, he remained on the stage, closing his eyes and enjoying the sounds, rising up rhythmically on the balls of his feet. When drummer Garnet Grimm took his turn, Simmonds and DeSalvo watched and listened appreciatively. Then the trio came together, joining each other in mid-flight. Savoy Brown has been through over 30 incarnations since its inception in 1965, but it's hard to imagine that any previous lineup was any more powerful or beautiful than the trio in Rockport on Sept. 21.

A reassessment of Simmonds' place in the guitar hero pantheon is in order. Blues music can be turgid in the wrong hands, and the clich├ęs become too easy to lean on. For too many Americans, the blues is nothing more than John Goodman singing 'Sweet Home Chicago' on an episode of Roseanne. Simmonds, meanwhile, is still injecting the blues with a new feel every time he plays. He can crush your skull with a riff, or play with the stealth of a snake charmer. To call him a 'master' isn't adequate, because that implies someone old and stodgy, someone stuck in their ways. He's more of an explorer, still searching for that elusive beauty that can only be found in blues.

And if he's still searching for friends, he had a roomful last night.

-----

The Savoy Brown tour goes on through Dec. 14.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

BLUE CAPRICE; THE EAST; THE BLING RING


Ellen Page and Alexander Sarsgard: The East
The East wants to be a morally complicated film, but would only be so for people who are morally simple.  This doesn't mean the film is not enjoyable - the acting is top notch and the story is dramatic enough to keep you guessing - but director Zal Batmanglij also wants you to think he's a bright boy with big thoughts, and that's where he stumbles.

Sarah (Brit Marling, also the co-writer of the screenplay) is a former FBI agent working for a private agency that sends her undercover to learn about 'The East,' an anarchist collective that avenges corporate wrongdoing.  She maneuvers her way into the group where she meets Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), The East's charismatic leader, and Izzy (Ellen Page) his feisty acolyte. The rest of the group look like the folks you'd see at Starbucks after an all-ages goth show - lots of eyeliner, stooped shoulders, and a general mix of arrogance and low self-esteem. Despite the shabby look, the group is dangerous and focused. They involve Sarah in one of the high points of the film, a beautifully executed assault on a pharmaceutical company.
 
But, as often happens in movies where the leader of a cult is a handsome chap like Benji, Sarah begins feeling drawn to the East and their mission. Hence, she has trouble adjusting to regular life, her boyfriend leaves her, and her boss (Patricia Clarkson) warns her about getting too involved with these freaky kids. But quicker than you can say Donnie Brasco, Sarah is in the lake with the East members, enjoying their ceremonial baths, and making out with Benji.

There are some more twists and turns, and a couple of scenes that are downright suspenseful, but ultimately the film goes down some well-beaten paths and we're left with a bunch of characters who, after seeming unique at first, turn out to be strangely cardboard, just a bunch of cranky kids getting revenge on their daddies.
 
The film's message seems to be that corporations are bad, and it can be difficult to decide which side of the fence you want to be on. These are cliched ideas on their own, but  The East makes them even more hackneyed by portraying Patricia Clarkson as a cold bitch; by drawing all of the corporate types as stiff and drab; and by making  Benji into a buff, blue-eyed guru that any girl could fall for, even if he's an anarchist. He's Charles Manson with bedroom eyes. The group amuses itself with folk dancing and games of spin the bottle; are we to think Sarah couldn't appreciate their cause without seeing that they're just a bunch of kids at heart? Would she be so torn if Benji wasn't such a dreamboat?
 
One character we needed more of was Doc (Toby Kebbell), a Stanford-trained medic who once took the drug distributed by the pharmaceutical company and now suffers the frightening side effects.  His hands shake, and he faces a possible mental breakdown in the future. Still, he works stoically to save a wounded group member. Watching him handle a  surgical tool as his hands shake says more than the rest of these grungy characters combined.

* * *
 
One of the first things Lee Malvo asks for when he gets to America is a cheeseburger.  Within a few scenes of Alexandre Moors' Blue Caprice, he's become an expert with a rifle. Burgers and guns. Aint that America?

The film is a retelling of the "Beltway Sniper" case that terrorized the greater Washington area in the fall of 2002. John Allen Muhammad  and Lee Malvo carried out a warped mission to create chaos by random shootings, ultimately killing 10 and injuring several others. Since then, Muhammad has been executed for his crimes, while Malvo is serving six life sentences.  Malvo co-authored a book about the shootings; much of the information he gave  turns up in the story told here, although the film fudges a number of incidents.

Most films would have dealt with the terror in the headlines, and the police investigation. Moors, instead, focuses on the relationship between the killers. Lee (Tequan Richmond)  is a lonely teen, abandoned by his mother and left to fend for himself in Antigua. Distraught, he nearly drowns himself, only to be rescued by John (Isaiah Washington). There's an instant chemistry: John is a strong, smart, older man, a perfect father figure for the lonely 17-year-old Lee. And both have been abandoned by women - Lee by his mother, John by his wife. John brings the boy to America, and starts referring to Lee as his "son." Lee doesn't object.
 
Soon, John is teaching Lee his philosophies. He preaches that the United States is keeping him down, and that the country needs a nudge. "A few dead bodies," he says. "Maybe five or six." Lee, willing to do anything to stay in the good graces of his father/protector, becomes the sniper of John's dreams. "I've created a monster," John says at one point, playfully rubbing Lee's head.
 
Is the movie a fair depiction of what happened? Not particularly. Lee is portrayed as a frightened kid turned into a robotic assassin, as if John controlled his mind. But as any stage magician will tell you, you can't hypnotize someone who doesn't want to be hypnotized. I'm not an expert on the Beltway Sniper killings, but I know that the pair met under much different circumstances, and that Lee had demonstrated some anti-social behavior long before he met John. Moors seems less interested in the truth than in using the parts of the story he likes to create a hunk of psycho-babble.
 
So if it's not an accurate version of history, is it at least a good movie? I'd say yes, and I might add that Moors made exactly the movie he wanted to make, a cold-blooded tale without the blood.  The acting is solid, the direction is steady, if non-spectacular, and it's nice to see Tim Blake Nelson in a minor role. Also, Leo Fitzpatrick has a funny cameo as a shaggy-looking arms dealer. But Blue Caprice has a low boiling point and surprisingly little drama. At one point John talks about finding other kids to train as future snipers. I almost wish that had happened, not in real life but in the movie, because the idea of other boys competing for John's attention might have created some friction.


Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring tells the story of those spoiled rich brats from California who spent a year breaking into the homes of third rate celebrities like Paris Hilton. They didn't mean any harm, they just wanted to steal shoes and handbags and then go home and dance in front of mirrors. Coppola must have seen the story as a statement on America's fascination with third rate celebrity, but her movie never quite hits the ground running. The first hour is an endless series of break-ins, and partying. By the fifth time one of these dreary girls tries on a pair of shoes you feel like texting Ms Coppola: OMG this is so boring :(

The film finds some traction during the final half hour. The girls get caught and become third rate celebs of their own, and Coppola finds her satirical voice in the court scenes and aftermath. Too little, too late, though. Good performances from Leslie Mann as the dippy mother of one of the girls, and  Israel Broussard as a male member of the group, plus some nice cinematography by the late  Harris Savides, make the film almost bearable, but The Bling Ring didn't do well with audiences this year. My guess is that anything to do with Paris Hilton  just makes people feel bad.
 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Crystal Fairy; Touchy Feely; The Conspiracy


 
Sebastian Silva's Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus is the sort of film that grows on you while you watch it. For the first five minutes or so I thought it was just another slacker comedy about young know-nothings in search of drugs. I was wrong.

Gradually, the film's style won me over. It had a distinct feel, something like a Cassavetes movie, with a dash of Easy Rider. It takes its time, like someone you don't know who takes you into their confidence by speaking softly, warmly. Its Chilean locales felt unique. Michael Cera was also turning in a powerhouse performance as a boorish lout, the sort of fellow you meet at parties who has traveled a bit and talks about drugs the way foodies talk about cilantro. After one particular binge he picks up a pair of hookers who may be transvestites and offers to cook them rice. He's a blowhard, but he wants to connect with people.  

Jamie (Cera) is in Chile searching for a particular cactus that allegedly has hallucinogenic powers. All one needs to do is cook it into a soup and drink it. He enlists some of his Chilean friends to help in his search, and inadvertently invites the odd young woman of the film's title (Gaby Hoffman). She's an odd one, the sort of woman who tries to give the impression that she floats through life, but manages to hit a lot of bumps along the way. One of the first times we see Crystal, she's being attacked by a bunch of Chilean women in a park. She writes it off as a bad karmic episode.

Amused at first, Jamie begins to think Crystal will be more trouble than she's worth. "I don't need shit in my beer," Jamie says when Crystal tries to drop a magic rock in his drink. "I just want to drink the beer." Jamie may be in search of drug kicks, but he's rather conservative and doesn't have time for Crystal's nonsense. She means well, though, and Jamie's Chilean friends grow protective of her.

The film moves along like the best of Hal Ashby or John Cassavetes. There are many scenes where people just hang out or linger in a hotel room, engaging in what feels like idle conversation, but it never feels dull or self-conscience.  As Crystal tries to dominate the setting with her talk of healing and magic, Jamie is like an engine, roaring towards his ultimate goal of drinking his mystical cactus juice. He thinks he will find nirvana by getting stoned on the beach, under the stars. Crystal seems to have been dropped from the heavens to teach him that there is more to life than his ruthless aggression, and that the kind of epiphany he seeks through mind expansion can be found in other ways.  

But she has her issues, too; you get the sense that she's taken on her free-wheeling, earthy-crunchy lifestyle as a defense against a dark past. She faces the world bravely, not because she's brave, but because that's preferable to being frightened. I also suspect she knows her beliefs are on shaky ground; one of the film's best scenes is when she frantically tries to use her healing energies to revive a dead rabbit on the road. There's no talk, just the image of a woman trying, and failing, to put her beliefs to the test.  Later, after the group learns some embarrassing facts about her personal life, she leaves them just as easily as she had joined them.

In another era, this film would have been the kind of art house hit that would play for months, or even years. And for her role as Crystal, Gaby Hoffman would become a star. She's a whirlwind. With her Frida Kalho eyebrows, and her wild hair, she's like one of Robert Crumb's jungle women come to life, a perfect counterpoint to Cera's reedy character.  I wanted to know Crystal.  I also wanted to know the Chilean guys on the trip, and I wanted to know the old lady with the teddy bear they meet in town, and the old oceanographers they meet on the beach. When the movie ended I knew I was going to miss these people. I felt I knew them a little bit. I was even going to miss Jamie, which is a testament to Cera's talents.

In Crystal Fairy Cera moves away from the gawky teen roles we know him from. Here, he's a selfish,  American ass. He grows up, though, not by drinking cactus juice, but by learning to care about Crystal.

This month's 'found footage' horror movie is Christopher MacBride's The Conspiracy. Aaron Poole and James Gilbert play a pair of  filmmakers who are studying a local man known only as  'Terrance' (Alan C. Peterson). Terrance has not met a conspiracy  theory he didn't like. He's articulate, and a little bit menacing. Like everyone in this era of self-promotion, he even has a catch phrase of sorts: "Are you listening?"
 
As usually happens in this sort of movie, Terrance ends up missing, his apartment trashed. Poole's character, a typical slacker doofus with a backwards baseball cap, finds a new mission in life by reassembling a labyrinth of newspaper clippings salvaged from Terrance's room. He eventually discovers a pattern, in that Terrance's collection of clippings all link to an ancient group that is planning world domination.  When Poole gets more involved, we're treated to some Blair Witch Project style oog-booga. Some of it, I'll admit, is slightly creepy. Like Terrance, Poole's character disappears, too. And that's about it.

MacBride has taken two tired genres - the found footage thing, and the secret society  thing - and jammed them together. It's a noble endeavor, and his chronicling of the old society - a weird old group that annually gathers to talk business and sacrifice a bull - is the best part of the film.  It's scary to think we all might be under the control of a shadow organization that manipulates history without our knowing it - but The Conspiracy is far from the ultimate statement on the subject. 
 

Ellen Page looking pensive in Touchy Feely
"You're looking wan," says Abby (Rosemary Dewitt) to her brother Paul (Josh Pais) early in Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely. The characters in this movie often say things like "You're looking wan." They are the types who spend inordinate time and lung power debating the merits of salad dressing. They aren't bad people, and some viewers might even find them amusing, but at times, watching this movie  is like sitting in a vegan restaurant while the dull couple at the next table is breaking up.

Abby is a massage therapist who has suddenly grown disgusted by human touch. Meanwhile, Paul is a wimpy dentist who discovers he can cure people's pain. Ok, they've swapped places, get it? Touchy Feely wants to be a smart little indy flick, but it's also the sort of movie where awkward guys can't get into a yoga position, and people overhear other people having sex, and uptight middle-aged folks try to loosen up by taking Ecstasy. For a movie that wears its quirkiness on its sleeve, it's surprisingly trite.

Ellen Page provides the one bright spot in the movie. She plays Jenny, Paul's melancholy daughter.  As a sad young woman struggling with unexpressed desires, she turns in some of her best work since Juno. Unfortunately, her talents are wasted in a movie that actually ends with these insipid characters at the dinner table, raising their wine glasses in a toast, a tableau that felt dated 20 years ago.
 
 

Friday, September 13, 2013

FEMALE TROUBLE: Jug Face; Last Exorcism II; The English Teacher


Lauren Ashley Carter in Jug Face
Chad Crawford Kinkle's Jug Face is so self-consciously weird that it's never quite as scary as it intends to be.  There's Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) , a young girl impregnated by her brother; there's  Dawai (Sean Bridgers), who lives in a shack and makes jugs with faces carved into them; there's some mysterious creature in a pit; there's a borderline comatose grandfather who sleeps all day; and there's a blue-tinged ghost boy who appears now and then to torment Ada.

There's a plot of some kind -- Ada is being married off to a local boy, but she's pregnant, and apparently that will displease the creature in the pit. The locals - I could never gather if this was one big incestuous family, or just a camp of folks living in the woods - make sacrifices to the creature, which involve a lot of throat cutting and blood-letting. There's some weird stuff where Ada goes into a trance state and her eyeballs turn white. The acting is middling; the "country" accents used by the cast sound like what you'd hear in a community theater production of Oklahoma. Despite the woodsy setting, none of this feels authentic.

Hey, I am all for pit creatures and sacrifices, but Jug Face wants to be too many things to too many people. It wants to be a "small indy" flick,  but  it also wants to fulfill a particular blood quota for horror's less bright fans. As the film lurches between art house horror and bloodbath, it never finds its footing. Oh, Sean Young is in it, too. Remember her? She plays Ada's foul-mouthed mother. She uses some rough language and burns the girl with a cigarette while inspecting her vagina. See? Aren't you glad this movie was made?

 The Last Exorcism Part II is another weak offering about demonic possession, this time directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly. If you recall the first movie, it used  a "found footage" gimmick as an evangelical minister ventured into the Louisiana woods where a girl named Nell (Ashley Bell) was allegedly possessed. There was much screaming, and the girl was quite disturbing, and at the end the minister was killed. Someone found the camera that was documenting the exorcism and, instead of turning it over to the police, gave it to various pay cable services, where I saw it. The film grossed around 70-million, major moolah for a little horror flick, so naturally it bore a sequel.

This time, Nell has turned up at a New Orleans rooming house where she tries to live a normal life. She gets a job cleaning hotel rooms, does her best to fit in with her housemates, and even meets a boy she likes. She starts having sexy dreams, too. Unfortunately, Nell's old demonic tormentor,  Abalam, is still after her. There's some mumbo jumbo about Abalam wanting Nell to help him take over the world, and some covert group of demon fighters are trying to prevent it from happening. The story ends with Nell embracing her inner devil and wreaking havoc.

There have been more devil possession movies in the past few years than at any other time in film history, except for the 1970s. They rarely work because most of them are simply Exorcist knockoffs, filmed quickly and without much thought. The Last Exorcism was an energetic, reasonably smart entry into the genre, but this tired sequel almost destroys its memory. Gass-Donnelly wrings as much as he can out of the New Orleans scenery, and there are some interesting scenes involving strange voices coming out of an old radio, but he relies on so many cheap scares - people unexpectedly tapping Nell on the shoulder, dogs appearing out of nowhere and barking loudly -  that the movie starts to feel  like the Scary Movie series.

Ashley Bell is a good actress. She reminds me of Julie Harris, a fine actress from the 1950s and '60s who passed away recently. I imagine Bell could have a career similar to the one Harris enjoyed. But it's time for her to leave the devil movies behind and pursue better things.


There are scenes in The English Teacher where Julianne Moore seems to be channeling Diane Keaton. This isn’t a bad thing, since we haven’t had an heir to the kind of neurotic but lovable women that Keaton used to play. It’s just that we never figured Moore would be the one to pick up the torch.

Moore plays Linda Sinclair, a middle-aged English teacher in a small Pennsylvania town who takes it upon herself to produce a play by one of her former students. Jason (Michael Angarano) has returned to their town after failing to make it in New York as a playwright. He’s the sort of self-absorbed idiot who never shaves, can’t take criticism, and fills his Facebook page with quotes from Jack Kerouac. He’s just the sort of pseudo bohemian that a small town teacher like Linda might romanticize into something he isn’t. When she learns that Jason’s father (Greg Kinnear) wants him to forget writing and go to law school, Linda decides to save Jason’s career.

She involves the high school drama teacher (Nathan Lane) in directing Jason’s play for the senior class production. She even digs out her checkbook to help finance the production, until she’s nearly $5,000 in the hole for a play that looks like pretentious crap. From what we see of it, there are lots of suicides, a woman turns into a butterfly, and of course, Lane dresses the cast like characters from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The world of amateur theatricals hasn’t taken such a beating since Waiting for Guffman.

Linda gets so caught up in Jason’s phony act  - he even lies about his mother’s death to make himself seem like more of a tortured artist – that she ends up having sex with him. She tells Jason they can’t continue, but when she sees him getting involved with one of the actresses in the production, she reveals a nasty jealous streak. A lover’s quarrel between Linda and Jason is caught on camera by the school’s smart ass (Charlie Saxton) which leads to Linda being fired from her job.  The traumatic event leads to Linda crashing her car and landing in the hospital, where her doctor happens to be Jason’s father. Then comes an epic scene of stammering and the crying, and Moore is suddenly navigating through Keaton land.

The film was directed by Craig Zisk, a television veteran who has directed everything from The Larry Sanders Show to Parks and Recreation. Not surprisingly, The English Teacher feels like a television show. There are some minor subplots involving the school authorities trying to quash the production, and at one point Lane’s character is hospitalized with exhaustion, but the tensions created by screenwriters Dan and Stacy Charitan don’t amount to much. They intended this to be a sardonic, lighthearted comedy, and that’s what it is.

The English Teacher is funniest when Linda cuts loose – she pepper sprays Jason twice, and her efforts to keep the school’s lead actress (Lilly Collins) away from Jason are very funny. There should be more comedies in her future.

As good as Moore is, the unsung heroes of The English Teacher are Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz as the school’s principal and vice principal. They’re a funny pair, in sync the way certain co-workers can be. They yearn for the days when schools did Our Town every year. They may be a couple of narrow-minded boobs, but they have a point.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A BAND CALLED DEATH; EVIDENCE



The Hackney brothers in A Band Called Death
  
Every year, or perhaps month, seems to bring a new documentary about some obscure rock band or mysterious singer, with filmmakers eager to provide these performers with a  rebirth. Anvil: The Story of Anvil, did this well, as did last year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Searching for Sugarman.  Paul Williams is Alive came close, but was nearly derailed by its director inserting himself in several scenes, until it became less about the rediscovery of Paul Williams than about a sadsack filmmaker who wanted us to know that he and Williams became buddies.
 
Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s documentary A Band Called Death is a worthy addition to the rock doc canon. It’s about the Hackneys, a trio of African-American brothers from Detroit. They were  living in one of the world’s music capitals, but they weren’t interested in the sweet soul sounds coming from Motown. Instead, they preferred The Beatles, The Who, and Alice Cooper. When their mother received a financial settlement after a car accident, she gave the boys some money to spend on whatever they wanted. Wanting to imitate the expansive rock sounds they loved, the brothers bought guitars and drums and set up a makeshift rehearsal space in their bedroom.  They proceeded to slash and burn, playing amplified “white boy” music and driving their neighbors crazy.

The Hackneys (Dannis on drums, Bobby on bass, David on guitar) were known as Death. Their sound has been described as “protopunk,” or “pre-punk,” and they were indeed a year or so ahead of The Ramones, the band to which they bear the closest sonic resemblance.  But the Hackneys never call their sound “punk,” they call it rock & roll. There is punk energy in their music, and Bobby’s throaty vocals also sound a bit like The New York Dolls’ David Johansen, but there were also distinctly non-punk guitar solos from David (he wanted to be a cross between Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix), and some echo effects on the vocals that gave the band an eerie, 1950s sci-fi sound.  There’s also a staccato rhythm that erupts in certain songs, sounding like the California punk that wouldn’t surface for several years. Somehow, the Hackney brothers noodled around in their bedroom and came up with riffs that still sound fresh 40 years later.  But aside from a few self-produced singles, they didn’t record much.  The name of the band, you see, was a sticking point. Record labels wouldn’t touch it.
 
David, the band’s guiding light and chief songwriter, chose the name  after attending the funeral of the Hackney boys’ father. David was the sort of character that exists primarily in rock music annals, the gifted but misunderstood firebrand who can play like hell but can’t look after himself. He was a cloud gazer who saw Death as a spiritual band. Beneath the power cords was a message, or so he claimed. David was also as stubborn as a blood stain. When Clive Davis of Arista Records offered to sign the group if they’d change their name, David refused.  Death was his concept. The name had to stick.

Eventually, David’s refusal to change the band’s name caused the brothers to split up. Dannis and Bobby  left David and started a reggae band, adapting fake Jamaican accents just as easily as they’d mastered the sounds of Brit rockers.  David married, but remained a lost soul. He drank himself into oblivion until he died of cancer at age 49. Before he died, though, he gave the original Death tapes to his brother.  “Keep these,” he said. ”The world will want to hear this music after I’m gone.” It was the sort of spooky thing David was always saying, but he turned out to be right.
 
The documentary traces the fluke “discovery” of the tapes in the late 2000s,  chronicling how Dannis and Bobby’s sons created a Death tribute band called Rough Francis. There’s an incredibly touching scene where Bobby watches Rough Francis play Death’s old tunes at a club. Ultimately, this is a family tale. The Hackneys are warm people. When Bobby and Dannis take their first tentative steps to reform Death after more than 30 years, you can’t help but root for them.

Much will be written about Death’s place in rock history, and a few of the talking heads in the film try to give Death belated credit for being the first punk rock band. This is a stretch, as is the notion that David was some kind of genius. Granted, they were a talented, unique band, and their circumstances were fascinating. But overrating them distracts from the story being told here.  Death might’ve been great if a record label had taken time to develop them over a few albums,  but this never happened. It’s hard to say what Death could’ve accomplished. Chances are David’s oddball nature would cause them to self-destruct.  It’s scary to imagine David with rock star money.
 
More questions should have been asked of the two remaining Hackney brothers. Did they ever get heat from other African-American musicians for playing what was basically a white sound?  And did they know that a metal band called Death  was signed in the mid 1980s and sold over 2-million records worldwide? By some strange coincidence, the founder of that band also died young after a cancer battle. It makes one wonder what, exactly, is in a name.

* * *

 
When it comes to Olatunde Osunsanmi’s  Evidence, you’re probably thinking, “Another found footage movie? Is that the best they can do?”  But considering that most movies made these days are just imitations of other movies, it’s a fruitless complaint.  (I have been sick of the found footage gimmick since shortly after The Blair Witch Project, so I feel your pain.) And compared to some of this year’s horror fare, Evidence is pretty bracing.


Evidence is about a group of detectives reviewing the footage left behind after a massacre at a Nevada gas station.  Fortunately for the detectives, nearly all of the victims had a movie camera handy.  Not only that, but as some were getting killed they were able to aim and shoot and capture their demise. Apparently you can give any fool a smart phone and he turns into George Stevens on the front lines at Normandy.
 
The film tries like hell to do something new with the found footage stunt, and at times it almost succeeds despite a lot of hammy acting. The middle section of the movie is actually quite suspenseful, as a bunch of bus crash survivors try to fend off a masked maniac. Since the whole thing clocks in at a tidy 90 minutes, it’s relatively painless to sit through. Sure, it doesn’t amount to much, but it’s not boring.
 
Faint praise? Perhaps. But wouldn’t you rather I said a few nice things than to just trash another movie? Osunsanmi’s last film was The Fourth Kind,  another found footage story. That one involved alien abductions. Evidence is an improvement. Osunsanmi  seems more  in command of his tools here, and does a better job of whipping up the suspense. He still has flaws – he can’t direct actors, he’s content to let them overact, and he’s not a great storyteller – but he tries to create grand, memorable scenes, like the one where a detective pulls a cellphone memory card out of a burned corpse’s throat.
 
The victims were on their way to Las Vegas when their private bus was turned over after a weird passenger (the wonderful Dale Dickey) starts a tussle with an aspiring documentarian (Caitlin Stasey). Now, stranded in the middle of the night in a desert, the passengers and the driver are picked off one at a time by a psychopath right out of a 1980s splatter flick, a sickie armed with a welder’s torch.  The murders are gruesome, the killer is suitably menacing, and there’s a lot of  screaming and crying. It’s a shrill movie.
 
The team of detectives reviewing the found footage is headed by a no-nonsense pair (Radha Mitchell and True Blood’s Stephen Moyer) who scowl a lot and say, “Let’s get this bastard!” and “Rewind!” It’s as if they learned how to be detectives by watching CSI shows on television, just like the murder victims learned how to scream and breathe heavily by watching other found footage movies.
 
If you can get past the first 30 minutes or so, where the victims are having a jolly time for their little documentary (there’s nothing worse than watching bad actors pretending to be realistic for a fake documentary; it’s the acting equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard), the film gets better and develops a nice Night of the Living Dead feel, with the main characters locked in an abandoned gas station while the killer lurks about outside. Harry Lennix as Ben the bus driver is a good character, and he’s a true, steady presence in a film full of shrieking ninnies. I wish there’d been more of him. 

Other than Lennix, the best thing about Evidence is the killer. This character strikes with such cold-blooded violence that the film’s flaws are almost forgotten. At one point the killer writes on a mirror, “Fear me the way you fear God.”  Osunsanmi can’t direct actors, but he has a way with psycho killers.

Still, the ending is supposed to be a big swerve, and we’re supposed to stunned by the cleverness of the set up. Well, cleverness is a poor substitute for drama. Sitting through a movie for nothing more than a predictable “trick ending” is a disappointment.
 
Osunsanmi likes the horror genre, and he has a good touch. The murders in Evidence are truly horrifying.  But it’s time for Osunsanmi to move beyond the found footage gimmick and tell a real story. 
 
Buyer beware: There is another movie called Evidence that was released in 2011. It’s also a found footage horror film, proving that filmmakers are not only running out of ideas, they’re running out of titles.
 
 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Beatles and Big Star: Roc docs galore...



On the first Beatles' Christmas disc - those weirdly humorous pieces recorded and given to members of their fan club -  the boys stop their joking and give thanks to various people. One of them is a mysterious woman named Freda. At the mention of her name, we hear various Beatle voices yelling, "Good ol' Freda!"
 
This object of their affection was none other than Freda Kelly, a 17-year-old Liverpool girl hired by Beatle manager Brian Epstein to be the group's fan club secretary. Largely anonymous for many years, a new documentary by Ryan White reveals Freda Kelly to have been the group's mother hen, sister figure, and permanent liaison between the Fab Four and their horde of screaming female fans. "I was a fan," Kelly says in the film, "just like the girls who wrote to them, so I understood how they felt."
 
In Good Ol' Freda,  we get to listen to Kelly reminisce a bit about her 10-year-stint with The Beatles. Her stories are quaint, and even though she doesn't unload any major bombshells, she has an earthy, engaging personality. It's a fun film to watch. There's a good story about John Lennon pretending to fire her after she was late to an event (Good ol' Freda was in the dressing next door, partying with The Moody Blues) and it's touching to hear how Kelly, who had lost her mother at a very young age, developed a strong friendship with Ringo's mother.  It's also touching to learn that the band demanded she remain their secretary, even when they moved their operation to London and Kelly's dad refused to let her go.
 
Mostly, though, we watch this kindhearted woman with a bit of awe, the same way we look at lottery winners. "It's as if I was picked up and taken on this incredible trip, and then dropped off 10 years later," she says. Her life since the Beatles has been the sort of life she probably would've had if she'd never met a Beatle at all. She's been a regular English woman, raising a family and working a day job. But she still gets teary eyed when reading the final issue of the fan club newsletter, signing off and thanking all of the "Beatle people."
 
There's also a sense that Kelly isn't telling all she knows. To her credit, she's still minding the store, so to speak, and guarding the secrets, of which there must be many. At one point White intrudes on the narrative to ask Kelly if she ever dated any of the lads. She never takes the bait. Good for her. 

As Ringo once said in another program, the only people who knew what it was like in those days were the people who were there. And Freda Kelly was there. A glimpse of her autograph book, where Paul McCartney signs "To the love of my life," and Lennon writes, "To Freda, whom I love with all my heart and soul," says more than any shabby gossip she might have shared.

 
Big Star’s  reputation? They’re the best band that you’ve never heard of. They were a  favorite of 1970s rock critics, and their worked influenced performers as diverse as R.E.M. and Elliot Smith. Even so, they were hardly noticed during a brief run, not even in their hometown of Memphis.

The new documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me a well-intentioned, reverent tribute by directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori – aims for a style as delicate as the band’s sound. The people that the filmmakers interview are intelligent, soft-spoken, and genuinely upset that Big Star couldn’t find mass appeal, even though it will seem obvious to viewers why the band didn’t catch on. Big Star’s leaders, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, weren’t cut out to play 1970s rock gods.  One shunned the spotlight and the other was prone to depression. They weren’t exactly Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey.
 
For the uninitiated, Big Star’s songs were beautiful and elegiac, but Stax Records–the band’s parent label–didn’t know what to do with them and preferred spending money on successful acts.  By 1974, the band was no more. During the 1990s, as new bands paid homage to Big Star’s influence, Chilton reformed the group with a different lineup (Bell died in 1978). Chilton played with the revamped Big Star until his own death at age 60 in 2010. Bassist Andy Hummel also died in 2010.

What would Chilton think of this movie? He often accused people of overrating Big Star, and he’d probably be dismissive of the fawning critics. He recalled the group’s recordings the way some people look at  themselves in old photographs, blanching slightly at the memory. Still, a person can burn old photographs; Chilton could never completely burn the memory of his old band.
 
The movie begins with promise. We’re in Memphis in the 1960s, where new bands pop up every week, and every schoolyard guitar player is trying to figure out how Jeff Beck gets his sound. Chilton is a local legend, having scored pop chart hits with the Box Tops at age 16.  Meanwhile, Bell is an aspiring songwriter, fast-food worker, and engineer at Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Bell and Chilton team up and record an album that catches rock critics by surprise. It is the age of Pink Floyd, Genesis, and overwrought theatrics. Critics are looking for something less bombastic. Big Star was what they’d been waiting for.

How to describe them? The best I can do is to say they are The Beatles or The Byrds without the fun. Even when they try to rock, Big Star sounds like sleepy poets trying to recount a dream while still in an early morning haze. Even the band’s declaration that “Rock and roll is here to stay” in the song “Thirteen”–their paean to adolescent yearning–sounds like a lament. They could make anything sound bleak.
 
No rock documentary is complete without its tragic figure, and in Big Star’s case it’s Bell.  At one point, feeling overshadowed by Chilton, he tried to destroy their debut album’s master tapes, and attempted to overdose on pills. By the time Chilton turned Big Star into a backing band for his own ideas, Bell was wandering through Europe hoping to record a solo project. A posthumous album of Bell’s was released nearly two decades later called I Am The Cosmos. The title cut was about how being connected to the universe isn’t quite enough. The repeated refrain “I’d really like to see you again” is haunting. It’s a great song, and it makes one wonder if Bell had actually been the driving force behind Big Star since Chilton’s solo efforts were far rougher and less melodic.

Bell died in a car accident at age 27 –the age when tragic rockers are supposed to die. He remains a mystery to this day. The film mentions his interest in Jesus, but skirts the fact that he used drugs to kill his sexual urges. It’s hinted that he experimented sexually, but no relationships are mentioned. Even his connection to Chilton remains largely unexplored. Were they merely songwriting partners? Friends? The film provides no clear answers.
 
The reliance on veteran critics from Creem and Rolling Stone to vouch for the band’s greatness nearly brings the film into This Is Spinal Tap territory, which probably isn’t what the filmmakers intended. With no sense of irony, the critics speak of themselves as outlaws and non-conformists – maybe imagining themselves as Hunter S. Thompson types – but in old clips they look like nerdy college dropouts trying to score free drinks. Now they’re a bunch of fat guys listening to records in basements. It’s hard to take them seriously, especially since had Big Star had been a success they would’ve dumped them in favor of another unknown band. The public knew 40 years ago that music critics were a finicky lot. That’s probably why no one listened to them regarding Big Star.
 
The film’s best moments involve Chilton. We see him as a talented and mercurial person, always turning from commercialism toward the darker corners of pop. Within a few years of Big Star’s end, he was playing in perverse “anti-art” punk groups. Chilton’s involvement with punk music lead to his producing The Cramps’ first album, Songs The Lord Taught Us. The scene where The Cramps play in a little studio, however, brings to light  another of the film’s shortcomings. The Cramps are alive, raw, and wild. Seeing the Cramps perform is much better than listening to critics praise them.  Had there been  footage of Big Star playing a song to completion, we’d have a greater understanding of what the fuss was about.

Then again, the lack of footage helps keep Big Star in the shadows. Maybe that’s what everybody really wants.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

STILL SCARY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS? Stephen King and Amityville

  

If Stephen King’s Joyland is an example of the great horror writer’s current writing style, I’m not sure I want to read any more of his novels. Not that I mean to insult this book, which I suspect will be entertaining for his vast audience and, truthfully, isn’t all that bad. It’s just that he takes his sweet time about getting us where we want to go.

It’s not just the poky pace of his narrator, a lovelorn college student named Devlin Jones. The story is about the year Jones took a job at a North Carolina amusement park and found himself at the center of mystery. It’s a good one, too, involving a man who takes young women into dark places and cuts their throats. But before we get to the good stuff, King makes us listen to this kid as he drones on and on about being dumped by his college sweetheart. The effect is akin to sitting at a party with someone who is determined to not have fun. Jones is just that dreary.

The story is set in the 1970s, so there are some references to The Doors and Pink Floyd, and Devlin reads a lot of Tolkien, but any fun 1970s atmosphere is squashed because Devlin is such a whelp. King probably wants us to appreciate how Devlin goes from being a whining wimp to a hero by the tale’s end, but spending so many pages with a wimp is difficult. There’s even a subplot about Devlin befriending a local boy who is confined to a wheelchair but has psychic gifts so common in King’s stories. The kid also has a sexy young mom that eventually has eyes for Devlin. These are themes that King returns to every so often, the young man and the sexy older woman, and the vulnerable child with special powers. In fact, many of the usual King riffs are here, but they’re parceled out in small, barely nourishing dollops.

Those who like the shock and gore of King’s early novels may find this one to be slow going, and even those who have grown used to the milder tone of his recent novels may be disappointed in the light touch he shows here. While Joyland does indeed have all sorts of potentially interesting ideas – there’s a ghost in the funhouse, and a down at the heels amusement park works well as a symbol for something (I kept thinking it symbolized the horror genre in general, old-fashioned scares being usurped by the degenerates with knives who would gradually infest our highways and movie screens) - it feels like King is pacing himself rather than charging at us full-throttle.

King peppers the story with a lot of ersatz carny talk, but the amusement park never feels like a real place. It feels like Wally World in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and King populates the grounds with all of the standard carny types, ie. fortune tellers, aging impresarios, and grouchy lifers who grumble and call Devlin “Kiddo.” Part of Devlin’s job is to wear a dog suit and entertain the children, or “wearing the fur,” as it’s called at Joyland. Dev, though, wants to see the ghosts that everyone keeps talking about.  There could have been an interesting story about a man who wants to see ghosts but never does, but King never quite goes there. King gives us instead a turgid tale of Devlin pining for his lost love, and trying to lose his virginity. King means this to be elegiac, but there’s a Hallmark card mawkishness to King’s writing that defeats his purpose.

Is it an enjoyable reading experience? Maybe, but it feels like a trifle, like going to a great chef’s house and all he gives you is a bag of chips. What is most grating is that Joyland feels “assembled” from other parts of the King canon. For instance, the young narrator who grows up to be a writer and tells this tale of his youth? Check. A description of a face blown apart by a gun blast, done E.C. Comics style? Check. Sick child with a smart mouth and a heart of gold? Check-a-roonie. Some sort of foul weather to make the climax even more dramatic? Check. So on and so on, with plenty of hokey dialog that sounds like it was lifted from a Lifetime network original.

There are a few moments where King gets it right, like Devlin’s solo trek through the haunted funhouse, which almost lifts the story out of the doldrums. I also admire King because he remains a good sport, publishing this one through Hard Case Crime, a small group that has taken on the noble effort of reprinting crime novels from the 1950s and ‘60s. This is King’s second time lending the weight of his name to the Hard Case catalog. Still, I wonder if Hard Case founder Charles Ardai will ever tell King that it’s nice to get his cast offs, but the group would prefer something juicier.
 
* * *

The Amityville Horror was one of those 1970s phenomenons that bridged the gap between old fashioned haunted house stories and The Shining. Young people in 2013 have no idea how popular it was in its day. It was so popular, in fact, that when The Shining hit movie theaters in 1980, many cynics wrote it off as an Amityville wannabe. That’s impossible to imagine now, but in the 1970s, The Amityville Horror ruled.

It was first a bestselling book by Jay Anson, based on a haunted house case in Amityville N.Y. In 1979 the book was turned into a popular horror movie starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. It spawned nine sequels. But even the worst of the endless rehashes couldn’t tarnish the original story of the Lutz family moving into a house where a mass murder had taken place. Whether you thought it was legit or not, it was an intriguing story.

The Lutzes became celebrities of a sort, appearing on daytime talk shows talking about the spooky things they saw in their house, which included a red-eyed ghost of a small boy, lots of bees, and some sort of fiendish pig monster. And of course, Mr. Lutz became very violent, as the fathers in haunted houses usually do. The book sold like crazy.

Flash forward to this year. My Amityville Horror, a documentary by Eric Walter, focuses on Daniel Lutz, the boy of the saga. Now in his 40s, Lutz recalls his days as a teen in the haunted Amityville house at 112 Ocean Ave. More than that, though, he talks about how much he hated his step-father, and how he hated being known as “the kid from The Amityville Horror.”

Lutz grew to be a craggy, shaven-headed, chain-smoker who talks a lot about himself. He plays electric guitar, strikes a lot of tough poses, and wears a lot of T-shirts with skulls on them. The documentary follows him as he drives around the old neighborhood, has a half-hearted session with a therapist, and kvetches. You keep hoping the evil pig makes an appearance, but no such luck.

You start out wanting to feel sorry for the guy – he maintains that everything we’ve read about the house was true – and you hope to learn what it feels like to survive such a frightening childhood event. But before 10 minutes have passed, Daniel Lutz sounds like some has-been child star complaining about how hard he had it. Seriously, he’s like Danny Bonaduce talking about his days sleeping in his car behind the dumpster at Denny’s. Granted, if you see a flaming pig monster often enough in your youth, you're likely to grow up with some problems. We get that. But it doesn’t make for a compelling documentary. This documentary is slow, and indulgent, and once you’ve seen Lutz noodling on his guitar a few times, you are ready to swear off heavy metal forever.

My Amityville Horror is currently making the rounds on various pay services such as On Demand. Skip it. You’ll find something better on Celebrity Ghost Stories on BIO.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

THE ICEMAN: A classic that you missed

Michael Shannon in The Iceman
If Ariel Vroman's The Iceman had been made 20 years ago, it would be hailed as one of the classic mob movies of that era, alongside Carlito's Way, Donnie Brasco, maybe even Goodfellas. Hell, for all I know, it's the best crime movie since The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Instead, it was born into a low point in movie history where the biggest news of the day is usually about which overpriced actor will be cast in the next Marvel Comics flick.

The shame of it is that Michael Shannon delivered an Oscar worthy performance as Richard Kuklinski, the real life contract killer believed to have murdered over 100 people. Shannon may have turned in the performance of a lifetime as a man who reputedly has ice in his veins, yet he frets over his wife and daughters, and ultimately shows that he is not as ice-cold as the film's title would have us believe. His meltdown after being cut loose by small time mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is a graphic portrait of a man  feeling lost after losing his job, and his scene in an elevator where he bangs his head against the wall screaming "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," is reminiscent of Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta, alone in prison, punching the walls and crying. In this era where most films are cast with  former male strippers and professional wrestlers, we have to be thankful for Shannon's existence.

Early in the film we watch Kuklinski clumsily courting his future wife (Winona Ryder) in a scene that makes me want to see Shannon in a remake of Marty.   For all of his shyness, though, he has a penchant for violence that reaches back to his childhood when he tortured dogs and once beat a kid senseless with a shower rod. He had a devil tattoo on his hand, but has since covered it up, perhaps trying to destroy that part of his life. "I guess," he tells Ryder, "I was trying to look tough or something."

As an adult, Kuklinski is even more vicious. When a man insults his wife, Kuklinski cuts his throat. When Demeo offers him a job as a hired gun, Kuklinski shows an aptitude for killing that surprises even him. Soon he's making piles of money by shooting people in their cars, strangling them on rooftops, stabbing them with ice picks.  Meanwhile, he's a devoted family man, writing poems for his daughter on her birthday, letting her select his necktie when he goes to "work." We should all have such a nice home life as Kuklinski.

We get the impression Kuklinski could've been anything he wanted to be. Had he enrolled in air conditioner repair, he would've been the best in his class. He could have been a career soldier,  a cop, a stock broker - he keeps his murdering ways a secret by pretending to work in "currency exchange" - but it happens to be that Demeo hired him first. But as we've learned from other mob movies, a Polish hitman will never be "made."  This creates some magnificent tension between Kuklinski and Demeo. Kuklinski has limits, too. He won't kill women or children, and is angered to find a teenage girl hiding in the closet of one of his victims.  He lets her go, setting in motion his gradual downfall.

Shannon is a marvel. He growls his lines, but occasionally reveals a sly humor. It's startling when we see glimpses of the intelligence beneath Kuklinski's granite visage; it's like seeing a gorilla who has learned how to count. As Kuklinski, Shannon is playing a man who wants to provide for his family, but  also appears to get a thrill out of killing. He loves the hunt, he loves the drama, and he loves the tools of the trade, whether it be a gun, knife, or cyanide. That he doesn't stick to one method shows that he's sort of an artist, experimenting with different mediums. That he's comfortable killing in broad daylight shows that he has a bit of the daredevil in him. He's also sadistic enough to allow a victim (James Franco) a moment to pray before killing him.
"I'm good at what I do and I need to work," Kuklinski tells Demeo during a crucial scene. But is he only in it for the money, or is he addicted to the excitement? When he pleads to get his job back, he sounds as much like a man begging for a fix as he does a man fending for his family. Gradually, like La Motta or Henry Hill,  Kuklinski finds the violence of the workplace seeping into his personal life.  When Kuklinski's fate is revealed during the closing credits, I was saddened. Somehow, Shannon had me feeling sorry for this stone cold killer.

A lesser director would've gone for more obvious crime movie trappings, bludgeoning viewers with period music,  excessive blood, and flashy camera work. Vromen goes the other way, treating the material gently. Several times in the movie we see Kuklinski from a distance, the camera creeping up on him slowly, as if Vroman is trying to bring us right into Kuklinsky's wheelhouse, but  stopping short, as if getting too close might show us something we don't want to see. There's not a misstep or wasted shot in the entire production.

The rest of the cast provide Shannon with fine backup, including Liotta as the fiery Demeo; David Schwimmer as a troublesome member of Demeo's crew (complete with a glorious 1970s mustache);   Chris Evans as Freezy,  a killer who may be even more cold-blooded than Kuklinski; Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski's brother, imprisoned for murdering a little girl, and a reminder of Kuklinski's ugly childhood; and Ryder as the object of the Iceman's affection. Ryder is perfect, small enough to enjoy the protection offered by Kuklinski, but feisty enough to stand up to him when necessary.

There's a scene early in the film where Kuklinski, nearly choking on his own shyness, tells Ryder, "You're a prettier version of Natalie Wood." Knowing that the scene takes place in the 1960s clues us into Kuklinski for a second: he harbors fantasies about the woman who once cradled James Dean's head in Rebel Without a Cause and became a goddess for misunderstood youths everywhere. Casting Ryder is smart; she was close to being the Wood of her generation.

But Kuklinski's wife is more than just a dreamgirl. In a later scene where Kuklinski is ambushed by police, bucking like a horse as he's pinned to the ground, his real agony is not that he's being captured; it's that he's being separated from his family. His wife and daughters are the only things that keep him from being a complete monster.  As Kuklinski is taken away in a police car, the unobtrusive music by Haim Mazar suddenly swells to something like grand opera. As his wife crumbles into tears, Kuklinski only stares inwardly. His double life is over. Now he's just the lowlife he always suspected himself of being.