The Iceman

The Iceman
The Iceman

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 June 2013

Distributor: Lionsgate

Director: Ariel Vromen

Writers: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen (screenplay)

Based on the book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer by: Anthony Brun

Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta

USA 2012

105 mins

A hulk of a man with a soft spot for sadistic murder, Polish-born American Richard Kuklinski gained fame in the mid-1980s as the The Iceman, a highly professional Mafia hit man who is alleged to have ruthlessly killed more than 100 men (sparing women and children by rule), while living a sham life as a banker and devoted Catholic family man, with a wife and two loving daughters, in suburban New Jersey. History suggests he received his nickname for hiding a body in an ice-cream-truck freezer, but watching Arial Vromen’s chilly thriller about the notorious contract killer, that only vaguely hints at the subtle ingenuity with which Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) dispatched his numerous victims for the mob over the course of more than a decade.

Plotted and paced as a character study rather than a full-blown action movie, the film starts with Richie as a well-mannered, if somewhat unwieldy, young man out on a date with the girl (Winona Ryder) destined to become the love of his life. He clearly has the physical strength to kill, but a romantic at heart, he manages to pull off his stone-faced charm in his favour. However, soon after a short period of conjugal bliss, Richie’s focus begins to shift dramatically as he becomes involved with troubled local mob boss Roy (Ray Liotta), who gives him the opportunity to make full use of his vicious, barbaric potential.

On paper, this may sound like a solid enough premise to make for an enjoyable ride. The performances are strong throughout, in particular Ray Liotta, but also Ryder as Kuklinski’s trusting wife, who didn’t have a clue what her caring, if increasingly abusive, husband was up to when he left home every day. But even a strong cast lead by an outstanding actor such as Shannon (Take Shelter) can’t diminish the feeling that there is something wrong with Vromen’s film from the outset. And this doesn’t necessarily apply only to the standard criminal biopic plot, which feels a little clumsy and heavy-handed in places. What ultimately makes The Iceman a rather underwhelming experience is the over-stylised period look, which tries too hard to re-vive the cool grittiness, low-tech feel and cliché of the classic American gangster and crime movies that ruled the 1970s, while throwing in a touch of film noir and some explicit violence for good measure. However, instead of daring to move further into darker and more mysterious horror territory, Vroman seems more interested in exploring the tragic duality of Kuklinski’s life as the proud, loving family man who killed for fun, for money, to cover up his own crimes, and to satisfy his inner rage. Yet, the calculated, episodic structure Vroman applies to ratchet up this high body count doesn’t quite keep up enough narrative momentum to carry the audience along.

In the end, The Iceman seems like a missed opportunity, as Shannon’s authority as the lead is undeniably tantalising. His performance is finely tuned and powerful as ever, displaying a kind of ascetically mature understanding of his character. Kuklinski, it seems, was a man as much at war with himself as with the world that surrounded him, and Shannon, with his unnerving charisma and emotionless, beady eyes, resembles that intelligent, cruel, animal energy required to maintain a two-fisted façade that never revealed the true killer inside, until his arrest in 1986.

Pamela Jahn

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The Key

The Key
The Key

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 20 May 2013

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Tinto Brass

Writer: Tinto Brass

Based on the novel Kagi by: Junichirô Tanizaki

Cast: Frank Finlay, Stefania Sandrelli, Franco Branciaroli, Barbara Cupisti

Original title: La chiave

Italy 1983

116 mins

Best known for his scandalous Nazi sex shocker Salon Kitty (1976) and his orgiastic take on depraved Roman emperor Caligula (1979), Tinto Brass turned to lighter eroticism with The Key in 1983. Adapted from a much filmed novel by Junichirô Tanizaki (including by Kon Ichikawa in 1959 and by Tatsumi Kumashiro in 1974 as part of Nikkatsu studio’s Roman Porno series), The Key relocates the story to 1940s fascist Venice. Nino is an ageing husband who tries to get his much younger, but sexually inhibited wife Teresa to loosen up by manipulating her into an affair with their future son-in-law, Laszlo. This he does by writing a diary, which he makes sure Teresa stumbles upon. Unsettled by what she’s read, Teresa starts to explore her sexuality, starting her own diary, which she hides in a place where she knows her husband will find it. Exquisitely twisted mind games follow, leading to more and more adventurous sexual encounters fed by jealousy and unspoken desires, in which the couple’s daughter Lisa will also play a part.

One of Brass’s classiest films, it is a gorgeous, sophisticated, racy drama given added depth by its setting. Demonstrating Brass’s much-admired visual flair, the lush colours, painterly compositions and use of mirrors beautifully enhance the elegant eroticism of the film. The grey, rainy Venice and oppressive fascist background create a gloomy, melancholy atmosphere that contrasts with the warm, muted colours of the interiors that shelter the three characters’ private journey of sexual liberation and discovery. Mussolini admirer and fascist activist Lisa, the only explicitly political character, is also the only one who doesn’t seem to grasp the fluid complexity of the emotional and sexual relationships between the other three characters. Although to do so Nino and Teresa have to play an unconventional, elaborate game of secrets and disclosures, sometimes coldly calculating what to reveal and what to suppress in their diaries, they are able to finally attain a remarkable level of intimacy and understanding.

Unlike his later, rather cheesy All Ladies Do It (Cos&#236 fan tutte, 1992, also newly released on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Video), The Key is not a flimsy, silly sleaze-by-numbers fest, but an erotic drama that is as cerebral as it is sensual, relying as much on the words written by the characters as on the piquant sexual encounters. The superb Stefania Sandrelli lends her voluptuous beauty to Teresa, and her natural, unrestrained performance is essential to both the film’s psychological depth and carnal appeal. The Key delivers plenty of that while also offering a subtle, sensitive depiction of the strange remoteness within a marriage and the convoluted mechanics of desire, which, as in all of Brass’s films, are observed with a non-judgemental, open mind.

Virginie Sélavy

Aguirre, Wrath of God

Aguirre, Wrath of God

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 June 2013

Distributor: BFI

Director: Werner Herzog

Writer: Werner Herzog

Cast: Klaus Kinski, Cecilia Rivera, Ruy Guerra, Peter Berling

Original title: Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes

West Germany 1972

93 mins

Werner Herzog’s first film with Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, Wrath of God, tells the story of an expedition of conquistadors searching for the fabled Eldorado and coming unstuck in the process. Made in 1972, the film was shot entirely on location in the Amazon rain forest and involved the cast and crew enduring much of the madness and hardship that the film’s characters underwent, in what was to become Herzog’s almost legendary modus operandi. The relationship between the director and lead actor – as documented in Herzog’s brilliant 1999 documentary My Best Fiend – was particularly fraught, with temper tantrums, threats of murder and even gunplay coming into the mix.

Aguirre, Wrath of God will be released in the UK as a limited edition Blu-ray SteelBook on 19 May 2014.

Aguirre incorporates this sense of ramshackle chaos and insanity. The first sight of the expedition traversing the mountains inspires anything but confidence. The adventurers and slaves descend precipitous paths awkwardly, encumbered by pieces of cannon, sedan chairs, two gorgeously dressed noble women and livestock. A crate of hens is dropped down the mountainside, clouds and mist obscure the view, and no one looks happy. The adventure – even at the beginning – seems like dangerous drudgery rather than anything glamorous or romantic. This is not the story of Europeans going mad in the jungle, but rather the madness that drives these people into the jungle in the first place. Almost immediately, the group begins to fragment, with a forward expedition being sent on, and this continual unravelling will be the main dynamic of the narrative as we follow them on their hopeful (but to us obviously hopeless) quest. Official proclamations are read to the indifferent jungle, the Holy Brother charts the unfolding of disaster despairingly in his diary, and things begin to fall apart. The most literal and dangerous example of this are the rafts that they use to transport themselves down the river and – in the earliest part of the journey – through the furious churning rapids. The camera itself is almost always in the way, splashed with water, and occasionally glanced at.

Aguirre’s transformation from muttering discontent to utterly insane and self-deluded tyrant is inversely proportionate to the amount of power he actually has. As his men succumb to disease and Indian attacks and the ranks are thinned, he lurches around and postures (so much of his performance is in his strange, lopsided stance), attempting to somehow realise his own vision through the power of his glare and his overblown and self-deluded rhetoric. The hypnotic music by Popol Vuh lulls us into a fever dream, and Herzog never allows Aguirre a moment of triumph, or a glorious death. He is left to exacting executions, via his humming henchman, and even there the main voice of opposition, the noblewoman Inez, played by Helena Rojo, defeats him by bravely walking off into the jungle.

There is a dark comedy to all this, and Aguirre is not the only lunatic in the asylum. When two friendly Indians turn up, seemingly prepared to worship the Spaniards as gods, the person who we’ve previously trusted as the narrative voice of reason, Brother Gaspar De Carvajal (Del Negro), has them executed for blasphemy. The cruelty of the expedition is shown in their treatment of the animals (horses, hens and monkeys) as well as of each other, an unpleasant aspect which the film shares with that other film of jungle madness, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Ultimately, the fury of the title is self-inflicted and preposterous. The omnipresent river that carries them along at its own pace – and it’s slowness can prove as deadly as its rapids – will take Aguirre and his raft of monkeys into oblivion.

John Bleasdale

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