THE WINGED SERPENT (Q) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Larry Cohen, 1982 (Shout! Factory)
A sleazy little semi-classic from the more daffily glorious times when horror movies had less gore, smaller budgets and more personality, The Winged Serpent (or Q, as it was called when I caught it in New York City on its first release) is a delightfully cheesy monster movie from Larry Cohen in his heyday. Cohen’s Robin Wood-certified masterpiece God Told Me To (or Demon) came out five years earlier, in 1977, but many joyous time-wasters find this one more memorable:
It’s all about an Aztec deity of whom you may have heard: Quetzalcoatl, the flying, and gruesomely hungry Godbird, who hides out in an NYC skyscraper, and bites the heads off sun worshippers and other rooftop hangers-out, until his nest is discovered by piano player-thief Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), who tries to snitch on Q and parley his knowledge into the Big Apple’s big time. Jimmy, a fearsomely vanity-less performance by Moriarty, is the best reason to see the movie. Moriarty, an ace at small-time bullies, mavericks and losers has never been better —not even in Bang the Drum Slowly or his bit in The Last Detail. And Richard Roundtree and David Carradine, as two cops who have Quinn’s number (they think) are almost as good. So is Candy Clark as the sex interest, Joan. The “Q:” is not bad either, though it obviously can’t play piano like Moriarty.
The Winged Serpent (or Q) is the kind of horror movie that amuses you, but doesn’t play off too much to your more sadistic instincts—which is all to the good, as far as I‘m concerned. And Moriarty is all aces, as a classic crumb-bum, trying to exploit the hell out of a Jaws-like cinematic scourge.
THE ICEMAN (Three Stars)
U.S.: Ariel Vromen, 2013
You want to know what “The Iceman” is? I’ll tell you. It was the nickname of a real-life Jersey guy named Richard Kuklinski who killed people for a living—and he’s the subject, the main guy, of a new movie called The Iceman, where he‘s played by that great f—kin’ actor Michael Shannon. Keep in mind that this fictionalized. They make some stuff up. But he (Richie I mean) was really good at it—whacking over a 100 guys by his count, maybe 250 by others, filling his contracts in so many different ways (shooting, strangling, poison, busting heads, slitting throats, etc.) that he never seemed to leave a signature. A pro, you know what I mean?
Richie started killing people in the 1960s, when he worked in the porn industry, and eventually he got hired by this wise guy Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) as a regular hit man for the Gambino family, and he was the best they had, the best you’ve ever seen, never mind that he wasn’t Italian. He was Polish. (Excuse me, he was Polish-American.) He was also a good family man. He took good care of his family—his wife Deborah (Wynona Ryder) and their two daughters Betsy and Anabel (Mega Sherrill and McKaley Miller)—and they didn’t have a clue all those years what Richie really did for a living (He told them he worked for Walt Disney, then that he was in something called currency valuation.)
The mob called him The Iceman because sometimes he’d kill a guy, then put him on ice and freeze him, and drop the body later, so the cops would be confused about the time of death. And also, of course, because the guy was like ice on the job, absolute ice. As cold as a Smith and Wesson, loaded, shoved against your neck, but don’t get me wrong: Richie had his nice side too. I mean, he took care of his family. He never killed a guy unless he was being paid or unless the guy had it coming. And he never killed women or children. Never.
That was his big mistake.
I won’t tell you what happened to Richie—you may know already because they made a TV documentary and wrote a book about him—and besides, you want a few surprises here, don‘t you? One thing that‘s no shock. Michael Shannon is terrific as Richie. I mean, the best. Even though the real Kuklinski was 300 pounds and Shannon is a better-looking guy, but it’s the movies, you know? This show has a lot of other even better-looking guys—I mean leading-man or one time leading-man types like Liotta as Roy, and David Schwimmer, that “Friends” guy, as this slimy little louse named Josh Rosenthal, and Chris Evans, Captain America himself, as this other hit man named Robert Pronge, whose cover is he drives a Mr. Freezy ice cream van, and Stephen Dorff as Joey, Richie’s brother in the slammer. And James Franco—he‘s only in one scene, but it’s a beauty. He plays this Marty Freeman, one of Richie’s hits, who prays to God to save him from Richie. I won’t tell you what happens. Hell, you already know.
But you know. why is Michael Shannon so Goddam good? The “Boardwalk Empire” Michael Shannon. I mean, the guy is first-rate, fabulous, good enough for an Oscar. Absolutely. You remember Revolutionary Road? Take Shelter? Bug? The tall crazy-looking guy with that weirdo don’t f-ck-with-me stare? No Oscar out of at least one of those? Give me a break. He should have had at least one, maybe two. And now one for this.
I tell you, it‘s amazing: He’s got this creepy look that scares the sh-t out of you. Never cracks a smile. When he talks, we believe him. I mean you believe this guy can slit the throat of some schmucko pool-player he just met, and then go home and be a good husband and father to Wynona and the girls. You believe he was this smart-ass spooky intellectual in Revolutionary Road too, and this obsessed crazy guy in Take Shelter. And the nut job in Bug. All I can say is: My hat is off to the bastard. A Chicago guy, I hear.
They just shouldn’t wait too long to give him his prize, you now? They shouldn‘t wait until he’s some old guy who has to drag his ass up on stage and mumble and got propped up by some big star introducer a—hole. They should give it to him while he can still stare down the camera, while he can still make some money off it.
Though I imagine he makes plenty of money anyway, Like Richie. He sure as hell makes enough movies.
The other actors and actresses, they’re pretty good too. I mean better than pretty good. Maybe not great, but just on the edge of great. The movie is just on the edge of great, too. I’m not sure what it’s missing, except maybe it’s like The Godfather. They need more scenes of Richie’s family life, with Deborah (Wynona), and the kids. Like Coppola had lots of scenes with the Corleone family. He started the whole movie with that big family wedding, and that was the best scene in the whole damned movie.
I don’t know, Maybe somebody thought that having too many scenes with Wynona at home would start to get boring. But you know what I think? Maybe that’s where the real tension of the movie lies. In this guy, this hit man, trying to keep up his front with his family and neighbors, and sometimes the mask almost slips, you know? Anyhow, it would have been some kind of contrast.
You know, the whole look of the movie reminded me a little of The Godfather. Dark and like shadowy and kind of grimy. Like real life, you know? The guy who shot it, the cameraman, Bobby Bukowski—another Polish guy, I guess. He’s good at shooting, like Richie. And you know what I hear? They shot this picture in Louisiana some place, not New Jersey. Just like that Brad Pitt movie where he was a hit man and so was the Sopranos guy Gandolfini. They shot that one in New Orleans, and, in the book, it was supposed to have been in Boston. Hey, what is this thing about Louisiana anyway? We’re a long ways away from Carlos Marcello—that old New Orleans outfit boss they think was partly behind the Kennedy hit.
Ah, fuggedaboutit. But there’s another thing that might interest you, especially since they only have this one Jew character in the picture I think, this Rosenthal, and he’s a louse. Iceman was directed and also some of it was written not by a guy like Scorsese or Coppola, some paisano like you’d think, but I swear, by this Jewish guy Ariel Vromen, who comes from Israel. Can you believe it? What’s the deal, they’re running out of Italians? They’ maybe gave Liotta and Gandolfino too much, and De Niro and that kid DiCaprio? Like hell they did. But anyway, you figure: the Israelis, in Tel Aviv, there’s a lot of blood in the streets there too. Maybe there’s whatever you call it, an affinity. An analogy. Whatever.
But I give this Ariel guy credit. You listen to the dialogue and you’d swear they’re all from New Jersey —or some place a lot like it. Not like they’re copping The Sopranos or something, but the mood of it. The swing of it, you know what I mean? I don’t know what else this director guy did—some movie named Danika, I never heard of it—but this one gets a lot of points, if for nothing else than it gives Michael Shannon that role of Richie Kuklinski, which is one hell of role.
I tell you, Shannon looks at you, or he looks at the camera, whatever, and the cold sweat just shoots right through you. I bet it spooks you almost as much as if you saw the real-life Iceman guy, the real Richie, ready to ice somebody. Or like Angelo, Gina Maria’s brother-in-law, remember him? The one who threw that numbers guy, Crazy Sonny Monicelli, down the stairs on Dominic‘s party on the Feast of San Genarro? He—I mean the real Richie—has to have been scary too, you know? How many people did I say he killed? 100? 250? Hey, that’s a lot of people. That‘s impressive.
NOW YOU SEE ME (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Louis Leterrier, 2013 (Summit Entertainment)
Movies are a magical art form—as Orson Welles, who was both a moviemaker and a magician, might have been quick to tell us. They transport us to magical lands, with magical people, and sometimes they excel at using magic and magicians as subjects. The Illusionist and The Prestige are recent pretty wondrous examples. Now You See Me isn’t.
Instead, this new cinematic magic show—in which four professional magicians join together for a Las Vegas-style super-act that may also be a super-crime—is a movie so self-consciously clever, so intent on surprising the hell out of us, and so utterly, shamelessly, mind-numbingly preposterous that you may walk out of it feeling that your mental pockets have been picked. (In a way, they have.)
Yet, like that Vegas-y magic act it shows us, Now You See Me snookers you for a while. For a half hour or so, I actually thought I was going to be pretty well entertained. The movie looks flashy, seems sort of smart, and throws a lot of star power at us. It’s directed by another of French action man Luc Besson’s protégés and Euro-slicksters (Bessonites?)—Louis Leterrier, the son of film director François Leterrier, and the helmer of Besson’s Transporter movies, as well as of the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans).
Leterrier‘s films at least look good. (So, they say, did his dad‘s.) And, Now You See Me stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco (James’s’ kid brother) as the magicians—“The Four Horsemen” they’re called, despite the presence of Ms. Fisher—along with further costars Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent as an FBI and French Interpol agent on their trail (after one of their magic acts seems like an actual bank robbery), plus Michael Caine as a big smarmy financial guy and Morgan Freeman as a magic fraud expert out to expose the foursome. So it’s a movie that seems to have a lot going for it, including that Grade-A cast and a very flashy production—one of those ultra-high-tech shows where everything looks like a perfume ad and is edited like a car chase. And it even has some good writers, though they haven‘t done such a good job here.
The script—by Ed Solomon, Edward Ricourt and Boaz Yakin (who wrote that moving 1994 big city heroin drama Fresh—tries to be a piece of ingenious fakery, flimflamming us through the movie and the acts, with a string of surprises going off like murder mystery last-chapter fireworks at the end. But, by the time we reached that end, the actors were the main reason I was watching the show, and the explanations were more unbelievable (and more mystifying) than the mysteries themselves.
Now You See Me begins with the assembling of the magic men (and woman)—card-trickster and sleight-of-hand sharpie J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), escape artist Henley Reeves (Fisher), mind-reader /hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) and street thief Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Quickly rising to the top of the magic charts, outstripping David Copperfield (this movie’s technical advisor) and Burt Wonderstone (this movie’s patron saint), they’re soon ready to stage their super-big, super-impossible (and super-illegal) super-trick. In a glitzy Vegas theatre deep in Hangover country, they pick a bewildered audience member, hypnotize him, make him believe he’s been teleported to the inside of his French bank’s vault (covered by remote cameras and relayed to the Vegas Hilton), somehow steal all the money (it seems) and then “teleport” the fortune back to the theatre, where they supposedly pour the loot down on the deliriously happy audience. Funny money?
Hey, that’s some act. And if you did it for a live audience, without the benefit of movie editing and CGI, it would no doubt blow everyone away. As part of a movie—with the benefit of editing and camera trickery—it’s not quite as impressive. Furthermore since our heroes have now committed a robbery in front of thousands of witnesses (some admittedly well-paid), you wonder why they still get bookings. (Maybe I missed it.) You wonder why the FBI (as represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (as represented by Melanie Laurent), or even just the local police, can’t do a better job with them. (There’s an explanation for that, but not a very satisfying one.) You wonder who pays Morgan Freeman to debunk magic acts. (Could he also get paid for debunking horror movies and fairytales?) You wonder if Wonderstone will show up and teleport them all to Wonderland and West Hollywood.
I should tell you that the movie later also offers what’s supposed to be a perfectly logical explanation for the “bank robbery trick“ and the other tricks and everything strange and seemingly magical that happens (something that might actually, supposedly happen in the real world), and if you can swallow them, you may be entertained by the rest of the Now You See Me. You might be amused by the alleged romance, or rom-com slight-of-hand, between the chic Laurent and Ruffalo at his sloppiest. But in the end, it’s all tricks and little magic.
Now You See Me is lucky it has its cast, especially Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, to anchor it in some kind of amusing humanity and acting expertise. But it doesn’t have enough of Caine, and Freeman, unfortunately, is saddled with some of the script’s more absurd plot twists. Of all the show’s many absurdities, the most absurd is the main trick itself—an elaborate triple-reverse wannabe-shockeroo that goes too far.
Of course, I don’t want to let any rabbits out of the hat. Or keep any Bessonites out of Bessonia. And I’m aware that “it’s only a movie.” But a movie, like a magic trick (and Now You See Me tries to be both) ought to find its own vein of internal logic and stick to it. Not only is the main trick here a piece of sleight-of hand or sleight-of-story that couldn’t happen in the real world. By rights, it shouldn‘t have happened in this movie either, not even to Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.