Talking Movies

December 15, 2019

From the Archives: You Kill Me

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Ben Kingsley does a better Robert De Niro than Robert De Niro does these days, and, mirabile dictu, it’s enough here to power this film to great heights. I’ve mocked Ben Kingsley as much as anyone, especially the explosion of pomposity since he got his Knighthood and allegedly starting telling production runners foolish enough to call him Ben, ‘That’s Sir Ben to you!’, as well as inserting his title into the credits on Lucky Number Slevin. But his role as shambolic alcoholic hitman Frank Falenczyk must rank beside his terrifying turn as an unhinged gangster in Sexy Beast as his best performance since his seminal roles in Gandhi and Schindler’s List. The film begins with his alcoholic Frank demonstrating the best way to incentivise yourself to clear the snow off your porch; dropping a bottle of vodka a few feet ahead of you and having to dig your way towards it to get another swig.

Frank passes out drunk while waiting to take out grasping Irish mobster Edward O’Leary and is sent to San Francisco to dry out while his Polish crime family led by Philip Baker Hall’s patriarch seek to prevent a Sino-Irish takeover of their turf in Buffalo, upstate New York. Frank is forced by his Frisco contact, bent lawyer Bill Pullman (in an odd, odd cameo), to attend AA meetings. At first resistant, as he settles into a life working at a mortuary and attending meetings he begins to seek to make amends; not for the murders, he’s not sorry about them, he is sorry about murdering them badly because he was drunk. In a priceless scene he sends a $50 voucher for the Sony Centre to the family of a woman whose throat he was meant to slit, but she moved, so she got a knife in the eye first before being dispatched.

Tea Leoni, as his love interest Laurel (who he meets at a funeral), is more relaxed and thus a better actress now that she’s 41 than she ever was when she was a ‘hot young star’ and it is her hilariously deadpan acceptance of Frank’s past that makes the film work. John Dahl, the director of The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, uses a demented tango soundtrack that underlines the playful absurdity of all of this, and if you didn’t get it already Dahl inserts an insanely happy song to score a montage of Frank using melons to show Laurel how to slice up human beings efficiently. Luke Wilson as his AA mentor also delivers an unusually subtle and effective performance as Dahl draws out a mordant approach to the material from all concerned, while also injecting an undercurrent of deep humanity into the decline and fall of the Polish mob in Buffalo. This is a black comedy to savour.

4/5

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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