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

October 22, 2009

Fantastic Mr Fox

Wes Anderson deploys all his cinematic trademarks to bring Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s story to stop-motion animated life and the results are, well, yes, rather fantastic actually…

The film opens with Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his wife (Meryl Streep) breaking into a farm to steal chickens in a sequence devised as one long tracking shot, scored by the Beach Boys’ Heroes and Villains, and filled with ridiculous acrobatics by the foxes to avoid detection before they fall for the oldest trick in the book. When we fast-forward two human years/twelve fox years Mr Fox is raising a moody cub and is a social columnist for the local newspaper having promised his wife that he is retired from poaching. Yeah, that’ll last. Sure enough Mr Fox has a mid-life crisis and bullies his grouchy attorney Badger (Bill Murray) into securing him a new tree-home with a view – a view of three farms run by the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

Clooney’s Fox, not unlike his Danny Ocean, plots an audacious poaching strike on all three farms. Clooney’s always distinctive voice is perfect casting as its mixture of charm and unctuousness captures the arrogance that gets Fox into trouble and the quick-wittedness that gets him out of scrapes. This scrape is though is very tricky as he incurs the wrath of the smartest of the farmers Bean, richly played by Michael Gambon in a vocal performance that occasionally recalls Ben Kingsley’s villain in Sexy Beast, who makes it his mission to kill Fox even if he has to dynamite half the countryside to do so. Indeed requests for dynamite are just one of many requests issued to Bean’s chief henchman Petey, (voiced by Jarvis Cocker who performs a campfire song which is then hilariously critiqued by Bean) the funniest of which involves a plaintive request to fetch a ladder.

Anderson has injected so much of himself into this story that Dahl would probably raise an eyebrow. Some of the greatest comedy moments come from the indie director filming scenes with his too hip whip-pans and artful long takes of deadpan dialogue, then having the be-suited animals suddenly behave like animals, or from adding lines only adults will appreciate like the besieged Fox sighing “Well this is just going to turn out a complete cluster-cuss for all concerned” and filming confrontations in the style of spaghetti westerns. Mostly this Anderson-isation of Dahl works but the lack of explanation of why animals living in 1950s England sound American occasionally grates when we’re given nonsensical moments like Owen Wilson’s cameo as a high-school sports-coach, while Jason Schwartzman’s neurotic shtick as Fox’s moody cub, intensely jealous of the attention his athletic cousin Kristofferson is given by Fox, wears thin very quickly.

Seeing Anderson’s unmistakeable style in stop-motion is endearing but it is the mixing of his studied sensibility with Dahl’s anarchy which raises this far above the rival auto-pilot ‘the moral is always be yourself’ animations of Dreamworks. Recommended viewing.

4/5

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