A movie about a real-life gangster, Kill the Irishman simply folds the story into movie history.
We cull, we mull, we ponder what the god of cinema, better known as Popcorn Boy, provides us each week. Fresh from the popper:
Kill the Irishman
After the violent cinematic primes of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, movies about real-life gangsters simply fold the story into movie history, a continuing template. And so the actual career of bravura Cleveland thug Danny Greene becomes a variation on The Godfather and Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco. Kill the Irishman begins with an explosive bow to the opening of Scorsese’s Casino, as director Jonathan Hensleigh follows the ritual formula like a priest counting his beads.
But this priest can also savor the pasta, the wine, and a good Irish stew. He doesn’t bungle his options, like the current retro dud White Irish Drinkers. Set in ’70s Cleveland, though mostly shot in current Detroit, Hensleigh’s film shows how Greene (Ray Stevenson), a tall man with ham fists, rises from street punk to be the most fearless bruiser on the docks, then a take-charge hoodlum. He becomes a totem of Irish working pride by taking on Italian criminals (he’s also a serious reader and a nice fella for old ladies and orphans).
With juicy period touches, news clips, explosions, and lines like “I was haulin’ gravel till I discovered garbage,” the movie packs a lot of punch. Vincent D’Onofrio (a hood) and Val Kilmer (a cop) seem to have packed in too many meals. Bob Gunton, the vile warden in The Shawkshank Redemption, gets an early exit. But Paul Sorvino does excellent Mafia snarling, and Christopher Walken drops by to pocket some scenes as a Jewish loan shark. Females are marginal, though Fionnula Flanagan chews fine Celtic corn as a tough dame who bestows her blessing upon Greene.
The crew of goombahs and tough Micks includes Tony Darrow, Steve Schirripa, Mike Starr, Robert Davi, Tony Lo Bianco, and Vinnie Jones. The dramatic weight lands on slab-fitted Ray Stevenson, whose sensitive eyes contradict the rest of him, creating ironic effects. He is like a strange composite of Colin Firth and Steven Seagal. Kill the Irishman is a morbid but lively retread of generic crime pulp, and it should amuse Scorsese and Coppola. ★★★
Queen to Play
I never played chess — checkers is more my speed — but even though I couldn’t fathom the board moves in Queen to Play, following the movie was easy. Director and writer Caroline Bottaro makes smart moves, and in the climax game shifts her attention away from the board to concentrate on the canny eyes of the two players. They have always been the real pieces in play.
The most expressive eyes belong to Sandrine Bonnaire, in her 46th feature film at age 43. She is Hélène, hotel chambermaid in Corsica and a housekeeper at some private homes. She has a spunky daughter and a hunky husband who works in construction and frets about money. He seems to be losing interest in her, and her work offers little satisfaction. And then she notices a visiting American couple (Dominic Gould and the still radiant Jennifer Beals) whose chess play on a sunny balcony enhances their romance.
Up the hill is a rich and widowed American, Mr. Kroger. Kevin Kline is bearded, speaks viable French, and in English gives the best film recitation of Blake’s poem “The Tyger” since Alec Guinness in The Horse’s Mouth. With demure courage, Hélène approaches this aloof, grumpy man for lessons in chess. Of course, it’s an analogue of romance, blissfully consummated when they simply recite chess moves to one another. Even nonplayers should feel some orgasmic glow. And a feminist one, for chess is Hélène’s path to inner horizons and new, outer respect, and Kroger’s delight in her rapid progress is part of the beauty.
Maybe not since 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), when Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft had a long-distance affair based on their love of books, has sublimation been quite so civilized. Bottaro does not fall into Corsican tourism, though the island looks great. The family pieces balance the chess pieces. Bonnaire and Kline bend over a board as actors, not just enthusiasts. The last shot was for me a touch too much, but I’d bet that women will love it, and we males should oink supportively. ★★★
The Middle East is the world’s cross to bear, an ecumenical load of pain not just for Christians, Jews, and Muslims but anyone caught in the crossfire (as on 9/11). With Incendies, the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve hauls that cross. Filming Lebanese refugee Wajdi Mouawad’s script (from Mouawad’s play), he uses one tormented family as nails in the cross, each nail hammered until it bleeds. This is not a light, frothy movie.
The central figure is Nawal (Lubna Azabal), whose lean face becomes more haggard and hexed as she endures the serial agonies of Southern Lebanon (the 1982 Israeli invasion is barely a sideshow). Nawal, a Christian villager ostracized for illicit romance and pregnancy, is sucked into the pit of ancient clan feuds and the eternal war of religions. The various miseries include prison, torture, rape, assassination, the slaughter and then incineration of people on a bus.
Nawal’s travails as a Mother Courage, Lebanese and then refugee Canadian, are unearthed by her two grown children. Her lovely daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) has a talent for “pure mathematics,” but the calculations of the modern Holy Land are very impure. As Jeanne becomes a sort of pilgrim in hell, the plot’s math becomes improbable, with links of fate that seriously strain belief.
Incendies doesn’t take sides, and it has some brooding power. Solemn and punishing, it includes a few touches of chic (the bus massacre is followed by a wistful pop song). There are scarcely any attractive sights. After waves of suffering that arrive in titled chapters, there is a plea for compassion, even for a sadist who seems to distill every callous creep in the Bible. The film never tells you why such rampant evil happens or what might be done, but it does nail its cross to our heads. ★
Newsreel: This Sunday, May 1, is the 70th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s debut at the Palace Theater in New York. Scandalous gossip, rumors of litigation, and the hostility of the Hearst press had delayed the premiere for months, and Radio City Music Hall withdrew its invitation. The Palace, fabled for vaudeville, was fitted with a towering, lighted figure of Orson Welles as Kane and the promo line “It’s terrific.”
Despite great reviews, the kaleidoscopic film about a Hearst-like press tycoon was shown by few theater chains. Too sardonic, complex, and darkly satirical to be widely popular, it went into RKO’s 1941 ledger as a loss of about $150,000 (about the cost of a Brangelina makeup budget today). As a treasury of creative tactics and challenging showmanship, Kane remains our gutsiest movie. It long ago turned a profit, topped Ten Greatest lists, and has, ironically, sustained the legend of William Randolph Hearst. It also makes most of our multiplex offerings seem vapid and childish.
How brazen was Orson Welles at 25? One clue: RKO asked him to remove the small images of prehistoric pterodactyls from a King Kong shot that was used as atmospheric backing for Kane’s picnic, but he kept them because he liked them. The movie, scarcely aged, still entertains deeply. The richest readings on Kane are Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” (in The Citizen Kane Book), Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles, Robert Carringer’s The Making of Citizen Kane, James Naremore’s The Magic World of Orson Welles, and John E. Walsh’s Walking Shadows.
Reviewed in this week’s listings: Exporting Raymond, Water for Elephants.