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On DVD/Blu-ray: THE ICEMAN (2013) and EMPIRE STATE (2013)

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THE ICEMAN
(US - 2013)

It's hard for any 1970s set mob thriller to not swing from Martin Scorsese's nutsack, and while THE ICEMAN, based on the true story of career hit man Richard Kuklinski, is predictably episodic and formulaic as far as these things go, it stands out from the crowd thanks to some strong performances and some unusually diligent attention to period detail.  Most of today's films that are set in NYC of 40 years ago have a pronounced CGI artifice to them that's distracting to the point of looking cartoonish.  While those techniques are used here, it's obvious that director Ariel Vroman and the production design team made the extra effort to make it look as convincing as possible.  Michael Shannon, one of modern cinema's great character actors, stars as Kuklinski who, as the film opens in 1964, is a low-level flunky dubbing movies for the porn operation of powerful Jersey mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta).  Kuklinski works his way up to hit man after Demeo shuts down the porn operation, and after he lets a witness go (he doesn't kill women or children), Demeo takes Kuklinski out of commission and refuses to give him any work.  Kuklinski, whose ruthlessness at his job is at odds with his being a devoted husband to Deborah (Winona Ryder) and loving father to their two daughters, ends up working with freelance killer Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), so-called for his driving an ice-cream truck and storing bodies for up to two years before thawing them out and chopping them into pieces.  


Taking place from 1964 to 1986 (though Vroman stops paying much attention to the specifics of the years), THE ICEMAN isn't near Scorsese's league as far as mob thrillers go, and Liotta's played this character too many times to really do much with it, but Shannon is outstanding and Ryder manages to create a well-rounded character out of the typically clichéd "mob wife who doesn't seem to notice where the money comes from."  As with most releases from Cannon cover band Millennium, THE ICEMAN got buried and didn't see much of a release (when will actors realize that signing with Avi Lerner means your movie won't get seen?), and it doesn't really break new ground as far as these things go (does every 1970s-set movie have to include ELO's "Livin' Thing" and a disco sequence with Blondie's "Heart of Glass"?), but it's worth seeing, especially for Shannon fans.  Also with James Franco (who shows up for one scene before getting killed), David Schwimmer with a ponytail and a porn stache, Robert Davi, John Ventimiglia, and Stephen Dorff, buried in the credits for one scene as Kuklinski's brother.  (R, 105 mins)


EMPIRE STATE
(US - 2013)

Having directed exactly one good film (2009's FIGHTING), it was only a matter of time before Dito Montiel ended up in the Emmett-Furla Films/50 Cent universe.  Fiddy's name isn't on EMPIRE STATE, but his Cheetah Vision co-produced it, and in typical fashion, it played in a handful of theaters the weekend before its DVD/Blu-ray dumping.  It's slightly better than Montiel's last film, the dreadful THE SON OF NO ONE.  Based on a true story, EMPIRE STATE deals with the 1982 robbery of NYC armored car depository.  Unlike THE ICEMAN, the period detail in EMPIRE STATE is sloppy as hell, with subpar greenscreening and fashions that look more 1970s than early '80s.  Following a bunch of lowlifes in a Greek neighborhood in the Bronx, the film focuses on Chris Potamitis (Liam Hemsworth), who can't get a job with the NYPD after a pot bust at a Black Sabbath concert several years earlier.  He settles for an armored car gig, and ends up being the night watchman at the depository.  The business is riddled with corruption and apathy, which makes it easy for him to plan out a robbery.  Things spiral out of control when his buddy Eddie (Michael Angarano) can't keep his mouth shut and before long, the mob and the cops are involved.  Much of the film is a typical Montiel "slice of life" piece, but everything is so mired in clichés that it's hard to care.  The storyline is utterly confusing, Montiel gives Angarano entirely too much space to atrociously overact, though nothing can prepare you for the egregious miscasting of Dwayne Johnson as the lead detective investigating the robbery.  The Rock only has a few scenes and it looks like he shot them while in town to plug another movie.  He looks like a time traveler from 2013, with no effort made to make him blend into the surroundings.  Johnson has proven himself to be a capable actor, but it just looks like Montiel has no idea what to do with him here.  Second-billed Emma Roberts has even less to do as a potential love interest for Chris, but it feels like most of her work was left on the cutting room floor.  A bland, boring misfire, notable only for getting Paul Ben-Victor and Chris Diamantopoulos--both actors who have played Stooge Moe Howard--onscreen together.  (R, 94 mins)


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