After Black Swan and The Ides Of March, Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist seemed like an odd choice to start the 69th Venice Film Festival. There's still some Hollywood star wattage there, with supporting turns from Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson and Keifer Sutherland, but here they are pressed into the service of a provocative political drama that questions the validity of the American dream to outsiders. In short, it is a pro-America film that dares voice un-American thoughts, and though it is perhaps overlong and certainly uneven at times, there's a lot to think about here.
For this we can thank Riz Ahmed, who is fast becoming one of the best leading men of his generation. If it wasn't for him, this film simply world not work, since it asks us to identify with him as Changez Khan, a smart and sensitive Pakistani man who appears to drift from privilege and social conformism to radical terrorism (which isn't unprecedented, as the Osama Bin Laden story has shown). And to best appreciate it, one must also skip the source book, since a key character has been rewritten bigtime to hammer home Changez's ongoing disillusionment with the USA.
The film begins with a tense kidnapping on the streets of Lahore. Changez is at a family party, but his behaviour is shifty and agitated. Nair cuts between the two scenes, and the next time we see Changez he is meeting an American journalist (Schreiber) who is asking him lots of awkward questions about his teaching position – which is perhaps connected to the kidnapping – at the local university. In flashback, Changez tells the story of how he went to America with dreams of, as he puts it, “winning”, and ended up back home in Pakistan, where he is now branded a preacher of hate. This turnaround is heightened but in no way absurd, and Ahmed makes the transition with exquisite ease; by the end, he is not a changed man but an emotionally bruised and battered one who has had to face the truth about who he is and his place in the world. The constant presence of 9/11 could have backfired horribly, but Nair handles it well, using the demolition of the Twin Towers to articulate how Changez's whole reality comes down in the space of a single morning.
There were plenty of people that didn't like the film, presumably for its Middle Eastern-centric politics (the Doha Film Institute in Qatar was heavily involved), and some reviewers singled out Kate Hudson as the weakest link (I must admit, I had some misgivings going in, but she gives quite an atypical, vanity-free performance). Commercially, the prospects are narrow, which is a shame since this is a well-realised modern parable about the way history creates its monsters.
A great performance and the subject of monsters also provide the building blocks for Ariel Vroman's sporadically spellbinding gangster drama The Iceman (pictured), which stars Michael Shannon as provincial New York gangster Richie Kuklinski, known mostly as The Polack. Richie is a smalltime porn producer when we first meet him, but when the boss of bosses (Ray Liotta) closes down the operation he finds a new job: hitman and debt collector. So far so GoodFellas; the twist here is that Richie keeps his work life a secret from his wife and two daughters, to such an extent that it becomes morbidly hilarious: when not attending roller discos with his kids, or throwing them sweet 16 parties, Richie is racking up a three-digit body count, finally getting his nickname (the film's title) by freezing the corpses before disposing of them months or even years later.
Shannon is simply great here, and, sadly, the direction is a little way behind him. Certain sequences are outstanding – like a bizarre assassination attempt in a nightclub full of people dancing to Blondie's Heart Of Glass – but the narrative sometimes dips a long the way. A pulsing, Drive-like electronic score helps push things along, but the introduction of a subplot involving Richie's brother, though vital to understanding the ending, comes in standard genre-movie form, with lots of stylised flashbacks. Weirdly, it reminded me a lot of Jennifer Lynch's recent movie Chained, for spoilerific reasons I can't go into, with the big difference being that The Iceman is based on a true story. And that's what Shannon really achieves here: in other hands, this kind of role could be showy, absurd or just grandstanding. Shannon, however, flips the way we see Richie until we understand that he always was a cold, ruthless, alienated killer, and the happily married family man routine was an alter ego he fabricated into reality to alleviate his loneliness and pain.
For a respite from such grim matters, I took the Bait, a 3D horror movie from Oz about a 12ft shark terrorising a Gold Coast supermarket. Yes, that's right, a 3D horror movie from Oz about a 12ft shark terrorising a Gold Coast supermarket. Beginning with a Jaws-like prologue in which a lifeguard sees his best friend eaten by a Great White, the action shifts to the boy's day job in a grocery store. A tsunami swamps the town, and soon the whole building is, to varying degrees, underwater and at the mercy of a rogue shark.
Following the template of situation horrors like Frozen and Open Water, Bait establishes that there are two areas – the supermarket and its underground car park – and makes good use of both. Director Kimble Rendall plays it straight at first, but the film quickly develops a goofy and surreal sense of humour about itself, principally in the form of a likeable but idiotic himbo and bimbo couple trapped in their car. The 3D isn't exactly integral here, or especially accomplished, but there are some good shocks and the gore is pleasingly nasty and inventive. Various character's tormented backstories, some of which we hear in unnecessary detail, hold up the flow, but if you only see one 3D shark-infested supermarket movie this year, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better one.