PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Killer Inside Me (B)
U.S.; Michael Winterbottom, 2010, MPI Home Video
Ever since it first appeared as a paperback original novel in 1952, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me -- the first-person deep-noir tale of a smooth-talking small-town Southern deputy sheriff and murdering bastard named Lou Ford -- has been a movie masterpiece waiting to happen.
It's an absolutely terrific book. As you read it, you're hooked good by Thompson's terse, ice-cold-blooded sentences, his flawless chopped rhythms, his darkly unsentimental yarn-spinning and that all-seeing laser eye with which he penetrates a believable but dangerously off-kilter world of "respectable" killers and savaged hookers. The centerpiece of the book is a portrayal of pure, unrepentant evil, masked with "good guy" affability, a piece of two-faced brutality that can leave you drained. His name is Lou Ford. He's a lawman with a killer inside.
It's my unhappy duty to report that director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran's movie of The Killer Inside Me is no masterpiece, even though the filmmakers treat the book as one, and try to render it as faithfully and reverently as they can -- and even though they have a good cast and a really good Lou Ford in Casey Affleck.
Affleck plays it honey-tongued, boyish and secretly brutal, and he makes it work.
In Thompson's tale, which Winterbottom gives us straight up, Ford has been crippled inside for years by a bent boyhood. But he doesn't discover his real core of depravity until he's asked to put some fear into a local whore, Joyce (Jessica Alba), who's been screwing the rich and worthless Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson), son of the city's main man Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). Unfortunately, Lou discovers that he liked having sex with hooker Joyce, and worse, that he likes beating her up, and even worse, that she apparently likes it too. (The beating scene here should make your flesh crawl.)
This dangerous liaison ultimately unravels the whole town, since sweet-talking Lou has a friendly faade and a talent for killing and lying -- though not as big a talent as he thinks.
Ford isn't an easy part to play. You have to literally not give a damn what an audience thinks of you. But Affleck gives us Southern bullshit and genial macho with a vein of ice running underneath.
Winterbottom's film errs in not having bad Lou narrate more; it's Lou's voice in the novel that chills you to the bone. The movie also lacks that high visual style that noir and neo-noir need. The Killer Inside Me would have been much better if it looked like a Coen Brothers movie (like No Country for Old Men), or like a Polanski movie, with more of Polanski's eye-level, subjective Repulsion or Chinatown viewpoint shots.
Get Him to the Greek (B)
U.S.; Nicholas Stoller, 2010, Universal Pictures
Get Him to the Greek -- the latest from the Judd Apatow juggernaut -- is an often funny "guys-on-the-loose" comedy with, as you'd expect, something extra. Writer-director Nicholas Stoller (who made another Apatow movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, source of one Greek's lead characters, Aldous Snow) gives the movie a shrewdly observed corporate rock 'n' roll background, an ironic/glamorous sheen and some juicy roles for some talented comic actors: notably Russell Brand as Snow, an off-the-wagon rock star, and Jonah Hill as one of his biggest fans, record company intern Aaron Green.
Aaron, a brainy, likable, good-hearted employee at Snow's label Pinnacle, responds to a nightmarish brain-storming session by sadistic Pinnacle exec Sergio Roma (Sean Combs, really cooking) with a hot idea. He suggests that Snow return to the scene of one of his biggest triumphs, L.A.'s Greek Theatre, where Snow and his band recorded an epochal live performance album that apparently rivaled B.B. King at the Regal, James Brown at the Apollo, and the Who Live at Leeds.
There's just one problem. Getting him to the Greek.
Snow, you see, has reliability issues. Once a yoga-spouting narcissist, he is now a dissolute wreck on booze and smack. Getting him anywhere, including out of bed in the morning, will be quite a chore.
This is a terrific premise for a wild, unbuttoned buddy-buddy comedy, and Getting Him to the Greek mostly milks it smartly. The show is loaded with dead-on satiric jibes at the music and TV industries, crammed with cameos of celebrities amusingly playing themselves (everyone from Pink and Christina Aguilera to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, as a fellow guest on The Today Show) and some genuinely hilarious gags.
The movie also has characters both comic and convincing -- and even, occasionally moving. With his Satanic locks and hyper-slim physique, Brand, who sings all his songs, suggests a classic star-gone-to-seed, but he also makes us believe Snow can rise, and rock, to the occasion.
Playing for Time (A-)
U.S.; Daniel Mann, 1980, Olive
Playwright Arthur Miller's Holocaust drama, based on the memoirs of Jewish cabaret singer/musician Fania Fenelon, is one of his best works, a moving and inspiring look into the belly of the Nazi beast, Auschwitz. As memorably played by Vanessa Redgrave, Fenelon -- who sang, played and made arrangements for the Auschwitz camp inmate classical orchestra -- becomes a symbol of the artist's plight under fascism, one of Miller's great themes. Head shaven, eyes anguished, pouring out music for Dr. Mengele and other aficionados and beasts, Redgrave keeps touching greatness in her portrayal -- which is both classically restrained and emotionally naked. Equally strong is Jane Alexander as the orchestra's demanding conductor, a Gustav Mahler relative. The rest of the brilliant, if slightly eccentric cast includes Shirley Knight, Viveca Lindfors, Christine Baranski, Verna Bloom, and Marisa Berenson.
They all rise to the occasion. This made-for-TV movie classic received a brace of Emmies, including one for best drama, and citations for Miller, Redgrave and Alexander. But it's been relatively neglected since, perhaps because it was directed by non-auteur Daniel Mann.
That seems unfair. It's really Mann's finest work too, and his services as a Method-oriented director of actors, and a man who respected good material, could be valuable. (Anna Magnani and Shirley Booth won best actress Oscars under Mann for his films of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo and William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba, as did Liz Taylor for the less-well-written, John O'Hara-derived Butterfield 8.) So what if he didn't have much of a visual style? So what if he directed Our Man Flint?
Mann didn't betray this material, which, for theme and dramatic execution, is predominantly Arthur Miller's anyway. As in Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, that quintessential socially oncerned writer soars here. Playing for Time has an Ibsenesque fierce conscience, lucidity and theatrical strength.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth (A)
U.S.; Series producer: Catherine Tatge, 1988, Athena
Movies (and TV) can be a powerful educational tool, even if they're often otherwise engaged in tomfoolery and used to miseducate and misinform. A case in point: Bill Moyers' series of interviews with author-teacher-expert in mythology Joseph Campbell conducted in the two summers before Campbell's death at the California hideaway/myth factory of Campbell's most influential disciple, George Lucas, on such subjects as "The Hero with a Thousand faces," "Love and the Goddess," "The Hero's Adventure," "Masks of Eternity" and "The Message of the Myth."
Campbell is a fascinating theorist and quite a storyteller (I'll bet his Sarah Lawrence classes were a blast), and he demonstrates this when he rivets us with the old English Arthurian legend of Gawain and the Green Knight. The conversation is illustrated with copious documentary footage, and of course, Star Wars clips. Moyers' most popular show ever, this program was sadly never seen by Campbell. (Extras: more conversations with Campbell; Moyers interview with George Lucas; viewer's guide booklet; profiles of Campbell influences; photo gallery; Moyer bio; excerpts from film Sukhavati.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Iron Man 2 (B-)
U.S.; Jon Favreau, 2010, Paramount
Iron Man was one of the most pleasant movie surprises of 2008: a superhero fantasy-action movie based on the Stan Lee Marvel comic, that played havoc with the usual clichés, had fun with sometimes threadbare action blockbuster conventions, and gave Robert Downey Jr. a big star part as Tony Stark -- a Howard Hughesian industrialist turned Iron Man robo-warrior -- that totally clicked, exploiting all Downey's considerable gifts for wild-eyed, comic verbosity and soulful human dramatizing, besides handing juicy, well-written supporting roles to major talents like Jeff Bridges (the corporate villain), Gwyneth Paltrow (the heroine-babe) and Terrence Howard (the soldier-buddy).
Everybody came off looking good: the stars, the writers (a four-man team headed by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), the art and tech people, the actors -- and perhaps most of all, director Jon Favreau, who kept all the balls bouncing, and made all his actors shine.
Unfortunately, the major surprise of Iron Man 2 -- which brings back Downey, Paltrow and Favreau in an even more elaborate all-guns blazing, super-CGI super-production -- is how few surprises it actually has up its iron sleeves, as well as how wantonly it wastes both the old stars who've returned and the new ones who've turned up. That new bunch includes Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell as nasty heavies, Don Cheadle, who has replaced Howard as comrade-in-arms Rhodey, Scarlett Johansson as a kick-ass femme fatale Natasha, and Samuel L. Jackson as snappish Marvel top gun Nick Fury, a brawler with a black eye patch and lots of attitude.
What went wrong here? It's easy to blame the script -- this time by Justin Theroux (of Tropic Thunder) -- because it's so clearly inferior to the first one. The story hops and flubbles along predictably, despite lively dialogue and some motor-mouth clowning by both Downey and Rockwell that suggests they've been given a Robin Williams green light to spritz and spew at will.
Watching Iron Man was often exhilarating. Watching the sequel is like climbing into a big robot suit and trying to have a good time, despite all the clanking and bonking around you.
France; Thomas Balmes, 2010, Focus Features
Thomas Balmes' French documentary about babies around the world is a very well-shot, deceptively simple film, which is as content to gaze at its four infant subjects -- Mari from Japan, Ponijao from Namibia, Africa, Bayarjarcal from Mongolia and Hattie from San Francisco -- as director Jacques Perrin was content to raptly follow, from close range, the long-range flight of many flocks of birds in another admirable French documentary Winged Migration.
Both these films are fine French examples of non-fiction films as both scientific exploration and objets d'art -- wordless portrayals of the beauty and wonder of the world given us without the mediation of narration. I find Winged Migration far more fascinating. But maybe that's because I was once a baby myself, and dimly remember the whole baby routine.
Then again, there was much I forgot -- such as how prowlingly curious babies can be, how sometimes oddly fearless. Scenes of little Bayarjarcal crawling among barnyard animals who daintily step over him, or being nuzzled in his tub by a curious goat, are bound to make some parents cringe. Conversely, so might the American scene where well-meaning parents subject their children to native chant rituals and yoga classes, and to a library of books that includes the instructive little picture-tome No Hitting.
The babies are adorable, natch, and when the adults interact with them, they become adorable too, even somewhat baby-like.
Babies was filmed mostly with a motionless camera in long takes, all quite beautifully composed and shot by Balmes and his three cinematographers: Jerome Almeras, Frazer Bradshaw and Steeven Petiteville. Ridiculously enough, it's a PG film, because mothers occasionally suckle their young and Third World countries are not as skittish (or mercenary) about public nudity as some of us Americans. And it's been shaped and edited as a comedy, sometimes even a dark comedy. You don't think it will be entertaining, but it is.
France/Italy/Spain/U.K.; Danis Tanovic, 2009, EI Entertainment
From writer-director Danis Tanovic (No Man's Land): a strong, if over-obvious, antiwar drama, set in Kurdistan, with Colin Farrell as a war photographer who's seen and been damaged by darkness and death. Also in the cast: Paz Vega and Christopher Lee (in his best recent role, as a man with a past). Tanovic remains commendably ambitious, if not yet completely comfortable as an English-language scenarist. But the movie is well-shot (by Seamus Deasy) and worth seeing. (Extras: interviews with Tanovic, Farrell, Vega and Lee; featurette; behind-the-scenes footage.)
My Favorite Spy (B-)
U.S.; Norman Z. McLeod, 1951, Olive
Bob Hope plays lecherous comedian Peanuts White, who -- mistaken for an American super-spy with a license to leer -- ogles Hedy Lamarr for 93 minutes in what's supposed to be Tangiers but looks more like Fresno on Halloween, while gabbing with what's supposed to be Harry Truman (but was probably Jerry Colonna), trying to recall a good joke from some old Panama and Frank script, and eluding the evil designs of Francis L. Sullivan, Mike Mazurki and other miscreants.
A huge hit in 1951, possibly because audiences wandered into the theaters under the delusion that they were watching revivals of Hope's previous comedy hits My Favorite Blonde and My Favorite Brunette. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod (Horse Feathers). (Extras: filmed vaudeville excerpt of Hope's original plumber-and-the-babe-in-the-bathtub skit, along with Hope's original supporting act: Eddie Dimtrick and his Dancing Dachshunds.)