CRIME DOESN’T PAY: Reviews of The Killer Inside Me and Dossier K

I should probably be ashamed of myself, but I loved The Killer Inside Me, a story about Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff from a small Texas town who beats up on women in a vicious and cruel manner (and the women still loving him up until the very last blow), using them to get revenge on someone who arranged for his brother to be killed because the brother was accused of being a pedophile (something the deputy knows to be true because he caught his brother at it when they were young; but still, a brother is a brother, I guess). It’s vile, it’s repulsive, it’s sick. Hey, what’s not to love? In my defense, Jerry, my best friend from Chicago, also loved it, so that somewhat eases my conscious. The movie is adapted from a novel by the pulp novelist Jim Thompson, and directed by Michael Winterbottom with a screenplay by John Curan (IMDB also lists Winterbottom as writer, though I’m not sure what the difference is between that and screenwriter). It stars Casey Affleck as Ford. Affleck is having quite the career lately between this and Gone, Baby, Gone and that movie about Jesse James with a title too long for me to print here. Affleck has always had that odd voice, a semi-falsetto that feels like it’s rusted over. It should have gotten in the way of his career. But somehow, it’s made him who he is, a character actor who can play leads. In The Killer Inside Me, Affleck’s high pitched tones add to his sociopathology. Of course, his soulless blue eyes don’t hurt. And that way of telling the women he is beating up that he does love them and somehow manages to convince us in the audience that he really does (I told you, the whole thing is vile, it’s repulsive, it’s sick—what’s not to love). The story takes place in a small Texas town that has been made slightly larger by the oil boom (the period is the 1950’s). Winterbottom and his designers have created an amazing feeling for time and place. The Texas heat; the paved streets that feel dusty; the Texas heat; the period cars and clothes; the Texas heat. It all feels spot on. Ford himself lives in one of those gracefully sprawling houses with a porch that winds its way around much of the building, something classically Texan and small townish. He spends his off time, the time he’s not having S&M sex with women, reading weighty tomes and listening to opera, which throws one off until you remember his father was the beloved town doctor and probably had a cultural itch he passed on to his son. The plot is one of those classically film noir ones in which just about everybody is corrupt in some way and immorality pours out of their pores with the sweat. I’m not convinced it really holds together plotwise; I didn’t really buy it lock, stock and barrel (exactly how Ford got away with hanging a prisoner is not convincing, for example), but you don’t care. The film has generated some controversy, some calling it misogynistic in its depiction of violence toward women. I’m not sure I totally agree, mainly because you are supposed to be horrified by what Ford does to the two women he loves. What does seem misogynistic to me is that in a small Texas town, Ford finds not one, but two women who revel in S&M sex and in being mistreated. That’s a sort of detail that usually says more about the author/director than about the characters involved. I’m not sure what it says about me in liking the movie so much. But I did. It’s one of the best films of the year so far.

Dossier K is a Belgium action film that revolves around two detective partners, the more straight laced Eric Vincke (played by Koen De Bouw) and the scruffy Freddy Verstuyft (Werner De Smedt). It’s a sequel (or another entry in a franchise depending on how Hollywood you want to get about it) to Memories of a Killer, another book in a series of novels by Jef Geeraerts; but as you can tell from the description above, it’s pretty much in the mold of most television series about people who solve crimes. The movie has some interesting subject matter, the rise of immigrant Albanians in organized crime and the idea of honor they have brought with them from the old country, an idea that has been codified into a series of books (so many that it gets a laugh and one does wonder how anybody can remember it all). However, Vincke’s main problem isn’t with the Albanians. From the way the screenplay (by Carl Joos and Erik Van Looy; direction by Jan Verheyen) is written, that’s nothing compared with the problems he has with the head of the city’s organized crime unit, one Major De Keyser, who is about to bring down a major crime family and doesn’t want Vincke to interfere. The indication is that Vincke is supposed to be the good guy, the moral cop, the one we’re supposed to cheer on. But his interactions with the De Keyser never really seem to be about the best way to fight crime; their conflicts are more on the level of a pissing contest or two schoolyard bullies trying to prove that each has the bigger dick. De Keyser heads a major bust that brings down the head of a major family and most of his lieutenants, but Vincke can’t bring himself to allow that De Keyser did something pretty amazing. No, Vincke ends up blaming De Keyser for the death of one of Vincke’s team (a woman Vincke was interested in romantically, though this subplot felt a bit squeezed in and never caught root emotionally) when De Keyser had absolutely nothing to do with it (it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, something that no one can really do anything about). When Vincke accuses his boss of doing bad by playing two crime families against the other, we’re supposed to react in horror because people who worked for the families got caught in the cross fire. I thought it was a pretty good stratagem myself. Maybe if Vincke had an alternative method for cracking down on crime, that might lend his holier than thou attitude some credence; but while De Keyser stops a major cartel, Vincke has trouble solving one crime. Because of this, the most interesting aspect of the story revolves around Nazim, a young man who comes to Antwerp to revenge the death of his father, a police informant who was killed after De Keyser no longer had any use for him. While Vinke’s journey is a rather routine one we can see on just about any TV police procedural, Nazim’s journey is the more riveting one of someone who realizes that a person he revered and who was supposed to be playing by the code of honor Nazim has been taught to play by, has betrayed everything Nazim and his people stand for. This leads to an engrossing performance by the corpulent R. Kan Albay playing a character who oozes corruption. When Nazim takes him down, the scene recalls the end of the Orson Welles’ character in Touch of Evil. While most of the movie seems to be about children arguing in a sandbox, this half of the movie is what gives the movie any weight it has.

IS THERE A DOC IN THE HOUSE REDUX: Review of 8: The Mormon Proposition, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Suss and Restrepo

8: The Mormon Proposition is one of those documentaries that should be seen mainly because of the subject matter: the influence of the Mormon Church on the political outcome of Proposition 8, an amendment to the California state constitution that would ban gay marriage. Unfortunately, that is not quite the same thing as saying that it is successful as a movie in and of itself. I went to see 8:… with my friend Beriau and we both left thinking much the same thing: there was a lot of important information here, but the movie itself seemed unfocused and a bit all over the place; well intentioned, but at the same time somewhat of a mess—like the Democratic Party. The film is divided into three parts. The first revolves around Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, two Mormons who got married and as a result were shunned (excommunicated squared) by the Church. It’s easy to see why Reed Cowan, who wrote and co-directed the film, and Steven Greenstreet, Cowan’s co-director, focused so much time on these two: they are direct descendants of important people in Mormon history and Barrick still has an incredible resemblance to his ancestor Frederick G. Williams. At the same time, these two are just sooooooooooooo adorable, just sooooooooooooooooo cute, you feel demonically compelled to drown them like the bunny rabbits they are. I know, I know. I’m being cruel and mean, but Barrick and Jones are just a tad too over the top here such that it somewhat undercuts what they are trying to say. Contrast that to scenes later on in the film in which some young people, all of whom tried to commit suicide at one time because they are gay and Mormon, talk about what they went through. They are much more quiet in the way they tell their stories, which makes what happened to them all the more horrific. They don’t tell us how to feel, don’t ask us to feel sorry for them; they simply tell their story and let us feel on our own the pain and despair they went through. These characters make up some of the second part of the story, a study of how the Mormon church treats gays, some of the leaders considering them the biggest threat to the U.S. today (take that Al Queda; you thought 9/11 was a big deal, but it’s nothing in comparison to butt sex). The final part of the film revolves around the actual strategy the church used to defeat Prop. 8, a section almost as horrifying as anything else in the movie. It also reveals something I always suspected, but was never quite certain of: that church members were ordered to pay a certain amount to the Prop. 8 campaign or risk being shunned. But this section seems under reported. There is a character here, a journalist, who uncovered documents detailing all the tactics the church used, including the extortive way they raised money from their members. It was this section that most fascinated me and Beriau. But the reporter appears for only a fleeting amount of time and disappears, leaving a ton of questions behind him, almost a blink and you’ll miss him appearance. There is also something a bit unsatisfactory in the way the movie wants to put the blame on the passing of Prop. 8 squarely on the shoulders of the Mormon Church, making them the bogey man in the equation. But as one who lived through the aftermath, it’s really a lot more complicated than that and some of the blame has to fall on how the campaign to stop 8 was handled; so it also feels that a part of the story has yet to be told. Still, no matter the aesthetic quality of the film, or how unsatisfactory it might have been overall, it’s still something that should be seen.

In many ways, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suess, directed and written by Felix Moeller, has the same strengths and weaknesses of 8: the Mormon Proposition. The subject matter, Veit Harlan, the director of the film Jew Seuss, an incredibly vicious anti-semitic film made as propaganda by the Germans in 1940, is important, but the actual execution of the documentary came somewhat short. Perhaps one of the most revealing aspects as to why the film may not work as well as one would like has to do with the revelation that Harlan’s first wife was Jewish and that they divorced (apparently at the wife’s insistence) and then the film fails to mention, for some odd reason, that this first wife died in a concentration camp. Which suggests to me that, like 8:…, the film hadn’t fully made up its mind exactly what it wanted to be about. While 8:… is divided into three parts, Harlan… is basically divided into two: a history of Harlan and the making of Jew Seuss, and then the effect Harlan’s choices had on his children and grandchildren (including a niece who married Stanley Kubrick). I went with my friend Beriau to this one as well and we both had the same reaction: we really wanted to know more about Harlan and the infamous movie he made. In fact, that’s what we expected the movie to be about (so I may have to admit I may be partly to blame by having the wrong expectations). But what we finally realized was that the film was never really supposed to be about Harlan and Jew Seuss, it was supposed to be about the effect it had on Harlan’s children (hence, the “In the Shadow of” part of the title) and that the part of the documentary focusing on Harlan in the 1930’s was just backstory, just filler. Because of this, not enough time was spent on the early years to make this part of the documentary interesting (in fact, it was a bit of a drudge at times to get through, though there are some magnificent shots from some epic films Harlan made using soldiers from the German army as extras, soldiers that were taken from the warfront and who knows what effect that had on the German war effort; probably not much in the long run), yet so much time was spent on this part, it threw the balance of the movie off. When the documentary did actually get to the children, when the true focus of the film became front and center, the whole story became much more interesting. What must it have been like to be related to a director who made one of the most notoriously evil films in world history? One son became somewhat of a radical, both in politics and in film, never really forgiving his father for what he did (though he actually worked on some films with Harlan pers); another son always saw his father as a victim. Many of the grandchildren don’t seem to know what to make of it. Again, though it may have fallen short as a movie, it’s still worth seeing.

Restrepo is the most successful documentary of the three here. I went with a group of people and the one thing everyone noticed was how quiet everybody was when they left the theater. And Restropo is that deeply moving. The title refers to an American military outpost in the Afghanistan mountains. It’s named after a soldier that the others all had a great fondness for, a soldier who died in an earlier battle. The story covers eighteenth months, a full tour of duty for these soldiers; after this they go home, or at least on leave. At first, the movie is a bit slow moving and hard to get into. It doesn’t really grab you. But as time goes on and as you get to know the characters, it gains a quiet intensity. How do these soldiers do their job, maintain peace while trying to win the hearts and minds of the villagers around them? It seems impossible, an existential Catch 22, but as is usual in most wars, it doesn’t matter. Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die, and a few do die, and it’s not pleasant to watch. The story is interrupted by the soldiers speaking directly to the camera about their experiences. There is something haunting about their faces, young with their whole world ahead of them. The people I went with had the impression that in many ways they were damaged for life and you could tell that by listening to them and just looking at them. I’m not sure that is totally fair. The directors, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, place these larger than life size heads, often completed shaven (which, to be honest, is a tad spooky), against blank backdrops giving their interview subjects a haunting look they may not have in real life. And we’re not really told how or what the soldiers are doing now, how well they are getting along in civilian life (we’re told only the bad things, like not sleeping well). At the same time, that may not be fair of me. What these people went through, I never did. I can also tell that what they went through, I would not wish on my worst enemy.

DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF ME: Review of Inception

I write this review with fear and trepidation, and a little bit of sickness unto death, for worry of getting threats on my life; but I’m afraid Inception didn’t really work for me. I went with my friend Jim and we pretty much agreed that we were disappointed (though we whispered it to each other as we left the theater for fear of starting a riot); at the same time, my friend Donald was shocked that I didn’t care for it (he had already seen it a second time and thought it grand, simply grand). It’s not that I didn’t like any of it. It has some of the most impressive art and scenic decoration in recent memory, from the realistically detailed city scenes to the topsy-turvy, gyrating settings of the dream sequences, including a beautifully august fortress engulfed in snow that is the location for the final action scene. It also has what I call a brilliant Fred Astaire Dancing on the Ceiling Royal Wedding fight scene in a hotel hallway that is dazzling, simply dazzling. And I admired the effective performances of Michael Caine and especially Tom Hardy as a smart alecky team member who is annoying to everyone else but always cracks himself up. But beyond that, there was little here to impress me. Everyone is saying that the movie is so original. In reality, it’s actually more of a movie that adds to already existing mythology that began at least with Dreamscape (an underrated sci-fi film from 1984 starring Dennis Quaid) and continued on with The Cell, eXistenZ and Paprika, among others. And Inception does add a couple of fun new ideas, especially in that the subconscious creates anti-bodies to protect against intruders like Leonardo di Caprio’s Cobb character when he enters someone else’s dreams to retrieve information (though it is odd that the antibodies the subconscious creates here all seem to come from Hollywood action films since they can never seem to shoot anybody except when it’s convenient for the author). Also, the idea that time in a dream is longer than time in real life is pretty neat and reflects my own personal experience. But for me, the film fails due to a lackluster screenplay (by the director Christopher Nolan, but writing was never his strong suit) with bland dialog and characters (it’s sort of like Avatar in this respect) and, for a movie that probes the subconscious, a shallow view of psychology with the main problem of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) being that “daddy” didn’t love him enough. The plot never made a lot of sense to me either. Cobb’s whole motivation is to see his children again, which he can’t do now because he is wanted for murder in the U.S. It’s never explained why he just doesn’t fly his kids to a country without an extradition treaty if he wants to see them that much. And it’s pretty reprehensible from a moral standpoint to put all the other characters in danger for such a selfish reason. But the real plot problem for me is that I didn’t care whether Cobb succeeded or not; I never understood why I should be on the side of Saito (played by Ken Watanabe), the CEO of the company that is the main rival to the character’s dreams they are entering. In fact, because I didn’t trust Saito any more than Fischer, I actually hoped Cobb would fail, which kind of removes all tension from the plot. The actors try their damnedest to make the characters come alive, but as was said, only Caine and Hardy really break through. Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t seem to have much to work with and Ellen Page, like Gordon-Levitt, a very talented actor, seems a bit miscast, though she comes close. I could also go into the idea that my dreams aren’t remotely like the dreams in this film and that, no matter what di Caprio says, I always know when I’m dreaming and when I’m not; I’m one of those people who are very aware when he’s dreaming to the extent that I can sometimes control what is going on in them and have at times woken myself up when I don’t like the way things are going. But the one thing that really separates the dreams in Inception from mine is that I never feel physical pain when I’m dreaming; in fact, I never feel physical anything. It’s all pictures like in a movie. But not quite like the pictures in this movie. In fact, the only dream sequence in a movie that resembles what I see when I’m under is the Salvadore Dali set piece from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a whirligig of images and nonsensical events that lack any sort of outward logic. But I won’t do that.

BOYS AND THEIR TOYS: Reviews of Iron Man 2 and Toy Story 3

After leaving Iron Man 2, I think my friend Jim summed it up best when he said that you know you’re in trouble when the only scene in an Iron Man film (a movie filled, well, overwhelmed really, with big technical set pieces), the only one that really makes the audience sit up and take real notice, is a relatively small and contained fight scene in a hallway headed by Scarlet Johansson, a set up for her role in upcoming Nick Fury films. She changes her hair (into strands that look like whips, making her into a beautiful Medusa), puts on a body tight uniform and gets to quiet work taking out an army of men with more ease and style than even Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel did in The Avengers television show. No mean feat as fans of that series can tell you. It’s not that Iron Man 2 is without any pleasures. Robert Downey, Jr. is back and he’s still fun and his Nick and Nora Charles type banter with his assistant Gwyneth Paltrow still has some wit to it. But the biggest plus to this Marvel comic book brought to celluloid life is the villain, the snarling, sociopathic meany Ivan Vanko inhabited with tattooed viciousness by Mickey Rourke. Playing a Russian scientist who believes Tony Stark (Iron Man’s alter ego) did his father a foul turn, Rourke marches down a race track in all his steroid glory throwing power driven whips that can slice metal in half with a flick of the wrist. Beyond this, though, there isn’t much to see. There is a rather frightening set piece where Stark’s arch nemesis Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) has stolen the Iron Man technology and has Iron Man like robots appear on stage to the theme songs of the four branches of the military, showing how easily fascism can worm its way inside the military industrial complex. But it’s also a movie where the robots start shooting up everything in sight and just never manage to hit a person (kind of makes you wonder why Hammer even bothered if they were such poor shots). The casting doesn’t always help. Though Sam Rockwell and Don Cheadle (who took over for Terence Howard from the first movie in the role of Rhodey) are good actors, they never seem like they really belong. And the script is a bit clunky. Justin Theroux is the only one credited as screenwriter, but it feels a bit like it was written by committee. There’s a set piece where Cheadle dresses in an Iron Man suit and he and Downey, Jr., have it out at Stark’s palatial mansion for no apparent reason but to see a lot of things blow up and to set up a plot turn later on. The funniest moment probably has to be when Clark Gregg as Coulson (one of Nick Fury’s agents) tells Stark not to leave the premises or suffer dire consequences and they’ll be watching; Stark leaves the premises, comes back, and Coulson (who for some reason wasn’t watching), slaps him on the wrist like an ineffectual nun and says not to do it again (wow, when they mean dire, they mean dire). That’s probably how the studio is going to treat the next installment of the franchise.
I also went to Toy Story 3 with my friend Jim and Jim’s initial reaction was surprise at how dark it was. Yeah, it is, at least darker than the other two. I don’t know if that’s why I liked it the best of the three, but my friends probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear it (that there was only one Randy Neuman song certainly had to help). There does seem to be something here that is deeper, more richly emotional, and therefore, inevitably much darker than in the other two. Toy Story 3 begins when Andy, who when he was a child spoke as a child and played as a child, but now that he’s leaving for college, puts away childish things, planning to assign Buzz Lightyear, Jesse, the Potato Heads, etc. to the attic while taking Woody with him (after all, would you want to wake up every morning in college without your Woody with you). Through a series of misunderstandings, the toys end up at a daycare run like a prison from one of those chain gang movies in the 1960’s (I believe there is a specific reference to Cool Hand Luke). Not only must the toys escape their day care penitentiary, they must also escape the prison of disbelief—that Andy really wanted to get rid of them and never see them again. What would a Toy Story movie be without new toy characters and this one comes with a metrosexual Ken doll who likes to try on clothes, doesn’t understand why no one else does, and finds his perfect mate in Barbie. There’s also a psychotic teddy bear (hard to believe, huh?); a monstrous baby doll that becomes more sympathetically pathetic as the story continues; and perhaps most delightful of all, a Buzz Lightyear that gets stuck on Spanish mode and becomes a Latin lover straight out of a Ricardo Montalban film. The story itself (screenplay by Michael Little Miss Sunshine Arndt) is perhaps the most exciting of the three (one of the odd things is that nobody I know can even remember the plot of the second film) and it has one of these plots that paints everyone into an impossible corner, only to be saved, of course, at the last minute. Jim thought I probably saw the rescue coming since I’m a writer and usually do, but this time I had no idea, possibly because I was too caught up in the story to even think about it. My friends hate it when I deconstruct popular entertainment, but I can’t help it (you should hear my take on Air Force One). So one of the reasons I liked Toy Story 3 is because of what it had to say about how important toys are to a child’s development in the way that it encourages imagination and teaches them to create. I know. I have a bad habit of taking the fun out of fun, but still, it works for me.