BYZANTIUM, I’M SO EXCITED, THE LOOK OF LOVE and YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET



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Byzantium is the new vampire flick written by Moria Buffini and directed by Neil Jordan.   Neil Jordan also did that other vampire flick, you know the one, uh, Interview With the… something or other.  Let’s just say that he’s come a long way since then.
The story is about two women, mother and daughter, trying to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as vamps are wont to do these days.  But because of the relative times in which they turned, the two masquerade as sisters.   They are on the run from a brotherhood who want to eliminate them because women are not allowed to be vampires (yes, Gloria, the whole thing has a somewhat feminist slant to it; not only are they female vampires in a male vampire world, the mother takes over a group of prostitutes from a twitchy, male pimp).   The daughter is played by Saoirse Ronan, who played the title role in Hannah, and her mother/sister is played by Gemma Arterton, who played Gretel in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Both are more than quite good (Ronan is especially riveting) and are quickly gaining a reputation for playing characters you would not want to meet alone in a dark alley…or in broad daylight on a public street for that matter.
They are backed up by a slew of British B listers, including Daniel (Made in Dagenham) Mays as a hapless, shaggy dog looking motel owner;  Sam (Control) Riley, as a sympathetic vampire (giving a much better performance than he did in the recent outing, the somewhat embarrassing On the Road); Johnny Lee (Elementary) Miller as a woman hating cad; Tom (In the Loop) Hollander as a well meaning teacher; and Maria Doyle (Orphan Black) Kennedy as a fellow teacher.   All provide much more than adequate support.
To say Byzantium is a poetic mood piece is an understatement.   It lives, breathes and exults in its moodiness.  It’s filmed with dark, muted colors.   The scenes always feel overcast, even during the day.  There’s a menacing atmosphere in every shot set as it is against a fun fair, the dark streets of a coastal city and an ominous looking deserted, broken down pier.    And it takes its moody time in telling its tale.  Of course, there’s the rub.  How you react to it will probably depend on how you feel about the pacing.  If you like it, you will probably think of it as deliberate.  If you don’t like it, you will probably think of it as sloooooooooow.  I loooooooooooved it, so that’s that.
Writer/Director Pedro Almodovar’s new film I’m So Excited opens with a wonderful Saul Bass like set of titles that felt like it had that perky and fun feel so often associated with an Almodovar film, especially, to quote Woody Allen, the early, funny ones.  Unfortunately, that was the last wonderful thing about it.   The movie never gets off the ground.
I know, I know.   That was a really groaner of a pun.  But I think I’m more than in the right since the whole movie is sort of one big metaphorical groaner of a pun type thing.  The basic premise is as fabulous as the three gay flight attendants that serve everyone’s needs (everyone’s).  A commercial airline has taken off for South America, but when one of its landing gears won’t work, they must make an emergency landing.  But to do so, they have to find an appropriate airport.  This requires them to go around and around and around…and around, in circles, not getting anywhere.  On top of that, the flight attendants have drugged everyone in second class so they won’t cause any trouble, leaving the first class passengers wide awake to deal with their personal soap opera like problems.  Yes, indeed.  The whole shebang is a metaphor for Spain today as it tries to grapple with their disastrous economy, beset by a variety of scandals.
But to reiterate: it’s a fabulous idea that, very sadly, just doesn’t work.  And it’s easy to see why, and in a “if it was a snake it would have bitten you” way.  Almodovar begins the whole rigmarole in the middle of act one.  There’s no set up for the characters and their conflicts and much of what set up there is takes place off screen (like the drugging of the second class passengers).  Because of this, we have no idea who anybody is or why their actions matter or why their actions are funny (everyone seems terrified of one particular passenger, but why is unclear until almost half way through the movie).  And though the movie is suppose to be about the passengers on board, at a couple of points, the whole movie stops to go back down to earth to follow the actions of the lover of a famous actor who is also on the plane.  The screenplay has no focus, no shape, no discipline.  Normally, that would be positives for an Almodovor film; but here, I’m afraid it’s not—it actually takes focus, shape and discipline to create a satisfying lack of those.
With Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in cameos for some reason as unclear as most of the plot.
The movie The Look of Love (written by Matt Greenhalgh and director Michael Winterbottom) also opens with a wonderful title sequence, this time one that seems inspired by James Bond films.  But also like I’m So Excited, that’s just about the last wonderful thing about it too.
The Look of Love is the based on the true story of Paul Raymond who became Britain’s richest man by building up an empire of erotica (not pornography as he has to keep telling people who for some reason, just don’t seem to believe him).  The movie gives us the facts of his life; it gives us the fashions and styles of the various periods; it gives us erotic sex, including such oddities as a British farce Raymond produced that has as part of its set a swimming tub inhabited by naked women who have nothing to do with the play’s plot (it was a huge hit).  What it never gives us is a reason why anyone wanted to tell this story. 
And like I’m So Excited, it’s also incredibly clear (see snake comment above) why the movie doesn’t work.  By the time you get to the end, it becomes apparent that the movie was supposed to be a study of Raymond’s relationship with his daughter (played by Imogene Poots) who died from a drug overdose.  But since half the movie doesn’t deal with this relationship (especially the half before she’s even born), the movie never seems to be going anywhere or to have any real purpose to its existence. 
The cast does what it can with the material.  Steve Coogan, as Raymond, who was excellent in the recent What Mazie Knew, is as bland and dull as his character is written here.  But the movie does better in the supporting area, including Simon Bird of The Inbetweeners, almost unrecognizable in Sgt. Pepper hair and mustache, as the jingle writer who marries Raymond’s daughter; Chris Addison from In the Loop, also unrecognizable as Raymond’s right hand man and photographer; James Lance as Raymond’s attorney; and David Walliams of Little Brittain in a witty performance as a randy vicar (Matt Lucas can also be seen in a blink and you’ll miss him scene as Divine). 
At one point, the movie has a scene between Raymond and the illegitimate son (Liam Boyle) he’s never met.  It’s a painful study of awkwardness and suggests everything that the movie could have been, but wasn’t.
You Aint Seen Nothing Yet is the latest from legendary director Alan Resnais.  It’s about a stage director who dies and in his will invites a number of the legends and soon to be legends of France’s acting community to an isolated mansion (including Mathieu Amalric, Hippolyte Giradot, Michel Piccoli, Sabine Azema and Lambert Wilson).  There the director’s attorney shows them a new production of a play the director staged many times, Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice (though the play seems to be a combination of two of Anouilh’s stage works).  All the invitees have at some time been in a production of this play under this director’s direction, so as they watch the play they begin to act out the parts themselves.
This is actually the most interesting aspect of the film, watching the way different actors would say the same lines; seeing actors who are far too old for the parts (since they originally played them when they were younger) still giving convincing performances; seeing the setting switch from the director’s home to modified sets.
But this movie never quite comes together.  I suspect whether it works for you will depend on what you think of the play within the play they are performing.  As was said, it’s a combination of two of Anouih’s works (adapted by Resnais and Luarent Herbiet) and though it starts out well, it eventually becomes almost incomprehensible until you lose all emotional connection to Orpheus and his doomed lover. 
After the play is over there are a couple of surprise endings that aren’t that surprising and aren’t that interesting.  Perhaps it’s best to say that the whole thing just went over my head.

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.