Review: ‘The Killer Inside Me’

“We’re kinda old fashioned,” Casey Affleck’s Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford intones through voiceover, as The Killer Inside Me opens, and were it not for the title you might be mistaken that you’re watching a gentle little film about quaint Southern ideals. “Out here, you’re a man and a gentleman or you aren’t anything at all.”  Less than five minutes of screen time pass before that same gentleman mercilessly whips a prostitute’s bare behind with his belt, and less than twenty minutes after that, he gratuitously beats her to death.

It’s hard to defend such an inevitably controversial film as this, particularly when the former scene follows an occasional and distasteful movie tradition of woman getting off on being assaulted (see also: Straw Dogs); and when the latter scene is so relentlessly brutal and explicit that it apparently caused walkouts at the premiere.  As is often the case, such controversy threatens to overshadow the film, but Brit director Michael Winterbottom has potentially allowed the extreme and detailed depictions of violence – no less shocking on the small screen – overshadow the rest of the movie itself.  Never mind the Daily Mail when even your own audience cannot appreciate an otherwise well-made film if some scenes are too disturbing to stomach.

Admittedly, the graphically violent scenes in question do not take up much of the running time compared to, say, a Tarantino or a Bay, but those directors are characterised by their cartoonish, sometimes gory movie violence; there is a disconnect.  Here, there is no disconnect, with the beatings and murders portrayed under the flag of realism, making the experience uncomfortably authentic.

As it stands, the film is a slick, well-crafted neo-noir, adapted from Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel of the same name, and retaining much of the source’s darkly noirish elements.  The plot burns slowly and decisively as the net gradually draws in on Affleck’s psychopathic Sheriff.  It has a structure and a sensibility that shares much with its 40s and 50s counterparts, an old-fashioned detective story at its heart, and an admirable attention to detail with its period setting.

There are some blindingly good performances as well, not least from Affleck, who never overplays the psychotic Sheriff Ford, lacing him with a quiet and unnerving understatement, his polite Texan drawl always at odds with his secret murderous life and the perverse pleasure he gains from it.  His tiny smirk of enjoyment as he wreaks his bloody carnage across the small Texan town is frighteningly convincing.  Affleck is propped up by a solid supporting cast, among them Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, and a darkly comic cameo from Bill Pullman.

Winterbottom has previously ruffled feathers with 9 Songs, ‘the most sexually explicit film ever released in the UK’ and has never shied away from challenging subject matters.  He’s a gifted and prolific filmmaker, an asset to the British film industry and one of the hardest working directors around, and there are undoubtedly elements of The Killer Inside Me which are testament to that.  But including such graphic scenes of brutality against women in what would otherwise be a slick, good looking neo-noir serves only to alienate and divide his audience. You may appreciate the filmmaking on show, but even those desensitised from years watching bloody action movies may be shocked. Whether you will enjoy it is another question altogether.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.

Review: ‘Eat Pray Love’

Julia Roberts, once a cinematic force to be reckoned with and the first woman ever to demand at least $15million per film, seldom shows her prodigiously wide smile on screen these days. The former rom-com darling is in her mid-forties now – ancient by Hollywood’s ruthless standards –  and so Eat Pray Love, an adaptation of the best-selling memoir of the same name, is a decidedly grown-up chick flick about a divorcee who travels around the world to ‘find herself’.

Roberts plays Liz Gilbert, a travel writer who separates from both her husband (Billy Crudup) and her young lover (James Franco) in order to find happiness: first in Italy, where she Eats; then in India, where – note the pattern emerging – she Prays; and finally in Indonesia, where she meets Felipe (Javier Bardem), who, as you will have correctly guessed, she Loves.

Essentially, Liz embarks upon a midlife crisis gap year, a jolly around the world to ‘find herself’, much like a teenager with a trust-fund.  Her journey of self-discovery feigns as something more complex than it actually is.  When you take an already superficial book and put it through the destructively superficial process of adapting to screen, the result is an evident vacuum of substance.

Undoubtedly, this is a gorgeous little film, benefiting greatly from the stunning array of locations and beautiful cinematography.  Indeed, the respective tourist agencies must be rubbing their hands with delight at the idyllic but inauthentic portrayals – the first act, set in Rome, seems to have been lifted directly from a postcard stand, and a perpetual sunset lingers in the background of nearly every scene.

But the script is too limp to escape the exhausted ‘one woman’s journey’ or ‘boy meets girl’ paradigms.  Any articulate discourse on love and happiness that might have been found in the book has mostly been lost in the transfer to screen.  Liz’s narration occasionally appears in voiceover, an unwise and sloppy device at the best of times which distracts rather than embellishes.  All that is left is the bare bones of the straightforward story, and the occasional flimsily laconic musing on life, such as: “Having a baby is like having a tattoo on your face – you need to be committed.”

The cast are almost uniformly excellent: Crudup, Franco and Bardem are as good as ever.  Richard Jenkins gives an extraordinary turn as a Texan Hindu that Liz befriends; were this a weightier film, he would surely be a shoo-in for some Best Supporting Actor gongs at the upcoming awards season.  And Roberts is just as you remember her, alternating between that famously gargantuan smile and moments of genuine emotion, though whether you will be convinced by her performance does depend on whether you are someone happy to spend ninety minutes in her company.

Yet it’s tricky to be convinced by any of these characters with a script this lame.  It’s truly difficult to empathise with Liz, a woman whose unhappiness is never really explained, and whose solution – to go on a year-long holiday round the world – seems a little out-of-touch in these purse-tightening times.  Fans of the book and Ms Roberts will most likely be satisfied, yet Eat Pray Love is ultimately a pretty but shallow film, and one that never really amounts to the treatise on life that it thinks it achieves.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.

Review: ‘True Legend’

Those of us who spend our precious free time watching the special features on a DVD or Blu-Ray, patiently trawling over the behind-the-scenes material in the all-too-often-vain hope of gleaning some insider info or on-set gems of wisdom, will likely be familiar with the name Yuen Woo-Ping.  Known in Asia for directing high-intensity action movies since Hong Kong’s 1970s boom (where he gave a young Jackie Chan his first big break), Yuen came to prominence in the West when he was hired to choreograph the mind-blowing action in The Matrix, and his extraordinary ‘wire-fu’ techniques had centre-stage in the accompanying feature-length DVD extra The Matrix Revisited.

Since then he has made a name for himself in Hollywood as the go-to guy for choreographing jaw-dropping martial arts-based action, his face popping up in the DVD extras for Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2, Fearless, Kung Fu Hustle, The Forbidden Kingdom, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Matrix and the sequels.  This year ‘the Master’ returned to his native China and the director’s chair for the first time in nearly fifteen years to make True Legend, an old school sort of Asian action film which could have been made in the seventies.  It has a slick twenty-first century skin, but a ruggedly twentieth century B-movie skeleton lurks beneath, and all the better that it does.

Like the best of its ilk, True Legend sets itself somewhere in China’s eventful history, here during the Qing Dynasty, and the opening titles note that “it is a turbulent time.”  (If you go by Asian cinema, it has always been a turbulent time in China.)  From minute one we are thrown into the action which made Yeun’s name famous, a combination of epic battles and martial arts with astonishing scale and impact.  The breathtaking opening sequences introduce our hero Su Can (Vincent Zhao) as he leads a daring rescue mission to save a Prince from a mountainous fortress.  With impossible stunts, huge sprawling sets and hundreds of extras, the calibre of action in these opening ten minutes alone could easily trump anything Hollywood has offered this year, in scale or spectacle.

His mission successful, Su Can rejects his offer of promotion and chooses to lead a quiet life with his family. Here the film begins to falter slightly, as the perennial weak-script-in-a-good-action-movie syndrome sets in.  Yeun, in common with action directors the world over, can’t really direct a decent dialogue-heavy scene as well as he can a fighting-heavy one.  The main body of the plot, a stock tale of bloody sibling revenge, is fine, if fairly conventional. The script has some awful lines, though, perhaps sounding cheesier in translation.  “One life is connected to many hearts” – er, what?  Meanwhile, Su Can’s treacherous brother Ying (Zhou Xun), his skin greying in order to achieve the ‘Five Finger Fist’, has an almost pantomimic streak of villainy in him.

All of this is largely forgivable, to be accepted in the context of the film’s lovable B-movie roots; less forgivable is the somewhat superfluous final act.  True Legend doesn’t end where you think it should – when the baddie is defeated – but instead drags on towards its nearly two hour running time detailing Su Can’s decline into homelessness and habitual drinking as he ultimately invents and perfects the famous ‘Drunken Fist’ technique.  Apparently based on a real life character, this origins story may hold some significance for Asian audiences or martial arts devotees but for everyone else the last half hour is surprisingly wearisome.  A short cameo from the late great David Carradine, repaying the favour from Kill Bill, is a saving grace.

Still, it’s worth a watch.  There is some epic, balletic fighting to enjoy, a marvellous bit of 3D action (complete with retro ‘put on your 3D glasses now’ messages) and some great Rocky-style training montages. True Legend failed to ignite the Chinese box office and it will have trouble finding an audience over here beyond the usual geeky aficianados but with ‘the Master’ at the helm, it deserves to be seen.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.

Review: ‘The Ghost’

The latest film from legally troubled Polish directing legend Roman Polanski, The Ghost arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray today.  Sensibly retitled as The Ghost Writer in the US to avoid disappointing horror fans, this is a bleak political thriller adapted from British author Robert Harris’ novel, placing a Blair-esque Prime Minister into a Hitchcockian world of deceit and suspense, with the ghost writer of his memoirs embroiled as a Hitchcockian “wrong man”.  You only wish there were more Hitchcockian aspects to it.

Ewan McGregor leads as the unnamed ghost to Pierce Brosnan’s charismatic former Prime Minister Adam Lang.  The writer is more used to glossy celebrity autobiographies than weighty political memoirs, and hopes to bring some spark to the book.  He needn’t have worried, for all, as is so often the case in political thrillers, is not what it seems: the original ghost writer died in mysterious circumstances, Lang is accused of war crimes mid-writing, and some nefarious dealings with .

Polanski’s last film, 2005’s Oliver Twist, was an odd choice, a movie you’d lazily watch on a Sunday afternoon with your family, and so it’s refreshing to see him back on ground he was once celebrated for.  In actuality, all the director gives you is a tantalising glimpse of what could have been – a hard-nosed, gripping human drama – without ever fully realising it.

The Ghost never quite hits the mark, and a DVD interview with Robert Harris perhaps explains it: his source novel is deliberately stark, dramatically speaking, unfolding almost like a stage play, saving any major drama for the final, genuinely thrilling act.  It’s a tactic which is cinematically ill-advised.  Unusually, the end of this film is better than the beginning, and the superb final conclusion – which differs from the book – was an idea Polanski dreamt up on set, a glimmer of his genius to end on.

But that still leaves us with an initial hour and a half of screen time which does little to thrill and much to bore.  The material or cast is generally never strong enough to maintain a durable interest.  A conspiratorial storyline is par for the political thriller course, and the allusions to the real life political counterparts do little to assuage any concerns that the twists and turns are a little absurd.  (Spot the direct quote of Blair by Brosnan’s Lang when he grumbles, “I did what I thought was right!”)

And the acting is rarely impressive.  McGregor, an actor whose career has been marred by many poor choices, is on better form than his usual but still sometimes feels wooden.  And McGregor, Brosnan and Kim Cattrall effect some distractingly dodgy English accents throughout.  Brosnan uses his same Americanised Irish he employed as Bond, slipping into a bizarre Churchill impression when talking to the media.

It’s Polanski’s best in years, yes, but still miles away from his best film, and still heavily overshadowed by the worrying allegations which swirl him and the number of filmmakers who, once influenced by him, have now overtaken him.  Only occasionally, such as the masterful final shot as the pages of a manuscript flurry down a London street, do we get an inkling of the filmmaker there once was.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com

Review: ‘Cemetery Junction’

There’s high expectations for Cemetery Junction, the first collaborative foray into film from the writing and directing partnership of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and the prospect that faced them must have been nothing if not daunting.  How on earth do you follow up something as explosively popular as The Office, the most successful British sitcom of all time, not to mention the similarly multi-award-winning Extras?  The answer, it seems, it to go entirely against type and defy expectations.  “People may be expecting a straightforward comedy from us,” Merchant has acknowledged. It isn’t.

It’s hard not to feel, as the opening credits roll, a degree of trepidation over exactly which direction the film is taking.  With the distinctly mournful and melancholic strings of Vaughan Williams in the background, Cemetery Junction opens like a Ken Loach film, with a montage of factory workers and working class life in the suburbs of Reading in the 1970s, leading the viewer to wonder what the ratio of drama to humour will be.  Those familiar with Gervais and Merchant’s previous work will have to divorce themselves from their initial expectations, or preconceived notions of ‘The Office: The Movie’.

But once you come to terms with your surprise at the initial low density of jokes from two comedians, you’ll come to appreciate that Cemetery Junction is a great film, a genuinely enjoyable ‘dramedy’ and a worthy cinematic debut from the duo.

Tonally, it’s anything but mournful, and truth be told the use of Vaughan Williams is something of a red herring (there is actually a fantastic selection of classic seventies rock songs on the soundtrack).  File this film under ‘feelgood’, a genre that evokes the horrors of Mamma Mia! but here takes a refreshingly breezy and upbeat look at English working class life in the seventies –  a move away from the grittier, gloomier portrayals of poverty typically found in British film, clearly a conscious shift from Gervais and Merchant.

It’s consistently funny throughout, peppered with witty, knowing dialogue.  The balance of comedy and drama is tilted carefully enough to squeeze a good few laughs out of you and also move you, if not quite to tears, then at least to the hot sting of an emotional reaction.  The big turning point two thirds of the way through is powerful and resonant.

Gervais, usually the acting lead in his work, has bumped himself down to a supporting role and defaulted most of the attention to young lead characters, played mostly by unknowns actors.  We focus on three young friends in their early 20s:  Freddie (Christian Cooke), an aspiring insurance salesman and the hero of the piece; Bruce (Tom Hughes), a rebellious factory worker; and Snork (Jack Doolan), a dopey assistant train station manager who acquired his moniker “because I’ve got a nose for muff.”

Also thrown into the mix is love interest Julie (Felicity Jones), and a lively array of supporting characters from a superb assembled cast of British acting veterans.  Props in particular must go to Ralph Fiennes, who gives a toweringly understated performance as the cold-hearted insurance head honcho Mr Kendrick.  Special mention also to the sublime portraits of casual seventies racism, sexism, homophobia and general bigotry found in Freddie’s household, with Gervais as his string vest-donned father, the fantastic and under-used Julia Davis as his mother, and the legendary Anne Reid as the somewhat senile old Granny.  The exchanges around this kitchen table are among the most memorable in the film.

It is Freddie who is the heart and soul of the film, and as a protagonist he is very engaging.  Played with an easy, likeable charm by newcomer Cooke, Freddie is straightforward and unpretentious. His initial aspirations are to follow in the footsteps of his idol Mr Kendrick: get to a good position in his insurance job, get a good house, a good car, a good wife. As the story progresses he realises that his hero is an icy, unfeeling misogynist with desire only for material gain.  He sees his dream job will amount to nothing when he witnesses a devastating farewell speech to a newly-retired colleague (as a thank you for forty three years of service, he receives only a cheap cut-glass fruit bowl).  And he is shown from childhood friend and romantic prospect Julie that there is more to life than Reading.  Freddie’s journey is satisfying and well-rounded, if a little predictable, and the familiar theme of small town claustrophobia will speak volumes to a near-universal audience.

Freddie’s early desire to settle down is counterpointed by best friend Bruce.  Gervais has openly cited Saturday Night Fever as a major influence, and in Tom Hughes, they have their very own John Travolta, Berkshire edition.  Bruce flirts, swaggers and fights his way around town, attired in leather jacket and ‘girly hair’ as one policeman calls it, and filled with post-adolescent fire, a true loose cannon.  He is every bit the Tony Manero of Reading, so much so that it almost comes across rather derivative, in spite of a decent effort from Hughes to make the character his own.

In fact there’s quite a bit which feels rather familiar.  Gervais and Merchant have been clear of their intention to make a genre movie, so they’re on fairly conventional territory throughout, with the effect that it’s occasionally not as fresh or exciting as we might hope from these two.  The subplot detailing the burgeoning romance of Snork and a timid cafe worker is so self-consciously sweet and sentimental that it’s in danger of veering towards Richard Curtis-land.  Many would argue, of course, that this is no terrible thing, and perhaps not, but we’ve come to expect more from a duo known for their consistent innovation.

There are other elements which don’t work so well.  Julie’s engagement to slimy insurance salesman Mike is unconvincing, a lazy rehash of the much overused nice-girl-inexplicably-going-for-the-asshole-guy-before-ending-up-with-the-hero movie cliché, an infuriating contrivance used in everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Titanic, or indeed The Office.  Freddie and Julie’s simmering passion is handled with similarly less subtlety; as their love becomes apparent, they develop photos in a dark room in a scene cringingly resembling the pottery wheel sequence in Ghost.

Minor complaints, however, and though generally the plotting or staging is not wildly original, it’s executed with such warmth, charm and – surprisingly for a film about young people – maturity, that the occasional predictable or clichéd aspects are forgivable in the grand scheme of things.  More importantly, they are sensible choices for the direction the co-directors have chosen to take.  This is Gervais and Merchant’s most broad, accessible work to date, and it’s bound to work entirely in their favour.  Audiences will flock to this film – and so they should.

A version of this article originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com

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