FilmWonk Podcast – Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me”

Poster for "The Killer Inside Me"

In this episode of the FilmWonk podcast, Glenn and Daniel kick back some whisk(e)y and review Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, and Elias Koteas. (20:00)

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

    Show notes:
  • Music for this episode is Little Willie John’s 1956 version of the rhythm and blues classic, “Fever”, which plays over the film’s opening credits.

  • I mistakenly refer to John Wayne Gacy as a serial killer with mommy issues; I was actually thinking of Ed Kemper, who murdered his mother with a claw hammer.

  • I also refer to the death of Harry Houdini, which was widely speculated to have involved a few blows to the stomach. However, the blows exacerbated his actual cause of death – peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Rest in peace, magic man.

  • I compare this film’s reception to Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist; I didn’t even realize that both films’ posters have the same creepy handwritten chalkboard style lettering. Bizarre.

Listen above, or download: The Killer Inside Me (right-click, save as)

Ben Affleck’s “The Town” – One last job, done right

I’ve never entirely understood why, but Ben Affleck has always been a bit of a divisive figure. While I can certainly take issue with some of his role choices over the years, he’s always struck me on the balance as a talented performer, whose earnestness and commitment have often managed to elevate even the hammiest of roles (Armageddon?). He became a talent to watch out for behind the camera with his 2007 directorial debut (Gone Baby Gone), and with The Town, he has crafted a supremely ambitious followup.

The film, adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves”, stars Affleck as Doug MacRay, a career criminal in the seedy Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. Claire (Rebecca Hall) is a bank manager who is briefly taken hostage by MacRay’s crew after they rob her bank. At the behest of his partner, Jem (Jeremy Renner), MacRay begins surveilling Claire, and they ultimately strike up a relationship (with Jem and Claire each none the wiser). Beyond this classic rom-com premise, Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm stars as FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley, who is charged with investigating the string of bank robberies.

We see a number of heist sequences in this film, and it is in these scenes that the direction absolutely shines. Each of them is slickly designed and executed, and cinematographer Robert Elswit (of many P.T. Anderson films) shoots them with a masterful sense of space and action. The editing (from Dylan Tichenor, another P.T.A. alum) also remains nice and taut even as the action ratchets up in the second half. The opening robbery sequence reminded me favorably of The Dark Knight, only a bit less cartoonish, with all the brutality intact – I cringed far more when the bank’s assistant manager was rifle-butted in the face (in a masochistic cameo by Victor Garber) than with any of the Joker’s bloodless shotgun blasts.

Much of this brutality is inflicted by Jem, and I must say, I found myself rather disappointed with his first several minutes of screen time. I had no beef with Renner’s performance, but the idea that his strong turn in last year’s The Hurt Locker would be followed up by playing that same unstable psychopath from a dozen other heist films (including Renner’s own character in S.W.A.T.) – was downright depressing. But I was wrong. This film puts an unmatched, revelatory spin on a familiar character – rather than relying on him as a firebrand to ratchet up the tension and advance the plot with poor judgment and random violence, Jem is a fully realized character with a believable backstory and connection with MacRay. In a number of splendid scenes, the dynamic between these two very nearly upstages Claire and MacRay’s romance as the film’s most fascinating relationship. It’s all the familiarity of a buddy comedy with an absolutely sinister twinge – a brutality and familial closeness that somehow feels right at home in the film’s [probably very fictitious] depiction of Boston. Affleck and Renner’s deft performances certainly back this up, but I must give credit to the screenwriting.

MacRay is plausibly depicted as a master criminal, and FBI S.A. Rawley (Hamm) is a mostly worthy adversary. When a crime drama endeavors to show both sides of an investigation, it’s always a pleasant surprise when they seem an equal match in intellect and skill. Hamm’s performance didn’t entirely work for me at the beginning of this film, but I gradually warmed to it – as the film went on, Hamm’s intensity is showcased in increasingly effective ways. In an interrogation scene, there’s a moment [also in the trailer] when he stares straight through MacRay and icily tells him he’s going to die in federal prison. The line was absolutely chilling in the trailer, but the surrounding scene had me fidgeting in my seat even more than I expected. Rawley is not a particularly well fleshed-out character, but Hamm’s performance serves him up as an effective nemesis.

While the police procedural aspect of this film was not too elaborate or detailed, it rang completely true for me. It reminded me favorably of HBO’s “The Wire” – a police drama in which the cops rely less on forensic techno-babble and more on the personal connections between criminals. Rawley and his agents know exactly who the bad guys are and what they’ve done; they just need a way to prove it. While a feature-length police procedural is a lot more limited in its complexity than five seasons of television, this film realistically sold its investigation, as well as the notion that a criminal is far more likely to fall prey to a personal connection than an errant hair follicle.

It is these personal connections in an environment of unforgiving criminality that the film effectively explores. Nearly every relationship, from the film’s central romance (featuring a capable performance by Hall) to the brotherhood and friendship amongst the gang feels carefully realized. While the other gang members (besides MacRay and Jem) are fairly one-note, there’s really only one character that rings false – and it is unfortunately attached to an impressive turn by Pete Postlethwaite. I swear, when the mobster known as “Fergie the Florist” first appeared on screen, I thought I’d sleepwalked into a Guy Ritchie film. Everything about this character – his appearance, accent, and demeanor – was completely jarring and more than a little cartoonish. He ultimately serves little purpose but to prod the plot along by adding an additional [unnecessary] threat to the third act. On the balance, it does more harm than good to MacRay as a character… Wouldn’t it be nice if just once, our hero goes along with one last job just because he wants to? At least the scenes with Postlethwaite aren’t a complete waste – his demeanor was effectively intimidating, and his backstory with MacRay is nearly worth the time spent on him.

While The Town doesn’t completely avoid feeling like a rehash of other works*, it is nonetheless a complex, thoughtful, and well-made heist drama. Like Affleck himself, it deserves to be judged on what it has brought to the table anew, and it does not disappoint.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

*Including a sequence which managed to quite jarringly rip off both The Shawshank Redemption and the musical score of Band of Brothers.

Seattle’s One-Reel Film Festival 2010 – Saturday Roundup

The One-Reel Film Festival is part of Seattle’s renowned Bumbershoot music and arts festival, which wraps up today. I attended on Saturday, and had the opportunity to see short films from all over the world, ranging from very good to extremely bizarre, some of which can be viewed online (I’ve included links below where applicable). Unfortunately, due to unforeseen will call delays this year, I missed the first two film blocks. I was still able to see the four remaining categories, which I’ve arranged in presentation order below. Bold text means I enjoyed the film, and an asterisk (*) means it was my favorite film of the category. Skip to the bottom for a list of all the films that can be viewed online.

Around the World in 50 Minutes:

  1. Miracle Fish (Director: Luke Doolan, Australia, 17 minutes) –
    A slow and rather offensive horror (?) film that is nonetheless effectively creepy. Sound mix seemed occasionally off- managed to make children’s laughter sound extremely grating. Effectively captured the mindset of a lonely child in a scenario that felt almost borrowed from a “Twilight Zone” episode.
    Watch it here.

  2. Superhero (Director: Hanneke Schutte, South Africa, 15 minutes) –
    A man wakes up in the desert dressed as a superhero. What ensues is a sweet little tale of admiration and forgiveness. Beautiful South African desert scenery, slightly hammy acting.
    More info here.

  3. Televisnu* (Director: Prithi Gowda, India, 15 minutes) –
    A bizarre, stream-of-consciousness journey through the life of a young Indian girl who is promised into an arranged marriage. Following the introduction at her workplace (a tech support call center), scenes unfold like flipping TV channels with only the slightest connection from one to the next, but there is a fascinating narrative and character arc that runs through it all. The filmmaking reminded me favorably of Michel Gondry, capturing a grand sense of tumbling down the rabbit hole on what was clearly a modest budget. During the outdoor sequences, the Bangalore scenery was gorgeous (miles of rocky hillsides covered in palm trees). The director, Prithi Gowda, was in attendance, and slightly endangered my opinion of the film by veering in a “Lost” direction with her explanation (“I was just trying to make a film with a lot of mysterious elements!”), but did clarify a number of points – namely, that the film is rooted in the myth that the Hindu deity Viṣṇu is dreaming our existence. Televisnu is delightfully bizarre, and was easily my favorite of the category. More info and trailer here.

The Animated Life

  1. Cat’s Cradle (Director: Ray Rea, USA, 4 minutes) –
    I swear, there’s one of these every year. This was an uncontrolled vomiting of black and white Rorschach blots, photographs, and transparency layers set to some trippy music. Felt about twice as long as it actually was. Not quite as offensive to the senses as That Idiot Stinks from last year, but very nearly. Info here.

  2. Dust Kid (Director: Jung Yumi, South Korea, 10 minutes) –
    A cleaning woman keeps finding dust in the form of a shy little naked girl, and deals with her mercilessly. The animation is done in a very minimalist hand-drawn b&w style. While the motion was a little jerky at times (when characters walked, I thought I was watching South Park) each frame of this film was artfully composed, and the story was delightful. Trailer here.

  3. Humpty Dumpty is Scrambled (Director: Yuriy Sivers, Canada, 3 minutes) –
    A bizarre and slightly incomprehensible music video manifesto. The lyrics may be incoherent, but the anti-war message is clear, and the protagonist is a freaking atom bomb. Worth it for the strange and morbid animation style, which reminded me at times of Pearl Jam’s “Do the Evolution” video – but the music is a upbeat jazz number. Watch it here.

  4. The Incident at Tower 37* (Director: Chris Perry, USA, 11 minutes) –
    The film’s noticeably low-budget CG doesn’t reduce its effectiveness in the least – this is a gripping and poignant environmental allegory with an absolutely beautiful score (from composer Evan Viera). The film’s earnest message is about as over-the-top as “Captain Planet”, but it doesn’t resort to cheap manipulation to showcase it. More info and trailer here (film will eventually be online).

  5. Pivot (Directors: André Bergs, Arno de Grijs, Kevin Megens, Floris Vos; Netherlands, 5 minutes) –
    A fun and adept little chase thriller with a bizarrely polygonal CG aesthetic. Watch it here.

  6. Santa, the Fascist Years (Director: Bill Plympton, USA, 4 minutes) –
    Perhaps the most concise and accurate titular high concept since Snakes on a Plane. This is one extremely simple joke told well and for just long enough. More info and clip here.

  7. Super Baozi vs. Sushi Man (Director: Haipeng Sun, China, 2 minutes) –
    See “Santa, the Fascist Years”, as I could say all of the same things about this film. Cute (and bizarre) little tribute to Bruce Lee in which a meat bun fights a sushi roll. Watch it here. If you liked that, check out Food Fight (D: Stefan Nadelman, USA, 6 minutes), a history of 20th century American warfare as reenacted by pieces of food.

  8. Vive la rose (Director: Bruce Alcock, Canada, 6 minutes) –
    A fascinating mixed media project based on a song by a Newfoundland musician. Features an impressive opening shot which combines full-motion time lapse and stop motion, then delves into an watercolor-animated music video framed artfully with physical media (dirt, rocks, shells, and sticks). More info and clips here.

Best of SIFF 2010 Jury Award Winners

  1. Little Accidents (Director: Sara Colangelo, USA, 18 minutes) –
    One word: classy. I missed the first few minutes of of this, so I don’t have too much to say… This is an odd rehash of Forrest Gump – a sweet simpleton is recruited by his extremely white-trashy girlfriend to steal a pregnancy test for her. And oh yes, there are choc-o-lates. Impressive acting, especially from the female lead (possibly Amanda Fulks). More info here.

  2. White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug* (Director: Travis Senger, USA, 27 minutes) –
    This slickly edited documentary was a surprise favorite for me. It drew me in immediately despite covering a subject I cared almost nothing about – the 1980s Bronx origins of hip-hop, and a talented up-and-coming DJ therein. The film clearly has a great deal of affection for Junebug, but doesn’t let him off the hook for a moment for his largely self-inflicted downfall. In the end, it’s a compelling character piece and a tragic cautionary tale – an impressive achievement that could likely be stretched into an effective feature. More info here.

  3. The Wonder Hospital (Director: Beomsik Shimbe Shim, USA, 12 minutes) –
    Simply put, there is an absolute abundance of weird shit in this movie – an inflatable doctor and a human centipede, among other things… The visual style is an odd blend of CG (easily the highest quality I saw all day), stereoscopic 3D, and stop motion with some slick handheld-style camera flourishes. Reminded me a bit of Henry Selick’s Coraline, but managed to construct an even stranger world. Definitely worth a look. More info and trailer here.

Love and Marriage and More…

  1. Dear Roommate (Director: Myron Kerstein, USA, 11 minutes) –
    This film started off so promising! We see the story of two roommates (male and female) through a series of passive-aggressive and increasingly hostile notes read as voiceover narration. Their antics become a bit cartoonish, but remain entertaining until the film descends into rom-com silliness at the halfway point. The entire second half of this film could’ve been left on the cutting room floor and the film would’ve been a lot better. Well…perhaps with the final scene included, sans pillow fight. More info here.

  2. Fancy (Director: Chris Olsen, USA, 3 minutes) –
    A short dance number on a minimalist set. Fun for what it is. More info here.

  3. The Fortune Writer* (Director: Eric Gross, USA, 9 minutes) –
    A note to up-and-coming short film directors: a shot of sizzling cabbage is an excellent hook. This film takes place in a Chinese restaurant, where a man sits in the kitchen at a diminutive typewriter typing up the little slips of paper for fortune cookies. As he peers out into the restaurant at the various diners, he tailors each fortune to their respective situations. In a curious narrative choice, we only see one of these fortunes in its entirety. The rest, we have merely to guess based on their effects on the various diners. I went back and forth on whether or not this struck me as lazy writing, but I ultimately sided with the film. For such a brief period to get to know them, each of the diners felt like real people (a testament to their performances), and the exact wording of the fortunes ultimately felt less important than their effects on each diner. And the last diner is no exception, thoroughly justifying this film’s placement in the “Love and Marriage” block. More info, Watch it here!.

  4. Non-Love Song (Director: Erik Gernand, USA, 8 minutes) –
    Two male friends share an extremely awkward goodbye at the end of summer. The result is gay, didactic, and gaily didactic. More info here.

  5. Bedfellows (Director: Pierre Stefanos, USA, 16 minutes) –
    “The course of love never did run smooth… A phrase made all the more true when the lovers in question both have a penis,” intones a sardonic British narrator, as we learn the tale of Bobby and Jonathan, who indulge in a fairly unsentimental one-night stand, then decide to spend the night together. What ensues would be best described as a fairy tale, as Bobby imagines what their future might be like together. What starts out as utter cheese becomes one of the most ambitious short films I’ve ever seen… If shorts attracted nearly the audience of mainstream cinema, I could easily see the headlines this film would provoke… “Propaganda for the Homosexual Agenda!”. While I tend to not have a very high opinion of any flavor of propaganda, it’s to this film’s credit that there were really only one or two lines during this extremely over-the-top sequence that felt particularly soapboxy. All in all, it seems like the film is selling a simple notion of love and imperfect romance, and nearly every moment feels completely honest and heartfelt (including a pretty devastating narrative twist halfway through). The resulting sequence is equal parts 25th Hour and Little Shop of Horrors (think “Suddenly Seymour”) – an earnest and memorable fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. More info and trailer here.

Quick List: All of the films that are available online: