Monday, June 28, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (Winterbottom, 2010)

The Killer Inside Me
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Simon Baker, Ned Beatty
Grade: B –

It’s not often that a film comes along with the mindset of a Black Widow, eager to lure you in, chew you up, and spit you out as if it were second nature. Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me” is that edacious arachnid, a primed provider of psychopathy in its most lurid form, and has unsurprisingly come under criticism for its reluctance to succumb to genre expectation, and a fiercely obstinate approach towards character analysis. Assigned to play another guy by the name of Ford, Casey Affleck’s Lou is the Deputy Sheriff of a small American settlement, who gets embroiled in an affair with the prostitute he’s supposed to be ridding the town of. As the title may suggest, Lou’s indiscretions don’t cease at adultery, and soon he has the blood of more than one unfortunate soul on his hands.

One of the accusations levelled at Killer is that it glorifies violence towards women, and it’s true that Lou’s intertwined sexuality and aggression is a dominant feature. His first scene with prostitute Joyce (Alba), for instance, ends in sexual masochism, which I imagine had a fair few rolling their eyes. I’m inclined to believe that this scene asserts the film’s observations about sexual dependency, the idea of violence as erotic and indulgent. Joyce’s expectations of Lou are so inherently languid that she projects her self-objectification as a means of survival, as a confirmation of her ideas about what/who men are supposed to be. In one scene “The Killer Inside Me” says more about prostitution and its psychosexuality – about a secondary character no less – than something like 1971’s Klute does in its entire running time – and that’s without the likes of a knockout performance by Jane Fonda to anchor it. It does, however, contain a menacing turn from Casey Affleck, who digs deep to give a performance that mutates on a fine, deadening scale. The moment at which his feelings of solemnity, realisation, and relief at the death of his mistress confluence into a look that spells smugness and dread all-at-once, one of the most insightful, brilliant scenes Killer has on its roster. He even deals excellently with the mirroring of his characters statuses as husband and bachelor, more attuned to his environment than he is to any one of the people he has a relationship with. Just what, or who, is this man connected to?

Killer is astute even as, and perhaps despite of, its perpetually enforced impression of attraction as a more powerful proposition than morality or lifestyle. The ideological implications of the film are so thoroughly inordinate; Winterbottom won’t punish his character or even disguise his behaviour as a parodied brand of meticulous villainy, the like of which defined American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Lou’s spurned redemption leaves a bitter taste, but as an audience should we even be expecting redemption? By and large, the characters associated with Lou – from his girlfriend, to his mistress, to his colleagues – allow him to indulge in sex and violence by offering scant challenge to his authority. One wonders whether the lenience towards his faults somewhat obliges us to attempt identification with the man, as if there are swathes of doubt beneath his angular, imposing surface that are otherwise muted. Does his behaviour derive from an uncontrollable hindrance? Is he a passive component of the dastardly, in conflict with a true nature?

“The Killer Inside Me” is deceptive to a degree because the first-person narrative voice-over of Lou, and its cognizant approach towards moral ambiguity, intersperses the film with initial anecdotal fever. Affleck delivers Lou’s plotting so matter-of-factly, rattling off the line “I knew I had to kill him” as if he were discussing the weather, or about to perform the most minimal of misdemeanours. The filtering tone of the first act encourages us to gauge Lou’s behaviour and attempt to understand it, before the first gruesome act of violence he partakes in dismisses ideas that Lou’s crimes come from circumstantial necessity. For a while the film plays the part of an infidel in a bad romance, alienating us with Lou’s violence, but encouraging us to hold onto his day-to-day commentary as the ounce of humanism that prevents him from being totally inaccessible, even suggesting he might eventually be rescuable. The implication that Lou can, to some extent, step back from his own actions is cynically contravened by his late act of betrayal towards a character close to him. Deliberate in its intent to stir, the antagonism of this technique debilitates the film’s impact as an assessment of psychosis, and Winterbottom’s late move to make his provocation more brazen and cynical fails to temper the feeling that “The Killer Inside Me” has lost its narrative drive a good half-hour before the credits come up.

Many of a film’s most rewarding features can manifest themselves in retrospect. We should be more suspicious of Lou’s strange avoidance of discussing drive and emotion, of his lack of real motive, but Winterbottom does such a good job in distracting from what should essentially be clear to see. It reads more of a reflection of mainstream cinema as a moral crusade to say that people don’t take lightly to investing their evening into a character that’s been built up as an anti-hero, but who ends the film in such a blaze of unfathomable disgrace. If the film ends with the presence of a messy inferno, it isn’t without a hint of irony. “The Killer Inside Me” challenges as much as it manipulates, and on balance redeems itself more than the killer it depicts.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

1952, Year in Review: 5 Fingers

5 Fingers
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie, Walter Hampden
Grade: B+

I've always thought of James Mason as the Bond that never was, since he ably possesses all of the characteristics attributed to 007 (suave sophistication, dynamism, fiendish charm, an air of invincibility). Had the franchise began a decade earlier it's very possible that he may have shaken and stirred a few continental bikini babes, but as it stands his foray into the world of espionage appears to begin and end with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's less-gratuitous "5 Fingers".

The opening credits of "5 Fingers" have the typical allusory grandeur of classic movies, but as they rest there is a momentary pause before the film for a courtroom prologue proclaiming that the events we are about to see are Adapted From a Biographical Novel. It's a self-important feature that barely litters "5 Fingers" but nonetheless detracts from the cautionary fable-esqueness that courses through the picture. The early exchanges James Mason's Ulysses has with officials and the Countess Staviska (Darrieux) seeking to network, but stuffy, drab, and muted. Mankiewicz's film feels hung-up on historical detail and convention in a way that, say, Viva Zapata! refreshingly wasn't. Still, "5 Fingers" achieves more impact as a melodrama because of a more hard-line approach, and the production feels altogether Ophülsian for more than the presence of the charming Darrieux.

Nicknamed "Cicero" for his ability to elude, Ulysses is working for the British government during World War II, but secretly copying important documents and selling them to German fascists. Mason's self-assurance is perfectly suited to Ulysses' flawed sense of status and amoral approach to war and profession. The lack of moral conscience in the film doesn't mean to say that there isn't discussion of espionage as a viable career path, and if anything Mason makes Ulysses such a pillar of officiality that you somehow take him more seriously than a Tom Ripley, even though they essentially stand for the same thing. Mankiewicz refrains from aligning us with the British government, and so the gall of Ulysses is generally something to be observed and admired, his introspective plotting immersively played by Mason. "5 Fingers" is infinitely more successful when it becomes less intent on detail and more reverent of Mason's canny abilities, developing into a fascinating character study and a fable about what can happen to personalities that show such flagrant disregard for loyalty. The film is reliant and indulgent of Ulysses as a rogue and addresses the uncertainty of the period, the desire for control in whatever form.

One can assume that the title "5 Fingers" refers to an outstretched palm, an oath of allegiance to a monarch, republic etc. that is so clearly contravened by the film's cavalier anti-hero. Like Bogart's Rick in Casablanca, Cicero has no real allegiance or concern for the two sides of war that are bombing, shooting, slaying each other mere miles away. The elitist nature of both Rick and Ulysses in pursuing their own affairs - financial or otherwise - ambivalent, exploitative of war and the people embroiled in it, reads as some kind of denouncement of Nationalism as a forgotten entity. "Casablanca" may well be ahead of its time in that regard, but "5 Fingers" certainly emerged in an American period of crisis towards the fading sense of Nationalism, and in the midst of a desperate movement to retrieve it.

Ulysses' relationship with the Countess forms the only real context in which we can view him as anything other than selfish and single-minded. The nature of their tryst feels more business-orientated than romantic, but their shared capitalist mentality allows them to connect in a way they otherwise wouldn't have. It's a relationship that works because of the pair's clinical approach, and one that reveals Ulysses' complex for measuring his own success against others'. One almost feels he has come from an impoverished background and worked his way up to diplomacy (a la Joe Lampton in Room at the Top) as his thirst for competitiveness and a sense of victory seem to precede his own self-preservation. The film's final scene affords Mason the opportunity to demonstrate this, which he does with such wildly committed affectation.

"5 Fingers" appears to be both lamenting and critiquing the increasing hybridity of nationalism, an undoubted inflection of the American moment. Despite a laboured start it's difficult to imagine the film without either the deft touch of Mankiewicz or the delicious character work of Mason. Its sensibilities creep up on you like a concerto; watching someone lie, steal, and cheat has never been quite this much of a resonant, finally fleeting disgrace.

Academy Awards


Best Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Best Writing, Screenplay: Michael Wilson

Monday, June 07, 2010

1952, Year in Review: The Narrow Margin

The Narrow Margin
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Starring: Charles McGraw, Jacqueline White, Marie Windsor, Gordon Gebert
Grade: C

In nearly every sense Richard Fleischer's thriller, "The Narrow Margin" is a poor man's Hitchcock, and when discussing it one can't help but draw comparisons to 1938's The Lady Vanishes, given that both films are set on board a train.
It has all the makings of a great film, beginning with Mrs. Frankie Neal (a fiery Marie Windsor) and her fierce altercation with police. As the wife of a late gangster she has unwillingly agreed to testify against his shady assailants, but the harrowing murder of one of the men employed to escort her across the country puts the case (and her life) in danger. The planned train journey from Chicago to LA goes ahead, and Detective Seargeant Walter Brown (McGraw) has the unenviable job of being her bodyguard. The journey is further complicated, however, when Walter becomes drawn to one of the female passengers and her feisty son, and unwillingly makes them a target.

While Vanishes set a huge precedent for thrillers that could be funny, witty, breezy and deadly all-in-one, "The Narrow Margin" is less of a fledgling success than a pale imitation. There's little doubt that the film contains a substantial amount of intrigue, but as a 71-minute exercise there is precious little opportunity to flesh out either the characters or the narrative. It's a relatively tight little story, but one that can't ingratiate itself from better, similarly-plotted films, and remains rather slight in its approach to what had promised to be a much pulpier setup. The "narrow margins" in question are also scarce, as Fleischer is content to settle for faceless, standard, wandering villains to demonstrate the danger that beholds Mrs. Neal, and doesn't create many situations where we feel she's legitimately in danger enough to care. There are elements to engage with but these rarely feel dynamic, and as the film exhibits many of the hallmarks of a successful compact thriller (general mistrust, near-misses, a late twist) it neglects any real atmospheric flair and lacks the dolorous fervour essential to this form of genre picture.

Mrs. Neal as a character develops more importance as the film goes on so that the late deception of what or who she is doesn't come completely out-of-the-blue. Many harp on about Hitchcock's decision to show a flashback of an event in his 1950 film Stage Fright which proves never to have occurred, despite there being no attempt to allude to its authenticity at the time. Fleischer isn't quite on that level of directorial deceit, but while I appreciate how Hitchcock's decision affects our perceptions of the characters to valuable lengths, "The Narrow Margin" doesn't have any real desire to use its twist beyond effect, and this narrative shift is the only one that feels in any way a surprise.

"The Narrow Margin" is an easy watch, primarily because nobody feels overly concerned with bringing something new into an overly familiar arrangement. It's a shame because  the film's Oscar-nominated story and relative cult B-movie status hint at more ambition, grit, and bite than is on display. As light lunches go, "The Narrow Margin" is perfect to digest, but the promise it generates heavily outweighs the reward, and the result is sadly a stingy, forgettable production.

Academy Awards

Best Writing, Motion Picture Story

Saturday, June 05, 2010

1952, Year in Review: Viva Zapata!

Viva Zapata!
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn
Grade: B -

Despite the film's exclamatory title I have to confess that I was more curious than excitable about the prospect of "Viva Zapata!". Marlon Brando as a Mexican bandit hardly suggests savvy casting direction for a start, and the titular-championed Emiliano Zapata, an Indian revolutionary in turn-of-the-century Mexico, is someone I'm very unfamiliar with. It's to the film's credit that it manages to sustain interest in both Zapata and his compact political struggle against the smear campaign of a power-hungry President.

Upon reflection, as a self-made pariah Brando suits the part of such a dissident, but I'm not convinced that his presence is beneficial to "Viva Zapata!". Kazan is trying to portray Zapata as a lone wolf, a macho revolutionary, and a smouldering seductor (sometimes all at once) which in turn makes Brando's task rather difficult. Either way, his performance is a little too constrained and methodical for the often frenetic, celebratory lack of substance that filters through the picture. Method acting often works for Brando when he's in a serious piece, but "Viva Zapata!" is so wildly shifting from an historical drama to a flimsy romance to a booze-fuelled union of social outcasts that his character work can feel pedantic and fussy, as if he's approaching the material rather too seriously, or at least more so than Kazan.

While not uncommon for historical dramas to be diluted with romance and comedy, "Viva Zapata!" ploughs on with a flawed sense of generosity, badly setting up Emiliano's relationship with Josefa, a pallid-looking Jean Peters. Their strangely-played first scene together (in a church no less) exemplifies the token necessity of the film's romance. Emiliano and Josefa engage in a conversation where she berates him for being a tearaway fiend while he salivates over her like a wide-eyed puppy. As a local woman hung up on manners, protocol, and empty words, she's placed at the politically-opposing polar of Zapata's world, and surely represents everything he's eager to shun. Throughout this scene Peters and Brando unsurprisingly appear thoroughly disinterested in each other and the odd direction of their written interplay. After Zapata departs, Josefa's friend remarks that she likes the man (why we do not know), before Josefa herself makes the most unfathomable about-turn and agrees. As a way of constructing their predicament as a "couple" this immediately asserted to me that "Viva Zapata!" is made to be observed and not understood, which is a little unfair considering how adept it is at generating action and intrigue.

The presence of the effortlessly light and amiable Anthony Quinn does little to distill the aroma of frivolity in "Viva Zapata!", his trademark crowing an aide to the film's lively tone, and a nice parallel to the rumbunctious score from Alex North. Kazan manages to create a believeable core in Zapata's revolutionary community, who are all reverent of a man that never appears to be as emotionally involved as they. There is a history of portraying activism as passive escape, a stern look here, a swig of rum there, organisation as a secondary, trivial afterthought. Rather like my last 1952 foray into John Ford's The Quiet Man tradition is given higher status than mobility, since Zapata feels to be trying to resurrect a time that's since passed, resisting social and cultural transition. It can be argued then that Kazan's style is a trusty colleague to his subject's shun of infrastructure as a means of control, but to me unlikely, given that "Viva Zapata!" tends to project a single-minded view of the period. Carpetbagging and capitalism had saddled the small-town world with a choice between a seemingly permanent state of regression and a change in ideals and expectations. Nobody in "Viva Zapata!" has a great sense of nationalism, and the hypocrisy of Zapata's politics is demonstrated through overblown, carnivalesque drama and Shakespearian levels of tomfoolery. This is a story about people doing what they want, when they want, because they can.

"Viva Zapata!" is a film I'm more comfortable being a fan of than an advocate of, considering it doesn't really say an awful lot about either the man or the political situation of the moment. There appears to be an unimposed cap on what can be said, given the resounding view of its characters as a cavalcade of lost souls. It's ultimately apt that this film has its heralded title since it's a redundant championing of an utterly free-spirited disciple of life, so blithely unconcerned with reciting turning points in history, a carefree permanent struggle. To all intents and purposes "Viva Zapata!" really isn't an historical drama at all, but rather a daringly positive view of life in a mournful time for Mexico. It's just as well; the show must go on, and all that jazz.

Academy Awards

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Anthony Quinn

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Marlon Brando
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay
Best Art Direction
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture