MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

MW on DVDs: The Killer Inside Me, The Law (La Loi), Palermo or Wolfsburg, Get Him to the Greek … and more

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

The Killer Inside Me (Three Stars)
U.S.; Michael Winterbottom, 2010

All these years, ever since it first appeared as a paperback original novel in 1952, a possible movie of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me — the first-person deep-noir tale of a smooth-talking small-town Southern deputy sheriff and murdering bastard named Lou Ford — has been a movie masterpiece waiting to happen.

It’s an absolutely terrific book. As you read it, you’re hooked good by Thompson‘s terse, ice-cold-blooded sentences, his flawless chopped rhythms, his darkly unsentimental yarn-spinning and that all-seeing laser eye with which he penetrates a believable but dangerously off-kilter world of “respectable“ killers and savaged hookers. The centerpiece of the book is a portrayal of pure, unrepentant evil, masked with “good guy” affability, a piece of two-faced  brutality that can leave you drained. His name is Lou Ford. He’s a lawman with a killer inside.

Stanley Kubrick loved this book; it’s the reason he hired Thompson to co-write the scripts for The Killing and Paths of Glory. Although Thompson allegedly wrote “killer” in two weeks (for the money, of course), The Killer Inside Me” is as perfect a prose piece as anything by Truman Capote, who tries to open up this world, this psychopathology. in his classic study of real-life Kansas murder In Cold Blood. But he doesn’t chill the blood as much or get evil as right as Thompson.

However, it’s my unhappy duty to report that director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran’s movie of The Killer Inside Me is no masterpiece, even though the filmmakers (perhaps a little too much) actually treat the book as one, try to render it as faithfully and even reverently as they can — and even though they have a good cast and a really good Lou Ford in Casey Affleck.

Affleck plays it honey-tongued, boyish and secretly brutal, and he makes it work. He isn’t as right for this part as the Robert Mitchum of Cape Fear would have been — Mitchum was a longtime front-runner in any Lou Ford dream-casting sweepstakes — but he does make us comprehend some of the depths of murder and small town hypocrisy. (You know who else might have knocked this role out of the park? The younger Andy Griffith, in his Lonesome Rhodes  A Face in the Crowd mode. But his fan base would have killed him.)

In Thompson‘s tale, which Winterbottom gives us straight up, Ford has been crippled inside for years by a bent boyhood. But he doesn’t discover his real core of depravity until he‘s asked to put some fear into a  local whore, Joyce (Jessica Alba), who’s been screwing the rich and worthless Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson), son of the city’s main man Chester Conway (Ned Beatty, not quite as scary as he is in Toy Story 3, but almost). Unfortunately, Lou discovers that he liked having sex with hooker Joyce, and worse, that he likes beating her up, and even worse, that she apparently likes it too. (The beating scene here should make your flesh crawl.)

This dangerous liaison ultimately unravels the whole town, since sweet-talking Lou has a friendly  façade and a talent for killing and lying — though not as big a talent as he thinks. Among the other   flawed souls caught up in this mess: credulous Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower), suspicious investigator Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker), glib mouthpiece Billy Boy Walker (Bill Pullman), cynical labor guy Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas), a drunken bum who saw it all (Brent Briscoe),  and Lou’s other girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), for whom Hell hath (no) fury. That’s quite a twisted gallery, and anybody who thinks Thompson is libeling the dear hearts and gentle people of this Texas small city, forgets that Thompson was an Oklahoma-born Southwestern-bred newsman with no fear and a first-class eye. He did drink, of course. Who wouldn’t?

Ford isn’t an easy part to play. You have to literally not give a  damn what an audience thinks of you, as Mitchum didn’t when he played villains (and as two other potentially great Fords, Robert Ryan and Kirk Douglas, didn’t either). But Affleck gives us Southwestern bullshit and genial macho with a vein of ice running underneath and his only scene that didn‘t work for me was the last one, which is played too operatically. That didn’t work though, in an almost ruinous way.

The movie doesn’t give us enough of Thompson’s voice and the killer‘s voice. It’s not hard. It’s all there on the page. Waiting. Winterbottom‘s film errs in not having bad Lou narrate more; it’s Lou’s voice that chills you to the bone in the novel. And there‘s another mistake in subjectivity. Though this should have been one of the greatest of all neo-noirs, and though noir in a nutshell is “hard-boiled, and high style,” the movie lacks that high visual style that noir and neo-noir need.

The Killer Inside Me would have been much better if it looked like a Coen Brothers movie (like No Country for Old Men), or like a Polanski movie, with more of Polanski’s eye-level, subjective Repulsion” or Chinatown viewpoints.
Talking about the ending, let me give you some of what Thompson wrote on his last page. (You can buy this book in a Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition and you should.) The movie would have been twice as good, or more, if Affleck had read these lines, and many more like them.  I suppose I need a Spoiler alert, so…

SPOILER ALERT

“Two hearts that beat as one,” I said. T-wo — ha-ha-ha, — two –ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha — two –J-jesus Chri — ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha — two Jesus…”
And I sprang at her. I made for her just like they’d thought I would. Almost. And it was like I’d signaled, the way the smoke suddenly poured up through the floor. And the room exploded with shots and yells, and I seemed to explode with it, yelling and laughing and…and…Because they hadn’t got the point. She’d got that between the ribs and the blade along with it. And they all lived happily ever after, I guess. And I guess — that’s — all.

Yeah, I reckon that’s all, unless our kind gets another chance in the Next Place. Our kind. Us people.

All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad. All us folks. Me and Joyce Lakeland, and Johnnie Pappas and Bob Maples and big ol‘ Elmer Conway and little ol‘ Amy Stanton. All of us.

All of us.

END OF SPOILER

What a writer. What a voice. Jim Thompson. The Killer Inside Me. Too bad the movie doesn’t quite live up to them.

CO-PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

The Law (La Loi)  (Three Stars)
Italy/France; Jules Dassin, 1959

When it played American art houses in 1960, in a dubbed version that was retitled Where the Hot Wind Blows!,” this Jules Dassin adaptation of Roger Vailland’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel La Loi (The Law) was dismissed as fancy smut by some critics. Well, what’s wrong with fancy smut?

Or, to be a little classier about it, what’s wrong with stylish erotica? Especially if the cast — playing the sometimes corrupt, sometimes idealistic and often horny residents of a hot-blooded Italian city where they play a wicked drinking game called “The Law” — includes the bosomy siren Gina Lollobrigida as devious Marietta, the angel-eyed Marcello Mastroianni as her agronomist lover Enrico, that Greek temptress and mercurial (sorry) Dassin muse Melina Mercouri as the local judge’s wandering wife Donna Lucrezia, the insinuatingly sexy Piaf protégé Yves Montand as evil bully-boss Matteo Brigante, and Pierre Brasseur, who played the lady-killing Shakespearean actor Fredrick Lemaitre in Children of Paradise and here plays dying old patriarch Don Cesare, who still has the hots for Lollo’s Marietta, the saucy queen of cleavage. (Get a load of Gina: Who can blame him, or any of the others? )

It’s often wondered why Dassin, who was an inarguable film noir master from
1947’s Brute Force up through the 1955 classic Rififi, (the movie that the young critic Francois Truffaut called the best noir ever made), never made any good movies after Rififi. Well this is a good movie. I find the ending a little callous. (Maybe it’s the black list victim in Dassin striking back at the oligarch bosses who gave him the boot.) But it’s really entertaining, full of luscious landscapes, enticing deep focus moving-camera images, and big star glamour acting. Just as Rififi is a dark ballad of rain, robbery, cloudy skies and death, The Law is a lively tale of sunlight, ocean, sin and sex. If it had had any nudity — and The Law was done in Brigitte Bardot’s heyday — audiences would have never stopped watching it. (“Hubba,” as that nice young Italian-American  crooner Perry Como once said, “Hubba.”)

Why did so many critics lower their thumbs over Where the Hot Wind Blows!? Maybe they didn’t want to be accused of a taste for fancy smut. Or maybe, for them, the hot wind never blew. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Palermo or Wolfsburg (Three and a Half Stars)

West Germany; Werner Schroeter, 1980 (Facets Video)

1. Palermo, Sicily. In an impoverished neighborhood in Palermo, Sicily, where
the sun bakes the streets, the hills and the fields, a young man named Nicola (Nicola Zarbo
) whose alcoholic father cannot support the family, decides to find work abroad. He gets the blessings of his family, his priest, the local boss, and travels by train and ship  to…

2. Wolfsburg, Germany, where its grayer, grimmer, where there’s factory work that deadens the soul, where the bars at evening promise easy sex, revelry, companionship, explosive danger …and sometimes obsessive love and sudden death.

3. The courtroom at Wolfsburg, where Nicola is on trial for murdering two young bar bullies — and where the truth will out.

Werner Schroeter, who died recently, was, along with his friend and admiring colleague Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of two great gay directors of the German New Wave. This film, which won the Golden Bear, or top prize of the 1980 Berlin Film Festival, is his acknowledged masterpiece. Shot in three acts, in three different film styles (modern provincial neo-realism, urban melodrama, and courtroom drama), it movies from realism to nightmare stylization, carrying us along on a dark wave of mental and moral disintegration and operatic madness. Photographed and co-produced by Thomas Mauch. With Ida di Benedetto and Magdalena Montezuma. (In German and Italian, with English subtitles.)

PICK OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY

Get Him to The Greek (Three Stars)
U.S.; Nicholas Stoller, 2010

Get Him to the Greek — the latest from the Judd Apatow juggernaut — is an often funny “guys-on-the-loose” comedy with, as you’d expect, something extra. Writer-director Nicholas Stoller (who made another Apatow movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, source of one Greek’s lead characters, Aldous Snow) gives the movie a shrewdly observed corporate rock n’ roll background, an ironic/glamorous sheen and some juicy roles for some talented comic actors: notably Russell Brand as Snow, a once tee-totaling, now off-the-wagon rock star, and Jonah Hill as one of his biggest fans, record company intern Aaron Green — who as we soon learn, has been charged with getting his idol to the Greek. (Theatre, that is.)

Aaron , a brainy, likable, good-hearted and somewhat weight-challenged employee at Snow’s label Pinnacle, responds to a nightmarish brain-storming session by sadistic Pinnacle exec Sergio Roma (Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, really cooking) with a hot idea. Aaron suggests that Snow return to the scene of one of his biggest triumphs, L A.‘s Greek Theatre, where Aldous and his band, Infant Sorrow, ten years earlier, recorded an epochal  live performance album, that apparently rivaled B. B. King at the Regal, James Brown at the Apollo,  and The Who Live at Leeds.

Vibrant with aficionado enthusiasm, Aaron excitedly hails Snow as “the last remaining rock star” (forgetting Mick, Keith, Paul, Ringo, U2, Aretha, The Boss, and Spinal Tap, among many others), and sells the idea of a tenth anniversary re-concert, thereby scoring a publicity blitz, possibly laying down another classic album, and enhancing the whole Aldous Snow Pinnacle catalogue.
There’s just one problem. Getting him to the Greek. On time.

Snow, you see, has reliability issues. Once a yoga-spouting narcissist, now a dissolute wreck on booze and smack, the ace rocker has responded to the catastrophic critical-commercial flame-out of his pretentious concept album “African Child” — in which he tried to re-image himself as an “African White Christ from Space” — and the subsequent crash-and-burn of his “ideal” marriage to beautiful-and-sexy top model-rocker Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), by retreating into a world of nonstop revelry, misbehavior and  debauchery. Getting him anywhere, including out of bed in the morning, will be quite a chore.

And Aaron, in return for his inspired notion, has now been charged by his scary boss Sergio with the assignment of guiding Snow away from the fleshpots through a hectic three day schedule that include an interview/concert appearance with Meredith Vieira on “Today,“ a detour though Las Vegas (where Aldous’s dad Jonathan, played by Colm Meaney
, plays backup for a Rat Pack tribute, and the final grand climax at the Greek). Needless to say, Aaron fails at some parts of his assignment,  succeeds in others, and, along the way, bonds with his idol in sometimes startling ways.

This is a terrific premise for a wild, unbuttoned buddy-buddy comedy, and Get Him to the Greek mostly milks it smartly. The show is loaded with dead-on satiric jibes at the music and TV industries, crammed with cameos of celebrities amusingly playing themselves (everyone from Pink and Christina Aguilera to Nobel winning economist  Paul Krugman, as another guest on “Today”) and some genuinely hilarious gags — notably the limousine scene where Aaron downs whiskey after whiskey to keep Snow sober, the Today Show appearance where Aaron runs around madly trying to find anyone who remembers the lyrics to the despised “African Child” (which Snow has forgotten), and practically every scene stolen by Combs’ Sergio, the boss from L. A. Hell and the Nobel laureate of the mind-fuck.

The movie also has characters both comic and convincing — and even, occasionally moving. Brand’s Snow — whose name oddly suggests literary legends more than rock ones (British novelists Aldous Huxley and C. P. Snow) — is believably fatuous in his blissed-out “African Child” misadventure, believably  messed-up in his current orgiastic decline. (I didn’t believe the climax at the Greek, but I’m not sure anyone could have pulled it off.) With his Satanic locks and hyper-slim physique, Brand, who sings all his songs, suggests a classic star-gone-to-seed, but he also makes us believe Snow can rise, and rock, to the occasion.

In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Snow was more of a Spinal Tap-ish rock star ass, and Hill was a creepy waiter with a massive fan-crush on him. Turning Hill into a nicer, saner guy here — he has an equally nice medico wife named Daphne (Elisabeth Moss) — may sacrifice some darker laughs. But it actually grounds the movie more and sharpens the comedy.

We need a relatively Candidesque guy like Aaron to navigate us through all the dicier, nastier, slimier moments of Greek, such as the balls-out scenes where Snow coerces Aaron into scoring some heroin for him, and later blackmails him into jamming the smack up his ass to get it through airport customs. Here the humor seems darker than dark, as it also does in the Las Vegas orgy scene, complete with dildo. (I hasten to add that Get Him to the Greek has an unmistakable anti-drug message, and an anti-dildo one as well.)

Rose Byrne skewers Jackie Q and glam-celebrity very neatly, and Meaney, in his rowdy turn as Snow’s dad, reminds us what a grand Irish character actor can do with a good booze scene — even if this one goes  a bit over the suds. And Combs is really amazing as the malevolent Sergio, even bringing off the scenes where he appears as Aaron’s nightmare vision, chomping up his own little heads. I don’t think Don Cheadle could have done this part better.
Director Stoller knows how to go for the barfs and the sleaze and the yocks, and, in the now-classic Apatow manner, how to mix them up with sentiment and compassion. And the production is surprisingly toney.

Stoller uses Wes Anderson’s sharp cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and Peter Greenaway’s brilliant production designer Jan Roelfs (of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and her Lover) and they both make classy  contributions. Still, I think Stoller somewhat flubs the ending, several times. There’s a threesome scene near the concert that doesn’t work at all, either as humor, or sentiment, or character comedy, or even as time-killing smut. And, while I was rooting for Snow at the end, I thought that scene went way over the tosspot too, though the “Crazy Heart-ish” coda wasn‘t bad. Still the movie made me laugh. It’ll probably make you laugh too.

CO-PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET

Louis Feuillade’s “Fantomas‘ The Complete Saga” (Three Discs) (Four Stars)

France; Louis Feuillade, 1913-14 (Kino)

Louis Feuillade (1873-1923) was a phenomenal creator of early silent cinema, a master of French pop filmmaking who managed to invest his dark, horrific, thrill-packed and wildly popular movie crime melodramas and serials (Judex, The Vampires) — incredible films that were often shot partly on the contemporary streets of Paris and the surrounding country — with a poetic sense of place and time and an incongruous but powerful realism, all of which contrasted weirdly with the penny-dreadful plots and outrageous twists and shocks with which  his smash hit melodramas were loaded.

Les Vampires (1915-16), Judex (1916), La Nouvelle Mission de Judex 1917) and Tih Minh are among Feuillade’s best known films and official masterpieces. But so is the quintet of films, a continuous series of five linked serials/features, that make up this great Kino package Fantomas: the Complete Saga.

These films also contain Feuillade’s most famous and enduring character, Fantomas, who began as the star of a formidably popular crime novel series by Pierre Silvestre and Marcel Allain. Fantomas was a super-villain who rallied vast audiences along with surrealist artists and cognoscenti, and kept popping up in French films through the century, including a 1964 hit by comedian Louis de Funes, and a loving version by Nouvelle Vague mainstay Claude Chabrol. The great, indefatigable French arch-villain also inspired sinister counterparts all over the world, starting with Fritz Lang’s near-direct homage figure, Dr. Mabuse.

Fantomas (played by dashing, brooding matinee idol Rene Navarre, who became an early superstar in the role) is a super-criminal and gangleader, a man of mystery, a man of fashion, a man of a thousand disguises and identities, a man of endless ingenuity and ruthless murderous cunning. Pursued by the scowling, obsessed Javert-like Paris super-police detective Juve (Edmond Breon) and Juve’s friend, the energetic and courageous crime super-journalist Jerome Fandor (Georges Melchior), Fantomas leaves a trail of blood and terror on the Eugene Atget-like Paris streets, as he robs, steals, kills, scales rooftops, flees in motor-cars, dances in chic ballrooms, seduces with no sweat, reduces wealthy and Rubenesque society ladies to quivering jelly, assassinates with impunity, burgles with élan, leaves a trail of corpses in his wake, breaks in and out of jail seemingly at will, and effortlessly eludes the police, mystifies the experts, terrorizes the rich, and keeps framing helpless innocents for his awful crimes.

Souvestre and Allain wrote fast, hard and seemingly unreflectively; their tales seem to pour out of their subconscious like automatic nightmares. Feuillade was equally fluid, an even more expert and prolific craftsman and stylist. According to Katz, he directed 800 films of all lengths during his astonishing two-decade career, besides writing 100 screenplays for others, and heading up operations at France’s Gaumont Studio, a job that he’d inherited from his predecessor and mentor, the legendary pioneering woman filmmaker-mogul Alice Guy Blache. He died at 52, in 1925, leaving behind him a last serial, Le Stigmate.

In the world of pulp and pop fiction, just as in life, crime sometimes does pay. If you don’t know Louis Feuillade, and few but the real buffs and aficionados do, you don’t know French cinema. Rob, steal, loot, terrorize, scale rooftops, assassinate with impunity, reduce society ladies to quivering jelly, break in and out of jail seemingly at will, even face the guillotine like Fantomas if you must — but don’t let this sinister and magnificent Kino set elude your grasp. (Silent, with English subtitles and a music score assembled from Catalogue Sonimage.)

Includes: Fantomas — in the Shadow of the Guillotine (France; Feuillade, 1913). Fantomas kills, is caught, and escapes death. Juve vs. Fantomas (France; Feuillade, 1913). Juve and Fandor take up the hunt. The Murderous Corpse (France; Feuillade, 1913). Fantomas, on a murder spree, frames a corpse. Fantomas vs. Fantomas (France; Feuillade, 1914).

The plot thickens: Juve impersonates Fantomas.  The False Magistrate (France; Feuillade, 1913). Fantomas, in his most brilliant disguise, impersonates a judge and takes over the criminal court. Note: This is a continuous story. Overall rating (for the five films together): Four Stars.


Extras: Two Feuillade shorts, the 1910 bible epic The Nativity (Three Stars) and the 1912 The Dwarf (Three Stars); Documentary Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms; Two Commentaries by David Kalat;  Image gallery.

Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth  (Two Discs) (Four Stars)

U.S.; Series producer: Catherine Tatge, 1988 (Athena)

Movies (and TV) can be a powerful educational tool, even if they’re often otherwise engaged in tomfoolery and used to miseducate and misinform. A case in point: Bill Moyers’ series of interviews with author-teacher-expert in mythology Joseph Campbell conducted in the two summers before Campbell‘s death at the California hideaway/myth factory of Campbell‘s most influential disciple, George Lucas, on such subjects as The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Love and the Goddess, The Hero‘s Adventure, Masks of Eternity and The Message of the Myth.

Campbell is a fascinating theorist and quite a storyteller (I‘ll bet his Sarah Lawrence classes were a blast), and he demonstrates this when he rivets us with the old English Arthurian legend  of Gawain and the Green Knight (a tale also beloved of that other sage yarn spinner J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote his own version of it). The conversation is illustrated with copious documentary footage, and of course, Star Wars clips. 

Moyers’ most popular show ever, this program was sadly never seen by Campbell.
There should be much more TV like this — and like Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, and Planet Earth — and much less, say, of those ranting, fantasizing, bellicose ninnies and bland phony ass-kissers on Fox Schlox News . There won’t be, but there should.

Extras: More conversations with Campbell; Moyers interview with George Lucas; Viewer’s Guide Booklet; Profiles of Campbell Influences; Photo gallery; Moyer Bio; Excerpts from film Sukhavati.

OTHER CURRENT OR RECENT DVD RELEASES

Iron Man 2 (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Jon Favreau

What would we have thought back in the 1960s, if someone had told us that, in the post-2001 movie era, the Hollywood film industry would have largely abandoned the treasures of literature, history and current events as major source material and  become preoccupied instead with making 50 million to 200 million dollar adaptations of super-hero comic books, children‘s stories and old TV shows?
Well, it is what it is, as they say.

And in this new era, with its strange artistic and entertainment priorities, Iron Man was one of the most pleasant movie surprises of 2008: a superhero fantasy-action movie based on the Stan Lee Marvel comic, that played havoc with the usual clichés, had fun with  sometimes threadbare action blockbuster conventions, and gave Robert Downey Jr. a big star part  as Tony Stark — a Howard Hughesian industrialist turned Iron Man robo-warrior — that totally clicked, exploiting all Downey‘s considerable gifts for wild-eyed, comic verbosity and soulful human dramatizing, besides handing juicy, well-written supporting roles to major talents like Jeff Bridges (the corporate villain), Gwyneth Paltrow (the heroine-babe) and Terrence Howard (the soldier-buddy).

Everybody came off looking good in the 2008 Iron Man: the stars, the writers (a four man team headed by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), the art and tech people, the actors — and perhaps most of all, director Jon Favreau, who kept all the balls bouncing, and made all his actors shine.

Mixing it all with his previous flair for comedy and character, Favreau in Iron Man showed more diversified talents (for action scenes, spectacle and CGI pyrotechnics) than we might have expected from the guy who wrote Swingers and made Elf. Following in the websteps of the “Spider-Man” movies, Iron Man seemed to be the perfect Marvel movie product, and to portend well for a series, a franchise — and certainly  for at least a sequel.

Unfortunately, the major surprise of Iron Man 2 — which brings back Downey, Paltrow and Favreau in an even more elaborate all-guns blazing, super-CGI super-production — is how few surprises it actually has up its iron sleeves, as well as how wantonly it wastes both the old stars who’ve returned and the new ones who’ve turned up. That new bunch includes Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell as nasty heavies, Don Cheadle, who has replaced Howard as comrade-in-arms Rhodey, Scarlett Johansson as a kick-ass femme fatale Natasha, and Samuel L. Jackson as snappish Marvel top gun Nick Fury, a brawler with a black eye patch and lots of attitude. (All he needs is a parrot on his shoulder and a few “Arrrrrrrs,” and he could recycle this performance as Long John Silver.)

Also in the gang: Garry Shandling as a smiling, idiotic U. S. Senator named Stern, and Favreau himself as a jolly driver/assistant named Happy Hogan.

What went wrong here? It’s easy to blame the script — this time by Justin Theroux (of Tropic Thunder) — because it’s so clearly inferior to the first one. The story hops and flubbles along predictably, despite lively dialogue and some motor-mouth clowning by both Downey and Rockwell that suggests they’ve been given a Robin Williams green light to spritz and spew at will. (They’re both damned good at it, if that’s what they’re doing; if Theroux actually wrote all their lines, it’s some small redemption for him.)

But there’s something cheerless, thin and rote about Iron Man 2 even beyond the script — which pits an initially dying and later reborn Tony Stark against the ruthless corporate creep Justin Hammer (Rockwell). Hammer, a total smarm-o, is trying to break Tony’s monopoly on super-hero robo-ware by springing from jail, a vengeful Russian physicist turned super-basher named Ivan Vanko (played by Rourke, with an actual Russian accent that reminded me of Akim Tamiroff), thereby winning huge government contracts, the friendship of knucklehead Senator Stern and perhaps the approval of Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor (played by O’Reilly, who snarls that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, new CEO of Stark Industries, is a “pinhead,“ but stops short of calling Hammer a “patriot”). The whole thing predictably ends with a mass battle pitting heroes against villains, pinheads against patriots and good robo-warriors against bad ones. And you should be advised that there‘s one last kicker right after the endless credit crawl at the end.

Watching Iron Man was often exhilarating. Watching the sequel is like climbing into a big robot suit and trying to have a good time, despite all the clanking and bonking around you. It’s entertaining at times. But it‘s as if Favreau got so preoccupied with the intricacies of playing Happy Hogan — such as keeping his eyes on the road when Scarlett Johansson is stripping in the back seat — that he somehow forgot to direct the movie. The resulting film has the squeaky-clean business-as-usual veneer of an overly expensive action-toy that just dropped off the assembly line, cold and clean and plastic and proudly unimaginative.

Much of what the first movie cleverly avoided or wittily undercut — the usual clichés, stereotypes and way over-familiar scenes, the over-reliance on CGI  and threadbare, undeveloped characters — keep surging to the fore here, as if  they were the inevitable diseases you inevitably catch when making a sequel to a huge critical and commercial hit movie.

Meanwhile, speaking as one of the many critics who loved Iron Man (and still does), let me pay belated tribute to four members of that first movie’s team of moviemakers whom I may have passed over too quickly before: the quartet of writers, including Matt Holloway and Art Marcum — and especially the team of Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, whose excellent scriptwork on the classy neo-noirs Children of Men and Late Snow should have tipped me to the fact that they had a lot more to do with what I loved about Iron Man than I may have first allowed. Why weren’t some of them brought back?

In that first movie, of course, Favreau, the writers and Downey  began with a lot of raw emotion — with playboy munitions-maker Tony Stark’s imprisonment at the hand of vicious Taliban rebels in the Afghanistan desert, and his subsequent Iron Man creation and metamorphosis. And the emotion only increased as Tony’s new anti-war sentiments were spliced into the usual Marvel “Zap! Pow!” formula of wise-cracking battles between super-hero and super-heavy. Tony’s wasn‘t swallowed up into Iron Man (as he often is here). His stature also only increased,  a real triumph for Downey.

Likewise Paltrow‘s Pepper was  the babe of babes. Bridges played slick-mean as well as he plays lowdown country grace. Howard was a fine macho-camarado  and Clark Toub had a great small part as Tony’s fellow prisoner. But what held it all together was the personality of Downey‘s Tony — a glib hedonist who got scorched and beaten, and who changed.  Downey seemed to be giving the part more than it had, more than super-hero blockbusters usually purvey. But that may have been the meat of the writing and the trick of his acting, which at its best, suggests a mix of Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon. I have no problems calling him a great actor, even if he won’t himself (and even if he certainly isn’t one in Iron Man 2).

So what happens at the start of Iron Man 2? Some military/political satire. Pepper becoming CEO. Some more Tony high jinks and suffering. Another fall, less convincing, from which he has to be redeemed. More robo-battles. Zap! Pow! Well, that’s why they call them sequels.

Theroux and Favreau just pile on the glitz and violence, including an early show-stopper Formula One racing scene in Monaco, with Tony at the wheel, that won’t make anyone forget Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix.  It’s interrupted by Rourke as Vanko  and his pretty good routine of Tamiroff-as-the-Terminator, who — in one of the strangest damn scenes I’ve seen recently –  strides out on the track amid the hurtling cars, strips down to gladiator drag, and then starts killing drivers and going after Tony with two huge blazing electric tentacle-whips.

Rourke can be a great actor too, in movies like Sin City as well as The Wrestler

Garry Shandling, despite few good lines, so admirably suggests an imbecilic, doltish jackass of a Senator that I expected him to start filibustering against health care and Wall Street reform any second. Scarlett Johansson, as Natalie a.k.a. Natasha, says she based her role partly on Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, which seems a bit like Angelina Jolie saying she based Lara Croft, Tomb Raider on Bette Davis in All About Eve.

As for the product report, the sets are slick. The CGI is slick. The cinematography is slick. Robert Downey is down there in that iron suit some place, somewhere. And A.C./D.C. really rocks under the credits. Hey gang, screw Saul Bellow or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare and all of U.S. history and politics. Or Paul Theroux for that matter. (Justin’s uncle.) Grab another comic book, Marvel or not, and throw millions at it. We’re on a Highway to Hell!

So what does that all mean for director Favreau? He‘s still swimming in a bowl of cream, even if people like me think part of the cream is curdling. What do I know anyway? It’s entirely possible I would have enjoyed Iron Man 2 a lot more if I hadn’t been so delighted with its predecessor, and didn’t have such high expectations — if Favreau, Downey and all the others hadn’t done such a good job before. But expectations are often the name of the game. I don’t think Iron Man 2 is much of a show, but its probably still a hell of a business investment. And Iron Man is still a hell of a movie. They should just hope the rest of the cast doesn’t start pulling Terrence Howards.

Babies (Three Stars)

France; Thomas Balmes, 2010

Thomas Balmes‘ French documentary about babies around the world is a very well shot, deceptively simple film, which is as content to gaze at its four infant subjects — Mari from Japan, Ponijao from Namibia, Africa, Bayarjarcal from Mongolia and Hattie from San Francisco, U.S.A. — as director Jacques Perrin was content to raptly follow, from close range, the long-range flight of many flocks of birds in another admirable French documentary Winged Migration.

Both these films are fine French examples of non-fiction films as both scientific exploration and objets d’art — wordless portrayals of the beauty and wonder of the world given us without the mediation of narration, as in the early films of Painleve. I find Winged Migration far more fascinating than Babies (or Bebes as it’s known in France). But maybe that’s perhaps because I was once a  baby myself, and dimly remember the whole baby routine — though not of course as enacted in exotic climes like Africa, Japan, Mongolia and Frisco.

Then again, there was much I forgot — such as how prowlingly curious babies can be, how sometimes oddly fearless. Scenes of little Bayarjarcal (Bayar for short) crawling among barnyard animals who daintily step over him, or being nuzzled in his tub by a curious goat, are bound to make some parents cringe. Conversely, so might the American scene where well-meaning parents subject their children to native chant rituals and yoga classes, and to a library of books that includes the instructive little picture-tome No Hitting.

And I’d forgotten of course, how cruel or invasive some children can be when copies of No Hitting aren’t available, as we see when Ponijao‘s older bother keeps smearing and slapping her head or messing with her, or when toddlers bop each other and bawl, or in other infant altercations that irresistibly remind you of  a full-blown Laurel and Hardy routine.

The babies are adorable, natch, and when the adults interact with them, they become adorable too, even somewhat baby-like. One wonders if a world-wide adorableness movement might actually conquer the planet, if only babies could communicate, organize and raise armies, or take over the media (some would argue that they already have) or interact somewhat more productively than just repeatedly bopping each other on the bean and bawling like Stan and Ollie.
“Babies” was filmed mostly with a motionless camera in long takes, all quite beautifully composed and shot by Balmes and his three cinematographers: Jerome Almeras, Frazer Bradshaw and Steeven Petiteville.

Ridiculously enough, it’s a PG film, because mothers occasionally suckle their young and Third World countries are not as skittish (or mercenary) about public nudity as some of us Americans. And it’s been shaped and edited as a comedy, sometimes — as with the scenes described above — even a dark comedy. You don’t think it will be entertaining, but it is.

I saw it at one of my favorite old movie houses, the Hollywood Egyptian, at a special showing with an audience that contained plenty of new mothers, who had been encouraged to bring their babies along, and often had. It was one of the best-behaved audiences with whom I’ve seen any movie recently. No loud conversations. No cell phones. No tantrums. No crying. No spilled drinks or flung popcorn. No arguments about whether Marty Scorsese is an auteur. I tell you, it was as refreshing as an afternoon nap. With a bottle of milk.

Triage (Two and a Half Stars)

France/Italy/Spain/U.K.; Danis Tanovic, 2009 (EI Entertainment)

From writer-director Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land): a strong, if over-obvious, anti-war drama, set in Kurdistan, with Colin Farrell as a war photographer who’s seen and been damaged by darkness and death. Also in the cast: Paz Vega and Christopher Lee (in his best recent role, as a man with a past). Tanovic remains commendably ambitious, if not yet completely comfortable as an English language scenarist. But the movie is well-shot (by Seamus Deasy) and worth seeing.

Extras: Interviews with Tanovic, Farrell, Vega and Lee; Featurette; Behind-the-scenes footage.

Where Love has Gone (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Edward Dmytryk, 1964 (Olive)

Susan Hayward and Bette Davis, two queens of cinema, apparently signed themselves on for forced labor in this bestselling Harold Robbins-derived mess of a melodrama about bad rich people, two bad moms, a bad murder credited to Joey Heatherton, a bad time had by good hubby Mike Connors (as a Mannix Without a Country), a very bad portrait of Bette, bad lawyering by George MacReady and others, a bad Cahn-Van Heusen title song sung (not too badly) by Jack Jones (“There must be a place, a place where love has gone…There must be a star…where dreams and desires, cold as yesterday‘s fires, start to blaze anew….There may not be such a place, there may not be such a star. But still my fool of a heart just leads me on…Where love has gone.”)  and the inevitable consequences of so much badness coexisting in one movie.

It’s hard to believe John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief) was in his right mind when he wrote this screenplay. Possibly, it’s all an elaborate practical joke, including the original novel.Edward Dmytryk directs all this as if his name were really Eddie Dimtrick, Murder My Sweet, Crossfire and The Sniper had never happened, and he was so stricken with remorse for naming names at HUAC, that he was unable to face the cameras, read the script or mumble “Action!”

There may not be such a place, there may not be such a star… 

Extras: The Lebanon Philharmonic, conducted by Edvard Dimtrickovich,  plays Cahn-Van Heusen’s “Oratorio on 13 Variations of ’Where Love Has Gone.’” (Just kidding.)

My Favorite Spy (Two and a Half Stars).

U.S.; Norman Z. McLeod, 1951 (Olive)

Bob Hope plays lecherous comedian Peanuts White, who — mistaken for an American super spy with a license to leer — ogles Hedy Lamarr for 93 minutes in what‘s supposed to be Tangiers but looks more like Fresno on Halloween, while gabbing with what’s supposed to be Harry Truman (but was probably Jerry Colonna), trying to recall a good joke from some old Panama and Frank script, and eluding the evil designs of Francis L. Sullivan, Mike Mazurki and other miscreants.

A huge hit in 1951, possibly because audiences wandered into the theaters under the delusion that they were watching revivals of Hope‘s previous comedy hits, My Favorite Blonde and My Favorite Brunette. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. (“Horse Feathers!”) No, really, it was Norman Z. McLeod.

Extras: Filmed vaudeville excerpt of Hope’s original plumber-and-the-babe-in-the-bathtub skit, along with Hope’s original supporting act: Eddie Dimtrick and his Dancing Dachshunds. (Just kidding.)

ALSO IN RELEASE: TO BE REVIEWED LATER

The Thin Red Line (Two Discs) (Four Stars)

U.S.; Terrence Malick, 1998 (Criterion Collection).

As I wrote in the Chicago Tribune, when I selected Thin Red Line as the second best film of 1998: “This is one of 1998′s two great World War II battle films. (The other was my Number One choice, Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan). It may lack Spielberg’s brilliant action and super-realistic staging, but The Thin Red Line focuses far more persuasively on the chaos, suffering and madness of warfare, giving us a deeper, richer psychological drama and sometimes stunning poetic beauty.

Based on James Jones‘ taut, ultra-realistic novel of an assault on Guadalcanal by C-for-Charlie Army rifle company, and boasting an extraordinary cast topped by Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, John C. Reilly, Jim Caviezel, and Tim Blake Nelson, this was the first film in two decades from legendary American moviemaker Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven). And it was worth the wait. Malick’s lyrical sense endows the Pacific isle battleground with an almost sacred beauty, making the bloody battle scenes seem all the more obscene and terrible.”

More next week. (This Criterion two-pack boasts an excellent batch of extras.)

3 Responses to “MW on DVDs: The Killer Inside Me, The Law (La Loi), Palermo or Wolfsburg, Get Him to the Greek … and more”

  1. Dylon Marson says:

    Oh my goodness! I love “The Killer Inside of Me”. I saw that in the title and I’ve watched it like 10 times, so I had to come and read this! Cool stuff, thanks!

  2. I very much like your blog’s post and all and i like the template and the colour but maybe it requires a change, its been a long time, what do you guys think?

  3. Thanks sure is alot of info you have on your website for website design!

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Six rules for filmmaking from Mike Nichols
1. The careful application of terror is an important form of communication.
2. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.
3. There’s absolutely no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.
4. If you think there’s good in everybody, you haven’t met everybody.
5. Friends may come and go but enemies will certainly become studio heads.
6. No one ever lost anything by asking for more money.
~ Via Larry Karaszewski and Howard A. Rodman On Facebook

“I expected ‘Salesman’ to take the step backward every day that Chekhov and Beckett did — but no, it was there to help all the time. The circumstances are like a brick shithouse, they are so solid. You can’t really be satisfied, but I am pretty close to it because the cast took it and ran. They get better every day. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again. Is my ambition sated? I don’t know. To get something right, it can’t be sated because you can’t ever get enough of it right—and even if it is right, it won’t stay right. That’s the thing about a play. But with ‘Salesman,’ it’s different. I don’t know how, but they just keep getting better each night. I really don’t think I’ll direct another play. This is as good a time as I’ve ever had, and I don’t want to fuck it up.”
~ Mike Nichols To Stephen Galloway At The Time Of “Death Of A Salesman”