The blockbuster releases of the week are featured at MSN—I review Iron Man 2 (Paramount) and leave Get Him to the Greek (Universal) to my colleague Mary Pols—and the release of the week, Criterion’s superb new edition of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line on DVD and Blu-ray, is featured on my blog here. Here are the rest of the releases…
Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (IFC) is actually the second adaptation of Jim Thompson’s violent pulp novel about a blankly pleasant and reflexively polite lawman, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), taking his place in his small Texas hometown. He also happens to be a sociopath taking his revenge on a few choice community leaders and using bystanders as bait. Winterbottom directs with a chilling calm even as the violence erupts, and he doesn’t flinch from showing the brutality of the beatings he unleashes with cold fury and cool focus. I admire his nerve—the violence, presented in almost clinical detail, is neither exploitative nor titillating—but the film saves the most brutal scenes for violence perpetrated against beautiful young women. He batters the head of Jessica Alba (whose dazed look of betrayal is heartbreaking) into a bloody pulp and kicks in the ribs of another with the seething anger of a man putting the blame on her with every blow and Winterbottom presents both with unflinching focus. It’s the misogynist edge of a sociopath and it sparked many debates over the ethics showing violence onscreen, and it’s so visceral and unpleasant that some audiences will simply want to steer clear of the whole film.
My issues with the film have more to do with the adaptation: the most fascinating aspect of Thompson’s novel is Lou Ford is, in a matter of speaking, two personalities in one, but what makes him so interesting is that they are constant conversation. The easy-going small-town boy Lou is always looking after the killer inside him, paving the way for his eruptions to occur in manageable forms and then cleaning up after. It’s that knowledge, the acknowledgement of who he is in his narration in the novel, that makes this character so spellbinding, so fascinating. The movies takes that element of self-awareness out and uses the narration as ironic counterpoint. The constant communication between the easy-going character living day to day and the killer who needs to let off steam periodically—which the often criticized (and certainly sanitized) 1976 adaptation directed by Burt Kenedy gets right—is nowhere to be seen here. As carefully sculpted as the film is, what’s left is a far more conventional crime thriller. Kate Hudson and Alba play his lovers and Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas and Simon Baker co-star. The DVD and Blu-ray both include three featurettes.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Criterion) – Nagisa Oshima’s first international production takes on the cultural divide between Japan of 1942 and the Western world of Britain and Europe in the crucible of a Japanese POW camp in Java, where the commanding officer (Ryûichi Sakamoto, a pop star who also composed the score) becomes fascinated (and perhaps a little infatuated) with an enigmatic British POW (David Bowie), a “soldier’s soldier” who stands up for his fellow prisoners with an eccentric defiance. Tom Conti is third billed but in many ways the central character and certainly out POV, a genial British Colonel who speaks Japanese and understands the culture (at least in general terms) and attempts to bridge the divide. The only Japanese officer who seems willing to reach out is Sakamoto’s Captain Yonoi, who saves captured soldier Major Jack Celliers (Bowie) from execution, mesmerized by the man’s fearlessness and crisp, unflinching control in the face of certain death: a warrior like him.
But, of course, not like him at all. What makes this film all the more interesting is the mix of perspectives brought to the production: a semi-autobiographical novel by South African author (and World War II POW) Laurens Van der Post, adapted by Oshima in collaboration with British screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and produced by Jeremy Thomas, an independent British producer with international interests. The camp prisoners are a mix of European soldiers who don’t always speak the same language, and the guards include Koreans. The sense of superiority exists on both sides of the fence, a matter of class, culture and race, but it’s the conflict between the enemies that defines the film. Both sides see the other as barbaric and every meeting is a confrontation. According to the Japanese of this pre-war culture, physical weakness is a sign of moral weakness and suicide is the only honorable response in the face of failure. Prisoners are by definition beneath their contempt, and surely not worthy of Geneva Convention standards. (Fellow director Takeshi Kitano—billed solely as “Takeshi” in the credits—is superb as the gruff, brutal yet quirkily human camp officer who has an affection for Conti’s British officer but cannot fathom their cultural attitudes.) As for the British, honor and duty have a very different meaning: the obligation to stay alive and fight another day, the responsibility to look after every soldier in their command, the duty to be as troublesome to enemy as possible while they are held prisoner.
Criterion releases it on DVD and Blu-ray in a superbly mastered edition with a wealth of supplements, including “The Oshima Gang: The Making of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” half-hour shot-on-video documentary from 1983 featuring interviews with Bowie, Conti, author Sir Laurence van der Post and producer Jeremy Thomas, along with Bowier and Nagisa Oshima at the Cannes press conference. There is also a 1996 documentary on author Laurens van der Post and generous new video interviews with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (who discusses the collaborative process and explains that he saw the film as a love story, a homosexual story, even though Oshima did not), producer Jeremy Thomas, actor Tom Conti, and actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.
The Law (La Loi) (Oscilloscope) – A French production set in a provincial Sicilian fishing village, directed by an American expatriate (Jules Dassin, who fled the blacklist) and featuring a cast of impressive French and Italian stars, The Law (originally released in the U.S. under the name Where the Hot Wind Blows) is a hot-blooded Mediterranean melodrama of lust, greed, power and humiliation. Gina Lollobrigida stars as Marietta, “the town disgrace, or so the priests keep telling me,” and all the men want her—from her elderly patron and town boss Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur) to arrogant crime boss and aspiring town boss Brigante (Yves Montand)—while she sets her sights on Enrico (Marcello Mastroianni), an agronomist from the North. From the marvelously languorous opening, where Dassin’s camera (wielded by cinematographer Otello Martelli, whose career encompasses Rossellini’s Paisan and Fellini’s La Dolve Vita) prowls the village—craning up and down buildings, dollying across windows and piazzas, panning across courtyards—to survey the men entranced by the siren call of Marietta’s song, it’s a marvelous pieces of overheated and overwrought melodrama. Marietta thieves from the locals and tourists alike with the help of a gang of ruffians (also in thrall to her beauty) while Brigante rules the town through intimidation and humiliation, using a drinking game known as “The Law” as a show of his power. It’s more colorful than compelling, a real soap opera of affairs and blackmail and lust that goes more for spectacle than story, but it is very entertaining and quite a handsome production.
The generously-supplemented two-disc edition from Oscilloscope features commentary by film critic (and MSN contributor) David Fear, an alternate ending with unseen footage, archival interviews, the original French trailer and, the most intriguing and inspired supplement, a 2010 Italian documentary on the osteria culture of Southern Italy and the ancient drinking game that gives the film its name.
My Favorite Spy (Olive Films) – Bob Hope stars as affable coward Peanuts White, a baggy pants Burlesque comic who happens to be the spitting image of international spy Eric Augustine and is recruited by the government to play the suave agent in the name of national security in this spy movie spoof. Hedy Lamarr is just fine playing it straight as the exotic love interest in the last of Hope’s series of “My Favorite” films, but it’s an unambitious comedy shot on a backlot recreation of Tangiers that fails to make much of the dual identity plot, falling back on broad slapstick for its forced laughs. No supplements.
The Private Eyes (Hen’s Tooth) – Don Knotts (in cape and deerstalker cap a la Sherlock Holmes) and Tim Conway are idiot American detectives in England bumbling through an old dark house murder mystery in this tired comedy. Tim Conway co-wrote the script with an emphasis on physical comedy, but it’s sloppy slapstick and tired jokes. Lang Elliot directs without a sense of comic timing and Knotts and Conway goof their way through it without actually making any of it funny. Previously on DVD, this new edition and Blu-ray debut is widescreen and includes the previously available commentary by star/co-writer Tim Conway and director Lang Elliot.
Also new this week: Babies (Universal), the stuck-on-a-ski-lift horror Frozen (Anchor Bay), Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Sony) with Mads Mikkelsen and Anna Mouglalis, Good (NEM) with Viggo Mortensen, the documentary The Oath (Zeitgeist) and the classic releases Knock On Wood (Olive Films) with Danny Kaye and Harlow (Olive Films) with Carroll Baker.