Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.
It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.
Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.
Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity.
Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.
Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.
And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.
Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.
At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.
But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.
The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.
Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.
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Here is the commentary explaining my creative piece in previous post, which was also a required part of the coursework:
Handmaid’s Tale Transformation Commentary
My transformation is based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood creates a dystopian, totalitarian society in the near future born out of religious fundamentalism and fear. The reader is plunged into this world with no background and merely shown the narrative voice of Offred, until historical notes at the end of the novel offer some outside perspectives on events.
A key change I made for my transformation was to take the narrative viewpoint from Offred and view events and themes of the novel from one of the minor character’s perspective. There was plenty of scope to do this as the narrative is completely focused on Offred’s experiences and descriptions and opinions of characters she interacts with are inevitably coloured by her own relationships with them. For example her impression of the Commander is understandably negative and associated with unpleasant duties.
I decided to write a transformation concerning Nick and also made the decision to avoid the first person approach used in the novel. I also sought to avoid a simplistic change of genre to a dramatic monologue which would merely have Nick explain his feelings and attitudes to the regime.
Despite the conscious decision to avoid a first person narrative the significance of Offred’s narrow and occasionally confused storytelling remained central to my thinking. It seemed to me a vital aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that Offred began to doubt her own recollections and felt the need to constantly qualify the facts, such was her isolation and desperation. On several occasions she recounts different versions of events, and in the case of the fate of her fiancé she cannot confirm to the reader which is true, as she simultaneously believes them all. Therefore I aimed to create a transformation that explored the idea of reality but also how one person’s story and their version of reality can be insignificant for others.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with its fantastical dream-like narrative and emphasis on nonsense and meaning, enabled me to explore those themes of reality and storytelling. I settled on a reworking of Alice in Wonderland’s opening chapter Down The Rabbit Hole, centred around themes of The Handmaid’s Tale and the motivations of Nick’s character.
My transformation begins with Nick descending into boredom in ordinary circumstances, as Alice does but also as Offred often does in the novel. In fact at the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale Offred offers us insight into the only world she has with simple description of her plain surroundings, “A chair, a table, a lamp”. Atwood often has Offred minutely describe things and then drop blunt “bombshells” that hint at the scale of the totalitarian oppression around her, as Offred concludes the description began above with “They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to”. I tried to mirror this technique early in my piece with the list of ordinary objects, with the exception of a “uniformed chicken”. Clearly my “bombshell” is more light-hearted than Atwood’s and is more in the spirit of nonsense found in my style model. However it reflects themes of inactivity, detail and true reality raised in the base text.
I tried to create a distinctive idiolect for Nick through my lexical choice despite writing in the third person. I used the technique of free indirect style to convey Nick’s attitudes; “some bimbo would no doubt fetch him.” The word “bimbo” is clearly Nick’s own rather than the narrator’s and reflects views of women looked at in the base text. I continue to echo this theme when Nick “groped around in his mind”. This sordid view of women, and Nick’s cynical attitude towards the complications of life and business, conflicts with the simplistic optimism of the hen, based on inviolable sacred truths. I aimed to reflect the blind simplicity of religious fundamentalism, a constant presence in the base text, with the rhythm of the hen’s speech and her lexis. I have her use simple but grand abstract verbs like “sacred”, “brave”, “freedom” and “wicked”, that for cynical non-believers like Nick are silly or devoid of meaning. For her, like the believers in the base text, nothing is more straightforward than her faith. Her sentences are often just lists of things that to her are simply facts; “That is you and your Commander and your lover”. I also refer to the religious fundamentalism of the novel in other ways, such as the exclamation of “BLASPHEME!” at the end of the transformation and the hen’s belief in “the Book” and preordained events, which comes back to the unifying theme of narrative.
Identity is important in the base text and I try and reflect this in a number of ways. From the start Nick’s waiting leads him to doubt whether his own employment really suits him and then the hen insists on not being mistaken as a chicken, which should also provide humour. I then reflect the importance of possession and identity in the novel as shown through Of-fred and the Commander, with my own Chief Executive in the real world and White Queen and Red Princess Down the Elevator Shaft. Nick is also confused throughout by the hen’s version of his identity, just as Offred doubts what little is left of herself due to other characters’ views of her.
I reflect the dystopian aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale with the debris strewn lobby setting. I also have Nick descend into chaos (as Offred does) via the fall in the elevator shaft; an image that appears in the base text when Offred describes betrayal as “like being in an elevator cut loose at the top”. I suggest that Nick has perhaps been betrayed, with textual references like “She had told him he had a French face”. I show that something has been taken away, as women’s rights were in the novel, with the list of “no guards…” I also reflect the anarchy seen in the novel through the “joyful abandon” of “trash”.
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The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.
Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.
Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.
As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.
The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.
All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.
If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.
The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.
Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.
Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.
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Life, for most of us, boils down to monotonous repetition. It’s broadly predictable, with the odd insignificant surprise. And Date Night, starring the comedy talents of Tina Fey and Steve Carell, is a routine rom-com affair, in more ways than one. It’s about the universal desire to shatter the same old everyday habits once in a while with some glamour and risk, and it’s a standard action packed tale of spiralling events, misunderstood circumstances and hilarious antics. Like life it does feature the odd surprise, in the form of cameos dotted throughout that are often scene-stealing turns, but the outcome is never much in doubt and the route is familiar.
Indeed critical opinion of Date Night following its release earlier this year was fairly unanimous. It’s an average film, neither good nor bad but “pretty good”. Most reviews inevitably focus on the central pairing of Fey and Carell, so crucial to the success of the movie. Most verdicts declare Date Night to be an adequate vehicle for their talents, with pleasing performances from both, but certainly not their best. I would certainly agree with the assessment of the leads’ performances and add my voice to the chorus praising (or denouncing?) Date Night as a pretty good film. However like most reviewers I was caught off guard by some brilliant cameos that overshadow the stars at times and generally I enjoyed Date Night considerably more than the usual “pretty good” film.
What was the reason for this I wonder? Well perhaps it was largely down to the fact I’m a sucker for sentiment. Whilst Carell is undoubtedly better working with comedic material, he’s proved he can handle the action in films like Get Smart and more importantly the emotional side of things by giving his characters bags of appeal as well as humour, for example in 40 Year Old Virgin. Here he does a more than passable job as the well meaning everyman. Fey too proves she is comfortable with the serious stuff as well as proving more adept in the funnier moments. It was easy to buy into the dying relationship scenario and the basic premise set up by a cameo from Mark Ruffalo; that marriage can descend into two people that are “really excellent roommates”. It tugged at the heartstrings to see two people so comfortable with each other, so suited and so close, growing tired of each other’s company simply from over exposure and the onset of tedium. The story keeps prodding at your emotions and stirring them into life, in that instantly recognisable rom-com manner, as the thrills and spills reignite the couple’s buried love for one another. Crucially though this is confidently executed romantic comedy based on real-life, largely free of sick inducing soppiness and lame gags and stuffed with quality.
There is a danger of the film losing sight of its focus at times though. The description of the film called it an “Action/Adventure, Comedy, Thriller” and this might suggest an identity crisis. Indeed during a key action set piece, a car chase with a slick new Audi, the comedy is at its weakest at the expense of some ridiculous and not hugely exciting thrills. This is not to say there is not some enjoyment to be found in the action segments of the film, but the average excitement of these scenes is ultimately what ensures the labels of mediocre and average. The comedy has some excellent moments, and is consistently good throughout with some likeable running gags. I particularly liked the recurring theme of outrage that the Fosters (Fey and Carell) would have the audacity and cheek to take someone else’s table reservation, as they explain to various people the crimes and horrors heaped upon them since.
And those cameos of course, from James Franco and Mila Kunis as a wonderfully bickering criminal couple that simultaneously mirrored the Fosters and were opposite to them. From Mark Wahlberg, in a bare-chested performance that first alerted the world to his hidden comedy talents and William Fichtner as a detestable caricature of corruption. These performances inject life into the film and stop it going stale. Not that there is ever any real danger of it doing so; the runtime is blissfully snappy and the leads are always likeable, if not always powerfully magnetic. Of course you could want more from a film, but perhaps Date Night’s message and execution is best summed up by the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. The Fosters undoubtedly need each other and you might find yourself needing a pick-me-up like Date Night on a dreary drizzle sodden winter’s day.
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British director Michael Winterbottom’s latest project The Trip, a “semi-real” comedy starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as loose versions of themselves, has been split into six half-hour episodes and the first has already shown on BBC2. Entitled “The Inn at Whitewell”, it consisted primarily of loving shots of the bleak northern countryside and comedic duels between the two, in which they debated the merits of their own Michael Caine impressions. I’ve seen Brydon live and one of the funniest elements of his act was his frequent return to amateur, but wonderfully accurate, impressions of various famous personalities. This was awkward comedy but essentially heart-warming, harmless stuff.
Winterbottom’s summer release, The Killer Inside Me, was far from harmless of course. It conjured column after column of controversy. And the sort of identity doubts Coogan suffers from in The Trip are sedate and ordinary compared to the internal divisions lurking beneath Casey Affleck’s cold features as Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. In a southern, drawling voiceover at the beginning of the film Ford muses that growing up in a small town, the problem is that everybody thinks they know you. This small town and its Texan desert surroundings are as beautifully framed as the rolling hills and roads in The Trip, and evoke the period American details of diners and dunes perfectly when combined with the classic 50s tunes on the soundtrack. However these familiar hits playing in the prelude to shocking violence is one of the most sinister aspects of the film.
Of course the violence itself is graphic and hard to watch at times, and the unflinching portrayal of beatings sparked the flurries of protest on the film’s release. Opponents of the film will view the most brutal scenes as unnecessary and gratuitous. However whilst their intensity may take something away from the viewing experience by making it extremely uncomfortable at points, it would be foolhardy to label the violence as meaningless. For it is undoubtedly aiming at something deeper than simply a sick visual spectacle. The motives behind the violence and the victims’ reactions are more chilling than the blows and injuries themselves. The notion that we are all capable of such acts and that the human personality is multiple is alluded to in the title of the movie. This idea is frightening and made more so when we watch Ford convince himself of the need to kill his hooker lover, as part of a grand plan he must carry out, whilst another part of him is madly, compulsively in love with her. His internal justification of the murders is baffling, unsettling and terrifying.
And both of the women Ford kills in the film genuinely believe him to be a good man. They are surprised by his outbursts of punches and in disbelief they do not turn against him. In fact with their dying breaths they wish to understand, to help him. As the viewer you wonder how they did not see the signs, the hints of violence beneath the seemingly kind law enforcer expressed in sado-masochistic beatings during sex. But then part of the terror is that from their perspective, trapped within the relationship and viewing things through a narrow lens, you could not see how far the domestic violence would go. It is the “domestic” peace of it all that also proves extremely discomforting. His female victims are unsuspecting and the murders take place in a quiet, quintessential 50s community. Life in such an environment might even seem boring and the expression of disinterested calm on Affleck’s face throughout most of the film, even during the killings at times, is tremendously unnerving. His performance as a particular type of calculated, unfeeling serial killer deserves praise.
But of course Lou Ford claims not to be “unfeeling”. He professes love for the sultry Jessica Alba and clearly has affectionate at least for his long term love Amy Stanton, played by Kate Hudson. Both actresses do an admirable job of trying to convincingly portray characters that are for the most part enthralled, rather than repulsed by, the violence. Despite his feelings though the twisted plan inside his head requires him to kill and in the aftermath he rides out the suspicions of others cool as a cucumber. The pace and tone of The Killer Inside Me reflect this mellow attitude and adds to its disturbing effects. However whilst obviously a high quality piece of film making, Winterbottom’s controversial creation could be more engaging, even after an explosive finale. It is neither a gripping thriller nor truly horrific chiller, but it is undoubtedly well made and thought provoking.
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