I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

So I’m told that the new movie I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore isn’t technically a movie, because Netflix bought the film at January’s Sundance Festival and released it directly to its streaming service, bypassing a theatrical release entirely. That means it’s ineligible for annual movie awards and (most) critics’ lists. I don’t think the movie was going to end up earning Oscar nods, but it might have been on some top ten lists given its indie cred and noir-farcical feel, along with a pretty great performance by Elijah Wood.

Melanie Lynskey plays the protagonist, Ruth, a frumpy, meek post-op nurse who lives alone, is constantly put-upon or merely stepped-on, and comes home from the Worst Day Ever to find that someone broke into her house and stole her laptop and her grandmother’s silver. The police are indifferent and even blame her* a bit for the break-in, giving zero reason for her to expect to ever see her stuff again. She had location-tracking software on her laptop, however, and when her phone tells her the laptop has been turned on and is located about a ten-minute drive away, she recruits her martial arts-obsessed neighbor, Tony, to go get it back … which leads them into one semi-incompetent escapade after another until people start getting shot.

* Unrelated: last year, we had a false alarm at our house for unknown reasons, but the police ended up getting to the house before we could return and call them off. The officer who went through the house was really unpleasant to us after, saying we’d left “every door unlocked,” and all but calling us idiots. While we have certainly made the mistake of leaving one door unlocked, there’s one door that we never open and that is always locked, one he claimed was left unlocked … which it wasn’t. So I probably related to Ruth a little more than usual when the cop was talking down to her.

I keep seeing references to this film as “neo-noir,” but it’s noirish, at best, and is too comical, with protagonists and antagonists too inept, to really qualify as noir. Ruth and Tony are just amateurs, and they get drunk on the success of the laptop retrieval mission. When they get closer to the bumbling, violent idiots behind the burglary, things get more serious, except that the gang literally can’t shoot straight, and we get a Fargo-esque screwup that leaves a few people dead and Ruth running for her life from the big baddie, played by David Yow (lead singer of the Jesus Lizard). The tone definitely gets darker as the film goes on, but less in a Touch of Evil sort of way, more in a Pulp Fiction holy-shit-people-are-dying-horrible-deaths way.

There is a broader theme underlying I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore that takes it beyond mere indie black-comedy territory – that people today are losing their empathy. Ruth views the burglary as the greatest violation in a day of minor violations, and thinks the problem is just that people are assholes (her word for it, not that I disagree). And when she confronts some of the people who were assholes to her, only one, Tony, actually sets about proving her wrong. There’s no answer to the questions of where our empathy went, or how to get it back, but as the foundational observation for an inept crime caper film, it works quite well.

By the way, Lynskey’s first major role in anything was in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, where she played Pauline Parker, who murdered her mother with the help of her friend Juliet Hulme. The director of that film was Peter Jackson, who later directed the Lord of the Rings films, starring … Elijah Wood. Hulme was played by another then-unknown actress, Kate Winslet. And you probably know who Juliet Hulme is, but not by that name: She was released from prison after serving her five-year term, changed her name to Anne Perry, and became a best-selling author of historical detective fiction.

50/50.

My ranking of the top 100 draft prospects for 2012 went up earlier today for Insiders. Twenty-two of them now have full scouting repots, with more to go up over the rest of the month.

Last year’s independent comedy 50/50 seems to have garnered little notice outside of some positive reviews, even though it’s quite funny and never as depressing as the premise would indicate (and perhaps not as dark as it should have been). Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a 28-year-old public radio reporter who discovers that a pain in his lower back is actually caused by a tumor on his spine, a rare form of cancer with a survival rate that gives the film its title – yet despite that morbid plot, the film mines substantial humor from all aspects of its protagonist’s experience.

Adam is in a dysfunctional relationship with a somewhat self-centered artist when he gets his diagnosis, but it’s his best friend Kyle (played by Seth Rogen) who rallies, with well-intentioned if not always well-executed attempts to keep Adam’s spirits up through the diagnosis and treatment. Adam’s girlfriend, who doesn’t seem to be that into him before he gets the news, isn’t quite up to the task (and is easily the film’s worst-drawn character, although neither of the other two female characters is all that well fleshed-out), while his therapist, Katherine, is still in grad school and is lost when her sessions with Adam veer off script, and his mother, played affectingly by an almost unrecognizable Angelica Houston, is mostly around to get on Adam’s nerves.

Gordon-Levitt carried Brick and was superb in a minor part in Inception, so it’s no surprise to see him excel here as an overly sensitive, slightly meek guy who gradually comes out of his shell while facing his own mortality. But Rogen, who helped produce the film (based on the true story of the experiences of Rogen’s friend, writer Will Reiser, with a similar cancer diagnosis), stole more scenes than anyone else as the loud, boorish, very crude best friend who also happens to care more for Gordon-Levitt’s character than anyone else in the film, even more than Rachael. I’m sure Adam’s mother cares for him, but she only appears in a handful of scenes and is more of a nuisance than a loving parent until the very end of the film – and even then, Kyle takes center stage when the doctor discusses the results of the last procedure. (I wonder if Reiser was working out his issues through the script here, or how his mother felt about her portrayal.) Anna Kendrick fares much better here than in Up in the Air, putting her great talents for appearing flummoxed and looking vulnerably cute to much better use here as Adam’s therapist, yet she’s still overshadowed by Rogen’s character and ends up short on screen time given how important her character is to the plot.

The problem with 50/50 is that it’s only a witty dark comedy, nothing more. The cancer is merely a plot device for exposing how the patient’s relationships with friends and family change once he receives the diagnosis – but only the humorous aspects of the changes, not the subtleties. I have no problem with cancer being played for a laugh, but when the film was over, I thought of a dozen ways in which the film had fallen short, from Mark’s father’s dementia to the way the film made chemo almost seem easy to the fact that every female character was two-dimensional. It’s a funny film, and it’s a well-acted film, but the script was too superficial for it to have any lasting impact with me.

Pulp.

I waited until that night, drove over, parked outside. Nice neighborhood. Definition of a nice neighborhood: a place you couldn’t afford to live in.

Charles Bukowski wrote his final novel, Pulp, as he was dying of leukemia, and passed away before the book was published. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that the overarching theme of the book is death – facing it, fleeing from it, and wondering what there is to life other than speeding towards it.

The protagonist of Pulp, Nick Belane, is a private detective who is simultaneously lucky (his cases have a habit of solving themselves) and down on his luck (he’s somewhat broke and usually heading to the bottom of a bottle) when he receives a visit from a new client, who calls herself Lady Death, and most likely is the Grim Reaper in more attractive form than we’re using to seeing. She wants Belane (which I presume rhymes with “Spillane”) to track down a man she believes to be the French author Celine, who should be dead by about thirty years but is apparently running around Los Angeles. Nick picks up a few more clients, including a man who believes his controlling new girlfriend is a space alien, another man who believes his wife is cheating on him, and a friend who hires him to find the elusive Red Sparrow but doesn’t actually know what it is. (The Red Sparrow is most likely a reference to Black Sparrow Press, a small publisher whose financial support allowed Bukowski to become a full-time writer at age 45.)

On its surface, Pulp is a hard-boiled detective novel reminiscent of the clipped tones of Hammett and tight yet rich prose of Chandler, although Belane’s toughness is more superficial than that of the Continental Op or Philip Marlowe. Belane bemoans his inability to catch a break in between catching breaks, dropping into deep depressions that last until the next barstool, where he typically orders a few drinks, starts a fight, and leaves more or less victorious. Clients find him, as do clues, yet he still manages to encounter no end of trouble, much of it because of his own bad decisions.

In between drinks and fights, Belane muses on the nature of life and often doesn’t like what he sees, looking at the indignities of this mortal coil from bodily functions to the need for money to questioning his own sanity. One of the book’s most memorable scenes puts Belane in the waiting room for a psychiatrist he wants to question; the waiting room is full of apparently crazy people, but when Belane’s name is called and he’s ushered in, the apparent psychiatrist claims he’s just a lawyer and Belane is yet another crazy person who’s entered the wrong office. Is Belane crazy? Did he black out? Did reality change on him, as it has a habit of doing to him throughout the book?

As much as Belane looks at life and cringes at what he sees, he’s not running headlong into death, even though Lady Death tells him a few times that he’ll be seeing her again soon. But it’s his inner monologue that really makes Pulp memorable and often very funny in a wry sort of way; it’s an accumulation of decades of wisdom, much of it not all that useful, wrapped up in a fast-paced detective story where the ultimate case is solving the mystery of life. I won’t spoil the ending, although you can probably figure out where the book is heading, and even so the plot is hardly the thing there. Bukowski managed to pay homage to my favorite genre through a black-comic look at the end of life. It’s quite an achievement.

Next up: Richard Stark’s heist novel The Score, available as a free eBook for the Kindle (or Kindle iPad app) through that link. Stark was one of Donald Westlake’s pen names, and I reviewed the first novel in this series two years ago.

In Bruges.

You’ve probably seen my midseason prospect rankings update by now, but if not … there it is.

I’m a few weeks behind on this, but I watched the dark comedy In Bruges (currently just $4.69 on DVD at amazon) a few weeks ago on my last work flight. I’d seen positive reviews of the film when it was in theaters and kept it in my queue for years, but finally got back into watching movies regularly when I got an iPad last month and have a hell of a list to work through. As for In Bruges, it absolutely had its moments, driven mostly by a really strong performance by Colin Farrell, but by the end of the movie I was kind of wondering what the point of all the violence was – unless the point was that there is no point at all.

Farrell plays Ray, a young hit man who bungled his most recent job by accidentally killing a child who was hidden behind the man he was paid to assassinate. His boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), has sent him to Bruges along with the more experienced Ken to await instructions on their next job … which turns out to be for Ken to kill Ray over the death of the child. Ken wrestles with his conscience over the assignment now that he’s gotten to know Ray. Ray, meanwhile, is completely despondent over his mistake (but not over the death of the target) and contemplates suicide in between attempts to seduce the drug-dealing Chloe, an incompetent effort that leads to a confrontation with an American couple in a restaurant that, of course, ends up interfering with everyone’s plans. It is a screwball comedy at heart, except that in this one half the characters end up maimed or dead.

The strength of In Bruges is subtle, living in the layer beneath the obvious plot about contract killings and before the carnage at the end of the film. Ray isn’t cut out emotionally for his line of work, between his remorse and his short temper – and he absolutely hates Bruges, or as he calls it, “fookin’ Broozh.” Ken, meanwhile, wants to play the tourist, turning the trip (which was sold to them as an escape from the authorities) into a relaxing sojourn. Harry is a little bit of a stock character – the ruthless gangster/loving family man character has been around long enough that he’s totally expected – although his interactions with Ken when the latter refuses the assignment provide some of the film’s best dialogue.

When the shooting starts in earnest at the film’s end, though, we’re given a ten-minute stretch of action film where the plot is resolved through violence and a few funny coincidences, as well as a concluding meditation on the point of the violence that felt a little tacked-on. Within the span of those ten minutes, we go from that dark comedy to a chase-and-shoot (although, again, they do mix in a hilarious scene where Harry and Ray are standing off with a very angry and even more pregnant hotelier in between that) to light philosophy. Would the film have been better with a less violent climax? Or simply a more comic one? Shouldn’t the philosophizing have permeated more of the film (or did it, and I just missed it)? Most importantly, does it make any sense to say you enjoyed the first 90% of a film but not the ending when the ending was, in terms of plot, properly executed?

As for what’s next … I’ve got a long list of films to catch up on, but I’m open to suggestions. I’m particularly light on anything in the last five years – that is, since my daughter was born.