Rough Cut Film Review – Beasts of the Southern Wild

It’s been a long time coming, but I’m finally dipping my little toe in the world of the web series. Myself, along with two other film critics, Austin and Hodge Hermann, are starting a film review and discussion web series called Rough Cut.

The purpose for Rough Cut really sprung from the need we saw for more critical, thoughtful and analytical film discussion than most entertainment web series’ currently offer. So, while many of them will continue to be interested in, for the most part, superficialities of the cinema, the three of us are committed to discussing movies critically and on a much deeper level.

I should mention, we’ve only just begun this endeavor and so while our discussion may not be very flashy with slick animations and unnecessary movie clips, I assure you, we care way more about the art of criticizing, analyzing and discussing the movies you’re paying to see.

In our first episode of the series, we discuss the film Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin, it’s worthiness in the Oscar race, and whether the claims of it being a “Republican fantasy” are founded. I hope you enjoy!

The Ghost of Piramida

Efterklang star in this unique and interesting documentary about their travels to a ghost town near the North Pole where they spent 9 days recording audio for use in their album Piramida. Directed by Andreas Koefoed, the film quickly becomes more than just a travelogue or behind-the-scenes look at their music-making process as we learn more about the previous inhabitants of this once rich, fertile, now barren and cold landscape.

Even better, the film is being released in a rather uncompromising fashion: all screenings will be free and open to the public, but can be held by anyone who wants to get more than 5 people together at one location. Kudos to whomever is behind this idea for finding ways to engage communities of the film, music and artistically-minded. Here’s a list of all the scheduled events so far. Find one near you!

For an added bonus, watch this oddly engaging, albeit personally invasive music video for the song, “SEDNA”:

Filmmakers to Watch: Noel Paul & the Work of That Go

Noel Paul may only be directing music videos and commercials right now, but he’s got a cinematic style and unique artistry to his work that will serve him for a long time. One half of the filmmaking team known as That Go, Paul and Stefan Moore have made some of the more interesting music video art in the past few years. Some of them (more recently) are even short films, which is nice to see the progressive expansion of their film body moving in that direction. I’m not trying to say I know that Paul or That Go has any intentions of making a feature film one day, but I’m simply saying I know that he could make a pretty damn decent one if he wanted. One of the signs of a good, blossoming filmmaker is the consistency in their work, the progression in their work and the common themes and imagery in their work. Noel Paul has displayed these qualities and I, for one, will be keeping an eye on him for future projects. Here’s a select retrospective of his video work with some of my thoughts and comments (in a sort of chronological order).

Back in 2009, one of Paul and Moore’s early music videos, “Jerk It” for Thunderheist, started them off with a bang, winning a Grand Jury Prize at SXSW. Co-directed by Moore, it’s main attraction is the obvious slyness of the imagery coupled with the song and song title, and it all works very well and is fun to watch. Paul would carry at least one of the themes from this video forward, and that’s the theme of the female muse in a studio setting where there’s no telling what may happen to her. Though most of his later work appears a little on the darker side than this one, there’s still a strain of eerie-ness to “Jerk It” which is hard to shake off after a viewing.

The video “Carry the Deed” for Angel Deradoorian shows Paul maturing in his use of the female form in a studio setting. There’s also a couple of types of imagery (the beach setting, the fairly creepy digital pupils, and the stroboscopic and 360-degree profile shots) which will crop back up in future work as you’ll see below. Paul also has a unique ability that almost feels as if he’s blending fashion photography with cinema that I also think is very well honed. You could easily picture him creating a commercial for some Alexander MacQueen women’s fragrance or something one day.

Their videos for the band Röyksopp, “Senior” and “The Drug” are really one in the same. “Senior” is basically a short film and “The Drug” appears to be a sort of shorter re-edit of the former. Moving this time from the studio to a dilapidated industrial-side somewhere in Detroit, Moore and Paul expand on some of their themes while also weaving in a Fish Tank-via-Gomorrah-esque group of young girls and a “Come to Daddy”-via-28 Days Later barrage of sparseness and creepiness. Shown below here is the “short film” version for the track “Senior.”

Paul’s video for The Dø’s “Slippery Slope” expands on the style of videos like “Carry the Deed”. “Slippery Slope” has an oddly M.I.A. kind of feel to it, and the video combines classic Japanese style horror imagery and taiko drumming and the usual female form in a color splashed studio setting.

That Go’s video for Alex Winston’s “Sister Wife” features Mark Romanek “Criminal”-era spotlighting and even more creepy imagery than their previous videos. This one is chock full with shadow lovers, angry ghosts (or just a indoor tornado maybe) and alternate reality puking cats. An homage to the Japanese horror classic House, maybe?

Noel Paul’s video for Father John Misty’s “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is maybe the most narrative work to date for Paul. I won’t give away the faint plot line or sort of surprise ending, but I will say that it’s a great use of both his skills with stark and dark imagery, atmospheres and the singular female form in distress.

Paul’s first video for Bat for Lashes, “Laura,” is fabulous. It’s simple in concept and tone, not too over the top and actually feels like it has a lot of story behind it. The storyline may not feel completely original, but it is most certainly inspired and connected to the lyrics of the song in a unique way. It’s a great match up of words and imagery.

Paul’s video for Thousands’ “At the Edges” is again simple in concept and tone, but effective. It utilizes the digital pupil theme Paul seems to like playing with (there’s definitely a thing with eyes in most of their work). The best part about it though, is how dark it is (both visually and thematically), and how vintagely processed the film is (originally shot on Super 8).

Paul’s second video for Bat for Lashes, “All Your Gold,” is again nearly flawless. The combination of music and imagery is pitch perfect and simple, artistic use of the iridescent neoprene bodysuit Natasha Khan wears is a unique and great touch. If you watch it long enough, it’s almost like she’s liquid gold.

And finally, there’s Paul’s third video for Bat for Lashes, “A Wall.” A little more narrative than the other two Bat for Lashes videos, it’s still strong and a great example of the cinematic style and creative use and blending of fashion, photography, music, film and art for which Noel Paul and That Go should be recognized.

The Perfect Film for the Holidays: The Red Balloon

Quite possibly the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen.

Before seeing The Red Balloon I didn’t let myself learn anything about it. I had no idea it was an Oscar winning film either. After seeing it, I can understand and appreciate why this is such a beloved classic. It is truly a superb little slice of cinema. You’ll completely forget what you’re doing when you let yourself just be immersed by the simple life of the little boy who, on his way to school one morning, runs across a beautiful, large, shiny red balloon.

The balloon is in distress tangled up at the top of a street light. The boy shimmies up the post and saves the balloon and over the remainder of the film they become the best of friends, forging a relationship that you more than likely would not have expected (unless you read about the film before hand). If you haven’t heard about this film, take a chance, find it and be surprised by it. It’s gorgeous; and in light of recent tragic events in America, it’s the kind of film that needs to be seen by the masses.

Its flaws cinematically are easily overlooked when you realize that you are nothing but a kid again in love with the balloon just as much as the little boy. In a perfect, French, 1950s, existential storytelling kind of way, The Red Balloon takes an inanimate object, that you’ve likely never thought about longer than a second before, and makes it come to life. If the cinema of today still retained these unique, humane, effervescent, fulfilling qualities maybe we wouldn’t care so much about the opportunity to own a semi-automatic assault rifle.

Repulsion

Roman Polanski’s second feature film (and his first English language) has been called by one critic Psycho turned inside-out. I’m not sure that’s the best concise description of the film, but it’s certainly better than how the trailers summed it up. The star, and the titular repulsed woman, is played by the gorgeous, blonde Catherine Deneuve. She speaks in a broken English, lives in a messy flat in London with her brunette sister and works as a nail technician in a salon. This is all Polanski wants his audience to know, and the rest is up to the viewer to process and identify with as they like.

As noted in the above-mentioned critic’s review, in stark contrast to the 1960 Hitchcock film, Polanski is more concerned with exploring the dark recesses of the mind of the psycho, rather than keeping the psycho solely in the shadows. However, the trailer would have you believe that the director takes us into the mind of Denueve’s paranoia, but that’s never really the case. Instead we get to see a couple of her dark nightmares (possibly indicating a sexually traumatic event in her past?), and a couple seemingly benign delusions. In the nightmares she’s stalked by men, later attacked by men and ultimately raped by men. Consequently, in reality she’s repulsed by men, the touch of men and the general presence of men.

Similar to the New York Mad Men universe, Repulsion is set in a ’60s London where Deneuve can’t walk down a city street (and she walks down many of them), without getting whistled at, groped or chased down by men desperate to be her boyfriend. It’s actually interesting to compare these on-location city-walking scenes with those of (pretty much) any ’60s French New Wave film (e.g. Breathless, Cleo, etc.), and notice how the similarities in style of filmmaking are almost identical, except when coupled with the performance of Denueve and the disjointed score, Polanski is able to fashionably pull off an overwhelming sense of dread in such a modern, un-staged, cinematic style – unlike most anything Hitchcock would ever do.

While Denueve’s nightmares are obvious and rather digestible for audience interpretation, the visions she has of her apartment (her prison) cracking around her, are much more cinematic and questionable. In fact, the visions seem almost in direct opposition to her rapidly developing fear of leaving the apartment and venturing out to where the staring and whistling men are. Yet, it’s when she retreats in her home, (later, even barricading herself there), that she has these visions of the walls splitting apart when she touches them. Is it the passage of time becoming exponential in her mind? Is it the frailty of the world around her that she fears? Or is it even darker fears that no matter where she hides, the men (the world, even) will always break through to find her in between the cracks?

I like the subtle inexplicabilities in a Polanski film. There’s even some question at the end whether or not she is a victim of her own illness. I’ve read in multiple reviews on the film that she’s in fact dead at the end of the film, the third casualty, as it were; but, I have watched the ending a few times now and I would argue she is alive – catatonic, maybe – but alive.

Like Hitchcock, Polanski uses well-developed cinematic scenes to lure a viewer into the light of a scary moment and then – bludgeon them (sometimes literally) with a surprise. Unlike many lazy directors of late, Polanski always ensures motive for his supporting characters’ actions. In a wonderfully crafted scene involving Deneuve’s first murder, her pushy boyfriend barges into her apartment – her slowly cracking sanctuary – to work on reversing the cold shoulder she’s been giving him.

Polanski’s masterfully crafted scene of murder.

While the character leaves the front door open after coming in, Polanski develops the scene from a two-shot into a three-shot with the nosey next door neighbor and her nosey dog appearing, framed up right in the center of the open doorway, eavesdropping (rather openly). When the boyfriend notices, he storms to the door, shuts it and without a second thought Denueve walks up behind him, candlestick raised over her head, brought down swiftly on the back of his skull. The moments of her insanity reaching their peak like this, are so expertly crafted, it’s hard to adjust to it momentarily. I hesitate to say this, for fear I even give someone the unborn idea, but a remake of this film would be destroyed by many genre directors of today. Subtly, pacing, drama, build-up and atmosphere are not in many of the new Hollywood elite’s repertoires (save, Fincher or Romanek).

While Hitchcock was pure Hollywood and genre, Polanski for a long while remained on the outskirts, coupling the fresh, bold European filmmaking styles of the ’60s with his own brand of calculated suspense via avant garde cinematics. I would never dare to call Repulsion an inside-out version of Psycho, for I feel that is actually a slight against Repulsion, with a point in favor for Psycho. No, instead, these are two films which should remain separate and apart, and whether the 1960 “shocker” was identified as some sort of inspiration for Repulsion or not – Roman Polanski was cinematically and stylistically years ahead of Hitch in ’65.

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson is like a Lars Von Trier for the recreational filmgoer: he knows how to make artsy edginess palatable for the masses. Moonrise Kingdom follows Anderson’s usual storybook directing style. An Anderson film is always, colorful, character-ful, graphic and socially hip. That said, an Anderson film is also usually rich with story; the one place where Moonrise Kingdom is lacking.

The film is actually (I’d argue) the darkest of all Anderson’s work, and maybe that’s partly what continues to hold me through it even though it ultimately leaves me wanting more. Characters come and go like plastic chess pieces, only used to propel the narrative forward in most cases. While Anderson’s previous work only had this pretentious two-dimensional character problem in small doses, it should be noted that Moonrise Kingdom has this problem throughout – even the main characters are in many ways dimly lit.

Similarly, but in direction opposition to Von Trier, Anderson leaves a lot up to the viewer in this film, with cardboard-like performances from the actors against detail-saturated set designs that make you feel like you’re watching a school play gone awry. Again, this is standard stuff for an Anderson film, but all of his previous work through in many ways nauseatingly flat, always also held deeply introspective stories that made it seem sort of like you were reading a book that came to life in front of you. Comparing Kingdom to, say, Von Trier’s Dogville, where the viewer is tasked with filling in the blanks of the chalk-outline set design yet given more character detail than they may want to handle, both of these directors seem to like working against their audiences, only in direct opposition of one another.

The beauty of an Anderson film is that his style is so utterly easily digestible by mainstream moviegoers, it’s going to be virtually impossible, I fear, to ever see him get a terrible review from someone. Von Trier, however, many times uses imagery and forthrightness in his cinema that the mainstream will more than likely be repelled by, despite how much the critical masses will tout his genius.

If we look behind the curtain, there’s two things really going on here: First of all, Kingdom is endearing because of its two main characters which are brainy, quirky, adolescents. They’re also oddly easy to misconstrue as fledgling hipsters. In fact, there’s no way you can watch this film and not think if these two kids hit 18 today they’d be dressed in skinny jeans with black framed boxy glasses and unkempt hair.

Second, it’s a love story between these two kids. One of those love stories that you stick with because it’s precious, simplistic, virtuous and yet there’s an element of danger to it.

That’s it – that’s where the film excels – on these two areas alone. It’s in its artsy vapidness that the audience can easily get lost and fall in line with the narrative, willing to follow it to the end, but I worry there’s nothing tangible to Anderson’s kind of cinema except the fleeting moments when a new character (played by a usually stellar character actor) pops up in a scene and you get to whisper to your viewing patron in the seat next to you, “Hey, isn’t that so-and-so?”

Shame

Michael Fassbender is a powerhouse of subtlety. Even in big budget fare he shines, but it’s his work with director Steve McQueen that is most recognizable. Both Hunger and Shame are McQueen visions that are fueled by the madness of a singular character played by Fassbender. It’s quite possibly a connection that they have as artists or maybe a niche in which they’ve found the ability to collaborate viscerally and poignantly.

Hunger is an amazingly powerful film that affected me deeply, but Shame is a companion piece that raises the bar and builds the apex of what I hope will become a McQueen/Fassbender trilogy of sorts. It would be awesome if McQueen’s currently in production Twelve Years a Slave is the work that rounds out their collaboration and seals in all the colors and textures and smells a McQueen film packs behind its images.

Many great directors find themselves eventually creating a triptych (whether intentional or not), and it’s not too soon for someone like McQueen (who showed his filmmaking chops very early on) to have this type of style that ultimately results in a common “theme” tying together a few consecutive works. Shame is at times graceful and at other times vicious. It diabolically wears its NC-17 rating with a sense of pride (one that maybe only Europeans can appreciate marketing-wise) that Fassbender’s character himself would shy away from for sure. The images at times are as black as the solitary confinements of the prison in Hunger.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a sex-obsessed business man with some deep-seated anti-social tendencies. While the film’s only negative quality may be the potentially inferable pointless of it all; the irresolution; it’s better viewed as a character study and less as a traditional Hollywood narrative. Carey Mulligan plays the estranged, nearly naïve, waif-like sister / subconscious-level, incestuous lover, who also, in a very Lynchian way, is a lounge singer.

Fassbender’s character arc is one of self-realization to self-treatment to self-dissolution. By the end of the film he is seemingly right back to where he was at the beginning and without correction to his ill-attended issues. The cool thing about McQueen and Fassbender’s way of dealing with this well-trodden cinematic theme is that they never supply an easily blamable cause to the matter. His sex addiction is not depicted as necessarily a power possession or release thing for him, and it’s not really depicted as something stemming from childhood. There’s really no good explanation for why he is the way he is, except that he just is.

Shame is the kind of film you’ll come back to so you can look for the nuances missed the first time around. McQueen’s way of framing a shot has always been like a great impressionist painter, and though the background here is the twinkling lights of New York City, I have no doubt he is the new Renoir using the lens as his brush and the celluloid as his canvas.