Rough Cut Film Review – Zero Dark Thirty

Our second installment of the new web series is up! In this episode we talk about the Oscar worthiness of Zero Dark Thirty, the perceived political controversy surrounding the film’s content and discuss whether the film portrays America as bullies.

What You Get When Harmony Korine Tackles a Topic Like Spring Break

I can’t help but be reminded of the film Havoc when I watch this trailer. Not sure why, but I also keep thinking Larry Clark must be involved somehow… must remember to look that up… Anyway, here’s a trailer for Harmony Korine’s latest anomaly, Spring Breakers. Conveniently hitting theaters (somewhere) right around, um, spring break.

The Iceman; or, Here’s to Hoping that Cheesy Titles and Goofy Mustaches Can Help Revitalize the Suspense/Thriller Genre

Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, The Missing Person) has been up to playing some pretty gritty roles in his time on screen, and even though the mustaches in this trailer don’t do the actors any real justice (then again, neither does the Top Gun-reminder of a title), don’t let that turn you off – Ariel Vromen‘s third feature looks like it might be pretty Summer of Sam-meets-Zodiac badass.

The Place Beyond the Pines

It’s like Blue Valentine meets Drive on a motorbike. Only this time Ryan Gosling is lighting up the screen creating a tumultuous relationship with Eva Mendes instead of Michelle Williams. I’ll admit, my interest is super-peaked about this film, especially considering how quietly superb Blue Valentine was, but if this is anything more like Drive, I’m going to be forced to put Gosling in a new category of cinema called “pretentious drama.” Plus, you can already tell by the trailer, he’s probably gonna have to die at the end.

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.

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.

Looper

Looper is one of those films you want to watch a second time just to make sure you caught everything that should have revealed itself the first time around, but didn’t. It’s not a singularly perfect movie, but it’s well produced, scripted and acted. Joseph Gordon Levitt and director Rian Johnson work together well, and after such an awesome debut as Brick, there was little doubt in my mind that Looper would disappoint – and it doesn’t – it even further builds upon and establishes his directing style which Roger Ebert questioned a lot after his viewing of Brick.

Admittedly, I was hesitant about the science fiction aspect of the story and how Johnson would be able to handle the special effects in a first-time-out kind of film, but it’s all done with style and purpose (the latter of which is sometimes very hard to find in science fiction special effects-driven films). Johnson’s film is coolly cyclical and Levitt plays the part of a young Bruce Willis very well. Willis is, of course, Willis, but with a little less machismo and a lot more heart.

The story is dark and inevitably doomed from the start. I don’t normally do this, but it’s important to know the plot if you’re going to read this review. If you don’t here’s a really nice breakdown courtesy of ScreenRant. Once you learn the plot you can quickly pick up where it’s going, but the beauty of the filmmaking is the ending (even though in the back of our minds we know how it has to end) is still a surprise! I’d call that the touch of a budding directorial genius. Shades of Christopher Nolan are even in there, recalling back before Nolan was obsessed with overblown masterpieces.

Films akin to Looper can become easily convoluted and quickly weighed down (e.g. Source Code), but Looper seems carefully thought out, and even if there are flaws in the story, the film is so engaging overall that it will likely go unnoticed. Levitt is coming into his own in the action genre too; between this, Premium Rush (which, by the way, is not a bad film in terms of car chase sequences), Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, he’s cutting his action chops on some heavy-hitting and intense work.

Johnson’s film is a confident, science fiction / action / thriller, so much so, it even plays with the romance genre in a tasteful and purposeful way. There are two sort of oddly linked love stories in play: Willis’ love story is uniquely tied into the film (remember Willis is the the same character as Levitt – just older in the future); and, cagily, Johnson weaves in yet another love story with the young Willis (played by Levitt), as he takes refuge in a rural farmhouse with one ax-wielding Emily Blunt. Her character soon evolves to a central plot device and she is a good fit for the role sans her inconsistent American rough-and-tumble accent which she tries to produce.

Altogether, I find you won’t be disappointed by this film if you’re interested in a smart story, fraught with action, suspense, just the right touch of science fiction and a couple of old fashioned romantic sub-plots. The effects work won’t be seen on the same level for everyone, but more importantly, they’re appropriately used. Just wait… you may even find yourself coming back to film some day in the future.

Drive

According to the trailer, “critics are raving ‘Drive is the coolest movie,'” but I think I’m a pretty good judge of cool movies and let me tell you Drive ain’t all that. First, let’s take the terrible pacing. Nicolas Winding Refn’s films are notorious for being slim on dialogue and long on stylized takes, but it’s poorly utilized here. What makes the pacing even worse though, and truly emphasizes it, is the music. Synthy, repetitive, indie pop is literally plugged in like the editors just sat there and went, “Ok, well I don’t feel like trying to cut this song to the actual film, so I’ll just slap the whole track in there and make people sit through a couple five minute, boring, slow motion music videos.”


The song at the end of the film, called “A Real Hero,” by a band called College is especially terrible, and even worse, distracting from the great ending. You see, the film has a fantastic story and even better acting, and honestly, Refn’s style-over-substance-cinema wouldn’t be so bad if it were just employed appropriately. This film needs a new editor bad. The lyrics which constantly repeat “He’s a real human being, and a real hero,” are just flat out laughable when put to the serious images during the final scenes of the film. It’s literally the worst pairing of score and movie I’ve ever witnessed. Sitting in my movie theater seat, finding myself actually fidgeting and thinking, “Yes, I get it, he’s a real human being and a real hero. Can we go now?” is not the way I saw myself finishing this movie.

According to Refn, and many critics I guess, he thinks the music speaks for the film in this case. But that would be so much better realized if he just didn’t pick a song that is literally explaining to us that Mr. Ryan Gosling is a real human being (during the day), and a real hero (by night). It’s like the laziest filmmaker move ever. Instead of trusting your audience to get what the film is about on their own, you just tell it to them in some ambiguous, cheesy, Urban Outfitters muzak, by a band that no one will ever make an effort to drive to a store and buy an album from. This unnecessary explanation and use of the song’s lyrics to explain the story however, makes absolutely no sense when you watch the movie, because by night Gosling’s character is aiding and abetting criminals and evading the police while simultaneously endangering anyone else who is on the street at the same time as him. He is most certainly no hero.

Here’s the bottom line: wait till it’s available on DVD/Blu-ray, then kill the score (God, I hope the DVD offers that option), or mute the film at the beginning and end only. Now you’ve got yourself one hell of a movie.

Here’s the song. If you listen to it long enough, it will likely make you want to drive full speed into a wall.

I’ve actually previously reviewed two of Refn’s other films Bronson and Valhalla Rising, and while Valhalla didn’t score many points for me (even though it looked gorgeous), Bronson was enjoyable albeit forgettable. Refn will probably become big(ger) news now, but before Gosling, he was maybe more of an acquired taste for the typical filmgoer. What could really make him stand out and get noticed by larger audiences though (more than the addition of a star like Gosling to his cast), is someone to help him hone his work to finer, sharper point. Conceptual, highly visual and visceral films are great, and even though Drive doesn’t appear nearly as visually striking and rich as his previous work, it’s alright because it also boasts such a rich story. The problem is, Refn doesn’t seem comfortable telling a story without the use of some style or technique picked up from whatever training he’s had. If he’d stop relying on other cinematic elements to do his storytelling work for him, but still employ those cinematic elements, he would be the next Oliver Stone or Tarantino.

The Secret

David Duchovny likes sexual innuendo. His leading role work in film has many times been laced with stories of a sexual nature or rooted in even more overtly sexual plotlines. The Secret qualifies as one of those films, but it’s not overtly sexual and it’s not squeamishly enacted. French Actor/Director Vincent Perez helmed the film and as an audience member it’s quite difficult to determine what the film wants to be. Is it a sort of neo-coming of age film, a French/Japanese-inspired horror film where it’s more about the uncertainty of a situation that’s creepy than the actual horror itself, or a supernatural-questioning drama like so many others we saw in the 2000s?


It’s a chunky blend of all of the genres and sub-genres mentioned above, and it’s so difficult to sum up in a concise category, that I give it extra credit for the purposes of this review. Though a complex concept for a film, Perez makes it simple, straightforward and fairly concise. The film has a pretty obvious arc and also ends the way you’d expect (and probably hope). The key to it all though, is the tension that is created by the film’s unusual supernatural concept about halfway in.

So, the story goes like this, Olivia Thirlby (you probably recognize her from Ghost World and Juno) plays Sam, the only daughter of Duchovny and his wife played by Lili Taylor (unusually rigid in her role). Sam is 16 years old and recently moved to a small suburb of Boston and the public school of her nightmares. She’s an honor student who finds the only way to fit in there is to use drugs and be promiscuous – you know, typical public high school behavior. She’s annoyed and disdainful to her parents, especially her mother, who is actually pretty lenient but within reason. That’s the hardest sell for me throughout the movie, because given the type of parents Sam has it doesn’t seem like she would be so easily sold into the rebellious lifestyle.

Embroiled in an argument one day about why her daughter treats her like she does, the car hits a semi and careens off the icy road and flips into a lake. Both mother and daughter are in the hospital together, next to each other in their respective ER hospital beds when Duchovny arrives later that night. At one point the mother and daughter are both cognizant at the same time and they reach out to each other and clasp hands. The daughter begins to crash and when she does the ER doctors need to remove her from the room to operate, as they pull her apart from the mother’s grip, the mother immediately dies. The next time we see Sam, she wakes up in the hospital and right away is confused and alarmed as she appears to believe that she is her mother, trapped in Sam’s body.

Gradually, we learn that Duchovny’s wife is indeed trapped int he body of their daughter Sam. This is where it all gets weird, and it’s really hard to connect with the character of Sam/Mom because she’s constantly switching. Not only that, but it’s just an unnerving feeling to watch as she longs for her husbands embrace when she needs someone close, but finds she cannot embrace him as if she were his wife – for obvious reasons. It’s really a unique premise and one that gets explored pretty well by Perez, but ultimately, the film recoils from the most disturbing of possible endings and gives the audience what they would no doubt clamor for in American cinemas. Too bad, the American release of this was less than notable.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

Sidney Lumet’s potboiler Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead probably won’t go down as a classic heist film. Nor a classic drama. Probably won’t even go down as a classic. It’s a shame since it is Lumet’s latest film which he made at 84. True, he’s already had a number of films that are classics, but I hate to think of him as having peaked in the 70s. Simply put, there are two things I love about this movie: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance and the sub-opening scene where a senior woman is held up by a masked gunman at a strip mall jewelry store. It’s the best scene, because it is both unexpected and satisfying at turns. After that though, it’s forgettable.

The film is structured like an inverted checkmark, or better yet, the heart monitor of a dying man. Starting on a high point, it has no where to go but down, and so it does, gradually. Finally, towards the end there is a sign of hope where the pulse picks up for a beat (ironically, for this comparison), as an old man snuffs the life out of a younger one. Credits roll. Flatline.

The in-between of the film is cursed by its attempt to be more interesting through the exercise of non-linear storytelling. Ordinarily I’m a fan of non-linear structures, but this one doesn’t provide enough incentive to continue caring about where the story will go next. The characters – though acted well – are easily one-dimensional. All the events in the film are a catalyst for, or a result of, the opening scene. It’s interesting to watch for about a third of the way through, but then it just hammers on you and gets old. The reason why is because the story itself – the central theme – is nothing that hasn’t been seen before in a typical mainstream drama.

Ethan Hawke and Philip Hoffman play brothers, both with hideous self esteem issues. Unbeknownst to them both, and quite comically, they share the same woman as a lover – Marisa Tomei, who also happens to be Hoffman’s wife. Hoffman has much darker secrets than Hawke, and eventually they all come out in the wash, but it’s watching him get to that point that’s inspired. There’s a great scene later in the film which is told from multiple plot positions where their father, Albert Finney, has about as much of a heart-to-heart as he can have with his unfeeling son played by Hoffman. It’s a moment when you’re harkened back to the hey-day of Lumet, where his films came super-infused with intense acting and simplistic event-driven storylines (Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Network and Serpico).