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.

Girls

The writing and producing team of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow is brilliant. Dunham can provide for the real world dramatic back-and-forth of the characters and Apatow can provide for the off-the-wall hilarity which brings a typical dramatic scene to a whole other unexpected level. Season One of the HBO TV series “Girls” is basically like a new Lena Dunham film. I watched the episodes as they premiered on Sunday evenings last year, and then I watched them all over again in one long 10-hour marathon. Either way they’re bound to stay with you, affect you and peak your interest into what a second season would bring. And Season Two premieres this Sunday, January 13.

Girls TV Series

The set up for the series is simple and brilliant. It’s like a much more intelligent Sex and the City and for a much less Princess-syndrome-plagued audience. An audience not any less self-important and self-aware, but one whose just may be a little hipper, listens to Sleigh Bells, The Echo Friendly and prefers writing and art over college football and keg stands.

There’s even an ingenious referencing to Sex and the City by the most appropriate character for enjoying that kind of show on the series. She’s also the one who enjoys game shows, reality TV and is hyper-obsessed with perfection and losing her virginity. Let’s start with her – the least obvious of the cast of characters – and with the most befittingly bohemian uptight name: Soshanna. Soshanna’s still in college, lives with doll house decorations in her apartment and needs a serious wake-up call to life. She’s also the cousin of Jessa.

Jessa is your typical Urban Outfitters / Free People adorned Williamsburg hipster, although she has a little edge to her with the aloof-albeit-endearing foreign accent (which you have to even wonder if not unlike a Madonna-like play for attention, she puts on). She’s working in the most inappropriate job ever for someone as uninterested in personal responsibility as she is – an au pair for a well-off family with a too-busy-for-the-kids glamour industry mom and a shlubby, out of work musician dad who becomes more enamored with Jessa then his own children.

Then we get to the stars of show, Dunham herself (playing as Hannah) and her “best” friend and roommate Marnie. Marnie starts the whole series off on a downward trajectory which destroys the heart of a perfectly good boyfriend and finds her literally seething with hatred for her relationship with him because he’s “too nice” to her, and clearly because he sees beauty and perfection in her which she could never see in herself due to a plethora of hidden self-esteem issues which she’s dutifully masked throughout most of her life from everyone she knows – including the lowest self-esteemed of all – Hannah.

Marnie in GirlsMarnie’s the kind of girl I literally find myself hating now, because I’ve seen what someone as damaged as she is can do to a relationship, and I don’t think they can ever really change. She’s too pretty to realize she’s pretty and she’s too uptight and self-obsessed to ever want a man who doesn’t beat her down with his disinterest in her any waking hour except those in which he’s horny.

Hannah is the most well-developed character (and interestingly the only one whose parents we’re introduced to), and best of all she’s got the perfect boyfriend. On the outset, her boyfriend Adam is a perverted loser, but the beauty of the way this series unfolds is that you learn to not judge any characters by their initial affectations, and instead (like real people) give them a chance to get to know you. Adam is a unique, artistic guy who’s not afraid to stand up for himself and not afraid to tell Hannah what he wants, even if it frightens her. What’s cool about the series Girls is that Dunham is pleading to women her age out there to give guys like this a solid chance, because honestly you could write him off over the first few episodes, but by the middle of the season you’re kind of hooked. He keeps Hannah honest, doesn’t necessarily tell her what she wants to hear, but always tells her what he’s feeling (when she takes the time to become un-self-absorbed and actually ask him). They’re a good combination of emotional intelligence and creativity for each other and really, Dunham puts all the pressure on the character she’s playing to keep it together with Adam, because (like most self-absorbed and low-esteemed girls) she’s unsure about a good thing.

girls-hbo-adam-hannahSeason Two has some changes in store for Hannah and Adam though, as Hannah will obviously be freaked out by the realization that Adam is actually in love and committing to her. Dunham actually sums up the feelings her character has for Adam in an honest and perfect real life example from her past (via Vulture), depicting just how some girls can be when they’re not emotionally mature at all:

The thing is, I’ve been in so many situations where, like, the power balance just shifts and shifts and shifts — like, I remember when I was 16 and I had this boyfriend from camp and I liked him so much, and he did not like me that much. He was really cool; he was a rapper, but he was not that into me. But then I went back home, he went back home, I started calling him a little less, and he turned into this mixtape-sending, flower-wielding person. I went to Boston to visit my friend and saw him, and we all went to a thrift store together, and it was like his passion for me was so unbridled he shoved me into a coat rack and tried to kiss me. And I was like, “Get off of me!” I just had this feeling like, “Where were you before?” I felt revulsion, because when you’re not mature enough to handle being responsible for somebody else’s feelings, their need is disgusting. When you really love someone, and you’re adult enough to understand that life is a back-and-forth of sometimes you need and sometimes they need, then you find somebody else’s vulnerability beautiful, and you want to nurture it, and you want to keep it safe. But I feel like, until pretty recently in my life, somebody expressing any kind of desperation or any kind of vulnerability — it was like your parents showing you they have real feelings, it was like running into your teacher on the subway. It was awful, and so I think that for Hannah this switch with Adam, even though it’s everything she had dreamed of, was overwhelming, and suddenly he’s a real person and she’s scared, and there’s this feeling of somebody else is wanting her time and her energy, and she’s not about that.

All the characters in this series are perfectly crafted out of real-life, they’re perfectly flawed and ingeniously paired. It’s a risky series for someone like Dunham to reveal because of its level of personal reflection and commitment as both filmmaker and star playing a role in which she must reflect many of her own personal demons. It’s also a challenging series because initially it was hard for me to become so invested in it; the girls are just so utterly off-putting to begin with that I found it to be more socially un-redeeming than socially revealing, but it’s an important and intelligent (and funny!) examination on young women and men and their ability to process and maintain meaningful relationships in today’s technocratic and constantly evolving world. Stick with it through the first few episodes and I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised and glad you met these characters.

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino gets away with a lot in Hollywood. It appears he’s even celebrated for what he can get away with – the latest of which being the Oscar nod to Django Unchained in the Best Picture category. While his latest film is in no uncertain terms great, I’m hesitant to say it’s the Best Picture of the year… yet.

If you know Tarantino’s schtick, you’ve seen all of his other films; Django Unchained shouldn’t be surprising in any ways. QT creates each of his “new” films by arduously selecting only the best bits and pieces of a cinema long-gone and tying it all together in a story that is ripe with exposition, dialogue and graphic imagery. In this case, one bit he’s carefully selected from the annals of cinema history is the title and title character.

Django Unchained

The original Django (from 1966, directed by Sergio Corbucci) had nothing to do with the Antebellum South or slavery, but it did have a man tortured by the loss of his woman who was also on a vengeful quest to get her back. One of my first disappointments with Tarantino’s film was the surprising lack of startling imagery as compared to many of his previous works. In this film, his usual cinematographer Robert Richardson and he, seemed to be a little less inspired with the visuals. For example, the opening imagery in Sergio Corbucci’s Django is of the titular character dragging behind him a coffin on a rope. Unchained opens with Django’s character walking in the woods tied to a group of other slaves – granted – also a powerful image you’d think, but not in the way it’s presented here, dark and expected, and even more, it’s an image that’s been burned into an American’s psyche forever. In this respect, I almost find myself having to agree with Spike Lee in his protestation at Unchained’s release, to leave this topic alone – almost.

That issue aside, the first three-quarters of the film had me pretty much hooked and under his spell. I commend Tarantino on what he’s succeeding to say with the story, but then by the end, when he goes for the simplistic, tie-up-every-loose-end-of-the-story-with-a-ridiculous-gunfight (very much akin to the final scene in True Romance or the Crazy 88’s scene in Kill Bill), my interest and appreciation quickly began to wane.

The thing about Tarantino’s films are they confidently take themselves very seriously. It’s why arguments are easy to make with Unchained about its use of the word “nigger” and its over-the-top violence. As for the word “nigger,” I’ll admit, I was a little taken aback by its gratuitous use from the first scenes forward in Unchained, but at the same time, I know that’s because I’ve been conditioned to be repelled by that word – a seemingly more disrespectful and distasteful slur now-a-days than, say, calling someone a “bitch” or a  “fuck.” It seems to me that if we’re going to be repelled by the use of one derogatory slur, we should be repelled by them all equally. Historically though, I know the use of the word “nigger” was a real and extremely prevalent thing (and to some extent, unfortunately still is), and therefore, even though QT uses it to his cultish, slightly perverse pleasure here, it’s not without point or reason. For much of the violence, however, I cannot say the same.

Django Unchained

Violence in the cinema has never been an issue to me; cinema is all fantasy no matter how you look at it, but it’s the new breed of violence in films (most of it re-invigorated by the torture-porn musings of films like Hostel, Saw and basically any “horror movie” from Asia in the past decade-and-a-half) that turns me off of filmmaking in general. Much of Tarantino’s brand of gun violence is point blank with plenty of maiming. When it works for the story, I can accept it and move on, but when it’s just random and unsubstantiated, I find myself getting bored. The final shootouts in Django Unchained are very over-the-top. Although someone will likely argue that I shouldn’t keep comparing them, the final shootout in Corbucci’s Django was equally over-the-top, but so much more acceptable (maybe not believable) – and just plain cool. Franco Nero, the actor who plays that original Django, after having his hands crushed to the point where he can’t hardly hold a gun, much less shoot it, musters the will and strength to bite through the trigger guard on his pistol and then by pressing the exposed trigger up against a gravestone, and using his gimp hand to hit the hammer back, he cleans out a cemetery full of bad guys all by himself.

Jamie Foxx’s Django has a far less impressive final shootout, although also equally unbelievable. Hardly even grazed by a bullet in a barrage of fire at him, he dives under a wooden wardrobe that is toppled over and despite it then being riddled with bullets – which indeed appear to be piercing the wood – he is not even showing a scratch once he emerges. It’s only that he runs out of ammo that he is even stopped and gives himself up. While I’ve always appreciated that Tarantino remains firmly planted in plausible territory with his action sequences in all his films, Unchained’s final shootouts seem a little haphazard and too “easy.”

As usual, the characters in Unchained are full, colorful and engaging. The highlights here are most certainly Leonardo DiCaprio as a young owner of one of the largest plantations in the South, his house slave, played by a well made-up Samuel L. Jackson and, of course, the always coolly hilarious and ebullient, Christoph Waltz as, quite literally, the only white man in the Antebellum time period to “abhor slavery,” aptly named Dr. King (Schultz). Upon just hearing the name for the first time in the movie, it brought a smile to my face.

Despite some of its drawbacks, Tarantino’s film is a much needed respite from the overwrought, striving-to-be-historically-accurate period pieces that normally tackle subjects as large, sensitive and America-centric as the Civil War and slavery, in that it allows audiences to actually enjoy a movie, while still also getting the gist of what was egregiously wrong about that time period in America’s history, and poking fun at how far (and in some cases, how not-so-far) we’ve come since then. Too bad Spielberg never had the balls to do that.

Les Misérables

I wanted Les Misérables to be great, but it just wasn’t. A film that comes out on Christmas Day has got to be a pretty solid stuff, you’d think, but why wasn’t I blown away? Everyone else in the theater seemed to have a different outcome than I did; when the credits rolled, there was a momentary roar of applause. As if the people on the screen just moments before could hear us.

Les Miserables

Tom Hooper’s film is not terrible per se; it’s just careless to some degree – for one specific reason – Russell Crowe. Whoever allowed him to be cast in this should be seriously re-examined for experience in their craft. Crowe is dismal in his technique throughout the entire film. It’s literally like he didn’t want to be on set. You can almost see him just wishing the song was over already. Like he was in physical pain every time Hooper called action and he knew he had to sing live to the unapologetic cameras. With every scene that Crowe inhabits he not only sings completely flat, but he literally acts completely flat. I’m not even sure if I caught him raising an eyebrow, much less a full facial expression. The most movement he makes is pacing on ledges, horseback riding, a bit of sword play, and a much welcomed, back-snapping swan dive onto a brick wall. I really just can’t express enough how much Crowe ruined this whole experience for me.

Now, let’s pretend that Crowe was impeccable in his performance (hell, I’d settle for even just OK in his performance); the film would then be good. Not examining Crowe’s performance would allow us to examine the performances of the other actors more closely. Anne Hathaway is terrific. There’s really nothing more to be said about her darkly poignant downward spiral of a performance. Hugh Jackman is good, notable for his live theatre abilities, but in Hooper’s film he lets the scenes get the best of him sometimes. Early on, (around the first act), he comes across much like DeNiro in Cuarón’s Great Expectations remake. I think that’s when I liked Jackman best – the beginning. By the end of the film he’s a little too obvious in his character’s affectations and voice, and it almost gets boring to some degree.

Hooper’s imbued a wonderful dark sensibility to the film to the film as well, which should not be overlooked. He could have chosen to make this lighter fare, but instead kept it classic, cold and literary. He basically could be said to have directed Les Misérables for the stage here, only with setups for cameras and grips. The majority of the shots are handheld, with a wide lens, but smack-up-close-and-personal-walking-with-a-character-as-they-sing-to-the-lens (or just beyond it). Hooper is doing his best to make this an intimate and personal stage experience for cinema-goers. Granted, it’s not the first time this filming style has been done to this effect, but it’s the first time in recent movie history that it’s worked to such great ability. And it very much indeed has worked here. The audience becomes so enthralled; they’re obviously even willing to overlook Crowe (it probably also helps that sadly, most American audiences have no prior education or knowledge of the story of Les Misérables, so it’s like a brand new movie for them).

Take, for example, Chicago, a critically acclaimed movie and a hit with audiences, adapted from the stage, but filmed like a traditional Hollywood picture – just with singing. Many of the great auteurs have tried to bring alive the feeling, the rush, the one-dimensionality and the purity of the theater to the screen (Bergman, Leigh), but until now there wasn’t really a formula that seemed to work. Hooper’s found it. Maybe there’s method in the madness of shooting the actors singing their lines live for each take; maybe that even dictated the reasoning for shooting Les Misérables in the fluid and realistic, on-stage-style that he did, but whatever the reason, you will no doubt see this production formula used again.

Les Misérables is a film your family will probably love, and it’s most certainly a film with heart and beauty, there were a lot of sniffles in the screening which I was at, and I can understand why. To those who know nothing about the craft of filmmaking, this is cinema they can truly let wash over them and enjoy effortlessly, but to those who watch movies in a different way, there’s a lot left to be desired.

Gamers Making Fun of Gamers: Support Group

It’s not often I see films made by avid gamers that also poke fun at avid gamers, but with the in-production web series Support Groupwritten and directed by a gamer (full disclosure: who I personally know), Joshua Earles-Bennett, along with his co-writer Ashley Earles-Bennett, has put together a concept that is unique, humorous and insider all at the same time. Support Group centers around a group of gamers addicted to the game Skyrim (aka The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim). The crew is currently trying to raise funds to produce and direct an entire first season of this new web series, and their IndieGoGo campaign can be found here. Check out the teaser trailer below.

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.