Blood Simple (1984)
June 11, 2015, 8:58 am
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Blood Simple (1984)
Directed By: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Blood Simple is the first film in The Coen Brothers dynasty. And boy, did they hit the ground running. It’s hard to think of any other directors that put out such well regarded films with the same kind of consistency. Not to put Blood Simple down, but it only gets better from here.

It’s a film about deceitful people who all think they are on top of the game. Until they find out they are clueless. Until events beyond their control and their own mistakes come together. A circle of manipulation that ends with you either dead, or wondering what the fuck just happened. It’s a conceit that you might think you’ve heard before. And that’s because this isn’t the last time The Coen’s made this film.

The Coen Brothers have developed a reputation as weavers of the complex. Simple people get caught up in events far above them, with only a piece of the plot to hold onto. A labyrinth of connections tied together. It could be contrived if it didn’t all make perfect sense.

Maybe the film lacks the high-budget polish of later Coen films. But it still looks great. It’s dark and brooding. Lit by streetlights and headlights. Or whatever neon buzz is illuminating Marty’s bar.

Under the Skin (2013)
May 21, 2015, 10:29 am
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Under the Skin (2013)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

It’s finally time to talk about Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. A science-fiction road trip through Scotland. Told from the perspective of an alien in the skin of a human woman. Laura is a predator, driving a white van around the streets of Scotland. She seduces men by showing only the vaguest interest in them. In return they follow her into a dark nightmare.

Science-fiction. But Under the Skin is a film about real people.

It all hinges first on the girl. Laura. Scarlett Johansson. A Hollywood face in disguise, dropped into the realms of Scottish civilisation. Filmed with hidden cameras. Interacting with real people. True reactions.

Even the opening sequence reflects the dual nature of the film. In the context of the story, we hear Laura practicing her dialogue. She makes vowel sounds and practices the way words form in her mouth. But this is actually a recording of Johansson practicing her dialect for the role. It’s a clever idea, reflecting the nature of the film as a form of method acting.

The first half of the film is sparse of exposition. We follow Laura on her road trip, in her interactions, ensnaring men. She lures them back to a derelict house. Inside is only a dark abyss; a haunting abstract plane. The men descend into this darkness. Willing to do so as they are so captivated by this siren. And something invisible in the darkness pulls the meat from under their skin. Leaving only a hollow shell behind.

The film indulges itself in letting this half of the film play out in slow pace. It is slow because we have to witness the length of time that Laura allows humanity to impact upon her. She is not human. This is never more clear than a particular beach scene. It is a gut-wrenching emotional play that she witnesses, and is completely indifferent to. But over time, the effects of humanity do seep in under the skin. There is no galvanising moment of realisation. It is a slow process.

Yet there is a galvanising moment that shifts the focus of the film. We find a narrative in the second half. As Laura finds a twinkling of humanity, the perspective turns. She experiences the world not from the perspective of a predator, but as the prey. She finds herself in an unfamiliar abyss (a deep forest). She experiences the dark, predatory nature of the human in the film’s climax.

Under the Skin is bold. It is clever. It is beautiful. It provokes thought. It pulls the viewer out of their comfort zone. Jonathan Glazer has made a film that realises his cinematic vision. A guerrilla documentary on the nature of people. The cinematography and soundtrack are haunting. And Scarlett Johansson is ethereal as Laura.


A personal note: While watching the film I was unsure. It took time to fall into it. But when the closing credits rolled, my mouth was agape and I sat for a while in the dark just to catch my breath. The more I think about and talk about this film, the more it becomes one of my favourites. It’s hard to put these kinds of emotions into a review without it becoming too masturbatory. But I wanted to add this short note to say this film had quite a profound effect on me.

Killing Them Softly (2012)
May 20, 2015, 9:46 am
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Killing Them Softly (2012)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik

Killing Them Softly is a film that showed brief (emphasis on brief) moments of being something greater than it was. If it had a braver editor. It’s not a long film, clocking in at 97 minutes. But so much of that was aimless, meandering dialogue that should be dead on the cutting room floor.

When the film does hit, it hits hard. There are some powerful visual scenes. A brutal beating in a rainy car park. A drive-by execution. A drifting, kaleidoscopic heroin interrogation. But these are the gems in a rough of film that is unsure about what it is, and what it wants to be.

In the end it’s hard to feel like the film is not trying to cash in on your nostalgia for the better performances of it’s actors. Pitt, Liotta, Gandolfini. It’s a patchwork, cut together from pieces of crime films past. Hard to feel like you haven’t seen the film before in it’s contemporaries. Reminiscent of other modern crime films; Revolver (Another Liotta piece) or Lucky Number Slevin. But they are smarter and braver and have a more cohesive style.

Killing Them Softly is a film unsure of itself. And it’s noticeable.

Elephant (2003)
May 18, 2015, 1:35 pm
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Elephant (2003)
Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Part of the criticism and acclaim of Elephant is it’s total lack of any kind of morality. It portrays a neutral view of a horrific event. The film takes a camera and puts you, the viewer, inside of something brutal.

But there is a message in there somewhere, hidden in the labyrinthine high-school corridors. The message is in the total lack of care or presence of any adult figure. They are all vacant. All absent.

In the opening scene, John’s father is drifting drunk. This is the extent of his character. The principal of the school is patronising and unconcerned with reason. He looks down on John and is completely without care for his frustrations.  The parent’s of the two killers are faceless ghosts that float around the screen and then disappear into the ether. Never seen again.

The strange thing about the film though, is how emotionless everyone seems. There is a scene in which three girls are sitting in the lunch hall, eating, conversing. Then they walk together, they talk, and like any other day they enter the bathroom together to force up their lunch. It seems ordinary. Where a character does display emotion, John retreats to an empty classroom to shed a tear. His friend asks “Did something bad happen?” and he responds “I don’t know.” There is a scene in amongst the chaos of the end where a fearless student (Benny) seems completely unconcerned by what is happening. He drifts through the burning, smoking hallways in a long continuous take. He helps a girl escape and for a moment we almost have a heroic figure. He finds himself sneaking up behind one of the shooters. Yet as quick as this brief glimpse of hope appeared, the shooter turns around and plugs a bullet right into him.

The film’s end is equal in how abrupt it is. A mere snapshot of an event. A portrait of these character’s life and frustrations. It ends with no conclusion or resolution. That is your responsibility as the viewer to come to.