We've Been Watching...
CLYDEFRO JONES: Red, red, red. Simon Killer seems to have had people seeing red, either through disgust or as a result of its frequent lighting choices. It's a film where one can immediately understand negative reactions because it simply plays as being potentially divisive. It's stylized yet not as violent as one might think. Its title sort of destroys preconceptions by foreshadowing actions that don't occur until well over an hour into the picture. The controversy, if it even exists, probably stems from a dominant coldness and odd sense of surveillance which arguably lead to very little. Director Antonio Campos continues some of the same themes from his debut feature Afterschool, but here he shows a newfound level of confidence in breaking free from the Haneke-dictated accusatory nature of his cinema. The result is tremendous and breathtaking.
The Simon of Simon Killer is Brady Corbet, an actor so incredibly adept at appearing wholesome and normal with an unnerving inner darkness that he's thus far made a career of doing just that in films like Mysterious Skin, Haneke's American Funny Games remake and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Probably the first real inkling I had of Corbet as a creepy, potentially dangerous presence was in Sean Durkin's short film Mary Last Seen, made before Martha Marcy May Marlene but dealing with similar territory. In it he initially seems to be a normal boyfriend taking his girl on a drive. The reality is that he's helping deliver her to a secluded cult, against her will. It's a perfect example of Corbet's potential to be someone whose intentions do not match his appearance. That's the exact quality Campos uses to such strong effect in Simon Killer. Indeed, it's essentially what the entire film hinges on since our perception of Corbet's Simon must allow for odd actions teasing potentially sociopathic behavior.
The film begins, appropriately enough, with Simon acting ostensibly normal but nonetheless managing to seem slightly off in some way. He's speaking to a Frenchman whose apartment he will be staying at for about a week while he's out of town. Simon is talking about his girlfriend, with whom he recently broke up after a long relationship that coincided with their time at college. Both are recent graduates. Simon has now found himself in Paris, for no apparent reason other than to escape his life at home. It should be stressed that Campos manages to film virtually every scene with Simon as a warning. The degree of the character's abnormality is withheld but he's constantly portrayed with anxiety from the camera. There is no reassurance at any point. The entire film is one drenched in unease and caution. It offers very little in the way of specific foreboding but there's the constant sense of knowing that Simon cannot be trusted. The viewer is given one hint after another, from seeing his uncomfortable sexual thrills while holding a laptop and standing against a wall to piecing together his lies to the prostitute to whom he attaches himself.
Things soon enough turn messy. Once Simon transitions his relationship with a prostitute (played by Mati Diop, who along with Corbet gets a writing credit) from paying her for sex or something like it to sleeping in her bed then the stakes immediately turn more serious. What's interesting about Simon Killer is that we never are privy to the extent of Simon's thoughts or exactly how far along his plans are at any given point. The film plays out like he's merely reacting to one situation after the next, with little pre-meditation. Whether that's entirely accurate is an area up for debate, and part of the reason Campos' picture enjoys such a fascinating afterlife when the credits end. We're not made completely aware of just how Simon's intentions are operating. We meet him just after his arrival in Paris and leave him when he exits. The interim becomes a vast canvas of sociopathic demons and red-shaded dirty feelings. The filth that emanates from this picture is nearly palpable. Anyone claiming Simon Killer to be trash is at least half accurate. The failure would be in not seeing it as stylized, highly accomplished trash, and that makes all the difference.
There's a scene late in the picture that becomes the clincher. Simon is dancing in a club alongside a French girl he'd met before but is now actively taking out. The images unravel in slow motion to the sounds of "Dance Yrself Clean" by LCD Soundsystem. It's a transcendent moment - at once embodying the supposed emptiness some detest about the film but also capturing the larger ruin of a creation on par with Tom Ripley in his snake-like ability to move in and out of certain situations as few can. It is, easily, unnerving. The film succeeds in making Simon a normal sociopath, on the loose in Paris. There are few things more eerie than exploring the overall normalcy of evil. We expect killers to somehow identify or announce themselves as such. When one doesn't, particularly a very wholesome-looking one in another country, it's all the more terrifying. The way that Campos injects such instability into situations, often filming the characters from behind so that the viewer is no perhaps even less at ease than who is being followed, is worthy of praise. Dismissing Simon Killer as simply this or that is to do the film a disservice. It is, in its lighting, its use of music and its camera angles, a model of cinema as tactile unsettlement. It's also, easily, one of the best movies I've seen this year.
NICK CHEN: The BBC have been replaying The Trip recently, and it’s been a pleasure revisiting these 30-minute nuggets. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon verbally spar and one-up each other with impressions. It’s boldly repetitive and, while feeling uncomfortably real, delves into Beckett territory. I’m not sure how much input Michael Winterbottom applies, but his direction turns Coogan into an insecure, tragic figure – between the laughs, it’s difficult to separate truth from fiction.
Conversely, The Look of Love just came out on DVD. Another Winterbottom/Coogan collaboration, and again Coogan plays a real person. Except this time, it’s not himself – it’s Paul Raymond. The biopic is adequate, but a clear step down from the self-aware A Cock and Bull Story and giddy optimism of 24 Hour Party People. It also shares too many unfortunate similarities with the latter. Whereas The Trip mined pathos and humour through its repetition, I hope Coogan avoids that trend with his career.
JOHN WHITE: We are getting closer to the return of the big US TV series, and happily we have just seen the return of Hell on Wheels for its third season after all sorts of hiring and firing issues since season two ended. The opening double episode saw the series set up again after the destruction of the last season and thankfully Colm Meaney, Anson Mount and Christopher Eyerdahl are all back.
AMC have also re-imagined Low Winter Sun as a Detroit based cop show starring (again) Mark Strong and the marvellous Lennie James. It's surprisingly good, well cast and grittier than my garden path. Similar but glossier good stuff is offered by season three of Suits which has borrowed Catelyn Stark and Lord Varys from Game of Thrones, along with Brit Max Beesley, to re-energise itself.
It's been a bad year for blockbusters. Star Trek was nonsense, Man of Steel had too much Crowe and Iron Man 3 just was a series of gags with too much space in between them. Add to this a poor Wolverine, a merely okay Pacific Rim and all my hopes are placed on the upcoming Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire now.
In anticipation of The Blacklist, I've recently re-watched Wolf to remember what James Spader could have been as a film actor before he discovered cake and William Shatner. Yet, the most fun has come by way of the recently released Fernando Di Leo boxset of crime Blu-rays including the superb Shoot First, Die Later.
DAVE FOSTER: In a rare excursion to my local cinema I caught a free preview screening of 2 Guns. This buddy action-comedy flick stars Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington and to put it in simple terms is crap. Other than a few laughs from Wahlberg's argumentative banter the characters, plot and action all fall flat making this the longest 100 minutes I've had to endure in quite some time. It reminded me somewhat of the Total Recall remake, another film (and another free preview screening) with lots of action and frequent explosions where I also found myself twiddling my thumbs in boredom rather than feeling any excitement.
Back in the comfort of my own home I've been catching up with more Japanese films released on DVD through Third Window Films. First up is Fish Story from director Yoshihiro Nakamura whose earlier film - The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker - was a concrete favourite of mine in the last feature. This comedy-drama follows the same structure as it jumps between time periods and characters to weave its multi-layered tale of how an obscure Japanese punk band's song - Fish Story - saves the planet from total destruction. It boasts some brilliant sections with thoroughly endearing characters and the way it comes together is a lot of fun to witness, but it didn't grab me in quite the same way as the aforementioned film from the same director. Still, it's very good.
Also from TWF is Isn't Anyone Alive?, a film by Gakuryu Ishii who until recently went by Sogo Ishii and is probably best known for directing the cult-favourite Electric Dragon 80,000 V. A promising start which boasts some interesting editing and use of music along with character introductions showing some very natural conversations sadly doesn't amount to much. The basic premise is that of ordinary students on a university campus going about their day when they start learning of accidents on a nearby train line, and then out of nowhere they and everyone around them start inexplicably dying.
Short of an urban myth coming true suggestion which isn't taken anywhere, the film never attempts to look at the how and why, instead it just follows these characters and looks at how they react. Sadly it's not very interesting, and the natural acting and dialogue soon turns to melodrama as the reactions to death aren't particularly believable. Worse still the notion of typical, everyday humdrum conversations that worked well initially as a character setup is maintained throughout the film and borders on audience abuse by the end. Throw in some odd comical choices (in particular a character who looks like he needs to find a toilet fast) and the overall result is quite poor and not a film I'd recommend when there are so many better choices available from TWF.