More Thoughts on Simon Killer (2012)

Almost 24 hours after experiencing this juggernaut of a film, I am still reeling from the intense aftershocks of Simon Killer. There are several (and spoiler-heavy) ideas I’d like to explore further, and I do welcome any messages/comments you may have!

First: the costume design. I know, I know – I’m not typically the kind of person to pay attention to this, and I am not remotely a fashionista in my real life. But I couldn’t help noticing that, for most of the film, Simon wore colorful hoodies (red, blue, etc) under a black jacket. This seemed to be his “standard” outfit. In the handful of scenes in which he pursues Marianne’s clients (whom he is blackmailing), however, he dresses differently, often like the men – whether in a nice pea coat or more formal wear.

This can either be taken as just Simon dressing differently, that in these instances he is not the person he typically is, by acting out in such a bizarre and manipulative manner. Though I think it is another layer of the film’s overall motif of men exploiting and mistreating women; by literally using his prostitute/girlfriend Marianne as a tool to generate wealth for himself, he is arguably doing the same thing Marianne’s clients are; exploiting her for his own selfish needs. This establishes a strong thematic parallel, and provides us with an earlier cue that Simon has the potential for some real damage.

Second: Simon and Sophie at the club. This excellent scene, appropriately dubbed by LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean,” begins with Simon doing his slightly awkward, but believable and frequently-seen dance moves, as he pulls Sophie toward him to dance. For a solid four minutes or so, the camera stays in place as we him bop around, as Sophie moves in and out of the shot, and eventually Sophie’s roommate joins them and Simon begins to make out with her.

This moment in the film is so particularly striking because we presumed from the opening monologue and Simon’s apparent heartbreak that he’s a good guy and wouldn’t pull anything weird just to get close to a girl – especially when he claims he himself was cheated on. But in this scene we are stuck watching what we don’t want to see, Simon cheating on Marianne, and even then Simon kind of cheats on Sophie by kissing her roommate. It is unsettling to see how easy it is for him to move from woman to woman, especially when Simon is a character whose side we’ve been on this whole time.

Third: Simon at the airport. I still am not sure what to make of this scene, and will be paying close attention when I rewatch this film. When Simon is being questioned by customs at the airport, not only are we shocked to find out he has been there over 90 days (as we’ve only spent a few days with him, as far as we can tell) but his usual story of being a fresh graduate of neuroscience has flipped to Sophie’s experience, as a student of French literature.

Like with the costume design, this could simply be a blip – it could show that Simon has lost his cool, he is so mentally confounded that he has lost recollection of his own experiences and is purely temporal in his consciousness.

My opinion, however, is that it is another instance of him thinking on his feet and making things up – this is just the first time he’s claimed this story, that’s why he’s so nervous. For all we know, his story he’s been monologuing all this time is just as phony, and we the audience just take for granted that our narrator and protagonist is telling the truth.

Anyway, just wanted to share these thoughts with you all! Anybody else see Simon Killer? Any specific scenes or themes stick out to you which you’d like to discuss?

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Simon Killer (2012)

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: thank God for Spring Breakers. If I hadn’t seen that PCP trip of a film in theaters, I would have never been exposed to the trailer for Simon Killer, a knockout psychosexual thriller in the proud tradition of Blue Velvet and Shame.

Told almost as a modern-day version of the novel In a Lonely PlaceSimon Killer places us with a young American man fresh upon arrival in Paris (or so he says). He is struggling with getting over his ex, and falls in love with a French prostitute, also with (literal) scars. As seen in the trailer (so no spoilers), the two devise a scheme to blackmail her clients for cash. This doesn’t quite work out.

The narrative, though, is secondary to the extraordinary and wholly disturbing vision that is presented to us. The sex scenes, while erotic, are almost joyless, with Simon’s lovers’ heads often out of the shot, giving us a view of Simon leering at their nude bodies, or forcing them to turn around and face the opposite way, further dehumanizing his sexual partners.

The unique experience of this film is further developed through the contrast of highly cinematic, “fake”-feeling camera work with exceptionally neorealistic dialogue and acting. The very long shots feel as if we could be there watching live, but with the slight disconnect of a perfectly framed angle, or smooth turns bridging opposite characters or ends of the room.

The focal point of the film, of course, is Simon himself, delivered in a fantastic performance by Brady Corbet (who you may recognize from Thirteen). He is nearly impossible to take your eyes off of, and gives a remarkably rich and believable portrayal of a womanizer, criminal, and yes, killer.

Simon Killer is also extraordinary in how much it takes us by surprise – we rarely get films, either studio or independent, which places us with your everyday man who has the potential to kill. Recalling earlier events, I can now look back and see how we were given clues that Simon could be a criminal all along, but an audience is often unwilling to accept that our narrator, our door to this experience, is capable of such terrible acts. We share in his experience but don’t want to bear the guilt of his actions. The film lets off a chilling conclusion and a sense of fluidity, that these events have likely happened before and will probably happen again.

Simon Killer is a shining (?) dark spot in a year of film that was largely optimistic and happy-go-lucky. It offers a very fresh take on the traditional narrative and gives us an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Leon Morin, Priest (1961)

Léon Morin, Priest is the excellent character study between a young widow and a priest during the Nazi occupation of France. She, an atheist, is practically forced into the church to convert to Catholicism and avoid persecution from the Nazis.

While she does follow through the nominal process of conversion, she is a reluctant party, with many serious doubts and critiques of the Church and of religion in general. The priest, surprisingly, both shares and understands many of her questions, with himself combating his own fears and concerns about religion. We get many superb scenes of intelligent, yet realistic, dialogue between two strong-willed and sharp-witted parties.

The performances are excellent as well, with Emanuelle Riva as the heroine and a handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo as the young priest. They play their characters with the fullest, bringing them to life both with charisma and insecurity. The subtleties of their performances are so impressive, it’s easy to forget we are watching a movie.

Director Melville is heavy on “showing, not telling,” (which he exemplifies in his minimalist Army of Shadows and Le Cercle Rouge, neither of which I particularly enjoyed), but it works here – we do see their friendship develop over the course of two hours. When they must part at the film’s end, we do feel their sadness and the loss of their relationship. Léon Morin, Priest is a solid, entertaining and stimulating film that maintains our attention and breaks our heart.

Repo Man (1984)

Repo Man is an adrenaline-high trip that can best be described as an existentialist, sci-fi noir comedy. It was also a studio (!) movie.

The premise is insane: it’s the story of a young punk in a slummy part of LA who gets a job as a repo man, who quickly gets himself wound up in a plot about alien invasion and the threat of nuclear warfare (and tons of funKiss Me, Deadly references). The movie works because it takes an out-of-control plot and plays it for laughs. The storyline is ridiculous, and the characters treat it as such, either reacting with skepticism or fitting the caricature perfectly and fitting into the logic of the story.

In addition to all the crazy going on, there is also a complex and intelligent world created by director Alex Cox. We meet characters from all over Los Angeles, from a grungy house of punks to middle-aged losers to Mexican gangsters. It’s “slice of life” without feeling like it. We encounter these characters organically, as everyone has something at stake in this nutso plot.

Within this vision of LA, we also get some heavy existentialist themes. We quickly get the sense that, in this universe, everything and everyone has a sense of order, which is explained in a great monologue by Harry Dean Stanton’s character Bud, in what he calls the “repo code.” Even in a business which is questionable (and elevates the film to what might be an allegory on the fluidity and arbitrary nature of property rights?), the characters find logic in that which they create for themselves.

I don’t know if the movie quite grazes the level of greatness, but it is probably film at some of its most fun and eye-popping. It’s definitely better than your standard popcorn flick and actually gives audiences an intelligent yet entertaining experience. Few films are as kinetic as Repo Man and it is easy to see why it has become a cult classic.

Spring Breakers (2013)

I am probably just as surprised as you are: Spring Breakers is actually a really good movie.

It follows a deceptively simple plot, of a Good Girl and her longtime friends, three Bad Girls, who are bored in their university setting and are desperate for any kind of change. Their solution is to go to Florida for a wild and unforgettable Spring Break. Even after saving money for months, they are unable to afford this excursion, prompting the Bad Girls to rob a local eatery.

The bad behavior continues at the Spring Break resort town, eventually landing them in a local jail and involved in a greater crime ring. One of the drug lords is played to over-the-top perfection by James Franco, who delivers a chilling yet comical portrayal.

The story is told with an engaging intensity unique to films of this genre; we’ve seen plenty of movies like this before, of young girls gone wild, so the direction doesn’t waste time on the narrative. What’s interesting is how the story is told, through lucid montages flashing around through time and space, often with disembodied voice-overs describing the sequence we are viewing, as told by characters before or after the incident actually takes place.

Take one scene, for instance: We know the girls are going to get into trouble. We knew that from the movie poster. So for the scene in which they get arrested, we get flashes of the different girls in police cars with red and blue lights shining on their faces; then we return back to the incident in which they get arrested. This constant back-and-forth makes this movie, whose narrative is otherwise simple, consistently compelling.

But it’s not just the storytelling that makes Spring Breakers a fascinating work, but the story and theme itself. This is a twisted representation of the American dream, almost a contemporary remake of Where the Boys Are, of young women rejecting mainstream society and opt to make a life for themselves in any way they can. The plays of power move so instantaneously and so driven by individual initiative, that one can’t watch without the unsettling feeling that power, and perceptions of it, are so fluid.

On its surface, Spring Breakers is a sticky, neon trip of house music and marijuana smoke but at its heart (or lack of one), it is a disturbing and revealing look at what we value in our American life, and how far we will go to achieve it.

Muscle Beach Party (1964)

Muscle Beach Party is one of the more forgettable entries in the Beach Party saga, but it is possibly the best in terms of sheer quality. Like all the other films, it is about the same band of kids going to the beach for the summer, but the side story (of the Italian heiress trying to pluck out Frankie and make him a star) is actually pretty interesting. There is also the funny backdrop of the muscle men who have set up camp along the beach, resulting in a very entertaining fight scene at the end.

We also get the standard Frankie-Annette bickering that we have come to expect, and love, from these series. I love them so much because they often argue about whether or not to get married and, over the course of many movies and many years, we don’t see them tie the knot – they are a modern couple and don’t jump to get married like many young people did prior to the 1960s.

In addition to the expected Beach Party fare, the temptation Frankie faces is rather compelling. As an audience, we of course know he’s a talented singer, so the Italian temptress offering him a career as a pop singer is weirdly meta and it’s fun to see everyone’s reactions. Frankie’s friends rebuke him for his choices, with his friend Johnny spitting that “golden surfboards tend to sink.” What?

There’s also a hilarious visual gag of a beach gal, Candy, dancing and making the surfer boys fall off their surfboards with every sway of her hips. This comes in handy at the end, as it sends muscle men flying all over the cabana club and ensures a victory for the scrawnier beach fellas.

This all probably sounds insane if you aren’t a Beach Party fan, but all this crazy narrative makes sense within the Beach Party universe, and especially within this film. Compared to the other entries, Muscle Beach Party is a pretty “normal” film, with significantly fewer camp elements and scenes than the others. It’s the kind of movie you can be less embarrassed to like.

That said, though, Muscle Beach Party is probably one of the less memorable Beach Party films because it is so much more realistic, and the songs aren’t as good as in the other films. We are blessed to see Donna Loren in her first Beach Party appearance (singing the great “Muscle Bustle”) and it’s always fun when Dick Dale and his Del-Tones are around. This movie just makes less of an impression, but it does provide some good flashes of better elements in other beach party films. This is a movie where, for the most part, everything works, but it doesn’t resonate as strong as moments in the other, weaker, Beach Party films.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven is the odd film which is less compelling for what it is, and more interesting for how it is made.

It tells the loose story of three drifters, a man, his girlfriend, and his little sister, who leave Chicago to work in a wheat farm in the country. The owner of the farm falls in love with the woman, they marry, and the four make a little family unit. We see the passage of time and the challenges and strains their relationships take, which ultimately lead to a tragic ending.

The weird thing is, though, I kind of don’t care about what happened. I almost don’t know if it matters. Like The Tree of Life, another minimalist story by director Terrence Malick, what happens matters less than how it happens. The landscape, for one, is very striking; we see acres and acres of wheat farms, which represents both the possibilities and limitations these characters face. They could realistically go anywhere they please, but they confine themselves to this old Victorian house.

They are also isolated from what is going on in the rest of the world; we are given only hints of when we are when the story starts, and then see a newspaper headline revealing the President is Wilson, and at the very end see soldiers returning home from World War I. Contemporary society, though, is extraneous to these characters, who stay in their own little world.

This quality is what makes the movie simultaneously compelling, but also frustrating. Seeing these four individuals often shot in isolation, or set against the backdrop of nature (there are very few interior shots), these people and these events could exist in any time, any place. Given this broad quality, though, it astounds me that the film seems to get its emotional payoff from the narrative rather than by the more compelling, existentialist motifs the visuals provide. Like The Tree of Life, it’s as though the film misses its strong suit and instead focuses on something it’s less equipped for. I enjoyed Days of Heaven enough, but it is nowhere near as good or as powerful as it could be.

Mafioso (1962)

Mafioso is a prime example of the commedia all’italiana as a complex film blurring the lines between comedy and drama. For the most part, it is entertaining though the climax is rather slow and brings the film to a sputtering end rather than a truly satisfying conclusion.

It is the story of Nino Badalamenti, a Sicilian technician working and living in northern Italy with his family. He is a man fully in control of himself and his surroundings, dictating everything from his colleagues to his own family, calling the shots for their family vacation to his native Italy.

This is where the movie finds its strengths; as someone of Sicilian ancestry, I can appreciate the stereotypes and differences between Sicilian and northern Italians, and Mafioso plays these up to very funny effect. The Sicilians are coarse, hairy, loud, and over-the-top foils to the suave and sophisticated northerners. (I find this even funnier as it is from an Italian perspective; most non-Italian films view all Italians as the same, and it’s great to find a movie that actually recognizes that there is diversity within this country.)

The comic-tragic elements come from the main narrative though, of Nino’s struggles with his own identity as a Sicilian (and of course the inevitable mafia-stereotype that comes along with that) and getting back into the circles of crime he was involved with as a youth. This pulls him back into committing a terrible crime, which the end of the film implies will affect him to the rest of his days.

Mafioso is certainly a good movie, entertaining and thought-provoking; the sequence surrounding Nino’s crime, though, is told too slowly in my opinion and doesn’t contribute much to the greater conflict of identity politics, which is conveyed much more strongly for the rest of the film.

The Last Song (2010)

Let me preface this review by insisting that The Last Song is kind of trash. It is not your everyday studio film, but rather more closely resembling something from the same nest that Lifetime movies are hatched from. It’s perfect viewing for a lazy afternoon or a rainy day, but not your typical A-billing feature to impress your friends with.

The first half is actually laugh-out-loud bad. It follows a predictable narrative, two kids from a broken home leave their mother’s home to spend a summer with their father. The situations and dialogue feel weirdly familiar, probably because we’ve seen and heard them all before. The sullen, rebellious teen daughter sulks around and runs into the local hunk, who is of course shirtless. The father is clueless about how to raise kids and jokes about the “handbook” of paternity. The young son (who is a lousy actor, by the way) raises his eyebrows excitedly at everything, because I guess someone told him that’s how you act.

Halfway through, though, The Last Song unexpectedly yet satisfyingly switches gears. I don’t want to spoil much, but the movie shifts to a more realistic and tragic direction. We get some great moments between Miley Cyrus and Greg Kinnear, filled with sincerity that is lacking throughout the mostly over-the-top script.

At its heart, The Last Song could elevate from being an entertaining time-killer movie to being a pretty good or even very good one. It has an engaging enough story, but is weighed down by a terrible script and kind of lousy direction. The opening and closing credits look as though they were made using Windows Movie Maker, and the editing is often awkward and you constantly feel as if you are watching a movie – the illusion of reality very rarely fools the audience.

I would probably only recommend this movie to the most hardcore of Miley Cyrus fans, simply for fear that most viewers wouldn’t have the patience to sit through the disastrous first hour. For all prospective audience members, however, it is a movie worth sitting through, even if it takes a while to actually get good. The Last Song offers a surprisingly painful yet believable ending that makes up for the wannabe Lifetime flick that precedes it.