Category: Independent Thrillers


Bubble1

In order to properly imagine my state of mind while writing this review, you need to pretend that you can hear me sighing in the most frustrated manner imaginable. It has been over a year since I’ve watched a film I disliked this immensely. It was July of 2012 to be specific and I had watched the decidedly unfunny and misogynistic How to Marry a Millionaire with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. Generally speaking, my average score for films I dislike is in the “C-” to “C+” range. I’ve given less than five total films (this brings it up to an even five) a score lower than a “C-” in this entire blog’s existence. That’s because even films I loathe like Forrest Gump or Cloud Atlas have a handful of redeeming qualities. No matter how terrible I think they are, there was at least some level of competency that went into their construction. There is nothing competent or enjoyable or redeeming about Steven Soderbergh’s (Magic Mike) 2006 indie Bubble which is a strong contender to be one of the worst, most unnecessary films I’ve ever, not just for this blog but in my entire life.

Set simultaneously in Parkersburg, WV (representing my home state here in the worst possible way imaginable) and Belpre, OH, Bubble is a turgid and excruciatingly paced look at the nihilistic emptiness of life in dead-end jobs in dying towns wrapped within a murder (non)mystery. If that sounds interesting, it could have been. There’s probably some masterful existentialist drama hidden in the thematic ambitions of Bubble. Sadly, the movie is not interesting. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) work at a doll factory. Martha is an overweight middle-aged woman caring for her father. Kyle is a driftless twenty-something with no plans or ambition. Martha may or may not be in love with Kyle. A manipulative, pushy single mother Rose (Misty Wilkins) gets a job at the doll factory. She and Kyle start dating. She’s murdered. People begin to suspect Martha.

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I intentionally described the plot in as bare bones terms as possible because that’s literally the film. At a mercifully brief 77 minutes, plot is almost non-existent, and Netflix’s plot description makes it sound like some quirky murder mystery. It isn’t. It’s mostly a series of abysmally performed conversations with plot points seemingly artificially tacked on because Soderbergh and crew didn’t know what to do with these dull characters and non-professional actors. I know that Soderbergh is using the blandness and crippling boredom of the film as a commentary on what life is like in these sorts of towns, particularly if you’re stuck in the dead-end careers of people like Kyle and Martha. But, just because he intended to make the film as agonizingly dull as humanly possible doesn’t mean I have to applaud him for his success.

The comment about non-professional actors wasn’t unintentional. Kyle and Martha share the concept of “lead” in this film, and this was the only film either actor has ever made. Debbie Doebereiner was a manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Parkersburg when Soderbergh “discovered” her and decided to cast her in his film. Don’t get me wrong. She certainly looks the part of someone who would be stuck in this lifestyle. That doesn’t make her a good actress and she has the emotional range of a Q-Tip, which actually was probably intentional on Soderbergh’s part. Dustin James Ashley seems like deep down he could probably be a decent actor, but Kyle is as flat a character as a sheet of paper, and with the film’s completely improvised script, he’s not given much substance to work with.

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I love Steven Soderbergh, and though I’m not from Parkersburg, WV, I come from a similar West Virginia town that suffers from all of the malaise that permeates Parkersburg and Belpre. I am a perfect candidate to enjoy this type of film. That I found it to be almost completely unbearable should speak volumes to the insufferably low quality of this production. Soderbergh is an Academy Award winning director (for Traffic), but Bubble feels like something a first year drop-out of film school would make if they somehow stumbled upon the miniscule budget this atrocity was shot on. At his best, Soderbergh is a genius and a poster child for inspired modern independent film-making. But if Bubble is the type of film he makes when he is totally untethered from the strictures of the modern studio system, perhaps its for the best if studio execs are there to keep him from indulging in this sort of pretentious, unwatchable nonsense.

Final Score: D+

 

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DonnieDarko1

If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, you know that my tastes in cinema tend towards the obscure and artsy. And, generally, this makes me the perfect candidate to enjoy movies that have gained “cult” status over the years. Although I’ve never been to a midnight showing (cause I never had a way to get to the ones in Morgantown when we still had them), I consider myself to be a pretty huge Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, and I know far too many of the words and choreography to that show, and the list of cult films I enjoy goes on. 2001’s Donnie Darko is one of the most popular and defining cult films of the 2000s. I last watched it when it was first released (I was 12 at the time), and I did not like it. At all. Over the years, I’ve grown to think maybe I was too young to appreciate it. Well, as a 24 year old, I still find it to be mostly muddled gobbledygook with some occasional great elements thrown in. And I still can’t for the life of me comprehend why this has become such a modern cult classic.

And before some Donnie Darko fanboy jumps down my throat for not understanding the film (which seems to be the case whenever I criticize either this film [which I find to be sometimes bad, usually good, once or twice great]) or Inception, which I legitimately enjoy), I get the movie. Although the theatrical version (which is what I watched earlier today and which will be the version of the film that I review) has a fairly open-ended finale, there are still only two real ways to interpret the events of the film (either a Looper-style stable-time loop or the film is essentially David Lynch’s Lost Highway with a talking bunny. I realize that it’s the former in the Director’s Cut). It’s that I find Donnie Darko to be a ham-fisted tale, bloated with half-assed subplots and at a mere two hours, I still found myself constantly begging for the film to draw to a close. If the Director’s Cut is longer, I honestly can’t imagine any way it made this film better.

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In October of 1988, on the heels of the Dukakis/Bush election, Donnie Darko (End of Watch‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young teenager living with his family in the Blue Velvet-style suburban Hellhole of Middlesex. Donnie’s not your average angsty teenager though. He is potentially a total crazy person showing all of the signs of classic paranoid schizophrenia. With chronic sleep-walking (he may wake up later at the top of a mountain or at the local golf course), Donnie begins to see an “imaginary” talking man in a bunny suit who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. And as Donnie spends the next 28 days battling with a puritanical teacher, a phony self-help guru, and the douche bags who attend his high school (as well as his own mental illness), it might be for the best for Donnie if the world ends after all. The only thing keeping him attached to anything is the appearance of new girl Gretchen (Saved‘s Jena Malone) that Donnie quickly falls for.

There are, in my mind, exactly two consistently excellent things about Donnie Darko. The first is the soundtrack which is a great collection of 1980s alternative/indie rock hits. And let’s face it, I’m not sure if there was ever a better era for alternative rock. A lot of great Oingo Boingo, Tears for Fears, and Joy Division. You can’t ask for more than that. Also, Jena Malone was a marvelous breath of fresh air in a film full of awkward, stilted performances. She was (she’s not that young anymore) one of Hollywood’s most interesting and talented young actresses, and it’s really a shame that she never got more mainstream exposure. She’s beautiful and talented, and she put more nuance and subtlety into her portrayal of Gretchen than everyone else was able to find over the course of the whole film. That’s not necessarily true. Mary McDonnell also found some real emotional gravitas as Donnie’s beleaguered mother.

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The movie’s called Donnie Darko. Donnie is the main character. So, if you’re assuming that a significant portion of the film rests on Jake Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, you’d be right. This was one of Jake’s earliest high-profile roles (along with October Sky). I think Jake’s a great actor. His performance in Brokeback Mountain is mesmerizing and a perfect display of male vulnerability and sexual aggression all at once. He’s not good in this role. He has some good moments. But when he’s trying to look demented and mentally unhinged, he succeeds, but it’s also so comically over-the-top that I begin to wonder if he’s trying to be satirical. The film hinges on me believing that he’s crazy, and while I believed he was crazy, I would have appreciated a little restraint. It’s good to know that by the time Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain came around, Gyllenhaal had matured as an actor.

I mentioned this earlier, but this film is the rare movie that clocks in at under two hours (I think I had it at an hour and forty-seven minutes when the end credits began to roll), but it’s just overflowing with material that needed to be cut. There are at least half a dozen subplots in this film that supplement the central story of Donnie losing his god damn mind and worrying about the impending apocalypse. And there isn’t a single one that works. It’s almost as if director Richard Kelly realized he didn’t have enough material for a full-film but didn’t take the time to write out at least one or two good subplots and just made six insultingly thin ones instead. And, while the film does do a really excellent job of stringing together some of the seemingly random shit the movie throws at you just in time for its ending, that was the rare beam of proficiency in the film’s storytelling.

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As an allegory for modern teen angst, the film is just as hit or miss. There are times where it captures the pain and heart-ache that we feel as teenagers as well as anything else. It has highs that are nearly as high as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It just doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word consistency. While I admire characters that defy easy categorization (it’s what makes the people that populate the films of Kenneth Lonergan so entrancing), Donnie’s characterization often defies any human logic. And not often in a good way. He’s dickish to people he has no reason to be an asshole to, and while I understand that he’s a crazy person, his acting out doesn’t always seem centered in whatever psychosis he’s suffering from. As a character, Donnie is a hot mess (and gives a bad wrap to all other Don’s out there. *cough cough* me.)

Despite the total thrashing I just gave this film, it does have its moments. The score is amazing (not just the soundtrack). Jena Malone solidified herself as a rising indie talent in this film. In terms of sheer atmosphere, Donnie Darko captures something essentially anxious and fear-driven in both its visuals and its thematic content. I just wish that Donnie Darko could keep up the illusion of competency over its entire run-time. I understand how many people LOVE this movie, and my mostly indifference to it isn’t meant as disrespect to a film that so many hold dear to their heart. It’s just a statement of both my inability to connect with the film as well as what I hope is a logical pointing out of some of the myriad flaws working against this modern cult classic.

Final Score: B-

Mentally exhausted is the first word to comes to mind to describe my state of being at the moment. I just finished my first David Lynch film for this blog, and it was a bit of a doozy. I’m a big fan of David Lynch and his movies, as I’ve stated countless times on this blog. Mulholland Drive was simply one of the best films of the 2000’s much like Blue Velvet was for the 1980’s. There are few (if any) directors on Earth who are capable of combining sheer mind screw and non-linear storytelling into such grandiose pieces of art as David Lynch. His debut picture, Eraserhead, still remains (even with its bare semblance of a plot) one of the most disturbing and artful films that I’ve ever seen. I just finished his most recent film, 2006’s Inland Empire, and it is by far the most difficult of Lynch’s films to watch because the viewer will spend three hours on a psychological roller-coaster ride through the disturbing mind of David Lynch and not get much in the way of plot to ease the travels. While it is not for everyone (or even 90% of people), if you can make this journey, it will be worth the trip.

It is an exercise in futility to try and explain the plot of Inland Empire as it is quite secondary to the style, themes, and imagery of the film, but here goes. Laura Dern plays married actress Nikki Grace who has been cast as the lead actress in the newest film of director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). Her co-star is the rakish Deven (Justin Theroux). Nikki ends up sleeping with Deven but you are unable to tell if this is part of the film or really happening (or all in Nikki’s mind). While the film starts out with plenty of weirdness, at the end of the first act, one just has to give up on the whole grasping the film thing and just go along for the ride because trying to keep up with the psychological head trip that is the film will just cause the viewer to have an aneurysm.

As always, Lynch’s camerawork is superb. This is the first Lynch film I’ve reviewed for this blog, but I’ve seen plenty of his movies before this. Having seen a couple of Federico Fellini’s pictures sine this blog began, I was struck with an incredible bit of awe in just how Fellini-esque Lynch can be at times. While Lynch is undoubtedly one of the most unique and original brains in the industry, I can definitely see more of his inspirations now that my knowledge of cinema has grown. Much of the camera work is meant to be disorienting to add to the viewers level of confusion from the already fuzzy plot, and it works marvelously. Not only is the camera work intentionally disorienting and all over the place, it can be extremely terrifying. Not since Eraserhead has a film disturbed me on such a deep and confusingly unexplainable level. The mind of David Lynch is not a place that I would wish to stay for too long, and Inland Empire drops you straight into his subconscious for three hours of pure bewilderment and terror.

Laura Dern is simply stellar in this role. I’d be willing to go ahead and say that this is the second best female performance on this blog, only trailing Natalie Portman in Black Swan. By playing an actress that I believe gets intensely caught up in her own role with a steadily declining mental state, Laura Dern channels so many different levels of emotion and energy that it’s a wonder she didn’t end up like her character, Nikki. Dern plays around four or five distinct roles in the film, which are all unique and vastly different creations. Yet she brings more talent and character to each of those parts, then most actresses can give to characters who have stories that make sense. While I thought she had done a good job in Blue Velvet, I was not prepared for her acting tour-de-force in this role. It’s a sin she wasn’t at least nominated for an Oscar for this part. It’s easily her finest.

David Lynch is notorious for refusing to offer explanations for his films. He wishes to simply let them stand on their own merits and doesn’t want to detract from the viewer’s pleasure of extracting their own meanings from the films. So, any time someone tries to analyze and state definitively what a Lynch film is about, they are basically full of shit. Even though I felt Mulholland Drive was fairly straight forward, my own interpretation of the film is simply that. It’s my opinion. I believe that Inland Empire is about an actress with an already fragile mental state who simply loses all grips on reality when she accepts the film role that ultimately consumes her. Very much in the vein of Mulholland Drive and especially Lost Highway, it’s an incredibly psychological and distinctly dream-like journey through Nikki’s conscious. David Lynch wrote the film as they were shooting it. So, while the beginning scenes were being shot, he didn’t necessarily know where the film would go next. This lends the film its ethereal and dream-like structure which makes it so incredibly unique.

Most films are like popcorn. You watch them, and fifteen minutes later they’re gone. The best films are different. Long after they’re over, you will spend hours and hours analyzing them in your head and trying to make sense of what you just saw. While David Lynch practically forces you to spend hours analyzing his films because he’s never going to explain them for you, mind screw isn’t the only way to achieve this goal. However, David Lynch turned mind screw into an art form that he is the undisputed master of. This should not be the first David Lynch film you watch. Start with Blue Velvet and then go to Mulholland Drive. You can then watch this, Eraserhead, or Lost Highway in any particular order you prefer. However, you need an entry level course in the craziness that is David Lynch before you can even begin to approach this film. If you need films with sane plots and things like resolution or climaxes, this is not for you. However, if you have even the slightest appreciation of art-house cinema and are familiar with the works of David Lynch, this is must watch.

Final Score: A

I have a morbid preoccupation with my own mortality. I think its something most neurotic intellectuals deal with, but if I so much as think about my inevitable death and (my agnostic beliefs considered) the nothingness after, I become pretty well paralyzed with anxiety and panic. I occasionally fall into fits where I become obsessed with different possible ways that I could meet my end. Perhaps due to an overexposure to frightening films when I was far too young and impressionable, there are certain death scenarios that I find especially terrifying. Chief among those are tornadoes as well as drowning. I think we can blame Twister and Titanic are primarily responsible for this. I had never really explored the horrific possibility of freezing to death in my mind, if for no other reason than I never plan on being some place so cold that an icy death would ever be feasible. Well, I just watched the absolutely bone-chilling (no pun intended) psychological thriller Frozen which was a text-book example of how far sharp writing and genuine terror can take a picture with an obviously small budget. While it may not be one of the greatest thrillers that I’ve reviewed for this blog, it was still so intense and disturbing that it will be a long while before I’ll be able to shake this film.

Frozen‘s story and premise are both fairly simple, yet executed with a stark and brutal efficiency. Three friends spend the day skiing on a beautiful mountain resort, and they bribe the lift operator into letting them go up for one final ride at night. However, due to tragic coincidence, before they can make it all the way up the mountain, the lift is stopped and they are stranded in the lift  chair with not a soul around to hear or see them. To make matters even worse, it’s Sunday evening and the resort won’t be open again until Friday meaning that if they don’t find a way out on their own, they will be stranded for practically the whole week. So, in a story told almost entirely withing the claustrophobic confines of the overcrowded lift chair, we get a dark exploration of our human will to survive and the frightening speed with which despair can rob us of our most basic human emotions. Faced against the overwhelming forces of nature and a ticking clock to their own possible death, the friends have to make impossible choices.

While the kid that played Bobby Drake aka Iceman from the X-Men movies was pretty good in his role, I really can’t say the same thing for his two friends, especially the girl, Emma Bell. I get that this whole genre is built around over-acting and hamminess but she just really pushed it into lame territory. When she says at some point that she is “scared… so scared”, she might as well have said that she wanted coffee for all that I believed in her performance. The other male friend wasn’t bad but he wasn’t really good either. Thank god the writing was so good, especially all of the foreshadowing and ironic comments that occur earlier in the film. The sense of dread and terror that slowly builds masterfully throughout the film and occasionally explodes in moments of pure horror was paced with an old pro’s perfection. That was something I’d expect from a master of the trade like Hitchcock or Demme, not some new kid on the indie block.

If you’re a fan of well-written and genuinely terrifying thrillers, this is a must-watch film. I had been intrigued by it ever since I watched its trailer, and I’m definitely glad that my sister and I decided to watch it on Netflix’s watch instantly. I spent the night at my mom’s for the first time in nearly two months so I actually had access to good internet for the evening and I chose to take advantage of it. Words can barely begin to describe how much easier updating this blog has been with good internet. It has taken me about half the time I’ve become accustomed to wasting fighting my shitty dial up internet. Anyways, Frozen isn’t for those of you with a weak stomach, but if you can handle its often nearly unbearable intensity, this is a hidden gem in the thriller department.

Final Score: B+