For whatever reason, I just felt the need to review something of a different style, a different whatever from everything I’ve been doing lately. I’ve come to find that what I most enjoy spotlighting here are films that are hidden gems. Stuff that’s not too widely known, but is of a certain admirable quality. I really like allowing others to discover movies through my reviews, and that’s not going to happen reviewing Star Wars or Terminator movies. Showcasing something that also inspires me as a filmmaker on a more personal level is the other thing I gravitated towards with this review. I’ve previously reviewed the film Paranoia from internet comedic personality and independent filmmaker Brad Jones. Midnight Heat is a 2007 feature length effort from him that was made with a lower grade production value, but for me, the quality of the writing, most of the acting, and the direction really shines through the very rough digital video camcorder, micro-budget quality of the movie. This is the type of movie that really inspires me and drives me to be a creative and ambitious filmmaker. Seeing someone else achieve this with even less resources than I have today is further inspiration, but let’s breakdown the plot of this sleazy 1980’s exploitation film homage first.
Midnight Heat is a story of cops, hookers, killers, and pimps; all centered around one sleazy night in the late 1980’s. A cocaine addicted homicide detective (Jake Norvell) is brought out of suspension in order to trail local prostitute Donna Diggs (Bianca Queen) who may become the next victim of The Scalper (Nick Foster), a serial killer who preys on the city’s hookers. Meanwhile, her mentally unstable pimp Martin (Brad Jones) attempts to get out of the business while finding it harder to protect his girls from both the killer and from an abusive rival pimp (Buford Stowers).
I will make one preface about the technical quality of Midnight Heat and the relative standards of quality I judge this by. I’ve both been an independent filmmaker for several years, and have watched these types of movies since the late 90’s. In this realm, you make the best story you can make with the equipment and resources you have at your disposal. Not every independent filmmaker has the cash to buy boom mics, pro lighting gear, or a high quality camcorder. If all you have is a Digital Hi8 camcorder and a solid screenplay, you go for it. It may indeed be difficult for some to acclimate themselves into the experience, but if you can get beyond the digital grain from the low lighting and less than perfect audio, there is a very entertaining and well written sleazy crime thriller waiting for you. The film is only available, completely free, through Brad Jones’ website. So, all it costs you is time to give it a chance.
This film is Brad’s tribute to 1980s sleaze flicks like Vice Squad, Savage Streets, and The Exterminator while taking strong vibes from Miami Vice. This really translates from both the story being soaked in the nighttime world of sex, drugs, and murder, and the choice of soundtrack. The reason the movie is only available for online viewing is because it features tons of unlicensed 1980s pop songs. I greatly used these sorts of songs as temp music for my feature film The Fixer, and I wish I could commercially release it with those tracks because they perfectly capture the vibe I was going for. Brad Jones was just interested in putting the film out there without a mind towards commercial release. With it being specifically set in 1987, I couldn’t imagine Midnight Heat working without these era-specific tracks. Songs from Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, The Cars, Scandal, Loverboy, Kim Carnes, Animotion, and many more pulsate throughout this movie. They are the entire score, and it instills the film with energy and a very familiar emotional feeling for me. At times, it would be preferable if the songs were lower in the mix so they don’t compete too strongly against the dialogue, but the music never drowns it out. Brad Jones did the best he could with the actual production sound, as is stated in his intro video to the movie on his website. Still, if there’s one thing that could’ve been improved, it is just the mixing of music and sound effects around the dialogue. Often gunshots and other dramatic sound effects don’t have the sonic impact they should have, but I am able to forgive and move beyond that to understand the intentions on display. If this was a multi-million dollar budgeted film with professional sound engineers, you could rightfully attack that with great zeal, but not in this case, not at all.
While most of the cast are not professional actors, we are treated to some very strong and substantive performances. Jake Norvell’s Detective Rick Wilson is the perfect sleazy 1980s corrupt cop. A cocaine snorting, prostitute indulging, foul mouthed burn out that is distrusted by the police department, and is stuck with an assignment no one else cares about. Norvell appropriately portrays him in an over the top fashion in a performance that really dominates a lot of the movie. This is a character of ego and abrasiveness, but also has that tinge of emotional value. Norvell intensely portrays the erratic, substance abusing behavior of Wilson making him an unpredictable wild card. This repeatedly complicates matters with Donna, but there’s always that sordid emotional connection between them that really pulls them together. Norvell’s performance grows and solidifies in the third act, and becomes damn near powerhouse in a very fun, indulgent way. He’s really feeling the energy of this character throughout, but it is punched up in that last twenty-five minutes.
Bianca Queen is quite good as the female lead. She brings a lot toughness and grit to Donna, but is not at all afraid to delve into the required sleaze of the role. She holds her ground very solidly opposite Norvell, and the relationship they strike is combative, yet complicated. She wonderfully conveys the sordid, argumentative history between Donna and Rick without ever backing down. She also slinks very enthusiastically into the sexy, seductive aspects of the character. Ultimately, by the end, we see even more depth from Queen that makes her standout beautifully next to her male co-stars of Jones and Norvell.
Obviously, I am a major fan of Brad Jones’ work, and for very good reason. The man is exceptionally talented as both a writer and actor. In the role of Martin, he is channeling something complex and intriguing. He’s this pimp that tries to run a good operation, but just wants to find a clean way out of this life. Yet, this is the night that everything is deconstructing around him. The stress pulls at him too agonizingly, and he can’t help but crack over and over again. Jones portrays this character with a strong wealth of sympathy that transcends all the irredeemable violence Martin inflicts, but also brings plenty of weight in a role that gradually slips into being an antagonistic force. The trippy dream sequence Martin has really pushes the idea of the fracturing psyche even further. Jones is entirely convincing as an intimidating presence, but that complex nature regularly comes back into play where Martin is not just on a violent rampage. He can be a relatable character when baring his soul, but Jones’ performance is never too far removed from that psychologically messed up behavior. By the end, both sides of the character mesh together greatly with some smartly written dialogue and ideas. Overall, Jones’ performance is a major highlight of the movie.
Buford Stowers is a great heavy as the ruthless pimp Phil. He carries himself with a weighty presence and a good measure of sleaze-laden charisma. Every scene he has is punctuated with an aggressive authority. Stowers throws his all into the role, but keeps it grounded and intimidating. He feels like a serious threat that no one would risk crossing. Stowers and Jones have excellent chemistry as rival pimps, and have some solid scenes together.
The remainder of the cast has some good performances including Kim West as Nikki, Phil’s premiere working girl. Sarah Lewis always impresses me in Jones’ films with her best performance coming as the lead in The Hooker With A Heart of Gold. Here, she has only a few scenes as Donna’s friend Mindy, but it is very well acted on all levels. Alex Shyrock is very good as Detective Mike Nero who is a cop who doesn’t seem like he gives much of a damn anymore, and doesn’t enjoy having to screw around with Wilson throughout the night. Shyrock has that right stressed out, frayed quality showing that Nero is sick and tired of this Scalper case, and just wants it done with however possible.
The most substantive scene is when Martin and Rick cross paths and have a lengthy conversation together. Both men lay out their troubles, how they got to where they are now, and talking frankly about what has damaged them. Jones and Norvell put in excellent performances here. The two are great, close friends in real life, and that chemistry shows through. It’s a fairly brief pair of scenes between them, but it is a solid turning point that motivates the characters into the third act.. Their confrontation at the film’s end is equally as good.
Handheld camera work is the standard here, as is Jones’ style. He has said that he relies on this so much due to the fact of having only the built-in microphone on his camcorder to record audio. So, he regularly needs to have the camera close-in on the actors to get consistent audio. Still, while the framing can regularly be a little too tight when trying to pan between two actors, and the handheld being a little rough, there are many scenes with quite good camera angles and editing. For the most part, the flow of the movie is very good with only a few rough transitions here and there. I can entirely see that if Jones had the right equipment and the ability to refine his technical quality, this would be a greatly polished movie on all levels.
I really like movies with intercutting stories. They inherently create an energy that propels the narrative forward with great rhythm. Midnight Heat regularly cuts between Martin’s descent into self-destruction and Rick and Donna’s turbulent night together. Both stories parallel one another until they eventually intersect and collide. This structure works beautifully, and maintains a streamlined flow throughout. Jones writes very vibrant and interesting characters with some excellent dialogue. Midnight Heat is an exploitation film through and through, but the quality of the writing is comparable to that of a Michael Mann film like Thief or Collateral. Characters are dimensional and feel quite real and textured. This is the real strength of the movie, and it is what immensely impresses me about it. As I said, beyond the rough, low grade technical qualities there is a wealth of talent on display fueled by Jones’ amazingly written script. There is substance in this story. It never falls back on letting the sleaze weigh down the film for a fun, cheap thrill. Jones absolutely was putting his best dramatic effort forward, and it shows through. That’s what I think makes for a great independent filmmaker – to have the quality of your talent and vision shine through even the most rugged of technical shortcomings.
While I believe Brad has stated that directing isn’t his favorite part of the process, I do believe he put together a cohesive and well directed movie here. While everyone cast in the movie is part of his wide circle of friends, he is able to make the best use of them in key roles, and they gave him their best. The compressed time frame of the film also creates an energy and momentum not too unlike Michael Mann’s Collateral. Everything occurs over a single night, and that creates a compact, compounded intensity that builds as the film progresses. I used to have many extremely late nights out to where I didn’t know late night from early morning anymore, and Midnight Heat gradually captures that feeling in its third act. The film narrows out its cast of characters, and focuses in on its leads of Rick, Donna, and Martin enhancing the sense of isolation and loneliness of those hours of the night. The climax is not action based, but character based. It brings everything to a head in a very solid and satisfying way.
I strongly believe Midnight Heat to be one of Brad Jones’ best films. The writing is excellent and the full cast really puts their all into it. I love the neo noir style of it all taking place at night. It soaks you deep into this grimy, dark world, and that’s just perfectly my style. There’s very little action in the movie as it is built and driven by its characters, which are excellently developed and realized. At nearly an hour and forty minutes, I think this is a well put together independent film that was made with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. At the time he posted this on his website in July of 2011, Brad stated this to be his favorite film out of all the ones he had made up to that point. Knowing him as well as I do through his website, this really is where his love of film is the strongest, and I’m intrigued to know that a sequel is planned, likely for this year. It was a combination of seeing this movie and Brad’s v-log movie review of Drive that got me to see that brilliant movie which is now one of my favorites of all time. Coincidentally, the opening credits to Drive are nearly identical to those of Midnight Heat, same font and all.
As I said, you can exclusively watch Midnight Heat on Brad’s website for free. Clearly, I give the movie a very strong recommendation for anyone that enjoys neo noir crime thrillers or the sleazier side of 1980s cinema. You can watch the rather low quality trailer here. Give it a few minutes of your time, and see if it appeals to your interests.
As I have mentioned in several of my reviews here, I am an independent filmmaker. From before I even was one, I was watching ultra low or even no budget filmmakers develop their talent aspiring for the day I would become one of them. Now, as one, I truly enjoy supporting and promoting other independent filmmakers. One I have become a great fan of in recent times is Brad Jones. Some may know him as a comedic internet personality with characters like The Cinema Snob, 80’s Dan, or Kung Tai Ted, but he’s been an exploitation independent filmmaker for far longer. Being a filmmaker who has grabbed inspirations from Michael Mann works like Thief, Manhunter, Miami Vice, Heat, and Collateral, I have really enjoyed the sleazy, sordid crime stories Brad Jones has told in feature films like Midnight Heat and The Hooker With A Heart of Gold. However, in 2011 came a haunting thriller written by Brad Jones and directed by Ryan Mitchelle titled Paranoia. It’s a definite shift in tone from what Brad Jones has given his fans in the past, but in my view, it’s still just as solid and satisfying only now, with Mitchelle’s help, has the technical quality to give his work a more professional polish and sheen. The results are great!
A serial killer is terrorizing a small town. Mark Bishop (Brad Jones) has just killed an intruder (Brian Irving) that attacked him in his home. Mark’s not sure if this was the real serial killer, but on the night where his wife has finally left him, he is certain he doesn’t want the attention. Mark needs to get rid of the body and avoid the authorities, but Mark can’t shake the feeling that the real killer is still out there. As his peculiar, tiresome night unfolds, further unusual and violent circumstances impact him and the people he encounters towards unexpected ends.
As I have watched more and more of Brad’s films, I have become increasingly impressed with not only his screenwriting talents, but the strength of his acting. While most likely know him from his comedy work on his website, most of his films put him in very dramatic roles. Paranoia is probably the most straightly dramatic, yet. Mark Bishop is a very down and out man who I could feel for right from the start. His life is starting to spiral out of control, and all he wants is for one thing to go right. The film continually allows the audience to feel empathy for him as he bares his soul every so often. He’s already a rather sad guy to begin with that just falls into one bad situation after another, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Mark Bishop. Brad Jones shows a wide range of realistic emotions and inner turmoil in this role. From the fearful urgency to the contemptuous conviction to the somber and cynical to the embittered, lonely man, he gives the character a strong, sympathetic depth. He carries the film with a weight and ease.
The supporting cast is generally quite good. Brian Lewis has a very genuine, endearing charm as Officer Randy who encounters Mark Bishop early on, and later, is shown to have an affection for the waitress Claire. In that role, Jillian Zurawski gives a heartfelt and vulnerable performance. Claire is sweet, but is clearly a little on edge being all alone in this restaurant late at night with a killer on the loose. You can definitely feel for this isolated young woman who starts out trying to cheer up the tired and jaded Mark Bishop, but is subjected to more of Mark’s ill fortunes through an armed robbery gone awry. Sarah Lewis has been increasingly excellent in all of Brad Jones’ movies, and she has a solid outing here as Marissa Bishop, Mark’s wife. There’s that tired sadness and heartbreak in her performance conveying just how strained the Bishop marriage has become, and that really carries through with Mark’s emotional state after her departure. Brian Irving is fairly alright. He plays the intimidating aspects of Carl Stowers effectively, but the more humanistic scenes in the climax feel rather monotone. A little more heart and soul in the delivery of lines could’ve added a lot weight to his words. It’s not remotely a bad performance, but I feel it could’ve been pushed towards a place of more emotional depth. Considering Irving took on the role about an hour before they shot those scenes, it’s forgivable that the performance lacks some of those qualities.
I absolutely love the tone of Paranoia. It definitely feels like a late 1990s independent thriller. Considering that’s when the script was originally conceived and written that is no surprise. The first comparison that comes to mind, in terms of tone, would be David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Paranoia carries a very somber and mysterious vibe allowing every dark, isolated, and imposing element to soak deep within an audience. The high definition cinematography is handled with great competence. This looks like a very high grade feature film shot by people with the talent and tools to realize their vision. Handheld camera work is smartly and realistically done. Many big budget filmmakers like to add excessive shakiness to their handheld work, but from the independent filmmakers I’ve seen, they take a far more subtle, natural approach. That’s what we get here, but there are plenty of instances where the camera is locked down for more rock solid compositions and still moments. While no director of photography is listed in the credits, I believe director Ryan Mitchelle is to credit for all the camera work. He and gaffer Jerrid Foiles created a very solid and consistent lighting scheme for this film. Strong shadows are used throughout to great atmospheric effect. A minor thought of mine was that some of the dialogue scenes could’ve used a few master shots to get more than a single actor in frame. However, the coverage they have is quite good with different angles and focal lengths, and Mitchelle does a very fine job as the film’s editor. He keeps an even, consistent pace that allows the tone to flourish amongst the tension and suspense of the story. Some of the sound effects editing could’ve benefited from a little more volume or some reverb filters to integrate them more realistically into their environments. As an independent filmmaker myself, sound editing is probably the hardest art to craft if you don’t have professional grade tools and skills at your disposal. As the DVD commentary makes clear, Mitchelle made sure that the production audio was as top notch as possible, and the quality of it is very highly admirable and consistent. The only piece of ADR that he mentions, a scream from Claire, is exceptionally and seamlessly done.
The score for the film captures the absolute perfect mood. Michael “Skitch” Schiciano uses a very somber and mysterious mix of piano chords and synthesizers in his score. At most times, it reflects the dark, lonely, isolated feeling of the film in a man alone roaming the streets not knowing what to make of the next moment. The music is very in sync with what Mark Bishop is going through and feeling every step of the way. At times, it has an ominous, pulsating relentlessness that is very unnerving, and perfectly complements the chilling and fearful aspects of the film. You could definitely get an early John Carpenter vibe from the synthesizer part of the score, a la They Live, Prince of Darkness, or Assault on Precinct 13. Schiciano does one hell of a remarkable job, and I’m glad to know that Jones and Mitchelle continue to retain his services for their subsequent films.
Paranoia has a superb twisting and turning surrealism to it. It gradually eases you into it the same as it does Mark Bishop. It’s a slow descent into a psychologically twisted reality. To a point, you can buy into this all being in Mark’s physically and emotionally exhausted mind, but eventually, things deconstruct to where you know there’s something more at work. Both the screenplay and the film itself nicely craft these subtle elements, and allow them to discretely pile up until the flood gates break wide open. Some might call the ending a twist, but it has far more substance than most twist endings. This is essentially the whole third act of the film, and deals with the meanings and repercussions of what is truly going on. I still fully felt for Mark Bishop through to the film’s end due to the character I came to know for over ninety minutes. Again, this a testament to Brad Jones’ very realistic and emotional performance, and the quality of the script written.
Paranoia really is a style of movie that I would’ve loved to have made. It’s a very smartly written and executed film with a great atmosphere and tone that I find fascinating. Ryan Mitchelle did an excellent job with Brad Jones’ material. He is a very intelligent filmmaker who brings a high grade, respectable style to Paranoia. The films Brad Jones directs always have a gritty visual quality to them reflecting his exploitation film influences, but for this film, the sleeker style is definitely to its benefit. However, I do agree with Brad Jones that the film does play even better in black & white. The stronger noir aesthetic just seems to add to the isolated and dark atmosphere of the film, and the contrast lighting directly supports a film noir style. Brad has released an alternate “Writer’s Cut” of Paranoia for free viewing on his website which presents the film in black & white with some purposeful edits that adhere the film closer to the script he wrote. It also adds in some pop songs from the 60s and 80s which enhance the ambient, sadly emotional musical atmosphere. However, since he doesn’t own the rights or licenses to any of those songs, he cannot commercially release that cut of the film. Both versions of Paranoia are great, and have their own distinctive and excellent qualities. This is a very impressive and haunting thriller that strengthens my fandom of Brad’s filmmaking, and showcases the great talents he has surrounded himself with. I had the pleasure of meeting Brad Jones at Wizard World Chicago Comic Con 2012, and he was as interested in hearing about me as I was about him. He was the coolest, friendliest, most approachable person I’ve ever met, and it was truly a great experience hanging out with him. His light-hearted enthusiasm showed through regardless of fatigue, and I was glad to have been able to share my admiration for his work in person. I would highly recommend checking out the Writer’s Cut of Paranoia to help influence your decision whether or not to purchase the features-packed DVD from Walkaway Entertainment, as I did.