The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys

What do you think of when you hear the name Shane Black? If you’re in the know, as I pretend to be, you likely think of two or more clever-by-half characters exchanging shuriken-like witticisms against a backdrop of intrigue and mayhem.

When I heard Black’s name in conjunction with the those of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, my heart nearly skipped a beat. There’s no reason why The Nice Guys—with it’s talented writer/director, cast, and setup—shouldn’t have knocked it out of the park. Instead, the final product is a disappointing and painfully meandering reminder of what could have been.

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Hardcore Henry

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It seems to me that the action genre has been maligned in recent years, probably because at least ninety percent of it consists of creatively bankrupt, pitifully vapid, painfully generic dross. When I first saw the trailer for Hardcore Henry, I admit that my first reaction was a pretentious sneer at the blazing neon lights blatantly forming the words “Gimmick! Gimmick! Look at me!” 

So no-one was more surprised than I at the fact that Hardcore Henry turned out to be one of the most raucous joyrides that I’ve had the pleasure to experience all year.

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Midnight Special

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Just as the so-called “movie brat” directors of the 70s often cite John Ford, Hitchcock, and Antonioni as some of their major influences, younger directors often reference the movie brats scene when asked about their own influences.

Even among giants like Scorsese, Malick, and Altman, one director seems to be talked about more than any other: Steven Spielberg. For many of these younger directors, we’re seeing Spielberg’s films not just as inspirations, but as templates from which one creates one’s own work.

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The Martian 

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With The Martian, director Ridley Scott has finally found a story worthy of his filmmaking talent. Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, Mars’s most optimistic botanist, who is abandoned on the planet by his fellow astronauts, believing him dead. Isolated, wounded, rapidly depleting his supplies, and unable to contact Earth, Watney is faced with an impossible task: he has to MacGyver together a plan for survival on a planet with no food or oxygen–all in a way that doesn’t feel hopelessly contrived. And boy, does he rise to the occasion! Damon’s superb performance and Scott’s expert handling of the subject material make The Martian not just one of the best films of 2015, but the most fun movie-going experience I’ve had all year.

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San Andreas

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I’ve got to level with you guys, I really don’t want to do this one. Actually, my own mother was the only person I know who was excited to see it. She was all like “did you see the trailer for that? The cruise ship part looked delightful.” And I was like “Yeah, if you like the CG department jizzing in your eyes for two hours.” I mean, I didn’t say it to her face, obviously.

I’m really having a difficult time deciding how to start, because what we have here is a film without a single original thought in its head. When you’re trying to write about a uniform, grey gelatinous mass, which part are you supposed to cleave out and analyze first? I might as well start with the visuals, since they seem to be the only real selling point. As we’ve established in previous articles, this current-day RealD malarkey looks just as bad in San Andreas as it does in every other summer blockbuster, particularly near the end of the film. For whatever reason—perhaps because the budget ran out—the CG really seems to start lacking polish and begins looking really “video-gamey,” if you will. I’m hardly surprised at the slapdash approach to visual storytelling, but I do find it ironic that the only new, unique thing that the film purports to offer turns out to be of embarrassingly poor quality.

So what else can we rag on? I guess we can talk about the mostly non-existent story. It’s that same plot that every disaster movie has, of course; you know how it goes, right? A whole mess of people are gathered in one spot and have no idea that they’re all about to get shafted. The tragedy strikes—in this instance, a massive earthquake rents the ground asunder across the entire San Andreas fault line—and the emotional core of the film is centered on a single family in order to better pull at our heartstrings.

All this is fairly standard procedure and has worked to varying degrees of success in other films. San Andreas, too, has this ongoing plot about a family trying to reunite with each other in the midst of the chaos, but it’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why it doesn’t work. It could be because a lot of the characters’ interactions were just a little bit too pretty, a little too cutesy and too “Hollywood,” if you will, to be taken seriously. It might also have something to do with the visuals, as I mentioned before, looking unreal and fake-looking to the point where it really took me out of the story, thus dissolving a lot of the tension that the film’s success hinged on.

One way they might have addressed this issue is by incorporating some graphic deaths or people being wounded in some way—you know, the kind of thing that might happen in a real disaster? Maybe a bit of blood here, some people getting chopped in half by high-tension cables there, would have added a sense of weight to the wide-spread destruction at the heart of the story. Instead, we’ve got the same problem Age of Ultron had, where things just seem to be lacking any grit or humanity. Consequently, without anything to make the audience sit up and take notice, the action tends to blur together in a bland, incomprehensible mass.

Something like Juan Antonio Bayona’s 2012 disaster film The Impossible, which had both an engaging story and impressive visuals, proves that this kind of thing can be done well. Even with the easiest formula in the word, practically tailor-made to elicit maximum audience empathy, San Andreas sill somehow manages to blow it.

There are a lot of reasons why San Andreas didn’t work, and why is was ultimately a boring film, despite the whole “chaos on a grand scale” thing. Mostly though, I think it just came down to a lack of heart. Audiences can tell the difference between a movie that was made because its creators thought it would be fun to watch and one that was made to sell tickets, and San Andreas in almost certainly in the latter category. The film is the epitome of dumbed-down slurry to appeal to the broadest possible audience and, since that’s the case, we’re left with a pretty soulless experience that takes no risks and has no new ideas, and ultimately suffers for it.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Beat Breakdown #2: Nightcrawler

In this installment of the Beat Breakdown we’ll be taking a look at the 2014 neo-noir crime thriller Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy. The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 87th Academy Awards.

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To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The story follows mysterious loner (and psycho) Lou Bloom as he skulks around Los Angeles in search of gainful employment. With the often reluctant help of world-weary station manager Nina, Lou begins skulking with a purpose as he embarks on an ignoble crusade to capture LA’s most shocking crimes on camera. Lou takes to his new position as a “nightcrawler” with admirable zeal, but is Lou driven by good old professional integrity, or perhaps something infinitely more sinister?

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 6-12) The film begins with a bit of exposition, introducing us to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, our wiry-looking protagonist with a superficial smile and unnerving presence. As Lou cruises around LA one fateful evening, he happens upon a grizzly scene involving two police officers pulling an unconscious woman from a blazing car. As Lou gapes at the scene, spellbound by the flashing lights and shattered glass, a news van screeches to a halt, depositing a hassled cameraman who immediately begins filming the wreckage. Lou, still enraptured by the profane pageantry a day later, idly sits at home flipping through daytime news channels. Suddenly he stops, frozen, as a report of the wreck from the night before flashes across the screen. We can practically see the infernal cogs inside Lou’s head begin to turn, as the seed of turmoil takes root.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 17-23) So the seed of turmoil has grown into a shrubbery of mischief as Lou acquires the camcorder and police scanner that are the staples of nightcrawling. Gardening metaphors aside, Lou’s luck eventually turns when he manages to get an unrestricted, close-up shot of a shooting victim, complete with graphic brain-chunks a reasonably-sized pool of blood. Naturally, this kind of footage is just what the KSML-TV News crew is looking for. In short order, Lou makes the acquaintance of the station manager, played by Rene Russo, who cuts him a check for his work. Rene encourages Lou to continue his nightcrawling, and offers him this piece of advice: “…to capture what we air, think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

MIDPOINT

(Pages 46-49) To punctuate Lou’s meteoric rise in the world of nightcrawling, Nina when they meet for dinner at Cabanita—which has been called an authentic taste of Mexico City. Nina’s pretensions are shattered, however, when Lou reveals the sociopathic tendencies hiding behind his facade of wholesome professionalism. Lou effectively blackmails Nina into engaging in a romantic relationship, despite her protestations and, in the process, sheds more light on his motivations and goals. In Lou’s own words, he “wants to be the guy who owns the station that owns the camera.” All that’s left for the audience to do is wait for the volatile mixture of complete ethical bankruptcy and psychotic single-minded ambition to come to a head—in assuredly spectacular fashion.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 60-70) It’s business as usual for Lou, who’s taken on a new employee in an effort to minimize his effectiveness while on the job. With Lou now firmly entrenched in the administrative culture of KSML, he’s got find a story worth reporting, lest he lose his position of power over Nina. While pursuing a possible story late one night, Lou picks up another conveniently located crime on the police scanner. Without a moment to lose, he hightails it to the scene, arrive even before the police. Abandoning even the pretense of journalistic integrity, Lou enters the scene to find a murdered family, quickly and efficiently recording the whole thing, naturally. Racing back to KSML to sell the story, Lou promises Nina that the story isn’t over, and that she can expect the follow-up to boost the tin-pot station’s ratings to unprecedented levels. Unbeknownst to Nina, Lou secretly captured the license plate of the perpetrator’s car, meaning that he alone knows where to find the suspects, and subsequently that he alone can break the story.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 81-97) Not twenty-four hours later, Lou has tracked down the suspects and, along with his employee, Rick, plan to tail them, only calling in the cops at the opportune moment. The suspects, a pair a burly gangsters, arrive at a busy restaurant—the perfect place to film their “dramatic” arrest. Rick, however, is given pause for thought as he considers how dangerous this operation might turn out to be. Undeterred, Lou proceeds to tip off the police, already in the prime position to capture the arrest on film. The police arrive shortly, and it’s immediately clear that the suspects have no intention of coming quietly. A thrilling, high-speed chase through the busy Los Angeles streets ensues, ending in the suspects’ car overturning. What follows is difficult to describe in a non-visual medium, but essentially, Lou notices that one of the suspects is still armed, despite his near-fatal crash, and motions for Rick to go over to him and start recording. The suspect, injured and with nothing left to loose, shoots and fatally wounds Rick and Lou captures his last moments on camera. With this, the audience realizes who and what Lou really is, and that there’s nothing he won’t sacrifice to achieve his ends.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 98-108) Rick’s death serves as the emotional high-point of the film, and all subsequent action does little more than reinforce what the audience already knows about Lou. There’s a truncated police investigation surrounding the killings and the video “evidence” that Lou recorded at the scene, but since the police can’t prove anything, it’s little more than a formality. The film’s ending is appropriately nihilistic, but in a sort of knowing way, as if it’s simply the conformation of something we had known all a long. In the final scene, Lou stands before his new employees, imparting a few words of wisdom before they drive off, documenting and causing mayhem of their own, extensions of Lou himself, as if they were his own treacherous tendrils extending, groping blindly, searching, and gleefully seizing upon and exposing violence and discord in the dark Los Angles night. Lou leaves his new employees with this: “I can tell you from experience that the surest way up the ladder is to listen carefully and follow my orders. You may be confused at times, and other times unsure, but remember that I will never ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.”