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 Big Short

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Of the myriad types of movies that can be made about Wall Street, it seems like you can either go the Wolf of Wall Street route—bright, energetic, lots of swearing—or you can go the Margin Call route—darkly serious, brooding, lots of swearing—although, interestingly, it seems like Adam McKay’s latest feature, The Big Short, melds the two approaches—with surprisingly positive results.

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Afterschool: Never Forget

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In all of our lives, we must constantly deal with the omnipresent question of what is real and what is fake. Never has this clash of realities been more relevant than with the dawning of the internet. It’s a tool that presents us with unlimited power and knowledge, but also in that comes the herculean task of deciphering it all. In the hands of a young person, this can be both crushing and mind altering at times.

Antonio Campos in his 2008 film, Afterschool, presents us with this struggle in the form of his protagonist Robert, a young boy sent off by his family to a wealthy New England boarding school. During his time there he preoccupies himself with what he calls “little clips of things that seem real”. In his mundane life, he sees these videos of violence and sex as a portal through which he can glimpse something authentic. In many ways, they alter his young mind’s understanding of what is real in the first place.

While filming some stock footage in one of his school’s hallways for his video class he discovers something far realer than he could have ever expected when he discovers the two most popular girls in school as they suffer a horrible reaction to rat poison laced cocaine and die right in front of his eyes, one bleeding out in his very arms.

This tragedy obviously causes quite a few ripples throughout the school. As much as everyone is torn up about their deaths, what truly seems to bother everyone is how lost they are in actually understanding and dealing with these girl’s untimely demise. Most of all the reaction of the school and, in particular, its principle, Mr. Burke, deftly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, seems most perplexing and cold.

Mr. Burke recognizing Robert’s position in the school’s video class gives him the responsibility of making the memorial video for the girls, in the hopes that it would help him deal with their graphic deaths. Along with this the school pushes everyone to go see the school counselor and talk about how they feel, then in most cases get handed a prescription for whatever pill will handle the symptoms of their internal traumas without actually addressing it. Robert as the one to first find the girls is sent to speak to Mr. Virgil. He is obviously quite out of sorts with the whole ordeal. He talks about the videos and the violent porn he watches and how he finds a reality in them that’s fascinating. An authenticity that’s missing from his own life where, as Mr. Virgil tells him, the school had been told about the dead girl’s drug problem and did nothing to help them, in the interest of keeping their rich parent’s money and support going.

Once Robert finished putting the video together for the memorial, he shows it to Mr. Burke who asks, “Was that serious Robert? That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen”. The video wasn’t quite what the school had hoped for. With no music, shaky camera work, and the raw sense of reality that Robert has been searching for through countless Youtube searches. It didn’t try to provide the false sugar coated narrative the school hoped everyone would guzzle down. Instead of idolizing these girls with cheap condolences and ignoring the elephant in the room that they are responsible for allowing things to escalate so far into tragedy, Robert’s video portrayed the reality of that elephant and all its unsightly blemishes. The school and those around him wouldn’t stand for this, though. They aren’t interested in the truth they’re just interested in the most convenient reality where they print “Never Forget” all over the memorial stage and paint it as just another forgettable tragedy. Nothing to learn here, just move on, take another pill. Robert does and so does everyone else, just like Mr. Burke and Virgil reminds Robert, “It’s everyone’s fault” “It’s no one’s fault”, forget.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Beat Breakdown #4: No Country for Old Men

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PLOT SUMMARY

In the grand tradition of Coen Brothers films, the story revolves around an average Joe whose avarice overpowers his common sense. Upon inexplicably stumbling across an inordinate amount of money that doesn’t belong to him, our protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, is beset by Mexican cartels, the inescapable reach of the law, and the relentless, unstoppable pursuit of a cold-blooded hitman. 

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 5-12) While hunting in the desolate Texan desert, Llewelyn Moss discovers the aftermath of a brutal shootout between members of a Mexican drug ring. A payoff, Moss presumes, went spectacularly awry, leading to a collection of dead bodies and an unattended leather case containing two million dollars. Naturally, Moss snatches the goods, setting the stage for a brutal tale of retaliation and greed. 

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 50-55) The first major plot point actually occurs fairly late in the script. Moss, in one of his rare moments of forethought, flees his home with the money in tow. He rents a motel room in the next county over and hides the case in the air vent in his room. Unbeknownst to Moss, the case is outfitted with a tracking device which leads the hitman, Anton Chigurh, right to his doorstep. After slaughtering some Mexicans in pursuit of the case, Chigurh attempts to confront Moss directly, only to find that he has escaped with the money during the confusion.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 60-65) A gunfight between Moss and Chigurh serves as the film’s midpoint. What we have here is a battle of wills; Moss perhaps represents the futility of defying fate, or maybe blind greed and the inevitable consequences thereof, while Chigurh represents the physical manifestation of death, coming irrevocably to execute cosmic retribution. Moss wounds Chigurh and escapes, succeeding only in buying himself a little more time. Both Moss and the audience know, however, that nothing can really stop the predator Chigurh from eventually catching his pre

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 80-84) The second plot point wraps up a sup-plot involving another hired operative, Carson Wells, who claimed that he could offer Moss and his wife protection from Chigurh and the cartel in exchange for the money. Moss, apparently determined to continue making phenomenally poor decisions, declines Wells’s offer. Though Wells insisted that he was the only one who could be relied upon to offer protection from Chigurh, he’s easily eliminated in his own hotel room. During a brief telephone exchange between Moss and Chigurh, the assassin promises not to harm Moss’s wife as long as the money is returned promptly. 

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-100) The climax of this particular film is an interesting one, as we end up in a sort of bait-and-switch situation. The protagonist, whom we’ve mostly followed since the beginning, is killed-off without ceremony. Llewelyn Moss is thus revealed to be what is generally referred to as a “false” or “decoy” protagonist, meaning that the emotional core of the film also changes, in addition to the main thrust of the message. It’s revealed that the true protagonist is the beleaguered Sheriff Bell, whose town has been shocked by the violence wrought by Moss and his ill-gotten wealth. 

DENOUEMENT 

(Pages 112-118) After the subversive reveal of the true protagonist, we’re left with Sheriff Bell as he tries to make sense of the slaughter that he’s been witness to. In his own gruff, unsentimental way, Bell seems to find some strange solace in the fact of the inherently uncontrollable and senseless savagery that seems to saturate the starkly binary, law-and-order world in which he lives.

Insidious: Chapter 3

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I’ve gone on the record as saying that Insidious is probably one of my favorite horror movies of the last decade. Sure, it doesn’t really have that much to compete with, but still. Sadly, Insidious 2 shat all over the success of the original in a misguided attempt to wring a few more dollars out of the property. So, here’s Insidious: Chapter 3 to complete the process and turn the franchise into another Final Destination or Friday the 13th or whatever.

Horror icon James Wan steps away from the director’s chair for this entry in the series to be replaced by his long-time writing partner Leigh Whannell. Wan and Whannell have been collaborating for years, and their combined efforts have yielded some modern-day horror paragons like the Saw and Insidious series. However, as I said way back in my Insidious 2 review, the story was well and truly over even after the first film and just continuing to tack on more installments was just blatantly unnecessary.

The first Insidious is a bit of an odd duck for me, because while it really doesn’t do anything new or advance the genre to any great degree, it executes its tight, self contained story so well and with such undeniable style that I didn’t really care. There was such a constant atmosphere of oppression and hopelessness, temped with a beautifully slow-boil kind of tension that built to an emotionally harrowing climax.

While Insidious 2 let itself down on pretty much every one of those points, Insidious 3 at least maintains that methodically building tension, but really missteps when it comes to paying it off. The highlight of the experience for me came around the midpoint when our protagonist, Quinn, lies in her bed with two broken legs, immobile and incapable of defending herself. The monster of the hour appears in a nerve-wracking sequence, and essentially begins toying with Quinn, throwing her out of bed and slowly, methodically moving around the room, closing the curtains, shutting her laptop, and really eliciting the kind of psychological torment that we don’t see enough of these days. I was kind of stunned; the Insidious 3 cash-grab was the last place I expected to find such a beautifully crafted and genuinely frightening sequence. That’s horror, my friends: being absolutely alone and defenseless against something that hates you and is determined to gradually wear away your resolve until you’re little more than a quietly weeping mess. It is not, however, a super-powered granny using a Dragon Ball Z super stomp attack during the film’s climax.

Yes, things really fall apart at the end as the film kicks any notion of a tense and emotionally satisfying climax in the head. You were doing so well, Insidious 3! It turns out that all that tense, atmospheric intrigue that had been building up is pretty much thrown out the window in the final act, in favor of Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainer running around a slightly dark maze and performing the super-stomp on the bad guy at the end. That ain’t my Insidious, I can tell you that.

The recurring “comedy” characters in the series, Tucker and Specks, played by Angus Sampson and Whannell, respectively, also make an appearance, but I find their necessary inclusion kind of misguided. Whenever these jokers show up, the tension automatically dissolves because it’s hard to maintain the proper tone with Laurel and Hardy bumbling around. As far as the plot is concerned, their presence is hardly necessary and it seems like they were just included because that’s what the first Insidious did.

Look, either be a horror film, or be a comedy. When you try to be both at the same time, you end up with a movie that so schizophrenic in tone that it ought to be in a straight jacket. I can appreciate the desire to include some moments of levity to juxtapose with the horror so that the really dark moments are more emotionally impactful, but horror and comedy are such opposites that a major tonal shift half way through the movie is going to undermine everything you’ve been working for up until that point.

Insidious: Chapter 3 is marred right off the bat by being an unnecessary sequel, but if you can manage to look past that, it’s competently paced and builds up to a frightening moment or two around the midpoint. After that though, it’s all down hill. The atmosphere and tension whither away into nothing when Jake and Elwood show up, leaving the film to potter around for another hour before winding up with the incredibly disappointing granny super moves. If you look closely, you can see glimpses of the original winning formula, but the original vision has been exploited for coin twice now, so it’s not entirely surprising that the idea well is running dry.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

 

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.”