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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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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The Visit

hack-fraud filmmaker shames literally everyone, including self


Oh dear, oh dear, oh dearie me. I wanted a horror film, and for my sins, they gave me one. Of course, in this case the word “horror” has to carry almost tangible sarcastic connotations. The horror genre doesn’t need defending, obviously—but to call this unmitigated piece of shit a horror film is nothing but a cruel charade. Still, you can’t say it’s off message though: it’s certainly psychologically and emotionally painful for the audience to sit through.

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Beat Breakdown #1: Argo

Here’s a new series I’m going to take a crack at. It works like this: we’ll start by taking a look at the screenplay of an Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning feature film, and try to identify and briefly discuss the important beats. Maybe I’ll keep up with this feature, maybe I won’t. I’m just such an unpredictable, free-spirited type of guy, you know?

In any case, today we’ll be taking a look at the the Oscar-winning 2012 political thriller Argo, written by Chris Terrio and directed by Ben Affleck.

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A .pdf of the screenplay can be found here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The film opens with the famed attack on the US embassy in Iran in November of 1979. During the attack, fifty embassy staff members are taken hostage, though six manage to escape and hide inside the home of a Canadian ambassador. Meanwhile, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, begins concocting a daring, go-for-broke rescue mission involving secreting the six erstwhile captives out of the country by posing as a film crew scouting for exotic locations.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 1-9) The action begins immediately as a group of angry Iranian activists break down the gate of the American embassy in response to Jimmy Carter’s decision to grant the Shah of Iran asylum during the Iranian Revolution. Instantly, we’re faced with a simple and effective conflict: the bad guys have taken hostages, and the good guys want to get the hostages back. If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then this snappy, effective opening might luncheon with the Queen.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 27-44) So things have gone to Hell in a hand basket, as they inevitably must, and Tony Mendez is called to action (literally, on the telephone) to restore the status quo—that is, rescue the hostages before they’re ground up for fertilizer. In what we experts (read: random pleb) refer to as the “Eureka moment,” Mendez is on the phone with his kid one night when he notices Planet of the Apes playing in the background, thus providing the inspiration for the hair-brained scheme that is to follow. From there, we’re treated to a sort of odyssey of colorful characters and clandestine meetings as one-by-one the various specialists are brought on board Fellowship of the Ring style to aid in what would eventually come to be known as the Canadian Caper.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 80-86) As per usual with your standard three-act dramatic structure, things get real bleak real fast in the second act. There’s an almost audible clunk marking the shift of tone between the Happy Hollywood Fun-Time Hour in the first act and the point where we spend the rest of the film with the escapees in Iran, miserable, hunted, and afraid. The juxtaposition between the two, however, is a masterful touch, serving to drive home how high the stakes actually are. Of course, what is a Hollywood film without some good old-fashioned sensationalism? Accordingly, the story has to contrive an excuse for the hostages to go out in public, resulting the bazar sequence, wherein the escapees attract unwanted attention from an antagonistic shopkeeper, nearly blowing their cover in the process.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 87-92) One of the other major plot points takes us back to the States, allowing us to get embroiled in the administrative side of things. There’s an ongoing conflict between Mendez and his supervisor, Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donell, who, like any good authority figure in a governmental hierarchy just can’t resist stepping on the toes of his subordinates. O’Donell threatens to shut the operation down on the grounds that it’s too risky, but Mendez is loath to see all of his hard work go to waste. Even with its predictable outcome, this sub-plot is handedly well and its last-minute resolution adds an extra basting of adrenaline to the conclusion.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-113) When we talk about the crisis, we’re referring the chain of events, often becoming incrementally tenser, leading up to the climax. The climax itself, however, is the point of no return. Argo’s crisis, that extended and incredibly tense sequence during which the escapees, accompanied by Mendez, waltz their Western-sympathizing selves through a remarkably airtight security checkpoint. For the sake of drama, all the possible ways in which our motley crew can be sniffed-out are avoided or solved at the last possible moment, allowing them hightail it to safety while still retaining possession of their limbs. The climax itself occurs moments later, at the point when their plane actually takes off. The wheels leave the tarmac, the perusing Iranian officials shake their fists with impotent rage, and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the six luckiest McGuffins in all of existence got away safely.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 114-122) It’s wheels-up in Iran: cut to reaction shot of CIA staff members going berserk in celebration. Not exactly original, but it gets the job done, I suppose. As the audience decompresses from the tense excitement of the preceding sequences, we learn which governmental department gets the credit, who has to share, and who’s bummed about it. Moreover, Mendez himself is bestowed certain honors, but owing to the degree of secrecy surrounding the whole enterprise, they’re supposed to be classified. Ah, but surely reuniting with his family after such a close brush with death is enough reward for old Mendez, who we’ve all come to love and respect. So all’s well that ends well, except for the other fifty-two hostages, obviously.

The Loft

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Welcome to the 2015 winter dead-zone, where the studios are so spent from their respective Oscar Season blowouts that they feel safe enough to release the heaping mounds of filth neither blockbuster-ey enough for summer nor award bait-ey enough for fall. This is when stuff like Blackhat, Mortdecai, Seventh Son, and indeed The Loft comes out, because at time of writing the actual Oscars haven’t happened yet, meaning that everyone’s still caught up in the speculation and not really paying too much attention to new releases.

The history of The Loft is an interesting one. The film, directed by Belgian filmmaker Erik Van Looy, is based on a 2008 Belgian film simply titled Loft, also directed by Van Looy. At time of release, Loft enjoyed generally positive reviews and, in fact, proved to be the most commercially successful Flemish film ever made. Apparently not content to leave well enough alone, Van Looy was determined to remake a not particularly old film for an American audience and, spoiler alert: it’s absolute shit.

Now, I haven’t seen Loft and I don’t really care to after having seen The Loft, but surely the story had been told adequately well the first time round. It’s not like the tech had vastly improved in the intervening six years, so honestly, why even bother? More money, probably; but the fact that the project inexplicably attracted a handful of high-profile talent and still managed to suck is really a marvel. Karl Urban, James Marsden, and Eric Stonestreet star and, as a big Karl Urban fan myself, I hate to see these otherwise adroit actors flounder through this poorly written mess of a film.

The original story—the Belgian version, that is—was written by Flemish comedian and screenwriter Bart De Pauw, though the screenwriting credits in the remake are afforded to De Pauw and another gentleman by the name of Wesley Strick. Strick, responsible for a number of B-horror/thriller films is, in short, a hack. One of my major problems with the film is that the dialogue sounds as though it was written by someone with no conception of human interaction. Every line of dialogue seems forced and unnatural and conversations flow like a cement waterfall. Frequently, we have entire exchanges where characters just spout exposition at one another, engagement of the audience be damned.

It’s ridiculous! They expect us to care about these characters and become invested in their struggles, but the problem is that there are not characters! There’s just a bunch a passionless cyphers with precisely one character trait apiece, trying to weave their ways through what could laughingly be called a plot. I can generally dig it when movies ask us to suspend our disbelief—that’s the fun of the movies, after all—but the “twist” ending in The Loft was so jarringly out of nowhere and relied on a huge number of assumptions and coincidences, and that’s that kind of thing that really takes me out of movies.

Like Blackhat, The Loft tries to incorporate this slick and modernistic visual style with lots and grays and dark-blues, and lots of semi-transparent glass panes, but also like Blackhat, the film seems to neglect the notion that a compelling visual effects only works when there are interesting characters to populate the world. Remember: visual effects are used to tell a story; a story, alternatively, SHOULD NOT be used to tell visual effects.

All in all, The Loft is a one big, stinking mess from beginning to end. It’s a dull, uninspired death-march across an unforgiving landscape littered with clumsy dialogue and lifeless characters. Why does this film exist when the film that inspired it was, and still is, perfectly serviceable? Beats me. But maybe don’t waste your time with this one.

Rating: 2 out of 5

The Imitation Game

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Let’s pretend we’re writing a high school social studies essay and flex our “compare and contrast” muscles. The comparison: between World War II era biopics Unbroken, the review of which was recently posted on this very site, and The Imitation Game, which is incidentally a much better movie. The similarity ends there, however, as the plot of The Imitation Game centers around the struggles of an interesting, multi-faceted protagonist and incorporates some actual depth and complexity as opposed to merely wallowing in a lot of token and pandering “strength of the human spirit” nonsense.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum became attached to the project after Warner brothers bought the screenplay, penned by novelist Graham Moore, for an unprecedented seven million dollars. Tyldum, also responsible for a smattering of foreign language films including Headhunters (2011) and Buddy (2003), has unquestionably launched himself headfirst into the spotlight with this film, having been nominated (at time of writing) for numerous academy awards. Interestingly, the screenplay for the film topped Hollywood’s blacklist in 2011, denoting the year’s best unproduced work. Even more interestingly, The Imitation Game marks Moore’s very first attempt at a screenplay, though he’s subsequently been slated to write an adaptation of Erik Larson’s novel Devil in the White City; Leonardo DiCaprio is starring.

The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, know for his performance in the Sherlock BBC series, as the eccentric mathematics prodigy Alan Turing. In what might well be the performance of his career, Cumberbatch portrays Turing as a tormented soul caught in the crossfire of a secret war in a time when homosexuality was a punishable crime under British law. Turing, a man alienated from others by his own phenomenal intellect, becomes even more estranged from conventional society as his work regarding the Nazi Enigma machine embroils him in a world of secrets within secrets. Cumberbatch’s performance is impeccable, and really gives the impression of a man who, especially as the responsibility bestowed upon him continues to mount, may very well crack at any moment. Keira Knightley also makes an appearance as the gifted code breaker cum confidant Joan Clarke, and, though I’m not a particularly huge fan, gives an inoffensive and mostly serviceable performance.

To Moore’s credit, the film is an excellent study in long-form storytelling and is particularly well executed as far as structure goes. The majority of the film takes place across three temporal planes, incorporating a fourth at the very end, and the story moves across the multiple time frames with ease, minimizing audience confusion and providing the appropriate context at the appropriate times (a major shortcoming of Unbroken, incidentally) the use of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Moreover, the story incorporates both the race-against-time style thriller with the much more intimate and engaging character study, as it’s gradually revealed to the audience how much stress Turing is under as both a member of a top-secret military operation and a closeted homosexual, without making either feel tacked-on or auxiliary. The finished product, I’m pleased to say, is a gripping mix of action, espionage, and drama, and deserves all of the praise it’s been receiving.

Rating: 4 out of 5