Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

In the Wake of FURY: War Cinema and Audience–A SplitScreen Discussion

In Film, Film Theory, Reviews on December 21, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Fury, image 3

By Matt Smith and Eric Plaag

Earlier this fall, we saw the release of David’s Ayer’s harrowing World War II tank epic, Fury. The film rattled both Eric and Matt, and it seems destined to appear on both of their soon-to-be-released Top Ten Lists for 2014. In this TheSplitScreen discussion, Matt and Eric wrestle with what makes a good and meaningful war movie, why audiences sometimes fail to connect with the embedded meanings of those films, and how cultural perspectives on war are often at odds with the war films that are contemporary to those perspectives.

Matt: Fury is a World War II movie unlike any other I can remember. By its very nature as a war film it shares many hallmarks of the best films in the genre, but it uses them to fairly stunning affect. The film has done moderate though disappointing business at the box office, and this is no doubt partially due to the difficulty of watching it, particularly the way it treats what is commonly thought of by Americans as a “moral” war and the last “good war.” In Fury there is nary a hint of nostalgia, and the sense that World War II was any more noble an endeavor than Vietnam or either of the Gulf Wars is thrown damn near out the window. Sure, the characters, particularly Brad Pitt’s Don Collier, know who the SS is and what they’ve been up to, but more time is spent with the weight of the war in all its horrific glory and its effects on the men who fought it than on any moral grandstanding outside of the savagery enacted by Collier on members of the SS. As an article over on the fantastic blog War is Boring put it, the movie is a great war film as well as an extremely dark and heavy psychological horror.

It is this horror that most interests me (surprise, surprise).

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As Above, So Below: Found-Footage Alchemy

In Film, Reviews on September 15, 2014 at 11:49 am


by Matt Smith

Aside from the standard digital handheld the party is also outfitted with four cameras embedded in their headlamps. The cameraman informs them of the cameras’ existence when he turns on the lights which will be so vital to their survival as they navigate uncharted areas of the catacombs deep under the streets of Paris. As they go deeper into the tunnels, the cameras and lights become an extension of our reality—as viewers, we are permitted to see through mediation, we are arranged within the aesthetics of the film as observers who can verify the truth of the image. This is the central conceit of all found footage horror. We must bear witness to the liminal spaces encountered by our protagonists. The movie I’m describing is the new horror film As Above, So Below, an exercise in equal parts creepiness and endurance that works most of the time, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. The mythology built up within the story is simple: Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a young scholar and historian, is searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, a pursuit which years earlier had caused her father to go mad and take his own life. Scarlett, along with her ex-lover George (Ben Feldman), the aforementioned cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), and three Parisians who will guide her through the catacombs, enter the tunnels under Paris in order to find the hidden chamber containing the stone which is also rumored to be the gateway to Hell.

The first two-thirds of he film are quite strong, though the final act is a bit of a letdown as it falls victim to many familiar problems with the found-footage format, namely the propensity of characters to run wildly to/from different locations while being pursued by monsters which tend to pop up out of nowhere. Since the film spends quite a long time indulging in very clear mythological construction based on occult alchemist beliefs and building an atmosphere of dread anticipation and madness, the later sequences in which Scarlett runs through the mystical realm of Hell while encountering numerous jump-scares just don’t work. The mood set by the quiet build-up to the group’s entrance into the netherworld is abandoned outright, and the descent into shaky-cam and near-constant screaming and shapes jumping out of the darkness is tired and brings the whole thing to a grinding halt. This stoppage is only slightly improved upon in the film’s final shots, which bring back the head-tripping moments of the middle third, when our protagonists first cross the threshold into the mystic realm as described by old alchemist prophecies.

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Eric’s Top Ten Films of 2013

In Film, Reviews on March 3, 2014 at 12:12 am

aint them bodies saints 2

By Eric Plaag

As promised, just in time for the Oscars, I offer you below my selections for the best films of 2013 that I have been able to see so far. I say that with a bit of disappointment, for two reasons: 1) Finding a way to see independent and foreign films in Boone, NC (my place of residence), and even some big budget pics, is a bit of a challenge, so some highly regarded films like Frances Ha, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Leviathan, and even The Wolf of Wall Street (which I am fighting hard to reserve judgment on, in spite of my spidey sense) simply have not shown up on my radar yet, and 2) as a general rule—in direct contradiction to what I have heard from so many other reviewers—I found 2013’s crop of films to be astonishingly weak.

On this latter point, let me offer some examples of the highly touted films (many of them Oscar-nominated) that left me wondering whether people still know that good filmmaking and storytelling, regardless of genre or subject matter, require looking beyond oneself as creator and connecting with something larger and more resonant. I went into David O. Russell’s American Hustle expecting a smart thriller and instead found a derivative 1970s caper film whose over-the-top dialogue and tone closely resembled the infamous off-screen bickering among Russell and the actors in I Heart Huckabees, so much so that I’m convinced Christian Bale based his entire Irving Rosenfeld character on Russell’s Huckabees rant at Lily Tomlin. (Upon further investigation, in fact, Russell actually looks like Bale’s version of Rosenfeld.) This kind of self-obsession and navel gazing showed up in other films, too, such as Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a film I waited for nearly two hours to embrace eagerly but couldn’t because Malick wouldn’t move off his obsessive, often nonsensical nostalgia for a suburban Texas that is rapidly transmogrifying and allow what was an otherwise fascinating meditation on the essence of romantic love to sing, as he did so effortlessly with life, family, and loss in The Tree of Life. Rather than serving as a compelling backdrop and intoxicating miasma, as they did in Tree, Malick’s Texas digressions in Wonder were often the rhetorical equivalent of Malick pausing in the midst of a grand and poignant monologue on a lost lover, then spoiling the climax to ask his audience if he’s ever told them about the tree house he had in his backyard as a child.

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“Strong Men Also Cry”: RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

In Film on February 2, 2014 at 5:16 pm


by Matt Smith

You know, I have had trouble writing pieces for TheSplitScreen since early last semester. I have even put off posting my “Best of ’13” list even though it’s now February for various reasons, though mostly it’s pure laziness. But this afternoon, I found out—much like the entire internet—that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, and I was gobsmacked. To put it lightly, Hoffman was, to me, a god among men. He is one of the greatest actors of his generation, respected by his peers and fans alike for his seemingly indefatigable ability to turn character after character into an amazing one-of-a-kind creation. His range of talent, his immense personality on and off the screen, and his personification of the profession of acting were already nearing legendary status. And now Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead at 46.

To know what this man has meant to me, I have to begin with my youthfulness. I am in my thirtieth year of life. Quite literally, Hoffman was there at the birth of my awareness that cinema meant something big to me, deeply, personally. In 1998 I saw both Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski, and I fell in love with cinema in a way that was different than my previous love of watching movies. I loved movies. P.T. Anderson, the Coens, and their amazing stable of actors changed the way I saw the world, and I would never be able to go back. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a key part of that development, playing Scotty and Brandt in each film, respectively. He was amazing, and I made note.

It would be easy to merely catalogue the man’s great performances (and there were many), but instead I want to gesture toward his career more broadly by saying that Hoffman had a presence and talent that was infinitely watchable. Even the most bland of projects could be turned around, even slightly, by his involvement. To illustrate this, think of the middle-brow and competent but otherwise forgettable Ben Stiller rom-com Along Came Polly, in which his best-friend character Sandy Lyle is the only thing with a comedic pulse in the film. Or, consider his rock-n-roll radio DJ the Count in the Richard Curtis counter-culture misfire Pirate Radio. Whenever the films like these in his filmography come up in casual conversation, he is quite literally the only part of them I remember fondly, if I remember the rest of the film at all.

The point being that Philip Seymour Hoffman was there for me as I developed a deep appreciation for the art of cinema, and the craft of acting. And in all honestly, I find that surprising, as he was not the physical embodiment of perfection we seem to so often demand of our entertainers. But we accepted him, and he gave to us, and it was all wonderful. He was to the late-1990s and 2000s what Bruce Dern was to the late-1960s and ‘70s. He was an actor’s actor, which is a rarer thing it seems; the great actor that gets the recognition, but not always the fireworks or the awards (though he received at least one major award and a bevy of nominations). As good as Day-Lewis, but on a different plane, one where the similarly always-terrific Gary Oldman has never won an Oscar, but is beloved and respected.

Hoffman did win the golden man statue for his turn as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s biopic of the writer’s investigation of the killings that eventually turned into the groundbreaking classic In Cold Blood. In his speech, he thanked his mother: “My mum’s name is Marilyn O’Connor. She’s here tonight and I would like if you see her for you to congratulate her because she brought up four kids alone and she deserves congratulations for that.” That portion of that speech is one of the most memorable Oscar moments in recent memory, mainly because Hoffman came off as so very human.


His last great performance—though he is certainly terrific in the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire, don’t get me wrong—was in P.T. Anderson’s The Master, which is by many estimations, mine included after repeated viewings, the best American film made that year, if not so far in the current decade. In that film he played Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a religious cult that was not entirely unlike Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. Dodd was a part that Hoffman disappeared into completely. He became the driving force of a film that could have (and by some accounts did) wandered off into its own headspace, especially with the knock-out performance by Joaquin Phoenix as a boozed-out, sexed-up ex-sailor that functioned as the film’s emotional crux. Hoffman crafted a character so soulful, charismatic, and by turns frightening that I haven’t been able to shake the thought of him since I saw The Master in theaters.

And that’s all I wanted to say. I had to get it off my chest how important this man was as an actor and artist. The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has affected me deeply. Even I am surprised at how much. I just can’t imagine the world without the man.

The Conjuring: A(nother) Review

In Film, Reviews on August 10, 2013 at 12:14 am

the conjuring 1

By Eric Plaag

Full Disclosure: Matt and Eric often see the same movies but rarely post separate reviews of the same film for the site, unless the film is the topic of a special TheSplitScreen discussion. But this one stuck with Eric, and even though Matt has already posted his review, Eric felt compelled to write his own, too. For the record, Eric did not read Matt’s review prior to writing his own, to avoid being influenced by Matt’s thoughts.

One of the most frightening scenes I have ever seen in a paranormal film was the moment in Poltergeist (1982) when all chaos has begun to break out in the house and young Robbie Freeling goes looking for the vanished clown doll that usually resides at the end of his bed. As Robbie gingerly peeks under the bed for the clown he despises and fears, the audience prays along with Robbie that nothing will be there. And indeed, nothing is there. The audience also knows, though—as Robbie does with a sinking look of dread—that the clown will instead be behind him, ready to pounce. It doesn’t matter that we anticipate this outcome; it still scares us out of our pants.

I reference this moment because The Conjuring, from director James Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, is filled with moments like these, and I’m glad for it. They are never cheap. They are never bland retreads of jump scares we have seen a thousand times before in lesser paranormal films. They are inventive and smart and logical and expertly executed. And if you’ve ever actually been haunted by something in your home, you know that this is the steroids version of exactly how things go down. Contrast this narrative with the absurdities and excesses we see in any of the renditions of Paranormal Activity or their many imitators, and you’ll understand the difference.

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A Very Dangerous Boy: a review of Only God Forgives

In Film, Reviews on July 29, 2013 at 2:02 pm


by Matt Smith

The Bangkok of Only God Forgives is a typically cinematic one, replete with whorehouses, karaoke lounges and Muay Thai boxing. The exotic exploitation of the locale and overt orientalism on display is, in other words, exactly what we might expect from a foreigner shooting a film there. And for whatever reason, it never seems outright exploitive other than the fact that the film is about just that. With a half-thought-out thesis about the value of life in Bangkok, a city of skin trades seemingly by default, and the many reasons Westerners are so fascinated by the place, Refn fully indulges in the cinematic tropes and visions that have haunted visitors to the East (and certainly the films made about the East by filmmakers in the West).

Sure, we could all sit around and think about the film as a meaningless expose of nothing at all. As a frame of reference, the Thailand of Only God Forgives is exactly that of The Hangover Part II. Both films traffic and attempt to profit from similar seedy aspects of the Bangkok underbelly. Both are lit like up like a whorehouse, with the constant artificial neon lighting searing absolutely unreal color schemes into our retinas. Each of the films are primarily concerned with the violence of the city in different ways, the illicit prostitution and blood-letting constantly pulling people apart at the seams.
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Apocalypse Canceled: a review of Pacific Rim

In Film, Reviews on July 20, 2013 at 6:57 pm


by Matt Smith

Guillermo Del Toro’s giant-scale monster movie Pacific Rim is a glut of big ideas and dazzling technical wizardry. It may be a mash-up of many different films, television shows, manga and anime from the past forty years or so, but it combines them in a way that reinvigorates the summer blockbuster and provides a filmgoing experience I can honestly say I have never had before. Sure, I’ve seen monster movies, and I have similar life-impacting memories of seeing Batman and Jurassic Park in the theater, but neither of those films were like this. In its sense of scale, the constant procession of big, new, bold ideas, and its bright, candy-colored visuals, Pacific Rim is a thrilling experience that I cannot wait to have again.
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“Something awful happened here.”: a review of The Conjuring

In Film, Reviews on July 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm


by Matt Smith

Cases investigated by the husband and wife paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren have been made into movies before. They were at the center of the investigations at the Lutz home in Amityville, which inspired an immensely successful horror film and the Snedecker haunting which became the (very loose) basis for A Haunting in Connecticut. Ed was a demonologist, and Lorraine, who is still living, claims to be clairvoyant. As the title card for The Conjuring tells us, they are the only demonologists recognized by the Catholic Church.

The Conjuring tells a purportedly as-yet untold story from the Warren’s case files, in which the Perron family is terrorized by a demonic presence in their farm house in Rhode Island in 1971. The Perrons, Roger and Carolyn (Patrick Wilson and Lili Taylor) move into their new home with their five daughters, only to shortly find out that something is wrong. They uncover a boarded up set of cellar stairs in the hall closet. Their daughter Cynthia begins sleepwalking in the middle of the night, drawn to a giant wardrobe in her older sister’s room, banging her head on it repeatedly.
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A Babe and an Old Man and the Afterlife: a review of R.I.P.D.

In Film, Reviews on July 19, 2013 at 4:29 pm


by Matt Smith

Jeff Bridges has grown increasingly adventurous as a performer. I don’t mean that he’s never been into weirder roles and bizarre portrayals, but as he has gotten older, he has certainly taken a number of relatively high profile jobs that call on his considerable acting chops to even make them possible. Take his turn as Iron Man villain Obadiah Stane. The part was rife with cliché and was telegraphed out at the beginning of the film. And yet Bridges managed to make him a character that I found interesting. In The Men Who Stare at Goats he plays meditation/mind-reading guru Bill Django as a loose variation on The Dude, his beloved character from The Big Lebowski. And in True Grit he took the iconic Rooster Cogburn, a role which netted John Wayne an Oscar, and made him wholly his own through an amalgam of Old West reality (that mumble and tired run-down swagger) and post-modern revisionism (he’s oddly self-aware, some of which is in the novel, but Bridges being able to perform this is simply stunning).

So here he is in another comic book movie, this time as its star. He plays Roy Pulsipher, a curmudgeonly law man not too far removed from ol’ Rooster Cogburn. Roy was killed in the 1860s and took up his position at the Rest In Peace Department where he hunts down and kills Deados, the undead who have escaped judgement and are in hiding on Earth. He’s teamed up with newcomer Nick (Ryan Reynolds), through whom we are introduced to the R.I.P.D. and its mission. Nick is killed during a drug raid by his crooked partner Hayes (Kevin Bacon), and is recruited upon his death into the department before going to judgement. If you’re thinking this set-up is a little too close to Men in Black’s odd pairing of veteran Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and rookie Jay (Will Smith) all the way back in 1994, then you’re right. R.I.P.D. is a rip-off not just on screen, but also in its original form as a comic book.
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An Epic Travesty: a review of The Lone Ranger

In Film, Reviews on July 19, 2013 at 9:17 am


by Matt Smith

I want to start by saying that there are some things that The Lone Ranger does pretty well. Its action scenes are thrilling. The performances by much of the cast, Armie Hammer included, are pretty great and are in line with most of what I remember from listening to the radio show with my grandmother and the reruns of the TV show I’d sometimes see on TV early in the morning. I always liked that classical sensibility and the combination of dandiness and adventure that the material always seemed to warrant.

But these things aside, The Lone Ranger is a pretty miserable movie-going experience. Despite all the ingredients that led to success with The Pirates of the Caribbean (producer Jerry Bruckheimer, screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot – and Revolutionary Road scribe Justin Haythe – director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp), the film is a big hot mess. And not in a good way.
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