Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Biting My Lip: a review of Fifty Shades of Grey

In Film, Reviews on February 13, 2015 at 7:04 pm

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by Matt Boyd Smith

The first thing you should know about me and Fifty Shades of Grey is that I haven’t read the books. I don’t care if you have or haven’t. I don’t even care if you like them. This is not a review of the books or even a judgement about how absurd they may or may not be. I’m much more interested in the film version anyhow, because it will no doubt be a major event film for 2015, with box office tracking as of today (the film’s first day in theaters) pointing toward a probably $85 million haul over the weekend. But beyond the numbers, I’m interested in whether or not it’s any good (it’s okay) and whether or not it fulfills on any of the promises non-readers of the books would expect given the media attention (it doesn’t).

By now the story is well-recounted in the media. Mousy college graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets incredibly wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) whilst interviewing him for her roommate’s article in the college newspaper, a college of which he is an alumnus. During the interview and over the course of the next week, Ana and Christian become enamored with one another. Eventually, Christian proposes a relationship, bound by a contract, which makes Ana his submissive, he the dominant. Then things get kinky. Or so we’ve been led to believe.
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C. Tate’s Amazing Space Skates: a review of Jupiter Ascending

In Film, Reviews on February 7, 2015 at 9:47 am

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by Matt Boyd Smith

When a movie opens with a line like “Technically I’m an alien” delivered in voice-over you should probably expect that what you’re about to see is either going to be a lot of fun or monstrously tedious. Know going into Jupiter Ascending that it’s mostly the latter. This movie’s a mess, has a godawful performance from the amazingly pale walking old-man-corpse Eddie Redmayne, and somehow manages to derail the Channing Tatum love train we’ve all been on the past couple of years. It’s that bad, really and truly. Even the special effects—SFX we’ve been told the movie had to be delayed (twice) so as they could be adequately completed—look like utter garbage. There’s not a lot here to like, though there is one really brilliant moment about a third of the way into it. More on that later. First let’s focus on where this thing goes wrong.

Really, the story is this movie’s biggest problem. There’s too much of it, and most of it is a poor knock-off of obvious source material like Star Wars as well as more cult texts like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin. The Wachowski Starship are obviously attempting to build a sci-fi epic in the vein of those films (along with the many callbacks to the sword-and-sorcery genre albeit via genetics), but the attempt doesn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole. A lot happens very quickly, and there are some really nice attempts to build a universe without being too obvious about all of its intricacies, but whereas the Star Wars films built its mythology around three films developed and made over six years (and with the benefit of hindsight and fandom completing that world building process), Jupiter Ascending attempts to do it all in a single film, and to cram it all into just over two hours. Granted this is a blessing when compared to recent bloated blockbusters which push the three hour mark, there are still far too many plot threads which develop too quickly and don’t seem at all logical.
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A Most Illogical Thriller: a review of Preservation

In Film, Reviews on February 6, 2015 at 8:50 am

Preservation

by Matt Boyd Smith

Take hints of The Most Dangerous Game, Deliverance and A Perfect Getaway, remove all of the plausible characterization and logic of their actions and what do you have? Probably something close to Preservation, a competently made and acted thriller with some really poor scripting. It’s a shame really; I was hoping for a great thriller and what I got was a poorly-paced mess that wears all of its ideas right on the surface.
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Into the Deep: a review of Black Sea

In Film, Reviews on February 2, 2015 at 5:20 pm

Black Sea

by Matt Boyd Smith

I’m a fan of sea-faring adventure in general. I like a salty U-boat tale, I think Master and Commander deserves to have a much higher cultural standing than it does, and Moby Dick is one of the Great American Novels which is actually deserving of the title. My favorite American author is Hemingway, and I am constantly fascinated by treasure hunting at sea. One of the best comic books out right now is The Mercenary Sea by , an epic tale of submarine adventure set amidst the backdrop of the Pacific leading up to WWII Kel Symons and Mathew Reynolds, that follows a crew as they search for a lost island filled with gold. In short, I’m telling you that series is a must-read. All of this is just to set you up for this revelation: I pretty much loved everything about Black Sea in spite of some glaring problems.

Unceremoniously dropped in the middle of January – the doldrums of the theatrical release schedule even in these days of increasingly risky moves away from the three summer months for blockbusters and tentpole pictures – Black Sea is actually worth a look. It’s not perfect, but it is exciting, intense, and is buoyed by a top-notch performance from Jude Law, who has finally entered the phase of his career where he’s returned to acting instead of ill-fated attempts at mainstream stardom.
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Group Sex: a review of The Loft

In Film, Reviews on February 1, 2015 at 7:54 pm

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by Matt Boyd Smith

The Loft is ostensibly a thriller for adults, though I think it’s probably more accurate to say it’s a an adult thriller for teenagers. Nothing wrong with that approach – teenage males need to become acquainted with movie plots outside of transforming robots from outer space and the endless parade of superhero flicks at some point, after all – but the filmmakers may want to at least acknowledge this with a glimpse of actual T&A every once in awhile. Sadly and disappointingly, The Loft not only fails at being a film adults will want to see, but also at being the kind of erotic thriller a high schooler would even be interested in.

Early one morning, Vincent Stevens (Karl Urban) finds a dead woman in the bed of the secret high-end fuck-pad he shares with his four friends Chris (James Marsden), Luke (Wentworth Miller), Marty (Eric Stonestreet), and Philip (Matthias Schoenaerts). He calls them all in to find out what happened, and it quickly becomes apparent that one of them is responsible. Moving back and forth between their showdown in the loft and the events of the previous year while they were all carousing with mistresses and falling in love with call girls (yes, that happens, for real), the film slowly reveals the mystery of the woman and her killer. Honestly, writing about the general plot makes the film sound much more interesting than it actually is.
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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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