Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

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Capitalist Impulse: A (brief) Review of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

In Film, Reviews on March 18, 2017 at 11:02 am


by Matt Boyd Smith

The Belko Experiment opens just as the employees of Belko Industries are coming in to work. Their massive office building is a gleaming glass and steel structure that is conspicuously out of place in the middle of nowhere outside the city of Bogotá, Colombia. When they arrive at the office, protagonist Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) notices something is off: there is an extra level of security screening outside, and cars are backed up for some time as they are searched by men in military-style uniforms. The process is a lot more like attempting to gain access to a military base than simply getting into work for the day. And when Mike asks desk guard Evan (James Earl) what’s going on, all Evan knows is that there’s some sort of security risk they’re looking into, which means they’ve also sent all non-American employees home for the day. That leaves 80 people in the office, and their day gets very bad very soon.

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“The green growth is gone from the hills, Maggie:” a review

In Film, Reviews on May 11, 2015 at 12:20 am


by Matt Boyd Smith

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-Governator career has been comprised of films that are at least interesting and worth your time even if they haven’t been particularly great. The Last Stand, the benign action-thriller from Korean director Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil), gets by on its imported Asian action stylistics and pure adrenaline, the long-awaited team-up with Stallone, The Escape Plan (Mikael Håfstrom) is fun but forgettable, and last year’s Sabotage is an otherwise standard dirty cop yarn with some inventive twists and high-energy direction from David Ayer. But now with Maggie, a slow-moving and surprisingly emotional zombie tale from first-time director Henry Hobson, we have a film where the action superstar has ventured into uncharted waters and maybe discovered some long-dormant acting chops that got buried deep in Schwarzenegger’s pectorals somewhere around the time he was cast in the first Terminator and began playing emotionless killing machines in nearly every film from then on. Buoyed by some rather poignant moments with co-star Abigail Breslin as his viral daughter and the heretofore-unseen tears of Schwarzenegger himself, Maggie still isn’t the great film he’s bound to make in this period of his career, but it reaches far beyond its generic roots and mostly succeeds.
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Biting My Lip: a review of Fifty Shades of Grey

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


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


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


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


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

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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