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Despite its marketing campaign, American Ultra is not a stoner film. Instead, the characters and ideas within the film appear to be more half-baked than anything else. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, your average under-achieving stoner, who spends his days getting high, working at a convenience store, and talking about a comic series he would like to write but never does. He lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and while the two have decent on-screen chemistry, the fact that she is so interested in him is baffling to the audience until they are well into the film.

The premise is that Mike is a sleeper-agent for the US government but doesn’t know it, and when CIA officials decide to terminate the ‘ULTRA’ program he is part of, he must run around a small town with his girlfriend trying to survive with little more than instinct and whatever makeshift weapons he can cobble together. While this premise promises a slick, unlikely hero action-thriller, instead it just slogs along, regurgitating things that have been done better in previous films and adding new material to this Bourne-style premise, but still never seems to hit the mark. 

As the film starts, American Ultra establishes itself as part of a long tradition of lazy writing that often pervades bad movies. In rapid-fire succession, Ultra incorporates some of the worst impulses of bad screenwriters. The film is told in the form of a pointless frame narrative, immediately diving into an exposition dump in which Eisenberg explains his character’s backstory, motivations, and relationship with Stewart. He’s planning on proposing in Hawaii, but they miss the flight thanks to one of Mike’s anxiety attacks. On the drive home, he apologizes and explains that he thought he could overcome the anxiety attacks. This is the first of many times that characters feel the need to explain what’s happening on-screen directly to the audience, undercutting any effective moments in the film by assuming that we’re having trouble understanding the remarkably straight-forward story. This is all coupled with how insane all the characters act, but the movie takes itself too seriously for these actions to seem comedic.

While there is a lot to be critical of, there are a few small things to like here . The auxiliary cast is full of actors I enjoy–Tony Hale and Walton Goggins in particular–some of whom give decent performances or ham it up to the point of making this film almost entertaining. A few of the jokes in the film do hit, but this seems more due to Eisenberg’s acting chops than anything else. The one thing I did genuinely like about American Ultra is the cinematography. Though the action scenes are fairly boring, this movie is actually quite pretty in parts, and shows that at least a few people working on this film were determined to make it a good one.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

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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

Though this will be Steven Soderbergh’s first appearance as the featured director in this series, I can all but guarantee this won’t be his last. Throughout his career he has worn so many different hats directorally, ranging from thrillers to pulpy action flicks to intimate dramas, though Soderbergh does seem to have a penchant for making great docudramas, among them the oft overlooked 2009 gem, The Informant!. While this film is recent enough that it still exists in public memory, and was financially successful, this film is often overlooked when discussing Soderbergh’s extensive and diverse filmography. In addition, it is a movie that I feel is sorely under-seen, despite it being a terrific piece of cinema.

The Informant

Right off the bat, Matt Damon fits perfectly in the role of Mark Whitacre, a biochemist turned businessman working for ADM, a food processing mega corporation located in small town Illinois. Mark is almost instantly one of the most likable character I have ever seen in a movie. He is worldly, intelligent, motivated, and idealistic without seeming naive.  Mark has a childlike sense of wonder and seems to be equal parts imaginative and thoughtful. However, Mark is also just a touch paranoid, and when the FBI is called in to investigate the potential contamination of a compound Mark frequently works on called lysine, he immediately starts blabbing company secrets, concerned that this investigation might turn up some unsavory actions that Mark was forced into by his superiors.

As it turns out, ADM, along with most other lysine distributors international, have been engaging in price fixing. Since this could potentially be a billion dollar lawsuit for the government, and Mark has made the mistake of being the only person to leak this information, he is somewhat willing pushed into becoming an FBI informant to gather intel for this theoretical lawsuit. However, things start to take a bit of a turn later in the investigation, as Mark starts to worry about his job security after he likely sends all his friends and co-workers to jail. Coupled with his now ever growing ego, based on all the attention and acclaim he is receiving from the FBI for being a whistleblower, Mark starts to make a streak of increasingly questionable decisions as the investigation draws to a close, shedding double on the once unquestionable scrupulousness of his character.

Though this film often times feels like a “small” movie, it is among my favorite Soderbergh films. The screenplay is fantastic, all the dialogue is snappy and tight, and Matt Damon delivers some one liners that I still remember to this day from my initial viewing of the film on its release. The supporting cast is stellar, and full of comedians who rarely seem to make it to the silver screen like Tom Papa and Joel McHale. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see this film, try to work it into a viewing one weekend. Though I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a must see for everyone, I find it hard to picture anyone disliking this charming film.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This will be the first in a weekly series of articles aimed at unearthing the often great films of well known directors that are rarely discussed when considering their filmographies. While the goal of this series is to raise awareness and draw attention to these films, it will also serve as an opportunity to recommend some really terrific movies that have sadly been overlooked in recent years.

Insomnia

Fifteen minutes into Nolan’s third feature length film, it seems apparent why this is the least discussed movie in his filmography. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) and the other guy are two LA detectives called up to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the brutal murder of a 17 year old girl. The film has all the markings of a typical slow paced detective thriller, substituting the dim streets of Los Angeles for the well lit backdrop of the rural Northwest in summer, where there is daylight twenty four hours a day. However, while tamer than his later works, Insomnia still reflects Nolan’s penchant for twists within his films, as the film shifts focus as Dormer descends into madness and paranoia. Dormer is under review back in LA for potentially unsavory actions he took while conducting investigations back home, and matters are made worse when he is forced to cover up a murder he commits while pursuing his Alaskan suspect, all while losing night after night of sleep to the harsh, blinding Alaskan sunlight.

Nolan is often lauded for his keen visual style, and though traces of this can be seen in his previous films Memento and The Following, Insomnia is his first aesthetically stunning work. Due in no small part to Nolan’s career long cinematographer Wally Pfister, Insomnia is a spectacular in its visual coherence, as the camera work perfectly captures the mounting psychosis of Dormer as his sleeplessness drives him to the point of delusion. Pfister’s mark on the film is not limited to solidifying thematic ideas, the action scenes within Insomnia are tense, and kinetic, though one chase scene across a port used by Alaskan logging companies seems stand out as a definitive high point.

In addition to Insomnia being Nolan’s most cohesive film, as it avoids the unresolved, lofty ideas that have proved themselves to be an underlying issue in his more recent films, there are myriad reasons to give this film the viewing it deserves. The script is strong and tight, drawing heavily from the Norwegian Insomnia that inspired this fantastic remake. Though Pacino shines in the majority of the film, Insomnia has a stellar auxiliary cast, including Hilary Swank as a naive Alaskan cop, and Robin Williams delivers a terrific performance as a local crime writer who becomes intertwined with Dormer as his sanity and morality slip through his fingers. I am the first to say that I am not a huge Nolan fan, but Insomnia is by far my favorite entry in this generally beloved filmmakers admittedly impressive filmography, and definitely well worth your time.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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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.

In this installment of the Beat Breakdown we’ll take a look at the 2013 biographical drama 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen. The film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards.

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To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

In the antebellum US, a free black man is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery. What follows is a harrowing odyssey through the American south as our brave protagonist, Solomon Northup, is stripped of his dignity and is forced to survive at the mercy of a sadistic slave master. Throughout his ordeal, Solomon experiences both incredible suffering and unexpected compassion as he seeks a way to reunite with his wife and children.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 13-16) After some brief exposition during which we’re introduced to Solomon and his family, we move quickly to the inciting incident; that is, of course, Solomon’s kidnapping. As his wife and children travel, Solomon is propositioned by two seemingly trustworthy men who suggest that he accompany them to Washington, so that he may exhibit his skill as a violinist. It soon transpires that this prospective business venture is only a pretense, however, and Solomon, in his revelry, is poisoned and rendered unconscious. He awakes in chains, and in short order is subjected to the first of many instances of physical and psychological abuse.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 38-40) After Solomon’s imprisonment, he makes the acquaintance of other erstwhile freemen who, like him, have been ignominiously kidnapped. Together, the prisoners are transported via steamboat from Washington to Norfolk, where they are to be sold at auction. After being forced to wash and dress, Solomon is presented to prospective buyers, not as a man, but a product. Presently, a slave master named William Ford makes a bid for Solomon, purchasing him for one thousand dollars.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 55-57) While on the Ford plantation, Solomon and his fellow slaves are tormented by one of Ford’s malevolent overseers, John Tibeats. Tibeats delights in exercising petty authority over the slaves and especially resents Solomon for winning Ford’s favor. When Tibeats’s long-standing hatred boils over, it soon comes to blows between the two. Tibeats, momentarily defeated, vows revenge against Solomon. Ford intervenes in an attempt to save Solomon’s life, selling him to a new plantation with a new master, and likely saving his life in the bargain. It soon becomes clear, however, that Solomon’s new master does not share Ford’s benevolent sensibilities.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 111-116) What follows is an emotionally distressing descent into the maelstrom, as it were, as Solomon endures the savage cruelty of his new master, Edwin Epps. Solomon witnesses others slaves being whipped and beaten within an inch of their lives, and is even asked to mercifully end the life of a fellow slave who is frequently sexually abused by Epps. The second major plot point, however, coincides with the arrival of Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass. Bass confronts Epps about the treatment of his slaves, prompting Solomon to ask Bass to secretly deliver a letter to his home in Saratoga Springs. Bass, considering it his duty to help the disenfranchised Solomon, vows to aid him.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 118-121) The climax occurs shortly afterwards. While Solomon works in the fields one day, a carriage pulls to a stop outside of Epps’s estate. A sheriff and a certain Mr. Parker, whom Solomon was acquainted with in Saratoga, dismount and address Solomon, who doesn’t immediately recognize him after such a long period of separation. After the sheriff positively identifies Solomon, the two men hustle him into the carriage amid Epps’s impotent protestations. Immediately before departing, Patsy, the same slave who once begged Solomon for death, embraces him in an emotional gesture of finality. Solomon rides away from Epps’s plantation, still trying coming to grips with the fact that his tortuous ordeal is finally over.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 121-123) The climax is followed by an extremely short period of falling action, which is in turn followed by a few brief expository title cards. Solomon arrives home, visibly aged and hesitant to enter a home that now seems almost alien to him. The film has such a beautifully understated ending, which consists of perhaps three our four line of dialogue from Solomon. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, Solomon finds himself unable to maintain his façade of strength and stoicism any longer. On the verge of breaking down, he says simply: “I apologize for my appearance. I have had a difficult time of things these last few years.” With his family surrounding him, Solomon finally sees the end of the twelve long years of suffering that had separated him from his loved ones as we fade to black.

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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

 

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