Black Mass

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Black Mass is a film about impressions, though none but Depp’s “Whitey” Bulger are particularly good. I’m not just talking about the overall poor quality of the Boston accents in this film, particularly Cumberbatch, who despite his best effort, is unable to conceal his identity as a Brit for more than a few words at a time. Black Mass as a whole is a sleepy, overly self-serious impression of a Scorsese-style gangster flick, with neither the style nor substance it needs to tell the bizarre and fantastic story of Bulger’s dealings with the FBI. Instead, the film is a insipid slog through the events of Bulger’s life, and seems completely disinterested in making anything other than a regurgitation of the same material covered in other, better gangster films.

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Beat Breakdown #3: 12 Years a Slave

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.

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

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review

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I’ve always been intrigued by sci-fi because it’s a genre in which the imagination is unfettered by boring old reality and is instead free to explore the furthest reaches of the reason, where almost anything is possible. That being said, Star Trek is perhaps the only sci-fi franchise that makes the limitless reaches of the universe feel small and bland. I’m no fan of Star Trek as a franchise, mainly because I had yet to be conceived at the point of it’s heyday, but Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness are doing the IP no favors.

Into Darkness, directed by the incorrigible J.J Abrams- also responsible for Super 8, Mission: Impossible III, and the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII– marks yet another film which falls heavily within the territory of the thoroughly mediocre. Abrams is not necessarily a bad director, but he certainly wouldn’t be categorized as ‘good’ either. He does, however, have an outstanding mind for marketing. His whole “mystery box” shtick, a phenomenally pretentious analogy basically explaining the common-sense fact that “audiences like to be surprised” has served him very well in the past, and has let him get away with making bland film after bland film by marketing his movies as the greatest, most shocking thing since sliced bread and the solution to peace in the Middle East.

The film stars Chris Pine as Captain Kirk and features Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch as well as the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise as they reprise their roles from the first film. Settling into the trend of omitting decent writing in lieu of flashy action sequences (I wasn’t aware that there was a mandatory tradeoff until recently) Into Darkness has a cast that out-stripes its script. Dialogue is awkward and sometimes cringe-worthy and the vast majority of the crew members have no purpose or identity of their own aside from being play-things for Kirk and Spock to interact with. It’s ironic because the crew of the Starship Enterprise seems to be made of a diverse and interesting cast of characters. Most, however, seem to exist superficially and are fundamentally completely ineffectual, specifically the lovely ladies of Starfleet, who sit around all day talking about boys.

The Star Trek universe has never been limited by the fickle constraints of logic and reason. The 2009 film took the concepts of reason and feasibility and summarily jettisoned them into the vacuum of space. Likewise, Into Darkness pulls its fair share of deus ex machinas out of its ass. One of my favorites was the use of superblood (yes, they literally call it superblood) to save a dying character’s life. I can appreciate that fact that sci-fi grants a measure of creative freedom as far as technology is concerned, but at a certain point one starts to get the impression that Abrams was phoning it in more than usual. The film also suffered from a curious action movie trope, commonly known as ‘countdown madness.’ Andrew counted from no less than five countdowns over the course of the film, each marking time until some explosion of epic proportion moved us along to the next bit of exposition. Countdowns have long been an action movie staple, but just because they’re used often, doesn’t mean than they’re an incredibly cheap and hollow way to build tension.

Not helping the already messy dialogue was a story that was fundamentally silly. I can’t really talk about this next bit without revealing some SPOILERS, so prepare yourself. The main antagonist this time around is none other than than infamous Khan, played by Cumberbatch, but here’s the thing: not once is the existence of the genetically enhanced super soldiers referenced in the previous film, nor is their origin explained beyond one line of exposition from Khan. Apparently, we’re just supposed to sit there and accept it all like the lemmings that Abrams thinks we are. As for Khan’s character as a whole, he’s basically whatever Abrams wants him to be, depending on what the scene calls for.  He’s essentially a nonentity, along with virtually every other cast member, who simply wears the skin of whatever nonsensical plot devise Abrams dreams up next. Character development is virtually nonexistent as well, as Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and all the rest simply rehash what has already been established in the first film. It’s shocking how similar the Into Darkness is to 2009’s Star Trek in that respect.

The character to whom I relate most is Karl Urban’s brilliant portrayal of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who is presumably the only sensible person left in the entire universe. Bones seems to be the only one cognizant of the fact that he’s stuck in space on a ship full of morons, captained by a psychotic jock fresh out of training camp. Like Bones, I was getting excessively tired of Kirk’s antics. I realized with sorrow in my breast that I had been had by Abrams yet again. Star Trek: Into Darkness is nothing more than a bland expansion upon a nonsensical reboot, and adds nothing to enrich or enhance the series as a whole.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5