I Watched: Horse Girl

How do you draw a definitive line between dream life and waking life when characters and events begin bleeding into both? That’s the question explored in the Netflix fim, Horse Girl, directed by Jeff Baena, written by Baena and Alison Brie, which follows a socially isolated arts and crafts store employee who finds herself more content in the company of horses and supernatural crime shows than people. Have a gander at the trailer:

Sarah (Alison Brie) is that oddly shaped piece that doesn’t quite fit in the societal puzzle, friendly yet friendless–with the possible exception of her boss, Joan (Molly Shannon)–her shy, introverted ways leads her to live a quiet life. Aside from working at a crafts store, she visits the grave of her suicided mother and frequents the horse stable where Willow, the horse she rode in her childhood is boarded, which annoys the stable owners to no end.

On her birthday, when roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) finds Sarah home alone, she invites her boyfriend’s roommate, Darren (John Reynolds) over for a double date. The four drink and smoke weed and despite Darren talking about his ex all night, he and Sarah hit it off. When the party’s over, Sarah has a bizarre dream in which she is lying in an antiseptically white room with a man and woman and she wakes up face down in the living room on a mound of throw pillows and there are large scratch marks running across the wall that she can’t account for. Shortly after, a series of bizarre incidents begin to befall Sarah and that’s where this recap ends because I don’t want to spoil the rest of the movie for you.

So, would I recommend Horse Girl? It’s a yes for me but it’s one of those divisive films and it depends on how you view it, as a psychological drama about the effects of hereditary mental illness or a slow burn science fiction fever dream. Like a previous film I reviewed, Relic, the filmmakers seem intent on leaving the decision of whether Sarah is suffering mental problems or the victim of extraterrestrial forces beyond her ability to comprehend, entirely up to your interpretation.

Whichever way you personally lean, the one thing you will probably agree on is Alison Brie’s powerful and convincing performance as a troubled woman who slips on a patch of sanity and falls head first into the instability of a dream-life/waking-life reality that’s been tilted on its axis.

It’s currently on Netflix (apparently it’s been there a while) and it’s certainly, in my not-so-humble opinion, worth the watch. Besides, city and state reopenings have been a mixed bag, so you’re better off playing it safe by maxing and relaxing in your home, and there are far, far worse things you could be doing with 104 minutes of your self-isolated life. Treat yourself, why don’t you?

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Greyhound

In Greyhound, directed by Aaron Schneider, screenplay by and starring Tom Hanks, based on the 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain must lead an Allied convoy being stalked by a Nazi U-boat wolfpack during World War II.

Only a few months after the United States officially entered World War II, US Navy Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) receives his first war-time assignment aboard the destroyer USS Keeling, codenamed GREYHOUND, to deal with the problem of German U-boats disrupting convoys of supplies in the Mid-Atlantic gap between North American and Britain where shore-based military air support is sorely lacking. Accompanying Greyhound in the assignment to get the 37 Allied ship convoy safely to Liverpool are two British destroyers codenamed HARRY and EAGLE, and a Canadian Flower Class corvette codenamed DICKIE.

When the convoy is three days away from Liverpool, Greyhound sonar identifies an incoming U-boat closing in on the convoy and the destroyer prepares to intercept. The U-Boat is able to launch a single torpedo before the Greyhound fires a full pattern of depth charges. Luckily, the U-boat torpedo misses, and the Greyhound depth charges effectively destroys the U-boat.

Before the Greyhound crew can celebrate their victory, their sonar picks up multiple targets slowly approaching in the distance. A Wolf Pack of six U-boats are stalking the convoy, staying just out of firing range. Krause suspects the Wolf Pack is waiting for nightfall in order attack under the cloak of darkness.

When night falls, the U-boat attack commences and a number of passenger and freight ships are destroyed by torpedoes. Krause has sonar on a few of the U-Boats but chooses to rescue the survivors of the downed ships rather than engage the enemy. And after their successful attack, the U-boats pull back to a safe distance once again.

The following day, the U-boats mount another coordinated attack and the Greyhound crew are now being taunted by broadcasts from the lead captain of the Wolf Pack in an attempt to affect ship morale. During the Wolf Pack attack, the Greyhound is barely able to evade the torpedoes deployed against her but the Dickie and the Eagle, are less fortunate. The Dickie takes some damage but still seaworthy, the Eagle, however, eventually sinks. Through the combined efforts of the Greyhound and Dickie, another U-boat is destroyed but Krause’s destroyer is now down to only six depth charges and their ammunition is running low and the convoy is still two days away from Liverpool and not yet in range of air support.

What happens next? They would be telling, and you know I hate dealing out spoilers (somewhat) but you’re free to head over to AppleTV+ and find out all on your lonesome.

So, would I recommend Greyhound? I have to admit that based on the trailer, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the theater to see this, COVID-19 notwithstanding, but, surprisingly enough, yes, this gets a recommendation. In fact, of all the films I’ve watched over the past week, I enjoyed this one the most, which is saying a lot because I’m typically not a war film kind of guy. I think it’s because this film takes a different approach by placing us inside the Greyhound along with the crew through the entire skirmish. The adversaries remain faceless voices issuing taunts over the airwaves, and when convoy ships are destroyed it all happens at a distance. There are a few explosions, U-boat destruction is typically marked by oil slicks on the ocean’s surface and I believe there are only three scenes containing blood and they’re minimal at best. Unfortunately, also minimal is character development, though subtle Tom Hanks plays to his strengths in portraying an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances, and I’m a fan of Stephen Graham and Elisabeth Shue, even though they aren’t given much to do here.

Another thing Greyhound is lacking (and this time it’s a good thing) is that mid-movie slump. You know exactly what I’m talking about, when a film comes out the gate strong, then sags in the middle and has to ratchet up the action in the third act to get you interested again. I can safely say, once you’re aboard the Greyhound, your investment in the story and the outcome remains consistent throughout. Despite its shortcomings, it’s a very well-paced film and I’m impressed by Hank’s handling of the screenplay.

In closing, if you’re looking for the intense, high octane tension of a 1917 or Dunkirk, you should probably go watch 1917 or Dunkirk. Greyhound isn’t that sort of war film and it doesn’t have to be. But it most certainly is ninety minutes of streamlined sea battle that’s worthy of your viewing time.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: The Old Guard

In The Old Guard, written by Greg Rucka, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, a covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered.

Former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hires a mercenary team to rescue a group of kidnapped children in South Sudan. During the mission, however, the team find no children, and are ambushed by a squad of soldiers and are killed with extreme prejudice. The problem is, the mercenaries don’t stay dead. Their bodies spit out bullets, wounds heal rapidly and they slay their attackers, all of which has been recorded by Copley to expose their gift of immortality.

The mercenary team consists of Andromache of Scythia, but you can call her “Andy” (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) all of whom are centuries-old warriors with regenerative abilities who use their vast experience to help those in need.

While the team is hunting down Copely, the scene shifts to Afghanistan where U.S. Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) gets her throat slit in the line of duty, dies and recovers without a scratch. She is plagued by a disturbing dream that is somehow shared with the other immortals, who are now alerted to her existence, which forces Andy to track the Marine down and rescue her before the military brass can subject her to testing.

Copley shows video of the ambush to pharmaceutical executive Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who naturally wants to capture the mercenaries and turn them into lab rats in order to uncover the secret of their abilities for fame and profit. Andy take Nile to France where she’s introduced to the rest of their team and she hears the story of Quynh (Veronica Ngo), Andy’s first comrade, who was captured by priests during the witch trials and cast into the sea in an iron maiden and has been continually drowning ever since, as the mercenaries have not been able to pinpoint the location of the iron maiden. Nile learns that neither she or the rest of the team is truly immortal and one day their ability to heal will stop without warning.

Merrick’s forces are able to track the mercenaries down and in the melee Joe and Nicky are captured and a heavily wounded Booker is left behind as bait for Andy, who has taken damage during the assault and discovers her body is no longer healing in the process. After a bit of computer hacking, Booker locates Copley, and he, Andy and Nile mount a rescue attempt.

And because I don’t like spoiling films (not much, anyway) that’s all I’m telling you. You wanna know how it ends? You know what to do. It’s available on Netflix for you to stream to your heart’s content.

So, would I recommend The Old Guard? Sure. Just go in knowing that this is based on a comic book series written by Greg Rucka and the plot feels comic booky in nature, which is a weird thing for me to say because this film is in my wheelhouse and I should like it better than I do. I suppose my biggest problem is that I have no connection to any of the characters. Oh, I’m told how wonderful the characters are but I’m not shown anything beneath that expositional surface. The story is laid out so matter of factly, interested in hitting story beats rather than providing texture, that it feels more like the pilot of a tv series than a fleshed-out movie. Items are introduced to set up a sequel or possibly a franchise and I know that’s a thing now, with everyone jumping on the How-To-Franchise-Like-Marvel bandwagon, but it shouldn’t be overtly shoved into a film in place of proper character and story development.

If I had my druthers, I would have liked to see Nile, our every-person, resist a little more. Resist coming to terms with what she’s become, resist the mercenaries and their cause, and resist the wholesale slaughter that comes part and parcel with joining the old guard (which she does a little but it’s not enough in my opinion). Having said all that, it ain’t a terrible movie (don’t go by me and my tastes, what the hell do I know?) and if you’re already subscribed to Netflix, you’re not going to be out of any extra money, and Charlize Theron knows how to throw down in a fight and there’s enough action to satisfy your deep-seated need to see bad guys catch a bullet.

Ciao til next now.

Every Picture Tells A Story, Though Not Always A Good One

It’s easy to put the boots to M. Night Shyamalan whenever he debuts a new film, but the fact of the matter is as long as Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender exist, After Earth will never be considered his worst film.

The story, conceived by Will Smith while he was watching an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, was originally meant to tell the tale of a father and son crashing their car in some remote region, and the son having to venture into rough terrain to get rescue for his father. Will later changed it to:

after-earth-1a

A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.

It’s a simple story, which is what you should strive for when creating fiction. So, why doesn’t it work (apart from the wooden acting and bizarre futuristic southern military accents)? What storytelling lessons can you learn from After Earth?

1. When good exposition goes bad – Avoiding exposition is nigh-impossible when dealing with science fiction set in the future. In the case of After Earth, the audience needs to be brought up to speed on why humans fled the planet one thousand years ago, as well as being introduced to the new homeworld, Nova Prime. And that’s where it should end. Everything else the audience needs to know should be introduced organically. The one thing you should not use your opening expository scene for is telegraphing the solution for the climax of the story. It’s lazy and a cheat.

2. The protagonist/antagonist relationship – Even with coming of age stories, which After Earth is—–well, that and a motivational speech dressed up as a sci-fi actioner—–the strength and audience interest lies in the conflict found in the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. The reason After Earth doesn’t ring true isn’t because the protagonist, Kitai, is weak—possessing a weakness that must be overcome is exactly what any good story needs.

The first problem is the antagonist. The thing that combats Kitai in the film is nature—which is filled with its fair share of animal and insect nasties (plus one blast from Kitai’s past, conveniently placed to help him arc properly)—but it doesn’t oppose him. There isn’t one beast that stalks him with animal cunning and outflanks him at every turn, with the ultimate goal of turning him into a tasty morsel. The wilderness isn’t planting snares and death traps in his path to prevent him from reaching his destination.

Not that either of those scenarios are particularly original or great, but something else is needed than to have Kitai stumble and bumble his way through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. I would have been more invested if he actively tried to outwit the environment and was constantly met with defeat. At least then he would have gained some insight. We learn from mistakes.

Which is the problem I had with the resolution. At the all is lost stage, Kitai suddenly masters the gimmick that allows him to prevail in the end. Without obtaining the wisdom or acquiring the experience to properly do so. And again, it’s a cheat and lazy storytelling.

3. Telegraphing – Some writers mistake this with foreshadowing—the act of dropping hints about certain plot developments that will come to be later in the story. The difference between them? Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.

Before using foreshadowing, have a good think. Is it necessary to heighten the tension? It can be difficult knowing which side of the line you’re on, so if you’re attempting to foreshadow, you should ask yourself if there’s any chance the audience can predict what you’re hinting at? If the answer is yes, take a good look around. You’re standing in telegraph territory. Try a subtler approach.

4. Flashbacks – It’s amazing how many screenwriters still get this wrong by thinking flashback sequences serve the purpose of filling in plot holes in the past. A well-constructed flashback should always move the story forward. Always. If your flashback doesn’t accomplish this, you need to rework your story and find a way to introduce whatever bit of information is missing from your plot.

In After Earth, we have dueling flashback sequences, one set belonging to Cypher which explains his estrangement from his son and the other set telegraphing Kitai’s final obstacle. Nether of these string-of-past-event-sequences impact the present day story, nor do they escalate the conflict. The just provide information that could have be delivered during the Act 1 set-up.

Naturally, there are other problems I had with this film, but delving into them would reveal too many spoilers, so I’ll just end the post here. If you happen to see the film and want to discuss it, feel free to comment below or drop me a line.

Sally forth and be writeful.