LEGO Movie 2 Review with InSession Film Podcast

Return to Bricksburg where everything is no longer awesome. Picking up where the first LEGO Movie left us, and jump right back into the action as the invaders from planet Duplo threaten the very existence of Bricksburg and its inhabitants. After the Duplo invasion reduces Bricksburg to a city that is barely recognizable. Now living in a dystopian society, a mysterious figure arrives and promptly kidnaps several of Emmet’s (Chris Pratt) friends, including Lucy/Wyldestyle (Elizabeth Banks). Emmet sets off on his rescue mission to save his friends, but along the way meets allies and enemies who test him at every turn. I enjoyed LEGO Movie 2 nearly as much as the first one! Unfortunately, hosts JD and Brendan do not quite share my sentiment; however, they provide some great talking points! But the only way for you to find out what we think of this movie is to listen to the episode.

For the full review, visit the InSession Film website for the podcast and written review! And if you don’t do so, follow InSession Film on Twitter and subscribe with your podcast service.

And you can also listen to the episode by clicking HERE.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Dark City” (1998) Throwback Thursday Film Review

The “thinking man’s Matrix.” That is how fellow critic and senior producer of One Movie Punch Joseph Dobzynski describes this underrated neo-noir science-fiction film that predates The Matrix. For the weekly film screening with my cinephile friend Leon in Germany, he selected Dark City. Truly visionary and incredibly rewatchable! I don’t know about you, but I had never even heard of it before. Perhaps that’s because I was so young when it came out. But I am glad that we watched it. It’s now among my favorite neo-noir films.  Never before have I seen a film take the stylistic techniques of film noir and extended them into the realm of fantasy, delivering a motion picture that is highly artistic and cerebral. Perhaps the film was ahead of its time, and that’s why it does not receive the fanfare that The Matrix gets. Between the two, objectively this one is more thought-provoking and artistic. Directed by Alex Proyas, this Fincher meets Scott neo-noir successfully fuses a classical film noir/detective mystery approach with futuristic fantastical allegory. One of the elements of early horror and film-noir that I feel gets lost today is the extension of the plot into the setting itself to the degree that the setting becomes a defacto character. Just as a human is more than the sum of his or her parts, so a setting can be more than the sum of its physical dimensions and time. I would have loved to have experienced watching this one on the big screen to get the full surrealist effect of being completely immersed in this volatile world. Hey Fathom Events, put this one on your list!

John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub in an unfamiliar hotel just to find out that he is wanted for a bizarre string of murders in a cult or serial killer fashion. One problem, he has no memory of committing the murders, nor much of a memory of anything save a place called Shell Beach. Thinking that he may have completely lost his mind, Murdoch begins to connect the pieces together in order to solve the twisted riddle of his identity. After a bizarre run-in with someone claiming to be his wife and a persistent detective, Murdoch continues to unravel the mystery surrounding the entire unnamed city. Never could he have imagined that his investigation would lead him to uncovering the presence of ominous group of aliens that have taken over the city. The truth that he uncovers will blow your mind.

Next to horror, film-noir is my favorite genre. And yes, we could all too easily debate film-noir‘s status as a genre as it only existed for a moment in cinematic history; and anything more modern is considered neo-noir, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept film-noir as a genre. There is a beauty to this film that does not exist in The Matrix. And that beauty runs incredibly fluidly from page to screen as is made evident from the brilliantly crafted setting, characters and conflict. There is a Metropolis-like quality to the setting and characters in Dark City. Even before Inception blew our minds with its ability to completely immerse us in the world of reality manipulated by the boundless imagination, Dark City transformed the landscape of this city in perpetual darkness. Some of the cinematic characteristics of film noir are found in the lowkey lighting, architecture inspired from German expressionism, and often a character playing the role of a detective. Whereas detective/mystery is a separate genre, there are several films with overlap between noir and detective. If you pay close attention to the production design, you will notice that the buildings grow more elongated and twisted the closer Murdoch gets to solving the mystery; furthermore, the buildings grow more slanted as Murdoch reaches the edges of the city. On a meta level, the setting is an extension of the mind of Murdoch and reflects his memories or lack thereof, more precisely the unreliability of memories. Just as his [Murodoch’s] memory is unreliable, so is the cityscape in which he resides. Characters and settings change and display broken collective memories, even when remembering how to get to Shell Beach. The design of the setting demonstrates Proyas’ attention to the stylized visual components of building this hybrid noir/sci-fi.

Whereas the neo-noir characters and world, in which they live, are very much a product of a reimagination of the film-noir genre, the conflict and plot (after the very much noir first act) are a deconstruction of the noir genre through a science-fiction plot. One of the dangers the many science-fiction screenwriters encounter is that he or she spends way too much time on constructing the science-fiction world and technology and quickly writes characters for the world. The error: starting with the world instead of with the characters or plot. Proyas demonstrates a strong commitment to his characters and plot, followed by the world. He was able to masterfully craft both because he used the world from one and the plot from another. Think of this combination of noir and sci-fi elements as Walt Disney’s patented multi-plane camera (last used on The Black Cauldron). Instead of elements mixed together, they were layered on top of one another in order to increase the depth of story. The plot remains simple; but the conflict, characters and world built on top of it gives the illusion of a complex plot. The screenplay stays true to a simple plot and complex characters. Through this visionary approach of fusing a film-noir setting to a science-fiction plot, Proyas provides the characters (and by extension, audience) a thought-provoking means of exploring reality in a most cinematic fashion.

There are considerable similarities between Blade Runner and Dark City in terms of the setting, score, and cinematography. And this is to be expected from a director who has demonstrated an admiration of Ridley Scott’s brilliant film. In retrospect, there are prominent earmarks of Muholland Drive by David Lynch as well. The meta nature of this film can be observed in the city itself. As the plot unfolds, we learn that the city is glorified set–not so different from a film set which changes throughout production in order to capture each and every scene. Just as a mood ring supposedly visualizes the emotion of the wearer, the set serves as an extension of the paranoia of its inhabitants. Capturing the madness experienced by the characters, specifically Murdoch, in the setting and cinematography adds to the experience of watching this film by creating an immersive environment as much for us as it is the characters. As this film is a means to deconstruct a film-noir through a science-fiction plot, we have the trademark characters such as a love interest and private eye; but instead of a central character who is experiencing a type of psychosis, the central character of Murdoch is the only character who has complete control of his mind and thus sees the cracks in the world created for him by The Strangers. This inverse of the central character injects this story with innovative ingenuity.

I would be remiss to not analyze the characters of opposition led by Mr. Book (Ian Richardson), with a notable chief of his version of the KGB, Mr. Hand played by the legendary Richard O’Brien (the writer/director of Rocky Horror Picture Show). While Mr. Book is the leader of The Strangers, the alien species whom have kidnapped these citizens of earth to place them in this futuristic experiment to analyze what constitutes the human soul, we spend most of our time with Mr. Hand. To borrow from Game of Thrones, Mr. Hand is the hand of the king. While these aliens resemble humanoid lifeforms, they are in actuality a jellyfish like species that uses human bodies as hosts in order to interact with humans. For all the power that their telekinetic abilities give them, water and sun is their greatest enemy, hence why Shell Beach is nowhere to be found and the city is perpetually in darkness. Just like Murdoch is an inverted noir central character, The Strangers are inverted humans as they have a great fear of water and sunlight, whereas humans require water and sunlight to remain healthy. I cannot help but wonder that Star Trek TNG and Voyager’s The Borg was influential in the development of The Strangers, as they both share the hive-like mind and pale skin. Of course, a chief difference is The Strangers’ ability to adopt some unique traits to blend in with the humans.

In retrospect, this is a much stronger film than The Matrix. Both share a similar premise, but the original expression of the shared premise in Dark City is far more timeless than the more famous of the two. And I am not merely talking about the visual effects, of which they hold up better in Dark City than The Matrix; I am talking about the comprehensive execution of the two films. Had James Cameron’s Titanic not dwarfed Dark City, then it may have been seen as the superior film to The Matrix by wider audiences than the strong cult following it currently has. But why do I feel that Dark City is superior to The Matrix? Simply stated, it comes down to the writing and direction. There are so many more layers to the writing and direction that makes it a cerebral film. I would not characterize The Matrix as a thinking man’s film, but I would Dark City. You can liken the two to Star Wars vs Star Trek (TV series). Star Wars is action-driven whereas Star Trek is largely character-driven. One may even go so far as to call The Matrix high concept and Dark City low concept. On the topic of visual effects, virtually all the effects in The Matrix are CGI; conversely, Dark City contains a beautiful fusion of practical effects (including miniatures) supplemented with digital effects. Dark City feels so much more real, tangible. It’s that authenticity that makes it the stronger of the two and warrants far more rewatches.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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One Movie Punch “Glass” Full Review

Not a total train wreck, but the plot is full of cracks nevertheless.

After the success of 2017’s Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass was the highly anticipated conclusion to the macabre take on the superhero genre. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver the intense plot that audiences wanted. After the big reveal that Split was connected to Unbreakable (2000), the audience was predisposed to anticipating the same level of suspense and thrill that was found in the aforementioned two films. Plot twist. The plot misses the mark. Glass is the final installment in this superhero universe trilogy that postulates that comic book characters are, albeit exaggerated, inspired by real-life super humans. Out of left field, this movie was completely unexpected until the uncredited cameo of Bruce Willis’ character of David Dunn from Unbreakable. Despite the lackluster narrative, the film is not without its entertainment value. It is sufficiently enjoyable, but leaves you with a feeling of “meh.”

For the full review, visit the One Movie Punch website for the audio review and transcript! And if you don’t do so, follow One Movie Punch on Twitter and subscribe with your podcast service.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Recipe for the Best Picture Oscar

With the Academy Awards quickly approaching and the nominations announcement early tomorrow morning, I thought that it would be interesting to dive deep into what it takes to build a film that gets nominated and wins the most coveted film award in the United States, the Oscar for Best Picture. In order to explore this topic as objectively as possible, criteria from 1987-2017 has been analyzed and broken down into a chart. Although there are many artistic and technical merits that make a film, this article selected runtime, genre, IMDb score, and popularity. According to the empirical date, it is possible to produce a film that theoretically should get nominated and even win, but there are incalculable uncontrollable variables that range from makeup of the Academy, to number of films submitted, to release times, to the socio-political climate at the time, so it is NOT an exact science. However, looking at the data does paint a portrait of what are some correlations between winning and the various elements that make a motion picture. Depicting the criteria in the form of a chart is certainly helpful and measurable, but combining a qualitative analysis to the quantitative approach will aid in developing a comprehensive exploration of what it takes to bring home the gold.

Films range from shorts to 3+ hour epics, and there is a correlation between runtime and winning the Best Picture Oscar. The sample of winners for this data is gathered from the Best Picture winners 1987-2017 (up to 2018 Oscars) totaling 31 films. According to the sample, 21/30 films ranged from 91 to 120 minutes with 11 of them ranging from 121 to 150 minutes. The shortest and longest films to win the Best Picture award are Driving Miss Daisy at 99mins and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King at 201mins. There were zero films to win the Best Picture award released between 1987-2017 and the number after 150mins drop off significantly. The shortest film to ever win a Best Picture award is Marty at 90mins and the longest is Gone with the Wind at 238mins. Looking to the most recent winners of this most prestigious award, there is a measurable trend toward shorter feature length films. Looking to films such as Moonlight and Lady Bird, there is clearly an intentional effort to not exceed 2hrs but get close to it. Why is this? While you may think it may have to do with film budgets, that’s incidental. Yes, money and budgets are part of the equation, but it’s because movie theatre chains want to fit as many movies as possible into a daily schedule. Two hours is a solid time not to cross because a movie theatre can play the film every three hours in a single auditorium (and stagger it with multiple auditoriums). So if you are attempting to draft your Best Picture nominees or winners, look to the runtime for one of the correlating criteria for winning this award.

Genre films are certainly the favorite of the Academy. Rarely do we witness a film playing around or experimenting with genre get nominated much less win. Personally, I like it when a film plays around with genre in an innovative attempt to tell a new story or provide a new perspective on a previous one; however, the Academy likes their straight forward dramas most. Yes, drama is in every story; but this label specifically refers to the cut-and-dry serious narratives that lack a significant level of comedy, horror, romance, etc. From 1987-2017, ten drama films won Best Picture. The next highest winner is a significant drop at 4 with the crime genre. While drama wins the most, horror, thriller, war, musicals, and romance win the least. While many dramas certainly contain elements of the aforementioned, these genres refer to the films that are genre purest than crossovers. There are certainly high profile, memorable exceptions to this rule. And the biggest surprise on this list is the Best Picture win of The Silence of the Lambs. Not only did it win the Best Picture award, but it also won Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. No other film in the last 30 years has won the Big 5 Oscars. The win of The Silence of the Lambs is also the single win for the horror genre. Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in the general popularity and critical acclaim of horror films (Get Out is a great example) but the winningest genre still remains to be drama. Another exception to the rule is Chicago’s win! Perhaps big musicals once dominated the box office but not as much anymore. Last year’s La La Land came close to winning (that is an article in and of itself) but it came in second to a hard drama. Although there are other genres represented on this graph, that covers 1987-2017 released films, it is clear that you stand you best chances of winning by writing a straight-forward drama.

While genre can be debated on many films, IMDb scores are hard quantifiable evidence that is not subject to interpretation. Personally, I am a qualitative researcher but even in an analysis such as this, having the hard numbers is an important part. While you think it would be the films that score high 8s and 9s that would win the most, the evidence from 1987-2017 states that it’s the low 8s and high 7s that win the most often. Unlike genre and runtime, there is no way to predict your IMDb score; therefore, this evidence is most handy when trying to pick the nominees and winner. It’s like looking as a sports team’s stats going into the playoffs of the final big game of the season. Perhaps it’s not an ingredient in the same way genre and runtime are; but you can extrapolate from the aforementioned data what plots to consider when building your story and how long your movie should be. If you are one of those who are selecting which films are going to get nominated or which nominee will win, then you definitely need to look to the IMDb score for guidance.

Lastly, let’s take a look at the ten most popular motion pictures to win the Best Picture award over the last 30 years. The graph referenced in this paragraph depicts the ten most popular films from 1987-2017 to win the Best Picture award. IMDb takes multiple values into account when developing this list from IMDb score, Metacritic, audience score, etc. So, this is the most subjective criteria on this list; however, since the popularity is based upon quantifiable data, it can be used as a reliable source of information. The most popular movie on this list is 2017’s The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, which IS an example of a film playing around with genre that won! It combines elements of science-fiction, drama, and romance. Taking the number 10 spot on this list is the Tom Hanks classic Forrest Gump. Interestingly, each of these winners is quite different from the rest. The only two to really share any similarities in plot are Silence of the Lambs and The Departed. Both of these films contain crime elements, with one skewing more towards thriller and the other more towards horror. Whereas these films differ in terms of plot, what they DO share in common is a strong lead cast. The top IMDb scorers on this list are Return of the King (8.9), Schindler’s List (8.9), Forrest Gump (8.8), Silence of the Lambs (8.6), and The Departed (8.5). All are 8.5 or higher. Beyond the IMDb score, runtime, and genre, what makes these films so popular is a compelling story comprised of a simple plot and complex characters. A superlative story begins with a screenplay, and the films on this list to also win Best Original or Best Adapted screenplay are BirdmanMoonlightThe DepartedThe Return of the KingForrest GumpSchindler’s List, and Silence of the Lambs. With 7/10 of these Best Picture winners also winning the best screenplay award, it is imperative that the film begin with strong writing.

For aspiring writers and directors, look at this data and take it into account if it is your intention to write or direct the next Best Picture nominee or winner. Following this data does in no way guarantee that you have an award winning film, but it does help to highlight some important and controllable elements to consider when crafting your story. With the new additions to the academy this year to include more women and other underrepresented groups amongst the Academy’s makeup, we may see a new pattern to observe over the next 5-10 years. There have been many changes to the landscape of motion pictures in the last few years with Netflix and Amazon throwing their respective hats in the ring, and with increased at-home viewing as opposed to watching first-run films in the cinema. It’s an exciting time to analyze the films that have a shot at winning the golden man, especially as the socio-political climate is becoming increasingly influential on the nominees and winners. What this data shows us is what we can observe over the last 30 years and apply that to the nominee predictions that are going on now and the eventual predictions for the winner in this category.

For more on the awards talk, you definitely want to follow #FilmTwitter on Twitter and the podcasts of Mike, Mike, and Oscar, Next Best Picture, and InSession Film. These are just a few of the great folks I follow, but ones that specialize in awards talk.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness” full review

Stephen King meets The Twilight Zone in this underrated Carpenter film! It isn’t often that I am introduced to a, what should be a well-known, horror film that is completely unknown by me. There are certainly many indie and obscure horror films that I am unfamiliar with; but because this is a Carpenter film in my lifetime, I should have known about it! Thankfully my penpal, fellow cinephile, and friend Leon in Germany selected this gem for our weekly film screening. Each week we take turns selecting a different film for us to watch. Sometimes it’s a movie that one of us likes and wants to share, other time, it’s a film that neither of us have seen but want to. This was the former. When Leon asked if I’ve seen In the Mouth of Madness, I replied with I haven’t even heard of it. When he told me it was John Carpenter in 1994, I was shocked! And is stars Dr. Alan Grant and Damian himself, Sam Neil! You may be wondering why you have not heard of this film, and that is most likely because it performed poorly at the box office and was panned by critics. Fortunately, a small cult following has developed over the years, but it’s largely still an obscure mid-90s horror film. The reason for this is likely because the film has been accused of difficult to follow, but I do not believe that to be true. It’s true if you need to be held by the hand through the plot, but this film is one of those that has so much depth that you will want to be fully engaged in every minute, every frame. In the Mouth of Madness contains many Stephen King, and Twilight Zone elements that truly make this incredibly rewatchable. The cinematography and score are beautiful, and I find the screenwriting fascinating! I’d even venture to conclude that this is Carpenter’s final masterpiece. Carpenter’s vision of John Trent’s (Neil) descent into madness is terrifyingly spine-chilling.

Summary: When horror novelist Sutter Kane (Jürgen Prochnow) goes missing, insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) scrutinizes the claim made by his publisher, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), and endeavors to retrieve a yet-to-be-released manuscript and ascertain the writer’s whereabouts. Accompanied by the novelist’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), and disturbed by nightmares from reading Kane’s other novels, Trent makes an eerie nighttime trek to a supernatural town in New Hampshire. (IMDb)

Go into this movie with an open mind. I highly recommend this because I still do not fully understand everything. But. That is the beauty of this film. There are so many layers that you can peel back and do a close reading. Perhaps this film was ahead of its time in that there is a meta nature to the experience of watching this film. The central character of Trent must discern what is fantasy and what is reality; and by extension, we are challenged, as the audience, to very much the same task. We must decide if the imagery before our eyes is reality or fantasy, to be taken literally or figuratively. While meta films are much more popular now, it was highly experimental back in 1994/95. The beauty of horror is its ability to force us into uncomfortable places in which we come face to face with that which terrifies us–sometimes to our very core. And what is more terrifying than the possibility you may be crazy or a hoax is attempting to gaslight you? When our very psyche feels under attack, it’s fight or flight.

We are drawn into the story because we are naturally drawn to the repulsive, because there is a subconscious masochistic desire to experience a pleasurable unpleasure. Much like in Sunset Boulevard where we are not concerned or preoccupied with what happens to Joe Gillis (since we know he’s dead from the opening scene), we are profoundly curious about HOW he winds up floating facedown in a swimming pool. We can liken that to In the Mouth of Madness because we know Trent, whether sane or insane (though, that is a legal term), is institutionalized and placed in the padded room. Once we flash back to a few weeks earlier, we are morbidly curious as to how this otherwise intelligent, rational man winds up a prisoner of his own mind.

Another question that the film confronts us with is the power of literature. Is it possible for a writer to be so incredibly popular, and enough people become engrossed in the words that the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred to the point that people begin to believe that the “fictional” characters and setting are a real place? That is certainly a powerful concept to tackle in a low-budget horror film. But Carpenter was never one to shy away from a bold concept or statement. It’s clear that the film is a commentary on the prolific writing and power of the words of authors like King or Lovecraft. Furthermore, the film suggests that there is a transcending power of the text to nest in the subconscious to tap into primal fears and carnal actions. Trent slowly comes to realize that the readers of Kane’s works have been placed under a spell, of sorts, that predisposes them to taking on the characteristics of the literary characters and giving themselves over to behaving like the monsters that are written about in Kane’s novels.

Kane likens his books to the Bible in a sacrilegious attempt to prove that if you convince enough people to read your books that you can control them, and ostensibly become a god. Kane certainly displays signs of a god-complex; he seeks to be in control over not only his fictional Hobbs End but the whole world. And instead of taking over the world by physical force, he seeks to take over the world through the power of the written word. It’s a fascinating concept to think about, and perhaps you can think of books that have greatly influenced society to the point that behavior changed. Can a book truly spark widespread delusions and paranoia? Trent certainly believes so. I love how this feels like an episode of the Twilight Zone on crack. The power and success of The Twilight Zone is due in large part to the show’s ability to comment on societal behavior through the use of bizarre or shocking imagery. Pose a big question grounded in reality, then use science-fiction, fantasy, or horror as a vehicle to explore various perspectives and possible outcomes.

John Carpenter provide us with a fantastic score that will penetrate you all the way down to the bone. It’s both shocking and beautiful all at the same time. Originally Carpenter desired to have Metalica score the film, but the combination of not fitting into the budget and an unwillingness to license the rights left John to compose his own score that mimicked what he wanted from Metalica. The score of In the Mouth of Madness was not intended to be spooky but to keep the audience ever so slightly off-balance. The cinematography is also an element to take note of when analyzing this film. The lighting, camera movement, and shot selections convey a neo-noir tone. Similar tones can be found in Mulholland Drive and Pulp Fiction. Although there are many horror elements in this movie, it bares a lot of similarities to neo-noir in how it handles the central character and the conflict he’s been thrown into that leaves him in over his head. And of course, it ends badly for Trent.

I am surprised that not more horror fans know of, much less, like this movie. It really seems to have two camps: one that loves this film and the other that hates it. Honestly, it appears to be one of the more polarizing films within the horror library. It’s one that I will certainly rewatch because of the highly intellectual component. There is tremendous depth to the narrative and it strikes me as the type of film that will give the viewer something different to think about every watch. It’s visually stunning and the imagery is macabre. Definitely one that I will recommend to fellow horror fiends like me.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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