Post 05 – Film Review: Ex Machina

***WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS***

I didn’t want to have back-to-back posts dedicated to film reviews, but after watching Ex Machina written and directed by Alex Garland I left myself no choice. Given the recent award season push, I figured this review was relevant. If you have not read my review of The Revenant, another Oscar front-runner, you can do so here. I promise after this post I will get back to some writing. But I do want to keep film reviews in rotation, so enjoy!

Ex Machina was released just about a year ago today in the U.K. (April in the U.S.),  so it is safe to say I missed the boat on this one. But as they say, better late than never! It has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects & Best Original Screenplay (now you can sense my interest).

Right off the bat I was scouring Wikipedia for the filming location because it was beautiful. As it turns out, most of it was shot in Norway. The film stars Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, a programmer who wins a week long trip to the secluded house of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). While he’s there, Nathan reveals to him that he has created an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Nathan hopes Caleb can perform a Turing exam on her, which is where the AI is tested on its ability to appear human.

Oscar Isaac does a wonderful job of playing this drunkenly brilliant CEO who comes across as 50% bro, and 50% evil genius. Safe to say, he leaves you second guessing your allegiance throughout the film. This is perfectly complimented by Gleeson’s work as Caleb, who is honest, hardworking, naive, and too smart for his own good.

The film is broken down into seven “sessions” with Ava and Caleb speaking to one another separated by glass. At first, Caleb is in awe of what Nathan has created and is willing to run more tests. But as these conversations go on, something just doesn’t quite feel right.

pic #3 ex machina

The first turning point of the film comes during one of several “power outages” that are controlled by Ava. The whole complex where Nathan lives shuts down and runs on backup power, rendering all cameras and audio equipment useless. Ava uses this freedom of Nathan’s eyes and ears to warn Caleb that he is a liar who cannot be trusted.

As time passes, Caleb grows more and more wary of Nathan’s motives. Nathan gets drunk and passes out one day (a common occurrence), giving Caleb enough time to steal his key card and inspect his room. While in the room, he finds several AIs that were deemed obsolete, along with footage of earlier prototypes being used for sexual gratification and damaging themselves trying to escape the glass prison. Caleb now realizes that Ava will turn out just like the others. Soon after this, Caleb begins to question if he, himself, is an AI. He cuts himself deeply in the forearm and insects for electronics.

The only other character in the film is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who is Nathan’s housemaid. Nathan claims she doesn’t know any English. Besides a few scenes of cleaning up spilled wine, leaving Caleb his breakfast in the morning, and lying naked on a bed, Kyoko doesn’t seem to play a big part in the film. Although, Kyoko and Nathan share perhaps my favorite scene in the whole film, THIS AMAZING DANCE ROUTINE (clip contains explicit language). Sorry, I digress.

At the next session, Ava cuts the power and Caleb tells her of a plan to get Nathan drunk enough where he can free her of being “shut down” or killed. Caleb would re-program the doors to open, instead of lock during the power outages. Considering Ava controls the power outages, she would be able to simply walk out of her room and escape.

On the morning of the escape, Nathan tells Caleb how he installed a battery operated camera in the room to see and hear what the two were talking about during the power outages, exposing Caleb’s whole plan. But in turn, Ava’s use of human skills to persuade Caleb, means she passed the test according to Nathan.

Ava switches off the power, signaling the beginning phase of the escape plan. Nathan gloats as he talks about the unsuccessful attempt, however Caleb reveals that while Nathan was drunk the day before, he re-programmed all the doors. Meaning Ava can now leave her room and walk freely around the grounds.

Nathan knocks out Caleb as he sees Ava walking around on the security cameras. He confronts Ava and breaks off one of her arms. As he drags her down the hallway, he is stabbed in the back by Kyoko (who is actually an AI herself). While Nathan staggers to his feet, Ava stabs him in the chest, killing him. She then locks Caleb in Nathan’s room, takes skin and clothes from other AIs, and leaves Caleb locked in the compound as she escapes. She boards a helicopter intended for Caleb, and is last seen mingling with society.

PIc #2 ex machina

This film was fresh, surprisingly witty, and just all-out crazy. All three performances were incredible, and it’s an impressive directorial debut for Garland. It felt like you might’ve known just where it was going right before it took it’s final twist.

From a screenwriting standpoint, the characters were all extremely well done. Especially Nathan, who is no doubt, incredibly smart, but also just as twisted. Caleb was a perfect victim for Ava to use for her own good, and Ava herself was equal parts seductive and chilling.

The thought of leaving behind Caleb, who throughout the film seemed to be the main character, rubbed me the wrong way at first. But all this is showing, is that Ava is actually our protagonist in this story. She is our hero in this Hero’s Journey.

This is certainly a film I would recommend, and one that I should’ve seen sooner. If you have seen Ex Machina, tell me about it below! What did you think? How amazing was Nathan’s house? Why did Ava leave Caleb behind? Why did Ava dress like my grandma? And most important, why did Caleb like it so much?

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Post 04 – Film Review: The Revenant

***WARNING — CONTAINS SPOILERS***

So last night I treated myself to The Revenant, the latest film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. The epic biographical Western starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy along with a team of hunters and fur trappers that leave Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) for dead after a horrifying bear attack.

The film had been picking up a lot of advertising space leading up to the wide release on January 8th, putting a lot of attention back on DiCaprio’s star power in Hollywood. The film carries a $135 million price tag after weather difficulties pushed production back, and forced the crew to change location to finish the film.

Iñárritu’s Birdman was an Oscar darling last year, winning Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director. Needless to say, The Revenant had some competition to overcome. DiCaprio’s performance has been praised by critics, and may perhaps win him that elusive first Academy Award. Watching the physical torture he was put through on screen, it might be hard for the Academy to snub him this year.

When I first saw a trailer for the film this past summer I was elated. An amazing director, phenomenal actor(s), and a story that is riveting, this is a must see. I was expecting it to be one for the Art House, even if the star power was at A-list caliber, that’s just how Iñárritu rolls. All the films he has directed were made for less than $20 million, and all have performed well against their budget. But when I heard The Revenant was being produced for $135 million, I thought there was no way this was going to be an Art House movie. This has to be a blockbuster film! A Christmas Day release on top of that just confirmed my prediction. But alas, this was a film made for the lovers of great cinema.

It ran 45 minutes too long, DiCaprio spent more time writhing in pain than saying actual words, and the best part of the movie might have been in the first 20 minutes.

the-revenant-image-leonardo-dicaprio-alejandro-gonzalez-inarritu

But, it was all shot on location, in natural light, and might be perhaps the most gorgeous looking film of 2015/16. The film picks up early with a group of hunters and fur trappers under attack by an angry Native American tribe called the Arikara. The ambush is all captured with one of Iñárritu’s patented long tracking shots, seeming to take the audience right into the scene, not blinking for a second.

After this, Glass and about a third of his group survive. Glass then gets attacked by the bear (how the hell did they shoot that scene?). Three men, John Fitzgerald (Hardy),  Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) agree to stay behind for a cash reward to look after Glass and properly bury him when he eventually dies.

Fitzgerald ends up killing Hawk in front of Glass, and tricks Bridger into thinking there is another ambush coming, ultimately leaving Glass behind in a shallow grave. Fitzgerald returns to the group claiming Glass died peacefully and they gave him the proper burial. After these events, the film hits a lull of sorts. Glass crawls along for the better part of 60 minutes, seeking shelter, eating anything he can find, making sounds comparable to Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road (through incredibly chapped lips), uniting with a Native American warrior who tends to his wounds, and finally getting healthy enough to steal a horse from a French camp.

The French camp scene gives us some of the most satisfying action, considering we haven’t seen any since the first ambush at the beginning of the film. At this point, I thought, “Finally, this thing is going to pick up again, Hugh Glass is back!” He interrupts the rape of Powaqa, the daughter of the Arikara chief, allowing her to escape on foot. Glass then steals a horse, kills a couple Frenchmen in a heart-stopping horse chase, and proceeds to fall off a cliff and re-injure himself. Ugh. Back to crawling around. At least he sleeps in that horse carcass.

Glass eventually gets back to health and is found by his former group. When word gets back that Fitzgerald lied about Glass’ death, revenge is in the air.

Glass hunts down Fitzgerald with intentions of killing him. As Glass is about to deliver the finishing blow, Fitzgerald questions his revenge, as it won’t bring back his son. Glass looks up to see the Arikara chief, now accompanied by his daughter Powaqa down stream. Glass sends Fitzgerald’s beaten body into the river where the Arikara take care of him off screen.

revenant-gallery-16-gallery-image

Glass continues to be haunted by visions of his deceased son and wife (which were recurring throughout the film) even after his successful revenge. The film ends with a close-up of Glass looking right into camera for a solid 5 seconds. Literally, that’s how it ends.

Emmanuel Lubezki will no doubt be up for his third Academy Award in a row for cinematography. This thing was amazing to watch in that regard. But at the end of the day, it was an Art House film, made on a Blockbuster budget, and advertised like one.

It took me 24 hours to process what I watched. I’m still processing it. If you’re someone who wants to see things blow up and watch people getting gutted in pools of blood for an hour and a half, this film probably won’t be for you. There are moments of action and violence that is done with taste, not overkill. If you can appreciate the art of great film making, you will really appreciate this film.

Have you seen The Revenant yet? Do you think this will be Oscar gold for Leo? How the hell did they film the bear attack? Let me know below!

 

Post 03 – The Misconception of Writing What You Know

INT. LIVING ROOM – EVENING

Whoever coined the term “write what you know” was partially right. What if I want to write about a murder on a moon colony? Or a professional eater that can’t compete in the biggest competition due to religious fasting? Or my personal favorite, the blind man who discovers he has the power to have lucid dreams in clear color? Hmm…

I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing which, if you haven’t already, READ IT! I’m on my 2nd lap of the half-memoir, half-writers bible, and kind of picking and choosing the sections this time instead of a straight shot. King comes across the “write what you know” quote and sheds a little light on it.

Instead of literally writing what you know, bring your knowledge to these characters you are creating. Never been to the moon? That’s okay…bring the sense of isolation from that first night in your freshman dorm, or first apartment. Remember looking at the ceiling of your bunk bed thinking, “I’m all alone?” That’s the emotion you might want to spill onto your character(s). Never been a frustrated fasting professional eater? Well do you recall that time you started a New Year’s resolution that forced you to cut out those cookies before bed? Yeah me too… And as for climbing into the brain of a blind man with lucid dreams (the plot of a short story I wrote in college titled, Darkness which I might upload someday on this blog), think of a moment in your life where you literally felt like you unlocked the key to something WAY too big for your own good.

You don’t necessarily have to know something in order to write it. I do believe as writers, we soak up life experiences in certain ways that most people do not. Creatives of all kinds can relate to this trait. How many times have you experienced a crazy night out, or a very awkward date, and thought, “I can’t wait to write about this?” We’re a vessel for our work, so do as much as you can. Stephen King is an author who admits that The Shining and Misery were based on his mental state at the time. We may not know it, but some, if not most of our characters are reflections of ourselves.

I guess what I’m trying to point out is just be honest. This is probably what “write what you know” is intending to say. Don’t try to create something that someone else has already created. Don’t try to write like someone else. Don’t try to be anyone else but yourself. You’re the force behind this art, so drive it any way you damn well please. Use what you know, and what is unique to you, to bring an honesty and truth to your characters and work.

Agree? Disagree? What’s your interpretation on the quote? What’s your favorite Stephen King novel or short story? Did you break one of your New Year’s resolutions already like me? Tell me in the comments below.

POST 02 – Babies, Ideas, and The Black List

INT. BEDROOM – AFTERNOON

An idea is like a baby. It starts at inception, and through months and months of carrying around this thing in your belly…err…head, you finally release it into the world. Then you must care for it, feed it, nurture it, and make sure it’s the best little baby it can be.

Everyone has ideas, and most of us are terrified to show them off. As writers, we probably have dozens of these little babies walking around. Characters talking to us in our heads, funny moments that we scribble down on bar napkins, the perfect Act II conflict that will finally make our script really work. The point is, ideas are everywhere. Below, is a stage by stage interpretation of how ideas are found, crafted, and carried out, all connected through a strange baby metaphor. Enjoy.

Inception The mood is just right, your laptop is just sitting there, you’ve had a few drinks, now it’s time to get it on. This is perhaps one of the easiest steps for me personally. Once I have an idea, the writing can really flow. I’ve written comedy pilots over a weekend and thought, “I’m superhuman, I’ve created this gem in less than 48 hours!” And after a read through…it sucks. But the fact of the matter is, that first step is over. Maybe it was a one night stand and you’d rather not talk about it, but you did it. You’ve actually written this thing, whatever it may be. It’s on the page. Inception can be terrifying, daunting, and downright sickening. But the key is to just push forward and vomit onto the page. Literally soak that son of a bitch in words, they don’t even necessarily have to be good ones yet. Plant the seed. Just write.

The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway

Birth – Truer words have never been spoken. After laboring away at this idea for days, weeks, months… you finally finish it. And like Mr. Hemingway said, it’s probably shit. How terrible is that? You just put in countless hours of effort into this thing, and it’s not even good yet. It could be perhaps the most bittersweet moment of the creative process. You think your baby is the best baby in the world, hell, you created it didn’t you? And then someone walks down the street with their baby and you think, “Wow, that’s a beautiful baby you got there, I wish mine was like that, which baby store did you buy that thing from? I need to get rid of my baby.”

Chances are, that baby has gone through a whole lot more development than yours. That baby is learning how to walk, yours is still crying at night keeping you awake and irritated. You need to really think about what your baby needs. Don’t cheat your baby! Those cheap diapers are gonna do the job, but do you really wanna deal with the rash in the long run? Commit to your baby.

First Steps – Wow! Look at that baby go! You’ve revised, polished, hopefully work shopped your piece with some friends, family, peers, and now you’re a proud parent. You’re taking pictures of it, bragging about it at BBQ’s, making ridiculously cute themed calendars with it, etc. You’ve matured through this process too, you’re no longer the freewheeling “everything is great” person you were before…that baby was hard work. You start to really appreciate all the great babies on TV and in film a whole lot more now don’t you? So what do you do with your baby now?

Growing Up – Another puzzling stage of life for both humans and pieces of writing. There are countless blogs and websites offering tips on query letters, cold calling agents, screenplay contests, etc. Being someone who has raised a few babies only to find them grow up into lazy teenagers sitting on my couch, I can’t offer you any advice that is going to make you rich, I’m sorry.

The only thing I can endorse however is The Black List. For screenwriters, you couldn’t find a better playground for your children (I’m not giving this metaphor up any time soon). For a small monthly hosting fee ($25) you can host your scripts for the community to see. And for just a little more money (half-hour comedy TV pilots, TV drama pilots, and features all have different rates) you can have a hired “reader” critique and evaluate your script (or baby).

So instead of being judged and forced to take advice from parents with terrible children themselves, you can actually hear the voice of reason from someone who has raised a wonderful family. You may be asking, “Who are these readers  you speak of Tyler?” Well the website explains them as this, “All of our readers have worked as first filters for major agencies, studios, production companies, television studios, and management companies…And these are the best of the bunch. Beyond their previous experience, they’ve been selected for their knowledge of screenplays currently in development around Hollywood.” Basically they were former Parents of the Year award recipients.

I’ve hosted a baby on The Black List and received advice that made me change my view not just on my baby, but on myself as well. If you think you’re the best writer in the world, this website will certainly knock you back down into orbit, and if you’re still struggling with a script and aren’t sure what to do with it, throw it up on The Black List and see what needs tweaking. As writers, we don’t have a lot of resources, but The Black List is certainly one of them.

Moving Out – So let me hear about the struggles or triumphs of your ideas! Have you used The Black List? Do you think my baby metaphor was too much? What do you have against babies?

Welcome to 2016 and keep writing!

 

 

 

 

Post 01 – An Introduction

INT. KITCHEN – AFTERNOON

Hello. My name is Tyler and I am a writer. No, not one that actually has a job in the profession, but one probably just like you. I spend most of my time hunched over a laptop working away at a script, short story, or simply an idea that will most likely never actually earn me a dollar. I don’t share these projects with anyone, I constantly question my talent, effort, and dedication to the art form, and like 99% of you…I absolutely love it.

I’m hoping to hear from as many of you as I possibly can as this blog develops, grows, and (hopefully) branches out to a spectrum of aspiring writers. I write to you as an equal, not some snarky know-it-all type that is trying to tell you how to become the next Aaron Sorkin, or telling you that becoming the next Aaron Sorkin is impossible.

This will be a platform to share ideas, review what’s new, offer tips, and encourage you all to keep pushing! Whether you’re living in your parent’s basement tooling away at a fantastic new sci-fi spec (all stereotypes aside, I promise), pecking away at a script in your dorm room, or writing in laser pen on Mercury, I don’t care!

I want to hear how you approach your projects, what interests you, what attracts you to writing, and what’s inspiring you right now.

I hope to foster a community where writers of all kinds can come together and commiserate. Mostly, I will be sharing my personal thoughts, opinions, and tips (it’s my blog remember?) about all things writing. Take them or leave them. Again, I am no professional, just someone who loves the craft, and hopes to call it his “job” one day.

So welcome to Slug Line! I’m glad you’re here. Drop a comment below and share your story.