HEIST is a master class in tying character arcs to plot twists

As a public service, I’ve watched 99.9 percent of everything on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Whatever Blu-Rays are Inside that Shoebox I Found in Yonder Cupboard.

HEIST is what I saw last night, and (1) yes, it’s worth sending radiation at dried corn kernels for you to snack on while watching this thing, and (2) there are interesting storytelling techniques we’re going to talk smack about here on this website blog WordPress thing.

Because I care about you, this is the trailer:

So yes, you’ve got Negan (whoa!), Drax the Destroyer (double-whoa!!), and Robert-Freaking-DeNiro (you lie!!!) in the same movie?┬áPlus Gina Carano? NO WAY.

Way.

Here’s the thing that I want to talk about: each of these characters has a distinct arc, one that not only works by itself, but is a vital part of the twists and reversals that serve as the V-8 engine of this story.

  • Negan is the hero with a deadline, an Army vet and card dealer who needs to find $400,000 by 7 p.m. on Friday for his daughter’s cancer treatment.
  • Drax the Destroyer is the casino security guard with the idea of robbing the place, and the one running the job.
  • Robert DeNiro is the cut-throat businessman who owns the casino and is (a) estranged from his daughter, his only family, and (b) dying of cancer.
  • Gina Carano is the cop chasing Negan and Drax in their getaway bus.

That’s right, a getaway bus. Remember SPEED, with Neo stuck on a bus that can’t go less than 55 or the bus and all its passengers go boom? This movie isn’t a straight ripoff. Being stuck on the bus, though, with the cops surrounding you, is a great premise. They run out of diesel once, and have to work around that. The cops shoot out a tire. There are just all sorts of great problems presented by being stuck on that bus.

But I want to talk about the intersection of the character arcs and story beats.

Negan improves the plans of Drax, who’s running the job, and he’s clearly smarter than the hothead Drax.

So it makes storytelling sense that instead of letting Drax kill a hostage–the bus driver–Negan shoots Drax instead.

Then it’s the bus driver who has the idea of how to get Negan off the bus while leading the bad detective (in the pay of Robert DeNiro) to chase the bus somewhere else.

To get the money off the bus, Negan uses a fake pregnant “hostage”–his sister–and makes sure she’s the first hostage released. Clever.

And when DeNiro spares Negan, shooting his hotheaded protege before he can kill the card dealer who stole his money, you believe it, because DeNiro has been questioning his path the whole movie, and this makes sense. He’s trying to do right by the world now.

Finally, you believe Gina’s police officer character looking the other way at the end, and letting Negan save his daughter, because it’s not a sudden change of heart. They’ve set this up with scene after scene where Negan and Gina both try to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost, while Drax tries to MURDER DEATH KILL everything in sight.

There isn’t a lot of Christopher Nolan cheating going on here, storywise. The setups are all there if you look for them, or remember. I just enjoy how the character and story beats mesh so well, and when the revelations all hit at the end, it makes you impressed with Negan’s cleverness and selflessness and happy about DeNiro’s final acts and Gina’s compassion.

All of this is nice contrast to most action movies, where evil and bloody things happen to just about any character at any time, except for the hero, because everyone but the hero is basically a bad guy who’s gonna die or a sidekick type who’s also gonna die. I mean, come on. White Bearded Mentor Who’s Kinda Like Obiwan Crossed with Mr. Miyagi? Dead by the end of Act 1. Hot girlfriend, sweet wife, or cute little daughter? Kidnapped by the end of Act 2. Sidekick who’s there mostly for tech support and comic relief? Impaled on a swordfish at the beginning of Act. 3. Femme Fatale with a thing for the hero? Fed to the sharks with lasers right before the rooftop battle with the Final Boss.

VERDICT

HEIST is clever and entertaining movie that reminds me a lot of SHIMMER LAKE (a perfect movie, go watch it, DO IT NOW) in that you’re cheering on a good man doing wrong things for the right reasons. It’s free on Netflix so fire it up.

 

What makes THE WITCH PART 1 so damn great

Because we are all watching Netflix and Hulu and digging through the garage to find that old VHS player because we cannot stomach rewatching IRON MAN 2 again, there are 7 billion people desperate for something new and glorious they hadn’t seen already.

So what makes something great compared to that thing you clicked off after ten minutes because it put you in a coma?

THE WITCH PART 1: SUBVERSION is a beautiful example of a great movie with a meh title. It’s a South Korean action movie that isn’t like other South Korean action movies, because (a) yes, damn near everyone dies at the end, which is required, but (b) the story here is quite different.

It’s the structure and storytelling that makes this movie special, not the acting or special effects. Watch the trailer, then let’s dive into it.

Subverting expectations is glorious

This movie starts fast and is a slow burn in the first third. Then the last half has some of the best twists, reversals, revelations, and fights scenes in forever.

Here’s the crucial difference: in most movies, the hero/heroine is always a step behind the villains. Only in the end do they learn what’s really happening, usually during the Villain’s Big Monologue When He Should Be Killing Errybody, and the climax features an overmatched protag somehow finding a way to beat the unstoppable genius villain.

THE WITCH reminds me of why I love SHIMMER LAKE, and it’s because they reverse this normal dynamic. The villains are a step behind the hero the whole time, though you don’t know that until the end, and the climax features an overmatched villain getting outsmarted and crushed. So yeah, it’s a romp at the end, but so, so, satisfying.

Just for kicks, here’s the trailer for SHIMMER LAKE, which you should watch, then watch again. It’s brilliant.

Honestly, I’ve watched dozens of movies in the last few months, and even the decent ones don’t really surprise you at the end. They hit the same old notes and use the same old formulas.

It takes talent and discipline to structure a movie like THE WITCH, or SHIMMER LAKE, to subvert all those tropes and expectations. When it happens, it’s glorious to see.

VERDICT

Fire up the Netflix and watch this thing.

Then watch SHIMMER LAKE to see who two movies with completely different genres have similar clever endings that are so satisfying.

 

Fire up Netflix and watch THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU

Listen, we’re all in quarantine so what are you gonna do, watch the same movies you’ve watched SEVEN BAZILLION TIMES?

No. You need some fresh content, new stuff. And the best stuff hiding on Netflix is definitely foreign films.

THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU is tight, fast, and twisty. All the things a good mystery/thriller should be.

And that’s why I want to talk about it. Because structurally, it’s interesting, and well done. This film also brings up nerdy storytelling debates, such as, “What the hell is a mystery/thriller, and how is it different than a mystery or Jack Reacher punching people in the face one more time?”

Mysteries, thrillers, and mystery/thrillers

Mysteries are easy to spot: there’s (1) a murder in the beginning, (2) a grizzled, alcoholic detective who investigates multiple suspects, starting with trip to the local nudie bar–this is apparently required by law, and (3) a series of sketchy suspects who are all plausibly the killer.

In the end, our detective sobers up enough to unmask the killer and either slaps on the handcuffs or poses a math problem.

Thrillers are also pretty easy to define.

A bad thing may happen. The central narrative question is, can it be stopped?

That question is the same whether the threat is a great white shark going nom-nom-nom, an alien on a starship with Sigourney Weaver in a T-shirt, or a terrorist who stole a nuclear weapon or three.

So what’s a mystery/thriller?

Good question.

Pinning down mystery/thrillers

You can’t really pin them down, not before doing single-leg takedown and going for an armbar.

Okay, you can pin them down.

A pure mystery has ONE murder and makes you wonder who did it, why they did it, and whether they’ll get away with it. Which they won’t, so really the surprise is who, why, and how the hero catches them.

Mysteries merge into Thrillville, population zero because everybody dies in Act 3, when they do two things: (1) boost the public stakes by putting more people at risk, or underground, and (2) identify the villain far earlier in the story, when it pivots to a thriller.

You gotta have those two ingredients. More people in danger, or turning up dead, and that earlier pivot.

THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU does this perfectly.

We find out who the villain is earlier than a pure mystery, and learn why they’re doing it. The stake are higher than a pure mystery because it’s not one murder, but a series of killings. A mystery is about getting justice for that one death. Thrillers are about stopping carnage.

What’s great is this movie doesn’t cheat. There are tons of mystery/thrillers where the villain’s motivation is paper-thin, or non-existent. And there are plenty of mystery/thrillers that aren’t suprrising or shocking. You see them coming, and that puts the B in Boring.

I truly enjoyed THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU, which does a great job of subverting the detective genre.

SPOILER: the villain wins, despite dying, and the hero wins, too, because the villain prods her into getting rough justice for the death that haunts her. (Fiance/husband/partner? Not sure — I watched this thing with the subtitles on).

It reminds me of SHIMMER LAKE, where the character you think is the hero is really the anti-hero/villain, doing the wrong things for the right reasons. And you understand why and agree with him, because he’s getting justice when the system failed.

If you haven’t watched it yet, finish up the Polish mystery/thriller goodness, then fire up SHIMMER LAKE, which is funny, shocking, and brilliant. It’s also a movie told in reverse, except it’s not a Cheaty McCheatface like MEMENTO.

 

A beautiful map to movies

Zoom in on this masterpiece by David Honnorat.

Start somewhere familiar, in one of your favorite haunts, and follow a back road to hidden treasures, films you didn’t know existed.

There’s an explosion of obscure movies now, with Netflix, Amazon and others bankrolling films that wouldn’t have been made 10 years ago.

I’ll give a pitch for two: THE EDGE OF TOMORROW and SHIMMER LAKE. Here’s the trailer for the second one, which deserves a lot more love. Fire up Netflix and watch this thing. It’s a better movie-in-reverse than MEMENTO.