Monday, January 31, 2011

OSCARS: Overrated Social Criminals Are Really Stars

James Woods in Videodrome (1983)
impersonates an average American viewer.
It’s the end of January, a time when we as a nation anesthetize ourselves in front of the television. The post-holiday season is invaded by pop culture stimulation that we welcome with open arms. Beginning with the Golden Globes and followed abruptly by American Idol and the Super Bowl, the end of January marks the beginning of an entertainment blitzkrieg, culminating in the most prestigious and competitive ceremony in the industry, The Academy Awards. This year marks the eighty-third annual event that the academy has distributed their awards, favorably called Oscars. The Oscars will be broadcast for the fifty-ninth time on Sunday, February 27, 2011.

The “academy” in The Academy Awards refers to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which was created in 1927 as a union between actors, directors, writers, producers, and technicians. The initial concept was for these groups to come together and honor achievements of excellence in the filmmaking industry. Throughout the years the five factions broke off and founded their own separate guilds (SAG, DGA, WGA, PGA). This was in part due to competitiveness and suspected favoritism/corruption within the academy. Certain factions felt they were being misrepresented in Hollywood and set out for their own best interests. Although the guilds do bestow their own awards, the clout and prestige garnered by the academy is still insurmountable.

Competitors often
play for blood.
At the very first awards ceremony on May 16th, 1929 (honoring the 1927-28 production year) there were several categories honored that did not make it to the following years. These categories include artistic quality of production, comedy direction, title writing (for silent films – the only “talkie” was The Jazz Singer (1927), which received an Honorary Oscar out of competition), and engineering effects. There were also multiple nominations for individual actors and actresses, and two winners for best picture. The categories gradually became more defined, limiting the number of nominees per category and adapting to acknowledge new additions to the growing industry.

As the years went on and more films and their makers won awards the Oscars came to represent quality, which in turn reflected at the box office. A film featuring award-winning performers, directors, or producers became more of a draw because of the recognition and prestige tied to the Oscars. This made the event a lot more competitive, with studios launching campaigns for certain films and their eligible personnel. The focus was taken off of the honorary element of the awards and directed solely on the competitive aspect of winning. No longer objective, the awards grew more and more corrupt, governed by greed, politics, and favoritism.

In 1952 the awards were televised for the first time transforming into the grand spectacle we know them as today. The presentation itself now had to be as entertaining as the films being honored. What had started out as a low-key ceremony honoring talented individuals over a dinner and after party had escalated into a full-blown production. People at home would tune in to see their favorite stars out of character and view clips from their favorite movies of the past year. This was before the days of home video. Through this new form of presentation the award show again began to evolve, just as it had with the classification of categories, which continues to be on going. The Oscars became a variety program: part musical, part comedy, part suspense, and with the advances in video technology, part clip show, but all drama.

Despite the commercial appeal of the major awards, the Academy does still manage to promote a sense of accomplishment for lesser-known filmmakers. Categories that honor achievements in non-mainstream markets such as Foreign, Documentary (feature and short subject), and Live Action and Animated short subject films give these filmmakers the exposure and industry recognition to keep their careers moving forward. It is in this regard that the academy holds true to its original ideals. The competition is still dominant, but simply being nominated is enough of an award.

Through the coming weeks I will be profiling each of the major categories leading up to the Oscar broadcast on the 27th of February. Check back Wednesday for the first piece on the most recently added category: Best Animated Feature. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


"Who Made Who" 1986
Soundtrack to Maximum Overdrive

Opting for a rockin’ soundtrack over a more traditional orchestral score is nothing new. Filmmakers and studios have been doing it since the late 1960’s when rock ‘n’ roll came into commercial prominence. Whether in an effort to promote artists featured on the studio owned record label or to fulfill the filmmaker’s vision, pre-recorded songs have become a staple in setting the tone and mood in contemporary cinema for the last forty years. With seventy-five soundtrack and film appearances under their belt, Australian rock legends, AC/DC, seem to be the go to guys if your film needs to bash some heads. Their stripped down, hard rockin’ riffs and driving rhythms make them ideal for captivating the essence of certain genres, characters, and editing techniques.

Since the 1970’s AC/DC has been composing some of the most commercially acceptable, yet genuinely credible rock songs, ever. Their style has been established since day one with Bon Scott behind the microphone and any and all success has been earned based on the bands musical integrity. They’ve never compromised for the sake of sales. After their initial inception the band peaked with the post Scott release, Back in Black (1980), which went on to become the second best selling album of all time, after Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982).

Aside from the concert film, Let There Be Rock: The Movie (1980), AC/DC had only a handful of soundtrack credits. It wasn’t until horror author turned momentary filmmaker, Stephen King, had them do the soundtrack for his film Maximum Overdrive (1986), that AC/DC really broke through the cinematic pop culture barrier. Their 1986 release, Who Made Who, which acts as the films soundtrack, featured a handful of new songs written for the film, including the title track, plus several of their greatest hits up to that point.

Throughout the 1990’s, thanks in part to Beavis and Butt-Head and a killer live album, AC/DC experienced a resurgence in popularity that has not yet dwindled. They wrote the theme song for Last Action Hero (1994), were featured in a cast-wide sing-a-long in Empire Records (1995), and appeared in Howard Stern’s biopic Private Parts (1997). Considering the only reason these movies are being mentioned is because of AC/DC it is clear that their presence makes any film better, if only by association.

In the past twenty-five years AC/DC has been featured in everything from the Hollywood soundtracks and films, to television shows, cartoons, sporting events, and even videogames. Their songs Highway to Hell and Back in Black are synonymous with the band, having been featured in more than ten separate titles, each. Most recently AC/DC released another soundtrack album for Iron Man II (2010). Similar to Who Made Who, the album acts an unofficial greatest hits release, since it contains no new material, and only two songs featured in the actual film.

They may be cashing in on the abundant creativity of their youth, but you can’t argue with results. AC/DC still out sells, out draws, and out plays any act they’re up against. Constant current exposure through such outlets as film soundtracks is what keeps them going. Regardless of that they’re doing, at this stage in their career it is more important what they have done.

For those who want to rock be sure to check out the thrash metal documentary
RIPHOUSE 151: Could’ve Been’s & Wanna Be’s (2008).

Monday, January 24, 2011

REVIEW: Get Low (2009)

Original theatrical poster.
As the original tagline states, “Every secret dies somewhere.” Such is the reality for the film which it represents, Get Low (2009). With the acquisition of the film by Sony Pictures Classics, the tagline was changed to the more optimistic, “A True Tall Tale,” re-directing the summation of the film from the story it is telling to the eccentricities of the main character. Once again marketing departments mislead viewers to believe they are going to see a film that only exists in the spotlight they are creating. Capitalizing on the successful track records of its impressive cast, which includes Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black, the film is sold on the strength and expectations audiences have of its principal stars. Their names alone should be enough to put asses in the seats no matter what the plot contains. However, the serious, solemn, soul-searching tragedy that is Get Low comes off more as a lighthearted, quirky Dramedy when presented to audiences.

The story follows Felix Bush (Duvall), a prisoner of his past, as he pleads for the parole of his soul. Realizing that he is rapidly approaching the end of his life, Bush breaks his vow of isolation in an attempt to put the rumors of his life to rest. After turning away from the church, Bush is solicited by Buddy (Black) and his employer, Frank Quinn (Murray), who operate the local funeral home. Together the three of them work to fulfill Bush’s final request, to have a “living” funeral during which people can share the stories they’ve heard about Bush through his forty years in isolation. As he slowly comes out of his shell, Bush searches for someone to speak on his behalf, fearing that he won’t have the strength to set the record straight when the time comes.

Although living funerals are not all that uncommon in today’s society, during the unspecified era in which Get Low takes place (1920’s – early 1930’s) they were practically unheard of, making this event something of a spectacle. That element of the story is actually based on a true event that occurred in 1938. A man named Felix Breazeale, who was the inspiration for Duvall’s character, lived a secluded life in the forests of Tennessee and one day decided to hold a living funeral to be able to hear what his community and friends thought and remember about his life. Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell wrote the screenplay based on a story by Provenzano and Scott Seeke. The living funeral element is really just a catalyst to get to the real heart of the story, which is the unveiling of why Bush had taken on the life of a hermit for forty years. Unfortunately, anyone familiar with story structure will be able to see the ending and Bush’s reasons coming from the beginning.

Aaron Schneider, making his feature directorial debut, also edited the film. After a shaky start, literally, with some poorly assembled handheld scenes the film does stabilize and finds its rhythm. The two scenes in question occur within the first ten minutes of the film and comprise most of the physical action in the piece. Schneider uses quick cuts, combined with the handheld camera to try and evoke a sense of frantic urgency, but only succeeds in confusing the viewer as to what they are actually witnessing. The third most important element in editing, next to the rhythm and pacing, is consistency, which these sequences don’t adhere to in this low tempo film. There is also a sense that Schneider is trying too hard to establish Duvall’s character as an outsider within the first ten minutes of the film. He exerts a lot of effort on creating conflict for this quiet, somber character that has more or less lived an uneventful life up to that point. If actions truly do speak louder than words then Bush is screaming, at the top of his lungs, for the first twelve minutes of the film. It isn’t until Bill Murray’s character, Quinn, comes into the film that the pacing begins to establish itself and the story takes focus. Quinn’s character establishes an anchor for the audience to cling to while they figure out Bush. His dynamic background as a used car salesman turned funeral director makes him charismatic and likable almost instantly.

Sony Classics Pictures distribution poster.
If the film has one, identifiable strength, it is the cast. From start to finish, Get Low is the Duvall show, but his performance is only as good as the actors he plays against. Each of the supporting characters brings something to the scene that for one reason or another is vacant in Bush. Their performances provide a complete representation of society in the story. The character of Quinn provides a sense of real world affairs, executed to perfection by Bill Murray. Buddy Robinson, played by Lucas Black, portrays an idealistic sense of moral values. Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) further supports the moral values held by Buddy, but with a spiritual edge and Sissy Spacek brings it all together as the heart of the film. Her role is key in the redemption and forgiveness that Bush seeks by conducting his venture.

All things considered, Get Low is a decent film. The story is intriguing but suffers from a predicable structure and an inexperienced filmmaker. Duvall’s performance comes across as sincere and his supporting cast gives the film a genuine sense of humanity. The other production elements such as the cinematography, production design, and music appear to fall together seamlessly. The film will be released on DVD and Blu Ray on Tuesday, February 22, 2011. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

GENRE: Documentary

Any schmuck with a camera
can make a documentary.

Non-fiction, as a form of entertainment, is sort of a tough pill to swallow. It presents no real form of escapism for the audience because it is completely grounded in reality. The only chance the medium has is to present stories that are beyond the mundane; to showcase extraordinary accomplishments, or offer detailed insights into a particular group or area. However, it is very difficult to maintain an objective balance. There are usually ulterior motives at work when presenting any kind of information, especially when it is costing someone money to produce that message. Filmmakers tend to put a subjective spin on their subject to influence the audience to agree with their point of view. Whether it is through manipulation with the editing, or lack of comprehensive research; just because it is real doesn’t make it true.

This practice first became prevalent in propaganda films, an idea of combining two documentary style films for presenting suggestive information. The first style was the daily news, chronicling local and world events. The second was instructional films, used to explain complex tasks to large groups of people. Using actual footage and applying carefully tailored narration, one could withhold specific elements of reality, allowing them to sway an audience into believing whatever they wanted. The practice is still used today by such famed “documentarians” as Michael Moore and Al Gore. Through the use of scare tactics and humanitarian exploitation they have managed to convince millions of people around the world that their shit smells better than the rest. They are masquerading as crusaders of the truth, but only presenting one side of the facts. Not that they don’t make convincing arguments, but a one sided presentation is not a debate, its a lecture. Despite the fact that their hearts might be in the right place, they are still manipulating the public, thereby degrading any nobility their cause may have had in the beginning.
What's wrong with this picture?

Who knew becoming "Mr. Universe"
was so dramatic?
Out of propaganda came an evolution of satirizing the facts with the mockumentary. As previously explored in “Five Musicals to suit anyone’s taste,” this form is quite popular, especially at blurring the lines. A good mockumentary will leave the audience believing everything they have just witnessed, despite the fact that it is clearly false, and usually upfront about it. Sometimes a film won't be outright satirical, but it won't deter the focus of it's intent either. For the benefit of the audience the filmmakers will add an extra element of drama, or storyline to the piece, making it a little more engaging for a broader audience. This form of documentary film is known as a docudrama, which is a blanket term for actual documentary films and scripted films based upon real events. From Nanook of the North (1922), to The Endless Summer (1966), to Pumping Iron (1977), audiences have been enjoying their reality with a splash of drama. Any film that is, “based on a true story,” is also considered to be a docudrama, although historical narrative seems a more appropriate title, given the content and presentation. Even the television series Dragnet (1951-59 & 1967-70) falls under the category of docudrama, with the names being changed to protect the innocent

Arguably the most successful, or at least the most engaging and unbiased form of documentary filmmaking is the educational documentary. These include programs such as Planet Earth (2006), Mythbusters (2003), and others produced by the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Insightful programs such as VH1’s rockumentary series, Behind the Music (1997) also present pieces of true non-fiction that deal strictly with the facts. Of course these networks do produce speculative entertainment as well, but it is clear during the presentation that the most factual element is the unknown.

However, television doesn’t always get it right. Multiple channels have slowly converted to the reality television show format, which, depending on the program, borders on straight documentary, mockumentary, rockumentary, docudrama, and absurdist trash. It almost seems like fiction to think that there was a time when The Learning Channel (TLC) actually had educational programming instead of "Keeping up with John and Kate, who are trading spouses, because they can’t clean their houses." To even classify these programs as documentary is an insult to the entire genre and art form, unless it is understood that the recording of these shows are a part of a global venture to document the demise of our own civilization.

Any of this look familiar?
In terms of technical execution, documentary filmmaking is much simpler than shooting a traditional narrative. There is little to no need for actors or a large crew. Also, in most cases the story is already written by history, one just has to be able to present it. Depending on the content of their particular piece and the preparation they are willing to put in ahead of time, one will only need their subjects for one day of interview filming. Of course if they are trying to capture nature it could take days, or even months of waiting with the camera, but at the same time, they don’t have to pay the animals either. At that point it boils down to a labor of love, the true essence of filmmaking: passion.

This is not news, though. Over the last decade there has been an influx in documentary filmmaking on a wide range of subjects. Everything from politics and science, to popular culture and history, to personal crusades and ambitions has been documented on film. Sometimes they are straightforward and factual. Sometimes they are comedic or dramatic. Sometimes they are trying to impress an idea, or ideal on the viewer. Sometimes they even want to make fun of the state of things. The only thing for sure is just because it is real doesn’t make it true.

If you are interested in documentary films and would like to see an original, objective, unbiased, factual, engaging, intriguing, insightful, passionate, extraordinary, unpretentious, heartfelt, comedic, dramatic, rockumentary then please check out RIPHOUSE 151: Could’ve Been’s & Wanna Be’s (2008). 

Monday, January 17, 2011

OVERLOOKED: Primer (2004)

It is every filmmaker’s hope and intention to have their work seen by as many people as possible, regardless of the reaction, although a positive one is always preferred. The more people that see the film, the greater the chance that it will find an audience and develop a fan base, which in turn will help the filmmaker’s career grow. Tragically, with so much competition out there, and people’s general instinct to “take the blue pill,” many quality films often fall by the wayside. There is no clear concept as to what makes a film successful or brings in an audience; sometimes its the characters, sometimes it’s the story, but usually it’s the names involved. Sometimes they just get overlooked, as was the case with Primer (2004), directed by first timer, Shane Carruth. Even with a theatrical release, television and DVD distribution, and the Grand Jury Award from the Sundance Film Festival, Primer has only managed to gain a modest cult following since it’s premiere seven years ago. Filmed on a budget of only $7,000 with a crew of only five, not including Carruth, who did the brunt of the work, Primer is a film that proves you don’t need a huge budget to tell a quality story.

In all honesty Primer is not the easiest film to watch in a mind-numbing entertainment sense. It asks a lot of its audience while delivering an intellectual banquet of thought provoking concepts. Not only from the technically heavy dialogue spouted by the principal characters, but the overall plot, themes, and execution really rattles ones brain. It is reminiscent of Memento (2000) in its non-linear, subjective plot structure where you are locked into the experience of the main character(s). The audience only knows what they know, and experiences what they experience, the rest is total speculation without mainstream exposition.

The story follows a pair of engineers, Aaron and Abe (Shane Carruth and David Sullivan) who, while working out of Aaron’s garage, inadvertently create a time machine. They discover that the machine only works one way, sending matter back in time to the point when the machine was started. At first they simply use the device to research investments in the stock market, but as the plot develops so does the motivation for the characters. Ultimately they wind up creating a paradox, which leads to them double-crossing each other and using the machine behind one another’s back. In the end the initial conflict is resolved, but the strain of both the multiple trips back in time and the secrets that go along with it all take a toll on their friendship. Aaron and Abe become walking paradoxes, as there are now more than one of each of them existing in the same time. 

The approach Carruth takes on the time travel element is quite unique and more or less practical. Primer certainly has more merit than the highly flawed, yet fun as hell, Back to the Future (1985-1990) or Bill and Ted (1989-1991) series and has a more grounded basis than The Butterfly Effect (2004) or 12 Monkeys (1995). As an organic anomaly, shrouded in mystery, how the element of time travel works is never fully explained. Because it is not the intent of their pursuit, it is a side effect of another experiment entirely, they have no foundation for understanding. Through experimentation and their search for an understanding Aaron and Abe are led down a moral crossroad. It is only through the causality of their experimentation that their characters are clearly defined. 

From a technical standpoint the quality of the film is as good, if not better than anything Hollywood had churned out up to and beyond that point. Carruth does a masterful job of executing his project. As the writer, director, producer, actor, composer, and editor of the film, his work presents him as an extremely competent filmmaker. The cinematography, sound editing, and simple production design all seem to enhance the brilliant, albeit complex, story that Carruth is telling. The thing that really sets Primer apart from every other time travel movie is that it does not rely on heavy special effects to distract the audience from holes in the plot. In fact, the only special effect, that isn't done with the editing, doesn't even involve the time travel element.

The film, as a low-budget independent debut, overshadows the career equivalents of other contemporary filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Spike Lee, to name a few. In terms of cost effectiveness the numbers alone show a level of dedication and competence seldom seen even in the short film arena. At no point does the film convey to the viewer that they are watching an amateur film. 

This article is not meant to give the impression that Primer will be a standalone venture for Shane Carruth, because that is not the case. After seven years, Carruth is finally getting his next film project underway. There are reports on the internet that the script is complete and pre-production is moving forward. A Topiary is going to be another sci-fi drama, no doubt building on the stylistic tones Carruth established with Primer

Friday, January 14, 2011

Five Musicals to Suit Anyone’s Taste

You wanna party with the coke badger?
Most people, when they think of musicals, imagine animated figures dancing across the screen, or incredibly limber people spontaneously breaking into song. That is not always the case. Traditional musicals are often associated with stage and theater productions. However, with the evolution of music through the decades, traditional song and dance numbers faced the challenge of being able to capture the mood of each style. Sometimes people just want to rock out, or enjoy a show without everything being made aesthetically pleasing to watch. This is Spinal Tap (1984), for example, is a brilliant musical that showcases original songs, in a specific context. The idea of song and dance numbers is no longer a specific criteria for the genre. A film whose plot is centered around musicians and showcases several performances of their original material can be construed as a musical. Below is a list of five non-conventional musicals to suit anyone’s taste. Although, unlike The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), you will probably never see the cast of “Glee” perform these pieces.

5. Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – Dir. Brian De Palma
Capitalizing and satirizing the rock opera craze of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Brian De Palma wrote and directed this contemporary take on The Phantom of the Opera, substituting opera for rock ‘n’ roll. The film combines elements of horror and hilarity, much like The Rocky Horror Picture ShowAt times the zany antics in this film make it seem like an issue of MAD Magazine come to life. Even with an Oscar nomination for composer and star Paul Williams, this film had a hard time finding an audience during it’s initial release. People simply weren’t ready to embrace the absurdity this film has to offer.

4. Fear of a Black Hat (1994) – Dir. Rusty Cundieff
This is pretty much a gangsta-rap version of This is Spinal Tap (1984).  Rusty Cundieff wrote, directed, and stars as the leader of the fictional rap group, N.W.H. (Niggaz Wit Hats). Just like Spinal Tap, this film is presented as a documentary on the aforementioned group. Taking place over the span of one year it chronicles their rise, fall, and reunion as the biggest rap act in the world. It also features several music videos and performances of original songs (also written by Cundieff) that are surprisingly good for the genre. It makes a fine companion to its heavy metal counterpart, displaying all the flaws, philosophies, and exaggerations of rap music.

3. It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004) – Dir. Michael Dowse
Aside from looking like my friend Jay, Paul Kaye does an incredible job as “Frankie Wilde – the Deaf DJ,” in this film about a contemporary Beethoven of the club music scene. Filled with laughs, devastation, and inspiration, this film tells the “true story” of Frankie Wilde, the most brilliant DJ ever to spin a record. The film is presented as a documentary, although much like District 9 (2009), it gradually shifts into the revealing story behind the speculation. Whether you love to dance, or laugh, this rhythmically charged profile will keep you enthralled from start to finish.

2. (Benny, Marty, and) Jerkbeast (2005) – Dir. Brady Hall & Calvin Reeder
If vulgarity is an art form then this movie is a priceless tapestry. Based on an actual public access television show from Washington state, Jerkbeast is a movie that strives to offend everyone who watches it and more or less manages to do it. Brady Hall and Calvin Reeder are masters of the profane universe. Following the misadventures of the worst band in the world, Jerkbeast shows us what the world would be like if any of the women G.G. Allin raped had children. It is the ultimate punk rock movie that only hurts the people who are stupid enough not to get the joke.

1. Forbidden Zone (1982) – Dir. Richard Elfman
As the opening clip below will show, this is not the most politically correct film ever made. However, it does feature Danny Elfman’s first ever film score. Just as his band was transitioning from the theatrical “Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo” to the more commercial, “Oingo Boingo,” Forbidden Zone casts a glimpse as to what their live shows used to entail. Set in the sixth dimension, this film is like a long form experimental film set to music. Fueled by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, it runs the gamut of creative exploration though music. 

"Jerkbeast" - Comin' to getcha!
Of course, if you're interested in a real life musical tragedy you can always check out RIPHOUSE 151: Could've Been's & Wanna Be's (2008).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

FACE OFF: Page to Screen – JAWS

Original dust jacket cover.
Feb. 1974
The old saying, “The book is always better than the movie,” has very few restrictions, or challenges to its truth and merit. There are some cases where the film is better than the book, and even others where the adaptation is an accurate representation of the source material. But every so often the adaptation, when compared to the original work, seems to have come straight out of left field. One would be surprised to find out that the film JAWS (1975) is as different as night and day when compared to the blockbuster novel of the same name.

Written by Peter Benchley, and published just a year before the film was released, the novel was a success all on its own. Based on that success, Benchley was commissioned to write the adaptation of his work. After three drafts he became fed up with the Hollywood rigmarole and turned the rewrite duties over to Carl Gottlieb, who appears in the film as Meadows, the newspaper editor. The two of them shared screenwriting credit, but Howard Sackler (JAWS 2) and John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian) both contributed uncredited rewrites through principal photography. Stripped of all of its subplots and flawed characters, the film focused on the story's essence – the shark.

Being a novel, it is dependent on the reader how fast they move through the material, but that in turn is based on how enticing the writing is and if it delivers or exceeds their expectations. In regards to a film, you know the events of the story are happening in a certain amount of time. Adaptation is a filtering process, as much as it is an editing/pacing process. As it relates to JAWS, there was the added challenge of redefining the characters and the motivation for their actions. Every story starts with the characters, they are the ones who tell the story, without them to have the experience there would be no story. They are the ones we identify with and follow through the pages to the journey’s end. The more deceitful a character is, the more opposing actions they will engage in, which in turn will require more development to define the dynamics of the character.

In the novel many of the characters aren’t as defined as they become on the screen. In addition to that they are more beastly themselves, lacking integrity, sympathy, and morals. The thing that draws a straight line between the book and film, on which most of the other diversions are based, is the affair that Ellen Brody has with Matt Hooper, smack in the middle of the novel. This causes a rift of trust not only for the reader and these characters, but also within their relationships in the book. Instead of the camaraderie that Brody and Hooper share in the film, their relationship in the book is bitter to begin with and gradually turns sour as suspicions of Ellen’s infidelity rise. The tension between Brody and Hooper is so great that they even get into a physical altercation before one of their fishing expeditions. In a story about a killer shark terrorizing a New England beach community there simply isn’t enough screen time to justify the selfish motivations of adultery. By removing that one subplot in the novel from the film it completely redefined the characters, allowing the shark to remain in the center of the story, acting as their collective motivation.

On a whole, while the writing is clear, and graphic, the development of the characters seems to be lacking in many cases. The character of Hooper, in the novel, comes off as a hot shit, young, rich boy trying to buy his way into adventure. A sharp contrast to the disciplined oceanographer portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in the film. It is this difference in their characters that changes the fate of Hooper from a grizzly death in the book, first being killed by the shark while in his observation cage, and then getting shot in the neck by Brody as he tries to kill the shark, to surviving with Brody at the end of the film.

"I value my neck a lot more than
three thousand bucks, Chief."
Quint is another one who is more clearly defined on screen, making him more relatable and compassionate, in his own way. You may not like him, or be like him, but you sure as shit know somebody like him. He is one of the most believable characters ever portrayed on screen. Robert Shaw’s ability to embody the character of Quint and bring his own insights to the surface of the character added a tremendous amount of depth that is somewhat vacant in the text. His function in the novel is almost to stir up tension and make light of the situations. His eccentric actions that didn’t make it into the film include gutting a blue shark to induce a feeding frenzy and using the head of a dolphin as bait. It isn’t until Hooper dies that he gets passionate about his task. In a single, sweeping monologue, that isn’t present in the book, Robert Shaw tells us all we need to know about the character of Quint and clearly defines his actions, motivations, and flaws.

In the end the shark is harpooned to death and Quint, clumsily, gets tangled in the ropes and pulled down to his death as the shark sinks into the ocean depths. There is an anti-climactic sense of closure that while it is more realistic than the ending of the film, it is not as satisfying to an audience that has invested and endured so much with these characters. 

"This shark, swallow you whole." - Quint
JAWS and its translation from page to screen is a unique situation. Usually, if the book is successful, and the film doesn’t adhere to the source material it will fail, not surpass expectations. More often than that, if a film isn’t loyally represented in film, one could turn to the pages for insights and answers. That is not the case with JAWS. As a book, the story stands on its own and, expectations from the film aside, it does deliver an intriguing story about man versus beast. One could read into it parallels between the relationship of Brody and the shark, and Brody and Hooper, exploring the duality of man as both predator and prey, but that would be entirely subjective. As a film, whose function is to entertain, JAWS delivers not only a compelling story, but also one brought to life and told with realistic characters. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this story does is swim, and exist, and makes millions of dollars. 

Monday, January 10, 2011


SID 6.7

Before he robbed from the rich to give to the poor, led journalistic crusades, masterminded covert operations, caught the 3:10 to Yuma, sailed to the far side of the world, won the Nobel Prize, took on the Roman Empire, and beat a confession out of famed lowlife, Danny DeVito, he was a stone cold maniac. It doesn’t matter how many awards he wins. It doesn’t matter how many dramatic figures he portrays. It doesn’t matter how many disguises he wears. Russell Crowe will always, and I mean always, be the sadistic, narcissist, glass-eating virtual psychopath, SID 6.7 from Virtuosity (1995).

SID, craving a nice tall glass of glass.
In the film, Crowe plays a virtual reality computer program designed to train police officers against any type of criminal behavior. His entire existence is on a 50 Terabyte module, a cube that stores all of his thoughts, motivations, and characteristics. Composed of a database of two hundred of the Worlds most notorious serial-killer criminal minds, SID is a diabolic, homicidal genius. When SID convinces his creator to place his module in a regenerating android he is able to escape the confines of simulated killing in virtual reality. The android is powered by nano-synthetic organisms, which can regenerate damage by consuming glass, making SID virtually indestructible.

"Hey Parker! This one's for you."
Once he is no longer limited to the limitless confines of virtual reality, SID goes on an unbiased killing spree through the greater Los Angeles area. Fueled by media attention, SID ultimately seizes control of a television studio that he aptly renames “Death TV.” His promise to conduct live executions by viewer request is foiled by his heroic adversary, Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington). Within SID’s many personalities is that of the man who killed Barnes’ wife and daughter, making this grudge match both personal and redemptive.

Today the role of SID 6.7 is a far cry from anything you would associate with Russell Crowe. Even the brutal skinhead, Hando, he played in Romper Stomper (1992) has more dramatic appeal than SID. Released just six months after his America screen debut in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995), Virtuosity showcased both the diversity and intensity of Crowe as an actor. His performance is comedic and terrifying, charming and lethal, sophisticated and deranged. 

SID back in the box.

It is Crowe’s performance as the vain, ultra-violent SID 6.7 that makes Virtuosity stand out among the crowd. Long before dated, deadbeat, Sci-fi thrillers such as I, Robot (2004), or Surrogates (2009), Virtuosity was keeping cyber-terror real with far out ideas, a simple storyline, and one hell of a villain.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Greener Pastures


Over the past fifty years, the importance of entertainment in our daily lives has increased astronomically. The mere thought of having to wait for something does not compute because our mentality, conditioned by accessibility, is so focused on possession and obtainment. However, as little as ten years ago, just as DVDs were taking over the market, people would have to wait an average of six months for a movie to go from the theater to home video. Considering a quarter century before that home video didn’t exist in a popular form, six months wasn’t that bad.

It wasn’t until the advent of magnetic video/audio tape, in the late 1970’s, that home video became commercially available. Before then most people either had to wait for a theatrical re-release, or for a network television broadcast, which would usually be edited for time and content. In some cases there was the alternative of owning movies available on the Super 8mm format, but again, these films would be edited down to fit on the 200 - 400ft. film reel. For today’s generation, and maybe even yesterday’s generation, it is probably quite difficult to imagine a world where home libraries were filled with books instead of DVDs, and televisions acted as a centerpiece in the d├ęcor of a room instead of an electric window mounted to a wall.

"Oh, no. Beta!"
Throughout the late 1970’s to the mid 1980’s a home video war was waged between Sony’s Betamax system and everybody else’s Video Home System (VHS, invented by JVC). While the quality of a Beta system was superior, the length of its recordable tapes was only one hour, as opposed to two-hour VHS tapes. When cable television came about in the 1980’s and people were able to record their own copies of Hollywood movies at home for repeated viewing that sealed the deal for VHS. Beta became an industry standard for it’s superior quality, and it’s limited running time didn’t impact broadcast programs, which usually ran between 25-50 in the day. Now it is substantially less. Commercially, Beta systems became a joke, not even appealing to thieves. Because of it’s mass-market appeal, VHS cornered the home video market where it reigned for nearly twenty-five years.

Ultimately flaws began to appear on the face of this young medium. It’s commercial availability made it incredibly easy for bootlegging and pirate videos to compete with studio releases. Camcorders could be snuck into theaters and after the first screening the film could be bought on the street corner for less than the cost of a a ticket.

Another shot at marketing superior quality was made with Laserdiscs. This time the image was 100% digital, being played off of a disc, rather than a magnetic tape. Much like the way records were to compact discs, Laserdiscs were the forerunner to DVDs. There appearance was very similar to a silver record. Also, like a record, they had to be flipped to continue watching the film, and depending on the length even changed to view the conclusion. Any remaining time on the discs were usually filled with “Special Features,” like behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes, trailers, music videos, or other material, Since the films were digital they could store additional audio tracks, allowing filmmakers to provide a running commentary on their films. The commercial appeal of these industry insights did not go unnoticed, but they had to scale down the format for it to become more affordable and acceptable.

Laserdisc (left), compared to DVD.
As the popularity of VHS grew so did the amount of space the tapes themselves took up in people’s homes. Brand new furniture had to be designed, bought, and built to store these things. Finally, cracks began to emerge in the VHS foundation. On top of the aforementioned flaws in the system, VHS tapes took up a lot of resources to produce. The product itself is difficult to get rid of because while the plastic casing can be recycled, the magnetic Mylar tape inside can’t, and very few people care to separate the two, resulting in one giant carbon footprint.

The late 1990’s saw the introduction of Digital Video Discs, later renamed Digital Versatile Discs, to the home video market. This perfected the technology used in Laserdisc production, but on a much smaller scale. On a medium the size of a compact disc you could have an entire movie, plus several special features. They were smaller anything that had come before it, and offered more to the consumer as well. With that, home video had entered the digital revolution.

In the last ten years formats have come and gone. Quality has continued to improve not only in the home video presentation, but also in the filmmaking process. Digital duplication has crushed the real time transfer of magnetic tape, and digital encoding has opened all kinds of new doors to distribution. All of the advances in technology only made it easier for the pirates. Now movies can be downloaded directly off the Internet before they even make it into the theater. There are websites that host streaming movies accessible any time of day. With so many formats available, you can't blame people for wanting to cut the cost of updating their personal library. If you own the material on VHS, or Laserdisc, or even DVD, you should be entitled to a digital copy because you already paid for it. On the legal end movies can be purchased, or rented, in any number of digital formats, with the preferred method still being DVD, leaning towards Blu-Ray. The problem is these formats still leave a trace and can’t be recycled or broken down.

Hypothetically, if you were to collect all the copies, of all the formats, of all the titles that ever existed, of both video and audio, you could probably build another Mount Everest starting at the base of the Grand Canyon. That’s only after thirty-five years of heavy production. The question becomes, “Where do we go from here?” The answer, “To greener pastures.”

In this digital age there should be an even stronger push towards the overall acceptance of technological advances. Inferior products should cease being manufactured so the ultimate waste they create will be at a bear minimum. Instead of producing separate soundtrack albums, the studios should partner with the record labels and put digital copies of the songs on the DVD as an accessible ROM feature. The most intelligent and beneficial thing would be for all films to be converted to digital formats and accessible online, along with any and all special features. As we trek further into the future that is the direction everything is headed, so why not cut to the chase? They should take everyone developing storage technology, for a home video market, and redirect them to developing secure software for digital video distribution – or 100% GREEN DVDs. We made it thousands of years without this trash, there’s no reason we should bury ourselves in it before we even understand it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

REVIEW: 127 Hours (2010)

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past decade.
No pun intended.

Note the hourglass imagery as
it relates to the tagline.

If you've ever been naive enough to think, “That’ll never happen to me,” it would be worth your while to set aside 94-minutes and watch 127 Hours. Director and co-writer, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), continues to define his unique cinematic style with his first venture into non-fiction. Based on the book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” by Aron Ralston, 127 Hours explores a true account and stands as a testament to the human spirit. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado on September 4, 2010 and has since been circling the globe in assorted festivals and limited city releases since November, distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

James Franco (Freaks and Geeks, Spider-Man I-II-III) stars as Aron Ralston, a hiker who in April of 2003 got his right hand pinned under a boulder in Blue John Canyon near Moab, Utah. He spent the next five days trying to free himself, reflecting on his life, and coming to terms with the inevitable. Having run out of food, fresh water, and resorting to drinking his own urine to stay alive, Ralston acknowledges the fact that his hand has been without circulation that entire time. He also realizes that since he didn’t tell anyone where he was going, by the time someone does come looking for him, he will surely be dead. The only logical move is to free himself, by any means necessary, which in his case was a dull multi-tool knife that he got for free with a flashlight.

The most powerful aspect of this film is not only that the events really happened, but that the filmmakers portrayed them accurately. The real Aron Ralston kept a video diary everyday that he was trapped in the canyon and allowed both Danny Boyle and James Franco to view the tapes of his experience. This insight to the events lent itself to a remarkable performance by Franco, and provided Boyle with deeper meaning to explore in his entertainment challenged movie. Sixteen minutes into the film Ralston is trapped, and ten minutes before the end he is out. That’s over an hour of isolation to deal with on screen. Boyle breaks it up by showing flashbacks that Ralston had while he was trapped, indulging in hallucinations he experienced, and focusing on the challenges he had to endure, on top of being trapped. One such scene shows Ralston wrapping his exposed limbs in climbing rope as the temperature drops to 44°F at night. 

In addition to portraying the physical and psychological affects Ralston was experiencing during that time, the film also shows some deep revelations that he would have otherwise never had. During his daily video diaries Ralston expresses regret multiple times for not always being there for his family. Ralston also interviews himself, during a revealing comedic monologue, where he confesses that being, “a big fucking hard hero,” that can do everything on his own, prevented him from telling anyone where he was going, resulting in his extended predicament. There are a couple of comedic moments that Franco delivers throughout the film. They serve to lighten the mood of the incredibly wretched situation and ease the audience into the gruesome climax of the film.

It is during the climax that Boyle shows the most tact as a director, keeping it as tasteful as reality would allow. There is mild gore and anguish during the amputation scene, but not nearly as much as there could have been given the wrong sensibilities. The tension during that scene is almost unbearable, as you watch Ralston sever the nerves in his arm. All of that subsides the moment he steps back from the boulder. The sequence illustrates the point and is quickly concealed as Ralston continues his journey to salvation. The character arc that Franco portrayed as Ralston is something that everyone can relate to or at least identify with, if only by association. In the beginning of the film he is clearly cocky and over confident in himself and his abilities. Throughout the course of the film he experiences humility and becomes humbled. The realization that his arrogant demeanor and life path led him directly to being trapped under that boulder is the final push to do what he needs to survive.

Technically the film is pretty solid and fits within Boyle’s visual narrative style that he has been crafting since Shallow Grave (1994). It is bookended by shots of people living their day-to-day lives, mixed with Aron pre and post ordeal. The intention is to remind us that while we’re busy doing our daily routines there are people who may be alone, or in need, and not as far away as you may think. The editing by Jon Harris (Snatch., The Descent) is sharp and fast-paced, which keeps the stationary story moving. Of course if there is anything that ties the film together it is Boyle’s signature use of music in the film. Once again he collaborated with A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) to compose the score, which is brilliantly mixed with rock n’ roll and emotion.

If there are any faults in the film, which is always subject to opinion, they are overshadowed by the subject matter and gravity of the situation. People who remember the story from 2003, or only knew the basic facts, will be enlightened and possibly amazed by the details of the full story. It is truly an inspiring tale of human survival and the will to live. Anyone who goes into the film thinking that it is a fictional, cautionary tale will be at a loss, because the gut-wrenching turmoil of the film may come off as too strong. Going into it with the knowledge that it really happened will only strengthen ones reaction to the profound exploration of the human spirit.

********  8/10