Thursday, March 31, 2011

INDIE: Film Festivals

Nothing makes a filmmaker feel more accomplished than getting accepted and having their work screened at a film festival. It is an exhilarating experience that people strive for and almost always leads to bigger and better things. However, it is very easy to get swept away with the tide in the violent sea that is competitive filmmaking. What many people don’t realize is that the festival circuit is just the first step towards the business and marketing end of the independent filmmaking process. That is where the film will either float into the hearts of millions, or sink to the icy bottom of oblivion. The submission fees alone can sometimes cost more than the entire budget of the film. This is something many rookie filmmakers don’t take into consideration they are ready to submit and wind up paying for it in the end (no pun intended). Unfortunately that is only the first wave of misfortune waiting to crush novice filmmakers. There is also a whirlpool of promotion, politics, and phonies looking to pull you under. Just like the filmmaking process, the trick is to plot your course ahead of time so you don’t get lost and anticipate everything.

First and foremost, any aspiring filmmaker should make sure they do not begin any project they hope to share with the world without having a designated production manager. That way while the director is busy overseeing the day-to-day creative functions on the set, the production manager can begin doing research on festivals. This includes cataloging any and all information related to the festival such as: types of films accepted, submission deadlines and corresponding fees, what kind of screening formats are accepted, notification dates, and any fine print issues and qualifying information. Based on that information they can then begin setting aside money in the budget, or raising new funds to exclusively cover the costs. Once the submission dates and fees are known they can plan their own post-production deadlines.

H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival
Portland, OR
Depending on the size of the production the production manager may also have to double as the marketing coordinator. These duties include presenting the film before it is available to screen. Everything from writing summaries of varying lengths to cast and crew bios, to poster design for advertising, to issuing publicity stills and trailer distribution falls on the shoulders of the marketing coordinator. All of these materials are eventually compiled and packaged together into a press kit, which allows people to understand the film without ever seeing it. If the film receives reviews from any screenings they should be filed in with the promotional material as well. This lets the people making selections know that the film has a following and there is an audience interested in paying to see it. Websites like Withoutabox make the submission process easy by allowing filmmakers to host their press kits electronically and submit to festivals instantly.

The best way to increase your chances for getting accepted to a film festival is by being modest and effective with displaying your skills. That means don’t try to break into the circuit with a feature length production because your chances of getting accepted on a time oriented program drops exponentially. Always begin with a short subject and don’t let your ego get in the way. Skills are skills and they will have a better chance of being recognized, even in a block of short films as opposed to a rejected feature. That’s the rule and thinking you’re the exception will only get you a bunch of submission receipts and rejection notifications. Once you’re established as a talented, screened, filmmaker then you can start submitting feature productions. Remember, nobody learns to sail on a cruise ship.

The trick is to cast a wide net and hopefully catch attention in all the competing markets. Although they fall under the blanket term: film festival, there are several different kinds, each with its own unique atmosphere. Local film festivals may seem like a shoe in, but if the Twilight Zone has taught us anything its that people in small towns can have a funny way about them. They tend to be small and will sometimes sacrifice their sense of community for passing recognition or personal motives. Regional film festivals tend to take place in large cities and can also be known as “International Film Festivals.” Because of their geographical location they tend to have more competition and notoriety. They prey on first time Indies to fund their awards and prizes for selected winners. Finally, there are coastal festivals, which have the same lure as regional festivals, but offer a more exotic climate for the event. They can be cross-country or globally oriented. Again, this is where a proven track record comes in handy, because not having a representative on hand to promote the film will lead the organizers to not even screen it. Keep in mind, these are the situations to expect from festivals that are on the level.

Speaking from experience, I have witnessed and been involved in situations in the past where organizers straight up took advantage of the filmmakers supporting their festival. In one case a local filmmaker advertised, promoted and accepted submissions (with an entry fee) for a Rockland County Film Festival that NEVER actually happened. The filmmaker was simply looking to promote his own film, but didn’t take the time to organize the event, nor did he notify anyone that the event wasn’t going to happen, or return their money. When smalltime amateurs aren’t committing fraud, semi-established filmmakers are there to exploit you and your festival budget.

Me & Abel Ferrara @ 11AM
Village East Cinema
Sunday, September 21st, 2008
The New York International Independent Film and Video Festival (aka NYIIFVF), founded by King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) director, Abel Ferrara should be avoided like an Ebola plague. Their excessively high entry fee is stipulated as completely refundable if your film doesn’t make it into the festival, which never happens. The Internet movie database doesn’t even count them as a reputable festival for a listing qualification. Once in the festival they offer you all of these promotion packages that cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and result in little more than being allowed to mingle with other filmmakers who only want you to come see their movie. Their overall promotion is exceptionally minimal and virtually non-existent for featured screenings. Their only interest is in raping the already struggling filmmaker. Even their award process is based on ticket sales as opposed to critical and artistic merit. It would be cheaper to rent a theater for a screening than to bother with these crooks.

There are even issues to face when dealing with a specific niche oriented festival. Recently my film, RIPHOUSE 151: Could’ve Been’s & Wanna Be’s (2008), was in consideration for the first ever Heavy Metal Film Festival in Los Angeles. The festival organizer stated that because the film had been out for a couple of years and was available online that it was “not very favorable for a film festival.” I had pointed out that despite the films pre-existence few people have seen or are aware of it, but that had no bearing on his decision. He did manage to schedule a screening of Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008), which was broadcast all over VH1 and featured in ever music magazine from here to kingdom come during the same time period as my film’s modest release, as well as a screening of the 17 year old G.G. Allin documentary, Hated (1994). The only thing that festival succeeded in proving was that it doesn’t care about the music, the musicians, or filmmaking, but like so many others it does care very much about money and marketing. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Don't take the plastic.
A couple of months ago I posted an article entitled “World’s first 100% GREEN DVD,” which stands for Digital Video Distribution instead of Digital Versatile Disc. It was a simple post with not a lot of insight or explanation into the genesis of that concept or claim. The link in that post brought you to a page featuring my film, RIPHOUSE 151: Could’ve Been’s & Wanna Be’s (2008) and offered a small list of its content, but little else. I feel it is my obligation to make my statements clear and understood because that is the only way to help others embrace this form of video presentation. Since the 27th of March is the anniversary of the films premiere, as well as the bands first show, it’s only fitting to officially launch this awareness campaign this week. Once all the cards were on the table it really was a no brainer, but it did take some time to come to that realization.

When the project began in February of ’07 there was already talk about the DVD before I even filmed the first interview. This enthusiasm only grew as we (me and my skeleton crew) started to compile interviews with the cavalcade of characters present in the film, along with all of the footage we were uncovering of the band performing live back in the day. When the first rough cut was completed I knew not everything was going to make it into the final version. Not to mention that there were still some things that had to go in before we could screen it publicly. The film was locked (finished being edited) in January ’08, just under a year from its inception. At that point we were itching to screen it, but the question of a DVD release was still coming up, only now it was being requested by fans.

Original Theatrical Poster
After a meager, albeit expensive, festival run we decided to not waste any more money on entry fees and began researching distribution costs. Did I mention that about three weeks after RIPHOUSE 151 premiered Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) was all over the news, stealing any thunder we may have had even if I had co-written The Terminal (2004)? Suffice it to say, the cards were more than stacked against our favor. Still, positive reviews and feedback continued as did requests for an official DVD release.

Originally we had wanted to do a 2 Disc Special “Family Album” DVD set. It was to include the film and everything featured on the green DVD, plus a director commentary, as well as a digital copy of the band’s entire recorded catalog, remixed and remastered. There was also going to be a bonus disc of the band’s best live clips, ala Metallica: Cliff’em All! (1987). Boy, was that wishful thinking. It turned out, as cheap as DVDs are they still cost a pretty penny to be done right. If you’ve seen the film then you know both the band and myself would not settle for anything less than perfection. On top of that it became a question of how many to print and where to store them. There’s very little difference in price between 500 units and 1,000, and if you‘re gonna for 1,000 you may as well go for 2,000. It was around this point that things started getting out of hand.

We started trying to cut down on the content and only keep key attractions. The first thing to go was the Bonus LIVE DVD. Then the songs were never finished being remixed, never mind remastered. Eventually people moved on to other projects. Three years of your life is a tough thing to just turn your back on so like any good captain I was going down with my ship. I began looking into DVD pressing costs to see if I could fund the project myself. It was through this process that I found out exactly what went into the production of a DVD. When they’re sitting on your shelf in your collection you tend to overlook all the useless materials that go into the packaging and creation of just one disc. Multiply that by 1,000 and you’ve got yourself enough natural resources to fill your own grave, much less a carbon footprint. Since there was no one left to consult or argue with I made an executive decision to go green.

Being aware that many products on the green bandwagon talk the talk but fail to walk the walk, I wanted to make mine as legitimately uncontestable as possible. There is no packaging, no inserts, no physical form what so ever and takes up only digital space. This is the digital age we live in so I embraced it with both hands. I figured most people already download or watch their entertainment online anyway. The film, and all of the intended bonus features (less subtitles and director commentary) are available streaming online 24/7/365. It is accessible to the entire world at the click of a button, for FREE. You can’t get greener than that and I defy anyone to try.

In all sincerity I encourage independent filmmakers to stop looking at the vain result of having your product stare back at you from the shelf and pursue digital forms of distribution. All I did was sign up for a vimeo plus account and set the video privacy setting to my website so I could host the exclusive content of my work. Not only does it make your work accessible to everyone and drive traffic to your other projects, but it also allows you to reach more people at a significantly lower production cost. There is no doubt that our civilization is going to move further towards digital storage until it becomes commonplace. 

And the crowd goes wild!
RIPHOUSE 151 Premiere - March 27th, 2008

Monday, March 21, 2011


Read the original before you read the sequel: Hollywrong

Hollywrong Strikes Back...with a Vengeance.

For the life of me I cannot come to terms with my feelings, or understanding of sequels. On one hand they can be very engaging, insightful and entertaining. On the other hand they can be boring, wasteful and damaging. For the past couple of days I have been struggling to come to an accurate conclusion on the matter, but every time I get going in one direction a voice calls me back and reminds me of something which counters the other side. My original understanding was that sequels were a contemporary capitalization on blockbuster films that rose to prominence in the 1970s. That theory was abandoned when I realized that I was overlooking some crucial cinematic film series such as James Bond and Planet of the Apes, both of which began in the 1960s. Still, my ideas were not entirely unfounded, as sequels did become more common during and certainly after the 1970s.

Planet of the Apes series
(1968 - 1973)
In a way sequels have always been a part of the narrative structure. Some stories are just too big to tell in one sitting. Take Lord of the Rings for example, you can’t even watch the movies in one sitting, forget about reading the books. Sometimes sequels come about because the characters lend themselves to alternative plots, like Sherlock Holmes, or the aforementioned James Bond. Superheroes are another example whose tale tends to last more than one issue, sometimes even spinning off into multiple series. But all of these examples derive from source material that was conceived and written by an individual, for the most part. There is an inherent consistency to the quality, voice, and character, not to mention credibility of originality. These stories weren’t manufactured to put asses in the seats, they were written to entertain and inspire. So where do you draw the line?

As the summer movie season approaches so does the blitzkrieg of blockbuster sequels, the uncontestable proof that Hollywood is running out of ideas, now, more than ever. Many of these films are advertised years in advance, depending on the popularity of its predecessors. I am personally surprised there is any water left in some of these wells. Although that would account for the steady slew of mucky movies being produced as studios scrape the bottom for anything with an ounce of similarity between their project and the original.

The logic is actually pretty sound, from a business point of view. It is always easier to make a sequel to a successful film than to create something from scratch. First of all, it is cheaper any way you slice it. Sometimes actors and crew will sign on for a multiple picture deal, which is cheaper than one at a time. In most cases the trial and error of the production has been done and they know what is going to work and what isn’t the second time around. Sometimes it’s even as simple as paying a small licensing fee for the use of a title that wasn’t a blockbuster, but found some form of cult related success. Just think of all the direct-to-video B-movies you’ve seen on late night cable. Brett Easton Ellis never wrote a sequel to American Psycho (1990), but you can watch it on USA up all night.

Aside from sequels being cheaper to produce there is also less risk and a greater financial return. Piggybacking off the success of a popular title, or character is a surefire way to make a return on an investment. Sheeple won’t know any better until after they have seen it and by then the receipts will have been counted. It is statistically proven that a sequel to a popular title will out perform an original film of superior quality and production at the box-office. So the question becomes, is Hollywood in the business of making movies that entertain or make money, and which one do you want to go see?

Killing time between sequels and reboots.
The faults with this line of logic are: 1) popularity doesn’t equal sustainability. Shrek (2001) was great fun. Shrek 2 (2004) was enjoyable. Shrek the 3rd (2006) was pushing it. I haven’t met anyone that’s seen Shrek Goes Fourth (2010), but that didn’t stop them from spinning off into Puss in Boots (2011). Which leads me to number 2) too many sequels, which can also be rushed and unplanned, will ruin a good thing. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a gem in the modern horror crown, as is the original Halloween (1978), but ten sequels later and Hollywood is pushing the reboot button like it’s a video game that will just start up successfully for a new generation of players. Either that or they let it die on the vine like the original Superman series. Honestly, what the fuck was Richard Pryor and Lex Luthor’s atomic man doing there? They should have brought in Brainiac, or Lobo, or anyone of Superman’s rogues gallery, which is virtually unknown to the general public, aside from Lex Luthor and General Zod. But that’s an argument for another time. But it does lead me to 3) there are libraries and book stores filled with books, and stories, and history, and plays that would make great films instead of the same old thing.

"Meesa give you diarrhea
for your mind, body & soul.
In a lot of ways sequels are like leftovers. Sometimes they can be very good and enjoyable, but most of the time they are too dry, or slimy, and overdone. In that regard, Hollywood is like one big entertainment cafeteria that is constantly recycling its product in an effort to be cost effective at the expense of the consumers. That sausage you had Monday for breakfast becomes the burger you will have Wednesday for lunch, which will become the meatloaf you have for dinner on Friday. The same approach applies to story and characters in film. The comedy is that we all still indulge in this questionable buffet, myself included. Whether it is out of curiosity, anticipation, or hope, sequels have an alluring appeal.

A good rule would be to use the literary source material as an example. Simply avoid any sequels that don’t include principle creative talent from the original. Of course that would mean sticking around to read the credits, and honestly how many of you really do that?


Now that you've read the sequel, read the original: Hollywrong

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


No strangers to lights, camera, or action – the legendary shock rock band, GWAR, has slowly, but surely been invading the world of film and entertainment since their inception. Beginning in the early 1990s with their breakthrough album, Scumdogs of the Universe (1990), GWAR quickly laid siege to the mainstream media and all of its various outlets. Always adamant about staying in character, their appearance alone was enough to get them in front of cameras, but it is their ability to play savage music that has kept them there for the last twenty years. The one specific thing that GWAR has which sets them apart from any other mainstream act and casts them into the spotlight is their unique sense of showmanship.

From the very beginning their act has been overly theatrical. To this day their live shows are still controversial, which is saying a lot considering societies increased tolerance for brutal, gory violence. To try and describe what they do would only prevent you from reading further, so here is a link. It is this public presentation that led to GWAR’s widespread notoriety. They quickly became the target of enraged parents, which only pushed their children further into GWAR’s grasp. Their devotion to debauchery made them the subject of several daytime talk shows including Joan Rivers and Jerry Springer. Lately the lead singer, Oderus Urungus, has been a guest correspondent on Fox News’ Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld. The satirical spectacle accounts for only part of GWAR’s success. Twelve albums in twenty-six years, not including EP’s, compilations and live albums, indicates that they’ve been doing something right.

GWAR’s first foray into films occurred with a video cameo in the sci-fi film Hardware (1990), although it was the music of the industrial metal band, Ministry playing over their image. They followed this with a live action performance in the romantic comedy Mystery Date (1991), starring Ethan Hawke. In the film, Ethan Hawke and his date enter a club where GWAR is prominently featured, playing Horror of Yig, off their album, Scumdogs of the Universe. In 1994 they contributed the song S.F.W. (So Fucking What), and music video, to the film of the same name, starring Stephen Dorff and Reese Witherspoon. The song earned GWAR their second Grammy nomination (Best Metal Performance) in 1996, but they lost to Nine Inch Nails.

It was during this time that GWAR received another boost towards their youthful appeal through their association with Beavis and Butt-Head (1993). The band had three of their music videos featured on the animated duo’s show. In addition to this GWAR were also featured in both the Beavis and Butt-Head Virtual Stupidity (1995) PC game and were the subject of their console (SNES, Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear, and Gameboy) video game, in which the goal was to attend one of their concerts. A 16-bit animated version of the band appears at the end of the game and rocks out with Beavis and Butt-Head to an instrumental version of their song Jack the World from the album This Toilet Earth (1994).

The band also filmed a scene for the musical comedy Empire Records (1995). Their cameo is by far the most memorable and enjoyable part of that entire film, despite being censored and dubbed over. Allegedly several members of GWAR also appear out of costume in Zoolander (2001) during the “Walk Off” scene. Good luck picking them out. The band of intergalactic, necrophiliac, drug addict, barbarian, space mutants also contributed two songs to the Cartoon Network program, Codename: Kids Next Door (2002). The episode entitled Operation: F.O.O.D.F.I.T.E. (2004) features two GWAR songs, The Private Pain of Techno Destructo from Carnival of Chaos (1997) and Gor-Gor from America Must Be Destroyed (1992). Both songs were re-recorded specifically for the episode with new lyrics to fit the programs storyline. The band is credited as RAWG in the episode's credits – an alias they use when playing out of character, or costume.

Aside from all of that, GWAR has also established themselves their own cottage industry in terms of media production. Their company, aptly titled, The Slave Pit, is where they produce all their music videos, including promos, long-form videos, live concert editing and dubbing, as well as record their albums and build their costumes and sets. Since many of their albums are based around concepts involving some sort of story line they are usually accompanied by a home video release. Phallus in Wonderland (1992) earned the band their first Grammy nomination (Best Long For Video) in 1993, which they lost to Annie Lennox. They followed this with Skulhedface (1994), and Rendezvous with Ragnarok (1997). Since the release of It’s Sleazy (2000), the band has only produced live concerts, or video compilations – totaling twenty-two video releases throughout their career.

Having released a brand new album, Bloody Pit of Horror (2010), on November 9th of last year GWAR shows no sign of stopping their rampage against humanity anytime soon. They consummated this release with a performance of the opening track, Zombies, March!, on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (2009). As they continue to tour and headline concerts and festivals around the world while they write new material it’s only a matter of time before they find themselves in front of a captive, cinematic audience. Most recently their song Time for Death from their debut album Hell-o (1988) was featured in the independent thrash documentary RIPHOUSE 151: Could’ve Been’s & Wanna Be’s (2008). The song appears in a deleted scene where the band (RIPHOUSE) reminisces about playing a show with GWAR in December 1990. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

FACE OFF: Page to Screen – Watchmen

When it was first published as a standalone twelve-issue series in 1986, Watchmen (1986) took both the comic and literary world by storm. Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and colored by John Higgins Watchmen (1986) stands as a landmark in the field of comics and along with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) marks the birth of the graphic novel. Watchmen brought a heightened scope and impact to the world of comics, primarily through Moore’s mature approach to the writing and Gibbon’s non-conventional illustrations, which countered the typical superhero archetype of the time. Watchmen went on to win a Hugo Award (Science Fiction Award) in the ‘Other Forms’ category in 1988 and has the distinction of being the only graphic novel on Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list. All of those accomplishments and it still took almost twenty-five years to bring the story to the screen.

For almost two decades executives and filmmakers were failing left and right at putting together a big screen adaptation of Watchmen. Lawrence Gordon, the films producer, acquired the film rights in 1986 and offered Moore the chance to adapt his own work. When he declined Sam Hamm, who penned Batman (1989) was hired to adapt the graphic novel. In the early 1990s Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys (1995)) was hired to direct the film, but left the project claiming that the material was “un-filmable.” Watchmen sat in development hell for an entire decade until Gordon paired with Lloyd Levin (co-producer) and they hired David Hayter (X-Men (2000)) to write and direct the film. Hayter would only accomplish half of this task before moving on with his career. In 2004 Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan (2010)) was attached to direct before leaving to work The Fountain (2006). Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy (2004)) stepped in briefly before the producers finally settled on the films actual director, Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch (2011)).

Fresh of the critical abomination that was 300 (2007), Zack Snyder rose to the challenge of filming the “un-filmable.” Utilizing the same approach he did on 300, Snyder used the actual graphic novel for his storyboards. This insured an accurate depiction of the novel on the screen. As for the story itself, Snyder’s adaptation remained fairly loyal to the source material, which was so strong that he would have had to go out of his way to screw it up. The final film presents about 50% of the overall material contained in the graphic novel. Many subplots and the extensive back-story that Moore provided at the end of each issue was appropriately cut out or condensed, as presented in the film’s opening credit sequence.


There were still liberties taken with the material that made it into the final film. Some were small, like Rorschach’s first confrontation with Moloch. In the novel Moloch returns to his crummy apartment where Rorschach lunges out of his fridge and assaults him for information about his relation to The Comedian. This scene is combined with a later scene in the novel where Rorschach follows-up. For the sake of pacing it was a wise decision, but they still should have had him come out of the fridge. Another small liberty was the omission of Captain Metropolis as the host and head of the ‘Crime Busters’ meeting where The Comedian mocks the idea of joining forces and then sets fire to Ozymandias’ map. Again, this was a good decision to keep the focus in the film on the Watchmen and avoid wasting screen time on irrelevant back-story exhibition.

The main difference between the graphic novel and the film is the elimination of a subplot leading up to, and including, the climax. Throughout the graphic novel there is a parallel story told through a comic within the comic (Tales of the Black Freighter). The author of this comic, Max Shea, along with several other artists were duped into designing a creature that is used by Ozymandias to simulate an alien attack in NYC. They are all killed and the creature is transported to Manhattan, killing millions. This kind of effect worked fine in the comic, but would have never translated to film with the same impact. Turning the presence of Dr. Manhattan into the mutual threat that unites the world was a good move because it substituted the need to include a lot of additional material and still arrived at the same conclusion. Simulating Dr. Manhattan’s power and using it as a weapon was not only more appropriate, but it also translated to film better than a gigantic monster. It made his character more plausible and significant, while maintaining the credibility of the setting and story.

Among the many liberties taken between the novel and the film adaptation, there are two that come off as overly gratuitous and add nothing to further the plot. The first is the sex scene between Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II in Archie – Nite Owl’s airship. What takes up minutes on screen is only a couple of discreet, tasteful panels in the comic. Despite being fun to watch, this extended display of penetration completely derails the story and has all the emotional tenderness you would expect from a thirteen-year old boy. The latter actually changes the perception of one of the key characters. Once he is captured, Rorschach recounts the tale of how he came to fully embody his vigilante alter ego. While working a kidnap case he uncovered that the perpetrator was actually killing the kids after he molested them and then hacked their bodies up and fed them to his dogs. In the novel, Rorschach handcuffs the criminal to a stove, sets the place on fire and tosses him a hacksaw – implying that if the guy cuts off his own hand he may survive. In the film, Rorschach repeatedly buries a cleaver into the criminal’s skull, murdering him in cold blood. In one scene, Snyder manages to turn the (anti-) hero of the film from a sociopath into a psychopath. By committing murder, Rorschach crosses the line that separated him and his cause from the lowlifes he put away. Had Snyder let it play out the way Moore had written it, justice still would have been served and Rorschach’s heroic integrity would still be intact. These choices are typical of an adolescent minded director, who is still developing at the expense of his audience.

Watchmen (2009)
Directed by Zack Snyder
The film was released on DVD in both a theatrical version and director’s cut, which restored many deleted scenes including a subplot featuring the murder of Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl). An Ultimate Edition DVD was subsequently released which featured the Tales of the Black Freighter (2009) animation edited into the director’s cut of the film to give it more of a complete presentation when compared with the novel. Also included in the Ultimate Edition were additional supplements that filled in the pre-Watchmen back-story and a twelve-episode motion comic version of the graphic novel.

Snyder’s next film, Sucker Punch (2011), which he co-wrote, produced, and directed, will be released on March 25th, 2011. He is currently signed to direct the next installment of the Superman series, The Man of Steel (2012), with Christopher Nolan producing and David S. Goyer writing. Hopefully, with Nolan holding Snyder’s leash, there will be a greater presence and influence on the filmmaker’s visual storytelling. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Five Remakes You Didn’t Know You Were Watching

City on Fire (1987)
& Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Originality is a tough thing to come by in any creative field, whether it is in literature, music, graphic design, fashion, illustration, or filmmaking. There are only so many genres with so many applicable plots. Lately there has been a lot of crossbreeding, resulting in unconventional combinations like the romantic-horror-comedy (Shaun of the Dead (2004)), but the odds are already working against originality. Remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, and sequels are at an all time high. If something is working you use it until it breaks and when that day finally comes you either replace it or repair it. That is exactly what Hollywrong has been doing for the past couple of decades. Unfortunately, they don’t always give credit where it is due. 

When a film is remade it usually shares many elements with its predecessor including: plot, characters, settings, maybe some dialogue, and the title. If the two versions share the same title then it is fairly obvious that the most recent one is a remake of the earlier one and any similarities are automatically understood. Sometimes two films can share the same source material, such as a novel, short story, newspaper article, etc. They aren’t necessarily a remake of each other, but they are remakes of the same story. Take True Grit (1969 & 2010) for example, two films, one title, completely different interpretations of the same material. The same thing goes for The Shining (1980 & 1997). Usually a remake is sanctioned for a particular reason. If the first was based on source material it may not have been loyal enough; if the original was very popular it may need a generational upgrade; or it could just be a personal crusade for the filmmaker involved, like Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong (2005). However, occasionally a film will be made that has a unique title, but a very familiar plot.

There have been countless times over the past few years that I have been in a movie theater, or at home, and I’ve seen a trailer for a brand new film that looks and sounds suspiciously like one that already exists. I’m not talking about common, superficial, cliché stories about teenage boys trying to lose their virginity, or bank heists and drug deals gone wrong. I’m talking about very specific types of characters reappearing in very specific types of plots. The interesting thing is that there isn’t any indication or recognition that these films are remakes of a previous work. Below is a list of five films that upon viewing, either the film itself, or just the trailer, led to the question, “Didn’t that film used to be called…?”

REAR WINDOW (1954) vs. DISTURBIA (2007)

This one is probably the most blatant of the bunch. Shia LaBeouf plays Kale, an emotionally underdeveloped kid who socks his teacher in the face after his father dies. While under house arrest for his act he takes to watching his neighbors and comes to believe that one of them is a notorious serial killer. Fifty-three years earlier Jimmy Stewart played L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, an emotionally underdeveloped man who broke a leg getting a photograph of a car accident. Looking out the rear window of his apartment, Stewart’s voyeuristic character finds entertainment in the daily routines of his neighbor’s lives. Watching them through the windows in their apartments, Jeffries experiences all the guilty pleasures that ultimately led to the creation of reality television. One night Jeffries is woken in his wheelchair, which parked at his back window, by the sound of a woman screaming. Over the next couple of days Jeffries comes to suspect the woman’s husband of killing her.

It became widely known after the fact, especially when a lawsuit was filed against the producers of Disturbia, that the films were a little too similar. The claim that the filmmakers failed to license “It had to be Murder,” the short story that Rear Window was based on, was dismissed because of the subplots contained in Disturbia, but lets face it, subplots or not, Disturbia is an updated version of Rear Window. Acknowledging it was a remake wouldn’t have hurt it, but the film loses total credibility for it’s underhanded presentation and lack of originality. At least The Simpsons (1989) had the good nature to acknowledge their source when they parodied Rear Window in the 1994 episode, Bart of Darkness (original airdate Sept. 4th, 1994).


Even the layout of the poster is the similar. The plot: two men with opposite personalities meet and wind up spending several days on a cross-country odyssey together. Both films feature an uptight, reserved man trying to get home to his family, played by Steve Martin and Robert Downey, Jr. respectively. They are paired with their exact opposites, overweight, outgoing, fun-loving eccentrics, played by the late John Candy and Zach Galifianakis, again, respectively. Both of their characters are also loners who are embraced by their traveling companion’s family in the end. While the actions of the characters differ, the basic plot remains identical. Due Date is essentially Planes, Trains and Automobiles without the heart and head of John Hughes.

FIRST BLOOD (1982) vs. THE HUNTED (2003)

I remember seeing the trailer for The Hunted (2003) in the movie theater and thinking to myself, “Why didn’t they just call it First Blood: The Next Generation.” Honestly, a former soldier, trained to kill, suffering from PTSD, running amuck in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, who can only be reasoned with by his former trainer – who did they think they were fooling? The only difference is this time the soldier is outright killing people, but if you read David Morrell’s novel, First Blood, you’ll see that The Hunted is actually a more faithful adaptation. In this version Benicio Del Toro takes on an incarnation (Aaron Hallam) of the role made famous by Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo). Also, Tommy Lee Jones (L.T. Bonham) replaced the role of the trainer, formerly played by Richard Crenna (Trautman).

This was before the word “reboot” infested the Hollywrong lexicon and evidently Stallone hadn’t had his fill of murdering minorities in third-world countries, yet. They even used dialogue where Bonham claims that if the pursuing officers decide to apprehend Hallam without him they are going to need a good supply of body bags, which echoes Trautman’s words from First Blood, almost verbatim. Do yourself a favor and stick with First Blood. The monologue Stallone delivers at the end just goes to show that much like the character Rambo, there was a time when he was really special.


The most covert of the list, this one didn’t set in until after I had watched it. On the surface, Happy Feet (2006) looked like a unique, entertaining kids movie. Nothing could have been further from the truth. First, it wasn’t unique. Second, it wasn’t entertaining, but quite lame. Third, all right, it was a kid’s movie, but it was also written, produced, and directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame. Basically, Happy Feet is to the South Pole what Rudolf is to the North Pole. Utilizing indigenous creatures both films tell the story of a pair of popular parents who birth an abnormal son. In one film the boy’s nose glows and in the other the boy can tap dance instead of sing. Both characters are teased and ostracized by their peers, with the exception of a young female who accepts them despite their abnormalities. Feeling isolated both characters leave their respective communities; along the way one is pursued by an abominable snow monster, and the other by a leopard seal. They are both befriended by a gang of outcasts (or misfits), and in the end it is their abnormality that saves the day. George Miller would have been better off making Mad Max on Ice, at least that would have been original.


This last one actually came to my attention while doing research for this article. Up until now I thought Reservoir Dogs (1992) was Tarantino’s best effort at originality, which really isn’t saying much. Among the numerous references in his films I was under the impression that the only thing he stole was the color-coded codenames from The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974). I can’t say I was surprised when I came across this article at Movie Cultists. Follow the link for a better description and understanding, and for those of you who still keep Tarantino on a pedestal you’d be wise to follow the link at the end the Movie Cultists article. I personally wouldn’t go so far to use the word “rip-off,” but for the elitist, arrogant, “one ugly motherfucker” predator look alike: Tarantino, I’ll make an exception. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lighten Up Blackface

Duane Jones - Ben
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Tolerance is a relative word. It is relative to the person or the situation and the varying degrees in between. Some people could find the sound of nails being dragged down a chalkboard completely intolerable, while others remain unaffected. The subject of race and representation, particularly in film, is an area where people express varying degrees of tolerance. On one hand it can be empowering and on the other it can be degrading. Sometimes these signals get crossed and what was intended to be empowering winds up insulting, and what was intended to be a parody winds up inspiring. The two extremes are separated by such a thin line that it is very easy for filmmakers to slip over into a misinterpreted expression. While empowering is easy enough to get right, parody is twice as easy to get wrong. A filmmaker has to have the right sensibilities that in terms of race can sometimes only come from personal experience. 

Take George A. Romero’s
Night of the Living Dead (1968) for example. Romero cast actor Duane Jones in the lead role because he was the most talented actor to audition. Out of sheer coincidence Jones went on to become an icon for black society because of his characters no nonsense approach to survival. Released just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the film unintentionally added fuel to the growing civil rights movement. The fate of Jones’ character also sparked a tremendous controversy, which was no longer relevant when the 1990 remake came around. Jones, along with Sidney Poitier’s performance as Det. Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967) from the previous year, blazed the trail for black empowerment in both Hollywood and mainstream media. Blaxploitation films flooded the market throughout the 1970s and primetime television saw three demographically catered shows competing in primetime. Without even trying, Romero’s flesh-eating opus altered the very fabric of our society and culture. 

It is only when racist exploitation and stereotypes become involved that the fabric of society is in danger of unraveling. Nothing leads to the unraveling of that fabric faster than the misrepresentation of race on screen, and nothing unravels it faster than a character performing in blackface. Occasionally, under supervised conditions, a character in blackface can have an outshining comedic effect. Take
Silver Steak (1976) for example: Richard Pryor, a well-known and respected black comedian, encourages Gene Wilder to cover his face in shoe polish and pretend to be black in order to escape authorities at a train station. If Gene Wilder just got it into his head to do that he would have had a hard time finding work again, Young Frankenstein (1974) or not. But, because Pryor is, in a sense, supervising the scene, his authoritative presence allows audiences to accept and enjoy the degrading nature of the situation. 

C. Thomas Howell & Rae Dawn Chong
Soul Man (1986)

Other attempts at satirizing blackface, such as Soul Man (1986), starring C. Thomas Howell, were not as successful. In the film Howell plays a well to do Harvard Law School student whose father has a change of heart about paying for his son’s education. Through the use of tanning pills Howell manages to exploit an affirmative action scholarship by darkening his complexion. This leads to everyone believing that he is black, and therefore treating him differently throughout the film. The film raises a lot of moral, ethical, and social questions, but through misguided presentation it fails to provide any answers. 

Savion Glover as Mantan &
Tommy Davidson as Sleep'n Eat
Bamboozled (2000)

The most profound and substantial use of blackface in cinema has to be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000). The film explores the concepts of race and exploitation through manipulation and degradation. Again, because Spike Lee, who does nothing without a purpose, and says exactly what he means with direct clarity, is initiating this portrayal, audiences accept the use of blackface because they know there is a message accompanying it. Lee pushes the situation to an extreme by having black actors perform in blackface on a modern day minstrel television show. The film totally exaggerates every known perception of black culture and its representation in the mainstream media. It is through the use of blackface that Lee attempts to evoke a connection between the outrageous, degrading, exploitive behavior of black celebrities and that of enforced stereotypes dating all the way back to nineteenth century minstrel shows. The film more or less shows that despite overcoming social adversity the ideals and perceptions of this culturally inherent form of parody and entertainment still reigns in the public mentality. When black rappers and actors go around acting like boisterous thugs, drinking from blinged out chalices they are embracing a caricature of societies expectations. Bamboozled shines a spotlight on this behavior through it’s many characters and highlights the different outcomes for each path.

Most recently Robert Downey, Jr. was nominated for an Academy Award for his blackface performance in Tropic Thunder (2008). His performance, while exploitive and comical, is completely disclosed to the audience as a satirical, exaggerated interpretation. Furthermore, Downey’s character is kept in check by Brandon T. Jackson (Alpa Chino), who continually calls him out when he crosses the line of good taste. By acknowledging that what he is doing is blatantly wrong, that makes it easier to accept him as a misguided character and not as a misguided portrayal. Because of the nature of the film, being the making of a film within a film, Downey is able to escape insincere controversy by pretty much being a dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude. The popularity and success of Downey’s performance only added to his credibility as an actor in that role. Hell, even Anthony Hopkins played Othello in 1981. Honestly, nobody flips their shit when Eddie Murphy of Dave Chapelle put on whiteface.

The dude playing a dude, disguised as another dude.
The only real way to avoid controversy that infringes on people’s tolerance is by clever casting. If casting directors put in just a little more effort they could easily find solutions to this unique problem of duel racial embodiment. One could argue that by not pursuing accommodating solutions that they are in fact perpetuating the stereotype that all people of a certain race look alike. That is simply not the case. In researching some previous articles I came across a stunning resemblance between races. Might I propose Leon and James Franco sharing the lead role in a Soul Man reboot. Either that, or people could just lighten up (metaphorically). 

Leon & James Franco - Mark Watson
Soul Man (2012?)