Raptors in the Forest

Over a hundred years of cinema history and people still ask “what is your favorite movie?” as if it’s nothing but mindless chit-chat or a way to break the ice on a first date.

The question drives cinephiles crazy because it should be impossible to answer, but the truth is everyone who loves movies always knows their answer. Maybe they keep a rotating list of five or ten so they can switch it up at a party and seem smarter/funnier/cooler/sexier than they really are, but in your heart of hearts you only have one answer, no matter how dumb or pretentious or pop.

I’ve known my answer since 1993, when I was watching TV cross-legged on the living room floor and a spot for Jurassic Park changed the course of my entire life.

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The things that came after — leaving Washington State for Los Angeles, ridiculous amounts of school debt, ten plus years of struggling to make rent as an underpaid production assistant on such gems as Ninja Cheerleaders —  weren’t a reality yet; in the spring of 1993 the whole of life was just a twelve-year-old boy experiencing joy to a degree he didn’t know was possible, leaping off the carpet and running through the house yelling and leaping in big arcs like a maniac.

Nostalgia distorts this moment into a perfect movie scene. My mother’s potted plants draped beside the television like jungle vines. Floating dust highlighting streaks of sunlight from the windows. The shot of a t-rex in a side view mirror infusing me with adrenaline and propelling me weightlessly down the hall.

Retrospect is what reminds me of the bemused look on my father’s face and the frustrated confusion from my grandmother, who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, as she tried to wrap her mind around the quivering, wide-eye little geek wanted desperately for her to share his enthusiasm.

With her disease this was just one of many times this scenario played out, though it’s the one that sticks with me the most. The uncrossable distance between us was of course age and dementia, made worse by my chaotic rambling, but in truth that same disconnect was always present when I tried to talk to others about movies, stories, and art.

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Like everyone who identifies with so-called “geek culture” it was late night zombie movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000 that called to me as a child. Thought I was raised blue collar, entertainment was never a reward for a job well done, it was simply everything that I cared about.

I feel like lots of people care about the rules of prose, but few look at film and television as a sort of language and try to process what they’re watching on any kind of critical level. But I always learned best through story and given that I was homeschooled up until I went to college, I had an enormous amount of free time to watch movies and television.

As a result, I thought in movie shots. I intuited film grammar from an early age and could pick out jarring edits before I could knew what to call them (the first time I learned about “crossing the line” I was so excited that I wasn’t the only freak who cared about these things!).

My parents tell stories of me pausing a movie, standing up in front of my friends, and getting angry at them for not understanding a joke or what the scene was really about. When it came to movies I found folks who enjoyed them, but no one who understood them or why they were so important.

It was a seemingly impossible divide, whether with peers or my aging grandmother.

That film obsession came to a head with Jurassic Park. From the opening THUD of brand new surround sound technology, that entire theater was as reverent as a church, faces forward, minds and souls open to whatever flashed on screen.

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When I walked out of the theater, life had changed. I’ve experienced religious and romantic and self-induced highs in my life since,  but I’ll be damned if that brightly-colored dino thriller didn’t match them all in its own way.

I’ve read a lot about audience reactions to Star Wars and Jaws, but the awe in that cineplex that day was stunning, and all I knew was that I had to see that movie as many times as possible.

An entire year of my life consisted of scanning the newspaper and finding the t-rex skeleton logo in the movie listings whenever the film played at the local second-run theater.

Luckily, tickets at The Liberty were about a buck, so it was possible to scrounge up enough loose change during a long summer day, pillaging couch cushions and scouring the parking lot of our apartment complex.

After the third or fourth viewing, when those jeeps stopped in the rain my friends and I would rush through the aisles into the lobby and up the stairs to the bathroom where we’d watch the mirror shake as the t-rex approached, our reflections quivering like those cups of water.

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Soon I had every line memorized and once recited the film beginning to end, complete with proper inflection, gestures, and dramatic pauses, totally unaware that my infatuation was inadvertently preparing me for a future career in screenwriting.

About the time I placed my first ever pre-order (a mind-blowing new concept at the time) for the VHS release in October of ’94, my parents got word that their job managing our apartment complex was being farmed out to a nation-wide leasing company.

And since part of their salary included free housing, this also meant we were out of a home. They quickly lined up another management job with onsite housing, but it was still under construction and way behind schedule.

About a year before that my folks had purchased a tiny piece of wooded property near the town of Elma, Washington. It was intended as an investment, but we now found ourselves living in the woods on an indefinite vacation.

Days were spent fishing and swimming and riding bikes on dirt trails. After dark we’d play cribbage and UNO around the campfire while my father read aloud from the highbrow works of Patrick McManus, and we’d close out the evening listening to Jim French on the KIRO Mystery Playhouse.

But evenings grew colder and the weather got worse. Nighttime in my tent brought the sounds of creaking trees that reminded me of dilophosaurus calls, the thunder in the hills of a hunting t-rex. And after a while, imagination gave way to worry.

It finally dawned on me that the daytime fishing trips were also functional, producing many of our dinners. Suddenly the nighttime trips to sneak into the local Lake Arrowhead Community Clubouse to take showers seemed less adventurous.

Finally October rolled around and my parents drove me to Suncoast Video to pick up my VHS of Jurassic Park. We had no television, let alone a VCR, so it lived in my tent safely under the pillow, where I’d pull it out and study the case with a flashlight.

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I memorized the crew listed on the front, the still images from the movie printed on the back, and I’d project the entire movie in my own mind. Lips whispering dialog, visualizing every edit, until finally we moved into our new home where I could finally press play.

The mid-‘90s are a watershed time for cinema, often overlooked. The end of New Wave in the late ‘70s lead to the corporate blockbusters that we still see today, and in many ways Jurassic Park marks a more subtle cinematic shift from personal to impersonal blockbusters.

Just look at the other top-grossing adventures and thrillers for 1993: The Fugitive, The Firm, Indecent Proposal, Cliffhanger, and The Pelican Brief. They have varying degrees of budget but all of them share a very personal scope that we rarely see these days. They are movies about one person or a small group of people fighting for survival, be it physical or emotional.

The next year brought us True Lies and Speed and Clear and Present Danger, all “small stakes” blockbusters in their own way, but steadily growing larger. And then in 1995 we got the return of James Bond with Goldeneye and the end-of-world scope of Waterworld.

But the tide turned in 1996 with Independence Day, where old-school flying saucers threatened to destroy the whole of Earth.

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The next year brought us The Lost World, where Spielberg’s dinos set foot in San Diego and destroyed the surrounding architecture, and then in 1998 — with the trifecta of Armageddon, Godzilla, and Deep Impact — mainstream Hollywood movies officially shifted to the so-called “disaster porn” that we see so much of today.

Compared to what we get now with D.C.’s heroes demolishing entire cities and Marvel flicks threatening the destroy the known universe, Jurassic Park’s simple little story about a handful of people trying to escape an island and save their own lives seems almost quaint.

And yet it holds up surprisingly well.

The film industry may have evolved, but Jurassic Park remains a perfect specimen in the fossil record. At over 800 million dollars in 1993 (more now thanks to inflation and the 3D re-release), it was at the top of the boxoffice food chain.

Sure it owes a lot of its success to the groundbreaking VFX, but more than that it was a primal little story about the importance of  living and re-producing. Remember that life finds a way not only through gender-bending dinos but also Alan Grant’s eventual acceptance of children, shifting him from a lone hunter to a nurturing father figure.

In this way he survives not only the dangerous Isla Nublar but his own evolutionary dead end of personal growth. By protecting the next generation, he’s no longer obsolete.

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As a kid I didn’t think much about why I was so obsessed with Jurassic Park. It had sci-fi dinosaurs and I was a teenage boy, so it made a strange kind of sense to spend days daydreaming about it, to re-read the book until the cover fell off, to sleep with the VHS cassette under my pillow.

But thinking back on our lives in the Fall of ’94, when the campfire wasn’t just about roasting marshmallows but also about keeping us warm, I realize that it was really all about our survival.

A well-made blockbuster will hit the pause button on your life, allow your mind to soar, and help you connect the dots of a much larger picture. There’s a reason Hollywood was dubbed a “dream factory.” Well-made big-budget Hollywood fare is a salve for the subconscious, working just like dreams to help you process the real concerns of life.

When I decided to move to Los Angeles and make movies, like so many others I tried my hand at esoteric art films and preachy independent dramas that mistook earnestness for drama. It took a while to shed pretension and understand that creating or enjoying escapism doesn’t need to be mindless and is in fact essential to how we function as people.

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For me, Jurassic Park is more than fun dialog, incredible special effects, and the stunning wonder of dinosaurs. It’s about heroes who used their brains and wit and could still barely survive.

Their noble achievement was to keep going, endure, and just get out of that damn jungle. Just how, in the end, my family made its own way out of the forest. In a world of hungry beasts and violent storms, we found a way.

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Beyond Thunderdome: Rethinking the Ugly Stepchild of the Mad Max Franchise

In one particularly snarky corner of the blogosphere known as “film journalism” there are a few movie tentpoles that draw particular ire from the shlubby masses.

Some of these films are flatly terrible, others border on great yet seem misunderstood … and some like Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome are simply shrugged off as unimportant, maybe because the two previous flicks in the franchise were arguably better.

But while Thunderdome lacks the gritty gusto of Mad Max or the sublime balance of world-building and plotting that made The Road Warrior a classic, it’s a shame to ignore a movie that — if taken on its own merits — might be one of the better and more unique Hollywood films of the ‘80s.

(and yes, I know it’s not technically a Hollywood movie, but with the Tina Turner stunt casting and Spielbergian vibe it’s totally a Hollywood movie)

Though while it’s got a lot of great things going for it, unlike its predecessors, it’s a bit harder to pinpoint those things that make Thunderdome work.

This is due in part to its split narrative. Much like another maligned third-installment, Return of the Jedi, it spends about 40 minutes being one movie and then abruptly shifts to another that connects on a narrative level yet feels different in terms of tone and theme.

Thunderdome4Have to fight! Have to crow!

When the film opens we find a far more ragged and long-haired version of Max Rockatansky. He’s shed his badass leather attire for desert robes, his scruffy dog for a mischievous monkey, and his supercharger has been replaced by a camel-pulled wagon, creating an aura of mystic wander instead of the brutal avenger that’s been the character’s trademark vibe since the intense finale of the first film.

This is usually strike one, two, and three for a lot of fans. The movie was released just four years after The Road Warrior and yet seems to take place quite a few years into the character’s future. For example, it’s the first movie where radiation is mentioned, indicating that a nuclear holocaust occurred between the second and third films, and this means Max has been through a lot of character changes that we haven’t been privy to.

Nolan and Goyer made a similar misstep years later with The Dark Knight Returns, which opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight with Bruce Wayne having quit his mission and transformed into a total recluse.

In the case of The Dark Knight Rises this was far more jarring because the franchise had a much tighter narrative through-line. Wayne’s transformation not only happened offscreen, it also felt out of character and also out of alignment with the final moments of the Dark Knight which ended with Wayne as Batman running straight at camera in a newfound commitment to his mission.

In the case of the Mad Max franchise, the linking narrative tissue was always treated as myth or legend. Each sequel (and this is also true of Fury Road) basically retcons the mythology of its predecessor in much the same was as the Evil Dead films. This leaves a lot more narrative leeway for its protagonist’s journey.

Still, it’s a lot to ask an audience to accept from their hero, though in the case of Beyond Thunderdome the character transformation isn’t nearly as jarring as the Dark Knight films, partly because Max was always an anti-hero and because Max really never had an ethos besides avenging his dead family. With that already resolved, why shouldn’t he wander?

In this regard the film works well in its first half, as Max is pulled out of complacency when his wagon is stolen and he travels to a twisted village known as Bartertown to get it back.

This section of the film seems to work best for the fans, as George Miller and his talented crew take time to let the world sink in. It’s the details that make the Mad Max films a cut above other b-level apocalyptic adventures and with Beyond Thunderdome we’re treated to a fascinating look at a proto-civilization starting to pull itself from the ashes of a holocaust.

Max quickly makes a deal with Bartertown’s figurehead Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner in one of my favorite pieces of stunt casting ever.

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I’m sure Turner’s presence seemed far more distracting in the mid-80s when she was at the peak of her career, but looking back as a child of the ’90s she’s perfect as the larger-than-life villain. A little wooden, maybe, but much like Dwayne Johnson’s entire career she makes up for it with sheer charisma and screen presence.

After the wanton insanity of Toecutter, Wez, and Lord Humungus it’s fantastic to see Max up against someone more civilized … and it makes sense that the inherent politics that come with even a fledgling civilization get Max intro trouble, since it was that same bureaucracy in the first film that ultimately lead to Max’s soul-damaging revenge spree.

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The first half of the film culminates when Aunty Entity hires Max for a political murder. This sets up the most memorable scene in the film, Thunderdome!

thunderdome_audienceYay.

In addition to being flat-out awesome (and one of the few sequences in the film directed by Miller directly), this sequence also gives us Dr. Dealgood, one of the best characters from the entire franchise. Evil and unabashedly vaudevillian, he struts around with a cane and spits out some of the best dialog ever.

Thunderdome_drdealgood“Right now, I’ve got two men, two men with a gut full of fear.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

This sequence is so memorable that despite mediocre boxoffice for the film as a whole, the Thunderdome idea saturated our culture to the point that in the late ’80s my friends and I would play a game called Thunderdome without even knowing about the movie (true, it involved pillows instead of chainsaws, but still).

It’s even became a staple at the Burning Man festival, although much drunker and way less cool:

It’s during this thunderdome sequence we hit our first hiccup in terms of Max’s character development. When he discovers that the man he’s hired to kill has a mental disability, Max refuses to make the kill.

Of course the filmmakers weren’t going to tell us a story where Max would knowingly murder someone with a mental handicap, but as a result they reveal that Max has a conscience and a soul.

This is troublesome because not only was this already established by the end of The Road Warrior, the filmmakers also spend the rest of the movie giving Max a redemption arc … even though he’s obviously already redeemed. He’s a man who won’t kill the innocent, forced into violence only when he’s attacked. Doesn’t seem like such a bad dude to me.

It’s this core character vagary that eats away at the narrative. I really believe it’s part of why the film didn’t resonate with audience like the first two, leaving them room to nitpick the far less important flaws.

And those perceived flaws start in earnest after Max is banished from Bartertown and the second movie begins.

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Max survives his forced trek through the desert and ends up with a tribe of feral children who are the sole survivors of a jet crash during the unseen nuclear “Pockylypse.”

Wild, dirty, and speaking with their own makeshift vernacular, these characters tend to make or break the film for most viewers. Personally, I love it, though my reaction might be biased by the fact this was the first Mad Max film I ever saw. They are certainly a tonal departure from the first two films, but this is mainly due to the overall PG-13 quality of the film.

Where The Road Warrior had a feral child brutally murder men with a sharp boomerang, the children in Beyond Thunderdome are, like all the deaths in the movie, completely bloodless.

thunderdome_lostboysThis might be what lead to the common critical battlecry of “those kids were just too cute!” (again echoing the trite critiques of Return of the Jedi, this time in regards to the Ewoks) but ultimately it’s an unfair accusation since they fall in line with the whole tone of the film.

The more valid critique might be the strong “lost boys” vibe they have. Not only could  you easily cut and paste scenes right into Spielberg’s Hook and not even notice, this section of the film takes a very magical turn that, while cool, seems out of place within the context of the whole franchise (or, at least, until Fury Road came along).

For some reason, Max oddly resembles the tribe’s prophesied savior and then ultimately fulfills that prophecy to leading them to freedom (ala the entire third act of The Road Warrior).

This “hero’s journey” is a little forced but makes sense. This film made just seven years after George Lucas inadvertently turned Joseph Cambell’s work on comparative mythology into a paint-by-numbers screenwriting guide.

Also, Miller spent the years between the second and third Mad Max films over in Los Angeles, cutting his Hollywood teeth on Spielberg’s Twilight Zone anthology.

Thunderdome8This “Spielbergian” grandeur is evident not only in the broader strokes storytelling but also in every frame and edit of the film. It’s noticeably more “refined” than the first two films, with more intricate camera staging and character blocking. Compare the perfectly timed orchestration of the Bartertown intro to the first assault on the oil refinery in The Road Warrior, which was rough and messy and in many ways far more real and visceral.

Thunderdome10As a huge Spielberg fan this is probably why I love Thunderdome, but it’s easy to see the stylistic shift that might have bumped a lot of people, and there are certainly other odd choices that make watching the film a little confusing.

For example, the re-casting of Bruce Spence as Jedidiah. Not only is Spence a very recognizable character actor, but his Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior also traveled around in a flying machine … yet he’s obviously not playing the same character because the Gyro Captain escaped to the coast at the end of The Road Warrior.

Thunderdome6Now with 50% more sidekick …

Also, in Thunderdome Max travels around with a mischievous monkey, ala Raiders of the Lost Ark, even though it never effects the plot and is seemingly there just to be adorable.

Thunderdome7And the finale on the train, while stunning, is far too reminiscent of the tanker truck chase at the end of The Road Warrior. It feels like a “bigger and better” version of the previous film’s finale, ending with Max flat on his back at the mercy of Aunty Entity and her gang … only to have her let him go free for absolutely no good reason.

Thundersome2Well. That was a freebie.

Placing such a huge flaw in character motivation at the very end of your film just to get the hero out of danger is an enormous crutch that rings false, leaving only the end credits and a Tina Turner song to win back the audience. It’s definitely the weakest moment in the film.

Looking back at Thunderdome it’s hard to really gauge audience reaction at the time. Over the years the film has been labeled as “bad” even though the few critical reviews that survived the digital boom over the past few decades are generally positive.

There aren’t many people that would claim Thunderdome works on the same level as its predecessors, but it’s a far cry from being a “bad” movie (whatever that means). The fantastic dialog alone justifies the film’s existence, not to mention the set design and amazing stuntwork that are, judging by Fury Road, a lot closer to what George Miller was striving for all along.

And while it may pale in comparison to all the others, it’s definitely worth a watch if you’ve never seen it and certainly should be considered “canon” by all the know-it-all shlubbs like me.

Length Matters: A Response to Total Film’s “Fifty Movies That are Longer Than They Should Be”

Back in August, the website Total Film posted a list of “Fifty Movies That Are Longer Than They Should Be.”

It’s not a new idea to segment complicated arguments into bite-sized chunks before feeding them to your audience. As Mark O’Connell pointed out, it’s been around since the Ten Commandments, and Don DeLillo decried the current trend in pop culture during an interview with The Paris Review back in 1993:

 “Lists are a form of cultural hysteria.” – Don De Lillo

Despite their popularity, there’s something off-putting about this Total Film list that seems rampant in this sort of internet writing. A lower word count can sometimes lead to concise and thoughtful insights, but more often than not it leads to oversimplification and reductive thinking.  And sometimes things get downright nasty (watch the movie Heckler on Netflix streaming for proof of this).

I’ve found this to be true in my own writing. While in the case of my magnum opus “Top Ten Vampire Movies” things remained relatively positive, my lesser masterwork of “Ten Worst Sequels to Great Movies” got snarky in a hurry (part of the reason I no longer write these sorts of lists). They may be fun to write, but I no longer want to reduce a complex cinematic experience into a three-sentence blurb.

This is not to say all internet movie lists are bad. Movie-Moron.com often publishes lists with a positive tone that are a great gateway for folks to discover new movies.

But what makes Total Film’s list stand out to me is that it dabbles in proper film criticism. Not only does it highlight perceived flaws in fifty films, it also offers suggestions on how to “fix” them … and most of the suggestions are terrible. I’ve selected thirteen that seem to highlight a worrisome trend in the blogosphere where modern film critics don’t seem to understand even the basic tenants of dramatic storytelling.

This is not to belittle their hard work or question their intelligence. Drama, especially drama that’s filmed and edited, is a very complex thing. I’ve worked in the film industry for over ten years and I’m still surprised by the craft on a regular basis. But a respect for this complexity – and the blood and sweat from all the artisans involved – is what’s missing from a list like “Fifty Movies That Are Longer Than They Should Be”.

So, risking hypocrisy, here is my response, a list of “Thirteen Movies That Total Film Thinks They Can Fix.”

NOTE: The film title, length, explanation of the problem, and proposed solution are presented in blue text and are pasted directly from the Total Film website.

1. The Chronicles of Riddick

Length: 119 mins

Why That’s Too Long:Pitch Black succeeded so well because it was lean, mean and focused. The Chronicles of Riddick did the complete opposite, pumping so much space opera, melodrama and superfluous characters into the mix that it drastically missed the point of why fans had loved Riddick in the first place.

How We’d Fix It: Remove all the additional characters and sub-plots who brought nothing to the table (Judi Dench, as much as we love you, we’re looking at you). So, in other words, a movie that looks pretty darn similar to forthcoming threequel Riddick….

Response: Ignoring the fact that the film runs under two hours (the “normal” length of most feature films), their proposed “fix” would cut out the heart of what Twohy was trying to achieve. Love it or hate it, the idea was to turn Riddick into a sort-of Conan in space. The “space opera” elements are the entire point of the film; it’s campy to the core. It even features a scene where a vicious, blood-drinking antihero kills a man with a tea cup.  Obviously this is not to everyone’s tastes, but this critic’s issue is that he wanted an inherently different film, something that running time won’t fix. Then again, I’ve expressed my love for the Riddick franchise before, so maybe I’m just biased.

2. Empire

Length: 485 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Andy Warhol’s silent black-and-white film is eight hours and five minutes of continuous slow motion footage of the Empire State Building. And, well, that’s it.

How We’d Fix It: Admittedly, he was probably going for more of an art experiment than coherent narrative, but surely *SARCASM ALERT* four hours would’ve served as perfunctorily as eight?

Response:  I’ve never seen all of Warhol’s Empire. You can find clips on Youtube to get a taste, but simply getting a taste is counterpoint to the entire purpose of the film.  Warhol slowed down the frame rate to make the film last eight hours and make the passage from darkness to daylight imperceptible. In his own words the point was to “see time go by.”  While Total Film is obviously trying to be funny, their final snarky comment betrays a complete misunderstanding of what the film is and bears the trademark flippancy of a playground bully taunt.

3. Independence Day (1996)

Length: 145 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Global warfare or not, this is still a sci-fi flick about alien invasion. Most manage to tell that story in around 90 minutes.

How We’d Fix It: Edit out some of the character backstories. We don’t need to get to know Randy Quaid and we certainly don’t need to give two hoots about dog Boomer.

Response: There’s one thing that Total Film neglects to mention about Independence Day: despite its long running time, the film passes by in an instant. I’ve re-watched this movie many times and I’m always surprised to see how well it flows. It’s not high art and it’s probably one of the movies responsible for the downward slide of modern blockbusters, but it’s wildly successful because of how well it holds your attention. One of the reasons is that you love all the silly interwoven stories, including Randy Quaid’s molested pilot revenge storyline. Removing his backstory takes all the punch out of the climactic battle and the gloriously insane anal rape metaphor that made 12-year-olds around the world snicker into their 32-ounce Pepsi cups. The fact that there are tons of characters, all with ridiculous storylines, is the entire point of the film. To simply trim some of that out to make the movie “better” according to some screenwriting guru’s made-up guidelines would be to miss the purpose of the movie.

4. As Good As It Gets (1997)

Length: 139 mins

Why That’s Too Long: It’s an oddball romantic ‘dramedy’. Not a war-torn love story.

How We’d Fix It: Tighten up the plotting and keep things snappy. Everyone gives great performances but the film ambles along at too a leisurely a pace to ever be smart and snappy.

Response: I don’t have a lot to say besides the fact I never knew As Good As It Gets was so long, partly because I find it so smart and snappy.  And as far as I know, most folks feel the same way, considering its huge financial success and critical love.

5. Cast Away (2000)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We love Tom Hanks, but this is an awfully long film for any one man to shoulder completely by himself.

How We’d Fix It: End the film as he gets off the island. That’s the real story after all – we don’t need to see the aftermath.

Response: The aftermath is arguably the entire point of the movie, without it we don’t see the drastic character change which is the only thing that raises the movie to a higher level of meaning. A big clue here is the title. There’s a reason they broke the term “castaway” into its two parts, they are highlighting not only the inciting incident but also all the things Hank’s character must cast away (his hope of rescue, Wilson, his love for Helen Hunt’s character) in order to survive. His evolution is only truly evident once he arrives back at home.

6. Zodiac (2007)

Length: 157 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Based on real events it may be, but this is still a very simple murder mystery at heart.

How We’d Fix It: Focus on the mystery and cut down the personal lives of the people involved. It IS sad that Jake Gyllenhaal’s wife leaves him over his obsession but really, we just want to know who did it. And quickly.

Response: Zodiac was never really about the “simple murder mystery.” It’s about capturing the tone of a certain place and time in California’s history, the main character’s slow descent into true obsession, and a meditation on our human need to eradicate mystery. Also, the duration is a key component to Gyllenhaal’s obsessive behavior, since the Zodiac Killer remained a mystery for so long. The claim of “we just want to know who did it. And quickly” is utterly false, especially considering it’s based on true events that can be easily Googled.

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Length: 165 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Ok, so Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman is as far removed from ‘comic-book’ as you can get, but c’mon – kids are still going to see this film too.

How We’d Fix It: It takes almost an hour before we even see Batman on screen and that’s far too long in our book. Maybe the film should just start from there?

Response: I also think The Dark Knight Rises is too long, but I think that’s the symptom of an undercooked script and not something that can be rectified by hacking off the film’s intro. Such a simplistic explanation for the film’s flaws betrays a huge misunderstanding of how screenwriting and editing work. A properly set-up first act, even if it runs a bit long, can be the key to empathizing with characters later in the story as well as properly understanding the dramatic gravity of later plot points. Imagine how the rest of the film would be even more confusing without that long set-up, or how packed with exposition it would be in order to get the audience up to speed.

8. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)

Length: 178 mins

Why That’s Too Long: This is just the introduction of a story covering three films – we don’t need to get to know every single character in the Shire THAT well.

How We’d Fix It: Cut down most of the Shire scenes. If this is a trilogy about a lot of walking, it’s almost an hour before Frodo even takes his first step.

Response: It’s essential for the audience to fall in love with the Shire in the same way the Hobbits love the Shire. That love carried the audience through seven more hours of storytelling (with two one-year-long breaks in between).  If the entire trilogy was just three hours long, you wouldn’t simply hack thirty minutes out of the opening to make it shorter. The overall flow of a movie is far more important than simply counting the minutes of its run time.

9. The Master (2012)

Length: 144 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We were all expecting a film exploring the question “Why Scientology be crazy”? and we figured there’d be a simple answer like: “Because all Scientologists be crazy”.

How We’d Fix It: The film really only hits its stride when Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd, so all of the scenes at the start establishing his fragile state of mind can be cut down. It’s already immediately obvious that he’s not quite stable.

Response: If you “expecting a film exploring the question ‘Why Scientology be crazy’” then you were expecting a terrible, preachy, uninteresting film. The Master is exquisite and meandering and impossible to really judge by standard three act Hollywood structure. Part of what makes the meeting of Lancaster and Freddie so potent is that the film sets up Freddie’s violent insanity so well that you’re terrified when the two will explode. To cut out that lead-in would likely sap all the dramatic tension out of that meeting.

10. Skyfall (2012)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: In the recent tradition of making Bond a more relatable, grittier secret agent with problems and concerns, we really just want to see him back at his best badass self.

How We’d Fix It: A little too much time spent at Bond’s Scottish home for the Home Alone-style ending. Given the spectacle of some of the earlier stunts, this ending already seems a little anticlimactic anyway.

Response: While this proposed “fix” breaks Total Film’s trend of wanting to edit out the entire first act, it creates the same problem in reverse. The Home Alone-style of the final act did seem a little odd to many folks, but the idea of creating a smaller,  personal ending is not only a fresh idea for a Bond flick, it’s also the entire thematic point of the film. Ironically, one could actually make a strong argument for editing out Bond’s existential crisis in the film’s first act, which he gets over rather quickly with the help of a dangerous tequila and a beautiful girl … though such is the case with things like this, you could also argue that it needed to be longer as well.

11. Man Of Steel (2013)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Supes may be gritty and sad in this film, but he’s still a comic-book character who needs to deliver fun and excitement and little else.

How We’d Fix It: Cut the final showdown with Zod right down. Not only would it shave about 20 minutes off the total running time, it would save the lives of thousands of Metropolis residents in the process.

Response: The climax of Man of Steel was gorgeously photographed and the closest the film came to being cohesive.  A re-structuring of events, clarification of character drive, and a clear sense of the villain and hero’s ultimate goal would go a long way to make this a better film, even if they made it longer. Simply trimming the final battle doesn’t solve the other problems. And the reference to saving the lives of fictional characters is a knee-jerk reference to a trendy critique rather than a real thought.

12. Australia (2008)

Length: 165 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We realise that Australia is a huge country that deserves an epic movie to do it all justice, but really a lot of it is just open country with nothing much to see…

How We’d Fix It: There’s really a lot of set-up in this film establishing the relationship between the “whites” and the Aborigines, let alone Lady Sarah’s relationship with Drover. Surely this can be chopped down and we’d all still get the subtext?

Response: Australia suffers from its length, but only in that it’s too short. The relationships between Lady Sarah and Drover, as well as the tension between the Aborigines and white ranchers, is not subtext, it is the main plot of the film.  The drastic time jump and tonal shift after they get their cattle to the port, which arrives smack dab in the middle of the movie, is a key indicator this film wanted to be in two parts. It’s as if Baz Luhrman wanted the film to be a classic, sprawling epic and should have slapped an intermission in the middle. Allowing each half proper elbow room could actually make it a stronger film. Certainly it has other flaws, but in terms of length I think Total Film offers advice that’s exactly opposite to what would make the story better.

13. The Pianist (2002)

Length: 150 mins

Why That’s Too Long: It’s a harrowing tale of Holocaust-era tragedy. Powerful it may be, but we can only take so much…

How We’d Fix It: Adrian Brody’s Szpilman spends so much time in a big almost-empty house hiding from the outside world that it starts to feel like… um… nothing much is happening.

Response: Here’s the real kicker to end this list.  Just look at the paragraph above and really let it sink in … this is a complaint that the audience felt constrained and frustrated that the film’s hero was constrained and frustrated by the holocaust. This is inane criticism. There are a lot of responses that could be made, but I’ll focus on the definition of “nothing much is happening.” While yes, the protagonist is confined to a tiny apartment, there is actually a LOT happening both within his own head and in the world outside his window. We see his intense, dramatic descent into near madness due to his confinement. This is when he deals with his guilt, his sense of self worth, the eternal question of “why me?” I saw The Pianist one time, over ten years ago, and despite the fact that “nothing much is happening” I remember this section in vivid detail, a key indicator it might very well be the most powerful section of the film.

Certainly, all of my responses to the above list are completely subjective and I welcome anyone to counter-argue in the comments below.

The Science of Story: Talking about Gravity with a NASA Engineer

I had the opportunity to watch Gravity this weekend with Robby Stephenson, Senior Engineer in the Mechanical Engineering Division at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Afterwards we talked about the science on display in the film, what they got right and what seemed off. More importantly, we talked about how these things affected the story.

We also poked fun at George Clooney a little bit, just because.

Joining us in the conversation was Regan Hutson, a photographer and science buff who had some great things to contribute.

Warning: This article is for folks that have already seen the movie. We jump around a lot in the chronology of the movie and give major SPOILERS.

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James Roland: Okay, tell us what was fake. Or what stood out to you, not just the science but whatever.

Robby Stephenson:  I’m not usually an emotional person for a movie, but my emotions were all up and down. In a regular blockbuster or something, it’s like “yeah, things are blowing up but they’re not in danger” but I guess the realism was just so good … I was getting tense and I would catch myself not breathing and gripping my arm rests.

James: I did that too and it was my second viewing.

Regan Hutson: There were points with all the debris that it almost felt like a Michael Bay film.

James: Like the second time the debris comes she doesn’t get hit at all but everything around her gets destroyed.

Regan: Right.

James: Which they kind of had to do because if that capsule even gets pierced once she’s be out of commission, so they kind of had to fake it.

Robby: The biggest thing that sticks out to me was when Sandra Bullock lets George Clooney go … there’s nothing that pulls him away. They’re in space, they’re just floating. They’re not on the Titanic!

James: I was curious about that, because they stop sharply …

Robby: Yeah, so once you stop, you’re stopped. Nothing’s gonna make you move any more.

James: Clooney says the ropes are too loose and then you see her giving way …

Robby: But there’s nothing pulling on him.

James: My thought was they did such a good job with the physics in the beginning  …

Robby: I had the exact same thought.  When they were on the space shuttle everything looks really good, with the bolt floating away and her twisting around … but once they got on the space station I felt like the quality suffered a little bit.

James: A little bit, yeah.

Robby: All they would have had to do was have something hit the space station and it was rotating, then you’d have the centrifugal force. That would have been enough to pull him away. But it was fairly stable from what I could see.

James: Yeah.

Robby: But they got a lot of stuff right.

James: What about the fire, did that seem realistic to you?

Robby: Yeah, fire is one of the biggest dangers up there and they’ve had a couple of small ones.

James: And it’s orb-like?

Robby: Yeah, you should watch some of the videos they have with the physics of flame and candles and water in zero gravity.

James: Someone pointed out to me that even though you have pressure from your body, your intestines are used to the pull of gravity so they are affected as well. They’re essentially floating inside of you, something I hadn’t thought about.

Robby: Space is a constant feeling of falling.  It’s like going down the side of a roller coaster.  Something like half to two thirds of astronauts get sick, they expect it.  I think they don’t plan anything for their first day up there.

Regan: One of the things I couldn’t get out of the back of my head was  out of the entire international space station … nothing breached it. So the entire thing is still full of oxygen.  Which is kind of necessary for there to be some hope for her to survive, but it seems really, really unlikely.

James: Unless there was a hose inside she could plug into for oxygen, but I don’t know if that even exists.

Robby: Yeah, I don’t know a lot about the suits. But I do know you can’t take them off that fast.

James: That’s a good example though of where they needed to fake some things for the sake of story.  Later she sees she has seven minutes before the debris comes again, and in the next scene she’s outside the ship and I’m thinking “just seven minutes to get the suit on and get outside, you’re gonna rush and forget something.”

Robby: Yeah, everything was really compressed.  They don’t do anything fast.

James: To me, stuff like that is a given in a movie. If you go in nitpicking that then you’re missing the point.

Robby: I’ve observed space walks and it’s corn growing … I mean, it takes two hours to do anything. You want to see the highlights!

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James: It’s interesting. You could argue that because the whole movie evolves (or devolves, depending on your world view) into a story of faith, that as she goes along it gets more and more incredible and less realistic.  I don’t know if that’s intentional or if I’m just reading into it.  Like, what do you feel about the re-entry scene? Sandra Bullock’s character says she has a fifty-fifty chance, but I think I remember learning it’s a lot less than that … isn’t there a really narrow window where you won’t burn up?

Robby: Yeah, there really is.  I think the Soyuz are fairly foolproof, I mean they’re Russian so they’ve been flying them for 40 or 50 years. It’s an automated system. But you gotta hit a narrow window and get everything oriented the right way.

Regan: Wasn’t there a mission where just a small piece of damage to the shielding caused the entire thing to collapse during re-entry? Just knowing that, the probability seem very low [she’d survive]. But I guess the capsule was internal through the whole thing until she starts to re-enter so the shielding could have been protected.

James: My take on it was that wasn’t how it was supposed to go down, but because it was already falling she went down in the wreckage and then it broke apart around her. But then she was spinning and it righted itself, so I’m assuming that’s automated.

Robby: It is designed to right itself, a heavy side down kind of thing.

Regan: So the aerodynamics keep it oriented so the shielding carries the brunt of the heat.

James: What did you all think about the fire extinguisher scene? In a way I think the filmmakers fought against themselves because they did such a good job showing how fast they are moving and how hard it is to grab on to another moving object that it ultimately seems impossible.

Regan:  I think the question in that scenario is would a fire extinguisher have enough thrust?

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Robby: At the end when she ran out, she threw the can away from her to get a little extra thrust, I thought  that was a nice touch.

James: So that would actually work?

Robby: Yeah, it’s a change in momentum. You can throw anything and you’d get somewhere.

James: When she launches from the ISS and goes to the Chinese space station and makes the leap … presumably that’s incredibly fast, right?

Robby: If you think about it … it took her about an hour to get there so … orbital dynamics are funky.  Once you point in the direction you’re going you just coast. You see that when the two astronauts are tethered together.

James: Is there a certain amount of friction from solar winds?

Robby: There’s enough friction that you have to care about it when it comes to satellites, but it’s minimal. It would take like a month to slow down.

James: So how fast would you say that they were going?

Robby: Relative to each other? They’re all going 20,000 miles an hour. But the relative rate … a couple miles an hour? One to ten miles per hour, something like that? Which is enough to jerk your arm pretty good, imagine trying to catch someone rolling down a hill.

Robby: So what happened to the Chinese astronauts? Did they evacuate?

James: I assumed so, but why did they leave an escape pod?

Regan: Wouldn’t you want any evacuation system to be redundant in case the first didn’t work?

James: Good point. As near as I can tell, because I’m not an expert, all the points where they fudged the science were for story points.

Robby: Yeah.

James: Like when she gets thrown off at the beginning, the chances of him finding her seem so slim.

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Robby: Yeah, you couldn’t see anything out there.

Regan: Maybe the way she was spinning she was the only intermittent light source.

Robby: Yeah.

Regan: One thing that bothered me … do you remember the Radiolab episode where they’re talking to the astronaut, and he talks about how black the shadows are?  Having a photography background and paying attention I kept thinking “there’s definition in those shadows, that shouldn’t happen!”

JamesBut that’s just such an amazing opening and they have to get themselves out of it somehow. Probably every step of the way the filmmakers would ask “can we do this?” and the science adviser would say “no” and they’d say “well … we’re going to do it anyway.”

Robby: They don’t really have a jet pack like that, though.  I mean, they have maneuvering units but you don’t have nearly that capacity for flying around.  I don’ t even think they use them anymore.

James: The key word is “prototype”, George Clooney calls it a prototype.

Robby: Yeah, they throw that in there to justify it.

James: My thought was that it’s such a big deal to un-tether, what if the jet pack failed? But that’s sort of George Clooney’s character in this, he’s really out there. Kind of one note.  It’s maybe the most one note character he’s played … when they get to the dream-version of him, there isn’t even any hyperbole, that’s just him!

Robby: I have to admit (regarding the dream sequence),  my first thought was “he couldn’t have done that, that’s really stretching it!”

James: And at first you can’t see the astronaut’s face, so you think maybe it was another survivor or a rescue mission … then they open the hatch.

Robby: And you can’t do that!

James: And I thought “are they really doing this, going for a bleak, dark humor ending?” He climbs inside, looks at her dead body, and goes, “whoops.” At first you can’t figure out what’s going on, then as he starts to talk it dawns on you that there’s only one option … and it’s cheesy.

Robby: Yeah. I half expected her daughter to appear.

James: She’s hanging outside the window, “Mom! Mom!”

*Laughter*

James: From then until the end is where they just pour on the cheese.  I actually felt the earlier stuff is more powerful. When they’re just floating by and he’s talking to keep her sane, and she has that little monologue about her daughter dying. It’s so incredible.

Regan: I think one of the things I appreciated because it was in the same tone but it doesn’t hit you over the head as much was when she gets to the ISS and she takes off her spacesuit and just floats there.

James: So beautiful.

Regan: The shot turns into her as a fetus in the womb, down to even the umbilical cord!

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James: And it’s a shedding of the cocoon with the space suit … I felt that shot was powerful and earned. I thought the one at the end that didn’t work as well, because it was kind of a repeat thematically, was the “evolution” shot when she crawled out of the water.

Regan: Her struggling to get up on her feet was pretty justified.

James: True, but the angle they chose to film it was very specific.

Robby: Then they shoot up at her as she staggers off.

James: You half expect to see a monolith and she starts dancing around it with a bunch of apes.  It’s a beautiful shot, but it seemed a little on the nose to me.

Regan: That’s funny, that association didn’t occur to me until you said it.

James: I’ve heard other people talk about it, but maybe it’s more subtle than I thought.

Robby: I just thought it was cool they acknowledged how hard it is to walk after being in space because of the muscle loss.

James: I love when Sandra Bullock laughs because of the irony of the moment.  She has some good dialog and some cheesy dialog throughout the movie, but she owns all of it.  There’s so much talking to herself.

Robby: That’s got to be hard for an actor.

James: It is. And her character changes SO much by the end, she’s great.

Regan: It’s like a miniature version of Castaway with a female lead once George Clooney is gone.

James: George Clooney is Wilson?

Robby: “I’m coming for you!!!!!”

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James: She goes and buys a cardboard cutout of him when she gets home.

Regan: So that’s why his character’s so one-dimensional.

Robby: There it is!

James: Wow. Ouch. 

Regan: I wondered about when they get back to the space shuttle after everything’s destroyed, it didn’t make sense to me that there would be things floating around inside. I thought every loose object would have been evacuated when the hull was breached.

Robby: They do keep things tied down.

Regan: But there were little things like the Marvin the Martian doll and pens, all floating freely.

Robby: Yeah, so that should have been blown out, I think you’re right.  I will say this, the realism that they miss, which most people won’t notice …  is the orbital dynamics. The space stations aren’t all that close to each other.  The Hubble is in a completely different orbit.  And orbital dynamics are weird. I took classes in this. ‘Cause to go faster you first slow down and get in a lower orbit, then speed up and get to a higher orbit. When you trade altitude for speed, it’s all completely counter-intuitive.  So flying an approach vector, when they dock to the space station or something, it’s very non-intuitive.

James: So you go faster when you’re lower? In the same way that the outer edge of a record is moving at a different rate of speed from the center?

Robby: It’s the reverse of that, because on the outer edge of a record you’re going faster,  but in space when you’re in a higher orbit you’re actually going slower.  So to go from a low orbit to a high orbit you speed up, but by the time you get to the other side of the orbit you’re going slower and you would shoot your rocket in the opposite direction of what you might think.  It’s weird.

James: Wow.

Robby: So they dock from beneath, from the Earth direction, but it’s counter-intuitive, you can’t just point where you want to go and shoot your rocket.

James: And [the space stations are] at different altitudes.

Robby Yes. But even if they were, you can’t just speed up and go there, because as you speed up you’ll change orbit.

Regan: It make sense to me that something orbiting at a lower altitude needs to be moving more quickly so that the centrifugal force is countering gravity, but if you are at one orbit and you just push yourself down, are you going to increase in speed for some reason? Or do you have to push yourself to increase speed so that your orbit doesn’t degrade?

Robby: The weird thing is that it’s a little bit of both. So if you’re in a circular orbit your speed is the same everywhere.  But if you’re in an elliptical, if you go oval, your speed varies quite a bit.

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James: In the movie they make it seem like they could just shoot around and visit each other up there.

Robby: And that was definitely necessary for part of the story.

Regan: We’ve all been watching movies set in the future where they fly around in space like they’re in planes.

James: I’m curious. Everyone’s been talking about the realism and all the things they can find wrong … but I don’t remember people talking this much about the realism of Apollo 13 when it was released, do you?

Regan: Oh yeah, I do.

Robby:  I read things about how they had the wrong patch on their suits!

Regan: Do you mean picking it apart the same way?

James: Yes. Or lauding it.

Regan: I remember seeing an interview with Ron Howard where he talked about the premier and how they invited folks that worked on the Apollo missions and how they couldn’t believe some of it was done with computer.

James: Not to knock Gravity at all, but when everyone was talking about how realistic it was I just thought “well, Apollo 13 did it years ago.” But they also  had actual events to build on, Gravity is a fictional event.

Robby: That debris problem is very real up there, though.  There’s lots of junk up there.  And NORAD has to track everything down to the size of a basketball or something like that.  And every now and then they have to move the space station out of the way to keep it from getting hit.

James: Does the Earth’s rotation affect all this? Can you put something in orbit counter to the Earth’s movement?

Robby: Yes, but it just takes a whole lot more fuel.  Launching eastward is a whole lot easier than launching westward.

James:  So [in the movie] the debris is traveling the same direction as they are.

Robby: If you have an explosion it’s going all over the place.  The movie said something about the debris moving at 20,000 mph relative speed, which means it’s actually going about 50,000, I don’t know if it could have gotten that fast. But if you go look at the Endeavor space shuttle down at the science center and look at the windshield, it’s pitted.  That’s specks of dust going 20,000 miles per hour.

James:  Seeing it a second time I was determined to figure out how they did certain shots, but it’s a testament to the story that I got sucked in again and forgot to do that.

Robby: They got the northern lights in there.  That made me catch my breath. A lot of astronauts talk about seeing that. *pause* It really is a great movie.

James: Despite how terrifying it is, there’s gonna be a huge influx of applications to NASA.

Headed for Destruction: A Review of Wake in Fright (Drafthouse Films #8)

Anthony Buckley found treasure in a dusty Pittsburgh warehouse.

His journey spanned two years and three countries as he searched storage areas in New York, London, and Dublin before finally tracking down Wake in Fright, a film that he’d edited forty years before.

GrantGunHe probably looked like this.

From a large box labeled “For Destruction” Buckley pulled out 200 reels of the almost-forgotten cinema masterpiece. As far as anyone knew, it was the only print in existence. It was scheduled to be incinerated one week later.

The film was shipped back to Australia, where Deluxe Lab in Sydney spent another two years repairing the damaged negative, frame by frame.  The fully restored movie was released in theaters in 2012.

Back in 1971, Wake in Fright premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews, then went on to play in France for five months.

But Australian audiences balked at the brutal portrayal of their country, leading to poor box office returns. According to actor Jack Thompson, during one screening an Australian man stood up and yelled at the screen, “that’s not us!” To which Thompson yelled back, “sit back down, mate. It is us!”

Distributors also felt the film was too intense for American audiences , so they released the movie stateside to a single art-house theater. It opened on a Sunday night in the middle of a blizzard, and then promptly disappeared from public knowledge.

Given the film’s history, the fact that it’s now available on blu-ray, DVD, and Netflix streaming is nothing short of a miracle. Luckily, the film lives up to its legend.

“I saw [Wake in Fright] when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time.” – Martin Scorsese

Starting off with a harsh, barren landscape shot that rivals the intense beauty of David Lean’s work, the film grabs its audience by the shirt collar and doesn’t let go until its final moments.

The story is largely plotless, following a burnt-out school teacher named John Grant as he travels from his one-room schoolhouse in the Outback to his girlfriend in Sydney for Christmas break.

On a layover in the haunted little town of Bundanyabba, he makes a drunken decision to stake all his savings on a game of Two-up (an Australian game of chance) and the result sends him spiraling into a lost weekend of cheap beer, hot sand, and existential delirium.

Wake in Fright is one of the most experiential films you’re likely to see. While it follows a linear storyline it also eschews normal dramatic narrative. It’s simply a series of seemingly unrelated events, building an ever-increasing sense of dread punctuated by bursts of bizarre violence and sexuality.

SpitWorst. Drinking game. Ever.

To describe the events of the story wouldn’t do it justice. Other than one notable and infamous scene involving a kangaroo hunt — a scene so brutal it elicited a special postscript explanation from the producers —  the film consists largely of sweaty men drinking beer and getting in fights.

It’s the style of Wake in Fright which makes it a masterpiece. The movie starts off staunchly in the land of Realism and slowly travels into a dreamlike world, culminating in Grant’s final epiphany by way of a literal nightmare.

Many times throughout the film I found myself squirming in my chair as if I was watching a tightly plotted thriller, yet in retrospect nothing much was happening.  The setting, dialog, sound, and imagery are all designed to unsettle the audience and make them feel as if they are in danger when really Grant is only in danger of himself.

It’s here that Wake in Fright really shines, by using the Outback’s brutality to reflect Grant’s own failings and insecurities. The fabulous script by Evan Jones contains no voice over and hardly any pointed character exposition, so director Ted Kotcheff brings subtext to the surface by using startling imagery, most famously a dream sequence involving two “exed out” pennies falling into the eyes of Donald Pleasence.

DonaldPennyEyesPenny for your nightmares?

The stunning visuals and permeating tone of dread are a testament to Kotcheff’s talent, especially since the most notable entries to his later resume are the first Rambo film, Weekend at Bernie’s, and multiple episodes of Law and Order, all things which have a certain value but fall short of the deft touch on display in Wake in Fright.

With a minimalist plot and atmospheric cinematography, it’s up to the actors to provide the emotional core of the picture. Gary Bond’s take on John Grant is subtle, subversive, and often overlooked amidst the balls-to-the-wall performances of the other actors. He’s a slow burn that at first might seem boring, but when you compare where he starts out to where he ends up, the change is staggering.

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Before / After

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Still, it’s Donald Pleasence as Doc Tydon that steals the show.  As a horror fan I’ve always had a soft spot for Pleasence as a Halloween alum, though never gave him much credit as a serious actor. But from his spine-tingling opening line to his frantic, homoerotic grappling match with Grant near the end of the film, it’s a phenomenal performance that swings for the fences while bringing a deep, emotional undertone of sadness and desperation. It’s easily one of the most underrated film performances I’ve seen.

DeathbyDonaldFoster’s: Australian for homoerotic.

Two other actors of note are Jack Thompson and Chips Rafferty, both staples of Australian cinema. Thompson plays an aggressive hunter who all but kidnaps Grant for a night of debauchery. His showstopping kangaroo hunting scene is a force to be reckoned with, a literal wild ride that seems to ooze sweat and gasoline, predating the Mad Max car chases that made Australian films famous by eight years.

ThompsonScreamFor the love of God, CUT!

Raffery’s turn as Jock Crawford gives the film a sort-of moral center. At first portrayed as another aggressive simpleton, Jock’s return at the end of the film reveals him as a kind-of father figure. Rafferty has a John Wayne quality about him, a “man’s man” with a dash of goofy charm. He commands the screen with sheer charisma and he’s a joy to watch. This was his last film (he died the year it was released) and the thought of his performance just one week away  from being destroyed by a fire is heart-wrenching.

From its production to final distribution, forty years later, Wake in Fright is a little miracle of cinema.

It’s apt that a film about one man’s journey through a bleak, existential valley of despair spent so many years inknown and on the brink of destruction. But like its finale, the film ultimately stands as a symbol of hope, that we humans will eventually get past our immediate trappings to see better days ahead.

Drafthouse Films distributes rare, visceral cinema. Many of their films are available on Netflix streaming and you can join their Alliance membership where they mail ten films to your door on gorgeous blu-rays loaded with special features.

It’s an Animal Thing: Why Riddick is a Franchise with Teeth

You aren’t afraid of the dark, are you?

Less than a year after The Matrix caused a sci-fi frenzy, Universal dumped its low-budget space flick Pitch Black into the desert of February film releases and left it to die. But like its feral anti-hero, the film survived, earning over twice its production budget and building a strong fan base.

The movie’s breakout character, Riddick, was a charismatic barbarian with a messy code of ethics and a wicked tongue. When he wasn’t spouting tough-guy dialog and shaving his head with a piece of shrapnel and axle grease, he was waxing poetic in voice-over narration. The result was a clever, layered character who was played to perfection by a relatively unknown Vin Diesel. The role got him into the Fast and the Furious franchise which launched a year later, propelling him into stardom.

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Everyone standing behind him … not so much.

The film itself is a lean, mean endeavor. On the surface it’s a basic “crash and survive” adventure tale, but underneath David Twohy honed a wonderful script about guilt and second chances, basing his story on work from Jim and Ken Wheat, a sci-fi writing duo who worked within the Star Wars and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.

Early on it’s clear Twohy (who also directed) is great at two important yet often neglected elements to great visual storytelling: he writes colorful, layered characters and puts them in rich, unique settings.

From the opening scenes where Radha Mitchell’s space pilot, Fry, attempts to jettison all of her sleeping passengers in an attempt to save herself, it’s clear there’s more going on than the average adventure flick. When she’s thwarted by the other pilot and lands the ship safely, the character drama ratchets to intense levels as the survivors laud her with praise for saving their necks.

It’s a gutsy way to open the movie. Expectations are low, with audiences needing only screams and blood to justify the ticket price. By setting the bar so high so early, Twohy forced himself to dig deep for the payoff, and it resulted in a wonderful, richly rewarding ending.

When asked about his film Cabin in the Woods and why he and co-writer Joss Whedon decided to reveal early on that the entire scenario was controlled by a scientific facility, Goddard replied:

“Put all your cards on the table right away, and then that will force you to come up with new cards.”

Judging by the fantastic ending to Cabin in the Woods — which manages to genuinely surprise its audience without coming completely out of left field — his comment is true. Still, it’s often the harder road, so Twohy’s opening sequence to Pitch Black is commendable in a sci-fi market that so often saves character reveals to create a forced sense of mystery (I’m looking at you Oblivion, John Carter, and Star Trek Into Darkness).

Another element that sets this film apart is the production design. The art department created an extraordinary world on a tiny budget, from the sarcophagus filled with contraband booze and ancient weapons (again the theme of dark secrets) to the strange bone trees rising from the skeletons of alien behemoths, to the Lovecraftian demons that lurk under the soil, the Riddick universe was quickly established as wild and imaginative, yet strangely realistic.

PitchBlackCritterIt’s no George Lucas space pig, but it will do.

The crowning moment of Pitch Black is not the awesome monsters, it’s a scene between Fry and Riddick in the warm glow of a waiting escape shuttle, debating whether to face the darkness and rescue the other survivors or save their own necks.

It’s here that all the deft character work pays off. Fry’s motivation is clear; she needs Riddick’s animalistic fighting skills to survive the mission. But when Riddick has the opportunity to fly the ship away, he decides instead to debate Fry on the merits of heroism. There are lots of scenes like this at the ends of films and few of them feel realistic and justified. Why would the characters stop for a chat in the middle of all that mayhem?

The thing is, Riddick isn’t screwing with Fry just to be dramatic, he’s testing her like a child testing boundaries. It’s here that Riddick’s backstory comes into play. Abandoned in a dumpster, raised in the prison system, hounded by immoral mercenaries masquerading as officers of the law, Riddick is pushing back against Fry’s moral outrage. He knows she almost jettisoned her entire crew, so why the change of heart? When he finally pushes her to the limit, making her admit she will fail so save her crew but has to try anyway, he utters a single word: “interesting.”

This is more than a cocky one-liner, it’s the first time Riddick has seen a true adult. In this moment, Pitch Black coalesces into a bloody, brutal coming-of-age story.

Pitch_Black_vin_dieselJust like the works of Judy Blume.

The final line sums up the entire character arc. As the survivors fly off into space, someone asks Riddick what they will do if they are found by mercenaries. Riddick replies with a shrug, “tell them Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere on that planet.”

I’ll kill you with my teacup.

Pitch Black did well in theaters and incredibly well on DVD. This, coupled with Vin Diesel’s rising star power, paved the way for the sequel.

But where do you go when your lead character has changed from vicious badass to moral defender?

Twohy’s answer was to focus on the greater universe, taking his 105 million dollar budget (compared to Pitch Black’s 23 million) and showing the various planets and cultures surrounding the original story.

The result was a standalone adventure with strangely pluralized title The Chronicles of Riddick, a riotous, mildly-campy space romp that lacked the thematic focus of the original, but kept the fun dialog and fantastic production design.

Generally considered a flop, the film has its defenders (of which I am one). A great article from Little White Lies highlights the fact that in the three years between the two films, sci-fi audiences were subjected to terrible Star Wars prequels, a lame duck final Star Trek movie, Tim Burton’s infamous Planet of the Apes reboot, and Disney’s Treasure Planet, collectively culling from pre-established stories dating from 1977 to 1883. This alone makes Twohy’s diverse, original sci-fi world worthy of an audience, but despite unavoidable comparisons to the far better Pitch Black, taken on its own merits The Chronicles of Riddick is genuinely a good movie.

The opening sequence puts us in familiar territory: Riddick is on the run from mercenaries on a hostile planet. As he leaps across bottomless chasms threaded through maze-like ridges of rock, it’s clear that Twohy’s knack for world-building has returned for the sequel. The ships that chase Riddick have external harnesses holding armed men, fully exposed to the elements, tell us that the ship is not designed for space travel, indicating there must be a larger ship standing by. Simple details like this harken back to the glory days of Star Wars, when a simple laser sword pulled from a basket created a sense of a greater universe far better than showing thousands of laser swords in every single shot.

Where Chronicles loses most people is with the Necromongers, a race of death-worshiping mystics that strut around in cumbersome armor and spout clunky dialog.

NecroSo, how do I look … why are you laughing?

The Necromongers may be campy but they are also clever and unique to a sci-fi franchise, diving headlong into the supernatural. Their ship design is mesmerizing, enormous monoliths adorned with Rushmore-style faces that plunge from deep space and embed themselves deep into a planet’s crust.

The Necromonger mythology also works to subvert the usual blockbuster’s adherence to the Joseph Campbell monomyth. Riddick may be the so-called “chosen one”, but he is the chosen one for a sinister, world-devouring death cult, which works well for a hero who likes to drink human blood and chase it with peppermint schnapps.

This video has a lot more to say on the subject. It’s not only insightful, but it also has a puppet so you should watch it.

After setting up the Necromongers and the fact they want Riddick dead, the movie resets itself on the prison planet of Crematoria. It’s here where some of the film’s best moments take place, as Riddick befriends a super cool lizard cat, kills an inmate with a teacup, and literally outruns sunshine.

Riddick_hellhound_Kitty!

The entire Crematoria segment feels a bit forced within the entire scope of the story, but as a self-contained section it’s top notch.

The film’s third act is filled with more pouty Necromonger monologues and weird-ass visuals, but boasts a clever and game-changing twist: Riddick inadvertently becomes the leader of the Necromongers. It’s this final moment that might be the nail in the coffin for fans and critics alike, since it changes the main character from feral underdog to empire leader.

The Chronicles of Riddick is so vastly different from Pitch Black in scope and tone that it went the way of Weezer’s Pinkerton album. It was doomed to fail before it started, finding that sweet spot of hypocrisy with a voracious movie audience that clamors for something original yet often rejects new things.

Many critics missed the point, like Benjamin Strong’s review for the Village Voice which spent a whopping one paragraph dissecting the movie and the rest of its creative energy on a stupid pun for the title.  Another somewhat embarrassing review from Salon used trendy, catch-all criticisms (such as accusing the film of confusing “MTV style” editing), attacked Vin Diesel personally for his career choices that had nothing to do with the Riddick films, and blatantly missed the mark by claiming The Chronicles of Riddick re-hashed tropes from The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, when in fact the movie defies and deconstructs those tropes.

While it’s clear The Chronicles of Riddick lacked the narrative focus and thematic punch of the first film, it’s still a grand, clever adventure with more thrills than the average blockbuster.

Lenser

Admittedly, this dude was a little weird.

Three down … you see where I’m going with this?

Nine years after The Chronicles of Riddick, Twohy got his third chance with the Riddick character. Whether it was the critical backlash or smaller budget, he returned to the familiar Pitch Black set up of “crash and survive” though maintained the narrative thread from Chronicles.

Currently in theaters, Riddick is a great little flick that thrills and chills to varying degrees of success. Large sections border on brilliant, while others feel merely adequate. As per usual, the visuals are stunning and the dialog is snappy, and the overall  film feels like a sort of apology for making the Riddick character too civilized.

The story begins after Riddick is betrayed, kicked out of the Necromonger clan, and left for dead in a barren wasteland of rock. Almost a standalone film, the first third follows Riddick as he fights off a pack of wild dogs, treats his wounds, encounters a new deadly space critter, and finds a way to defeat it and journey out of the wasteland to the fertile fields beyond.

This journey takes months and it’s rare to see a genre flick take so much time to set up its tale. Slow but never boring, it’s easily the best part of the film, and a credit to Vin Diesel’s acting skills and the VFX team that made his CGI canine companion a realistic, enduring character instead of a cutsie gimmick.

riddick-3-concept-art-01It’s kind of like Old Yeller in space (spoiler).

It’s during this section where we see a flashback of Riddick in his Necromonger glory days, sitting dejected on a throne while four naked concubines beckon him to their orgy. The once virile Riddick spares them the barest of glances before he resumes his brooding.

If this impotence metaphor wasn’t clear enough, a few scenes later Riddick encounters this film’s space creature, a sharp-toothed mouth mounted between two legs, counter-balanced by a long, fanged tail. Dependent on water to survive, the creature lurks in shallow pools, raising its wicked, poisonous tail out of the water to strike. The sexual metaphors continue as an impending rain storm threatens to loosen the soil and release thousands of these monsters.

Riddick-monster2It’s like Jurassic Park, but with penises instead of velociraptors.

The main story kicks off when Riddick discovers a mercenary way station and sets off a distress beacon.

Two sets of mercenaries descend on the location, and Twohy wisely delineates between the two teams, making one evil and the other good. While the narrative paints in some pretty broad strokes — the “bad” mercenaries kill an innocent woman for fun within ten minutes of landing, for example — this clear cut delineation allows for Riddick to slaughter enough people to attain the R-rating that fans wanted while keeping the “hero” part of his his anti-hero mantle.

Despite a few repetitive moments (the movie boasts not one, not two, but three stand-off sequences, all in a row) the movie thrives on clever kills and the weird chemistry between Riddick and the lone female mercenary named Dahl (sound it out).  Played by Katee Sackhoff, Dahl states early on that she’s a lesbian, yet stares with mild interest whenever Riddick lays verbal claim to her body.

riddick_katee_sackhoff_vin_dieselPure chemistry.

By the time Dahl straddles Riddick with a seductive smile, the message from Twohy and Diesel is loud and clear: Riddick got his balls back. That may lack the dramatic nuance of Pitch Black (and raise a few eyebrows about the tired male fantasy of converting lesbians), but it’s great to see a summer flick that isn’t white-washed for mass audience appeal and a PG-13 rating.

While the film’s third act is the very definition of mediocre (the classic definition of “in the middle”, not the recent, bizarre definition of “worst thing ever made according to this one guy on Twitter”), depending far too much on Pitch Black‘s finale and losing sight of its thematic through line, Riddick still boasts some deftly handled action and general badassery. It’s final moments may lack the dramatic heights of  Pitch Black, but it still soars far above the recent batch of lackluster genre flicks.

riddick BIKE-14Richard B. Riddick
(Baldius Heroeclyes)

Since its creation, the Riddick franchise has struggled for life. From the first film’s harsh indie production in the Australian outback, to the harsher critical backlash against the sequel, to the the financing troubles of this third picture, the trilogy is the ultimate cinematic underdog. Vin Diesel even went so far as to leverage his own house as collateral with the financing company for Riddick, making him effectively homeless if they failed to finish the movie.

It’s a special sort of story that incites that kind of moxy from its creators, and despite the franchise’s detractors, the films have had consistently lucrative box-office (despite popular opinion, The Chronicles of Riddick was not the financial disaster it was made out to be), proving it’s the fanbase that has the final say.

Over the course of three movies, Twohy has created a clever, visceral science-fiction experience that’s unlike anything else out there. It ranges from inspired drama to bawdy escapism, but it does it all with flair and fine craftsmanship. It’s a franchise that should have been dead long ago, but keeps fighting for life, and with any luck our summers will be filled with more flawed and fantastic Riddick adventures.