More Posts Coming Soon!

Some new posts coming soon, but in the meantime you feel like reading stupid things like this:

Paul Walker’s performance (God rest his soul) is abjectly terrible, but even he has charm. When he smiles you just melt, even if you’re a straight guy.

You should check out our “Road to Furious 7” series over at Movie Moron!

 

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Interview: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Directors: “Resolution” and “Spring”)

When Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead met, they were interns at Ridley Scott’s commercial production company. Soon they were working with each other on a variety of short films and spec advertisements, and when Justin approached Aaron with a genre-bending horror script called Resolution, they decided to pool their talents and resources to get it made.

Shot in 17 days on a tiny budget, the film snagged the attention of the Tribeca Film Festival and has since garnered rave reviews. Now available on iTunes and Netflix streaming, Resolution is scary, funny, conceptually unique, and definitely worth a watch.

I recently had the chance to speak with Justin and Aaron about the making of Resolution as well as their upcoming film Spring.

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So you guys just got back from Italy?

Justin: Yeah, we just got back two weeks ago. We were there for six or seven weeks, shooting Spring.

So you’ve just shot principal photography then?

Justin: Yeah, we just finished. And we did a few days in the U.S.

Let’s talk about your first film, Resolution. What was your budget, how big was your crew, and what were the day-to-day logistics like?

Justin: Uh … I don’t remember, actually.

Aaron: I think we had ten people on set most of the time. For the final scene of the movie we were up to about eighteen people.

Justin: It was really small. The entire budget of the movie was tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny. It was just our checking account.

That’s impressive. It really does not look or feel so cheap.

Aaron: The budget on Spring is literally … twenty-seven times the budget of Resolution.

(laughter)

Justin: But I think we can honestly say, from Resolution to Spring, you can tell on set we were getting more because we had more money. It looks like a much more expensive movie.

So on Resolution did you just have crew camp out at the cabin, or did they stay nearby and that place wasn’t as remote as it seemed?

Aaron: We actually worked out a deal with a Christian children’s camp. I’m not joking, they put us all up for some really, really dirt cheap price, I forget what it was. Like, $1,500 to house the entire crew for the whole entire shoot. Something like that? And it was a five minute drive to set. We got really lucky on that one.

Tell me about how you did sound on a shoestring budget.

Justin: What sound?

(laughter)

Justin: You’ll notice Resolution doesn’t have any score, so that approach required incredibly crisp sound. So we had this incredible field mixer, who is also a composer, named Dan Martinez, who rocked it. And we had another guy who was our re-recording mixer. Nobody worked entirely for free, but they might as well have, basically. So our re-recording mixer was this guy named Yahel Dooley who is like a third director to us, to be honest. He is one of the “must haves.” Some people don’t understand our movies until Yahel gets to it. Really, his sound is so critical and crucial to everything that we do, we absolutely need him. So he designed everything. Resolution had almost no ADR (Additional Dialog Recording), it had like a couple lines here and there. And it was all for clarity, it wasn’t even for beefing up the quality of the audio. Sound is of paramount importance to us. The mix was like fifty hours long because we were pulling a favor. We were sneaking into a post house to do it. So it was an insane thing. And Yahel just went with it, he was right there with us.

Aaron: He’s incredible, he’s our secret weapon.

You shot on the RED. At any point did you discuss using DSLRs to save money?

Justin: We did. We use DSLRs all the time for new media stuff, but there are things for example … actually, I’m going to let Aaron answer this.

Aaron: There are disadvantages to those little cameras. You can shoot features on them, The Battery was shot on one and it looks awesome. You can barely tell that it’s not a RED. But I love shooting features in 4k. Especially low budget indie stuff, because if you need more coverage you can punch in to a close up, or if something is too dark you can move stops … you just have more freedom going into post production than you would on a DSLR. And with DSLRs … you need other pieces of equipment to make them look good, you can’t just grab one and go shoot with it.

Justin: There is something about the small camera look that seems campy … it’s almost silly to debate the differences between DSLR and RED, nobody is going to say a DSLR is better than RED.

Aaron: When we were making the choice it was all just coming down to budget. I’ve shot five or six features on RED and we’ve shot about a million different things on DSLR, so it’s not even a choice beyond “can we afford it?” And we got it hooked up.

Justin: Also, as a story reason, Michael is also holding the film you’re watching on 35mm film. So there could have been a story reason as to why it’s not on film, but it’s a lot easier to swallow if it looks like film, and RED looks a lot like more like film than DSLRs.

What are some things you learned from Resolution that you’ll take with you on future projects and what are some things you’ll never do again?

Justin: Well, we had a script supervisor this time.

Aaron: Usually it’s more like we’ll pick up something during the process that we’ll take to the next one.

Justin: With Resolution there were no big continuity errors by some miracle, but there was one scene where we realized we had shot the end of the movie without Chris wearing the bandage he should have been wearing. It was like amateur hour.

Aaron: Our script supervisor was this document we made way in advance that listed the things we needed to watch out for in a scene. And we could just check it before every scene.

Justin: Sometimes we wouldn’t check it.

(laughter)

Aaron: Just dumb shit.

Justin: With production you don’t think, “oh I need a script supervisor!” you think “oh, I need a camera!” But our script supervisor on Spring was … I’m not shining anyone on, but I don’t think there are better script supervisors out there. I don’t think they exist, we got the best one.

Resolution was totally your movie but I’m assuming Spring had more outside funding. Did other people have a say in the finished film?

Aaron: That’s a great question because that was our worry. Resolution turned out well because we got to do what we wanted. We took whatever risks we could and tried to make a really interesting film. So on our next film, it was like “how are we going to do this without getting into bed with the wrong people? Do we want to make another film or hold on to our scruples?” And we ended up getting really lucky by not having any outside interference again. We have a financier that pretty much lets us do what we want and a cast that’s incredible. There’s always the game of casting for sale value versus talent and stuff like that. But Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker, Evil Dead remake) is the most talented mother f*cker on the planet and he’s awesome, really awesome. He just dives right into the role. In many, many ways we got super lucky. And we just have to keep hoping we get as lucky as we keep getting.

Talk about how the next film happened, since you made Resolution completely on your own. Did it help you get an agent or manager that hooked you up?

Justin: For Resolution we got really lucky and made it into a major film festival just by submitting. And then you end up surrounded by people on the business side of things that you build relationships with. Most of the people we did Resolution with were people that we ended up making Spring with, on the business side of things. As far as agent and manager, not so much. We have kind of a manager now but the thing is, as far as making stuff like Resolution and Spring, you make that stuff outside the system and it’s kind of separate from your agent and manager stuff, in a lot of ways. There’s basically a budget range at which you can make … let’s call it “unique material.” And once you go over that it’s like … you’ll get offers for remakes or things that are a very slight variation on something that already exists, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you definitely can’t make stuff like Spring or Resolution within that system.

If someone offered you one of those remakes would you make it and learn on their dime, or would you rather plow ahead with your own stuff?

Justin: Honestly, it’s a delicate game of playing in both worlds because they both have their advantages.

When I watched Resolution I was really taken with how you used different types of scares … do you have a philosophy about what types of scares to use? And why? Or do you just go with your gut about what’s scary?

Aaron: There’s a little bit of theory behind it. We have kind of a cowboy approach when it comes to the tone of our films, where we just kind of go and make whatever the moment is work. If it’s scary we make it as scary as we can, if it’s funny we make it as funny as we can. And for scares … it’s very rare that we’ll time a jump scare. That’s not really our thing. Sometimes it happens, but if it happens every five seconds and the person (in the movie) is like “damn, you’re always trying to fool me!” to be honest that’s like the worst jump scare in the world. And it happens way to often. But if you can get it right it’s just awesome. Our favorite thing, honestly, is just tone. When you can scare people with just the tone of dread and building unease and combine that with something that is conceptually unique and frightening, that’s our favorite thing. If we can find that and really scare people with it, that’s really cool.

The one jump scare that stands out is when Michael (Peter Cilella) goes into the cave, but even though it’s not “the monster” of the film, it’s still a scary scenario.

Justin: With supernatural horror, the hardest thing is to sit there and try to come up with new things that are scary. It’s really tough. Even if you watch something like The Conjuring which is effective, but every single thing in it has been done before. It’s tough to break new ground. When you really think about it, we’re living in a world where people have been trying to make myths since [civilization] has existed, so 4,000 years of people trying to outdo you and you have to sit at your desk and try to think of something that is hopefully not derivative and can still scare people in a new way …

Aaron: Or if not scare you then resonate with people and make people think a little bit about their humanity. Anything that can turn that on its head … and that’s the thing about Justin’s writing, he’s always trying find a way around what’s already been done. That’s one of the reasons we both get along so well, because we both mutually feel like you could do things that have been done before really well and people may like it, but it’s just already been done so it’s uninteresting to us. Not that we’re the most original filmmakers in the world, though we strive to be, but you can never get away from your past.

(pause)

That sounded way more epic than I mean, but you know what I mean.

*laughter*

Aaron: It’s always funny when people say our stuff is original and we say that’s what we’re striving for … but on the poster is a cabin in the woods.

tad-resolution

It’s a tough balance, because the audience does come back to see tropes. I remember seeing the poster with the arm handcuffed to the wall and thought it might be “torture porn” (which it isn’t). But while having a character handcuffed to the wall is a major element in the story, it’s not the whole movie, though I can see why they chose that image to promote it.

Justin: We mostly made that poster ourselves and we were trying to get something that was very evocative, that you’d look at and have kind of a visceral reaction. In hindsight it might sell the movie differently than it is, but what it does do — because right now it’s the DVD cover — is that it intrigues a lot of people. And even though that’s slightly different sometimes than you’re expecting, how do you sell the visual of Resolution? What is THE visual of the movie? Well, it’s a voyeuristic mind twist … how do you find the visual for that? You know?

Absolutely. To be clear, I didn’t know you guys designed the poster and I wasn’t trying to critique the quality.

Justin: No, we feel the same way! It’s totally fine.

It’s so true that Resolution has a complex idea behind it. Can you talk a little bit about how you juxtaposed the supernatural force in the movie with the addiction of Chris (Vinny Curran)? Was that your plan from the start or did it develop along the way?

Justin: The supernatural mythology came first and the character drama came second, just in the writing process. But then in the total making of the film they’re of equal importance. But to be totally honest the first thing that came to my brain was the mythology. And it’s weird. Aaron and I have made three of four things now with some kind of supernatural mythology, and with two out of those three there’s so much done with suggestion. There are whole worlds of mythology we’ve developed in at least two projects — one is a short film we’ve got coming up — that go really deep and there’s a lot suggested … but it’s fun not to get too far into it in the actual story. In Spring we get pretty far into the mythology. We talk about it explicitly quite a bit.

So much of horror is about what you don’t know and mythology is a tool we use to explain things. Do you fight for the balance to have enough info for the audience to make sense of things while keeping things vague enough to be scary?

Justin: With everything in film making you have the issue of how much you are showing and how much you are telling. I think what Aaron and I have found with the last few projects is that you just have to do both a lot. You can do the kind of film school thing where it’s just showing and you end up with something like “wow, it’s so Lynchian!” And that’s great, but if you’re not doing a story about a vampire or a werewolf or something, with a mythology that people have engrained in them, if you’re not talking about what you’re showing it’s a very different experience. And the degree to which people comprehend what is going on will be much lower. But that’s always a challenge, showing versus telling, and how much to do each.

Aaron: Whenever you think about a film with no dialog you think “impressive! Cool!” But every time I’ve ever watched a film with no dialog, I think “this is weird and they trying really hard.” The only time I’ve seen it work is in like the first nine minutes of There Will Be Blood. And why? Because he’s alone! Then as soon as he’s with people he starts talking.

Justin: At this point you could probably do any variation on the zombie mythology without dialog and people would get it. (laughs) That might be kind of an interesting thing, a really meditative, poetic zombie movie. People would totally get it.

I think a lot of indie films get basic coverage of a scene but don’t have the time or money to select shots that really get the film to the “next level” and have meaning to them. Were there sequences in Resolution that you wanted to film but couldn’t?

Aaron: Honestly, that was one of the reasons when Justin came to me with this script, that I came on board. We weren’t going to be like wearing our father’s shoes with the story, because it required the aesthetic. If we had a hundred million dollars to shoot this movie, it would have looked exactly the same. It’s the only way it could have looked.  It has to be this kind of voyeuristic, naturalistic thing. It has to look this way because there’s a story reason for it. So when Justin and I were talking about how to approach the movie, we spent a lot of time on location and we figured out what looks the best. At least so we’re not looking at garbage, you don’t hate looking at the movie because it’s a bunch of plaster white walls and shitty lighting. We were designing an approach of beautiful naturalism. We didn’t actually reference any movies, but the one person who does this really well is Terrence Malick. Now the movie doesn’t look anything like Terrence Malick, but his approach is the same. You don’t think “oh, that was well done lighting” or “oh, that gaffer was great!” instead it feels like “oh, that gaffer didn’t have to work very hard because the lighting was already beautiful.” Now our gaffer did work very hard, but we worked to make it look as natural as possible. The camera work had to have a natural point-of-view look that actually was in the script. It was written as “halfway between Steadicam and handheld” and we got this big rig that kind of looks like a scorpion that hangs the camera off my shoulder and we were able to kind of get that look. Here and there the rig doesn’t hold up, but mostly it did. And we shot Spring the same way, we ended up liking it that much.

 I’ve read that you had three months of rehearsal time with your main actors. How essential was that to the finished product?

Justin: Yeah, I think the most important part leading up to production is the rehearsal time with the actors. We actually re-write the script, the dialog, and tailor fit it to the actors. That’s how you get it looking like it was improvised. There’s almost nothing improvised, we just go through a really long rehearsal process and make sure everything is really naturalistic and conversational. Actually, it’s a thing that’s kind of scary, because as we move up in budget we’ll have to go to producers one day and say “we want to bring our actors to set three weeks before filming.” I think we save our producers money, though. Everything is really worked out before we get to set.

Aaron: It’s no joke. I don’t think any producer would believe it but that’s only because they don’t ever actually get three weeks of rehearsal so they don’t see the results. But we barely ever have to clear the set for blocking or work out kinks, because they’re already worked out a week ahead of time. It sounds like we’re just being idealistic, but actually as producers ourselves in addition to directing, we would insist on it not just for the performance but it also saves a lot of time on set.

Justin: We did nine hour work days in Italy. That’s just what they do. Normally it’s twelve over here, twelve plus, so losing one quarter of our day, the only reason we were able to make it was because our actors were so on point. And the same thing with Resolution, we had short days on Resolution. They just knew their character and walked right into it with very little adjustment. That was worked out so much earlier they had been able to think about it and process it. Honestly, I’ll say it again. With Resolution and Spring we just got super lucky because with Resolution we had that cabin accessible, so we’d just go block it out in the cabin. And even if we couldn’t, the guy’s handcuffed the whole time, you know? In Spring we took over that little city basically, that little town we were shooting in, and we were able to just go to every single location to block it out. That said, we know we can’t always block it out, it’s just always preferable.

Aaron: And it’s better for the actors, not just for timing but to be able to actually see where we’ll be shooting.

Justin: I wanted to say another thing about the way Aaron lights, is that it’s doubly impressive. I think as far as the realm of indie film goes, he is in my opinion the best DP. Everything looks amazing. But what’s especially impressive is that when we get to set he lights in such a way that he’s thinking about how we’re not going to be able to do a major relight as we establish all these things, yet he’s still making it look really good.

Aaron: The reason Soderbergh shoots all of his own stuff is because it’s just one less conversation. In our case, obviously both of us are really into aesthetics, as a filmmaker you have to be, but always when a choice comes down to more time shooting an actor’s face or more time lighting, the good news is that because I’m directing and shooting and Justin is right there with me, we can always make the right choice which is shoot more time with the actor’s talking. The actors are going to look beautiful because they’re beautiful people, and as long as my lighting isn’t garbage then we can do something for them. But, getting them more takes, letting them “feel it” is so much more important than saying later “at least it was lit beautifully but the performance was off.” No one ever says that.

Speaking of which, I thought the acting from secondary characters in Resolution was very good, notably Zahn McClarnon who played Charles. Did you have to change your approach with him given the fact you didn’t have three months of rehearsal?

Justin: Always with day-players or people that come for just a couple of days, you spend a lot of time casting. What is that saying, 90% of directing is casting? In the case of day-players you just do a really thorough audition process and hope you get your first choice (which in that case, Zahn was our first choice). And then you pray and then they come to set. You can say a few things to them, but there’s to trick to directing. You need to speak clearly and be a good communicator, but once you tell them what you want … you just hope.

Justin and Aaron are currently in post-production on Spring. If you’d like to watch their current work, check out Resolution via iTunes or Netflix streaming, or check out their short films on YouTube:

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.

How I Almost Met Edgar Wright (Twice) and Why His Films are Important

The windows look like frames on a filmstrip as faces whiz left to right in a blur, folks staring out the train windows as it pulls into the station.

It slows down enough to distinguish individual people, revealing a man with sunken cheeks, a ghastly scowl, and a suit covered in blood. The effect is startling.

Life size decals of zombie torsos, plastered to the windows to create the effect of a subway laden with the undead. Amidst the ghouls, the hapless face of Shaun appeared, on his way to work in a white shirt with a spot of red.

That was the first time I saw Simon Pegg.

ImageAnd this was the second.

It was April of 2004 and I’d just spent three weeks bumming in a borrowed flat in Epping. Days consisted of filling my backpack with cheap food, riding the Underground to London, and finding all the things I could do for free.  The marketing for Shaun of the Dead was everywhere, a punny title that riffed one of my favorite movies of all time.

The tagline “A Romantic Comedy. With Zombies.” earned the film an eye-roll from me, but after a week of exposure I decided it wise to spend some of my precious money on a British-made zombie film while I was in England. I found a poster and checked the date. It released on April 9th, my flight left on April 8th.

I consoled myself with seeing the Dawn of the Dead remake instead, which just happened to be in theaters at the time. If I had it to do-over again, I’d call the airline and pay to extend my ticket.

When I finally rented the DVD, I was stunned with how good the film turned out to be. Not “good for what it is” or “good compared to what I thought” but genuinely, quantifiably great. The story takes standard zombie fare and remains true to Romero canon, while finding natural humor that twists the ideas in a new direction. The acting manages to be comedic without being self-aware and the film ranges from laugh-out-loud hilarious (Nick Frost winding the disposable camera for a second shot) to heart wrenching (Shaun killing his own mother).  But most of all, it manages to be both funny and scary, an almost impossible task.

I Googled Edgar Wright and was surprised to find only one other film credit to his name. I read some blog comment about how good his show Spaced was and managed to download a single, low-res episode. It was fun, but hard to understand out of context, so I eagerly awaited his next film, Hot Fuzz, to see what else he had up his sleeve.

ImageIt was a bit tamer than the last one.

The film was more of a deconstruction than Shaun, veering into near spoof territory in the final scenes, but it still showed a stunning control of editing and cinematography for such an early film in a director’s career (his third, after Shaun and his little seen A Fistful of Fingers).

When Hot Fuzz hit DVD I snatched it up and devoured hours of behind the scenes footage and interviews, so when I heard a familiar voice behind me while waiting in line at the Hollywood Arclight theatre I instinctively spun around to say “hi”, not realizing why I recognized the voice until I was facing one of my favorite directors with my hand raised and my mouth hanging open.

He gave me the “I know you know me” look and I turned back to face the counter, not having a single thing to say to him that wouldn’t sound stalkery.

This is the first time I almost met Edgar Wright.

The second time was just a year later, at the 2008 Comic-Con. I’d scored an interview with Wright, Pegg, and Jessica Hynes for the American DVD release of Spaced.

I’d never been to Comic-Con and it was a last-minute decision to attend. The roads were packed with pedestrians, the public transit was overflowing with bodies, the hotels were all booked (not that I could afford them) and I didn’t know a single person in San Diego. As a result, I spent the first night sleeping in my car.  The second night was unbearably hot, so I literally slept under a hedge in a park and woke up at 6am when the sprinklers turned on.

I ran my fingers through my hair, hopped on the trolly, and made my way to the convention center for the interview, hoping I didn’t reek of night sweat and fertilizer.

The staff ushered me to a small round table and there was my name and outlet … right next to a journalist from the BBC.

All I could think about was being asked to leave, like somehow they’d figure out I was living like a homeless person at night or I wouldn’t get a word in with real journalists at the table.

Hynes seemed bemused by the whole experience, not quite believing she was Stateside for a show she’d written a decade before. But Pegg is a commanding physical presence, with a bold gaze and broad shoulders, not at all the meek nerdling he often plays. When he sat down, the table fell into a vacuous silence. Not one reporter spoke, so I stepped into the void and asked them what it was like to dive back into the world of Spaced seven years after the last episode aired.

The result was instantaneous. Pegg and Hynes lit up, telling stories about writing in each other’s living rooms, a couple of twenty-somethings with no idea the successful careers they had ahead of them (Pegg is the current “hey, that guy’s in everything!” Hollywood character actor and Hynes is a successful television writer and actress, most recognizable in America as the tenth Doctor’s unrequited love from the popular Doctor Who reboot).

Through the interview, Wright pulled into himself, letting his actors take center stage. With the limited time he said very little, and it’s a shame I didn’t get to ask him a proper question.

Three years later, Wright released his first major film without Simon Pegg and Nick Frost: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

My review was glowing, but it wasn’t until a subsequent viewing on blu-ray that it finally hit home; Wright is one of the very best directors working today.

Scott Pilgrim is at first blush a silly, surface-level love song to video games and hipster slackers, but the craft is unparalleled by any movie since Kill Bill.

Any film deemed “good” has worked a miracle, weaving the disparate elements of light, sound, emotion, costumes, make-up, CGI, and dialog into a cohesive whole, but the way Scott Pilgrim integrates these things seamlessly, hanging important story points and tentpole jokes on moments that require all these elements to work, all while pushing the boundaries of these elements farther than most movies dare. That’s an utterly impossible feat, yet the film exists. It’s the definition of “movie magic”.

Re-watching the first two installments of the wonderful  “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” it’s easier to see the mad genius underneath the silly genre trappings. Shaun of the Dead is not just a wonderfully executed zombie flick, it’s also quite a profound statement about accepting adulthood. Hot Fuzz is not just a ludicrous deconstruction of action films, it’s an unpretentious sermon about accepting people and things for what they are without judgment (and a primer in Michael Bay apologetics).

Scott Pilgrim also has a lot to say, though it does so with the brash directness of the video game storytelling it emulates. When Scott pulls a pixelated super sword from his own chest while a digital voice proclaims “Scott has unlocked the power of self esteem” there’s not a lot of room for debate as to the message. While the film wears its theme on its sleeve in bright, blinking, glowing letters, this is precisely the right choice for the story.

What makes Wright’s work to date so incredible is also his Achilles heel; his movies are so effortlessly fun that they might seem like fluff.

Which brings us to the statement that prompted this blog post, a quote about Wright’s latest film The World’s End from a fellow writer from the Movie-Moron.com forum:

Really disappointing. The laughs are few and far between and I didn’t like the absurdly over-choreographed fighting. Edgar Wright is forever destined to be a budget Sam Raimi/Quentin Tarantino hybrid.

I have three issues with this statement. One, it implies that being a blend of two amazing directors is a bad thing.  Two, it suggests that Wright somehow stole from these directors (any more that all artists inherently steal from what’s been done before), and three, it suggests that working on lower budget films is a bad thing.

To date, Wright’s most expensive film was Scott Pilgrim, a story packed with visual effects which cost only 60 million. For comparison, that’s four times less than Man of Steel, a third of Pacific Rim, about half the budget of Elysium and twenty million less than Grown Ups 2.

ImageTwenty million bucks worth of promotional chili.

The World’s End (which opens today) cost just twenty million and boasts complicated fight scenes and many visual effects.

Wright has done more with less money than any current “big movie” director, except maybe Neill Blomkamp’s first film District 9. In a time when Spielberg and Lucas are harbingers for a bloated blockbusters apocalypse, this is surely a good thing. The fact that he takes these smaller budgets and makes some of the most creative and well-crafted cinema of our time, all the better.

If early buzz is correct, The World’s End looks to be a success for Wright and his cohort, with Ant-Man, his addition to the Marvel movie universe, on the horizon. For folks that complain about a lack of imagination or innovation in Hollywood these days, pre-order your tickets now.