Jan 9 2017

Tower (2016)

If you know just one name from the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting, it’s probably Charles Whitman, the deranged assailant who gunned down 49 people — killing 14 — in an hour and a half’s time. It’s one of the (many) unfortunate realities of these mass shooting-crazed days: We remember the villains, their horrific acts of violence, but know next to nothing of their victims.

Tower, Keith Maitland’s Indiegogo-funded documentary, admirably upends that narrative. Through a radical mix of archival footage, rotoscopic re-enactments and firsthand accounts, the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker chronicles the day’s events through the words of basically everyone but the shooter — people like Aleck Hernandez Jr. (Aldo Ordoñez), a teenage paperboy shot on his route; officers Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson, Varsity Blood) and Ramiro Martinez (Louie Arnette, #Slaughterhouse), who ultimately killed Whitman in a standoff; and Claire Wilson (Violett Beane, TV’s The Flash), an 18-year-old anthropology student who lost both her fiancé, Tom Eckman (Cole Bee Wilson) and her unborn baby.

Forgoing any examination of the massacre’s broader, macro-level impact, Tower instead recounts the poignant internal conflicts of its characters — like the powerless torment of bare skin on blistering pavement, or the cowardice one feels when realizing they lack the courage to help the wounded. All the while, intermittent gunshots ring out in the middle of the sound mix and double down on the unease — an effect that puts you squarely on campus and in the line of fire.

The animation, equal parts dazzling and distracting, doesn’t serve much purpose beyond the visual replication of what wasn’t captured on camera in ’66 (amazingly, though, a lot was). But even if these spritzes of eye candy seem garish next to the gritty historical footage, Maitland’s inventive approach to tragedy and storytelling make Tower essential to our understanding of what really goes on during the panic and chaos of mass shootings, and serves as a poignant reminder of the heroism we don’t often remember. It might not tell the whole story, but it tells the ones that needed to be heard. —Zach Hale

Dec 14 2016

Best of Enemies (2015)

bestenemiesThe day before the 1968 Republican National Convention, the ceiling of the ABC News studio stationed at the Miami Beach Convention Center collapsed, temporarily shambling the struggling network’s control room and set. Nobody knew it at the time — especially not ABC — but the resulting disarray proved to be a prophetic metaphor for the fractured fate of broadcast journalism. For better or worse, political punditry and slanted cable news commentary are 2015 America’s de facto information resources. And it all started with ABC’s televised debates between William Buckley and Gore Vidal, portrayed with appropriately crafty and captivating fashion in Best of Enemies.

The documentary depicts Buckley and Vidal’s contentiously off-the-cuff (and wildly entertaining) discourse through rare archival footage and interviews, many of which articulate the broader, far-reaching effects they had on today’s political climate. At the time, ABC was playing third fiddle to NBC and CBS, networks that had established their network news dominance through fact-based, down-the-center reporting — the standard in 1968. But by pitting Buckley and Vidal — who already detested one another prior to the debates — ABC subsequently surged in the ratings, with millions tuning in each night of the convention to watch the two pummel each other with personal jabs and snidely delivered one-liners. It was shockingly candid television unlike anything the American people had ever seen, and they couldn’t stop watching.

bestenemies1But Best of Enemies is most absorbing in its examination of the individuals themselves: their worldviews, motivations, weaknesses, differences, and ultimately their similarities. Buckley — a self-described conservative, Republican, Christian libertarian — founded the highly influential National Review, a publication renowned for its unabashedly conservative, Republican, Christian libertarian news. Vidal — a liberal, radical, forward-thinking sexual deviant — was a highbrow writer known for his uncommonly edgy novels and plays (including the notorious Myra Breckenridge), many of which were adapted for the silver screen. Despite their existence on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Buckley and Vidal had one very important thing in common: a relentless affinity for their own pride and intellect.

As often happens in a battle of egos, their conviction turned to hate, with both even going so far as to believe, in their heart of hearts, that the other threatened not only the advancement of their ascribed political doctrine, but the fate of humanity as a whole. Naturally, their debates became less about issues or party platforms and more about pummeling their opponent, about winning, and eventually devolving into a battle of who can dig deepest under the other’s skin. This manifested in a television meltdown for the ages after Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” to which Buckley replied, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face.”

Moments like these carry consequences that need no explanation. And outside of their subtle use of editing to inject a leisurely buoyant tone, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville know good and well to let the images and sound bites tell the story — until the end credits, when they needlessly tack on what the preceding 85 minutes had already explicitly implied. It’s an unfortunate “allow me to explain what you just watched” moment, overly simplistic in its insinuation that Buckley and Vidal, conservatives and liberals, Fox News and MSNBC are merely two sides of the same coin.

The prevailing theory that the truth always lies in the center should satisfy those who already ascribe to it, much like it would if it implied that the truth lies on the right or left. What is indisputable, however, is that the story of Buckley and Vidal is as historically relevant as it is fascinating. And for 85 minutes, Best of Enemies is the most compelling glimpse into one of history’s great rivalries that you’re likely to ever watch. That we can all agree on. —Zach Hale

Get it at Amazon.

Nov 8 2016

The Creep Behind the Camera (2014)

creepbehindMatching in ambition, Pete Schuermann’s The Creep Behind the Camera would make a good double feature with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. I only wish it shared the latter’s focus and greatness.

A mix of documentary footage and fictionalized re-enactments, The Creep Behind the Camera chronicles in part the production of The Creeping Terror, generally and rightly considered to be one of the worst films ever made. The 1964 cheapie is, as one of this film’s interviewees puts it, “a very low-budget movie made by a very psychotic person.” The madman in question is Terror‘s director, producer and star, Art “A.J.” Nelson, better known as Vic Savage. By all accounts a big ball of sleaze, Savage is portrayed with a predatory, slime-dripping smile by Josh Phillips (Text), in a durable performance that seems to channel early-career Bill Paxton.

creepbehind1A former juvenile delinquent who never quite grew up, the bisexual Savage (who died in 1975) hustles and schemes and cheats his way through life and into grandiose dreams of Hollywood fame. That he has no discernible talent outside of fleecing others and abusing his long-suffering wife (Jodi Lynn Thomas, TV’s Preacher) hardly deters him.

Overall, this tale of monsters, mobsters and Manson (yes, as in Charles) is at its best and brightest when either recreating or commenting upon the tortured shoot for The Creeping Terror, with its shambling creature of carpet scraps looking to extras not unlike giant labia. Savage’s disasterpiece was a natural for its eventual experimentation on Mystery Science Theater 3000, given that the black-and-white pic relied more on narration than dialogue, not to mention solicited a music score from a high school band; not for nothing does critic and Golden Turkey author Michael Medved say to Schuermann’s camera, “You will never see incompetence more sincere.” Other greatest bits depict Savage’s crazier off-set antics, from shooting Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer through the hand to stalking Mamie Van Doren and Lucille Ball (although not at the same time).

One has to appreciate Schuermann’s unique take for The Creep, even if the timeline can be janky and the narrative ultimately derails in the second hour. Utilizing more interviews would have helped sweeten the utterly sour turn in tone from lighthearted schlock to downright depressing, because that third act is so relentlessly glum and humorless that the viewer is worn into a state of despondence as well. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Oct 9 2016

Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four (2015)

doomedRightfully tanked, Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot is so awful, it may be the worst Marvel Comics movie made. On the eve of opening weekend, the sophomore director of the sleeper hit Chronicle famously tweeted his way out of the studio’s favor, not to mention a lucrative Star Wars gig, by basically disowning his Four in 140 characters or less: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve recieved [sic] great reviews. You’re probably never see it. That’s reality though.”

Somewhere, Oley Sassone shook his head and mutters to himself, “You want to talk reality? Hey, at least your movie got released.”

Sassone should know. He directed the first film version of The Fantastic Four. Not the 2005 summer smash with Jessica Alba and Chris Evans, but the 1994 one made with no stars and little money, but a lot of heart. That one, produced by Roger Corman, was shelved permanently and might never have been intended to see the light of day, depending upon whom you ask.

doomed1Well, Marty Langford asked, and the whole sordid affair is recalled and revealed in his documentary, Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four. While crowdfunded docs rarely rise higher than the level of “glorified DVD bonus” (assuming they aim that high at all), Doomed! is pretty polished and unexpectedly moving. Yes, that’s right: moving.

As conveyed through their candor, the ill-fated Four’s cast and crew were pumped about this project, in an age where not only did superhero cinema barely exist, but the entries that did were DC Comics properties: Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman and Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing. Marvel, meanwhile, was stuck to the small screen, where The Incredible Hulk spent five years in prime time, roaming town to town.

Yet here was what they all considered to be Their Big Break: one with a larger budget than any Corman project in history. On one hand, they shot on recycled sets from the thrifty producer’s Carnosaur; on the other, a 40-piece orchestra was performing the score. The end result was not perfect (Doomed!’s principals exercise healthy self-deprecation in detailing the flubs that made it to final cut), but they believed in it and couldn’t wait to share it with audiences.

Bootlegs aside, they’re still waiting. And while they may have given up on that dream, they have not given up on the movie itself. Alex Hyde-White, who played the elastic Mr. Fantastic, feels Sassone is the person most owed, having worked so hard to deliver a picture that would propel him out of the low-budget world of straight-to-video sequels to Bloodfist and Relentless: “He deserved this film.” Stuntman Carl Ciarfalio, who donned faux orange rock to play The Thing, is literally owed, having sunk $12,000 of his own money into promoting the film nationwide … while it’s entirely possible the financiers had specific plans not to release it, ever.

Why? Well, that’s a long story — and a damned good one, as Langford’s film tells it. His Doomed! stands strong as a compelling case study of the tributary of commerce flowing into the river of art; it investigates the executive-suite machinations as it celebrates the creative process. Stan Lee even makes his usual cameo, this time playing Two-Face. —Rod Lott

Get it at Doomed!

Aug 31 2016

The Lost Arcade (2015)

lostarcadeThrough taking a camera into Chinatown Fair during the famous New York City arcade’s final days in 2011, freshman filmmaker Kurt Vincent found the story he wanted, and also a better one he had not foreseen.

The expected focus of The Lost Arcade would be to chronicle the closing of what was an institution for the Pac-Man generation — those boys and (a scant few) girls for whom Chinatown Fair represented more than a game’s three coin-op lives: an escape from their real ones, 25 cents at a time.

lostarcade1And yes, the documentary is that, but what also emerges from that construct is what makes the movie special: a story of the fabled American dream made reality for Sam Palmer. A Pakistani gentleman, Palmer was not the founding owner of the place, but he was its heart. In the days of gorillas hurling barrels at chivalrous plumbers, of defending Earth from symmetric lines of invading aliens and, in the arcade’s rare non-video attraction, of a live chicken that danced and played tic-tac-toe, the kindly Palmer trusted the young men whom no one else would and created an all-inclusive community in our nation’s most iconic melting pot — a task as daunting as conquering Dragon’s Lair on a single quarter.

Talented poultry aside, there appears to be nothing special about the arcade at face value. In fact, it looks too cramped for the claustrophobe and too grimy for the germaphobe, but the patrons don’t seem to care — hell, they like it the way it is. While you and I may have no familiarity with the Fair — and, therefore, no nostalgia for it — Vincent finds the angle that makes the subject remarkably relevant for us … and unexpectedly moving. The Lost Arcade is a quiet find. —Rod Lott

Get it at arcademovie.com.