Saturday, January 28, 2012


Too Old for Rock n' Roll                     
by Zac Sanford

After failing to sign his band with his former label, an aging rock star concocts a plan to pull a fast one on the record industry. The problem? Well, the industry considers Johnny Jones and his former band mates in Weapons of Happiness well past their prime. Sure they may have made the record label mounds of cash in the early 80s, but times have changed. Now the industry prides itself on launching fresh, pre-packaged bands and pop groups.

Jones has never given up the dream, even if his former band mates have moved on with their lives. He’s living with his girlfriend of several years, who keeps pestering him to have a baby. But what man wants to bring a child into this world when he lives in a trailer?  One drunken night he reunites with the former members of the triple-platinum punk band, Weapons of Happiness. With alcohol flowing freely, they record a song, not on an 8-track like the old days, but on a swanky new iMac.

The thing is, this song is good. It’s catchy. And it’s a good thing the tune makes you want to dance in your seat because it is played over and over throughout the entire run of the flick. The problem is the new A&R exec, a young twenty-something who no longer respects musical talent. He’d rather find the youngest and hottest sensation that can grace the pages of any pop culture magazine.

So Johnny, in a bit of panic, drops the recording off with a DJ. But this isn’t the music of Weapons of Happiness. It's the music of Single Shot, a band he manages and has helped produce. Once the DJ spins the tune, Johnny must let his fellow musicians know that they cannot be the face of the music. The old-timers quickly hold auditions and teach a rag-tag group of teens to play the instruments and act the part. In time they’ll come clean and show the hypocrisy of the recording industry, if they can keep egos at bay.

Vinyl is based on the true life story of Welsh musician Mike Peters, who famously released a track under the name of “The Poppy Fields” in 2004. To prove that the music industry was biased, the older musician became hired a younger band to perform in the music video. The song ended up becoming a minor hit before the truth was disclosed.

The film keeps up a brisk pace with its punk-influenced soundtrack. Sara Sugarman, who has vastly improved as a director since her last outing (Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen), keeps the scenes light in the script she co-wrote with Jim Cooper. The performances by rock stars young and old are believable. Phil Daniels as the crotchety former star, Johnny Jones, is slightly overshadowed by the young Jamie Blackley, who plays Drainpipe, the front man of the fake band.

The film recently premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and has encore performances on January 29th at 8:05 a.m. and February 3rd at 2:00 p.m. It does not currently have distribution, but hopefully this gem will find a home before its festival run concludes.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Innkeepers

The Final Guest Checks Out
by Zac Sanford

It is the end of an era at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a small town hotel that has been in business for over 100 years. And over those years the hotel has had its share of guests, including one that may still be roaming the halls, not as a live-in resident or staff member, but as an entity that refuses to leave after the suicide she committed many years ago.   

The fact that the hotel may be haunted has always intrigued Luke (Pat Healy), and to jump on the paranormal bandwagon that has taken over reality TV, he’s built a website where he recounts the legend of jilted bride-to-be, Madeline O’Malley. Since this is the last weekend the hotel is to be open, he’s enlisted co-worker Claire (Sara Paxton) to record any occurrences that may arise during the final three days. With the hotel all but empty, they both take turns working the front desk and recording while the other sleeps in one of the empty rooms. There isn’t time drive to and from work when there’s only a little time to find and exploit the spiritual medium.

Pat Healy and Sara Paxton
It isn’t until Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), a former actress-turned-spiritualist, checks in for a psychic convention nearby, that things start to stir in the night. The sweet-natured Claire is enamored by her as the most famous person she’s ever met, but Leanne is bitter and feels something isn’t right in this historic building. After her convention she has a heart-to-heart with Claire, warning her that sometimes things are best left alone. But Claire doesn’t head her warning and continues to try to make a connection.

The film doesn’t fall into the typical pratfall of jump scares every ten to fifteen minutes to keep the audience intrigued. Director/writer/editor Ti West (The House of the Devil) takes his time building up to his explosive third act. You actually get a chance to know spunky Claire and bitter Luke. They have such a wonderful rapport, partially in Luke’s infatuation for Claire that has a zero percent chance to be returned. They are two close friends that are able to spend the mundane hours of the flailing business just talking and still find a way to have a good time.   

And when the stuff starts to hit the fan, you’ll care. You want to see them succeed and survive to the final frame of the film when the credits roll. Sure they don’t know what the future will hold for them as they hit the unemployment line, but they may just be able to get through life… if they can only survive.

West has become a master at the slow-burn horror film, which will please some genre fans while infuriating others. His style is one that harkens back to the pre-torture porn era of the genre, letting the sensation of terror build, and finally grabbing you when he feels it is time to pull the plug. Those who are accustomed to the films where a kill must happen every ten to fifteen minutes may be bored by the first two-thirds, but hopefully will be around for the final climactic act. 

But West isn’t alone. Once again he re-teams with DP Eliot Rockett, who perfectly keeps his camera aimed not on what the characters see, but instead on the characters themselves. Sound Designer Graham Reznick balances the perfect mix of loud scares with pure silence to build tension, while Jeff Grace’s score pays homage to Bernard Herman’s days with Hitchcock.
The Innkeepers is currently available on VOD through most platforms and will have a limited theatrical release on February 03, 2012.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Web Series Hit the Mainstream

by Mark Dispenza

Web series went mainstream this week with their very own awards show--streamed live of course.  Members of the International Academy of Web Television chose IAWTV Award winners in 32 categories from over 350 submissions to its inaugural competition.

Its clear that this latest creative outlet is attracting more talent and greater investment than ever before, and as the final walls between your television set and your computer are broken down, the broad array of entertainment choices will be exponentially greater than ever.

The Guild, a comedy series about online gamers now in its fifth season, led the pack with five wins, including Best Comedy Web Series, as well as Best Writing (Comedy) and Best Female Performance (Comedy) for series creator, Felicia Day.  What started out in season one as an ultra-low-budget experiment by Day and her friends has turned into a web phenomena with progressively higher production values and guest stars like fan icons Stan Lee and Neil Gaiman.  

Fans of the old X-Files TV series and feature films can finally get their next fix of alien invasion conspiracy from RCVR, a new web series created by online entertainment developer, Machinima, which pledges to bridge the gap between cinema and gaming in one accessible package.  RCVR won Best Web Series Drama  at IAWTV, as well as Best Male Performance in a Drama for lead actor Daniel Bonjour.  Unlike much web entertainment content, RCVR was a slickly packaged, professionally produced series right out of the gate when it premiered in September.  I don't know its cost per episode, but it ain't cheap.

Red vs. Blue, yet another series developed by a gaming company, Rooster Teeth, won Bet Animated Web Series.  The computer-generated animation is top-notch, and it certainly is entertaining (not for children), although the plots and comedy writing are of the B movie variety.

If you've been checking out the above links and are ready for more relevant, socially conscious fare, check out Anyone But Me, winner for Best Writing (Drama) and Best Female Performance in a Drama for its young star, Rachael Hip-Flores.  Series writers Tina Cesa Ward and Susan Miller have been honored multiple times during the past year, including a Writers Guild of America (WGA) award for Original New Media.

Chris Preksta won an award as Best Director (Drama) for The Mercury Men, which can be viewed on Hulu, a pioneer in the marriage of series television with web streaming.

Blip was honored for its role as a distribution platform for web series, and a visit to its site will provide you with a wealth of quality web programming, both scripted and unscripted.  Its apparent that the web distribution model for series television is now in an advanced state of evolution, and it's only a matter of time before the challenges of web distribution for feature films are overcome--with or without Netflix.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Separation

Deception and Lies                          
by Zac Sanford

An acclaimed new film takes on the conflict between new and old as Iranians struggle to cope with the pressures of modern society.  Director Asghar Farhadi’s multilayered drama delves into the gender inequalities, religious beliefs and class differences that pit two Iranian families against one another in A Separation.

The five-minute single static shot of Nadir (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) that opens the film perfectly sets the mood. They both talk directly into the camera as they expound their reasoning for why they are currently at this point in their relationship. 

Simin wants to move out of Iran to provide a better future for their daughter. Nadir needs to stay within the country to take care of his ailing father, who has been struck down by Alzheimer’s Disease. The unseen magistrate asks Simin if Nadir has ever hit her, and the only reply she can give is that “he is a good man”. In a country like the United States, it is easy to claim irreconcilable differences, but in a country like Iran, usually the male gets the final say.

Simin ends up moving out of their home and back with her family, leaving her husband to take care of their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), during the temporary separation. Since Nadir works during the day, this leaves no one to take care of his father, so he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a female caretaker. Even though she must travel two hours each way to the job, her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) has fallen on hard times and hasn’t worked in some time, so she accepts the job without telling him.

After her first day, Razieh confesses to Nadir she must quit and asks him to hire her husband, but not to tell him she was the previous caregiver. You see, Razieh is deeply religious and even resorted to calling a hotline to make sure it was okay to wash an elderly man who wasn’t her husband. But the following day, Razieh shows up to continue working. She says her husband wasn’t able to make it, lying to cover the facts of why her husband didn’t show that day.

Things quickly escalate when Nadir comes home one day to find his father tied to the bed, presumably dead (but really just unconscious) and Razieh is nowhere to be found. When Razieh returns, she is confronted by Nadir for what she had done to his father. She pleads that she had to go out for a moment and she didn’t want him to get hurt, considering he wandered out the previous day. Nadir wants this woman out of his house and forcefully removes her, creating problems that will further complicate the second half of the movie.

I could go into the story deeper and what happens from there, but I think there’s a point where it is best to stop discussing the story and leave something new to the viewer. The story takes a major turn when Nadir throws Razieh out the door, and it will take many other twists throughout the next sixty-plus minutes. The story delves into deeper levels of classism, sexism and religion, with each of the four characters having to face their own battles.

Everyone has a level of deception and secrets that they hold back. It is a film that is perfect in the cinematography, leaving select discussions and scenes just out of the camera's lens or as things heard through a door. Hopefully in the end, you as the viewer will question some of the morality that is placed front and center, as everyone is looking out for their own well-being.

The film is near perfect from beginning to end. Currently it is nominated for best foreign film at the Golden Globes and is Iran’s entry in the Oscar’s Foreign Language category. Previously it won the top honors at the Berlin International Film Festival for best feature, and both lead actors were honored for their work.