Published on January 21, 2014
First place, entertainment reviews, 2012, 2012 Gold Circle Awards for Digital Media, Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA) “Woodpecker” flies above mockumentary formula January 14, 2011 By Ben Wright “Woodpecker” is more than a run-of-themill mockumentary. It’s a film that blurs the line between fact and fiction. By Ben Wright On one hand a mockumentary, or docudrama or maybe even a docufiction and a hilarious dark humor piece on the other, “Woodpecker” combines laughs, fact and fiction expertly. The film, presented by the Lucas Theatre’s Southern Circuit Tour of Filmmakers and part of Savannah’s Alternative Cinema Weekend, premiered Jan. 12 at the Lucas Theatre to a modest yet appreciative crowd. The director and co-writer of the film, Alex Karpovsky, was supposed to be in attendance, but was snowbound in Charlotte, N.C. Nevertheless, the screening continued, and, without the filmmaker’s insight, left the audience wondering what, exactly, was real, and what wasn’t. “Woodpecker” begins deeply rooted in fact, telling the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest species of woodpecker in North America, supposedly extinct since the 1940s. A possible sighting near the dying town of Brinkley, Ark. ignites the passions of the apparently robust birding community in the U.S. Suddenly, the town, described by a Chamber of Commerce employee as almost “third-world” has an answer to their prayers of redemption with the Lord God
bird (taken by some as a religious sign, but the name comes from people saying, “Lord God! Look at the size of that bird!”). Birders, conservationists and eco-tourists descended on the town, which quickly rebranded itself around the ivory-bill, with gift shops, hotels, and a $25 ivorybilled woodpecker haircut. The bird’s existence, however hinges on a grainy, out of focus four-second video and various eyewitnesses. Enter Jonny (Jon Hyrnes), a housepainter and amateur poet who comes to Brinkley with his newfound, nearly mute friend from Portland, Ore., Wesley (Wesley Yang), determined to be the one who finds the bird. After reading Connect Savannah’s interview with Karpovsky, I confidently told my friend in the seat next to me that Jonny and Wesley are the only scripted parts of the film. As the film entered its second act, I became doubtful. The story of Brinkley is enough for a cut-and-dry documentary in itself, but as Jonny and Wes’ story unfolds, the film becomes something much more. Karpovsky expertly weaves actors into the film (not just Jonny and Wes) to give the film a narrative structure. It’s hard to find an antagonist in a documentary about a bird, but Karpovsky does deftly with the introduction of Brinkley’s duck-hunting lobby, who can no longer hunt in the now federally-protected bayou. The hunters hang around in the wings, occasionally popping up for an interview, but are enough of a presence to add to the film’s narrative structure. It’s far too easy to make comparisons to Christopher Guest’s films (“Best in Show,” “Waiting for Guffman”) when reviewing fake documentaries. While Karpovsky retains the best elements of Guest’s films—the bumbling protagonist, ridiculous statements said with deadly seriousness, an almost religious conviction to the task at hand—there’s an extra dimension to “Woodpecker”: reality. “Best in Show” lampoons the dog show circuit by creating a fake dog show and populating it with actors. “Woodpecker” isn’t a send-up of birding or the town of Brinkley. It’s using a very real place with a very real controversy (deemed “Peckergate” by hardcore birders) and creates a new narrative that blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Much like eponymous subject of the movie, the narrative exists in a murky realm of possible veracity. The film, like any documentary, cuts between one-on-one interviews and more narrative scenes. Just as the gas begins to run out on a scene, the screen fades to black and starts the cycle again. This gives the film an almost amateur quality, but the expertise of the storytelling prevents it from falling into that trap.
It’s impossible to delve into Jonny’s story without ruining it, but, suffice to say that his obsession is both his downfall and redemption. As the movie closes with Jonny, head painted in a crude likeness of the ivorybill’s crest, body covered in glued-on goose down, reciting stilted poetry about the elusive Lord God bird, it’s easy to laugh, but the nagging suspicions about what really happened and what didn’t last a lot longer than the gags.
2010 Georgia College Press Association Better Newspaper Contest: 1st Place, Best Review http://www.scaddistrict.com/filmfest/?p=854 “127 Hours” a compelling, uncomfortable end to Film Festival Posted on November 6, 2010 “127 Hours” is not for the faint of heart, but is an immensely compelling film that will have people talking. By Ben Wright This year’s Savannah Film Festival has included a number of controversial films. From the NC-17 rated “Blue Valentine” to “Blue Velvet,” this year’s selections have not always been family-friendly feel-good hits. The festival ended on a note of relief as the lights went up after “127 Hours,” which features the true story of hiker Aron
Ralston’s entrapment in a canyon for five days and the extreme measures he takes to free himself. Relief because the moviegoer, who needed an EMT called after The Amputation Scene, was OK. Relief because The Amputation Scene was over. Relief at the resolution of an incredibly intense 90 minutes of film. “127 Hours,” directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Millions,” “28 Days Later) is based on Ralston’s memoir, the aptly titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” The film opens with a triptych of images of Ralston’s urban life as he begins his escape to nature, where, upon arriving, he exclaims, “Just me, the music and the night. Love it!” Ralston’s relationship with nature is an interesting one. He doesn’t seek solitude like Thoreau; he seeks to conquer it, blasting music in his headphones and trying to beat guidebook’s recommended hiking times. People are blurs in Ralston’s life. Early on, he meets two hikers, played by Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara. Their scenes add little to the movie, except about 10 minutes and some relief before The Scene.
Most importantly, it shows how he isn’t distracted by these two young women who obviously are hitting on him. He wants to embrace the great outdoors. Then, after swimming in his skivvies in the middle of nowhere, Ralston sprints off to his next adventure, taking him to Blue John Canyon, where a rock becomes dislodged and crushes his right forearm against the wall. It’s here, 15 minutes into the movie, that the title appears. This film lacks the traditional narrative structure. There’s no comic relief. There’s no villain. There’s not really a story arc. All of this is found within Ralston, depicted compellingly by James Franco. Immobilizing the main character allows Boyle to play with his character and cinematography in very interesting ways. Ralston flashes back to his childhood, past relationships and events more and more frequently as his situation worsens. He gives monologues to his handheld recorder and he never loses his sense of humor. After drinking his own urine, he says, “It’s no Slurpee.” Boyle uses extreme closeups of Ralston’s water bottle, Camel Bak and skin to seamlessly weave in his hallucinations.
At first, Ralston is just an observer in his hallucinations, but as he runs out of water and food, his role changes. He’s seen outside the window the first time he sleeps with his exgirlfriend. Then his mother’s couch appears in the canyon with him. Even though time begins to slow down for Ralston, as the minutes slowly squeeze by, the film never drags. As Ralston, and the film lose their grip on reality the film becomes more and more compelling. Interestingly, pop culture manages to squeeze into the canyon with Ralston. He hosts a morning show segment, featuring himself as host, guest and call-in viewer. The “Scooby Doo” theme song plays in his head. Ralston fantasizes about beverages through vintage commercial footage. Even though he is trapped in the remotest corner of the nation, he can’t escape it. Perhaps the philosophical core of the movie lies in Ralston’s monologue describing how the rock that is trapping him has “been waiting for me its entire life.” Thankfully, the film isn’t given to much self-reflection and pity, where it could easily get bogged down. As soon as Ralston apologizes to his mother in absentia, he’s stabbing his arm.
When he’s finally made his peace with the world, his desperation forces him to take drastic measures and cut his arm off. The Amputation Scene, which, according to the Huffington Post, has people fainting and vomiting in theaters at premieres around the world, isn’t gratuitous. Intense? Yes. Uncomfortable? Oh, yes. But the scene, which ended with the film temporarily stopping and an ambulance being called to Trustees Theater, didn’t cause people to leave in droves. Everyone squirmed and everyone groaned, but Boyle’s success in setting up a connection with Ralston the previous 80 minutes made the audience stick around. Applause broke out as he finally wrenched himself free, and everyone laughed as Ralston paused to take a picture of the grisly scene he left.
The film ends so soon after The Scene that the resolution is messy. There’s not an immediate triumphant sentiment. I didn’t feel empowered by the film, just exhausted. That’s perhaps the biggest letdown of the film. The message isn’t immediately clear, and the overwhelming feeling from the film is relief. “127 Hours” isn’t, by any means, for the squeamish. But those looking for a compelling story, interesting cinematography and a more than likely Academy Award nomination for Franco, check it out. It lives up to the hype. Contact Ben Wright. !
Freelance journalism feature: “From rags to riches to rags: the tale of America’s Uranium King” The gold rush is a staple of American history. It conjures images of rugged wilderness, larger-than life characters and desperate people, hoping for a lucky break. Most assume the era of the mineral rush is ancient history, but there was another, more recent rush for a certain mineral—one so recent, some of the major players involved are still around. The mineral? Uranium. After World War II, America was on the hunt for uranium to process for its newly minted nuclear arsenal. At the time, only two major sources were known: Shinkolobwe in the Congo and the mines of St. Joachimsthal, Czechosolvakia, then controlled by the Soviet Union. Incidentally, the silver coins produced at St. Joachimsthal in the 14th century became known as Joachimsthalers, which was shorted to the less tongue-twisting thalers, which was then Anglicized to “dollar.” In the early days of the Cold War, America needed a homegrown source of the world’s most valuable metal, and it needed it fast. The Atomic Energy Commission announced it would buy all processable uranium, at many times the market price. Helpfully, the Commission also printed guidebooks for any would-be prospectors eager to make a buck or 10,000, which was the bonus promised to anyone who could develop a productive mine. Enter Charlie Steen. Steen, who graduated from the Texas College of Mines, held down a few jobs in the oil business, but never for long, as his hot-headedness and temperament got him in trouble with bosses. In 1949, unemployed and running out of cash, he borrowed $1,000 from his mother and set out for Moab, Utah with his wife and children, where rumors of uranium shimmered in the desert. After two years of barely scraping by, poaching deer for food, emptying cigarette butts for the tobacco and borrowing more and more money from friends, Steen was at his wit’s end. He’d just broken his last drill bit and only had a truck full of black, worthless rock to show for it. He headed back into town, stopping at a service station to chat with a friend. The friend, Buddy Gowger, had a Geiger counter on hand, which most prospectors used in their search for the precious mineral. Steen couldn’t afford it, instead relying only on his mining acumen and instincts. Jokingly, Steen asked Cowger to check his worthlesslooking rocks for radiation. The Geiger counter squealed. Steen had hit the motherlode. His Mi Vida mine produced $1 million of uranium ore in its six months of operation. His mine, uranium mills and related companies were worth over $150 million in two years. Steen was 33 years old.
Flush with more money than he knew what to do with, Steen constructed an ostentatious mansion overlooking Moab (now a fancy restaurant called the Sunset Grill). He also had a compassionate streak, donating $50,000 to build a hospital in Moab, expanding the city’s waterworks and giving money to pretty much anyone who asked for it. Steen threw lavish parties for the town in his private hangar, flying in fresh oysters from Maine. Since the television signals in Moab’s desert canyons were often spotty, Steen would board his private plane and have his pilot circle the desert where he could enjoy his favorite shows in peace. As with most get-rich-quick stories, Steen’s does not have a happy ending. After a successful campaign for Utah’s State Senate in 1958, Steen ran afoul of the Mormoncontrolled legislature when he campaigned for loosening the state’s restrictive liquor laws. Steen resigned in 1961, and moved to Nevada, seeking more riches. He never did. Steen may have been a good miner, but his business ventures in horse racing, cattle ranching, marble mining and a pickle factory all went belly-up. He was constantly involved in lawsuits about his mines. The IRS confiscated his assets for back taxes in 1968. Steen returned to mining in the 70s, where, in 1971 he received a devastating head injury that put him in a coma for a month. He never fully recovered, but never gave up hoping for his next big strike. As Steen’s health declined, his sons squabbled over what was left of the family’s fortune. Steen’s wife, Minnie Lee, died in 1997, and Steen followed in 2006, succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Their ashes were scattered at the abandoned Mi Vida mine, where Steen made his millions in the last great mineral rush of the century. Sidebar ideas “Uranium Prospectin’ for Dummies” You may think that knowledge of geology, mining or basic survival skills are necessary for a successful uranium strike, but that didn’t stop thousands of ordinary citizens like you and me from seeking riches in the desert. Here’s all you need to know about prospecting for uranium: • Since you lack basic knowledge of where and how uranium is deposited, a Geiger counter will likely be necessary to find our next strike. Luckily, Amazon.com has new, portable Geiger counters in stock starting at $350. • In 1953, Life magazine printed a handy guide for any would-be prospector. The price for “complete equipment for the well-heeled prospector,” cost $3,529. The basic kit was $98.50, and included a Geiger counter, a canteen, a pick, claim notices and snakebite kit. Neither kit included sunscreen, which would probably be helpful.
• • Due to the Mining Act of 1872, signed by President Ulysses Grant in 1872, any citizen may stake a claim on federal land open to mineral entry! This includes land in 19 states, all West of the Mississippi River. Staking a claim varies according to state, but is usually required to be a visible post or mound in the center of your claim, with a container holding a document of your contact information and notice of your claim. Be sure to send a copy of claim to the Bureau of Land Management, along with a $189 fee. For our uranium mining, federal law limits our claim to 1500 feet in length and a maximum width of 600 feet. Now that you’ve staked your claim, all that’s left is to dig up that precious uranium ore, and search for investors. Fortunately, the market seems to be looking up. The market price for U-308 (also known as yellowcake) is $42.50 a pound. Finding a (legal) buyer may be more difficult. Ben Wright firstname.lastname@example.org 864-631-7735
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