Based on a 2006 Texas Monthly magazine article by Pamela Colloff, director Keith Maitland's visually striking Tower (2016) attempts to re-create the horrific 1966 University of Texas Tower Shooting that left 14 people dead and another 31 wounded. The sharpshooter, an ex-Marine who had also murdered his wife and mother earlier that day, was eventually killed by police gunfire after they ascended the 30-floor structure. But enough damage had already been done during the previous 96 minutes to shake the community and nation at large; this was, after all, the largest mass shooting in modern US history at the time, and one with no apparent motive or warning.
Luckily, Keith Maitland's film focuses on the only slivers of hope from that traumatic event: the innocent victims and survivors, several of whom rushed to help one another in the face of death. Their accounts are much like the article written by Colloff (who was initially approached by Maitland in 2006 and eventually became one of the film's executive producers), although presented in more of a "here-and-now" perspective: younger actors serve as stand-ins, and vintage photos and videos help piece together what happened from their perspectives. The majority of characters and backgrounds were then animated via rotoscoping (much like Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) giving the film a surreal and almost dreamlike atmosphere meant to simulate the fuzziness of our own long-term memories. Despite its variety of subtle color palette changes---or in some cases, removing color altogether to match black-and-white footage---Tower doesn't usually let artistic intent overshadow its surprisingly natural appearance. Brief exceptions are present, such as a short flashback sequence absolutely loaded with rich color, or subtle effects and transitions that quite simply couldn't have been achieved in the real world.
Visual gimmicks aside, Tower easily manages to generate a solid amount of suspense in relatively short order, if only due to the engaging story and impassioned words of its speakers. It does seem a bit padded even at just 82 minutes, as the ordeal is over and done with just after the 60-minute mark. Yet Tower earns high marks for its focus on the real heroes of the day, not to mention its terrific eye for detail and ability to make the most of a shoestring budget. It wouldn't have been the same film in earlier decades, even though the 50-year gap between then and now doesn't feel all that wide any more. Financed via a crowdfunding campaign (whose total was matched by University of Texas alumni) and warmly received at SXSW last year, Tower finally arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, The Tower's visuals are obviously one of its most immediately striking aspects...so it's good to know that Kino's new Blu-ray delivers a strong and solid image, with a few mild reservations. The rotoscoped animation appears very smooth and clean, with no obvious defects and great color saturation, while recently-shot live action interview footage matches up nicely with excellent image detail and noticeable textures. Vintage photos also look relatively good, considering the circumstances. Older filmed clips, on the other hand, are a mixed bag: they likely weren't taken from pristine source materials, as jagged edges and compression artifacts are definitely present in some spots. Dirt and debris are minimal (and in some cases, added to the animation for effect), and neither are distracting...but many older clips are also blown up and cropped to match the modern 16x9 footage, which can't help but amplify these existing problems. Overall, though, The Tower is a fine-looking production whose visual qualities match---but don't always exceed---those of most modern documentaries.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.
The audio is available as either DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo tracks, both of which have very little trouble serving up a convincingly terrifying atmosphere. Dialogue and front-channel effects are quite clear, while optional SDH captions are included during the main feature only. Surround activity is obviously dominated by stray gunshots, which often travel from speaker to speaker (often front-left to rear-right) and help to maintain a potent level of suspense. Music and crowd noise occasionally spills into the rear channels as well, with light to moderate use of LFE when the situation demands it. Overall, a fine effort that certainly carries its own weight.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The basic, film-themed interface offers smooth, simple navigation, a clean layout, and minimal pre-menu distractions. Separate sub-menus are included for chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus feature access. This one-disc release is packaged in a standard (non-eco) keepcase with no inserts of any kind.
Not much on paper, and what's here is underwhelming. A short Post-Screening Q&A
(11 minutes) features director Keith Maitland, "96 Minutes" author and executive producer Pamela Colloff, and a few participants fielding questions about the film's inception, development, and visual style. Five short Animation Process Comparisons
(1 minute each) provide little more than glimpses of the live-action and rotoscoped footage, while a series of ten Character Profiles
(2-3 minutes each) are basically recycled interview clips with real-life photo bookends. One Deleted Scene
("Memorial Dedication", 4 minutes) shows footage from a new memorial
placed on-site in July 2016. Lastly, the film's Theatrical Trailer
(2 minutes) is included; like the other extras, no subtitles or captions are offered.
The Tower was a legitimate surprise upon its release, immediately turning heads with a striking visual combination of rotoscoped animation and live-action footage. The strength and impact of its subject matter can't be overstated, however: as a full-blooded chronicle of the senseless 1966 University of Texas Tower Shooting (and based on a terrific 2006 Texas Monthly magazine article that almost reads like a screenplay), The Tower offers a unique recreation of a vividly terrifying event. Its visual style may take some getting used to---as well as the almost random nature of its color palette and varying level of detail---but the end result yields plenty of interesting, emotional, and effective moments. Kino's Blu-ray package offers a decent amount of support, offering a terrific A/V presentation but little in the way of substantial extras. Firmly Recommended to established fans and newcomers alike.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.