25 September 2007

A PGH Premiere

For those of you in the Steel City, a bit of film news, courtesy of an email in my inbox:

Kurt Voelker's Park, winner of 3 festival awards[1], will premiere in Pittsburgh on Friday, 28 September at a location not specified in the email. So...I guess keep your eyes open.

Anyway, Voelker will be there, as will producer Dana Jackson.

And here is a clip, courtesy of YouTube:

**UPDATE** Via another email: the film will be playing at the South Side Works Cinema. Also, the film's official site is here.

[1] Audience Award at CineVegas International Film Festival (2006) and the Sonoma Valley Film Festival (2007). Also, the Jury Award at the Garden State Film Festival (2007).

22 September 2007

uber-indie: Universal Traveler and Dream of Life


Universal Traveler

starring: Alicia Fuss, Matt Walsh, and Abby Bader
cinematography by: David Macnutt
original score by: Keith Pishnery
written and directed by: Patrick Meaney
$350/12 min/Middletown, CT

A poetic sci-fi head trip about the nature of time and space, Universal Traveler is at the same time utterly compelling and confusing, fascinating and frustrating. The story follows two scientists (Alicia Fuss and Abby Bader) trying to develop some technology having to do with nanobots. The test is stolen and the subject (Matt Walsh) gains the ability to transcend time and space. Naturally, it doesn't end up being a positive thing. And that's where I lost track of what was going on.

Maybe it's because I'm not big into sci-fi or maybe it's because Patrick Meaney's script is more concerned with ideas than connecting the dots between them, but I found the film difficult to follow. Narratively, the final few minutes seem detached from the rest of the film. However, that's not as big of a problem as you'd think. Universal Traveler is primarily a visual film, the kind where the plot serves merely as a convenient excuse for nifty camera work. So, to say the plot doesn't make sense isn't all that important when considering the filmmaker's goals. Those visuals are quite good, even bordering on impressive. Cinematographer David Macnutt shows us a nice range of images, all handled adeptly. There's some camera placements that don't work all that well in the context of the larger scene, but you'll have that on a film like this. And be warned, it has the standard "student film acting" that we've all seen far too often.

Dream of Life

starring: Lauren Katz, Steve Deluca, Jon Cimmino, Robert Cutts, and Jordan Rennert
cinematography by: Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert
written and directed by: Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert
6 min/Mamaroneck, NY

Much like Universal Traveler, Dream of Life is a visually-based film. The plot, such as it is, involves a failed robbery where the criminal (Lauren Katz) is inexplicably taken down by a machine gun (yes, a machine gun). In the moments before she dies, she imagines an alternate scenario. The film leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as: why are they breaking into what looks to be a school building? why is it being defended with a machine gun? and why is it snowing confetti at the end?

The answers, I think, revolve around the fact that Dream of Life is essentially a music video. The plot isn't important. In fact, you could argue that Meaney and Jordan Rennert aren't all that concerned with it from the beginning. They want to shoot cool stuff, and this gives them a reason to. The fact that it doesn't make any sense whatsoever is meaningless to them.

The problem lies in the fact that it isn't meaningless to their potential audience, who will require things like story and character development and acting. There's no question that these guys can create nice images. In fact, these images are very, very good. But, there's no reason for them to exist in the films. They just look cool.

From here, Meaney has two likely career paths. He could rather easily become an interesting music video director, and there's nothing wrong with that. His talents seem perfectly suited for it. But, if he wants to move into features, if he wants to become a filmmaker, he's going to have to do a lot of work on storytelling and working with actors to create characters that are more than cardboard representations of real people. Is he willing or able to put in the work? Time will tell.

You can check out these and other films by Patrick Meaney at the Respect Films official webpage and MySpace page.

Got a film you'd like to submit for the uber-indie project? Go here for details. You can also read these reviews at TalkingMoviezzz.com.

10 September 2007

uber-indie: The Life I Lived

life i lived

starring: Richard Bennett, David L. Buckler, and Ted Taylor
cinematography by: Jason Baustin
written and directed by: Ben Solenberger
Washington, D.C.

One of the nice things about the shorthand of the common cinema language is how easily it allows an audience to get on a film's wavelength. Take, for example, the opening scene of Ben Solenberger's The Life I Lived. We have two somewhat nefarious-looking men standing next to an expensive car in a remote location and waiting for someone to show up. Right away we know the chances that they're out there for anything other than criminal activity is virtually zero. In all likelihood they're involved in organized crime. Sure enough, the meeting doesn't produce the desired results and someone gets killed. Only, the surviving parties aren't really sure how to dispose of the body (or the murder weapon, for that matter), something you'd expect them to be prepared for. They don't have a shovel, so burying him is out of the question, and the pond is too shallow, so they settle on burning the body, somehow finding in the trunk a can of gasoline, a box of matches, garbage bags, and two surgical face masks. It makes you wonder: if they didn't plan on killing someone, much less burning his body, why do they happen to have all this stuff handy? Are we to believe that one of them went to the store? Anyway, the body burns (even the bones, which I'm told by people who know such things isn't possible with gasoline, that it won't burn hot enough) and we start the mob movie.

For an opening scene it's a surprising lack of attention to details, and that's part of the chief flaw of The Life I Lived: the small things have too many problems. There's too many moments where you can spot continuity errors or, worse, logistical flaws that could probably be prevented with a flow chart (or, perhaps they just aren't made clear enough). For example, there's a scene with a Senator running for re-election that's pretty much a twist on the famous scenario from The Godfather, Part II and the next scene, which appears to take place a day or two later, is set at Christmas. This is a scripting problem. Either it didn't occur to anyone that Christmas and an election campaign are too far apart for the progression to be believable or, in a film full of flashbacks with helpful titles like "3 months later", Solenberger chose this moment to not give us a timeline. Personally, I choose to think it's a mistake as Solenberger's script simply isn't good enough to convince me otherwise. The dialogue, which aims for a clipped, film noir sound, is in dire need of some tightening. Too often the characters say in ten words what they could easily say in five, there's a heavy dependence on cliche (for no real reason we hear several variations on the phrase "it's just business"), and on at least four occasions I was able to call lines of dialogue verbatim as they were being said by characters. That's not good. At very least, the script needs one more draft, probably two. And the score, while effective at points, is relentless to the point of being overbearing. As someone else pointed out, it sounds like something you'd see on HBO at 3am, only without lots of sex scenes.

But, to be fair, your average audience member isn't going to notice a lot of this. The litany of flashbacks have us moving around over a range of fifty years so much that we tend to lose track of where we are, but in a way that's not disorienting. It just serves to hide problems. The story of a mob boss's rise to prominence and subsequent downfall is compelling enough to keep us invested in his character and is played well by Richard Bennett. He really looks the part, too, so the scenes where he sits in his office, drinking scotch and smoking, are convincing and, well, pretty damn cool. His is the best performance in a film with a surprisingly large cast that runs the gamut from talented to mediocre. A handful of the more painful performance could easy be taken out of the film altogether, as they do little to advance the plot and have the scent of someone owing someone a favor.

If this sounds like a negative review, it isn't really. Let's call it a qualified recommendation. Or, if you prefer, constructive criticism of a filmmaker who I think is capable of better work. The Life I Lived is a sprawling, somewhat scattered film. I'd love to see what it could be if it were leaner and more focused on the main character, if it had fewer subplots, if it borrowed less from the mob movie canon.

Ben Solenberger has some real talent lurking just under the surface of this film. He just isn't there yet (but who among us is?). The production value of The Life I Lived is higher than I've come to expect from an uber-indie, and features some really nice cinematography by Jason Baustin. It's a testament to Solenberger and his production team that they were able to pull off so convincingly a film of this magnitude. They are nothing if not ambitious, which bodes well for their collective future, provided they can learn to spend the extra time in pre-production to ensure a script is completely ready for the camera. I look forward to whatever they come up with next, and I don't say that very often.

You can check The Life I Lived on their MySpace page or the Official Webpage.

Got a film you'd like to submit for the uber-indie project? Go here for details. You can also read these reviews at TalkingMoviezzz.com.