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.

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