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February 7, 2007

State’s Evidence

State’s Evidence, from writer Mark Brown (the Barbershop movies) and director Benjamin Louis, could have been a good movie. It really could have. It starts with an offbeat premise that somehow comes across more believably than it should. It has assembled an ensemble of mostly capable young actors. On occasion, the screenplay even has flashes of insight that will resonate deeply with many audience members who went to a public high school in the United States. But the movie has so much working against it that, even though it tries pretty hard, it ends up descending into a total craptastrophe.

Starring as Scott, Douglas Smith (Big Love) tries pretty hard to sink the movie right off the bat with performance that hits a couple of sour notes (“boredom” and “smugness”). His dull monotone and pseudointellectual rambling don’t get us off to the best start. Scott announces the first plot point: “I am going to kill myself today.” He’s talking to the audience via a camcorder. The audience he thinks he’s talking to is, perhaps, somebody in the District Attorney’s office. Because, you see, the eponymous “state’s evidence” will consist of videotapes of his last day on Earth. He wants whoever will try to psychoanalyze these tapes to understand fully that there is no explanation for his suicide. As Sandy (Alexa Vega from Spy Kids) says of him later, “He’s so deep.”

Scott introduces us to his average parents and sister, living in their average house in the average suburb of Glendale, California. The entire film is shot with a combination of traditional cinematography and shaky stick-the-camera-in-my-face pseudo-handheld stuff. It’s not that the combination is jarring; it’s just irritating. Both cinematically and narratively, the faux-documentary comes across as a very lazy choice. The handheld shots are instant “style” — who needs firm directorial choices when we have grit and the raw power of a shaky camera capturing suburban malaise? More detrimentally, it gives the characters an opportunity to state, in blunt terms, everything they think and feel, rather than finding visual ways to show us this information.

When Scott announces to his disparate but apparently close-knit group of friends that he plans to commit suicide, they decide they want to make it a group effort: they’ll all commit suicide, each for different reasons. This is where the film goes from mildly annoying to fascinating, and suddenly I found myself wanting to learn as much about these characters as I could before they went through with killing themselves. The film squanders this sudden burst of goodwill by losing its focus in record time.

If State’s Evidence had stuck with its initial premise, it could have functioned as a morbid update of The Breakfast Club: a varied group exploring what has led them to the decision to die. Maybe, in the end, they’d talk themselves out of it, realizing like George Bailey that you’re never a failure as long as you have friends. Even if they didn’t, a meaningful exploration of everything that drives teens to suicide could have made for an interesting film.

Instead, the focus hangs far too long on Patrick (Kris Lemche, perhaps most recognizable as “Cute Boy God” on Joan of Arcadia). After a few interesting insights about the power a person can feel when he knows he won’t have to face any consequences, Patrick rapidly goes off the deep end, using the camera for all manner of unsavory acts. When a bully punches him in the face, Patrick decides to make a list of everyone he wants to kill. Fair enough. From there, State’s Evidence holds a pretty steady course toward the inevitable Columbine-like massacre, making a few pit-stops along the way so Patrick can gratuitously rape and murder a nine-year-old girl and the others can find out, be horrified, and do nothing about it.

Even with Patrick as the main focus, we don’t get a lot of insight into his character. He’s clearly disturbed, but aside from that he’s undeveloped. To be fair, the movie also short-changes most of the other characters. I still have no idea why Brian (Cody McMains) and Rick (Jamie Tyler Bell) were in this movie. I don’t even think Brian had any lines, and the only thing I remember about Rick is him running around during the third-act massacre, following Patrick around while videotaping him as he kills everyone. For no discernible reason. We never find out why most of these characters (including Patrick) agree to the suicide solution. Is it really just supposed to be about their boredom? Or getting picked on? The film doesn’t give us many clues, which makes the entire story difficult to accept.

By far the best parts of this movie are the fleeting insights into its female characters, Sandy and Trudi (Majandra Delfino). Not only do these two characters feel like authentic high school students, they’re the kind of offbeat pairing that might really be friends, somehow. Sandy’s a bookworm with a lot of romantic notions but not a lot of life experience; Trudi’s clearly smart herself, but she has developed the smart-ass cynicism that comes from an upbringing where the world always feels like it’s crumbling around her. They spend most of their time together talking about love and sex and arguing about each others’ reasons for suicide. Delfino in particular gives a heartbreaking performance, playing a character you can really believe — a girl who thinks suicide is her only way out, when if she just had an influence in her life saying, “It’ll all be over in a few years,” she could push through it.

On the other hand, Sandy’s madly in love with Scott and thinks the two of them sleeping together and then killing themselves would be a romantic way to go. Trudi is appropriately outraged and baffled by Sandy’s stupidity. Sandy argues her reasons for loving him are that he’s really smart, but unlike most smart boys he isn’t conceited. This is hilariously misguided in light of Smith’s performance as Scott: he speaks only in over-rehearsed, multisyllabic monologues in a transparent effort to show he is smarter than everyone else. Whether this is a deliberate (but bad) choice on Smith’s part or just poor acting, I can’t say.

Bottom line: a great movie can come from exploring the idea of a group suicide pact, especially if it contained characters like Sandy and Trudi. Unfortunately, State’s Evidence suffers from cinematic ADD, never sticking with its ideas or characters long enough to create a decent film.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

February 18, 2007

Gamerz

It’s hard to imagine watching a movie about people who sit around playing Dungeons & Dragons-like games. It’s not the most visually compelling of pursuits. It also strains credulity a bit, in a world that now has massively multiplayer online role-playing games (which have, essentially, replaced old-fashioned D&D), to think that university students would obsess over a game like this. Gamerz handles both of these causes for concern with wonderful deftness: to make the game more interesting, an imaginative hybrid of animation and live-action shows us the content of the game as it’s narrated by the dungeonmaster; to make us believe these folks would play these games, we’re given the hilarious throwaway explanation that seeing Lord of the Rings under the influence of psychedelics would inspire a 20-something to pick up a 20-sided die.

On a deeper level, playing this game is about having control. The group who play it have been dealt crummy lots in life, against their wills. How do they get it back? By creating characters that are, on many levels, idealized versions of themselves. Our hero, Ralph (played by the perfectly cast Ross Finbow), goes one better: he writes his own game, creating an entire universe out of thin air. In the game, he can assert all the control he lacks in real life. In his ordinary life, Ralph lives with his grandmother (his parents have died) in a rough section of Glasgow. When he’s not spending time working on his game, he mostly gets beaten up by a street gang and fantasizes about women who might give him the time of day if he had the guts to ask them out.

The object of his affection, Marlyn (Danielle Stewart, who does a great job at playing vulnerability and toughness, while still being funny), is a part of the University of Glasgow’s fantasy RPG club. She shows some interest in Ralph, especially after he shows the club his game, and they share similar backgrounds. Things get complicated (as they often do) when Ralph reluctantly lets his former friend, a hood named Lennie (hilarious James Young), take part in the game. Not only do Lennie and Marlyn appear to know each other already, Ralph notices a mutual attraction between the two of them.

Gamerz really shines when it becomes a fairly dark, skewed take on the romantic comedy. The more Ralph learns about Marlyn as he pursues, the less he really wants her. At some point, it stops being about wanting her and transforms into acts of passive-aggressive hostility via the game — where Ralph has all the control. It builds to a surprisingly effective and tense finale with results that aren’t the norm in a romantic comedy, and because of that its conclusion is very satisfying. One of Gamerz’s biggest strengths is its ability to use the framework of a genre without falling into the pitfalls of formula. It tells a story about a love triangle, but it’s so deeply ingrained in its characters (who are a complex lot) that it works exceptionally well. Its comedy has a subdued, deadpan quality that manages simultaneous hilarity and heartbreak — not an easy task.

It’s a credit to both Ross Finbow and first-time writer/director Robbie Fraser that, as he gets hurt and becomes more malicious toward Marlyn within the game, Ralph remains a lovable underdog. We don’t necessarily want him to act the way he does, but we are given ample reason to empathize with his actions. This isn’t easy to pull off, but Gamerz does it with impressive ease. In fact, the entire cast — no matter how small the role — is pitch-perfect, and Fraser gives each character a few quirks. Even the least developed characters feel like real people. If American romantic comedies still had this level of bravery and complexity, it wouldn’t be such an embarrassing, dying genre.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

February 20, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia proves a few important things studios seem to have forgotten: you can make movies for kids without treating anyone under the age of 16 like they’re rock-stupid, and you don’t have to throw in a bunch of “edgy” ironic jokes that float over kids’ heads in order for it to appeal to adults. After watching approximately 450 trailers for kids’ movies that look godawful (Firehouse Dog, Meet the Robinsons, and especially Nancy Drew), it’s easy to appreciate the warmth and intelligence in a film like Bridge to Terabithia.

A fairly straightforward adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel, it tackles some pretty weighty themes of escape, grief, and human perseverance. Somehow, both the novel and the film manage to hit all the right emotional notes while managing to keep it at a level the average fifth-grader can understand. It tells the story of Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson, Zathura), a “farm-boy” outcast with a secret love of drawing. He has no friends, four sisters, and poor parents who barely make ends meet. After practicing all summer, Jess wants to win a race for the fifth-grade boys, but he’s forced to suffer the embarrassment of wearing pink hand-me-down sneakers. On top of that, just when it looks like he’ll win the race — the new girl, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb, Because of Winn-Dixie), breezes past him.

Their adversarial relationship turns friendly as Jess realizes Leslie lives next door, and she needs to be shown the ropes of the student hierarchy. As time passes, they become best friends partly out of necessity, but mostly because they share a deep emotional connection. This is represented by Terabithia, a fantastical kingdom conjured up in their imaginations. They just run down to the end of the dirt road, swing across the creek on an old rope, and their kingdom is there, in the isolated backwoods. Jess and Leslie use Terabithia as an escape from the oppression of school and family: it’s their place, where nobody else can find them. There, they are king and queen, with plenty of fantastical friends to help them fight their imaginary enemies. First-rate special effects blend the reality of an empty forest with a wild kingdom full of giant trolls, mutant squirrels, and tiny winged warriors.

Over the course of the film, the pair realize that they can’t hide from their problems forever. Jess and Leslie give each other much-needed confidence. Before long, they’re both confronting what they once feared, and they learn to enjoy their lives.

The film has a surprise (which is no surprise to anyone who has read the novel, but for those who haven’t, I’m withholding it) that a lesser film would have either drenched in cloying sentiment or excised completely. As with the rest of the film, screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (son of Ms. Paterson) and director Gabor Csupo handle these scenes with understated sensitivity and understanding. It also gives the exceptional cast, including Zooey Deschanel (Elf, All the Real Girls) and Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, The X-Files), opportunities to really shine.

Bridge to Terabithia is a wonderful, moving film for kids and adults. It’s another in Walden Media’s long line of exceptional kids’ movies (Charlotte’s Web, Holes). If more movies were this good, they’d actually be worth the $278 theatres charge for admission.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

February 19, 2007

Buena Vista Street

During the same period I wrote “Vlad,” I wrote a song for the abandoned break-up album about a guy driving from one end of Burbank, California, to the other, in order to buy a coffeemaker. A mundane story-song made metaphoric by the notion that he’s desperate to get across town, his progress impeded by various traffic-related problems, in order to obtain something he not only wants but needs — only to discover, when he finally arrives at the Empire Center Target, that they’re all sold out of the Bunn he wants. So he either has to keep waiting or settle for less. That’s sort of how I look at life, I guess.

In the summer of 2010, I started having panic attacks. They most frequently manifested while driving, and I eventually realized it has a great deal to do with the emotional terrorism of my progress being impeded by cars that refuse to just drive the fucking speed limit. It was a breakthrough that helped me settle down, at least while driving. Strange that, four years earlier (I didn’t record it until about six months after I wrote the song), I’d written lyrics about the same basic symbolic problem.

Though I had lyrics and music completed, I ended up not recording the song because of the melody. It was too high for my range, so singing it made me sound like a dying cat. When I tried to change the key, the song sounded weird and muddy. It’s a bright, happy G. Anything else made it sound moribund.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 9:54 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Writing, Music