Saturday, February 9, 2019

Reverie (2009)

Director: Geoff Stewart                                     Writer: Geoff Stewart
Film Score: Ray Buckley                                  Cinematography: Ray Buckley
Starring: Geoff Stewart, Zach Sanchez, Ronnie Chittim and Shawn O’Brien

Reverie is the first and only feature film directed by Portland-based Geoff Stewart, who also wrote the screenplay and starred as one of its lead actors. Like the works of many of his contemporaries in the last decade, the film is a tremendously impressive achievement and stands as one of the major works coming out of the Rose City in the last few years. As the title suggest, the film is a meditation on many things, nature, friendship, mortality, and forgiveness. But the one thing that comes to the fore is the extreme visual confidence of Geoff Stewart, who on the surface has a deceptively simple style that is actually densely packed with imagery and meaning. I came to Stewart through his work on Justin Koleszar’s 2011 film One Foot in the Gutter. Both he and Zach Sanchez worked as actors on that project and did a great job, with Stewart in the lead and Sanchez in a supporting role. Prior to both of these, Stewart had directed a segment of the film The Experimental Witch, based on the novel The Witch of Portobello by Paul Coelho, which used ten different directors to tell stories about the main character through the eyes of others. Shortly after, both Stewart and Sanchez, along with Ray Buckley, would produce his first feature screenplay.

The film opens with Zach Sanchez in bed waking up alone because his girlfriend has gone out of town for three days. From there the scene shifts to Geoff Stewart at home, a fire going in his wood stove. He is packing up his fishing tackle, then goes out to his truck and takes off. Back at Sanchez’s apartment he is working on his computer and talking to a colleague, sending some architectural drawings to the office. An interesting juxtaposition begins to take place between the two characters, as Stewart is seen heading off into the woods to fish, while Sanchez works out on an exercise machine as his dog looks longingly out the window. While Stewart is fishing in the river, Sanchez takes his dog for a walk, ignoring nature and phoning his girlfriend about the project he and his partner may be commissioned to design. The next morning, as Stewart meditates on the surroundings at the bank of the river, Sanchez drives out to his hometown and when he finds his mother gone, goes to get a permit to cut down a wild Christmas tree for his apartment. He winds up in the same area where Stewart has been fishing, and drives by his truck. Stewart can’t get his truck started, but when Sanchez comes back he drives right by him without stopping. The intersection of the two characters is made more intriguing, however, when Sanchez does stop and backs up.

They know each other, but Stewart doesn’t want to impose on him and Sanchez is glad of it, driving away yet again. Then he stops again and gives Stewart a ride to the highway, accompanied by brief conversation but mostly awkward silence. The conflict is apparently about music. The night before, Sanchez was playing a song on his guitar and then abruptly stopped. When he is picking up the tree license the next day, childhood friend Shawn O’Brien asks if he’s putting the band back together and then acts as if he spoke out of turn. Finally, when Stewart is alone in Sanchez’s old car, he hears the same song on the CD player and as the vocals begin he removes the disc and flings it off the side of the road. When the two are stranded on the mountain after Sanchez’s battery goes dead, it soon becomes apparent that the female voice on the CD may be the real cause of the contention between them. While in some ways the resolution seems clichéd, it’s done in a way that feels incredibly fresh. The key to the ending is actress Ronnie Chittim, who acts as a sage, imparting wisdom without the demand for action on that wisdom. It is for the two principals to decide how they are going to use her knowledge. Both Zach Sanchez and Geoff Stewart are solid actors, able to bring a profound naturalism to their roles. And while their attempts at raw emotion may be less convincing, it’s certainly not to the detriment of the film as a whole.

What really stands out, however, is the photography. Nearly every aspect of the visual imagery is excellent for such a small production like this, especially in the nature scenes. Swift moving clouds presage a rainstorm that dapples the surface of the river and turns to snow while Stewart is fishing. Birds flying through a forest of spruce and fir, and a beautiful shot of the moon at night through the trees create a real visual feel for the Pacific Northwest wilderness. But it’s the flashback sequences that reveal the true brilliance of the director and his cinematographer Ray Buckley, and they are really the heart of the film. As Sanchez tells Chittim the story of his past, when the two men stay the night in her house in the woods, the scene behind them suddenly transforms to his childhood, but it is kept perfectly out of focus, allowing the impression of what he’s talking about to fuse with the story he’s telling, while keeping the specific images from competing with that story. Stewart does the same thing with Chittim’s story of her husband, and with her philosophy of life that she conveys to Stewart’s character. This style of cinematic impressionism is truly spectacular and is well worth the lengthy journey to get there.

If there’s a weakness in the film--and to be fair, it’s a weak spot in so many independent films that it’s almost expected--it’s in the screenplay. The first two thirds of the script are extremely minimalist, and it works incredibly well, allowing the visuals to do the bulk of the communication. Stewart doesn’t even speak until halfway through, and Sanchez only speaks when he’s on the phone. But when Sanchez is telling the story of their falling out his lines become poetry, which destroys the suspension of disbelief. They’re the kind of lines that one would imagine coming from an omniscient narrator in a novel, and just seem out of place spoken by Sanchez. I can see how Stewart might have been going for a narrative impressionism to go along with the visuals, but it seems to distract rather than add to the overall effect. It’s a minor criticism, however, as the rest of the film is so good. The film score by cameraman Ray Buckley is also very good. Not really new age, it is a guitar and keyboard based wash of sounds that underscore the meditative nature of the film without being obtrusive. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming talent in the Portland film community, and Geoff Stewart’s Reverie is no exception. It is a strong, narrative film, visually stunning, that comes highly recommended.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Sex Weather (2018)

Director: Jon Garcia                                          Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Mike Sempert                                Cinematography: Jon Garcia
Starring: Al’Jaleel McGhee, Amber Stonebraker, Alan Burrell & Marty Bannon Beaudet

Jon Garcia is back. Not that he ever stopped making films, but his latest project, Sex Weather, finds Garcia embracing the vital element at the core of all of his films to the exclusion of everything else: the love between people. When that is combined with the confidence of a filmmaker who is fearless in putting on the screen a vision that refuses to be compromised by the cinematic fashions of the day, truly amazing things are able to happen. In his first film, Tandem Hearts, Garcia has a scene that takes place in a bar between a male and female couple and a pair of musicians. He sets up the scene with an establishing shot of the bar, but spends the rest of the scene cutting between faces. Because of that the emphasis of the scene moves away from the setting to focus exclusively on the characters. In Sex Weather he has taken that same idea and made it the focal point for an entire film. While the premise of the film seems far from original, a typical one-night-stand, morning-after love story, Garcia manages to avoid all of the clichés and defies expectations at nearly every turn to create a unique cinematic experience that, while familiar in context, is anything but predictable.

The opening credits begin on an establishing shot at dawn of the Freemont Bridge in Portland, Oregon. It first appears to have been done with a crane, but as the camera continues rising it soon it becomes apparent that this is a drone shot—the sort of thing that used to be done with a helicopter, and something Garcia experimented with in his previous film, The Falls: Covenant of Grace, but is used to a much more purposeful effect here. Finally the credits end on the feet of Al’Jaleel McGhee and Amber Stonebraker as they poke out from beneath the sheets of the bed in her apartment. The first of Garcia’s unpredictable moments comes when Stonebraker gets out of bed to make a secretive phone call in the bathroom—preceded by a shot of her and another man in a photo, and ending with a painful declaration of “I love you” before she hangs up and hangs her head. This is typically something most films would reveal later in the story, and while there is more to it here than first meets the eye, there’s also a sense that Garcia has no interest in those kinds of cinematic tropes. Which doesn’t mean it’s not important to the story. Garcia’s mastery of the cinematic art form is such that it often doesn’t reveal itself until a film is over—and sometimes not until after a second viewing. His films are much more like novels in that respect. The reality is the phone call is incredibly important. In fact, it’s the center around which the entire film revolves . . . it’s just not important yet, and it’s that kind of patience that is the hallmark of Garcia’s best work.

When Stonebraker returns to bed McGhee wakes up and heads to the bathroom himself. Afterward he looks around the apartment, at her latest script and her awards for acting, and then they have the inevitable awkward confrontation. One of the expectations for a comedy or drama like this one is the predictable conflict between two people who have had sex but don’t really know each other. In most of these stories it is the centerpiece of the film, but Garcia is happy to get it out of the way early and get on to what really matters. McGhee can’t find his phone, and has Stonebraker call the Lyft driver to see if he left it in the car. Then, with time on their hands while they wait for the driver to return her text . . . they start talking. And the thing that becomes apparent almost immediately is the quality of that talking. Al’Jaleel “A.J.” McGhee is a phenomenal actor, and his co-star, Amber Stonebraker, is nearly his equal. Because of that it’s powerfully clear from the outset that this is no indie production populated by local dinner theater actors. Rather than characters, McGhee and Stonebreaker actually become people. They are alternately funny and serious, concerned and dismissive, naked and partially clothed, and beneath it all emerges the conviction that their sexual encounter the night before was no accident. Their compassion for each other—rather than passion—becomes far more important than their differences.

The dialogue ebbs and flows quite naturally, and both actors are visually compelling on the screen. But because the screenplay is so highly autobiographical, it is McGhee who is the most startlingly original in his characterization. When Stonebraker expresses disappointment at the quality of McGhee’s lovemaking she says she thought it would be different because of their history together—McGhee is an independent filmmaker and she had worked on one of his films, then they reconnected at the premier of his most recent picture the night before. When she says she had certain expectations about him, he immediately fires back about her, “Well, so did I.” Even more endearing is when he says the same thing after Stonebraker chides him for not trying hard enough with his previous girlfriend—“You know, women like to be pursued”—and he responds with, “Well, so do I, right?” It shakes viewers from their complacency and puts them in the position of Stonebreaker, seeing McGhee as an individual rather than a composite of all the negative expectations women have of men. Eventually the two come up with rules for the bed, one being that they can’t leave the bed all day. Their self-imposed isolation in the apartment and on the bed is beautifully symbolized by the frequent juxtaposition of the drone shots that float effortlessly over the rooftops of the neighborhood, a different kind of isolation but one that matches their separation from the rest of the world.

One of the major challenges of making a film this intimate, shooting on a set that barely ventures out beyond the confines of a queen-size mattress, is how to make it interesting visually. Shot selection and editing, in that regard, are crucial in order to keep the audience from feeling as if they are seeing the same shots over and over again. To that end editor Zach Carter is to be commended. A long-time collaborator of Garcia’s he has taken Garcia’s wide array of camera angles and woven them together in a way that feels fresh and yet never loses sight of the fact that the actors are at the center of the story. As a cinematographer Garcia indulges more than ever his penchant for pulling focus, but it really works in this context. It’s the same effect one experiences in bed with a lover, so close to the other person’s face that it’s impossible to focus. The subdued film score by Mike Sempert is also supportive in the way he reflects the nature of the visuals, but little more. Garcia has scored large chunks of his previous films and, though it seems just one more responsibility to ask from an artist who already takes on nearly every task in his projects, one has the profound desire to see the director at some point make the commitment to score an entire film with his own music.

It’s difficult to resist giving the ending away, because that is the most remarkable part of Garcia’s story. It’s not until the very end of the film that everything finally makes sense, and Garcia’s purpose suddenly washes over the viewer to reveal the true nature of what this experience together has meant for these two people. Garcia’s film isn’t perfect, but that isn’t the point, any more than it is to expect people to be perfect. But in spite of people’s flaws, everyone carries around isolated perfections within them. In fact, it is ultimately those perfections that we see when we fall in love and, ironically, what we initially perceived of as flaws can become some of the most endearing qualities of the person we fall in love with. Garcia’s latest is just that kind of film. There is something about it that resonates deep inside, and so we find ourselves compelled to take it home with us. But don’t be too quick to kick it out of bed the next morning and send it on its way. It has much more to tell than might first meet the eye. It has much more to teach if we just give it the chance. Only by opening up and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable will we reap the benefits to be had by this chance encounter. Sex Weather is a film you could love.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Films of Jon Garcia: 2009-2013

by Eric B. Olsen

The Films of Jon Garcia: 2009-2013 is about the zeal for making motion pictures that informs the kind of work that goes on in the Portland film community every day. Most of the people involved in these independent projects aren’t looking for money; they are looking for an artistic outlet that they can’t get anywhere else. And regardless of what winds up on the screen, there has to be a certain grudging praise for artists who are able to realize their visions despite all of the factors working against them. Portland writer-director Justin Koleszar put it this way: “To be honest, I really hope that people can, if nothing more, just appreciate that the film was done well. It’s not going to be everyone’s favorite, but I hope that they appreciate the performances of the actors and all the work that went into it, the entire cast and crew.” In the context of the kind of sacrifice that goes into an independent feature in terms of finances, time, and effort, it’s not an unreasonable request, and a sentiment that I’m sure every independent filmmaker shares.

After discovering Jon Garcia’s film The Falls in my local public library, I started watching other films that featured the two stars of Garcia’s films, Ben Farmer and Nick Ferrucci. It was then that I began to realize just how many terrific films had been made in Portland in the past decade, and had it not been for accidentally stumbling across The Falls I might never have know about them. They are independent films, to be sure, and certainly suffer from the severe budgeting restrictions that come with young filmmakers struggling to realize their vision. But one thing that can’t be restricted is artistic vision itself, which can be seen in the narrative quality of their work that sets it apart from much of the independent filmmaking happening in the rest of the country.

My initial concept for the book was an ambitious one. I had identified a dozen films by eight different directors and planned to spend the majority of the text dealing with my own analysis of the films, using the interview material to supplement and add dimension to that analysis. But it soon became clear that I was going to have to limit the scope of the project, and maybe do just a few films or directors at a time in multiple volumes. The choice for the first volume in the series was equally clear. Of all the directors I had interviewed, only one had made more than two films, and that was Jon Garcia. In fact, one of the things that became abundantly clear about him throughout my research is that he really is a filmmaker. His ability to write screenplays, his vision as a director, and his determination to continue to make films of high quality despite the necessity of low budgets, has set him apart from most other independent filmmakers.

The book itself is also somewhat unique in the way that it is written. I have read numerous books on film and the history of cinema over the years and while they deliver a lot of good information and historical background, I find most of them wanting in the way that they approach their material. What most of these books lack is a cohesive narrative in which all of the elements of a film—history, interview and analysis—occur simultaneously in the text. This is the kind of book about film that I’ve always wanted to read, so it’s the kind of book I decided to write. The book examines the first four films of Garcia’s career in order to provide a deeper understanding of works that transcend the limitations of independent filmmaking and to show how they have attained the status of art. Part oral history and part film analysis, it provides a detailed textual commentary on Tandem Hearts (2010), the director’s first film, The Falls (2011) and The Falls: Testament of Love (2013), his most well known films, and The Hours Till Daylight (2016). The Films of Jon Garcia: 2009-2013 takes an in-depth look at a writer-director who has earned a reputation as one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier filmmakers.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Some Days are Better Than Others (2010)

Director: Matt McCormick                               Writers: Matt McCormick & George Andrus
Film Score: Matthew Cooper                          Cinematography: Gregg Schmitt
Starring: Carrie Brownstein, James Mercer, Renee Roman Nose and David Wodehouse

I almost didn’t get this film because of some bad reviews on Amazon and IMDb, but they should all be ignored. Some Days are Better Than Others is a wonderful little independent film out of Portland, Oregon. Most of the negative criticism is that the film is boring, but that is almost always code for low intelligence in the reviewer and an inability to understand what the film is really attempting to do. Writer-director Matt McCormick has served up a slice of life picture that has some terrific characters working in mundane circumstances in order to accentuate the honest and real emotions of everyday people. Okay, it’s not for everyone, but I feel sorry for those who don’t get it. This is a fantastic film that works on a number of literal and metaphorical levels. It’s incredibly well filmed, and well acted. The film score by Matthew Cooper is very unique and appropriate for the visuals, with long, single notes and lots of ambient sound like traffic or waves that interweaves with the music. And the cinematography by Gregg Schmitt is also very impressive, with excellent lighting and memorable visuals.

The film begins with Carrie Brownstein talking into a video camera, recording an audition tape for a reality TV show. Life is good. She works with dogs at a shelter and has a long-time boyfriend, and a few days later she gets a letter from a talent agency that wants her to audition in person. Meanwhile, James Mercer is unemployed by choice, an anti-corporate liberal who works for a temp agency and has to borrow the car of his step-grandfather, David Wodehouse, who usually goes along with him, to get to work. The other main character is Renee Roman Nose, a sorter at a thrift store. She lives utterly alone in her apartment and barely speaks all day. After the characters have been introduced, McCormick starts throwing curves into their mundane lives. Brownstein, who has been dating her boyfriend for five years, logs onto his email when she can’t get a hold of him and discovers he’s having an affair with another woman. Mercer has a job counting cartons of milk in local grocery stores, and gets tossed out by security from a big chain store, while Roman Nose discovers the ashes of a child in an urn that someone has donated to the store.

What soon becomes apparent about the film’s purpose is that the three main characters are more emotionally connected to life than those around them. Benjamin Farmer plays a cutthroat estate liquidator. He’s crude and heartless and hires Mercer through the temp agency to empty an old woman’s home. Roman Nose continues sorting clothes, but everything seems to remind her of the child’s ashes that no one has bothered to come back and claim. And Brownstein, while the breakup is squeezing her heart, runs across her boyfriend with his new girlfriend and suddenly she can hardly breath. The other subtext is the idea of being discarded, whether it’s Brownstein being upset because one of her dogs is set to be euthanized, Mercer cleaning out the dead woman’s home, or the abandoned ashes of the little girl. But along with that is the metaphor of the Goodwill store, where someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure. And there are also two terrific dream sequences. The one with Brownstein's boyfriend getting out of the car and leaving her in the middle of the road is one of the highlights of the film. One of the most satisfying aspects of the film is the way that McCormick weaves all of the stories together at the end.

There are some really nice bits of writing in the film, most of them about James Mercer’s character. One is when Mercer tells David Wodehouse exactly how he can manage to eat out, three meals a day, for a mere six dollars. Another is when he and Wodehouse are spending the day at the beach. Their conversation is so heartwarmingly real that it’s difficult to believe. All of the principals are incredibly good. Both Carrie Brownstein and James Mercer are able to convey a sad sweetness that perfectly realizes McCormick’s message. Renee Roman Nose, in her quiet way is equally strong, and David Wodehouse is an absolute marvel. It’s also terrific to see other Portland actors show up in the film. Benjamin Farmer, who was so great in Jon Garcia’s The Falls films, gives a solid performance, and Luke Clements, who appeared to good effect in Justin Koleszar’s One Foot in the Gutter, has a bit part on a mock television show. I’ve seen a lot of independent films in the last few months, but this one is nearly perfect. While the ending might seem abrupt for some viewers, it really isn’t. Some Days are Better Than Others comes highly recommended.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Last September (2008)

Director: Chapin Hemmingway                              Writers: Tyson Balcomb & Chapin Hemmingway
Film Score: Jim Walker & Tim Ellis                        Cinematography: Sean Rawls
Starring: Jeremy Fiske, Andrew Fletcher, Emily Michele and Laurie Balcomb

While Portland director Chapin Hemmingway’s first film, Last September, initially feels like a practice run for his more assured work in The Gray Area, this is still a film that stands on its own and delivers some strong work from both the principal cast and the director. The lead in the film is the director’s college roommate at Emerson University, Jeremy Fiske. The two roomed together in Boston before moving to the school’s Los Angeles campus, and while Hemmingway worked on the screenplay Fiske served as a sounding board during the writing. After a successful premiere in Portland, the film went on to appear at a number of small festivals including the Tacoma Film Festival and the Indiefest U.S.A. festival in California, in which the film was given an award for best visual effects. Like most first films, however, it suffers from choices that Hemmingway would make differently in his later film, as well as some technical issues that were unable to be ironed out in post-production. While the extremely low-budget and independent quality has to be taken into consideration--along with this being the director’s first attempt at filming his own screenplay--the end result shows a lot of promise.

The film begins at the house of college student Jeremy Fiske. It’s the day of the funeral after his mother has died and when his childhood friend, Andrew Fletcher, comes over all he wants to do is get out. The two aren’t exactly estranged, but they haven’t seen each other for a while and there’s a definite tension between them. Very quickly the film becomes one of contrasts in character. While his mother’s death has forced Fiske to grow up quickly, Fletcher still seems stuck in the adolescent world of his high school years. He doesn’t want to go to college and still fights with his mother, Laurie Balcomb. At the same time Fiske decides to break up with his girlfriend, Emily Michele, who the audience later learns also dated Fletcher at one time. When Fletcher invites Fiske to go up to the San Juan Islands in Washington for the weekend, Fiske readily agrees in order to get away from things for a few days. The first stop, however, is at the apartment of a girl Fletcher knows, Allea Martin, in the hopes that she can get Fiske hooked up with her friend, Ashley LeBel. But Fiske simply winds up drunk and crying in the bathroom.

The next day the trip continues on an idyllic note, with a ferry ride to the islands, followed by a hike in which the two begin talking about the real conflict in their relationship: the feelings they both share for Michele and the tension that they’ve felt ever since. It’s not until the trip takes an unexpected turn that they develop a new understanding for each other. Though Jeremy Fiske may not be a household name, he has gone on to do some interesting work after this film, authoring another independent film he starred in that was shot in Boston, but primarily as a production assistant on such big-budget films as Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Moneyball with Brad Pitt. He does a good job in this film, only his second feature, though the technical issues with the sound tend to hamper his quiet delivery. He has a look similar to Ron Eldard, but his acting style is closer to Giovanni Ribisi. Andrew Fletcher is taller and more angular, and presents a nice contrast to Fiske both physically as well as in character.

In terms of the acting itself, the men do a decent job but the women in the film don’t fare so well. Emily Michele is painfully awkward on the screen in the couple of scenes she has, first with Fiske when he breaks up with her, and then with the two of them before they leave on the trip. Laurie Balcomb also seems a little unequipped for her dramatic scene as Fletcher’s mother. To be fair, the early scenes with the men are rough as well, but since they have the entire film to develop some chemistry it doesn’t make as much of an impact. Hemmingway and producer Tyson Balcom’s screenplay emphasizes realism, which is interesting to a point but wears thin after a while. The goal with dialogue shouldn’t be realism, but instead a natural feel while moving the narrative along, something the team vastly improved upon in their next feature. And that is the real takeway from the film. On its own it’s a moderately successful independent first feature, but when viewed as a stepping stone to the much more successful follow-up, the difference shows a filmmaker who can learn from mistakes and who has exhibited a tremendous amount of growth in a short time. In that context, Last September is a bittersweet experience in that this growth hasn’t been able to continue in a series of later projects.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Welcoming Departure (2012)

Director: Scott Ballard                                      Writer: Scott Ballard
Music: The Blue Cranes                                   Cinematography: Dave Rosenblum
Starring: Thomas S. Campbell, Eve Pryce, Rachael Perrell and Dave Morales

Welcoming Departure is the feature debut of Portland writer-director Scott Ballard. Getting his start in feature work as a cinematographer, he did some impressive camera work on the otherwise stilted How the Fire Fell in 2010, but already had amassed a substantial resume writing and directing short films prior to that. The theme of this film is a tired one, the elderly person who makes an impact on the life of a younger one, and Ballard is clearly intent on finding something new to say with it, though it’s difficult to know if he succeeds. It’s an odd film in many ways. While there are a lot of things to like about it, they don’t really seen to fit together very well. For the first nine minutes of the movie Tom Campbell seems perfect for the part, but as soon as he opens his mouth it’s clear he’s way more intelligent than his character first appears. The jazz soundtrack, which includes some terrific music by the Portland quintet The Blue Cranes and the Alan Jones Sextet, almost seems as if it belongs in a different film. And there are certain ways of handling a story like this by directors like Alexander Payne or the Coen Brothers, but Scott Ballard chooses to go in a very different direction. The subdued nature of the telling is far more reminiscent of Some Days are Better Than Others by Matt McCormick, but Ballard’s screenplay lacks the symbolic underpinning of that film, and the stakes for his characters don’t seem nearly as high.

The film opens at breakfast time, with Thomas S. Campbell dropping the needle on a jazz LP, eating Cheerios and opening his mail at the kitchen table before heading off to work in his station wagon. Campbell works as the night janitor at the public library. After his shift he meets Dave Morales and the two have a real breakfast at a diner before Campbell goes back home. The next day is just like the last except he brings a letter from home with him, which he opens during his lunch. Apparently a relative of his has died and he is one of the beneficiaries. It’s nine minutes into the film before there is any dialogue, at breakfast with Morales. Campbell thinks the letter is a scam because he doesn’t have any relatives, but calls the lawyer when he gets home and the next day is told to pick up a package at the airport. Campbell is decidedly low-tech guy who prefers vinyl to digital, and doesn’t own a computer, and the scene where he attempts to navigate an automated phone system is amusing if familiar. One morning when Morales doesn’t show up, he goes to the restaurant alone and talks to waitress Rachael Perrell. The conversation is intended to show the viewer how bland his life is, and sets up the reappearance of Perrell later on. Oh, the package at the airport? It keeps him awake wondering what it is and so he finally drives out to pick it up. It’s an old Norwegian woman named Odessa played by Eve Pryce.

The results should be predictable, but they’re not. Not unlike the episode on the phone, Campbell handles the crisis in his typically methodical fashion. Absent are the histrionics that a character like this would normally indulge in, or the obsessive-compulsive breakdown the viewer might expect. Instead, Campbell goes about his business of working the problem, gradually uncovering information about Pryce as well as exploring his own reaction to her presence in his life. The film is short, at barely over an hour, and it certainly could have benefitted from spending more time with the supporting cast, especially in the second half. That said, there are some very nice moments. One is the actual LP that Campbell is playing on his turntable. Even though the jazz on the soundtrack is provided by local Portland groups, the LP is a Blue Note album. It’s a small detail, but for the knowledgeable jazz fan it’s a nice one. Equally impressive is when Campbell goes through Pryce’s suitcase. The photo album, postcards and sweaters have a palpable feeling of authenticity to them, and when Campbell neatly arranges everything as he puts it back it’s quite touching. There’s also a nice moment at the coffee shop when Ballard keeps the camera on Pryce while Campbell and Morales talk about her, only her eyes moving in time with the conversation. It’s an economical technique, as it only requires one set up, but used judiciously it can be very effective as it is here.

Tom Campbell is solid in the lead role, intelligent and level-headed despite the curves he is thrown. Eve Pryce is a much better choice visually than the actress Ballard had on the original promotional materials, and she does a terrific job with no dialogue. While David Morales starts off as the typically goofy best friend, he becomes something else again when he meets Pryce and it would have nice to see more of him at the end. Rachael Perrell is absolutely riveting onscreen and it’s a shame that both she and Morales couldn’t have had more time to develop their characters in an additional twenty minutes that the story cries out for. And that’s probably the fatal flaw of the film: the screenplay. The cinematography and direction are solid, but the narrative simply doesn’t have time to gel. This may be a result of Ballard spending so much time working on short films, or it may be just a function of being his first feature. First features are notorious for weak screenplays. Welcoming Departure is certainly not a bad film, however, and as stated earlier there are things to admire and enjoy. Fortunately Ballard has made a second feature and the hope is that he will continue working in the long form and hone his considerable skills even more in the future.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

One Foot in the Gutter (2011)

Director: Justin Koleszar                                    Writer: Justin Kolezar
Film Score: Adam Allred                                    Cinematography: Ryan Kunkleman
Starring: Geoff Stewart, Nick Ferrucci, Zach Sanchez and Benjamin Parslow

This is another of the independent films out of Portland that I have been screening ever since being absolutely blown away by Jon Garcia’s The Falls. This film, One Foot in the Gutter, by writer-director Justin Koleszar, features the star of Garcia’s film, Nick Ferrucci, and that’s what brought me to it. And while it lacks some of the carefully crafted aspects of Garcia’s films, it is still impressively artistic in its own right. But beyond that Koleszar’s script takes on a disturbing aspect of today’s youth culture in which young men and women, just starting out in life, continue to behave as if they were in a fraternity or sorority, binge drinking and acting like the idiots they see in Seth Rogen movies. In the past, as critic David Denby discusses in a different context, young people “were not expected to remain in a state of goofy euphoria until they were thirty-five.” The recent decline in civility and empathy for others is directly related to the all-consuming selfish behavior that young people in their twenties are indulging in at the expense of the rest of society and, even worse, at the expense of their own future. It’s not a popular stance, but it is one that needs to be confronted, and I applaud Koleszar for doing so.

The film begins with a terrific montage, a Northwest rainforest outside of a small town. Inside one of the houses another montage of shots establishing a dirty bachelor pad is overdubbed with Nick Ferrucci yelling at Geoff Stewart to go with him for Mexican food. But a car crash suddenly brings the film to a screeching halt. Ferrucci came out okay, but Stewart can’t remember the crash and is having emotional trauma that is still lingering on three weeks later when he sees his doctor, Harold Phillips. Prosecutor John Lee gives him two choices, three months in rehab with a reduced fine, or the full fine and a week in jail. Stewart is planning on moving to Colorado for a job, and Lee says he can do his rehab there. At the same time Ferrucci is buying a gun, and Stewart’s little brother, Jesse Henderson, leaves home to move into the living room of the house because he idolizes his brother’s party lifestyle. The other two guys who live there, Zach Sanchez and Benjamin Parslow, together with Ferrucci, are throwing a party for Stewart in the hopes that he’ll stay in Oregon instead of moving to Colorado. Stewart, who has been sober for a month following his doctor’s orders, had planned on leaving before the party, but his ride begs off for another day and he is stuck at the house that night.

The party begins with the arrival of a group of girls that includes Stewart’s ex-girlfriend, the arresting Meredith Adelaide, who confesses to Stewart that she still loves him. Later, his friends put so much pressure on him that, against his better judgment, Stewart gives in and begins to drink. The subtext to the evening is that Ferrucci has something very important he needs to tell Stewart. Luke Clements, another friend who has come down from Seattle, is the voice of reason in the group and wants Stewart to go to Colorado. The ending is bittersweet and, while not climactic, it is certainly real. And that is probably the thing that is most prevalent in the film, a sense of realism that Hollywood struggles with but that Koleszar is able to capture extremely well. The acting is solid, especially Stewart, and Ferrucci is perfect for his role as the slightly goofy best friend. But the rest of the principals are equal to the task as well. The screenplay is very intelligent, and while that shouldn’t be a surprise, it is, because that tends to be the real weak point in small, independent films. Once scene in particular that stands out is when Ferrucci is talking with Adelaide in the basement and she says, “He doesn’t have to hate me,” to which Ferrucci replies, “Technically, he does. And technically, so do I.” It’s a terrific shorthand to let the audience know that she cheated on him, done in a very clever way. And the screenplay is full of those moments.

The story itself, which emphasizes the vacuous nature of the boy’s lifestyle, has lots of meaningful moments without being preachy. In a scene where Stewart is dreaming, the four friends are running through the woods, but when they stop to talk he notices there is someone else along, a drinking, smoking, unkempt loser with missing teeth (a cameo by the director). It’s a sign that the wanton lifestyle the boys have been living is not going to lead to anything good. In another scene shortly after, Parslow is standing outside amid Stewart’s possessions, which have been unceremoniously chucked out the window, and deliberately pours beer over the American flag. It’s a moment that may mean nothing to young people, which is just the point, a powerful symbol of the narcissistic and nihilistic attitude of today’s youth. Koleszar’s cinematic sensibilities are also impressive. The opening montage is quite good, a series of static camera setups that end with the house, but it’s then that the camera slowly pushes in. And in several flashbacks that show the relationship between the boys, again, he emphasizes empty moments that are merely substitutes for a real relationship between them. As far as I know, the film doesn’t have any distribution on DVD, which is a shame. One Foot in the Gutter deserves to be seen by a much wider audience because it is a terrific film, and yet another example of the great work coming out of the Portland film scene.