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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bucksville (2011)

Director: Chel White                                         Writers: Laura McGie & Chel White
Film Score: Tom Brosseau                               Cinematography: Marc Greenfield
Starring: Thomas Stroppel, Ted Rooney, Katy Beckemeyer and Tom Berenger

Bucksville is a fascinating film. I came to it through its star, Thomas Stroppel, and his incredible performance in The Falls: Testament of Love by Northwest director Jon Garcia. He is a compelling actor and it’s terrific to see him in a starring role. Chel White is another Northwest director who wrote the film along with his girlfriend, Laura McGie. Like Garcia, White is also a musician and wrote some of the music for the film with guitarist Tom Brosseau, who is also an actor. The big name in the picture is Tom Berenger who was one of the producers on the film. The tag line pulled from the Ashland Film Festival promotional material states that it “ponders the fine line between good and evil,” but the film itself really takes a stand that is quite unambiguous. It was entered in a number of regional film festivals and did quite well, earning a first prize in Kansas City and a couple of second place finishes in Europe. It’s a small, independent film that was certainly able to gain a lot of recognition through its association with Berenger, but ultimately it stands on its own as an interesting, if flawed, character study.

The film begins in the cabin of a white supremacist group in the Pacific Northwest run by David Bodin, the town barber, and his brother, Ted Rooney. After reciting an oath, they all put on hoods and leave the cabin. The next morning Thomas Stroppel tells his father, Bodin, that he wants to join the military and go to Germany, but he is prevented from even thinking about it. His mother has left them and taken his sister, who calls to talk to him, but there’s nothing he can do. At the next meeting of the brotherhood, they decide to kill a sex trafficker who has avoided jail time. They capture him and spin a wheel to see who will kill him. Stroppel is picked and gives him the lethal injection in the woods, and the body is buried. When the easygoing Bodin dies, however, and the hard core Rooney takes over, Stoppel wants out even more but leaving the brotherhood won’t be easy. At the same time Rooney has pledged his group to become part of a larger organization run by Tom Berenger, where they will be paid more for higher profile victims. Stroppel’s old girlfriend, Katy Beckemeyer, reveals in a brief reunion that the two of them were supposed to run off together. She did, but Stroppel stayed, but now that she’s back he wants to leave with her for good, and that will take some doing.

For a vigilante film, the plot is pretty tame, but that seems to be the point. These are small town folk who have been seduced into the right-wing idea that their guns and their religion entitle them to extra-legal authority to do as they wish to punish criminals who have been “under-punished” by the judicial system. In many ways they are naïve about their ability to sustain such an organization, and inevitably they fall into the quandary of any such fanatical group, that the younger generation doesn’t share their vision and eventually want to go their own way. In the context of the film, Thomas Stroppel is definitely a prisoner of a cult. And as good as their vigilante intentions are, their actions are not so clear cut. When Berenger gets involved the morality becomes even muddier. There’s a lot that could have been done with the script that was missed, and that’s unfortunate. The intent is to present a character study of Stroppel’s escape, but the attempt at realism here sort of works against the piece in that his own naiveté causes him to make some incomprehensible choices. The opportunity for far more introspection and explanation were there but weren’t taken. It’s not a huge flaw, but it could disappoint a lot of viewers. Bucksville is not a great film, but it is worth seeing, if only for the quality work of the cast and the director doing their best with a script that doesn’t quite measure up.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Population: 2 (2012)

Director: Gil Luna                                       Writers: Gil Luna & Jonathan Stark
Film Score: Edouard Brenneisen                     Cinematography: Kenneth Luba
Starring: Suzanne Tufan, Jon Ashley Hall, Shelly Lipkin and Meredith Adelaide

Small, independent films tend to be character driven, modern day dramas simply because they’re easier to film. So for any filmmaker, independent or not, to take on a work of science-fiction it has to be a daunting task. How much more so, then, for someone without studio funding? That’s what initially led me to Gil Luna’s Population: 2, and while there are certainly some challenging aspects of the film, what he was able to accomplish with the limited budget he had is fairly impressive. Of course the film has been lambasted online for it’s obvious deficiencies, but it’s the easiest thing in the world to criticize low-budge filmmakers for not being able to create something that’s up to Hollywood standards. But the fact remains that there are degrees of artlessness in film. On one end you have people like Michael Bay, who squander millions of dollars and ultimately wind up with artless tripe. And on the other end are talented filmmakers who don’t have choices, who are hemmed in by low budgets into taking whatever they can get in terms of cast and crew. Gil Luna is clearly one of the later, and yet managed to create a believable post-apocalyptic universe and a story that explains how it became that way, all seen through the eyes of a very compelling character and a talented actress to bring her to life.

The film begins in the cockpit of a bomber, the pilot and his navigator heading for a target that they are set to reach in twelve minutes. The conversation between the two indicates that they are friends and that while they’ve trained for this mission, this is the first time the mission is real. This is followed by a quote from John F. Kennedy about man’s potential to destroy themselves with nuclear weapons. An image of a satellite above the earth is seen next, amid lots of chatter, one voice among them saying that, “a pregnant woman, that baby will not remain alive.” Then Barry Wilde is seen in a video from Seattle touting a mirror-based system that reflects sunlight out into space to deal with global warming. Finally, Suzanne Tufan is heard in voice over--with Olivia Klinetobe playing Tufan as a child, running through a field--talking about how innocent her childhood was in assuming the permanence of everything around her. Later, in adulthood, the bombs take it all away. Thus, by the time the opening credits roll, the three threads of the narrative--however vaguely--have been shown to the viewer. There is the pilot and his partner who will deliver the first of the bombs that will end life on earth, Tufan’s life with her husband before the bombs, and her life alone afterward. This last thread is hinted at during the titles, with scratches in the wall to indicate days, and accompanied by an absolutely beautiful piece of music composed by Edouard Brenneisen who provides an impressive score overall.

After another episode with the pilot, a group of media spots are shown. The first is an advertisement for an abortion pill featuring Meredith Adelaide, then two opposing viewpoints on two different programs cut together that discuss the faulty engineering of the reflective technology put in place to combat climate change--a project that was completely corporate controlled and so the people and the government can’t interfere. From there, the film cuts to a depopulated Portland, Oregon. Heading down into the basement of what looks to be an empty factory, a Hazmat outfitted Suzanne Tufan comes home after her daily search for food. Tired and dirty, she lays down on her makeshift bed to sleep the darkness away. From the pilot continuing to close in, the scene then fades in on Tufan before the bombs. Her husband, Jon Ashley Hall, works for the company and is being coerced into telling the public that everything is fine. As long as he does what the company wants, if things don’t improve and chaos ensues he and his wife will have a spot in some protective bunker owned by the corporation. The three threads alternate throughout the film, as Tufan gradually learns what the cost of being one of the chosen few is--and it’s far from an easy decision to make. Meanwhile her life afterward is a constant struggle for food and water. And all the while the bomber is getting closer and closer to its target.

The first thing that must be said about the film is that Suzanne Tufan is tremendous. All of her sequences alone are heart-rending. Without her, what little positive feedback the film has would be non-existent. She is incredibly believable, both in her scenes of isolation as well as the pre-war drama. But she’s also assisted by some solid supporting actors as well. Shelly Lipkin is particularly good as the CEO of the corporation, and while Jon Ashley Hall’s performance is a little too studied he’s certainly no worse than many Hollywood actors. The other impressive feature of the film is the art direction by Janet Beeson. To be able to create a realistically de-populated city for Tufan to travel through is what ultimately makes the film. Computer graphics will only get a production so far, and the use of them on the jet plane sequences is probably the weak point of the film. And it’s not that the visual effects aren’t good, but in contrast to the set design they do seem very artificial. At the same time, removing those scenes would only have diminished the film, as they provide an important counterpoint to the rest of the story. So it’s difficult to understand some of the severely negative criticism the film has engendered online. The film is as much a social issue piece as it is science-fiction, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and while it’s not the best post-apocalyptic film ever made, it certainly has a lot to recommend it. I’ve seen plenty of bad films in my day, and Population: 2 isn’t one of them.

Monday Night Gig (2005)

Director: Tyson Smith                                       Writer: Ian Smith
Music: Somerset Meadows                              Cinematography: Todd E. Freeman
Starring: Neil Kopplin, Seneca Relich, Ina Strauss and Aaron Babb

“We’re getting the band back together.” How many times have those words been spoken all around the country? And how many more times in Portland? Tyson and Ian Smith’s Monday Night Gig traces the improbable history of the band The French, as they attempt to make it big. It’s a goofy comedy in the style of so many independent films, but there is a serious undercurrent to the story that comes from intimate knowledge of the milieu, kind of like a low budget This is Spinal Tap. The title itself, in fact, is a major in-joke, as Monday nights are the nights when nobody goes out, and thus it is the worst gig of all. Microphones that shock the singer into numbness, arguments between band members, band meetings, bad opening acts, patron-less venues, a broken down band bus, and lousy accommodations on the road all come from a place of affectionate appreciation for the struggle of musicians with far more vision than talent. The Smith brothers bounced around the country as kids, eventually winding up in the Northwest. Ian earned an English degree from the University of Oregon, while brother Tyson earned his graphic design degree from Portland State. The two began by writing indie comics together--a skill that was put to use in creating the wonderfully humorous posters for the band--and quite naturally branched out into film. This is their second feature, after making The Sexy Chef in 2002.

The film begins with Neil Kopplin and Seneca Relich in the garage playing their guitars, and dreaming of the day when the name of their band, The French, will be up on a marquee for a sold out show. The title sequence is particularly nice, with a posters being stapled on a telephone pole, and the screen divided into multiple sections as the two musicians look for a bassist and drummer to round out the group. At their first gig they’re pelted with spaghetti and booed off the stage. Three years later Kopplin, now a junior high teacher, calls Relich, an accountant, with the good news: they’re getting the band back together. After chasing down the bass player, Aaron Babb, who is living in a cardboard box, and anarchist drummer Ina Strauss, who works at a pizza joint, Kopplin announces they’ve been signed to a local record label. Unfortunately, with the combination of personalities and a pot-head engineer Gray Eubank, the group never seems to get any actual recording done. Day after day in the recording studio goes by, and zany antics ensue, and when they finally do record a song Eubank forgets to turn on the machine. Then, once the album is finished, the repo men come in and take everything out of the studio, including their album. Four years later Kopplin and Relich are interviewed on public access television to announce a CD release party at the Mt. Tabor Legacy Lounge. When Relich has had enough and wants to quit, Kopplin convinces him to do one last show.

As is the case in so many independent films, the two leads are pretty good. The rest of the cast . . . not so much. Fortunately Neil Kopplin and Seneca Relich carry the show. Kopplin is a natural and the camera loves him. He’s goofy and irresponsible in a completely believable way. Relich’s acting is a little too character driven and, as the voice of sanity that is drown out by Kopplin’s idealism, he has to try too hard. Nevertheless, he does a solid job in support and the two work well together. Had Ina Strauss played a slightly different character, or been given different direction, she might have stolen the show. She has flashes of brilliance that are all too brief. Portland writer-director Mike Prosser also turns up as Relich’s boss at the accounting firm, and he’s given some terrific material. But the writing is also inconsistent. In among the plethora of easy jokes that don’t really make it, there is some extremely funny writing. Early on in the film Kopplin has been kicked out of the house by his wife for buying their son an inappropriate birthday gift. “I got him the five piece drum kit,” he tells Relich. “I was only cleared for Battleship.” The film is finally what it is, a send up of a garage band with dreams of making it big, and while one of the jokes seems to be on the audience who never hears the band actually play, that’s simply another choice that indie filmmakers have to make. And since there are very few actors who also play, the choice was ultimately a simple one. Still, if you know what you’re getting in to, and you’re up for it, there are laughs to be found in Monday Night Gig.