Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Coming Thing? I Hope Not

Elsewhere, NY

I've heard it said that the technological advances in hand-held digital video recording will lead to a flurry of low-budget theatrical releases done in that way. Elsewhere, NY, seen last night at Houston's Worldfest International Film Festival, is, I think, an example of that method.

It results in a good movie ruined.  An interesting story of casual everyday betrayal, with superior writing by Tom Wilton, solid, well-crafted performances by the four principal actors (especially Andrew Ruth, who plays Todd --- which I probably liked best because, it turns out, he's from Austin), and of course the vibrant youth culture of 21st-Century Brooklyn combine to give this film great potential.

Wilton's script is filled with the sort of gratuitous profanity that many real-life 20-somethings mistake for sophistication. Even at three decades' remove, I can remember that feeling. What is noteworthy in the movie's use of coarse language is that it avoids reaching the point of gratuity: it is a natural, organic part of the world these people live in. It calls attention to itself, but quickly loses the power to shock or offend.

Jennifer arrives in New York; we see her first at Grand Central, expecting perhaps to be met, but finding no one there. She comes across as a small-town girl lost in the Big City, with all the prospect for disaster that such a situation evokes. (She's coming from Boston, she says, though apparently she learned little about city living there.) She must make her way to a friend's place in Brooklyn, but again, no one is there. She passes the time waiting in a bar, where she meets Todd and has an exuberant one-night stand with him before she at last meets up with her irresponsible and inconsiderate host, Christine. Jump ahead two years, and Jennifer has apparently fallen into a comfortable if not passionate relationship with Ethan. When Ethan's roommate moves out, he takes in a replacement ... who turns out to be Todd. At this point, the groundwork is well laid for the central tension of the movie.

I've often marvelled at the ability of good scriptwriters to sketch out the parameters of relationships with a few carefully crafted scenes and a few well-honed lines of dialog. For all the sketching and crafting in this movie, only fifteen or twenty minutes are needed. This seems to me to be a mark of admirable judiciousness, as in that time the three principal characters --- Christine is but a sidelight -- become fully fleshed out. But the impressiveness of it is almost lost in the mindnumbing camera work. Faces blur and fade in and out, as though only a poorly-designed knock-off digital camera is judging distances. Images shake side to side, and up and down, as if the technician holding the camera is coughing or giggling, or maybe just zoning out. Two or three minutes of this on America's Funniest Home Videos is watchable; 88 minutes of it on the big screen is barely endurable.

Add to the mix the questionable sound-editing choices made. I admit to making the assumption that the sounds we hear result from choices, and not simply the default mode of taking whatever the microphone happened to pick up and slapping it on the DVD as a finished product. Street noise, wind noise, jet engines passing overhead; all threaten to overwhelm the dialog in the exterior scenes, while interior scenes are cluttered with background conversation, interminable snatches of music (some of it good), and what sounds like the faint thrum of chain saws in adjoining apartments.

Despite the sound and visuals, the movie is a well-conceived work that, unfortunately, comes across more as a film-school project than a theater-worthy production. If that does turnout to be the future of movie making, I will be glad to stay home and watch snippets on You-Tube.

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