Sunday, May 1, 2011

‘Applebox’ Stands Tall, ‘Directors Cut’ Is Sharp Filmmaking - by Joseph James Bellamy

I recently had the opportunity to take in two selections at the Boston International Film Festival, at the Lowes Multiplex on Boston Common. It was an evening well spent, to say the least.

The first offering was a short about being, well, short. In Rick Page’s Applebox, starring James Radone, we see just how much of who we are depends on how we are perceived. Radone gives a hilarious, and ultimately touching performance as James Bronson, 5’3” of A-list Leading Man chasing the elusive golden figurine. We soon see the key to Bronson’s success is a 2’X1’ wooden box that allows the sample sized star to rise to any challenge. Page summarizes Bronson’s career in a hysterical stream of riffs on well known, low-rise actors, each ending with him stepping off of the titular box, while staying in frame. Hoffman, Pesci, and Pacino all get the treatment, and Radone brings a genuine humor to each in turn. It made me wish that Tom Cruise had gotten the Academy nod, just to see him get skewered in this top-flight comedy sequence. The off camera Bronson is a pampered, self absorbed egotist, fully immersed in his own larger than life public image.

When the box is stolen, Bronson finds his world falling apart. His trophy wife leaves him, his lucrative book and lecture tour falls through and all seems well and truly lost. It is at this point that Radone steps things up a notch, or two. Where his portrayal of the pompous Bronson is tongue in cheek at the outset, the misery, rage, confusion and desperation of the characters fall are the height of poignancy. We learn how far out of reach not only success, but simple acceptance can be, when you’re ‘Just not the right type, physically’. With the inclusion of misses from Radone’s own audition reel, the phrase ‘Sorry, we’re looking for a leading man.’ becomes a heartbreaking mantra of rejection in a world where he no longer measures up.

Bronson deserves his misfortune, but his situation raises a question. What are we without our self-embellishments? Sure, we’re not all standing on boxes, but how many of us dye our hair, wear specific brands, endure body modifications, or engage some other deliberate affectation in our appearance? Now, how many of us can say we do these things for reasons other than to be taken seriously by those who’s approval we desire? It’s a visual culture, and the clothes (or the box) make the man.

The film closes with a monolog, performed half by a nearly raving Bronson as he wanders the streets of L.A., and completed in what appears to be a turn as Napoleon, sans-box. He cries out for the love, the respect, and the glory he feels he has earned, echoing the sense of frustration shared by so many. It is this deeply moving recitation that ultimately wins Bronson his heart’s desire.

It’s clear that with Applebox, Page has created a short film that stands tall on big laughs and an even bigger heart, with a legitimate leading man, in Radone, who is head and shoulders above the crowd.

The second film, Director’s Cut, the latest feature length effort from Writer/Director/ Producer Elana Mugdan, and Shivnath productions spoke not only to a dear place in my heart, but to the humor centers of my brain.

The film chronicles the tragedies, triumphs, mistakes and miracles that befall Cassie (the sweetly spunky Hallie York) a hapless intern with a heart of digital video tape. Cassie’s life is spinning out of what little control she has had over it since leaving school. Her job sucks, her parents vacillate between oblivion and cold disapproval. She is frustrated by what seems like, “no way to accomplish something before I die,” as she puts it. Worse still, there is no silver lining in sight. It is only when her uber-geek, and coincidentally brilliant friend Eugene (a hysterically spot-on Brian Cheng) puts his latest fantasy opus in her hands, and demands that she make it a film, that she sees a way out of her quarter-life rut.

To any major studio, Eugene’s out there fiction, centering on a teleporting alien vampire pirate queens attempts to take over the world (No, really…) would be a poison apple, with worms. Cassie, however, possesses the trait most needed and common to those committed to independent film: She believes that a good film is about telling a good story, and Eugene’s story is good. Armed with that belief, she recruits her slacker friend, Gary (a preternaturally serene Jonathan Fernandez) as her first crew member and sets out to make a movie. A brush off at the reception desk of a production company sets the bad-to-worse tone of the story early.

In spite of this setback, and fueled by a chance meeting with a famous producer, Cassie’s commitment and tenacity are re-doubled. A little elbow grease and a trip to the print shop later, she has collected a beautifully comic array of cast and crew. And what a crew! There’s Cal, a photographer famous for out of focus images as Director of Photography (Eric J. Eastman, channeling at least one real life DP I’ve known), the hopelessly under-qualified Assistant Director, Ariel (Jessica Coals), who’s laughable ignorance keeps her star-struck on a set without any stars, Tom the air-headed pretty boy leading man (The truly talented Jack Kropac), a homeless boom operator, and Zeke, the videogame junkie turned post production wiz-kid.

From leading-lady walk-outs, to prima-donna technical-experts, to uncooperative weather, the project runs the entire gauntlet of obstacles. They are even mistaken for a porn outfit and nearly arrested. Scenes are dropped, dialog is changed and tempers flair all around. There are sound and lighting issues of all kinds, with all of the solutions being heaped on Zeke, (the hacker,) and his digital manipulations. (It’s a method which is frighteningly popular in the world of big-budget film making-- Just ask James Cameron or Steven Spielberg.) Hell, there are even puppets.

The entire bullet-train-wreck is nearly derailed by the utter destruction of the production’s only camera, complete with a bittersweet funeral for the gadget. If all of this sounds like crossing a bridge too far to tilt at windmills, welcome to independent film making. Not only is this sort of mayhem common to the form, but, as Cassie and company discover, it’s the best part. All movies have problems and adjustments in the course of production. The beauty of the independent effort is the rigors and the rushes of solving these problems are experienced hands-on by all who are involved. It doesn’t matter if you are the director or the person getting coffee, since more often than not these two positions are one and the same. Among the many narrative and stylistic beauties of Director’s Cut, is that it is an independent film about independent film, that manages to avoid most, if not all of the technical gaffes and giveaways that are the less-than-flattering hallmark of the form.

In Directors Cut, Mugdan paints a heart-warming, and hilariously accurate portrait of the artistry, camaraderie, and lunacy that is independent film. The humor and humanity of the film come from the truth of the experience. Having been part of more than a few such projects, I know the real deal when I see it, and this is it. In fact, I felt as though I had known, worked and hung out with the entire cast, and shared their bond.

The character of Cassie reminds me of a certain all-or-nothing director I know quite well. Both are strung tight between the need for creativity that drives them, and the lives they must make fit between and around those goals. Neither will give up on what they are, filmmakers, just because the world around them is slow to share their vision. It is this kind of love, and there is no other word for it, that inspires those around them (my self included) to leap headlong into the seemingly impossible. They, and Mugdan, believe that it is the act of making the film that matters, and the film itself, though permanent, is merely a recorded echo of the fearless roar within creative spirits. We who join the charge, in front of or behind the camera, believe because they do. After seeing this film, you’ll believe too. You may even find yourself re-editing the scenes, characters and plot of your life to make your own Directors Cut.

Written by Joseph James Bellamy
Editor: Rod Webber

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