I've decided it's finally time for me to critique all the various films in the Asbury Film Festival, since I definitely promised I would, and I've had more than enough time to let each film sink in. I've been dreading doing this, because I'm nervous about saying something critical of someone's film, because - I'm not actually saying it to their face as useful criticism; no, I'm just mocking their work behind their back. It's different when one's criticizing Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon), who will have wasted 100 million dollars of someone's money to create some piece of trash that it is my civic duty to protect you readers from watching.
(That being said, I still hold out hope for the Bay-directed The Island, due later this summer, to be excellent. When Ben Affleck is no longer your main character, your film is automatically miles better)
Still, I'm doing more here than just criticizing - I'm bestowing praises on work that's well done, and most of the films at the festival were very well done. Bear in mind that in each compliment and criticism I crank out, I truly mean what I say. If something's excellent, I say so, if it's terrible - I'm tearing it pieces. If you doubt me, keep reading. Though I don't know why I'm bothering with this intro. Peracchio's the only person whose film will be called to account who'll be reading this, and he's got nothing to worry about.
Now, in order of appearance at the Asbury Film Festival (as best I remember it):
1. Help Wanted - Justin Gustafson's final DFP (Digital Field and Post Production, for you non-Asbury Media Commies) project, Help Wanted is actually a presentation of a poem by the same name by Shane Koyczan, winner of the National Poetry Slam in 2000. Gustafson's piece shows startling maturity: he lets the poem speak for itself. Narrator Phil Brooks wanders through scenic parts of rural Kentucky, eventually ending up on somebody's rooftop, meditating on what his grandmother told him about religion, faith, people, and picking yourself up by your own bootstraps. Gustafson clearly has vision, and the piece has power because of his ability to see how to make each image emphasize what's important about each bit of narration. That sounds obvious, but it's not - it's fairly rare. Still, it's Brooks who makes the piece, communicating the message in a humble, introspective way that transforms the poem (a bit conceited and patronizing when read from the page) into something lasting.
Award Received: Best Editing. Absolutely deserved.
Ben Wyman Connection: Almost none. I worked with both Justin and Phil on Stolen Moments, but I knew nothing about the film except that Jeremy White called it "the best final DFP project I've ever seen." No arguments here.
Of Note: Sections of the poem are available here.
Three Stars out of Five
2. A Good Latte - Justin Ladd wrote this coffeeshop film, and it's a smart script. Jeremy White, Erin Schumaker, and Mary Lashbrook all star in this clever, fast-paced comedy, and the solid cast keeps everything running smoothly. The piece, filmed in a few hours at Lexington's Common Grounds, benefits from the location and Ladd's excellent cinematographer's eye but the time crunch sometimes makes the film's continuity a bit tenuous. That being said, the film's final line ("Well, someone's got to play matchmaker to the socially retarded") was one of the film festival's high points. Latte features all of the effortless tongue-in-cheek banter one expects in a Ladd film, and the piece doesn't lack for sardonic edge, but the script is a one-joke effort and therefore lacks the depth he's capable of.
Ben Wyman Connection: I helped Justin load all the camera equipment into the car.
Of Note: You can take a look at location pictures here.
3. Deceived - Erin Schumaker wrote and stars in this telling drama of a lonely pastor's wife jealous of the amount of time her husband spends with God and not with her. On a particularly bad day, she debates the matter with someone she thinks is God but turns out to be Satan (a bit of a downer when you're already in a bad mood). Susan Harper directs, and the acting flourishes under her able hand. Andrew Casto is solid in the as the neglectful pastor (nobody's favorite role) and Nathan Davies is eerily perfect as Old Scratch himself. Unfortunately, the intensity of the dialogue means that the emotional build-up is hurt badly each time the production value slips even a little. A few audio inconsistencies and continuity errors keep the piece, filmed in only a few hours in nearby sanctuary, from reaching its full potential. Still, nothing can slow down the tour-de-force performance of Schumaker, swinging from smoldering frustration to the deep secret sadness of the dutiful pastor's wife. "I can't compete with you," she whispers a seemingly oblivious crucified Christ hanging on the front of the church, and chills run down the viewer's spine as she visible struggles to cloak her pain. Provocative and painful, Deceived was perhaps the most eye-opening of the film festival films.
Award Received: Best Screenplay. No brainer.
Ben Wyman Connection: I lobbied hard for the role of Satan, but was deemed "too cute." Somewhere out there, Satan is really pissed about that.
Of Note: You can see a picture of the statue of Jesus, though unfinished, here.
Three and Half Stars
4. Peace, Love, & Scrubs: AJ Stich wrote and stars in this off-beat comedy much in the same vein of Garden State (a blessing and a curse). It was the most underrated film of the festival, as many complained that they didn't really get the point, and therefore wrote it off. But Stich's film was never about the destination, it's all about the journey. Stich is Dodger, a slightly socially inept medical student desperately seeking the attention of Mandy (Christen Cates), the depressed girl who's stuck listening to everyone else's problems. The script is subtle and nuanced, but despite Stich and first-time director Greg Weidman's delicate touch, the story never really ties together cohesively. It's a shame, too, since there's so much potential there. Cates carefully underplays Mandy, absorbing the world around her with soulful eyes, deferring the spotlight to Stich, who plays Dodger with charming exuberance. Of course, the fact that he gets to smoke and dance to his heart's content without fear of reprisal might have something to do with it. After all, he's acting. Charming and creative, Peace, Love, and Scrubs never cuts as deep as it hopes.
Award Received: Best Sound. Cash Tunstall helped Weidman and Stich re-record all of the movie's sound and dialogue, and the effort shows - the soundscape is nearly flawless. In addition, the film features a smart indie rock soundtrack (a must for off-beat films these days), which Weidman culled from his expansive music collection (just don't ask where he got it all from) . Honestly, no other film was even really up for this award besides them. They ran away with it from the beginning.
Ben Wyman Connection: AJ filmed an outtake of one of the scenes featuring me playing Dodger that ended up on the DVD. In addition, Cash noted that they put in a "reference" to me about halfway through the film. I've seen the film three times since, and I still have no clue what that means.
Of Note: You can check out the film's theme song, Pete Yorn's "Turn of the Century," here.
Three and a Half Stars
5. Leaves - This one you already know about. Jeremy White and I directed this piece which swallowed up our semesters and destroyed whatever social lives we had. Ah, well, those are the breaks.
Awards Received: Best Picture and Audience Favorite. Not a bad night out. You can read about it here.
Ben Wyman Connection: Blink and you'll miss it, but in the graveyard scene of Leaves, about halfway through the movie, I am Jeremy's hand double. And I directed the film.
Of Note: Leaves was inspired by an O. Henry short story called, "The Last Leaf," available here. In addition, you can check out the website of Enoch Jacobus, currently re-scoring Leaves for his senior recital, here.
Bit tough to rate your own films. You give 'em too high a rating, you look cocky, too low and you're self-depreciating. It's not even worth fighting over.
6. Mascot - Jeremy White directs this minute-and-a-half short piece about how the school mascot terrorizes Ben Peracchio in the library, until Peracchio finally tracks him down and seeks out his revenge. Soon, though, the mascot takes off his mask, revealing himself to be festival creator Professor Greg Bandy. It's a special moment, and it got the biggest laugh of the whole film festival.
Ben Wyman Connection: I actually play the mascot for part of the movie, plus I stuck around as a creative consultant for the shoot. Also, I directed a short film myself called The Mix-Up, about how the Kannensohn twins confuse Peracchio in the library, until Peracchio finally tracks them down to confront them, which Jeremy saw and might have helped inspire Mascot. Jeremy and I thought we should enter both films in the festival so they could play them back to back. But... we didn't.
Of Note: Jeremy has a worthwhile site, as does Peracchio, and Felicia Berggren (who plays the mascot - with zest - for most of the film) has one herself, available here.
Two and a Half Stars
7. Curtains And The Long Farewell - Richie Larison created this little gem about death and grief. It's a cool visual show, a thousands of images flashing across the screen while the color scheme flickers around hyperactively. It looked an awful lot like the greatest screensaver you've ever seen, crossed with a high school biology video on genetics. It's a whacked out video, and it wasn't until I saw it for the fifth time that I really began to understand what it was all about. I'd never want to go through the same amount of effort on such a project, so for creating a two minute video frame-by-frame, Larison gets all my respect. And my sympathy.
Ben Wyman Connection: Richie's the only student besides myself who had a film entered that was principally about death. I told Richie that I thought his film made a very attractive screensaver, but he just buried his head in his hands. Some people can't take a compliment.
Of Note: Click here to watch an actual high school genetics video.
Two and a Half Stars
8. The Salt Shaker - One of the better scripts of the festival, Salt Shaker was unfortunately one of its worst films. Terrible audio ruined the film's chances from the start, and despite a round of re-shoots, a good deal of the film ended up completely incomprehensible. They ended up having to add a narrator figure to the script to account for the bad audio. It's a shame, too, since the film itself is so much fun. Nathan Bauder is solid in his acting debut as a socially inept student who daydreams himself a better life, Walter Mitty-style. His sly narration holds the film together, while Mary Lashbrook plays his love interest with vim and vigor, but neither of their best efforts, nor director Mike Davis' desperate editing, can save the film.
Ben Wyman Connection: I'm featured in this piece, having a big enough role to merit having my name embossed on the movie poster. I play the random guy (no, I don't have a name. Shut up) who comes along occasionally and talks to Nathan, and I get the fun of being the character who exposes the surprise ending: his girlfriend is also a figment of his imagination (what? Don't get mad at me. It's not a spoiler if you're never going to see the film).
Of Note: You can see the really cool groundbreaking music video for the film's theme song, "Sitting, Waiting, Wishing" by Jack Johnson, here. In addition, you can read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." If you didn't attend the Asbury Film Festival, you can do both at the same time, and you'll get the general idea.
9. Tracks - Nathan White directs this tale of a mother whose son runs across the tracks right before a train, and she must wait in horror for the train to pass. Tres Adames produces, and under his steady hand, they shoot the whole film in (surprise!) a few hours. Good acting, location, and editing holds together an uninspiringly shot film and its somewhat tenuous script. The film has definite punch, but it's tough to watch the film without thinking that it could have been a great deal better with a little more effort. Ah, well.
Ben Wyman Connection: I play the boorish NPR announcer heard at the beginning of the film, interviewing a yuppie child psychologist (Jane McDougall) filled with lots of good ideas on how to raise other people's children.
Of Note: You can hear actual boorish NPR announcers here.
10. Beaver - David Hancock wrote, directs, and stars in this Leave It To Beaver-esque tale of the adventures of a small-town boy in small-town Wilmore. It's clever, and funny, and it pissed me off because it's one of those films that you can film (wait for it) in a few hours, and it's really good. The whole film is told through narration, so you don't have to worry about the audio. The whole film is shot in black and white, so no one notices your focus or your lighting. And the whole film is shot on Asbury's campus or at the downtown supermarket, Fitch's IGA. I coulda done that myself in an afternoon. But no, I had to make film about death and the longing for home, and it had to involve jumping off of trains, and thousands of Christmas lights, and snow, and child prodigy actors. Sheesh. Beaver is clever and original, and most of all - funny. It ended up finishing second in the audience voting, which says a lot about a film shot on a borrowed camera by a freshman who hasn't taken any video classes yet. I maintain Hancock pulls it off because he was, in fact, raised in the 1950's, and is therefore not acting. I mean, nobody has hair like that anymore.
Awards Won: It tied for Best Comedy with Mug - I'll discuss this dilemma when I review that piece.
Ben Wyman Connection: I looked over David's shoulder as he edited the film. I was no help whatsoever.
Of Note: Click here to see actual Leave It To Beaver hair.
11. [Let Go] - I wrote and directed this one last semester as my final DFP project. It was the first film either Jeremy White or Becca Harvey had been in, and they went on to become the stars of Stolen Moments. So they can thank me. This was actually the surprise hit of the festival - neither Jeremy, Becca, or I thought it would make much of an impression, but people really seemed to dig it. The story revolves around Jeremy (played with deep emotion by White), who holds an argument with ex-girlfriend Becca (played with reserve and longing by Harvey), who turns out to be dead. Ain't that the breaks, kid. He finally imagines himself back in his crashed Honda Civic (played winningly by my crashed Honda Civic), where he monologues for a good two minutes or so about how wonderful things used to be, until Dave Matthews finally starts playing in the background and he's able to shut up and forgive himself.
Awards Won: Best Drama. Stolen Moments producer Don Mink was actually pushing for this to be Best Picture, but common sense prevailed.
Ben Wyman Connection: To crash the Civic, we had to actually push the stupid thing up a hill in order to let it roll back down again and crash. Guess who sat in the driver's seat and drove the car on the way up.
Of Note: You can read a good deal more about the filming of [Let Go] here. In addition, I recently posted some pictures of my brothers and I detailing (pronounced "spraypainting") the Civic.
Again, no rating, but as a frame of reference, [Let Go] is better than From Justin to Kelly, but not as good as, say, Citizen Kane.
12. Mug - Ben Peracchio and Justin Ladd put this film together based on a play written by Marianne Peracchio, who, it must be noted, is much brighter than you or I, and therefore comes up with much cleverer ideas. The idea for this one is no exception - a woman (Laura Hunt) walking home from an extremely bad day at work is mugged twice by essentially the criminal equivalent of Laurel (Taylor Vinson) and Hardy (Don Mink). Or maybe Mink is Laurel and Vinson is Hardy. I get them confused (I might be actually be thinking of Abbott and Costello, come to think of it). Regardless, they're both incomptent, and Hunt whups up on both of them, which makes the distinction moot. This startling bit of slapstick jolts each of them so much that they follow her around the city, trying to figure out what the heck happened. The script is Peracchio and Ladd to a T: lively, inventive, and riotously funny. This is impressive because most people would have just taken this as a one-joke premise and wouldn't have put nearly this much effort into the script. Heck, I certainly wouldn't (my script would be: "Sassy lawyer lays smackdown on loser muggers. Hijinks ensue."). This helps out a lot because Ladd and Peracchio shot Mug in downtown Lexington in (you know what's coming) only a few hours, and when the battery in their mic died, thy were left with extremely bad audio. Innovative to the last, the pair redubbed the whole film into Spanish. Really terrible Spanish, too - they typed each line into an online translator, and whatever came out, they said. Also, Peracchio (who speaks no Spanish but fairly fluent French and Italian) became the voice for both Laurel and Hardy (or whoever), and so the film became a mess of poorly-translated, mispronounced Spanish with an Italian accent. Which just made it that much funnier. Still, Mug would likely would have been just a little bit stronger had it still been in English, or if the Spanish had been translated cleaner, or if the subtitles were timed a little better in order to get maximum effect from each line. Who's to say, though? When the ride is this much fun, there's no point in griping about what could have been. Mug made me laugh harder than anything else in the whole festival.
Awards Won: As noted earlier, Mug tied for Best Comedy with Beaver. And honestly, it should have won outright. Mink was one of the seven judges on the panel, but was declared ineligible for voting due to his involvement in Mug - had he been allowed to cast a ballot, Mug would have taken the prize solo. While both Beaver and Mug were uproarious fun, Mug was clearly the stronger film.
Ben Wyman Connection: Mug was dedicated to me, and coming so quickly on the heels of The Salt Shaker, Tracks, and [Let Go], people laughed just seeing my name up there again. I can't say that I'd ever been prouder.
Of Note: You can try your hand at mistranslating Spanish yourself, or you can check out Justin or Peracchio's sites.
Three and a Half Stars
13. In[Terror]gation - Clay Hassler is a talented fellow. He's president of his class (and last I knew, dating his lovely vice president), he was selected last year (as a freshman) to compete as an actor in the Irene Ryan competition, and he tops it all off by making one of the best films of the Asbury Film Festival. In[terror]gation is less a story as it is a collection of ideas about how guilt imprisons the soul. At least, I think that's the case, because the movie really didn't make any sense. The idea is this: A scrubby looking chap (Hassler's high school drama teacher, who turns out to be a fantastic actor) is sitting in a white room wearing a straightjacket, when a voice in the public address speaker above him begins a conversation. I think the voice is supposed to represent Satan. But it could also be the voice of God. Or Deep Throat. Or Alf. I wasn't really certain, and things didn''t get any clearer as the piece went on - the man argues with the voice in the box, but suddenly his sins are written all over his face and the walls, then a second later he's homeless and sitting outside, and immediately after he's a successful businessman. His sins disappear off his face once he starts writing his thoughts down on scraps of paper, which gave me a pretty good reason to start journaling but didn't really clarify the storyline any. At the end of the piece, the man, who's been playing with a Rubik's cube this whole time, finally gets the white side done. This, it seems, is the turning point, and the movie therefore ends almost immediately. From this description, you might be wondering why I liked the film so much. The reason is that in every way other than script, the film is tremendous: the acting is exceptional, Hassler directs the film with flair, it's well edited and extremely well shot. In fact, visually, there wasn't a single Asbury piece - including Stolen Moments - that had better cinematography. Which is a little embarrassing when you realize how long it took to shoot Stolen Moments. Or, for that matter, Leaves.
Award Won: Best Cinematography. Hassler's the son of photographer, and he's got that "photographer's eye." Of course, he also had that "photographer's camera," which doesn't hurt either. More than half the films in the festival were shot on handheld Panasonic piece-o'-craps, so Hassler had a leg up right there, but it likely wouldn't have mattered if everyone had the beautiful HD camera that Stolen Moments was shot on - Hassler's film looked gorgeous, and he deserved this award hardcore.
Ben Wyman Connection: Halfway through the filming of In[Terror]gation (it was filmed over spring break in Clay's father's photography studio), Clay and I chatted for a bit about the piece, and he explained the whole plot to me. It made a heck of a lot more sense then. Clay's a modest man, so he downplayed how good he was, and I was therefore completely unprepared for the visual splendor of it all.
Of Note: You can have a hack yourself at getting the white side of a Rubik's cube done here.
14. Stolen Moments - I worked incredibly hard on this film, and I have very close ties with it - I've already mentioned before how I was documentary filmmaker/storyboard artist/pre-visualization/production assistant/yadda yadda yadda, and nobody cares, but I wanted to preface this review by saying that it's tough for me to to criticize Stolen Moments because I put so much effort into it and I wanted it to be great. But it wasn't great. It's pretty good, sure, but it's not stunning. And it's a shame, because after all our effort and having it be one of the first college films shot in high definition, the whole film was derailed by, amazingly enough, a mediocre script. Here's the basics: Jacob (Jeremy White. Again. Sheesh), a young, mild-mannered college student, often visits his grandfather, Pappy (Carl Spivey), who is stricken with Alzheimer's. Jacob helps Pappy by helping him remember the World Series game that Pappy's father, Freddy Bailey, played in. When not helping Pappy, Jacob spends time with his girlfriend Janie (Rebecca Harvey. Again. Cripes), and their group of friends, all of whom are trying unsuccesfully to get Jacob to be a little less of a wuss. As director Jeff Day noted, Stolen Moments is basically the movie version of Wild At Heart. Eventually, after some mostly random hijinks - a big wheel race, an all-girl performance of Hamlet, a celebration party at a student center - Jacob and Co. gather up a group and recreate the World Series game that Pappy's always trying to remember. It's a touching moment, and ultimately it's this scene that makes the whole film, stumbling down the stretch up until this point, succeed. Stolen Moments may have some real problems, but it has the guts to make it when it counts. The main reason that this scene works when so many others fail is a) Spivey is the focal point in this scene, and the film is at its strongest when it focuses on him and not Jacob, who is much too much of pansy for us to root for, and b) there's hardly any dialogue, which is where this film is weakest. In fact, the power of the film is almost jettisoned completely by its awkward dialogue. Day, who wrote as well as directed the film, has a clear understanding of story but far less understanding of how college students - or for that matter, anyone - talks on an everyday basis. The low point of this is in a scene where Janie pitches to Jacob's friends the idea of playing a baseball game for Pappy. They agree. Then they keep agreeing. In fact, they just can't stop saying that yes, they should definitely do that. This goes on for upwards of thirty seconds, until finally, mercifully, it cuts away, leaving the viewer flinching from the awkwardness of it all (fortunately, though, if you look carefully, I'm in the background of that scene, which makes things a lot easier to take). Still, as clunky as the conversations could sometimes be, there's no denying that Stolen Moments still has punch. An excellent original score by Rob Pottorf (Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius) holds the film together through its rockier moments, and even the often-unsteady camerawork can't take away the fact that a high definition film looks beautiful. Stolen Moments is not necessarily breathtaking but it shows great promise for the future of a possible Asbury film program.
Ben Wyman Connection: While working editing my film Hitchhiker late one night, the students putting together the Stolen Moments interactive CD-ROM suddenly realized they were one interview short. So, suddenly, I became their favorite person. I told the story about the vending machine that Don Mink and I accidently broke, except I said that Don was the one who actually did it. I hope I get a copy of that someday.
Of Note: Both Jeff and Rob have their own pages on IMDB, which is pretty cool in my book. Also, the Media Comm Department has a piece on the film, as does Rob's music site, which also has clips from the score. Also, Becca made a website called The Camera Never Lies to document the filming of Stolen Moments. She gave up after a few posts, but there's still some good pictures.