Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Adam decides AND I LIVED is better off dying

Written while writer/director Ryan Dacko was stationed in Antartica for the Coast Guard, And I Lived is at various times a teen angst drama, a parable about class, a love story, a long and drawn-out car chase/drag race and an excuse to put 1037 montages into one film.
If that sounds remotely schizophrenic, you don't know the half of it. And I Lived is incredibly earnest when it's focussed on story, but devolves into a confused mess towards the end. Occasionally it takes place in a small country town. Occasionally it seems to be in the city. Occasionally, you'll notice the school building just changes for no reason whatsoever. Just like it can't make up its mind where it takes place, the movie can't make up its mind what kind of movie it is.
It's not to say there aren't things to like about And I Lived. Dacko (who also shot the film himself) has a good eye for composition, and there are quite a few shots that demonstrate skill at framing his actors in just the right way to emphasize his points. Then, right alongside the great shots will be a jerky handheld shot that makes you realize how low-budget the film really is.

In this small town/big city high school, the classes are truly divided. The rich folk dress in whites, the poor folk in black. The color of their skin doesn't matter. Only the color of their shirts makes a difference. There is omnipresent tension between the white shirts and the black shirts, and plenty of resentment both ways.
The conceit that the rich all wear white and the poor all wear black might be meant to hint at the class struggle. It might also hint at race relations, even if the white and black groups are ethnically mixed. The visual is definitely meant to contrast the two groups, so you're always certain of where someone stands.
Frankly, it's a bit heavy-handed.
The filmmaker didn't count on the audience to recognize that the rich and the poor are at odds. He didn't expect the audience to recognize the difference between the two groups. So, he clothes them in opposite colors to show they're opposites.
Of course, opposites attract, so therein lies our love story.

Elaina (Lori Shaufelberger) and Kevin (Matt Clark) both have ties to the leaders of their respective sects. Elaina used to date Jered (David Bianchi), the leader of the white shirts (Of course, Jered himself used to run with the black shirts prior to his mother marrying into money.). Kevin is best friends with Reg (Josue Rivera), the leader of the black shirts and owner of the Dodge Charger that the production company (Charger Films) was named after (the Charger is important to the story! HINT! HINT!). Kevin's also already going out with Meagan (Kim Chesterton).
That doesn't stop him from falling for Elaina, in spite of the rule that the each group sticks with their own kind. Of course, as we already know from countless other stories (including Romeo and Juliet, which the opening narration references), that the tales of star-crossed lovers from opposite camps always end badly.
Oddly, I found the conclusion of the film somewhat weak, mainly because we've seen the tragic end of romance so many times. Had the two lovers just gone their separate ways, Kevin off to college and Elaina to California, the result could have been more real and possibly more effective.
Also, the past romance between Elaina and Jered isn't even hinted at until the climax, and it's a key factor in driving his actions. Some explanation before the fact might have been nice.

Schaufelberger is adequate as Elaina, and Clark is quite decent as Kevin, but it's the supporting players that shine. Josue Rivera and David Bianchi squeeze the most out of their screen time, managing through simple movement to tell more about their characters than the leads do through their speeches. Their conflict is really what drives the story, right up until the big fight scene. Bianchi might get a bit melodramatic in his delivery, but both spit out dialogue that shouldn't work and make it sing.
Also noteable are Kim Chesterton as Meagan and Delaine Dacko as Elaina's friend Susan. Both are credible in their meager screentime (and both would have filled the role of Elaina better than the very Jamie Lee Curtis-y Schuafelberger). The most thankless of roles, that of comic relief, goes to Mike Baird as Stan. He manages to combine bits of Falstaff, Curly and maybe a little bit of Charles Martin Smith in American Graffiti into a guy you'd probably want to hang out with. Until he starts spilling his soda...

Visually, this does not look like a movie shot on under $20,000. Dacko managed to make a film that easily should have cost ten times more on a budget so miniscule that Robert Rodriguez would shudder. Aside from a couple handheld shots that don't quite work and a murkily-lit climax, And I Lived looks like a million bucks and change.
The cinematography and the editing are top-notch. Based on look alone, the film is definitely worth a gander by anyone studying the art of filmmaking. The shot composition is fantastic, and the movie flows quite naturally most of the time.
Hell, they might not work thematically in the story, but the car sequences alone look like the budget was much, much larger. They do, on a budget, what the studio system spends millions on.
My one gripe with the film from a technical standpoint is that the director relies on montages to tell the story, instead of letting the story tell itself. So much time is spent on the sweeping montages that litter the reels that we really only get a few choice minutes to get to know our hero and heroine.
Unfortunately, it's the lack of a relationship with the leads that torpedoes an audience's enjoyment of their journey.

The opening act is where the film is the strongest, in spite of an pointless extended sequence where Kevin and Reg go to the race track. The moment where Kevin and Elaina connect over music is simple, sweet and beautifully shot (watch the camera angles to see how the distance between the two changes). It's as close as we get to knowing Kevin and Elaina as people. And it's almost enough to tell their love story on its own.
From there, the movie just begins unravelling. There's no illustration of the relationship developing between the two, only montages and the occasional shot of the two of them touching hands when no one else is looking. There's mention of them talking on the phone, but we see no conversations between the two of them. We don't see them connect more than a fleeting flirtation, and this makes every moment thereafter feel false.
On top of that, the script morphs from a love story into a massive brawl and then into about a half hour of drag racing and car chases that's supposed to be a fifteen minute drive to the prom.
Let's look at the race and chase sequence for a moment. Imagine that you're a youthful rebel who's decided to take your brand spankin' new rich girl girlfriend to the prom. Except it's supposed to be ending in fifteen minutes (but it's not dark yet). Would you 1) get into a drag race with some Moby-looking dude in a Ford Taurus or 2) get into a car chase around a mall parking lot with two rent-a-cops or 3) go to the damn prom and get it over with? Both sequences have no place in this film, and were included as an indulgence that wastes the viewer's time.
I forgive a lot of things in low-budget films. I'll be extra forgiving of bad actors if there was no money to hire real talent (Clerks). I'll forgive cheesy effects since there was no budget to hire a real effects artist (Evil Dead). I'll even give a pass to bad direction if the overall effect of the movie is good. Wasting my time, I can't forgive.

And I Lived might have been a good ten minute short film. But, with the padding of montages, car chases and an utterly illogical ending (How does someone get shot through another human being when the person in front isn't injured? -- Oh, did I just spoil the ending? Naughty me.), it becomes a colossal waste of my time as a viewer. Don't set a time limit and then willfully exceed it, expecting your audience to play along. Don't promise a story and deliver a montage.
While there's some obvious talent involved in the cinematography department, And I Lived just shows how terrible a writer Ryan Dacko is and quite probably why someone shouldn't attempt to write a story about humanity when disconnected from it. He's a great visual stylist, but he's not much of a storyteller. That's fine, though. Because he shows such a talented eye for capturing the moment in his lenses that he could easily have a future directing other peoples' scripts (how many directors write all their own material, anyway?). With a great script and a budget, he'd be a force to be reckoned with. And I Lived may be incomplete as a story, but as a demo reel of Ryan Dacko's ability with a camera, it may open some doors.

The final verdict? Well, I can't truly say I enjoyed sitting through And I Lived. It takes a lot of chances, but unfortunately not in the sake of telling a great story. I did, however, see plenty of talent on display...enough to check out things that the principals involved do in the future. With luck, we haven't seen the end of any of the cast and crew.


Jamieson said...

A concise, detailed, and fair review. Well done and thanks.

Adam said...

You're more than welcome.
Now, get to work!