Saturday, December 24, 2005

Zerosum (2005)

Zerosum (2005) [dir. Ryan Batley]
with Alex Dunbar, Lizzie Bishop, Dan Groat, Louise Leahy, Leamann Valentine, Chris Valentine, Luke Cummings
script by Leamann Valentine & Ryan Batley
score composed and recorded by Ryan Bailey

Yesterday i got to see Ryan Batley's Zerosum, a product of his Rampaging Rhino Studios, that plays like a feature film although it would technically be a short. It is a fluid little masterpiece.

Now, before i go any further, let me say that i helped film an early version, and some of that footage is in this film at the end as well as some of the sound. I also count as friends virtually everyone involved in the production. Normally i do not review films that i have been involved in for obvious reasons, other than to say skip it or check it out. I'm making an exception here for a couple of reasons. First, since it's just now on its legs you might not find anything about it anywhere else. Second, it's that good. If it weren't i'd simply not review it.

It's also 99% a different film that what i actually worked on. The original actress playing Ixchelle simply quit coming to filming sessions which necessitated new casting (including some other parts for folks who had already given months of their time), and included a switch to black and white and 16:9 framing -- all for the better in my opinion.

So let me tell you about Zerosum. It plays against a number of plot types, but in my opinion it would be hard, once the film is over, to not think of it as Romeo & Juliet. I won't give the whole thing away, but the plot involves an unspoken love interest, battling families, a misunderstood situation and final desperation.

There are three parallel stories taking place, and at first you may struggle with the relationships among the various characters, but as the stories begin to merge, each conjunction is a mini-epiphany. Ryan takes you through pieces of each story and kicks time around like a playground ball. It's only in the final sequence that you catch up and it's a stunning moment.

Jake is quietly in love with Ixchelle. They're high-schoolers, and in that stage when a lot of indulgent flirting goes on, but no one ever seems to be quite sure of who is "with" whom. And Jake can't quite bring himself to say the right words, perhaps because he, like too many guys that age would be devastated to ask and find out the girl is "with" someone else and he never caught on. So this dance is what the film is about.

Being high-schoolers they also are at least on the fringes of, and probably more deeply involved than they'd admit, the drug scene. Smoking a bit of dope is casual and just a little bit thrilling, and would mean nothing except that it requires hiking to someplace -- a ditch here -- in which their little hobby can be engaged without attracting attention or rumors.

Well Jake, played superbly by New York actor Alex Dunbar, is a bit sloppy as is his buddy/pusher Derek Goldstein, played by Luke Cummings. And in the midst of covering themselves in the movie, one gets a mouthful of mushrooms and the other, in a weird accidental payback gets a mouthful of, well, something else. And the overdose creates problems.

Enter Ixchelle, played sublimely by the replacement actor Lizzy Bishop, as confessor, shoulder, mother figure and love quest.

Over the course of the next 35 minutes we see the machinations of both their families, watch them both burns short fuses over their family lives and unrequited love, see more than a bit of screaming, punching, and piles of weed. And when the two finally, simply, run away, there is no place to go but into each other's arms. But it's neither obvious where or how, and the way it ends will not be something on your radar.

Ryan, faced with a major problem at the loss of one of his stars, made a series of superb decisions -- choosing Lizzie, switching to black and white, and using the wider frame. And let me interject that Brooke Batley as camera and editor, and Leaman Valentine as writer, both were involved heavily in the project and it's probably safe to say that when i refer to Ryan, i'm also referring to the others. At this point i have no way to know who did what exactly, but the creativity in the three heavily weighs on the film.

There is a fine poetic eye in this film. Ultimately what one will remember, besides the fine story and stunning ending, is the black and white scenes that are nothing if not classy. There are a number of shots that were made literally in the dark and brought out in post that have a cutout/watercolor effect that changes the mood of the scenes, and at the opposite extreme there are scenes that are completely whited out by the camera's automatic light sensor that only darken into normal lighting when someone steps into the screen. It is a halo effect gone wild and it works magic.

I have long been a fan of long cuts that establish either time, place or mood or any combination of those. It's not something i'd discussed with Ryan that i recall, although i knew of the young filmmaker Olli Bettesworth by then who has made a complete art of this. Nevertheless, there are a couple of scenes where the length of the cut itself tells a different story, an effective one, than would have been told by Hollywood style jumpcuts. Thank goodness in private filmmaking you're not at the mercy of someone hollering "time is money". In particular a long cut of Jake's dad, played by Dan Groat, driving along a Hill Country highway is most effective at establishing place, time, and the simmering anger we seen begin to build at the top of the scene. Filmed with a wide-angle lens it also has the effect of suggesting a circling caged lion thereby heightening the tension.

There are also several camera angles, tilted just so, that seem to telegraph that something is off-kilter. It's a nice touch. And there are some cases where it appears that funky angles are the result of filming in tight spots, or of odd moments, where the angle helps elucidate the situation -- filming from the far end of a tunnel, or from above in the confines of a shower. And more is made of the wide frame than is usual for a project of this nature. It took a fine eye to know this in advance since it's one of those things that can't be fixed in post, at least on a PC.

Finally, Ryan Bailey's score is a gem. Around these parts we know about Ryan's talent -- he's scored some shows at The Point Theatre, but this is his first film work. He'll be working on my Dragons coming up, and doing the underscoring for my film Diogenes/Dionysus. After hearing his score on Zerosum i'd have to say i'm very anxious to get him working on my projects. Throughout this film he managed the mood without being either overbearing or obvious, and he never strayed into sound that felt faked. In some way it was anither serendipitous choice by Ryan et al. that paid off handsomely.

Most amazing of all is that this lyrical film was produced on a small digital camera and put together with a standard issue production package. In the end it is quite an achievement, and a most enjoyable film to watch.

Technical Issues
Well, at this level it is always hard to quibble with details, expecially technical ones when someone is working with no budget, but . . . just so you know.

The sound is not Hollywood quality, but overall it is pretty good. Some of the issues are still being worked out and i'd expect that once a version hits festivals it'll be perfectly audible.

In total the acting is exceptional for a bunch of friends working together. There are a couple of performances over the top, but they're noticeable and easily to dismiss once you know who. More than likely you'll be so into the excellent performances that the others will have little effect.

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