General Coffee // 2008 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 23rd, 2009
"A darkly-comic neo-noir set among the heatwave-baked skyscraper canyons of the Toronto financial district."
Bull tells the story of a luckless broker trapped between an overly ambitious boss and the possibility of financial ruin. Although he's no good at his job, Charlie (Craig Lauzon, Royal Canadian Air Farce) is given the opportunity to make some money in a rather suspect deal he can't say no to. This leads him down a rabbit hole into a world of big money, shady dealers, beautiful women, and persistent cops. Only dumb luck will get Charlie through the maze created by Toronto's skyscraper canyons.
I view a lot of independent features from directors with little experience, and I can say without hesitation that Bull is the most professional-looking independent feature I've seen in ages, perhaps ever. Everything from the acting to the cinematography screams big budget, even as the production credits make it clear that the creative team didn't have a lot of money to work with.
Director Kent Tessman obviously put all the money he had on screen, starting with casting well-tested, if not well-known (at least south of the border here in the U.S. of A.), actors to play his characters. Lead Craig Lauzon brings his comedic experience to bear playing the loser Charlie. What makes his performance great though is that he makes the audience laugh with rather than at the character. Another standout is Maury Chaykin as the mysterious (and slightly crazy) Roland Gow. Chaykin too keeps the character funny, but never lets us forget that he's a powerful man who is also very threatening.
After he assembled a top-notch cast, Tessman picked a great cameraman. Bull has a particular feel to it, obviously influenced by '40s noir without being slavish about it. The use of a muted color scheme reinforces the heat that permeates the script's atmosphere, adding to the claustrophobia of both Charlie and the audience. The production value is also pretty high, with extensive use of locations in Toronto and realistic office environments. Never once did the film feel like it was getting cheap on the set design because of the budget.
The story also deserves some credit for obviously borrowing noir trends without being overly reliant on them. Some noirs fill the need to make comedy out of noir conventions, but the comedy of Bull comes out of the absurd situations Charlie finds himself in rather than simply poking fun at other noir films. It's that dark comedy that gives the film its chief charm. While other films might have gone for a simple thrill ride, Bull takes a few darkly comic turns along the way, most of which turn out successfully.
There is, however, a major misstep. The script is just a bit too long. On the film's Web site Tessman (rightfully) boasts that the film was shot in 19 days with an average of six pages per day. That's 114 pages for a movie that runs a little over 90 minutes. The problem is that the film could seriously use some tightening. While each individual scene makes sense (and I wouldn't cut any of them out), I would highly recommend a trimming of a few moments off of each of them to give the film a quicker pace. As it is the film's characters keep things interesting, while individual scenes seem to drag on a bit too long. If Bull could be cut down to 80 or 85 minutes with just minor trimming, I think it would be a near-perfect flick.
Although Verdict was only sent a check disc, this DVD release looks pretty strong. The transfer from digital video doesn't suffer from any serious problems, and the audio is consistently good throughout. Extras are also more extensive than many indie flicks get. The supplements start with a commentary by Kent Tessman, who is obviously invested in his film as he relates everything from the genesis of the project to production details. There's also a 12-minute EPK-style featurette that has some input from the cast and crew about the film. We also get a peek at the visual effects reel which boasts an impressive number of shots for an independent movie. The discs ends with the film's trailer.
Bull is an interesting film and shows a lot of promise from director Kent Tessman. With a little bit of black comedy, a little bit of noir, and a dash of thriller it's hard to pin down the audience for the film, and I hope that doesn't keep it from being seen by the loads of people who would probably enjoy it. Fans of indie thrillers, the darkly comic, and Toronto's scenery should track this flick down.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: General Coffee
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery