Artisan // 1999 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 2nd, 2000
Help! I had to watch this movie!
Despite some beautiful scenery and some well-acted performances this movie falls so flat that the Bureau of Weights and Measures could define a smooth plane by showing it. Absolutely horrible direction from an obsessive, neurotic director creates a film that cheats its way into pretending to be a thriller, but left half the plot on the cutting room floor while intentionally deceiving the audience at every turn. Rather than mere subterfuge this film outright lies to stretch the "surprise" ending past the point of credibility. I will admit the movie had moments that had me intrigued, mainly because I was trying to figure out a plot that was intentionally left unfathomable. By the end you realize instead of missing subtle clues you've been hoodwinked out of time in your life better spent bathing your cat. Artisan does us no service by presenting the disc in full frame, with muddy sound, and the most pretentious, anally retentive commentary track on record. As you can tell, I'm not pleased.
I will admit the film strived to be much more than it appeared to be on the surface. The surface premise has been beaten to death. Appearing like a very beaten and dead horse-like substance the movie plays off a couple meeting a stranger in trouble who causes them trouble. In fact, the movie tried to be much more than the premise. Much, much more.
The story has a couple who appear to bicker constantly, David and Alexis Weinberg. David is played by Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Galaxy Quest, Dogma) and is portrayed as a curmudgeonly complainer. Alexis is played by Polly Walker (Roseanna's Grave, Emma, Patriot Games), and is a bitchy woman who just needs the right man to bring out her passion, which she would deny having to anyone who asked. Perhaps the right man could be this beaten and bloody young man they see fainting at the side of the road on a rainy day as they try in vain to catch a ferry to their private island off the coast of Maine. Despite apparent misgivings the couple help the young man get to the little town where the ferry awaits, and leave him to his fates. After an ill-timed boat ride later the couple get grounded on a sandbar near another small island and again find the young man. For his help with getting the boat loose they take him home and put him up for the night. A strange triangle develops as Alexis is attracted to their new friend, and David leaves them alone for following his own whims. Tension and attraction develop until the end throws you a surprise ending you'd be lucky to figure out.
Rickman did bring a degree of professionalism to his part, as did Walker and our Young Man, played by model/actor Norman Reedus (8mm, Mimic). There were moments they were even compelling. I will admit as well the scenery of coastal Maine where the film was shot on location was lovely. I'd like to go there sometime when the director is nowhere nearby. As far as the disc goes, the scenery looks good with the video transfer and the menus were very nice.
You know, that storyline almost sounds good. The parts I left out are where little of it works and the several preposterous leaps the audience was expected to go through. Actually they weren't expected to go through them at all as there are several scenes totally against what you find out is the truth of the story at the end. In fact the movie goes a long way to make you think you're watching a very different movie then just slams you with this ending. For the ending to be fathomable given what you are, you have to believe that the characters involved were clairvoyant and could plan for every future possibility, presumably because they had read the script.
After sucking back some serious cursing and disbelief, I learned a lot more about the movie and it's director/writer Adam Coleman Howard (Dead Girl) from the commentary track. I learned how this man obsessed over every bit of minutia of camera angle and frame and derived deep and important symbolism from each shot. He apparently believed these delusional fits of neurosis would play on the minds of the viewer. Each time he would explain how the shot was supposed to make you feel and what it meant I had to say "Oh, sure, I picked that right up" when in fact no one but him would pick that up from it in a hundred years. The movie was absolutely chock full of symbolism that nobody would ever see. I've seen symbolism and how it works in a good film, but this was ridiculous. I hate to say this Adam, but sometimes a couch is just a couch.
It gets worse. Alternately through the movie all three main characters (who comprise 95% of the film) appear to be the menacing one in the triangle. Every time you think one of them is bad they come out of the blue and say something nice or profound or act generously to the other. This was intentionally to keep you guessing, which by itself isn't a bad thing. Unfortunately so much of the "true" story is left completely out of the picture. Not only aren't there enough clues to allow you to have any chance to guess what is really happening, but several scenes are meant to make you believe exactly the opposite is happening. When the true story comes out it is so convoluted nobody could have thought this up.
Pacing on the film was horrible. Coleman intentionally used jump-time techniques to keep the audience on edge. I mean with a cut time shifts. The results are that instead of building on the story, more just keeps getting added to it, without any degree of continuity. But none of that matters, because at the end you find out none of that story was what you thought it was, even with careful perusal of the film.
Lets get back to the characters for a moment. Though performances were pretty strong, given the horrible direction they were given, the premise itself lacked credibility. This cold, bitchy woman falls for a guy barely legal who looks like 3 guys with baseball bats have laid into him. He constantly shows great talent in diverse areas such as cooking, mechanics, and is a poet but we are, and Alexis is expected to believe the man doesn't know how to write. There are several such glaring inconsistencies in the picture that no sane human would take for granted. Of course none of them are true, the movie just wants you to believe they are by presenting them as facts.
Let me save the rest of my ire for the disc. According to the case this disc was "formatted to fit your screen." In other words it was cropped. I have to wonder though if the movie wasn't just filmed in full frame because with each oh-so-carefully explained camera shot the framing seems as he says. If this were really a pan-and-scan then you'd think such careful explanation of how the shots were lined up would be ridiculous since pan-and-scan ruins a director's vision of how the camera is supposed to line up. Detail on the video isn't bad, though some motion artifacts do crop up. On principle though I have to say pan-and-scan only discs aren't a good thing, and is just meat to be chewed up by any DVD reviewer.
The picture, cropped or not, was truly beautiful compared to the sound. When this film was presented at the Seattle and Maine film festivals, respectively, both audiences complained of murky sound. Although Artisan did their best with a DD 5.1 soundtrack to make this palatable the sound remains muffled and indistinct often. Dialogue is hard to understand and there are no subtitles to help. I had thought that I just didn't get some of the plot when things turned out so ludicrously, but in fact I hadn't. Still having to listen to a line several times to understand it is unacceptable.
The extras, at least as a list are respectable enough. A director's commentary with Cast and Crew info and a trailer aren't bad at all. I'll say nothing was truly wrong with the trailer or the cast and crew bios and filmographies. The commentary track was painful to listen to. At least every word was audible and distinct, unlike the film's soundtrack. I was forced to gasp in dismay and incredulity at nearly every sentence Coleman said though about how he thought the picture was shot. It didn't help matters that throughout he was disparaging of American filmmaking and preferred a foreign film method in everything he did. Pardon me for being a bit patriotic here but there is a reason American film is what makes the most money all over the globe. Certainly we have our share of trashy films but American film at its best is the best anywhere. At any rate, by the end of the commentary I absolutely hated the man.
I suppose somewhere is a foreign film buff who likes artsy films that don't have to mean what they say they mean. If you consider yourself such a person, then maybe rent it. If widescreen aspect ratio and clear sound mean something to you though, don't bother. This is a film I absolutely can't recommend and a disc that needed serious work, though I'll give Artisan credit in that the source elements were probably what made the soundtrack so bad.
Dark Harbor ruined a perfectly good evening for me. Don't let it happen to you. The director owes me 3 hours pay and a bathing for my cat (I don't have a cat but I'll get one for him to bathe). Artisan is excused for the soundtrack and commended for some really nice menus, but full frame transfers are not what we are looking for.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Cast and Crew Info