Millennium Entertainment // 2010 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 7th, 2011
"Don't try to see Anne again."
It's no secret that James Franco has been working harder than almost anyone else in Hollywood in recent years, not only appearing in films at a relentless pace (he starred in five films in 2010) but also dabbling in seemingly every other artistic and intellectual pursuit known to man (from guest-starring on General Hospital to writing a short story collection to creating assorted multimedia projects to painting). Anyway, Franco's reckless pace has been impressive to behold, but it's also generated a decidedly mixed bag of content for public consumption (as anyone who watched his turn as co-host of the Oscars will attest). One of the least-heralded and most unsuccessful items to come out of this recent Francopalooza is Jay Anania's Shadows and Lies.
Franco plays William Vincent, a quiet New Yorker who edits low-budget nature documentaries and dabbles in some petty crime now and then. One day, a local gangster (Josh Lucas, Stealth) observes William stealing someone's wallet and decides to recruit him. William goes along with the idea, and is rewarded for his service with a visit from Anne (Julianne Nicholson, Law and Order: Criminal Intent), the gangster's on-the-payroll call girl. William and Anne develop feelings for each other, but the gangster is having none of that. Anne's visit was only intended to be a one-time treat; not the start of an endless love affair. As you might expect, things get complicated.
In case you haven't already noticed, Shadows and Lies has basically borrowed the plot of John McNaughton's Mad Dog and Glory, a delightful film featuring Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, and Bill Murray in the Franco, Nicholson, and Lucas roles respectively. The primary difference between this film and that one is that Shadows and Lies is complete garbage, whereas Mad Dog and Glory is not.
Okay, so that's a bit of a broad swipe, but Shadows and Lies is the sort of pretentious art house fare that gives pretentious art house fare a bad name. It seeks profundity in its spare design, but only delivers yawns. Everything about the film is stripped down to the bone and economized: the dialogue, the visual design, the story, the characters, etc. There's nothing inherently wrong with that approach (observe the films of Jim Jarmusch to see that sort of thing done very well indeed), but Shadows and Lies simply exposes its own emptiness by whittling away all of the exterior frills. And so, as the score plunks along one solitary piano note as a time and the characters speak in terse, faux Pinter exchanges ("He's nice." "Is he nice?" "Yes. He's nice."), we wait in frustration for something of interest to happen.
To give you an idea of how slowly this film putters along, we're nearly at the halfway mark before the gangster tells William that he's going to send Anne along for a visit. What happens before? We meet William, he steals a guy's wallet, gets a job offer and accepts the job. That's about it. As such, Shadows and Lies feels like a short film stretched out to feature length. Sometimes, Franco will narrate aimlessly for a while. Sometimes, we'll see stretches of the nature films William is working on (which are accompanied by breathy female narration). Sometimes, the nature narrator will start narrating Shadows and Lies instead of the nature films. *Sigh* It feels like the work of an inexperienced first-timer, but Anania wrote and directed numerous feature length films prior to this one (none of which have been seen by me, though this movie certainly doesn't encourage me to learn more about his work).
At least Shadows and Lies looks decent, sporting a sturdy 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which does a nice job of highlighting the film's distinctive digital cinematography. The level of detail is excellent; particularly facial detail (you can see every stray hair and line on each actor's face) and black levels are impressive overall. There is a bit of black crush at times, though. A few moments look curiously soft or blown-out, but most of these seem to be intentional. Audio is satisfactory, though this is a quiet film with a minimum of dialogue, minimal sound design and a very minimal score (basically one instrument at a time playing one note at a time). There are no extras of any sort included on the disc. Too bad, as I was eager to hear somebody (Franco, Anania, whoever) defend this mess with a straight face.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R