TLA Releasing // 2003 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // February 11th, 2005
What happens when your future goes down the drain?
Sitting down to review Summer Thunder seems like a daunting task -- not because it's that good or that bad or that controversial, but because there just isn't that much to it. I generally try to discuss the films I'm reviewing with some amount of depth -- those who take the time to read these reviews deserve that much -- but Summer Thunder doesn't have much depth to discuss. It's basically a one-note movie.
The "hero" of Summer Thunder is Billy Lee Tucker (Matthew Sandager, Safe Sex), the has-been star of gay porn films (with titles like My Very, Very First Time), but who is now reduced to doing menial tasks for a sleazy producer -- he's a gay porn gofer. Haunted by memories of a screwed-up childhood, and permanently disfigured by an accident involving his anatomy and a hot tub drain, Billy Lee's ever-increasing anxieties and chemical dependencies drive him further and further away from those around him, including a recovering alcoholic who has come back to town to apologize to Billy Lee for his part in the hot tub incident. When the local pharmacist (Neil Levine, Full Moon Fables) magically appears and offers to help Billy Lee, he's forced with the choice of building himself a new life (in Niagara Falls, no less) or holding on to his dysfunctional existence.
Writer-director Spencer Schilly has attempted to craft a portrait of alienation and regret, but comes up short -- what is meant to be a quirky character study winds up a slow and occasionally shrill piece of fluff that fails to find a consistent tone. Schilly assembles a group of lonely and lost misfits and throws them together without bothering to find their connections. We don't understand why it is that Billy Ray and Lola (or Billy Ray and anyone, for that matter) are friends, just as we don't understand why Lola and Buddy hook up, just as we don't understand Pharmacist John's place in any of it. Too many of the plot elements are obvious constructs -- eccentricity for its own sake. Summer Thunder wants so badly to be twisted or shocking for comic effect, but all I felt was the screenwriter's pen yanking me around. While there are a few moments of genuine sweetness, such as the scene where Billy Lee lies next to his friend as he willingly slips away, they are either too rare or too underdeveloped to affect the rest of the movie -- they're hints of what could have been.
Ultimately, the film doesn't work because at its core I believe it wants us to like its main character, which it never manages to accomplish. Billy Lee is hardly ever anything more than irritating and whiny; Sandager (who seems to be going for the kind of offbeat creepiness that Mike White brought to Chuck & Buck) makes the character as repetitive and grating as the material itself. It's hard to generate sympathy for a guy that you basically can't stand to be around; screwed up or not, Sandager's Billy Lee is pretty tough to stomach. The only actor to show any kind of vitality or charisma is Jessica Burstein, as Billy Lee's closest gal pal Lola. Though her character, like every other character in the film, doesn't make much sense, Burstein is the sole bright spot in a film of perpetual glumness.
TLA Releasing is distributing Summer Thunder as part of their "Guilty Pleasures Collection." I object to that label regardless of whether or not I like the film, maybe because I don't subscribe to the idea of a "guilty pleasure" -- I like what I like, without apology -- but mostly because it automatically distances the studio from the film. There's a dismissive quality to that label: If you don't like the movie, that's okay -- you're not meant to, as TLA knows it's a "guilty pleasure" at best. And though Schilly has included some cultish elements (some of the movie's tone and humor reminded me of this summer's inexplicably popular Napoleon Dynamite), the movie never ventures into camp territory. Though I don't think the movie works, it's too earnest to be written off as a Guilty Pleasure.
Watching another shot-on-video independent film earlier this week, Carter Smith's Love Rome, I was struck by how much it resembled amateur video footage -- it looked and sounded like someone's vacation footage from New York City. Having watched Schilly's movie, however (also shot on video), it's now obvious that Love Rome resembled a home movie not because it was shot on video, but because of its technique -- it has less to do with format than with skill. Summer Thunder is far better assembled, both professionally and artistically, and that assemblage is faithfully represented by TLA Releasing's DVD. The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1; the video image, though decent, lends itself too often to softness, bleeding colors, and streaking of the picture. The 2.0 audio track is also serviceable, delivering the dialogue relatively clearly while managing to balance it with the score.
The only extras included are a couple of pointless deleted scenes, some behind-the-scenes footage, and an outtake reel, which Schilly and leading man Sandager talk over. Sandager, incidentally, shows a great deal more personality here than in his entire performance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Behind-the-Scenes Footage
* Outtakes with Commentary
* Official Site