It occurs to Judge Jim Thomas that a trapped wolf watching this movie would have even more motivation to gnaw its leg off.
Amazing the things strangers will say over a cuppa joe…
There's a certain type of plot that I've always thought of as a "locked room drama." You put a bunch of characters in a room, get them talking—invariably, tensions mount, facets of character are revealed, and sooner or later, the shit hits the fan. The classic example, of course, is 12 Angry Men, but there are other examples, particularly on TV. David E. Kelley has used the form to stunning effect, most notably in Picket Fences and Chicago Hope. For this form to be effective, you must have strong characterization and even stronger writing; otherwise, the story becomes unbearably preachy and manipulative.
The Audience Strikes Back features weak characterization and even weaker writing. You do the math.
Facts of the Case
Following the opening of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, eight Seattle moviegoers are selected to participate in a roundtable discussion of the film. They are brought to a warehouse that has been decked out as a conference room, complete with a mysterious guide/facilitator/coffee maker known only as "Barista" (Brittany Quist). The group is fairly diverse: Lloyd (Dan Heinrich) and Caroline (Danielle Reierson), a happily married couple; Jake (Sam Suver), a young man with a disabled father; Herb (Andy McCone), a conservative Christian; Celine (Carol De Salles), a young French woman preparing to return to France; André and Don (Mark Boeker), a mixed-race gay couple; and Bill (Michael Smith), a laid-back guy who is never far from his guitar.
The group starts discussing the merits of the Star Wars prequels in general and Revenge of the Sith in particular; however, over time, the topics drift into other areas: Gay marriage and adoption, Christian fundamentalism, abortion, the war in Iraq, and several other hot-button topics. Tensions begin to mount, until Jake, goaded by Herb's unrelenting verbal attack, physically attacks Herb.
The words "manipulative," "contrived," and "rum" kept popping into my head while watching this movie—that last as an increasingly attractive means of escape. A locked-room drama should act as a crucible, bringing unknown facets of the characters to light. That's not really possible here, as there aren't any characters, but instead cardboard cutouts, stereotypes put through their paces to advance a particular ideology and/or plot point. The first misstep occurs early, as Barista provides a needlessly secretive introduction of herself and the unseen director, noting that the director might be among the group. When the goal is to generate open discussion amongst a group of people who've never met, what possible good can come from making them self-conscious about their surroundings and the other participants? Further attempts at characterization prove equally counterproductive—Beacham tries to give Lloyd and Caroline witty banter a lá Nick and Nora; the end result careens wildly between Ross and Rachel and George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Celine is defined by exactly two things: her French accent and her hatred of Microsoft. Her monologue explains how Microsoft took her boyfriend away from her. It seems somewhat out of place, until you learn that Beacham used to work for Microsoft; perhaps Celine's rant was cheaper than therapy. By far, though, the biggest problem is Herb. Herb is not a right-wing born-again evangelical Christian; he is the distillation of every liberal misconception about right-wing born-again evangelical Christians. When someone asks him a question, you already know what the answer is going to be, allowing for little drama. He talks at length about the Force being an allegory for being born again, but oddly enough, he doesn't bother to address the biggest Christian allusion in the prequels, namely Anakin's mother's contention that Anakin was a virgin birth—Qui-Gon Jinn theorizes that she was knocked up by the Force. Even if you can accept that Herb might level such a protracted verbal assault on Jake, it is inconceivable that no one else would intervene—especially since by this time, Herb has taken at least one shot at everyone else in the room. When Jake finally lunges at Herb, the reaction isn't "OMIGOD!" but rather "About damn time…kick him in the balls once for me, OK?"
Beacham clearly loves movies in general; the film is broken down into a number of sections, each with a title from another classic movie. It's a nice little touch that helps set the tone for the section. In some cases, though, Beacham gets too clever for his own good. Immediately after Jake's attack on Herb, André, the gay Afro-American, offers his monologue, attempting to calm emotions after the violence. Beacham titles this sequence "The African Queen." Get it!?! Ha ha (courtesy laugh). Note again—another monologue. The characters have far too many monologues, and too little in-depth discussion. Even the discussion of the prequels is superficial: "Jar Jar sucks," "Anakin and Padme are no Han and Leia." No need to state the painfully obvious; the merely obvious will suffice.
Another characteristic of the locked-room drama is the unexpected revelation; you get a few of those, but as you never get the sense that you're watching real characters, you just don't care. Herb magically intuits that Caroline had an abortion and didn't tell Lloyd, who then protests that they have been trying for years to start a family? Please. Given the time Lloyd spent earlier yammering about their relationship, if having a family were that important to him, he would have mentioned it then.
Video is pretty good. The film was shot on digital video, and the basic set made for optimum conditions. The basic 2.0 mix is clear for the most part, but there are a few instances in which the dialogue isn't quite intelligible. For some reason the commentary has a completely different mix, sounding as though it were recorded in the midst of a vast, empty warehouse. I had to turn audio processing of completely to make the track sound normal. The commentary, featuring Beacham and DP Paul W. Gentry, isn't all that informative. While they talk about the ideas they were trying to get across, those ideas are presented so ham-handedly in the film itself that anyone who couldn't catch it then will find little help in a commentary. The blooper reel is pretty good, and the soundtrack on CD is a nice bonus.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The direction has a certain style to it; at the very least, it avoids a lot of repetitive camera angles without resorting to angles that draw your attention away from the proceedings. The background music, by José J. Herring, is an eclectic collection of cues, all of which accentuate the tone of the various scenes. The soundtrack is included on a separate CD as well.
Patrick Beacham wanted to address two great disappointments: The Star Wars prequels, and the Bush administration. When you think about it, simply equating the two suggests a somewhat challenged set of perspectives. But setting that aside, instead of drama, we get rantings without resolutions; we're told everything that's wrong with the world and Revenge of the Sith, but offered nothing in the way of a solution. The Barista even asks everyone directly what they would do differently, but no one steps up to the plate. If I want to hear all the problems but no solutions, I'll just turn on presidential campaign coverage.
"We find the defendants incredibly guilty."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Ryko Disc
• Intro by Writer/Director Patrick Beacham
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