Betrayal on the streets
Low budget film-making is a double edged sword from a critical standpoint. Praise something too loudly, and a critic is liable to come off as the artsy-fartsy type; damn the thing too harshly, and the label is that of elitist clown looking for an easy target. Enter the film in today's docket, Drive By. In what appears to be straight to video, Artisan has come out to play with a fully loaded special edition piled high with extras that probably cost more than the entire budget of the movie itself. Is the movie worth your attention and time, or is it an excessive exercise in no frills filmmaking?
Facts of the Case
It's the 1980s and drug dealing is a way of life in this south Chicago neighborhood. Ruling his turf with an eye to the way things used to be is Kiko (Felipe Camacho), brother to Caesar (Mario Acosta). Caesar is young, impressionable, and very bright. Kiko wants Caesar to stay clean and away from the gangs that rule the area. Still, violence is everywhere and touches everything in one way or another. Kiko not only struggles to keep his brother separate from the way he lives his life, but he must also deal with a turf war erupting around him; a war which has already claimed one of his group and will eventually take more. Circumstances begin to draw Caesar in as an undertow grabs anything floating above on the surface. Will Kiko's will be done, or will Caesar take up arms and join his brother in the fight that is measured not in victories, but in survival?
Drive By is as fine an example of low budget filmmaking as anyone is liable to see. The movie is certainly earnest in what it wants to show. I have no doubt that everything came from deep within its two writers. It is for this very reason that wanted to like and embrace this film. There are a lot of hearts and souls poured into every frame of Drive By and it shows. There is an honesty to the production that is refreshing. Nothing about this movie is slick and like the streets it tells its tale on; its rough, dirty and somewhat unpleasant. It is this gritty, street level feel that I enjoyed most about Drive By. I must say I have total respect for what these people have done. I know getting a movie financed, produced, and released in almost any venue is a difficult thing.
Still, a film needs to be judged on its own merits, and as it stands the screenplay of Juan J. Frausto and Vincente Zuniga C. is hopelessly overwritten, but at the same time underwritten. The film never makes itself clear as what it wants to be. Is it a condemnation of the street violence that plagues our cities? Is it a film about growing up in a disadvantaged part of these American inner cities? Is it about family and the ties that bind? As it is, none of these questions are answered. From a production standpoint, the action oriented sequences don't have enough style in their execution to look realistic, and the acting is not strong enough to carry the emotional weight of the movie's dramatic moments. At short running length of 97 minutes, the film feels too long, with too many characters running around and not enough narrative thrust to push the plot forward.
Money limitations are everywhere. The most glaring was the fact that the film was set in the 1980s. Maybe I'm slow, but that didn't become evident to me until it was revealed in the disc's commentary track. Going back I see some '80s things going on but not enough to drive the point home. Behind the camera, director Frausto seems to have a good feel of where his focus should be, but is undone by his inability to finish his shots off. Perhaps if a more experienced editor had been given a shot, things might have moved with a more natural ease. With Frausto filling those shoes, Drive By has no flow. Given what must have been an incredibly limited budget, director of photography Gennadi Balitski contributed some of the strongest work seen onscreen. If the streets are gritty then so is the cinematography. The films palette consists of washed out colors that mesh perfectly with the many washed out lives in the neighborhood.
Then there is the acting in front of the camera. Again, it's tough to sit here and dog people, many of which have no prior film acting experience. In the role of Kiko, Felipe Camacho does what he can, but like most of his dialogue, his performance is much too earnest for its own good. As his rival within the gang, Alberto Viruena probably comes off best of anyone in the cast. There is intensity to this actor that makes him very watchable and the scenes with him are the film's strongest. Yet, if Drive By has one fatal flaw it's the casting of young Mario Acosta as Caesar. Much is made of the fact that Acosta had never acted before. Frankly, I don't think this is a positive. He may have a glimmer of talent, but hardly enough to carry the weight of this movie on his shoulders. Add into the mix an inexperienced director, and you have a huge vacuum on the screen where there should be life. It certainly does not help matters that the frequent narration by Acosta comes off as wooden and lifeless.
As for the disc, well you never know which Artisan is going to put out a disc. Last year saw a bare bones, full frame release of a great movie, Ginger Snaps, and this year we get a special edition disc of a movie that probably never made it beyond film fests. The movie is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. I have to assume that a movie that was this low budget used grade Z film material, so with the video image I was hardly looking for water to be turned into wine. What we get is what I would imagine the movie looked like when it was put together. Colors seem to be accurate, flesh tones are natural, and black levels seem to hold up with little in the way of pixel breakup. There was considerable grain to be seen along with several instances of both dirt and nicks. Again, I chalk this up to the source material.
The 5.1 surround mix fares better. Everything is basically located in the front three speakers while the surrounds are mostly used for fill. There are a few directional effects and bass seems limited. Still, its a mix that unfolds naturally and sounds good. Distortion is held to a minimum with little in the way of tape hiss or popping to annoy.
Last week I reviewed Dancing At The Blue Iguana, a movie that I was less than thrilled but was enhanced by great supplemental features. I went into this disc's extras hoping for a repeat experience. Once more, I was sorely let down. The commentary track features director/editor/co-writer/co-producer Juan J. Frausto and co-writer/co-producer/actor Vincente Zuniga C, and outside of learning the film was set in the 80s I really didn't come away with anything that enriched my experience with Drive By. In fact, most of the commentary was talking about who this person was and how great they were, while also describing what was going on in each scene. I got through about half of the commentary when I had enough. If I missed some important revelation, would someone please email me before I sell this disc off?
Next up are some deleted scenes and they are all pretty inconsequential. Then we have several screen tests and I have to say, the less said the better. There is an isolated music track, a photo gallery, a music video and some pretty extensive cast and crew biographies. All in all, it is a pretty good package for a movie most people will never see.
It is movies like this that make reviewing film tough. I went into Drive By hoping it would be something special. Instead it was just poorly acted, badly written, and in the end, boring. I respect the effort and hope that all involved grow from this film and move onto bigger and better things. In the case of Drive By, I say let it pass you by. Besides, it will probably pop up on Sundance or the Independent Film Channel one of these days.
In light of the effort that went into making Drive By, this judge is reluctant to pass a verdict involving hard time. All involved are asked by the court to spend further time learning about film craft and what makes a cinema good. Otherwise, I have nothing else. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director/Writer Juan J. Frausto and Co-Producer/Writer Vincente Zuniga C.
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