4 Kids. 3 Bodies. 2 Fights. 1 Night. No $#!*.
If there is any justice in the universe, there is a special spot in cinema hell set aside for Quentin Tarantino. Not for the movies he has made, of course, but rather for the hordes of imitators he has unleashed. Of course, it is hardly his fault that the wannabes have missed the point of his films entirely. Tarantino makes films with stark, exaggerated violence and black humor, but he manages to include complex, interesting plots and intriguing characters. Most of those who try to ape him forget about the last two, going mostly for the violence.
Case in point: Gravesend, Salvatore Stabile's directorial debut.
Facts of the Case
Our writer/director narrates as the film opens. This is a story of four supposed friends of his, all of them from Gravesend, Brooklyn. The narrator tells of how he was arrested on a Monday morning and taken to the 62nd Precinct for questioning about his friends' activities over the weekend. Fortunately, he had been out with his girlfriend on Saturday night, or he might have gotten mixed up in their troubles.
The four friends, Mikey, Chicken, Ray, and the volatile Zane are hanging out in Ray's basement on Saturday night. Zane has a gun and a temper; he also apparently knows just as little about how a gun operates as does our esteemed writer/director. For little apparent reason he shoots Ray's older brother Mark, killing him on the spot. The boys decide they don't want to involve the cops in the shooting, preferring to find surreptitious means to dispose of the body. (In case you're wondering, Ray isn't terribly broken up about all this, since he and his brother had a violently dysfunctional relationship. Never mind that Mark gave him a place to live and took care of him.)
Thus begins an epic journey through the streets of Brooklyn (with the body in the trunk) as the four youths try to get Mark buried without tipping off the authorities. They find Jojo the Junkie, who can dispose of the body but needs $500 and a thumb to do so. The rest of the movie is a collection of fights, convenience store holdups, narrow escapes from the law, and a couple more murders for good measure.
Gravesend is the brainchild of writer/director/producer/editor Salvatore Stabile. Stabile made this film, his first effort, somewhere between the ages of 19 and 22 (accounts vary) for a total budget of somewhere between $5,000 and $65,000, depending on whose figures one believes. It is undoubtedly an impressive accomplishment, especially at such a young age; it's a shame that the final product isn't any better than it is.
There is something potentially mythic about the plot, as the four punks travel the city, seeking aid from a variety of friends in different guises and trying to scrape together all the elements (all $500 of them) to free them from the penalty for their misdeeds. It is a task both ghastly and ludicrous that they must accomplish, but it seems within their grasp. However, as in a Greek tragedy, their faults are bound to resurface time after time and bring about their ultimate doom.
This sounds good, but the problem is that the main fault for which they are doomed is an overwhelming stupidity coupled with a predilection for violence. Their actions land them in one situation after another that manages to be contrived and clichéd at the same time.
Stabile also fails utterly to create any sympathy for his two-dimensional characters. As the film unspools, there is a sense that these guys are together because no one else will associate with them; they deserve each other. Their pointless arguments grow tedious after the first 20 minutes or so of the film, and by the end I was ready to pay Jojo the $500 myself if these guys would just shut up and leave me alone. When they aren't yammering about inane, irrelevant crap they are finding excuses to either beat people up or get beat up, as the script requires. Almost none of these fights are necessary to the plot; instead, they are pointless digressions, guaranteed to frustrate any viewer actually taking an interest in the story. The actors do a decent job, but they are stuck with Stabile's script that gives them little to say besides four-letter expletives of every kind and description.
Stabile's shooting and editing seems clever at first, but becomes less so as time goes on. He favors the edgy, hand-held approach used so successfully in Homicide: Life on the Streets, but its novelty wears off in a hurry. It is as if he wanted the mobile, shaky-cam look but lacked the conviction to move the camera enough to be something other than a nuisance. His editing is edgy, often favoring jump cuts and non-chronological constructions of scenes, for example intercutting glimpses of a fight with the conversation that preceded it. This is an interesting trick the first time he does it, but by the end of the film I had gotten more than my fill.
It is odd that the DVD of Gravesend has no special features. Filmmakers like Stabile usually jump at the chance to blab at length about their films, and generally give some of the more entertaining and informative commentary tracks available. (They also give some of the most self-congratulatory commentaries available, but you take the bad with the good.)
Video quality on this disc from Lions Gate is pretty awful. Stabile shot on 16mm, 8mm, and Hi-8 for budgetary reasons, and so one expects a grainy, documentary look. However, the video transfer is even worse than that, and one of the worst I've seen in the past two years. There is grain and noise everywhere, and scenes are full of the sort of motion artifacting where moving objects leave blurs and smears behind them on the screen like slugs crossing a sidewalk. Colors are as good as the source media will allow, but shadow detail is nonexistent and fine textures look more like oil paintings than photography.
Audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo, and sounds like it was recorded in a public urinal.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know, I know. I'm supposed to lavish all sorts of praise on a guy like Stabile who takes a chance and makes his first movie at such a young age. Don't get me wrong; I certainly admire his fortitude and perseverance in getting this movie made at all. I respect and envy him for what he has been able to accomplish at such a young age, and I salute him for creating his own opportunity and bringing his vision to the screen. We should all do so well.
On the other hand, it is more than a little maddening to see someone get this kind of opportunity, a shot that most of us don't get, and use it to turn out an empty shell of a movie like Gravesend.
Stabile includes in the ending credits two notes of thanks. The first is predictable, and thanks all those who believed in him, supported him, helped him, and so forth. The second thankyou is a snide word of appreciation to all those who scoffed, all those who laughed behind his back, and all those who basically thought his project was impossible; he says their lack of faith motivated him and made him "want it" all the more. I hope I can be a tiny part of the chorus that makes him actually "want it" enough to make a decent movie next time. He's got some good ideas and is willing to take some chances, but he needs to learn that there is no substitute for three-dimensional characters and a decent plot. Even Quentin Tarantino recognizes this.
I'm inclined to give the rookie a break, but…naaah. Guilty! Stabile shows promise, but doesn't deliver with his freshman effort. Lions Gate is guilty as well for putting out an even crappier DVD than I expected for this low-budget flick.
We stand adjourned.
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