Filmmaking Tip #1 from Judge Joel Pearce: don't populate your low-budget fantasy "epic" with zealots from the local RenFest.
Where heroes once stood, long shadows have fallen.
Every now and then, a tiny independent film comes along that's so ambitious and fresh that it challenges our beliefs as to why we bother with the $100 million big studio productions.
Westender is not one of those films.
In fact, I find myself surprised that this film managed to register any more than a blip on the radar, let alone gain the attention of international film festivals. It's not a terrible film by any means, but it cannot be placed in the same category as The Blair Witch Project or El Mariachi. Warner knows that, and has delivered the film in a fairly mediocre package.
Facts of the Case
A man named Asbrey (Blake Stadel) is a drunkard, but was once a noble knight. After he loses his ring during a gambling session, he goes after the slave trader who holds it, discovering along the way that it isn't only the ring that he has lost. He meets up with a man that can help him track the slavers, and the two of them head out in pursuit of the evil men.
If I were to write a script for a fantasy film, I wouldn't have it center around a quest for a ring. All that would do is draw attention to the areas in which my film lacked the good qualities of a certain fantasy trilogy. The creators of Westender did this anyway, which is one of the reasons that so many critics have discussed the film's wild ambition. Unquestionably, it would be ambitious to make an epic fantasy film on a really tiny budget. This is, however, not an epic fantasy film, unless the only requirements for "epic" are pretty scenery and a rich score.
There is certainly no denying that the scenery is beautiful. Filmed in Oregon, the crew managed to shoot in areas of forest, mountain and desert, each one becoming a rich landscape for a fantasy film. It is always a pleasing film to look at, even when it isn't much fun to watch.
There is also a great performance from lead actor Blake Stadel, which is a good thing, considering he spends nearly half the film's running time walking alone through the beautiful scenery. His role is stoic and brooding, and he brings the right balance of physicality and subtlety to the role. I found that his performance helped to draw me into the film despite all of the other problems. Although a story of the redemption of a fallen knight is hardly a new story, he brings enough acting chops to make his role believable. The rest of the cast is not nearly as good. They wouldn't likely be kicked out of the SCA, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the extras were all pulled from local medieval groups. Their dialogue is exaggerated and delivered poorly, with a strange mix of outdated words and slang expressions. The one exception is Asbury's sidekick, who has several funny parts.
The script is also somewhat weak. This is supposed to be a strange fantasy world, and yet we don't seem to get any indication of how that world operates. There is a forest and desert, but beyond a few glimpses, there are no signs of the political system or whether there is magic in this world. There are some title frames at the beginning that spout some nonsense about people no longer being free and equal, but it doesn't have any bearing on the story.
The pacing of the whole film is quite slow, especially for a fantasy adventure. This slow pacing isn't necessarily a problem, as I think they were attempting a sort of mythic tone. However, with the general lack of direction in the script, Westender feels almost like a cross between Lord of the Rings and Waiting for Godot. I doubt that's what the producers were trying for. The few action scenes are fairly well shot, but in the larger battle scenes, I found myself distracted by the very slow motions of the minor character fights.
I feel bad ragging on this film so much. After all, it has a sort of raw appeal, and I found myself drawn into the story about halfway through. Unfortunately, that fascination dwindled and eventually vanished with the somewhat pathetic and anti-climactic end. Often, low budget films work because they play up the fact that they don't have anything to work with. They contain an inventiveness that is often missing in studio productions. Here, though, everything feels old and tired, as though the producers genuinely thought they could compete with studio films at their own game. The result is not terrible, but it simply lacks the polish required for such a by-the-numbers film.
Warner has not helped matters any with this release. The video transfer looks terrible. On the back cover it promises an anamorphic picture, but the disc actually contains a truly ugly letterboxed version of the film. Every shot lacks detail, which is a serious problem in a film whose biggest strength is beautiful scenery. The colors are generally strong, but the reds pop out far too much. It's hard to tell whether there are any digital flaws, because the whole image is too darn blurry. A proper mastering job would have made a big difference in this case.
The sound is somewhat better, but once again the cover is inaccurate. While a Dolby 4.0 surround track is promised, my receiver recognizes it as a stereo track. If it's upmixed to Dolby surround, it doesn't sound right. I'm not sure how they managed to screw up both the picture and the sound, but it makes the back of the packaging quite misleading.
The extras are on the disc as promised, however, including a truly funny featurette on the creation of the film, narrated by someone who seems to believe that Westender is about to change the world of film as we know it. It also verified my suspicion that the cast was made up mostly of volunteers from local Renaissance fairs. There are also a pair of deleted scenes, neither of which add anything to the film.
When the blurbs on the back of a DVD case mention the scenery, score and ambitious nature of the project, I suppose it's stupid to expect the film to be great. Westender isn't a disaster, but it isn't especially exciting or unique, so is recommended for rabid fantasy junkies only. Although Blake Stadel could have a great career ahead of him in film, I fear this may be the first and last time we ever hear about M.O.B. Productions.
Valiant efforts aside, Westender simply lacks the creativity required to make an independent film worth watching.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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