Wednesday, July 18, 2012

J BUCKNER SHOWS GREAT POTENTIAL WITH DEBUT SHORT: I AM ALIVE

This past weekend, I was one of the privileged individuals able to witness the world premiere of J Buckner's short film I AM ALIVE based on the short story "I, Zombie" by AE Stueve.  Over the last month or so, there has been a decent amount of promotion for this film and I was nervous that watching the film would drive me to eat my words.  I'm glad to say that this isn't the case at all, whatsoever.  While I AM ALIVE is in no way a perfect short, the promise that J Buckner and his crew showcases with their debut (legitimate) film is something that cannot be ignored. 

Now, I use the term "legitimate" lightly because I am a firm believer that there is a sense of legitimacy in everything that is created.  However, the filmmaking experiences that J Buckner have on his resume before I AM ALIVE tiptoe between the lines of "hilariously slapstick" and "a bunch of weird kids with a flip cam".  The desire to create a film stemmed from a series of webshorts and fake trailers created by J Buckner, his wife, his friends, and his band Galactic Moustache.  The filmmaking bug had bitten and Buck was hooked.  I AM ALIVE is the first genuine project from this group of people under the name Studio On Mars.

The story of the short film surrounds a Post-Zombie Apocalypse society where the nation has begun to rebuild and restore a sense of normalcy.  Somehow a calming cure has been discovered and zombies are able to regain many of their human like attributes.  Deemed a burden by society, the re-living undead must find a way to gain solace knowing the rest of society views them on the same level as a pitbull or a homosexual in North Carolina.  It reminding me a bit of S.G. Browne’s BREATHERS, but that wasn’t a bad thing in the slightest.  As far as the screeplay is concerned, I found the dialogue and pacing to be very well contrived.  After reading the short story, it is clear that J Buckner has a grasp for finding humor in situations that may not be up front with comedy.  He makes very interesting choices integrating outside characters as well as which parts of character development from the short story to include.  The dialogue was very realistic, true to the heart of the source material, and flowed nicely.  There were no lines or moments that felt "off" or dull.

Throughout the film, there are little bits of "confessional" shots very reminiscent of The Office.  I rather enjoyed the decision to have the characters break the fourth wall, however, it would have been more beneficial if each character remained in the same position during their confessionals.  There were two characters who were shot from different angles each time they had a confessional and it distracted from the effect.  The same would be said about the camera distance from each character.  The same two were shot far closer than the rest of the group and it always forced my eyes to adjust, taking me out of the moment or the expected pattern my brain was craving.  There are also interview shots taken from "people on the street" and there is an over-abundance of background noise in these shots.  As much as I'd like to criticize the filmmakers for this, it would be incredibly cruel to do so.  It's a debut film, and they're not shooting with James Cameron's equipment.  It's low-budget, I'll cut them some slack.

The casting pool was clearly limited, but 90% of the characters were well cast.  My only gripe is that the woman chosen to play a doctor would never in ten thousand years be viewed believably as a doctor.  The shame is that the actress playing the doctor is incredibly fun to watch, but would have been better suited in a different role.  It wasn't a matter of bad acting, it was just a poor casting decision.  Otherwise, all of the actors brought a different flavor to each of their characters, and they were all very unique, yet unified.  It was a joy to watch these different personalities mesh cohesively during their sessions and remain particular when viewed alone.  What impressed me most was Jen Poland's portrayal of the character "Rachel" a valley girl.  While Jen didn't exactly look the part of a valley girl, her character voice was absolutely PERFECT. It's all too often that an actress gets carried away with a valley girl voice, but Rachel really grasped the perfect balance.  J Buckner also starred in the short and was the most natural on screen.  If he chooses against filmmaking, he's quite a solid actor.

One of my major qualms with the short has absolutely nothing to do with the short itself, but rather the environment in which it was presented to me.  The short film premiered after a series of the webisodes and fake trailers that brought the Studio On Mars to what it has become today.  While I completely understand wanting to show off the roots before getting to the tree, the earlier work is in a completely different world than I AM ALIVE.   I am alive is a much more traditional comedy while the earlier works are of an entirely different flavor.  Imagine sitting through a Troma movie marathon and then jumping into Shaun of the Dead.  While both are considered comedies, they speak an entirely different language.  The second time I viewed I AM ALIVE, I had already seen the earlier trailers and I enjoyed myself far more than I did with the first viewing.  I didn't have to suffer through a transition period of switching gears of different genres of films.

As expected, the makeup design from Zach Shildwachter was fantastic.  It was unified yet diverse and believably showed a progression of the different stages of infection.  One of the characters was to look "cured" and yet still very undead and the results looked like a more naturalized Pavi from Repo! The Genetic Opera.  I also found the costume design to be well thought (whether it was intentional or not is beside the point).  All of the zombies wore shades of brown, black, and gray giving them a sense of stability in contrast to the "normal people" who were shown wearing patterns, bright colors, or graphic t-shirts.  The lighting was also well done for all of the interior shots, but a bit harsh in some of the outdoor shots.  It almost felt as if the film was living in two different worlds, which for this story, actually sort of works.

Ultimately, I would really like to see what J Buckner and the kids from Studio on Mars could do with a bigger budget, a larger casting pool, and better equipment.  The creativity and passion is evident within the final product (can I also go on about how strong of an editor Buckner is?) and I am excited to see what else is to come of them.

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