The DVD Vanilla / A Little Comfort actually consists of a double-feature of two short films, Vanilla (47 min.) and A Little Comfort (39 min.). These two films from 2004 are extremely different and really have no thematic reason to be included together as one DVD release. Since the two films vary tremendously in quality and features, we will review each film separately, although our ratings by necessity weigh in both films together.
The Movie :
Vanilla is an American-made film that tries to evoke a surreal, mysterious style. It is the story of Jeff, a young 17-year-old aspiring photographer who finds the body of the Bay City Strangler, a gay serial killer. Jeff feels compelled to create an art project about the Strangler and his victims, and begins to have dreams where he converses with the ghosts of the victims or gets to view the murders first-hand. As Jeff experiments with his own sexuality by diving into the world of seedy gay cruise bars, he feels strange desires to be asphyxiated himself. Is the spirit of the Strangler visiting him or is he losing his sanity? And what will be the final result of Jeff's obsession?
This is a very strange, bizarre film that tries too hard to be artsy and experimental. The imagery and editing style attempts to create an intense, suspenseful fantasy feel but ends up just feeling choppy and disjointed. The special effects are quite obviously super low-budget, but fortunately, there are not many special effects utilized in the film. The most serious offense though, is the amateurish acting that is worse than what is found in most high school productions and is ultimately the biggest flaw in the film.
The film starts out with a fast-paced 9-minute series of scenes presented in black and white before changing to color for the rest of the feature. To maintain a surreal and intense feel, there is frequently a darker, gritty quality to the imagery. Still, the lighting is adequate throughout the film, and the video quality is unexceptional and about what would be expected for a low-budget indie feature. The aspect ratio is 1.85 widescreen.
This feature has the choice of a Dolby Digital 5.1 or a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track, with optional English subtitles. Some of the film is set in a dance bar, and the music is techno/electronica club style that sounds great coming out of a home theater system. The music is often mixed very prominently in the foreground; this is particularly effective in several extended sequences where there is no spoken audio, and only the music accompanying the action on screen. Unfortunately, in several scenes where there is both spoken audio and music, the music overwhelms the spoken audio, so much so that it was necessary to turn on the subtitles just to be able to understand what the characters were saying. Overall, the spoken audio seems a bit too withdrawn in the mix throughout much of the film. This problem is the same whether the 5.1 or 2.0 track is selected.
Besides the usual chapter selections and trailers for other releases from this studio, the DVD includes three bonus features for Vanilla. There are several deleted scenes that don't add much to the storyline. There is a "Making of Vanilla" featurette, which consists of footage of the filming, without any commentary from the actors or filmmakers- thus doing little to increase the viewer's understanding about this unusual film. Finally, the filmmakers include Unfinished, the incomplete short film they shot in 1994 that inspired Vanilla. Unfinished is presented in the original unedited sequence in which the scenes were shot, so there is no real continuity or storyline. The black and white Super-8 video quality is practically unwatchable- like something shot on an old camera phone or cheap webcam. This makes Unfinished at most an interesting companion piece but not in any way a rational or comprehensible film on its own.
If Vanilla had been a first attempt at putting together a film school project, we could almost say the director "shows promise." As an actual independent feature release though, the standard for judgment is more critical. The film has an interesting premise that is executed very poorly in both story-telling and editing and thus fails to realize its potential. It is also truly unforgivable just how consistently bad the acting is throughout the film. This combined with the sub-par special effects and audio mix makes it a struggle to make it through even the relatively short 47-minute length of the feature.
A LITTLE COMFORT
The Movie :
A Little Comfort is a bright, pleasant French coming-of-age tale about a young man who falls for his "straight" male friend. A rough time brings the friend closer and the two fulfill their mutual desire. This is a feel-good story of young crushes and teen love that is enjoyable if a bit throwaway. The film's pacing is engaging and keeps the viewer interested. The actors are all cute and make for nice eye candy, particular in their many shirtless and nude scenes where the camera lingers while panning over their hot bodies. The acting itself is believable and you particularly feel the genuine longing of the young man for his friend.
This film is presented in 1.85 widescreen. The video quality is quite nice, with bright colors and clear shadows. Nighttime scenes are lit brightly enough. Details are relatively crisp, although obviously not like a Hollywood blockbuster.
The only audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles. The spoken language is French. Audio is clear and well-mixed. Background music is enveloping and at appropriate volumes. Spoken voices are clear and understandable.
Other than chapter selection, there are no extras included with this feature.
A Little Comfort is a fun film with a theme that should be familiar to any gay man. The story is well-told, and the characters are likeable and interesting. The young actors do a great job and seem comfortable in their roles. This short 39-minute film had the potential to be expanded into a full-length feature that would have provided the opportunity to develop the engaging plot further.
Because the style, quality, and included extras of the two films are so different, it is difficult to rate them together as one DVD. Ratings are thus a compromise of the DVD taken as a whole. In the end, Vanilla would have been a Skip It title on its own, while A Little Comfort would have been Recommended so ultimately the DVD warrants a Rent It rating.