As a writer for DVDTalk, I've seen a long list of independently funded debut features. Of the ones that were unsuccessful, most were indicative of a would-be auteur who refused to allow any true collaboration or compromise into their movie, with the writing bending over backward to meet the director's visual ideas, hampered by a cast and crew unable to realize an idea without any breathing room. Awake, the debut feature by Aaron Rottinghaus, finds a tricky middle ground between stylish and strained; the question is, does it deserve credit for being better than average, or stronger criticism for coming much closer?
Noah Greene (Josh Danziger, who also helped come up with the story) has been in an accident he can't remember. Noah's home burned down with his father still inside, and Noah himself lost several years to a coma and the lengthy rehabilitation process, which has repaired his body but not his memories. Despite his brother Oliver (Jason Davis) trying to hide it from him, Noah discovers photographs of a girl in his belongings, and tracks her down. Her name is Emily (Oleysa Rulin), and she and Noah were once close friends, but, for reasons beyond their control, bad things happen when they're together, and now that they've been reunited, that danger comes back in full force.
The good first: the cast is excellent. Thanks to a screenplay that actually has some interesting characters to play and dialogue that doesn't sound like eighth-rate Tarantino or melodramatic nonsense, Rottinghaus has attracted a strong cast of character actors, including Bruce McGill, Joey Lauren Adams, and Michael Bowen. Rulin is also a good choice, with her large, expressive eyes that say plenty of things that other movies would've had to put in the dialogue. Despite her complicated emotional state and the fact that the plot frequently hinges on her character, Emily is not a particularly deep character, but Rulin makes her feel like a complete person, shading her in nicely during the casual moments rather than the big ones. Danziger is a bit more blank, driven yet passive, but that aspect of him fits the story in enough ways that it's easy to accept.
Rottinghaus' style falls somewhere in the middle of the road. He and cinematographer J.P. Lipa shoot for a shallow depth of field that feels common for movies shot on the current generation of digital cameras. This soft look wouldn't stand out as much if so much of the movie wasn't captured in cramped close-up, perhaps to diminish the limited scale of the production. One scene in particular, an encounter between Noah and Teddy (Bowen) in a diner, calls out for some wide shots to let us see the rest of the restaurant, but Rottinghaus and Lipa keep the camera locked in on their two characters in a way that feels awkward rather than artistic. Later, a burning room is never clearly seen in a master shot; it could be budgetary constraints, but again the framing stands out as too locked in and limited. However, I have to give the filmmakers credit for actually using manipulation of the color timing for an actual reason: a desaturated look is used for the present day footage, while vivid, full-color cinematography identifies the flashbacks.
The story and the way Rottinghaus decides to tell it where the Apart begins to come to pieces. Like many other amateur filmmakers, he parcels out the movie's unusual, supernatural premise as a series of slow reveals that are more likely to test the audience's patience than engage (although I won't go into too much detail, in order to preserve that experience for any other viewers). Films that don't lay their cards down defeat themselves in failing to allow the characters to attempt to engage and grow from the conflict at hand, and it's hard to say that Noah or Emily really develop during the course of Apart as opposed to arriving at the opportunity to do so by the end of the movie. On a more structural level, Rottinghaus also employs a number of flashback sequences that are not clearly attributed to a particular character, nor play out from a specific point of view. As he has a lead character with memory loss, it's important for the viewer to have an idea of how much the character remembers, and that quickly becomes murky as Awake starts revealing its secrets.
Although it sometimes feels like a short film extended to feature length (the film runs 85 minutes with over 7 minutes of credits), there's ultimately more promise in Apart than disappointment. Despite all of its problems, there's an air of focus and professionalism that is sorely lacking from many low-budget features. It's not a great movie, but it's an interesting debut that hopefully indicates a filmmaker worth watching.
Awake arrives with a text-free cover depicting the two main characters as black paint dripping down a dark orange backdrop. The unique design spills over onto the spine, where the tagline is offered (along with the title), but the rear cover is more standard, with all the usual information. Inside the non-eco Blu-Ray case, there is no insert, and the Blu-Ray is accompanied by a DVD copy, which, curiously, has a completely black disc label with no text, even though the Blu-Ray has the title and a normal assortment of logos.
The Video and Audio
Awake's 2.35:1 1080p AVC presentation offers both impressive highs and some niggling lows. Fine detail is through the roof in this impressively filmic image, which renders even the tiniest hairs and skin textures nicely, complete with a fine coating of natural-looking grain. On the other hand, the shallow depth of field leads to faint artifacting and banding at the point where details start to fade. Contrast also appears somewhat intentionally lowered, which flattens the image a little. Occasionally, soft focus is also employed in wide shots, and colors can be a little wonky even outside of the intentional grading, with whites sometimes blooming outside of shirts and light sources. There may also be a few sources used, because some shots have that "TruMotion" digital look, but the film's appearance is mostly consistent.
The first half of Awake takes place in near silence, with sparse soundtrack and no ambience, which doesn't offer any opportunities for this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track to show off. However, as more and more flashbacks are shown, music does enter the picture, along with crowded coffeehouses and school hallways. Not surprisingly, the most aurally ambitious sequences are the visions, which hum and rumble with an unsettling eeriness, occasionally accentuated by a hollow ringing, which is particularly effective. There is also a crash sequence, rendered in gritty, metal-rending detail. A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also included (is this really a thing distributors are going to start doing?), but no subtitles or captions of any kind are offered.
Six extended and deleted scenes (5:11, 6:01, 3:23, 3:06, 1:01, 7:08, HD) are up first. Most of them are on the long side, redundant, and wisely deleted, but two are interesting: "Concerning Kelly Corrigan," relating to a brief subplot in the film, and the second half of the final scene, "Young Emily / Extended Coffee Shop," both include some comments by Rulin's character that tie nicely into the story and ought to have been retained, even if the scenes were trimmed down.
The primary extra on the disc is an audio commentary, by director / writer Aaron Rottinghaus, producer Ryan Rettig, and actor / co-writer Josh Danziger. This is a laid-back overview of the production that fittingly starts with the clinking of bottles -- the sense of satisfaction (ego-free, mind you) at having completed the movie adds a positive energy to the track that's actually quite endearing. Although the commentary is a little scattershot, with the participants briefly chatting about whatever grabs their attention on-screen, these guys are all in high spirits, and have no trouble keeping the track essentially engaging and interesting from beginning to end.
"The Making of the Car Crash" (4:46, HD) is as advertised, a short fly-on-the-wall look at the shooting of the crash sequence in the film, including dash cam footage from inside the car itself, and simultaneous video of all three angles. Interesting, although the shaky-cam may disagree with those who get motion sick. A very short, dry selection of bloopers (1:52, HD) are next, followed by the last 3 pages of the script (2:17, HD). The extra features conclude with "Blink" (5:11, HD), a short film created to help convey the look and feel of the film to potential investors.
An original trailer for Apart is also included.
Apart is a problematic movie, but some amateur filmmakers could still learn a few lessons from this respectable first feature. Rent it.
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