"This So-Called Disaster" has all the elements for an interesting documentary, but the presentation is a bit off, and the spark that the film was seeking to show seems to be stuck backstage. The film is directed by Michael Almereyda, who was behind the helm of the moderately enjoyable modern adaptation of "Hamlet" before this - in fact, this documentary is his first non-fiction effort.
The documentary takes a behind-the-stage look at the making of Sam Shepard's play, "The Late Henry Moss". The filmmaker has joined with the cast and crew in the midst of the rehearsal process, and we get to see the actors work through their roles and mingle with everyone else. There's quite a cast here, too: James Gammon, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Cheech Marin and others.
At its core, this is a fairly interesting look at a legion of extremely talented people trying to work on a project they all feel strongly about. Almereyda's prior films, however, have been stylish efforts - films that, through solid visual style and production design, have looked more expensive than their budgets would suggest. For "This So-Called Disaster", he's picked up what appears to be a fairly average digital video camera, with limited results - there's not much camera movement and there's a few moments where the camera shakes that are rather irritating. The editing is also pretty primitive, making the doc feel rather scattered. If Almereyda was looking for confilct, he doesn't really find it here, as everything seems to go largely according to plan, making the whole film seem rather uneventful. The only snippiness is good-natured: "You might get away with that s--- in 'White Men Can't Jump'", Penn tells Harrelson. The actor laughs and responds with, "You had an underrated performance in 'Shanghai Surprise'".
Still, the core of the film is moderately compelling, especially for theater-goers - it's interesting to watch a series of gifted actors try and bring a pretty intense dramatic play to the stage, even if there isn't any conflict and the only real drama is in the material. We get some insights here and there and see the process. A bit more organization and better cinematography may have helped this look at Shepard's play be even more enjoyable to watch.
VIDEO: "This So-Called Disaster" is presented by MGM in 1.33:1 full-frame, which may have been the film's original aspect ratio. The picture quality isn't great, but it's probably due to the digital video filming. Sharpness and detail are inconsistent - some scenes appear fairly crisp, while others look rather soft. Still, despite the low-light available in a fair amount of the scenes and the seemingly low-tech digital video, the picture maintains a decent level of definition.
There are some minor-to-mild issues present at times throughout: the darker scenes look a bit grainy and there are moments where minor pixelation is visible. Edge enhancement isn't present, though. Colors remained fairly natural throughout, although they did encounter a few moments where they appeared slightly muddy. Flesh tones could look a bit off in a couple of scenes, too.
SOUND: The mono soundtrack is just acceptable: it presents the dialogue between the actors with decent clarity.
EXTRAS: Promos for a bunch of other MGM releases.
Final Thoughts: "This So-Called Disaster" has subject matter that's basically compelling, but I couldn't help but feel that if some of the filmmaking choices had been re-thought, this would have been a more interesting, well-paced documentary. The DVD offers audio/video quality that isn't great, but considering the low-budget, probably shows how it looks fairly accurately. Those who are interested in the subject matter should try the movie as a rental.