If you've ever seen one of director Kevin Smith's DVD editions, you're probably familiar with Vincent Pereira - he's the guy that's always pointing out the technical details while the rest of the cast and crew are making jokes about how much Smith lacks a visual style or ripping into each other's performances. Although many have complained that he's a dry presence on these tracks, he does have a wealth of knowledge about film and often points out some very interesting details about Smith's work. During the commentary tracks for Smith's films there have been several mentions of Pereira's "A Better Place", a film that a few people have seen on festival screenings and in Smith's own film fest.
"A Better Place" is finally available on DVD and honestly, it's one of the better - if not the best - debut pictures that I've seen in quite some time. The micro-budgeted film starts off as rather calm, cool and collected, but quickly turns into something different, dramatic and terrifying. The film revolves around Barret Michaelson (Robert DiPatri), who finds himself forced to move to a new area and start up again at a new school. As with most new kids at school, he's already nervous about not knowing anyone, but his situation isn't helped any by the fact that he's attacked, made fun of and more on his first day.
He's befriended by Ryan Walker (Eion Bailey), a loner who seems to be the only one that listens to him and defends him. The two are opposites in terms of personality, but find their friendship growing stronger. Barrett even makes a friend in Augustine (Carmen Lee, wife of Jason Lee, who also appears). Although Ryan had originally seemed like a bit of a loner, Barrett finds out quickly that he also has a violent temper and a good deal of rage simmering under his calm demeanor. After Ryan shares his dark view of the world and Barret finds out some secrets from his new friend's past, he starts to move on and find new friends. Unfortunately, this sends Ryan spinning out of control, taking Barret down with him. The film turns deeply chilling, violent and shocking.
Pereira reportedly only had about 40,000 dollars in terms of budget, but the film looks bigger and works better than what you would expect from the kind of resources that the film had to work with. Most films have to go through quite a casting process to find actors who are capable and suited for the roles. I'm not sure how Pereira went about casting, but he's done quite an amazing job here. Aside from usually solid regulars Lee & Lee, the two main actors are quite impressive for first time performers. Although there are a couple of slight problems with the cinematography once or twice, they certainly won't distract from the film's fine use of attractive locations and a solid job of capturing the scenes.
I also found Pereira's film to be remarkably engaging and compelling. Even in the early scenes, there's a stunning level of tension and a solid, dramatic undercurrent. I found myself involved in these characters, which were quite well-written and fully realized. Teen violence is a horrible thing that tragically happens too often these days, but "A Better Place" really shows people that high school is a really difficult, tough universe of it's own and that there are children out there who desperately need help and understanding before it's too late. "A Better Place" isn't flawless, but it's one of the few films in recent memory that I've found really powerful and haunting. Watching it makes me wish even more that Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 French black and white picture "La Haine" would be released to DVD.
VIDEO: "A Better Place" is presented in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen - this is a digital Spirit Datacine transfer. I expected a rather worn-looking presentation with some minor flaws here and there, but the presentation was actually crisper and cleaner than that - especially surpising, given the film is shot in 16mm. Sharpness and detail are actually solid, and the picture stays crisp and well-defined, even in darker scenes.
Print flaws are visible now and then, but the film looked noticably cleaner than I had expected it to going in. Some speckles, marks and the occasional scratch show up as well as some additional wear during some scenes that have been added back into the picture, as well. These little problems are certainly not distracting though and I think Smith's "Chasing Amy" actually shows more wear at times than this picture does. I didn't see any instances of edge enhancement or pixelation during the film.
The film's color scheme varies a bit during the film. The school sequences are dark and drab, which fit perfectly for the dark tone of the scenes. When the film moves outside, the colors are brighter and richer. There's several outdoor scenes with trees in the background that look terrific, with deep, rich greens. For a low-budget picture, this presentation looks splendid.
SOUND: "A Better Place" is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. Pereira was lucky enough to have the film's audio be given a remix at Skywalker Sound, where many of the most impressive films sound-wise have been mixed. The audio is actually quite good, and Pereira understands where the 5.1 format is best taken advantage of. There's a scene in particular early on when two kids are having a fight in school and the kids around them are cheering the participants on, which can be heard in the surrounds. A nice example of surround use heightening the tension.
Music and ambient sounds are also distributed to the surrounds. Ambient sounds (winds, birds, etc outdoors and talking and people shuffling around indoors) are convincing and realistic and sounds in general are clear and crisp. The music sounds full and rich and fidelity overall is quite good. Although vocals sound a tiny bit strained now and then, this is a terrific presentation for a 40,000 dollar picture.
MENUS:: Basic, non-animated menus with film-themed backgrounds.
Introduction: Viewers have the option of starting the film with three different introductions from producers Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. As Smith usually does, he turns the introduction for a dark movie into something incredibly funny for each of the three possible intros. Self-depricating and hilarious, Smith and Mosier discuss the history of the production as well as provide other choices for the title ("A Butter Place" is what the two jokingly thought they were making.)
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Vincent Pereira and members of the cast and crew. There's always been moments during all of the Smith commentaries where Pereira attempts to discuss the technical details, but gets overshadowed. There's one point that I always remember during the "Chasing Amy" commentary in particular where he talks about the transfer, then gets interrupted. Finally, he gets a commentary of his own and it's a superb one. Pereira has a ton of information to share with the audience and there's one or two moments where I was suprised he didn't have to take a breath. He discusses technical details about the production as well as his inspirations for the movie and locations where the movie filmed. The other participants also come in to discuss some of the points that Pereira makes as well as talk about the roles that they played. Pereira is a little too hard on himself during a few moments, but overall, this is a great commentary.
Color Bars: Color bars are provided to optimize the picture quality, but if you watch the color bars long enough, outtakes from the picture play.
Deleted Scenes: Eight deleted scenes are presented with optional commentary from director Pereira. The scenes are interesting to view, but the director makes interesting and understandable points about why they were deleted.
5.1/Mono Comparison: Three scenes are presented here with the original mono audio and the 5.1 presentation that Skywalker Sound was responsible for. The differences are quite remarkable as the picture's sound make-over really did wonders.
Final Thoughts: Pereira has always remained the knowledgable presence on the commentary tracks for Smith's pictures and, with "A Better Place", he has provided the evidence that he is more than capable of pulling off a stellar film of his own. After watching this film, I'm interested and excited to see what Pereira has in-store next, since he's obviously an extremely talented filmmaker.
Pereira is also a truly superb DVD producer. It's been obvious in the past that this is someone who has a great appreciation for the format, since he has been responsible for the "Mallrats" DVD and other Smith efforts. With his own picture, he has provided unexpectedly strong audio/video quality along with a great batch of supplements. "A Better Place" is a disturbing picture that may trouble some, but it is well-written, marvelously acted and most certainly worth a look.