Hard Luck would have made a better short than a feature film. Even at 85 minutes, the pacing is sluggish, bogged down by extensive filler. First-time director Jack Rubio does an okay job behind the camera, though the way certain sequences are cut is horrendously awkward. At one point, Eric knocks his brother-in-law unconscious, and this is revealed in three shots: Eric raising his arm, the impact, and Matt's subsequent falling to the ground. Instead of flowing seamlessly, this piecemealed sequence is so choppy and ineffective that it literally had me laughing out loud. Perhaps these sorts of moments can be attributed to the unusual editing method described in the commentary, but excuses don't really matter when a significant scene like that just flat-out doesn't work. The plot makes generous use of such trite elements as the obvious love interest saying "I can't sleep with you" mere seconds before having sex. The ending is blatantly obvious as early as a quarter of the way in. Will Eric's inevitable death be overflowing with bliss and peace? Will Sheryl realize that Lucky is her one true love and reject her brute of a husband? Lucky isn't a particularly likeable character, and while having a morally ambiguous protagonist is a nice change, he's treated far too sympathetically throughout the course of the film. He is not deserving of the Hollywood happy ending bestowed upon him. Hard Luck isn't an awful film by any means, but this territory is so well-tread that I found the end result to be of little interest.
Here's a completely random aside. I can be a little lazy about double checking my reviews to make sure I didn't leave out any significant words and phrases. Apparently Vanguard has similarly shoddy quality control. The plot summary on the packaging refers to our terminally ill pal as "his best Eric", forgetting to include the all-important 'friend'. There is also a smattering of issues with commas in the synopsis. Finally, Vanguard selected what is perhaps the worst tagline ever in the history of motion picture promotion: "Lucky O'Donnell is coming home, 88 days BEFORE his scheduled release." Dramatic!
Video: Hard Luck was shot with minimal lighting on Super16 for the thoroughly modest sum of $40,000. From there, the film was given a cheap blowup to 35mm for its run in the festival circuit. To say the least, this isn't going to result in a DVD with the razor-sharp appearance and glossy sheen of a Fast and the Furious. With these sorts of shoestring budgeted films, picture quality can be difficult to gauge as it's not always obvious which flaws can be traced back to production. My first time watching Hard Luck, I missed the dot-com cited in the opening credits, and my initial impression was that the film was shot sometime in the mid-to-late '80s. Not even close. Hard Luck is such a recent production that it was making the festival rounds as recently as April 2002.
The full-frame image appears to have been culled from a low-resolution video source of some sort. This seems obvious even beginning with the opening credits, which feature the usual text against a black screen. The white text blooms excessively, smearing from the center of the frame almost to the far right edge. Even referring to the backdrop as 'black' is rather inaccurate, as it is washed out, is riddled with purple video noise, and sports a monstrous gray blob at the top. Every fade to black is equally unappealing. Video noise and tiny white specks are present for most every second of Hard Luck's 84 minute runtime. Black levels are wildly inconsistent, and the crispness and clarity so frequently associated with DVDs are sorely wanting. I can't recall the last time I spotted compression artifacts on a disc, but some were clearly visible starting around the 1:05:35 mark in the edges of a car window.
Writer/star Kirk Harris and director Jack Rubio are presumably watching the same transfer seen on this disc while they were recording the disc's commentary track. There are several instances where they note how pleased they were with how certain shots turned out and the overall quality of the film stock, but I don't recall once where they complain about the quality of the presentation. Maybe this is how the film was intended to be seen, or perhaps Harris and Rubio realize that this is as good as Hard Luck is likely to look.
Audio: The audio for Hard Luck wasn't recorded under the most ideal conditions either. Dialogue in certain locations carries a bit of an echo, and its limitations are clear whenever voices are raised. Harris and Rubio state in the commentary that they ran into quite a bit of difficulty cutting the audio, so presumably this is as good as the film is likely to sound. Hiss is never a nuisance, and the soundtrack that the filmmakers cobbled together from stock music is rendered with respectable fidelity. There are no major complaints to be had.
Supplements: As mentioned earlier, director Jack Rubio and writer-slash-star Kirk Harris contribute a feature-length commentary track. Their discussion gives a solid peek into the world of microbudget filmmaking and the innumerable difficulties that can arise. Harris speaks at length about how certain characters and scenarios were inspired by his life, and it's also mentioned that some shots were lifted from other movies and distant memories. Another frequent topic of discussion is where each scene was shot, how some locations were used multiple times for different purposes in the film, and the general differences in attitude and scenery between Oregon and California. Also discussed are acceptance speech foibles, how two wrecked picture cars influenced photography, and how inexperienced friends and family lent their assistance in difficult situations, such as the assistant director walking off the picture. I don't have strong feelings either way about Hard Luck, but its commentary track is very well-done.
Trailers for Hard Luck and three other filmkitchen.com productions -- My Sweet Killer, Sweet Thing, and Loser -- have also been provided. The packaging makes mention of "outtakes" that were apparently left off of the final DVD. If such footage is stashed away somewhere on the disc, it's not readily accessible via the 'extra features' menu.
Conclusion: I enjoyed Hard Luck, more for the commentary than the film itself, but $29.95 worth of entertainment is not to be had here. Save your pennies for a rental instead. Rent It.