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With lofty aspirations to be some kind of soaring, resonant medieval epic of redemption, Brock Morse's Westender falls woefully short—despite its great intentions—and comes across as a bunch of earnest Renaissance Festival performers horsing around in the Oregon forests, where this film was lensed. The cast and crew behind Westender are certainly doing their best, though, and their aim to please is obvious—the acting is enthusiastic, the cinematography and careful editing are first-class, and the score by Rob Simonsen is vibrant and powerful. You have to at least give this troupe credit for trying. But there's no getting around the fact that Westender is low-rent entertainment, built on a wobbly foundation of derivative hamminess.
Still, although your first instinct might be to smirk at most of Westender's goings-on, there's stuff to like, or at least appreciate. Keep in mind that the film is very independent, homegrown on a shoestring budget in America's lush northwest—specifically, Corvallis and Philomath, Oregon—and is quite beautiful to look at. Westender really does have the sheen of a higher-budgeted Hollywood film, even if the story and acting leave much to be desired. War hero Asbrey of Westender (portrayed with Russell Crowe intensity by stage actor Blake Stadel) is a broken-down medieval knight in search of redemption. Early in the film, he loses a precious ring in a drunken card game, and the rest of the film follows his fervent quest to retrieve it. The ring symbolizes his memory of his lost love, although we make this connection thanks only to vague, dream-like hallucinations that Asbrey endures periodically—emotionally draining sequences that make you wonder why he gave up the ring in the first place. (And it's not only the plot-driving presence of this ring that will remind you of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings saga; much of Westender's look and feel seem drawn from it, as well as Ridley Scott's Gladiator.)
One of the film's finer points is that it gradually ascends from its hammy dialog and carnival-fakery swordfights into an almost silent, meditative study of redemption. I admire Morse's ballsiness in letting the physical action drain away, letting the pace ratchet back to slow-motion studies of Asbrey on his inner quest. It's a welcome change from the typical choppy editing and go-for-broke mindset of most Hollywood action concoctions. Still, married to that is an overriding and bitter flavor of pomposity, as if the film has grown a little too bit for its britches.
A glance at the critics' quotes on the packaging had me encouraged. "Visually stunning," says one blurb. "Astoundingly ambitious and accomplished," maintains another. A quick check on the Internet, however, reveals at least one of these quotes to be quite selective, buried inside a poor review. Creative marketing is a great source of amusement for this reviewer, but I can't help but also condemn the practice for its intention—deceiving an unsuspecting potential audience. Little bit of bait-and-switch there.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Labeled on the packaging as a "letterbox widescreen preserving the 1.66:1 aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition, enhanced for widescreen TVs," the image on this DVD is actually not anamorphically enhanced. The aspect ratio seems correct, however. Detail is fuzzy, even in closeups, and backgrounds are woefully blurry. The best aspect of this image is its color, which comes across vividly and fully, but it's all for naught, lost in softness. I also noticed fairly significant artifacting, in the form of blocking, in horizontal pans. The few scenes that take place in darkness appear poorly lit, with unsatisfactory shadow detail. All that being said, I have the feeling that Westender's image would bloom with depth and sharpness if it were indeed enhanced for widescreen TVs, as advertised.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround track is front-centric. Dialog, which is clear and accurate, comes mostly from the front but does occasionally creep into the left and right for the sake of directionality. The score fares the best, spreading through all channels quite effectively and seeming to belong to a different film altogether.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The 5-minute featurette Creation of Westender is narrated solemnly and cheesily: "Where heroes once stood, long shadows have fallen." In that vein, we get a too-long and unintentionally hilarious summation of the plot, as well as a quick look at casting, scoring, and storyboards. I was vindicated to learn that much of the cast was recruited from local Renaissance festivals.
The disc holds two Deleted Scenes, the 2-minute "We'll forgo breakfast then?" and the 2-minute "Bugger Off!". The first is rather pointless, and the second is exposition-heavy—both are better off snipped.
You also get the film's two moody Trailers, which amount to a Theatrical Trailer and a shorter Promo Trailer.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Westender bites off a bit more than it can chew, but its efforts are appreciated. Let's hope this crew's next project isn't quite so derivative and hammy. Image quality is below average (and falsely advertised), and sound quality is good. Extras are minimal and cheesy.