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IN SHORT: Sometimes a play should remain on stage. [Rated R for language and drug content. 86 minutes]
This New York City based reviewer admits to the fact that, were we making any kind of money at this gig at all, we could grab a subway downtown and see almost any play we wanted to. There's a lot to be said for taking the kind of dramatic play that isn't structurally right for the movies and shooting it anyway. Doing so captures performances that would otherwise be lost and never seen by the folk who never had access to the original production or any touring company, if such a thing existed. That's why there's PBS and Director Richard Linklater's rendition of writer Stephen Belber's Tape is the best example we can think of of why producers should just set up a video camera in a theater's orchestra and shoot a live performance. 1) It would look better and 2) we'd have the original stars caught like a deer in the headlights forever. IF the producers wanted to replace the original cast with highly talented and interested movie actors, so much the better.
Linklater's Tape reminds us of the first 16mm color assignment assigned in nightmare of film school. We were given lights, five rolls of film and were told to come back with a finished story; A story with beginning, middle and end, and a modicum of story and character development, all to be shot on whatever location we could come up with in the week we had to finish the assignment. That usually meant streets and parks in the day time, to take advantage of sunlight and any apartment we could get. The bigger the better because of the one serious problem with shooting in small places. There's no place to put enough lighting equipment to balance the set. That means you replace all light bulbs with quartz film lights which, given the utter generic-ness of the equipment the University offers (and the utter lack of extra cash in the pockets of any strapped grad student) tend to turn the most innocuous lamp into a full blast spotlight. In a small space -- Tape was shot on video, which provides its own set of problems, in a motel room -- on a six day shooting schedule, the resulting film look like a grad school project, which is why it was so graciously embraced by film festivals like Sundance.
Like the previously far off the beaten track Sundance, Tape is set in Lansing, Michigan, home of the Lansing Michigan International Film Festival, where first time director John Salter (Robert Sean Leonard) has come to screen his first big project. One character sums it up precisely: "All you need is some guy from Disney to see it and you'll be doing Free Willy 4!"
Trust us. You wouldn't want to see any of our 16mm film school work (even 1995 is still pre-video) -- but we specialized in sound so we can blame the lighting on everyone else. Richard Linklater has come far enough in his career that he has no need to deliver a project that looks like it was made for the fifteen to twenty grand that a grad school project could cost, even though he had a luxurious $150,000 to play with. Of course, it features actors whose per diems could easily eat up most of that amount on a six day shoot, if you add the costs for the two weeks of intensive rehearsals that came first. When actors, especially successful actors, read a script that makes their toes sweat, petty costs fly on the wind and projects get done.
Make no mistake, at a meager 86 minutes running time all the jabber jabber between three characters can go by in a flash or drag on forever. When you lock three characters in one room and let them talk, the only thing a director can do is fall back on a lot of variations of medium and close-up shots and have a firm belief that his editing hand can put together something interesting to look at. That is an important statement. All of the performances in this film, especially Hawke and Thurman, are phenomenal. Camera and editing tricks gut their work almost 65% of the time and that's because, in the limited shooting space, there's little Linklater can do other than photograph umpteen variations of the close-up.
Enough technical stuff. In a beat up motel room somewhere in Lansing, volunteer fireman and small time dope dealer Vince (Ethan Hawke) prepares for the arrival of his best friend from high school, John Salter (Robert Sean Leonard). It's obvious from the first, dialog free scene that Vince is setting something up. For every can of beer that Vince chugs, he pours another down the drain in the bathroom and then scatters the cans around the dump. Though he is to meet John all prepped and ready to go out to dinner, to celebrate John's big break (the festival screening), Vince sheds his pants (revealing beat up boxers which have a significant role in the dialog to come) and prepares to unleash his carefully prepared mental storyboard of the evening's entertainment. Simply, Vince is a doper who never understood why any of his previous relationships went down the toilet. He has some unfocussed rage bubbling under the surface, none of it taken out on Leah, his last girlfriend. John points out that maybe Vince should learn something from what went wrong and, basically, grow up. Vince needs none of this and moves into attack move.
He's mined the past and discovered that Amy Randall (Uma Thurman), a girl significant to both of their high school lives, works in Lansing. Vince's script for the evening, if you will, is to push John, hard, to reveal the specific details of what happened on a specific night at a specific High School party ten years before. John tells Vince it's none of his business since Vince and Amy were no longer an item when the "event" happened. But Vince, who's gotten John to toke up, insistent that John fess up to the details of an alleged date-rape of Amy. After a significant amount of badgering, John fesses up. Whether or not it's the truth or a flat out lie to get Vince to shut his pie hole is a question that doesn't float in our minds for too long.
Because Amy is coming to join Vince for dinner, too. All bets are off.
Once Amy shows up, Vince loses control to a far greater manipulator than even he thinks he is. Amy, you see, is an Assistant D.A. in Lansing. Once that tantalizing bit of data is dropped, any attentive mind can figure out at least three or more ways the film can end. The shoddy look to the film only serves to give your mind time to figure out those possibilities far in advance.
The shame is, the writing and characterization is quite good. The filmography is so deliberately amateurish and film student artsy that Tape is painful to sit through. Let's put it this way. If you are the type of person who, having no connection to the biz, goes to the esoteric film festivals just 'cuz you like seeing the first, staggering steps of tomorrow's directors, go to a theater (even though Linklater is far past the staggering steps stage). If not, Tape is a shoddy, though brilliantly acted, piece whose adherence to the restrictions of film school production techniques makes it painful to sit through. Especially when we've seen the director do so much better work.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Tape, he would have paid . . .
If you're going to see it, rent. If you're a fan of the arthouse, whose nose is permanently Krazy Glued in the "Gather rain and drown me, I dare you" position, go. Endure.
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