Better Place, A
Haunted houses, graveyards, morgues. Scary places all, but some might argue that the scariest place on earth could very well be the halls of a suburban high school, especially if you're the "new kid." Vincent Pereira, the "historian" of Kevin Smith's View Askew Productions, took on this subject in his 1997 film A Better Place. While it's slightly flawed, and not a horror movie per se, it's an interesting and realistic look at teenage life, and a promising debut for writer/director Pereira.
After the rather sudden death of his father, Barret Michaelson (Robert DiPatri) moves to an unnamed suburban town on the New Jersey shore. Gangly and nerdish, it's not long before he's targeted by the jocks at the high school. It looks like he's about to get the first of several beatings from the muscle-bound set, until the strange loner Ryan Walker (Eion Bailey) comes to his aid.
Barret and Ryan begin a typical friendship, until Barret learns about Ryan's personal demons. He was orphaned at the age of 10, and now lives with his uncaring and abusive aunt. In fact, Ryan was the one who discovered his parents' bodies, and it's pretty obvious he's a ticking time bomb. He spouts off frightening philosophy and shows how truly anti-social he really is.
Meanwhile, Barret is slowly beginning to assimilate into high school life, and becomes friends with people other than the borderline psychotic Ryan. Ryan is upset that Barret has befriended some of the people that he finds so objectionable, and becomes even more unhinged. While their friendship began with Ryan saving Barret, it looks like only Barret can save Ryan, if indeed he can even be saved.
Vincent Pereira has been associated with the more famous Kevin Smith since before the release of Clerks, and the two have learned quite a bit from each other. There are obvious influences of both of their respective styles in all of the films they've done. But if anyone picks up this movie based on the View Askew label, expecting another comedy like Clerks, Mallrats, or Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, they will be in for quite a surprise.
There's little humor in A Better Place. The scenes that are funny are really just a few light spots in an otherwise downbeat and depressing film. This is not to say it's a bad film, in fact, quite the opposite. It's a very well made film for a first-time director, though far from perfect. The acting is good to marginal, but at least Pereira gives the most lines to DiPatri and Bailey, by far the best actors in the production (not including a few of Kevin Smith's "regulars" who make some uncredited cameo appearances). Many characters tend to speak in monologues (a Smith trademark), and two scenes seem a bit out of place. Pereira acknowledges one of them: An aborted trip to New York City ends up in Asbury Park, where the boys meet a drug dealer who also sells firearms. I also disliked the cliched accidental death/hide the body scene later in the film.
But these are minor quibbles in what is overall a realistic and very well made film. Unlike Smith, Pereira uses his surroundings excellently. A Better Place quite obviously takes place in New Jersey, and the Garden State locales are quite prominent. Anyone who's been to New Jersey suburbs knows they're quite unique, and Pereira uses the drab look to enhance the film. These small towns, so dull, yet so close to Manhattan, have such a distinct personality. Well visioned by Pereira.
As for the content, it's quite good as well. Teen alienation is rarely depicted with this much quality. Sure, the jock stereotypes are a little overboard, but still quite realistic. It seems harsh at some times, but suburban life is harsh. Pereira doesn't have a "message", but rather just analyzes the banal existences in nameless towns that lead to events like the Columbine shootings.
Synapse Films presents A Better Place in a non-anamorphic director's cut. The back cover claims it's in a 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. This is incorrect. It only looks slightly letterboxed, and is essentially a full-frame presentation. One scene is actually in the 1.66:1 ratio, and Pereira gives the reason for this in the commentary.
Other than the incorrect aspect ratio claim, Synapse did a great job with this one. It's a low-budget 16mm film, so it can only look so good, and this is actually pretty darn good. The outdoor scenes especially shine. There's some grain and noise in some spots, and one scene is horribly focused (Pereira is aware of this), but other than that, it's a remarkably good transfer of an exceptionally low-budget film.
The sound quality of A Better Place belies its low-budget status even more than the video presentation. The fact that it was re-mixed to Dolby Digital 5.1 at Skywalker Sound is probably the reason it sounds so good. Most of the audio is located at the front, but the music is mixed throughout all 5 speakers, and the bass is well represented too. On one of the supplements, there's before and after examples of the new Skywalker Sound 5.1 remix, and it's quite remarkable. What I like best about the sound, is that very little has been added; they took what already existed and just cleaned it up. Thus, it's not been changed from the original, but rather just refined. Good work.
Synapse provided a wealth of supplements, and Vincent Pereira was only happy to oblige. If anything, Pereira can be accused of "micro-managing" this movie, and he acknowledges as much, as he continues to re-edit the film. I've never seen this theatrically, but I believe some scenes have been added from amongst the deleted footage. Pereira still wants some changes. A personal note to the director: Leave it alone, learn from your mistakes, and incorporate that into your next film. Rant over.
First off in the supplements are a set of three introductions from executive producers Scott Mosier and Kevin Smith. These are totally ad-libbed, and while I love all of Kevin Smith's films, let's just say that improv is not his biggest talent.
There's two audio commentaries on this disc (viewers may have to search for the second one). The main commentary is Vincent Pereira, Robert DiPatri, and Brian Lynch. It's informative, but EXTREMELY technical: "We used a different film speed on this scene" or "You can see the shadow of the boom mike here." Plus, there are a lot of differences between the script and the final product that Pereira feels compelled to point out. Thus, I found the commentary more than a little dry. Aspiring filmmakers, however, will definitely want to give it a listen, as it's really a good lesson on the technical aspects of micro-budget films. Those looking for entertaining anecdotes of the production may find it a bit lacking.
Next up are some deleted scenes, with commentary. A lot of these are really just extended and alternate takes of scenes that were in the film. One scene that stands out is one with Ryan and the drug dealer from whom he purchases the gun. Pereira already considers this section of the film to be too much, so it makes sense to remove it. We also get one more scene of "Dennis Pepper", which will appeal to his legions of fans. Interesting scenes, but the film does fine without them.
There's also the before-and-after sound examples mentioned above. These are fairly interesting, particularly the Chapter 7 example, where a whining air conditioner was removed from the audio track. Finally, if one pokes around on the disc, there's some outtakes, a promotion for a possibly upcoming film by Brian Lynch (Kevin Smith shows up in this promo as well, and is a lot funnier than in his intros), and the aforementioned "secret" commentary. This is a lot of View Askew people talking about the movie, and it's pretty clear that the participants are not very sober. Funny, but expect a lot of "inside" jokes that only those in the room are familiar with.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Many of the special features are not automatically accessible on Toshiba DVD players, and may cause the player to lock up. You have to manually select the title number using the "T" button, and you have to use the audio button to toggle the commentary on and off in the deleted scenes. While I can't expect Synapse to try out their features on every single model of player, Toshibas are fairly common among consumers. And the features that cause the lockups are standard things like deleted scenes and color bars, which normally work fine on Toshiba players. I'm not sure what's different with the Synapse supplements that make them unusable, but this is something that should be addressed. My Toshiba is not a first generation player, and there are a lot of Toshiba players out there. Something for Synapse to consider in the future...
A Better Place is a remarkably well-made and insightful film, especially for a first time director. For someone so closely involved with Kevin Smith, Vincent Pereira shows he has style, ideas, and techniques all his own. I definitely want to see any future work that Pereira does. The video and audio presentation is top-notch, an enjoyable DVD from beginning to end. As a Toshiba owner, I'm a little miffed that Synapse added standard features in such a way that caused my player to lock up. But as long as both companies (Toshiba AND Synapse) take this into consideration for their future hardware and software releases, respectively, I'll begrudgingly accept it this time.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B
Sound - A-
Supplements - A-
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