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Old 11-30-2005, 09:48 PM
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Default Stillwater




Reviewer: Jeremy
Review Date: November 30, 2005

Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 11/15/2005
MSRP: $19.95
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes



Synapse Films’ choice of titles is nothing if not eclectic. A recent package of screener discs I received in the mail from Don May Jr. included the trailer compilation 42nd Street Forever, Rene Cardona Jr.’s Mexican disaster non-epic Cyclone and this film, Stillwater, an award-winning 2003 independent production from first-time director Adrian Kays. In an increasingly cluttered market for independent productions, Kays should probably count himself lucky that his film attracted the attention of a company with a decent distribution network and a devotion to quality. The question is, though, does Stillwater deserve the exposure it is about to get from this DVD release, or is it just another in the countless multitudes of independent misfires? Keep reading and find out.

The Story

inline ImageAndrew Morrison (Andrew Hulse) is a troubled, twenty-six year-old college grad who has just made a discovery – his parents Krisha and Jared (Janet G. Robertson and Allen Rowell) are not actually his parents. While doing laundry in the basement of their house he ran across an old box containing adoption papers for him, as well as various other unexplained knick-knacks. Keeping the discovery secret from his adoptive family he seeks the services of an agency that specializes in tracking down birth parents. While he waits for them to complete their investigation he does a bit of snooping on his own. There’s a watch in the box with the name Roxy Gaines on it. He tracks down the husband of the woman, who greets him with hostility. As it turns out, she disappeared without a trace twenty-five years earlier.

inline ImageChecking the mail a few days later, Andrew gets a letter from the agency with his real mother’s identity. He writes her a letter. His mother (Janet Lombard) receives it and then promptly kills herself. As her last of kin, Andrew goes to her home to sort through her belongings and talk with her social worker, Susan Becker (Melanie du Poy), who reveals she was schizophrenic. Not long after that he is visited by one Detective Lofton (Jeff Evans) who is investigating the recent murder of a young woman from the community. He has some questions for Andrew about his real mother, and her connection with a series of murders and disappearances that occurred two and a half decades earlier – amongst the victims was Roxy Gaines – since this new killing seems almost to be a copycat of those crimes.

As all this has been happening, Andrew has tracked down another mysterious person who knew his real mother, Christer James (Leon Lamar), a black Vietnam veteran who apparently had an affair with her. He too treats him with hostility and refuses to say much about what happened. As his anxiety grows he begins to feel more and more out of control, and begins to worry that he, like his mother, may be turning into a schizophrenic. Will solving the mystery of his past resolve his inner conflicts, or is his connection to the long-ago crimes something that is better left buried?

inline Image Stillwater was shot entirely on location in writer/director Adrian Kays’ home state of Georgia (many locations appear to have been in his hometown, in fact) and his choice of shooting locales betrays a deep personal connection to the landscape. This is Kays’ first (and at the moment only) feature-length production, and for a low-budget film from a young director it is exceedingly polished, with a surprising degree of professionalism evident in the cinematography, the sound design and the editing. Though there is room for improvement in his style and in his writing abilities, Stillwater is nonetheless a movie with enough merit to overcome most of its flaws.

Kays is able to get surprisingly good performances out of most of his cast. Andrew Hulse is able to pull off a level of emotion and depth that exceeds expectations. The protagonist, as played by him, is both convincing and compelling, and Hulse’s gaunt figure (he purposely lost a considerable amount of weight for the part) and distinctive look add credibility. He looks like a real person, not an over-polished movie star. By and large the other performers hold their own as well, even though they are obviously inexperienced when compared to the most seasoned Hollywood character actors. Leon Lamar – another distinctive-looking pesonality – and Jeff Evans are similarly convincing. The other supporting actors are able to handle their small roles with only a minimum number of mistakes and badly delivered lines.

inline ImageUnfortunately, Kays’ writing leaves a little bit to be desired. Though the broader mystery is solved in the end, other questions remain, questions that are left unanswered. Whether this was intentional is not known (Kays never addresses the issue on this release’s commentary track), though viewers may be left with an unfulfilled feeling because of it. The dialogue itself can be somewhat confusing (characters have a habit of talking about events twenty-five years earlier as if they were yesterday), and the film’s short running time prevents interesting relationships between the characters from being fully explored. It’s not a fully developed script, and it results in a movie that is not fully developed either. Stillwater is an interesting and entertaining film, but one hopes that Adrian Kays will keep getting better with whatever other productions are in his future.

Image Quality

inline Image Stillwater is presented letterboxed at 1.78:1 and is enhanced for 16x9 displays. The lush greenery of the Georgia countryside is accurately reproduced by the transfer, which features strong, well-balanced colors, generally good shadow detail and a fine level of detail overall, though I’m sure Andrew Hulse will not be pleased to find out how easy the transfer makes it to see that spot on the top of his head where he is losing his hair. Stillwater was actually shot on film – an increasing rarity amongst independent productions nowadays – and several visual issues spring up as a result. The lack of good lighting equipment and the decision to “push” (overexpose in the lab) select parts of the film result in a small number of excessively grainy scenes and shots. At the same time, there are a surprisingly large number of scratches and specks, something that is more surprising than distracting considering that this is a fairly new movie.

Sound

Two soundtrack options are available, a 2.0 Stereo track and a 5.1 Surround one. The insert that comes with this release says that Adrian Kays used experimental techniques when designing the soundtrack, and some of this could be mistaken for audio distortion and authoring goofs (I suspect the insert is referring to the final two scenes, which are overlaid with periodic bursts of what sounds like light static). In any case, the sound on this release is more or less fine. The sound recording and the soundtrack mixing all show a decent level of competence and creativity, with good levels and decent balance between dialogue, music and sound effects. This is not an action film and 5.1 track doesn’t add a lot to it when compared to the 2.0 track, but both work as listening options.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageThe big extra here is a commentary with Adrian Kays, Andrew Hulse and cinematographer Lyn Moncrief. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a snoozer. The three are rarely at a loss for words, but they have a tendency to drone on and lose the attention of the listener. They provide information on the locations, the personalities involved, the technical specs – in fact, they cover all the bases one would expect from a good commentary track – but they simply don’t seem capable of being engaging and informative at the same time.

The track is supplemented by a theatrical trailer, a short still gallery and a text bio of Adrian Kays.

Final Thoughts

For those devoted to the modern independent film scene, Stillwater is low-risk blind purchase, flaws and all. For those with more limited tastes it will probably make a better rental. Either way, viewers could do much worse. The movie shows that Adrian Kays is a promising talent in the making, and one who should be given more opportunities to direct. Despite the disappointing commentary track, Synapse’s release of Stillwater is priced reasonably and sports a good transfer and sound mix, making it more than a recommended deal.

Rating

Movie – B
Image Quality – B+
Sound – A-
Supplements – B-

Technical Info.
  • Running Time – 1 hours 29 minutes
  • Color
  • Not rated
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English 2.0 Stereo
  • English 5.1 Surround

Supplements
  • Commentary with director Adrian Kays, star Andrew Hulse and cinematographer Lyn Moncrief
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Still gallery
  • Director bio

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