Review Date: January 24, 2006
Released by: Heretic Films
Release date: 9/27/2005
Region 1, NTSC
Yet again I find myself being the guinea pig for yet another ultra low budget, straight to DVD independent film. I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t run into a good number of perfectly enjoyable films in this category, but at the same time I’ve probably run into even more films of this nature that were complete and utter wastes of my time. The proliferation of affordable digital technology, and small companies willing to distribute the resulting films, has been egalitarian and allowed aspiring talents to be potentially recognized. It’s also allowed people who should stick with their day jobs to get their movies onto store shelves…
Adam Zarrasky (Adam Plotch
) is a bachelor living alone in a futuristic New York City where constant acid rain has turned normal insects – especially cockroaches – into dangerous mutants, and where a Big Brother-like corporation called DNA 21 seems to have its fingers in every aspect of daily life. One day on the subway he spots a mysterious young woman (Talia Rubel
) whom he seems strangely drawn towards, and not long after the same woman shows up at his door in response to an ad he placed looking for a roommate. Speaking with a foreign accent, she introduces herself as Lily and says she is from France. She proceeds to taunt Adam and then say she isn’t interested in the apartment.
Ten years earlier Adam’s father and sister were both killed in a car accident, and Adam now makes periodic trips to the countryside to visit his lonely mother (Diane Spodarek
). On one such trip he visits the local cemetery where his father and sister are buried, and there he inexplicably meets Lily again. The two almost have sex right there amongst the graves, but they are stopped by a passer-by and Lily flees. Later, after he is back in New York City, he gets a frantic call from his mother to come out to her house, and when he does so he is horrified to discover that Lily is there. Speaking in a normal voice, she says that for almost ten years she was in a coma somewhere in France, only recently coming out of it and then suffering from amnesia. She reveals she is his long-lost sister, whom was always though to be dead. He is understandably shocked by this discovery.
The two go back to New York and Lily moves into his apartment with him. Adam continues to be strangely drawn to her in a sexual manner, despite knowing the truth about her. One night over dinner he violently takes her, and from there the two embark on a twisted, strange romance that begins to head irrevocably towards disaster…
While watching Red Cockroaches
, I found myself reminded of a 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film called Alphaville
, in which a private eye travels to a futuristic city called Alphaville that is ruled by a gigantic computer. The plots of the two films don’t resemble each other at all, but what gives them similarity is the way in which they both use limited technological means to tell stories that are essentially social science fiction, stories that avoid most of the trappings of the genre. Despite it’s futuristic setting, Red Cockroaches
is much more of a drama than anything else. There are flying cars, video phones and other futuristic devices, but they serve only as backdrops. The acid rain and mutated insects don’t actually play any part in the story at all, either. People will mention them sporadically, and we’ll hear them discussed when people are listening to the radio, but as far as the plot goes they are almost completely irrelevant. The script makes much of the mysterious DNA 21 corporation, but that too is largely irrelevant. Apparently the movie’s director, the Cuban-born Miguel Coyula, plans this to be the first in a trilogy of films, and presumably the other two will expand on the universe that exists in Red Cockroaches
– if he ever gets to make them, that is. In the world of independent filmmaking there are not many certainties, and until if and when he is able to continue the series the world he has created in this film will seem to be incomplete.
Many commentators have described Red Cockroaches
as being visually stunning, and though I wouldn’t go that far, it has an undeniably distinctive look to it. Though shot on digital video, a medium that still has many limitations, Coyula doesn’t let that get in his way. Using vivid color schemes, expert composition and some skillful editing, Coyula creates a movie that looks unlike any film in recent memory, whether major or minor. In the making-of featurette included on this release, Coyula reveals that, while editing the movie on his Mac using Apple’s Final Cut Pro software, he was at times using as many as thirty tracks of video simultaneously, and for those of you unfamiliar with that piece of software let me assure you that thirty video tracks is an astounding number, more than most consumer-grade systems are designed to handle. The result of all this visual manipulation is a movie that looks distinctive, even though it’s not necessarily pretty.
However, as I have already mentioned, Red Cockroaches
is more of a drama than a science fiction film, and the only thing that the movie has to fall back on – its script – does not distinguish itself. If all the special lighting, skillful editing and digital trickery were stripped away it’s doubtful that the movie would be able to stand on its own. The acting is below par, but that in itself isn’t the problem. Nobody expects Oscar-caliber performances from a movie like this. The problem is that the story itself is neither appealing nor interesting. The beginning, with the mysterious appearance of Lily and the discovery that she is Adam’s sister, is intriguing, but the promising elements that the script shows in its early stages are eventually betrayed by its lame twist into dysfunctional family drama and incest. By the time the final act rolls around the plot has firmly entered “Lifetime original movie” territory, with the only difference being the futuristic setting. The ending both overly ambiguous and thoroughly unrewarding.
Based on what I can see in this production, and in the short film included as an extra feature, I predict art house success for Miguel Coyula. The surprisingly high number of festival awards picked up by Red Cockroaches
is proof enough of that. But the movie is not anything special. It’s pretentious and overly arty, but without substance. Even its images are suspect; they often seem less like a distinctive visual style and more like the work of a guy who has just discovered all the cool things he can do in Final Cut Pro. And he does do a lot of cool things with it. But he doesn’t tell a compelling story, and that’s where the movie ultimately fails.
The full-frame 1.33:1 image looks acceptable for a no-budget production shot on digital video. Colors look completely whacked out on many occasions, but considering the degree of digital manipulation that was put into the film we can be pretty well assured that Coyula wants them to look like that. The level of detail and clarity is acceptable for the medium it was shot on. However, the director and his thirty tracks of video leave their mark on the image, with occasional artifacts popping up that look like the by-product of excessive rendering. Other isolated shots also contain significant artifacting.
The audio, in Dolby 2.0 Stereo, is well mixed, but suffers from a few limited problems with the sound recording (in the commentary Coyula and Adam Plotch do talk a little bit about problems with their microphones). Still, there’s no issue with distortion or background noise, and the track is mostly well balanced between dialogue, sound effects and music.
Optional Spanish subtitles are provided.
The first of two big supplements is a commentary track with Miguel Coyula, Adam Plotch and actor Jeff Pucillo, who has a supporting role as a scientist. Pucillo only appears in a limited number of scenes and he usually limits his comments to them, while Coyula and Plotch talk non-stop. The two are not afraid to laugh about all the difficulties they had in making the production on a ridiculously low budget (which was supposed to cost nothing but ended up being about $2000), the difficulties Plotch had working with his co-star Talia Rubel, and other incidents. The biggest revelation? In New York City you can buy cockroaches at stores for $15! It’s an excellent commentary, but the bad news for Coyula is that watching the movie with it on is certainly a far more rewarding experience than watching the film proper.
The next big supplement is a short film made by Coyula when he was still a student in Cuba. It’s called Valvula de Luz
, or Light Valve
in English. The menu screen that introduces the film describes it as “an ambitious experimental piece about alienation and anger in modern society resulting in apocalypse”, which is as good a way of describing it as any I suppose. Running forty-eight minutes, it features numerous characters but remains entirely without dialogue until the very last scene where two people confront each other after the rest of the world has been destroyed. What exactly is going on is never clear, and even the ending explains only so much. Shot on video, the short is in black and white and looks surprisingly slick for something of such threadbare origins. The last scene is translated by yellow subtitles burned into the frame, and subtitles also intermittently pop up to translate the text on computer screens and such.
Next we have three deleted scenes and five and a half minutes worth of outtakes. The scenes add very little to the plot, and basically go over ground that is covered amply by material that was left in. Though running only a few minutes, deleting them from the finished product was a wise decision on Coyula’s part. The outtakes are even more of a chore to sit through, and mostly consist of Adam Plotch and Talia Rubel having difficulty handling the sex scenes. There is however some amusing blurred-out nudity that will get a few laughs. It’s just too bad that they didn’t bother to blur out Plotch’s ugly, hairy backside as well.
A short, six and a half minute featurette is included. The only interview subject is Coyula himself, who is shown in split-screen format talking into the camera while other information is shown on the other half of the screen. Despite its brief length it is quite informative. He talks about how the film is a prequel to a novel he wrote in Cuba, about some of his other short films (clips of some are included, and they look interesting) and his style of screenwriting. One of his most questionable statements is that he used his digitally created special effects to disguise the film’s low budget! Sorry man, I hate to break it to you but despite the countless hours of effort your movie still looks like it cost next to nothing.
The disc is rounded out with a brief bio text of Coyula, some storyboards which are so small as to be almost unreadable without a very large screen (use the zoom function if your DVD player has it, it’s the only way most of them are legible) and a trailer.
If given the opportunity to watch more of Miguel Coyula’s work I would probably do so, but as of right now I’m not convinced that Red Cockroaches
is the work of a budding cinematic genius. It looks more like a low-budget George Lucas clone – a thin story disguised with lots of visual effects and digital manipulation. But at least the DVD release from Heretic is well above average, particularly the commentary track which might be useful as a learning tool for other aspiring no-budget filmmakers. It’s not a good movie, but it’s a good bargain.
Movie – C
Image Quality – B+
Sound – B+
Supplements – B+
- Running Time – 1 hour 22 minutes
- Not rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Surround
- Spanish subtitles
- Commentary track with Miguel Coyula, Adam Plotch and Jeff Pucillo
- Short film
- Deleted scenes and outtakes
- Making-of featurette
- Director bio