Review #14 – Reel (2018)

So… this is, arguably, a conflict of interest, because I am credited with many, many things in Reel, from co-writer/director to editor and actor, but many years ago (literally, primary production took place in 2014), I decided that if it ever played in a film festival, I would review it. Somewhere, somehow.

And then it was accepted into the Urban Action Showcase International Action Film Festival. So, here we are.

Because it’s ridiculous that I should not be able to review my own movie. In fact, I don’t think there is anyone on Earth more qualified to do so than the guy who has seen it dozens and dozens times across its various iterations, as I edited it over the course of three and a half years.

It’s a much better movie now than it was in 2015. I had seen it on screens ranging from 5” to 8’, each making for a radically different experience. And now I’ve seen it proper big as part of a AUSIAFF shorts block. Which was exciting.  About three minutes into said block, I turned to JD, who plays and also was the main fight choreographer, and said, “Life Lesson: 90% of short films are terrible.” On this, that whiny baby commenter boy and I agree. In that block, one was infuriatingly bad, two were incomprehensible and also not good, one felt like a rough cut for something that could have been fine, and then there was Reel.

Gerard Chamberlain, with whom I share several credits, was somewhat frustrated by the lack of quality around Reel. “It made me feel less special.”

Me too.

So, it was nice when a couple of days ago, I received an email letting me know that Reel was selected as a Finalist in whatever category it was nominated in. We may not have won, but we’re a step up from the bottom.

Having seen it all those ways, I was disappointed by my reaction to seeing it big. I had gone into the festival expecting to love a short that I had always liked, but I came out feeling a little cool on the whole thing. I liked it… but not as much as I usually had.

Much of that, I think, comes down to the budget in context with the competition. Even if our film was the “best,” it was also clearly the cheapest. The others had larger casts, more locations, CGI, etc. Taken on its own, watched on a laptop or a 50something-inch television or even an 8-foot projection screen, you aren’t as aware of the limitations. I think Reel is a genuinely good looking movie, one that is shot well and certainly looks more expensive than it was, but it wasn’t expensive. And that shows too.

And it probably shows to me more than to most. I have a particular level of insight into the film and its somewhat unsteady production. I can see what was and what is right from the opening moment. Reel has an opening credits sequence. For forty-five seconds, you hear the voice of star/co-writer/co-director Gerard Chamberlain as he gets increasingly frustrated with having to set up both the premise and the stakes of the following fifteen minutes. This happens over black punctuated by White Text. This bothers me. Anything under 16 minutes shouldn’t have opening credits. And certainly not this credits sequence.

But at least you know what’s going on.

The first several cuts of Reel were intentionally opaque. There was this Grand Overarching Meta Narrative, and in fact this opening sequence replaces an entire scene shot at the Rocket to Venus bar in Baltimore. There were other characters and more story, including a couple of things that get called back later that are no longer call backs. None of that story actually ultimately mattered in the sense that the first time any character outright said what we were all fighting about was more than five minutes into a then twenty-minute movie; that part is still in there, but it’s no longer a weird dumb reveal that was a result of our refusal to have that exposited into unrelated dialogue. Now, it’s a reminder of the stakes, which is a good thing to have in narratives.

But even more than that, the fight in the scene was bad. For a movie that lives and dies by the quality of its action, that was unacceptable. No one would keep watching. They’d be right not to.

So it went.

And the movie is better for it. Even if I don’t like those opening credits.

Reel is effectively a series of fight scenes. There are three, the final of which takes up a full quarter of the run time. We had the goal of making the best Baltimore-based martial arts short film – with no clear sense of our competition – and may well win by default. For specific stylistic inspiration, we looked largely to The Raid, a film that is infinitely better than this one. The only action cinema I watched in the week leading up to our main production was the meth lab fight, which is just straight up perfect.

Like many non-Hollywood action movies, Reel lets the fights speak for themselves. Each fighter uses a different style of martial art, each based on one that the actor had experience with, and the camera steps back to let them do the thing they were trained to do. The camera is rarely closer than a medium, and few shots are under a few seconds in length – with the longer ones closer to a minute than not. At no point is there ever a cut on the strike. We shot with a constantly moving camera and exactly zero coverage. We moved from fight segment to fight segment, doing each at least a half dozen times until we had gotten it right. We had no choice. If the choreography and performances weren’t up to snuff, the whole thing would have fallen apart, and we would have had nowhere to hide.

So it’s good that the fights worked. Ya know, after that cut one.

I have found that most people share my opinion that the final fight is the best of the film; it is the longest, the most technically impressive, and just a really cool sequence to watch. It is about a third of the way into it that Reel still grabs me and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.

But there are certain people who don’t feel that way, who prefer the first fight, and it’s worth unpacking why.

Every fight has to tell a self-contained story. Each is about overcoming the odds, something that must be presented in actions before words. For the latter two fights, this is purely the case; the broader narrative, such that it is, essentially stops while people trade blows.

That first fight, with the producer (full disclosure, me), deemphasizes the action story. It more concerned with the characters than the moves they’re making.

Neither of these approaches is inherently better than the other, but Reel benefits from having both. Being the actual introduction to our protagonist, it is critical that this first fight establishes his character. Afterwards? Again, it’s under 16 minutes. At some point, you just need to worry about the punching in this movie whose logo is a fist going through a film reel.

The constant push forward, game-like in a sense, results in a short film that feels even shorter. There are a couple of minutes here and there to catch your breath, but it’s Go Go Go enough that you can just get swept up in it, helped greatly by an original soundtrack by Chase Hawley and Riley Smith that works brilliantly within the movie but is also just really good and something I enjoy listening to. (One of the songs is my ringtone.) It’s never boring, never giving you a reason to turn away or pull out your phone. By the time you really stop to think about it, it’s over. And you think, “Yeah, that was fun.”

And ultimately that is what matters in the end. That is what we learned in the final cut. We had all these ideas for what everything meant and would mean; we tried for literal years to make them work. But the movie that we actually shot was something different than we understood. Eventually, we accepted it. And we made something that I can be and am proud of.

Seven-Point-One out of Ten.

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