Sunday, March 21, 2010

Scapegoat (2009) - Possible Hot Commodity

On the Menu: SCAPEGOAT (2009)
Ingredients: Ben Puckett, Dan Clancy, Cory Boughton, Paula Orr and Jason Garcia. Directed by David Saich. Run time: 106 minutes. Rated: Not rated.

At First Bite: The director of this movie is one of my coworkers at WLOS, which is the ABC affiliate in Asheville, NC. He was a news photographer, but now works in promotions/creative services. We've worked together for nearly four years, which is about as long as it took him to put the movie together. However, I didn't know about the movie until a few weeks before the cast and crew screening on Oct. 23, 2009.

A week ago, he asked me if I would like to write the first official review for his directorial debut, SCAPEGOAT. I agreed.

Charles Duncan (Clancy) has stolen $4.2 million from his clients, and the FBI is now investigating. They can't pin it on him yet, but he's the prime suspect. Enter John Capra (Puckett). Capra is a professional fall guy. It's his job to create an alibi for his client and shift the blame to himself.

Capra has a friend on the inside, which helps things go a little smoother, but they didn't expect Duncan's firm to hire a "heavy" to retrieve the stolen money.

Second Helping: Normally, I'll only watch a movie a second time if it has commentary, but I feel I wouldn't be doing my friend justice by basing my review a single viewing. The second time around did help. There were things, good and bad, that I missed before.

Tough to Swallow: If a policeman pulled you over for suspicion of drunk driving, would he put you in the passenger seat of his cruiser before administering a field sobriety test or breathalyzer? Well, there are a lot of dumb cops, I guess. Because another group of them puts the same guy in the back of a car when the driver of said car isn't a cop. Huh?

I never really understood why Mr. Duncan, who appeared to be rather successful, i.e. he had a nice job and apartment, would risk his livelihood by stealing a monumental sum of money from his employer. I know his ex-wife is getting remarried and he might only see his daughters on weekends, but $4.2 million seems a tad extreme.

Aesthetically, there were some soft focus issues here and there, but I think the down-conversion from HD is the culprit. Saich did mention he used a lens adapter that uses 35mm Nikon lenses, and at times it was "really tricky to follow focus."

I am not a big fan of the font used for the opening credits/titles. They reminded me of the stuff we used back in college on the Chyron in our TV production class.

The beginning chase sequence and the "raid" at Mrs. Duncan's house, though well done, have a tiny problem. For each scene, almost in its entirety, there appears to be a spot of dirt on the lens of the camera (bottom center for the chase, top left for the raid).

There were also times where there wasn't enough lighting in a shot, actors might look orangish or lighting would change in the middle of a scene. It was weird to see a meeting held in a dark office during the daytime; the blinds are shut, but the only inside light source is a desk lamp. Or sometimes the blinds were open during the day, but the desk lamps were still being used. Here's the thing though: I imagine lighting for a film is a difficult task on a super-small budget, especially if you're trying to stick to the three-point lighting method.

Budget is also a factor as far as casting goes. Most, if not all, of the actors are locals either involved in Asheville's theater community or employees of WLOS. The main issues here are emotion and line delivery. Mr. Duncan doesn't seemed too shocked or scared that someone has broken into his apartment; his first line to the intruder defends his choice of Scotch. The same thing goes for Mrs. Duncan (Susie Sabala) when she confronts her ex. Excluding Puckett, Boughton and John Le, oftentimes the dialogue doesn't come across as very conversational and some lines seem forced. There is one instance where the word "soil" is pronounced "soul," and it just leaves you shaking your head. Also, the first time Frank (Garcia) tags along with the FBI, he has a line - "Any other family?" - that must have been added in post because his lips clearly aren't moving, and it sounds different than the rest of the audio.

In the credits, Ryan Felten's name is misspelled as Felton, Blue Ridge Motor Lodge is listed as Blue Ridge Motor Inn, Carmel's Restaurant is listed as Carmels Restaurant, and Gene Burns is thanked twice (which could be on purpose).

Something to Chew On: The budget for the movie was under $500, including a $100 day rate for the movie's lone SAG member (Sabala), a permit to shoot outside the federal court house, a stunt car and refreshments.

The film was shot using a Panasonic AG-HVX200 and included 22 shooting locations.

The entire filmmaking process took almost a year apiece for writing, shooting and post-production (3 years total). The first cut of the movie was 2 hours and 11 minutes long.

The original lead actor lost interest about 3 months into the shoot, so Saich and crew decided to scrap what they had and start over.

If my tallies are correct, there are 19 current WLOS employees and another 6 former employees in the cast.

The invitation-only cast & crew screening took place at Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Road. Nearly 170 people were in attendance.

Sides: The disc I was loaned did not have any special features. There wasn't a menu or chapter list either.

Aftertaste: I think it's a great premise for a movie, and for most of the stuff I listed in the "Tough to Swallow" section, I think all of that could be remedied with a bigger budget.

Aside from a few abrupt cuts, the editing was top-notch. I loved some of the transitions between scenes; my favorite is early on when Agent Wood (Orr) asks Agent Quick (Boughton), "What have you heard?," and we fade to a police scanner in Capra's car. The early scene where Capra describes how he works (beginning with the zoom on the crowbar) is another great sequence. And, I thought the shooting location by the railroad tracks looked freakin' awesome.

Saich knows how to frame a shot. I don't see any issues with composition. A couple of shots stand out for me: 1) the merging of Capra's reflection and his father's picture, and 2) the reflection of Duncan in the alarm clock.

Puckett, as the leading man, does a commendable job. At times he seems to channel Edward Norton. Garcia is intimidation personified, but I think he would be more menacing and mysterious with fewer lines and his traditionally shaved head (I say traditionally because I've only seen him completely bald at work).

The twist you'd normally find at the end of the movie is actually introduced about 18 minutes into the film. There's an unexpected hero and no love story. Who needs conventions?

All in all, for an amateur film with a near-$500 budget and local actors, it's pretty decent.

With a little tweaking, it could get some love in the film festival circuit.

For those of you not in the area and interested in viewing the film (or working with/hiring David Saich), Saich is on Facebook.



  1. Awesome job sir. Thank you.

    A few explainers... not meant as any kind of excuses, because any of the issues you noted are my fault as a director or editor, so I'm not going to try to sway your opinion but I thought it would be of interest to address a few items...

    First up - the DUI scene; we had a cop on hand (it was his car - no names.) He said that we were mostly procedural. When someone is inebriated past the point of reasonable doubt the driver would be frisked, observed for hostility, seated and breathalyzed. Where our cop screwed up was taking his eyes off the suspect. Usually the test would be administered at the passenger door. He wasn't supposed to be that smart anyway.

    At Capra's arrest: Frank was not the driver. At the start of the scene you see him listening in in his Cadillac. He was supposed to have snuck into the driver's seat, which one could argue as acceptable given that he was assisting in the case. Either way, my bad for not making this a bit clearer.

    Duncan's theft: I always sort of liked the ambiguity of it... why not, if you're disappointed with the way your life is turning out? ... There is a vague reference to Duncan's desire to 'disappear' a little later. I felt comfortable leaving the viewer to fill in some background here and there.

    I can think of one instance where I deliberately cut in soft focus - generally I'll go with performance over my own screw-ups.

    I like the font, specifically because it feels 'cheap - but trying to look important'. It fits the whole production.

    The dot was inside the lens adapter, unreachable without a strip-down and rebuild. The raid was the first day of shooting with it - I only got the adapter the night before and had to wait at the post office depot on the Saturday night to get it, or not have it for the shoot on Sunday. I was arrogant enough to think I could clean up the dot in post, at that point never having even touched After Effects but knowing I'd get it later.

    Whoops. I'm going to tackle it again - I have a bit better handle on After Effects now...

    The creepy motel manager played himself. His business card says 'Blue Ridge Motor Inn'. I'm sure they don't care.

    "Any other family" was looped. Whoever was boom operator adjusted their grip and the mic picked it up. The line was really there originally - I guess Jason's mouth doesn't move much... Once again I thought I could fix it in post - not as easy as I thought, evidently.

    I put it to you that it's way more likely that Ryan mis-spells his name. Everyone knows Felton has an O.

    Gene loaned me his 2 favorite guns for three weeks. I gave them back to him just before Christmas. I may never be finished thanking him.

    Your observations are all spot on. I'm still tweaking... I can address a lot of the technical issues before my next festival deadline.

    Thanks for your time - I'll take three stars - better than Boondock 2 (suck it, Duffy!), a little short of The Invention of Lying... really?

    Thanks man, see you at work, Dave

  2. Awesome review, Brian. You’re very detailed and completely honest in your opinions. You present them without apology. I find that very refreshing in a movie review.

    I don’t like the font either. It may fit the production, but I don’t think it fits the movie.