As this year opened, I was contacted by, watched, and reviewed the second film of independent filmmaker Michael Jason Allen, The Coldest Kiss, and while it had flaws (most of which are common amongst low and ultra-low budget productions), there were some exceptional bright spots in cinematography and scoring, plus enough solid to good portions of the screenplay and the cast’s performances that I could recommend the film overall. Especially parallaxed against the film’s microscopic budget, Allen’s talents and skills behind the camera were magnified even more.
Having now watched his third film, Stealing Sunrise, I am relieved to report that it’s not only a better film than its predecessor, but by quite a margin; and so much so that it needs no caveat of mentioning its likely similarly microscopic budget. It’s just a plain old good film, with moments reaching into very good and excellent, even as it still has a few downsides. As with my earlier review of Allen’s work, I will mostly suspend my lack of inhibition at ‘spoiling’ the movie’s plotline because, to so many casual filmgoers, this kernel of knowledge is often a big factor in their attendance of said films, and I want to encourage viewers and cineastes to patronize Allen’s work.
Let me go chronologically through the script, and get the negative stuff out of the way at the get go. The 92 minute film opens badly. There is a two and half minute long opening pre-credits scene that simply has no place in the film. This is because it is redundant, given that its information is imparted a few times later in the film as well as being essentially irrelevant- a Macguffin, to the deeper point of the film, and that, as executed- a two on one knife fight, it’s quite poor, with robotic choreography and dumb ass antagonists. Basically, we follow one of what will be the film’s four lead characters walking across a pedestrian overpass above a highway to meet a bad ass black dude- some sort of gangster. That lead character is Allen’s own Dallas- a Mohawked none too bright petty criminal. He soon realizes what we see- an even bigger, badder black thug is walking up behind him, meaning Dallas has no way out between the two men. He clearly owes money to Thug 1, and Thug 2 is the enforcer. Both idiots assail Dallas, with clearly pulled punches that miss Dallas by a visible mile. Dallas then pulls out his gun-shaped knife, slashes at the chest and neck of Thug 1, as Thug 2 conveniently stands by, twiddling his thumbs- perhaps frozen in awe of Dallas’s fishing lure like ponytail thingy? This momentary mesmerism allows Dallas to gut Thug 2 like a huge catfish.
Now, this all occurs at night, but in plain view over a busy highway, and neither thug even bothers to bring a gun. Right- not believable at all. Dallas runs away, cue credits, and we’re off. This opening scene is, thankfully, anomalous to the rest of the picture, and it amazes me that Allen kept it in because, as we soon learn, that ‘setup’ is recapitulated in a conversation at a bar between Dallas and his sister Lisa (DeAnna Cali), wherein we learn they are petty crooks who are in league with Eddie (Andrew DeCarlo, who had a minor role in The Coldest Kiss), the leader of their de facto minor league criminal gang, who is in stir and entrusted Dallas with $15,000 of loot he pissed away, thus prompting Dallas to likely turn to the black thugs we can scope out as likely loan sharks. But, again, any reasonable person could have just watched the film, starting post-credits, and gotten all this, as Allen writes a very good scene, filled with realistic dialogue, and heightened by the subjective POVs of the siblings whose comments make the techno-trash music blaring behind them diminish. Clearly, Allen did not trust his own writing early in the screenplay.
We then meet the fourth and final lead character, video game loving Harold (Rhett Crosby- who played a playboy, Howie, in The Coldest Kiss, and was arguably that film’s best actor), Eddie’s younger but larger brother. The trio of Dallas, Lisa, and Harold scheme to meet Eddie, after his release, and pick him up on the highway, where Eddie and Dallas almost come to blows over Dallas’s pissing away of $15,000 worth of booty. Nonetheless, they come up with a plan to go the California cost to ‘watch sunrises’- a plot point that resurfaces in the film to underscore the stupidity of the criminals who believe the sun rises in the west. Their plan entails finding a small town with suckers they can rob. The four characters are, in a sense, archetypes of a crime or heist film, and each acts their role- and all fit solidly together in a believable way.
I will not detail that much of the number of criminal schemes they come up with so not to ‘spoil’ the film’s ending, but, while there are a number of wooden acting performances in the film’s secondary and tertiary roles, the four leads provide a level of acting quality and onscreen chemistry that was discernibly missing in The Coldest Kiss. The weakest performance of the four is Allen’s, but he is solid. The best of the four performances, again, belongs to Rhett Crosby, who, in his role exudes the most range and brings to mind both the physical presence and acting intensity of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and Michael Shannon in both The Iceman and Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, as well as the memory of Lennie Small, from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. It also brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in that, like that film, this film’s main villain turns out not to be the real villain of the film, and we find this out in a doublecross (marred only by a fight scene almost as wooden and typically silly- re: the knockouts require only a single blow cliché-as the one that opens the film). Fortunately the film survives this qualitative hiccup.
The impressive thing about Stealing Sunrise’s screenplay, though, is that while Hitchcock reveals that his main villain is not the real villain about 20% of the way through Psycho, Allen daringly pulls off his heretofore unexpected (albeit slightly hinted at) switcheroo at about the 70% mark, and, unlike in Psycho, the net narrative result of the switch remains unresolved at film’s end (a good thing). More impressive is that it works, for the most part, although the revelation scene, like the final death scene in The Coldest Kiss, goes on too long, and should have been tightened from its 17 minute reveal to maybe a third that. It suffers from what is known as the Evil Gloating trope.
But, on the technical side, the film generally excels. As mentioned, director Allen shines with the faux 80s musical soundtrack, composed of nearly half of his own work, as well as that of other artists. The cinematography, by Allen and James Kelley, is well done- especially a musical montage segment that ends at the Grand Canyon a third of the way into the film. It is a more naturalistic looking film, with subtler compositions and framing, and not as flashy and impressive as the shots in the prior film, but, given that Stealing Sunrise is a better scripted and acted character study, it’s a worthy tradeoff. 1980s era paraphernalia include a cassette playing tape deck in Dallas’s sportscar, and their picking up Eddie as he walks under a bridge with a train under it (a motif oft used in 80s era films on ‘lostness’).
Some good moments include the end of a scene where Dallas and Lisa rob an old pawn shop owner (Graham Mackie- who pisses his pants in fear), of $8000, and Dallas deliberately misleads him by mentioning their imminent return to Tulsa, Oklahoma. There are also interesting shots that reveal much of the characters yet have little to do with the action portion of the film, which shows Allen’s growing maturity as a film director in understanding that plot evolves from character and that little moments that reveal character help shape the big moments of plot, even if there could be more and deeper moments and conversations. Some of the best scenes show Harold picking his nose, wiping it on his shirt, and watching Eddie and Lisa make out; and Harold’s game noises and Lisa’s nail filing noises as Dallas tries to sleep.
As mentioned, the lead actors all give good or better than good performances, with Rhett Crosby tasked to toting the biggest load, and succeeding, even as his character is humorously belittled throughout the film, asking what he can do to help, and always being told, ‘nothing,’ by the others. Of the minor characters, Sheriff Pat Porter (Rob Edwards) has some good, naturalistic scenes, as well as some poorly acted scenes, usually those which were amongst the worst penned in the film- such as his almost mentally retarded inability to put the pieces of the ongoing crime spree together. Once he does, an unrealistic scene involves the sheriff going to confront the criminals in their motel room accompanied not by any deputies, but by the dense motel owner, and carrying a single weapon. A better scene comes just before film’s end, in a narrative feint constructed by the film’s real villain, in which the sheriff questions whether the criminals or townsfolk of Bunch are worse. Unfortunately, Edwards stagnates in the otherwise well written scene. But, some of the film’s scenes are negated by simple continuity errors that likely slipped by Allen, who wore at least a dozen hats in this film, down to grip, gaffer, best boy, and caterer. One such scene was a cut from light shining through a window in the sheriff’s office to a simultaneous scene at the motel room of the gang where it is clearly deep into the night.
Another scene that falls flat is the jewelry store heist, which nets the gang a hundred thousand dollars- their biggest score until the main quarter of a million dollar heist that ends the film. The worst part of that particular sequence comes just after the jewelry store heist, where an over the top gay jewelry salesman, Joe (Britain Bhatton) tries to provide humor, playing off the stolid sheriff’s typical moronic bewildered machismo, but fails. The more understated female employee, Kat (Cat Roberts), is solid. Vera Dell, as a wealthy widow, is mediocre, at best, while Brian Adel, as a smarmy prison guard, upon Eddie’s release, evokes Plan 9 From Outer Space level emoting in his elm-like one line performance. But, scenes like the above mentioned, and the film’s opening, need to just not appear in future films. Another scene that loses power comes from not a continuity error, per se, but from a lack of diegetic realism, and this happens when, in this film set in 1986, one of the characters unplugs a telephone jack from the motel room wall, while, in that era, such jacks did not exist, and phone lines literally had to be yanked out with great force. Another error ends the film, as the real villain aims to get away with the $358,000 booty, but to do so he would have to cash an easily traceable check to his own name, thus leading to easy capture.
However, these are all fixable flaws, and are small change in comparison to the green wad that the bulk of the film unpeels. Character realism could use some work, but if Allen’s next film exceeds this one in equal degree that Stealing Sunrise exceeds The Coldest Kiss, then this should be a moot point. All in all, Michael Jason Allen’s latest film shows huge improvement over his last film, and it’s about time some independent investor in films takes notice and sees financial, as well as artistic, reward in his future. All Allen needs is larger distribution, invites to bigger name film festivals, and his films will attract investors, which will, in turn, erase the limitations that the micro-budgets he works with impose- especially in the writing and hiring of higher ceiling actors. As for viewers, enjoy this film and anticipate Allen’s next, and hopefully even better fourth film.