Playgiarism (2006) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably R for language and some crude humor
Running Time: 100 min.

Cast: Jose Prendes, Karen Ross, Jessica Prendes, Tara Cardinal, Julie Clark, Zuleika Firpo, Dana Forte, Jeff Knighten, Woody Meckes, Dara Wedel
Director: Jose Prendes
Screenplay: Jose Prendes

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." ~Winston Churchill

The above quote isn't actually in the film itself, but given that writer-director-producer-star Jose Prendes opted to place several quotes throughout his film, I thought I'd throw in a meaningful one of my own before I start my review of his film. 

Say what you will about Jose Prendes or his films, which probably haven't brought him any money just yet, but he refuses to accept defeat, and goes about each project with enthusiasm.  He did enthusiastically send me the copy of his latest film, Playgiarism, for an early review, and I can only presume that he's very proud of it based on the exuberance he shows for his completed project in his correspondence with me, as well as through the energy and gusto he shows throughout his film. 

In many ways, I think he should feel proud.  At times, the film is funny and endearing, filled with a truthfulness about the frustrations of being a struggling young filmmaker who can't seem to find the right avenue to success just yet.  He knows he has talent, as well as the determination, but limited funds and not making the right projects to get himself noticed haven't resulted in Hollywood rolling out the red carpet.  He puts a lot of himself in the film, literally and figuratively, and if nothing else, the project has probably been a cathartic experience, and works as a potential note of encouragement to other struggling filmmakers to never stop chasing your dreams.

In semi-autobiographical fashion, Jose has written himself into the film with an alter ego, Jeff Dalton, a guy that has used money from his trust fund to pursue his lifelong ambition of being a filmmaker. After the completion of his first film, Corpses Are Forever (Prendes' actual first film), Dalton doesn't exactly find opportunity knocking from Hollywood, and the reviews of the film have been less than kind.  At least he can find some solace in getting his film out there with a straight-to-video release, although his dreams of fame, fortune and respect are still just dreams.

It's happenstance that Dalton should meet the eccentric and free-spirited Pepper Tatakichi, a customer service rep for the plumbing company he recently hired.  It turns out that, like Jeff, she is also a struggling artist -- a playwright -- but one that hasn't yet achieved her ultimate dream of seeing one of her plays performed in front of a live audience.  Dalton finds her to be harmlessly crazy, but can't seem to find a way to stop running into her, and with his experience as a director, she uses Jeff as her avenue to making her dreams come true by hiring him to direct her play, "The End is Nigh".  Jeff doesn't really think the play will be any good, but he can't turn down the money offered, so he consents.  But with only two weeks to do it, the task proves to be quite a challenge.

Within the film, there is a scene that struck a chord with me as a movie reviewer, and I can't stop thinking of it as I sit here to type up this review.  In the film, Pepper asks Jeff for his opinion of the play she has given him to read, and you see in his face that he struggles with what to tell her, finally mustering up with a look of sincerity and saying, "I liked it".  After being hired on for a bit, the two have a heart-to-heart, and he is asked again if he really liked it, and this time, perhaps actually meaning it, he confirms that he does. 

The reason this resonated with me is because, given the zeal and satisfaction Prendes has shown for his pet project, and knowing that he will probably be reading this review, I feel a bit like Jeff does in the film.  If Prendes asked me "off the record" if I liked his film, I probably would respond favorably, partially out of a desire not to be hurtful, and partially out of a qualified truth.  I mean, it is a likeable film, at the very least.

However, unlike Jeff in the film, I don't have to answer to just Jose Prendes alone.  He has asked me to review his film, and in so doing, I also have an obligation to the people that are reading this review and looking for a recommendation to not waste their time and money just because I don't want to hurt a guy's feelings.  From the early days of the site's existence, I vowed to always be honest when I write a review, and to Prendes' credit, he told me that is all he is asking for.

So, here it is -- my honest review. 

Playgiarism is a film that can be enjoyable, but only if those in the viewing audience are willing to overlook very meager production values, amateurish acting, and sometimes stiff execution during many scenes.  The writing is fresh, and the cast is likeable (there's that word again),  but the film as a whole suffers due to a certain staleness in the delivery that makes the film as a whole uneven.

I'm not entirely sure if they only had one camera to work with, but there are many times the film felt that way.  Someone would speak and we'd see a reaction shot of one of the other characters, and perhaps a few words, but the conversation felt more like it was spliced together in post-production rather than done with natural flow.  Sometimes the difference in sound quality from shot to shot is very noticeable, with whole scenes where one person is talking much louder than another, with audible hiss and noise in the background of one shot followed by silence in another.  Granted, with more money for cameras, better audio equipment, and sophisticated processing, these problems would have been resolved.  It's hard to knock Prendes for these things, since he's done the best he could with the available resources at his disposal.

Even with the inconsistent quality of the film due to a lack of production values, the film does manage to work at times, especially when Karen Ross is onscreen, perhaps the most talented actor in the film.  She really brings a lot to her role, and whenever she is involved in a scene with the second most talented actor in the film, Jose Prendes himself, there is a natural, charismatic flow that suggests the possibilities that could have been for the film if seasoned character actors had been cast instead of a bunch of relatively inexperienced up-and-comers.  Unfortunately, Ross isn't there throughout the movie (although she does provide the voice-overs), and once she departs from the film, the energy starts to dissipate, as well as most of the appeal of the rest of the film.

Prendes, like myself, appears to have a passion for comic books, especially for Superman, so I think he may relate to what I'm about to say.  Basically, it's unsolicited advice on something that will make his films play better for the audience.  Since I have a feeling that he will continue to make films in the future, hopefully he takes what I'm about to say to heart for his next film. 

I remember reading an article about legendary comic book artist and writer (who revamped Superman famously in the mid-1980s)  John Byrne, where they said that his strengths as an artist lie in the fact that all of the characters he draws look like they are "in character" even when they aren't given any dialogue.  When you look at his art, the facial expressions and things the characters do when they aren't speaking or even primarily involved in a scene give the feeling that these characters are still engaged and involved in what is going on in that virtual world they exist in.  Unlike, say, Hanna-Barbera of the 1970s cartoons where the characters that aren't speaking stand still and do nothing but occasionally blink, there is a lot of richness, naturalism, and authenticity that he brought to his stories by just paying attention to the little details of what's going on with the entirety of the ensemble, and not just the central character speaking dialogue.

By the same token, many films I've seen by amateur filmmakers have that certain "Hanna-Barbera" stiffness to them when it comes to non-speaking characters in scenes.  Many times, these actors look like what they are -- actors without lines not knowing what to do or how to react when not given instruction.  Since most of the primary focus is involved with the person speaking, perhaps the thinking is that no one will be paying attention to them anyway.  While it's true that people viewing a film generally pay most of their attention to the person speaking, when these other characters are standing around waiting for their turn to speak again, there is a rigidity encumbering the natural flow of things that develops that makes the scenes feel rather lifeless and drab.  Actors should always look like they are "in character", even if they are just standing around, and not look like they were replaced by cardboard cutouts until their spoken lines come up.

Playgiarism falls short of being a good film, not because it is a bad film per se, but because the amateurishness, stiffness, and lack of sufficient production values are constantly present, which for audiences trying to suspend disbelief and become involved in the story, makes it difficult to enjoy outright.  However, given that I knew that the film was made cheaply with very limited time, money, and talent, I still enjoyed watching the film, as there is some interesting and truthful stuff underneath.

So, yes, like Jeff Dalton in the film, if confronted by the author as to whether or not I liked his work, I could probably deliver, with just as much sincerity, the affirmative.  I actually did like watching it.  Unfortunately, I also have the burden of being someone people look to for honest recommendations of movies worth their time and money.  Although I might recommend this film for anyone struggling to make it as a screenwriter or director for a bit of empathy from a kindred soul, outside of this demographic, the overhead of the inconsistent execution will probably be too much to bear for casual viewers out there. 

At the very least, we can respect that Prendes has suffered so much through the words of promoters and critics, but still retains his enthusiasm.  As Churchill asserts in the opening of this long review, despite the fact that Playgiarism may not be the breakthrough that will put Prendes on the Hollywood map, his continued exuberance and quixotic determination at the craft of filmmaking just might eventually make him a success after all.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo