Residents in the UK may recall the Screen Edge label that made a mark in the 1990s releasing low budget independent (often American) films. Synthetic Truth, an ultra low budget feature from Arizona based indie filmmaker Zachary Yoshioka and his outfit Ballistic Entertainment would have nestled nicely amid Screen Edge's outré catalogue. Not that the subject matter here is as kooky. Looking at the title I was expecting a SF piece - something about cloning maybe? Unfortunately, this is more teen angst drama than anything else, although it does waver (somewhat distractingly) between several genres (drama, thriller, comedy, action, student film etc.). The title stems from people not being honest with themselves or others.
Given that this had a theatrical debut in Yoshioka's hometown of Tempe, and I was watching the DVD release (complete with a wide range of extras and available from Amazon.com) it is pretty impressive to discover that Yoshioka and his team have managed to do all this on a budget of just $3,000!
Now there is a school of thought that says you have to bear the budget in mind when judging a film. I don't subscribe to that. A micro budget film can be more engaging than a six figure Hollywood epic. Telling stories well or simply doing something strikingly artistic does not hang on budget. The budget isn't a problem for this film. It's major shortcomings can be traced back to the script. So breaking many of the basic screenplay rules isn't a good idea when you've few production values to 'distract' the viewer. Having seven writing credits is also not a sign of a strong, clear vision, and handling more than ten main speaking parts would be a challenge even for William Goldman let alone the non-professional.
The opening sequence is straightforward enough. A teenage girl reflects on her life and we flash back to earlier events that we realise will lead us up to the opening sequence. Unfortunately, the weak structure and poor scripting makes things difficult to follow and after twenty minutes of still not knowing what the the hell was supposed to be happening, I had to reach for the sleeve to read the synopsis again. This, combined with so many main characters who each get precious little screen time, and you've got something that at times is pretty incomprehensible.
All that said, there is a difference between low budget, even micro budget, and $3,000. The film's strengths lie much in Yoshioka's skills behind the camera. He's probably a stronger editor than he is director at this stage in his career - but that's not to say he can't improve his directing skills. Certainly, he gets a lot out of his untrained cast - most do a good job and do so with plenty of conviction. Also, Ballistic Entertainment is run as much for enjoyment as anything else and I'm sure that Yoshioka, despite aspirations, would be the first to admit that this is filmmaking by enthusiastic amateurs rather than anything approaching 'professional'.
Having made a no-budget film myself, I know you can't take anything away from the achievement that Yoshioka and his teams of crew and cast have managed to pull off despite daunting odds. Moreover, Ballistic have an amazingly short production cycle, having managed to put out eight films in just six years. A special mention must go to the soundtrack, co-written by Efrain Becerra and Andy Leach and featuring Arizona-based band The Strand. Way better than most low-budget outings and better than many major releases.
DSO contributor and Trash City publisher Jim McLennan and his wife Chris both have small parts, having been roped in after taking executive producer roles on the production. Jim's performance, especially his first scene, is highly entertaining; whilst Chris shows a decidedly natural streak that could see her carve out a new career for herself.
The finished product would benefit from re-editing to reduce the size of some of the parts, shorten the running time by at least fifteen minutes and to firm up a narrative focus. Interestingly, the trailer that appears as one of the DVD extras (see below), is altogether much more impressive. In fact, it took me some time to realise that this was a trailer for the film I'd just watched rather than a different movie! Perhaps Yoshioka's experience directing music videos for local bands has given him the opportunity to hone that fast cut, short form. If talent improves with experience then at their current rate of production it should not be long before the Ballistic Entertainment team step up to the major league. 5/10
Region 1 US DVD
The absolutely dreadful sleeve artwork does not inspire confidence, but this is definitely one time to wheel out that reliable cliché about not judging a book by its cover. In spite of meagre resources, this Ballistic Entertainment release has as many extras (including animated menus) as some major studio releases.
The most informative and entertaining extra has to be the commentary track featuring director Yoshioka, producer/actor Ryan Liss, actor Andy Bill and executive producers Jim and Chris McLennan. I first switched to this option after watching about thirty minutes of the film having found it hard going up until that point. As soon as I made the switch the viewing experience improved considerably. I quickly went back and watched the entire film listening to the commentary. If anyone wants an insight into low-to-no budget filmmaking this would be a great place to start. It provides plenty of laughs too.
The aforementioned trailer is impressive. Reviewing it, it still looks like a different film! but it is very good. Anyone seeing this in advance of the film itself should certainly have their appetite whetted.
There are two videos. Yoshioka's video for The Strand's Haunted is a relatively straightforward performance to playback video, shot in an abandoned warehouse rather than a dull studio. What it lacks in originality though is outweighed by the director's impressive editing. The song will appeal to fans of industrial music. (More about The Strand can be found in the DSO audio section.) The one for Seconds to Breathe's Glittering is musically less interesting (US alt-rock) but as far as live performance videos go its a good example.
There are a couple of short spoof MTV 'crib' pieces in which director Yoshioka and producer Ryan Liss show us around their film industry 'superstar' homes. These are both more dull than funny and I could live without them. Needless padding.
As a package then, the DVD is good value if you like the main feature or want an insight into no-budget filmmaking. DVDs can be ordered from the Ballistic Entertainment website at: http://www.ballisticentertainment.net.
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