While I have to admit that not every experiment they try yields great results, I must also state that I am frequently amazed at what these guys have succeeded in pulling off with the budgets and resources they have. In this respect, the Adam Hampton helmed and penned The Cellar works better for me, in its present state, than most Hollywood fare. It's probably a fare statement to say that of all the 'Ultra-Indie' companies that I've reviewed, Phigment Philms (and Outsiders Productions) has the most potential for its artists to be great!
The Cellar is the story of The Seller of meats named Howard Rhodes (Bruce Bushong)! Uh, the Salesman's name is Howard Rhodes, no the Meats... that would be bad. Limited business plan too... It's not that kind of movie. I... Never mind, shit, sorry! Rhodes' need to name a replacement leads him to an on-the-job interview session to help him decide between Joe and Stacey. Joe (Adam Hampton) is an apparent slacker who sleeps late, leaves a one-night-stand in his bed ("Don't steal anything!" he calls over his shoulder.) and staggers into the interview without even shaving. Stacey (Angelina Hampton) is the beautiful single mother who shows up early, dressed for business and with a professional attitude.
While the choice seems pretty obvious to me (Angelina Hampton is really quite lovely in addition to her employment qualifications), Rhody drives them both up from North Texas to South Oklahoma for a few cold sales anyway. While I'd probably rather be sold AS meat than sell meat door-to-door, the montage of scenes illustrates the need for both young people to get this job. This montage illustrates more than just that. The Cellar jumps around through time in this story, telling the tale of the Sales Trip, interspersing that with scenes in which the trio are trapped in a cellar somewhere they're not familiar with, and interspersing that with flashbacks from the lives of the speaker of the moment. It appears that some "Tornado Alley" disaster has taken place and has forced our gang of three to seek refuge in an Auntie Em-esque Cyclone Cellar. The problem is, they can't get the hell back out, even after the storm ends.
Above ground, Adam Hampton seems to be running the gamut between smart and irreverent comedy (somewhere between Clerks and Office Space) and dejected drama (somewhere between Working Girl and SLC Punk). As the needle fluctuates along this dial, The Cellar occasionally shows its flaws from both sides. But down in the Cellar, it's a bit of a different story. The very character of all three leads remains logically (and thankfully) intact. But those characteristics are torn down to their essences to the point that nothing but the truth remains. Adam Hampton skillfully writes the impromptu, need-based group therapy session between three people who would usually have no reason to reach beyond the superficial with each other.
The Cellar (once descending into "the cellar") explores a great many dramatic topics. Love and death, loss and acceptance, religion and doubt, betrayal and longing, regret and the very nature of guilt are all shared in ways that never feel preachy or whiny. All three leads give strong and interesting performances (seeming, at times, almost improvised, yet consistent) and the new complexities shown in these initially straight-forward characters are handled perfectly. No, not every piece of this is perfect, and I don't want to give the impression that you'll walk into a Film Festival screening and walk out shouting "OSCAR, OSCAR!" Yeah, there are flaws, however, these three do well with their material and make an interesting film engrossing.
There are sound issues to point out here, as well as the need for color correction. Bear with me here... all this is understandable.
Sometimes the "noise", including Foley and the occasional loud scream is a bit too high in volume compared to the voices. I found myself pumping up the volume to hear the dialogue, and inching it back down when the background got to be too much. Sometimes the ambient noise causes the low-dialogue to be drowned out and the echoes within the cellar (while, realistic) don't always serve the actor's voices well. That said, the sounds they did mix in are convincing and realistic, particularly that of the Tempest that sends the Tornado Trio to their Cellar Cell. There is also a bit of the need for some smoothing out of the visuals here. Much of the time the interior scenes don't look like they're from the same movie as the outside scenes. The images range from grainy, to all too clear, while much of the colors (particularly outside) seem unintentionally overexposed (not quite "otherworldly" if that was the intent). One area in which this was most certainly intentional and noticeably planned is in the depiction of the title room itself. Here Hampton's film is displayed in an off-palate red tone that does indeed work well for both the darkness and the mood. Even then I had my questions about this. Was there a candle somewhere in the room? Was Hampton showing us that the Cellar was pitch-dark and the discoloration was his way of allowing us to see what the characters could not? If the latter, how might one explain the long shadows we see in the more close-up conversations?
Naturally, I mean those statements to be constructive in nature, because The Cellar is well worth seeing here, now, as it is. Hampton may need some polish, but his engrossing screenplay would work equally as well as a limited locale stage show... like a bleak and introspective Glengarry Glen Ross. As a director, Adam Hampton comes off as comfortable with his vision and complementary to his actors. He seems to have a good eye for when to place the camera where, when to zoom in, and when to go for the full on widescreen effect. Adam Hampton, like Phigment's James Bridges (who contributed to the post-production crew here), has some great potential. I only hope that The Cellar, and its phellow phigment When I Find Bin Laden, gets them more chances to be seen.
Three Stars out of Five for The Cellar, the pensively introspective drama that rises nicely to the high concept of its writer/ director. One thing... this film is more than a little bit of a Downer. Hampton's search for realism almost betrays the lessons his characters learn throughout the full length of this feature. Then again, if every film was Barney and Friends, we'd really have a theatre attendance problem, wouldn't we? Personally, I'm still impressed with Outsiders and Phigment Philms, flaws, roughs and all. If this is what they can do with a "no money" budget, a cast and crew with day jobs and not significantly more than Faith to work with, I say give them a few million bucks, then we could see something amazing. It's just too damned bad every film that features Southern Accents doesn't show them with such intelligence and respect. See you in the Next Reel... when I'll say "Yeeow! Ayipioeeay!" You'll know what I'm sayin'!
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