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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 7/6/01

A Better Place
Special Edition - 1997 (2001) - View Askew Productions (Synapse Films)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

A Better Place Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A+/A

Specs and Features

85 mins, NR, full fame (1.33:1), Amaray keep case packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:01:47, in chapter 18), 3 introductions (by executive producers Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier), audio commentary (by writer/director/producer Vincent Pereira, star/associate producer Brian Lynch, star Joseph Cassese and star Robert DiPatri), 8 deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Vincent Pereira), original mono mix/Dolby Digital 5.1 mix comparison for 3 scenes, color bars with hidden outtakes, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (25 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: none

Back in 1994, a young filmmaker from New Jersey, named Kevin Smith, released a little film that I think everyone knows by now. It was called Clerks - I hope you've heard of it. It marked a great film debut - not remarkable, but definitely something that shook the shoulders of audiences dead to a cinema language grown stale with buddy flicks, costume dramas and angst-filled, twenty-something, relationship films.

But why am I bringing Kevin up in a review for A Better Place? That's easy. Clerks, as you know, focused on a day in the life of two ne'er do well shop clerks, named Dante and Randall. When you take into consideration Smith's history, it won't surprise anyone to know that the film was loosely based on Smith's own exploits as a convenience store clerk. Smith's surrogate, Dante Hicks, was the eternally shit-upon clerk who can't pull a good break anywhere. And always ahead of him at every turn is the ying to his yang, video store clerk Randall. Randall's philosophies and diatribes are Smith's in every way shape and form, but historically speaking, the true-life video store clerk in Smith's life was one Vincent Pereira, the writer/director of A Better Place. See? It all starts to come together now. Pereira, like every video store clerk in America (past, present and future, on up to the likes of Quentin Tarantino) loves movies more than life. And once you talk to him (or read one of his finicky-as-hell rants on the Mobius Board), you'll know this. He's been influenced by every movie he ever saw glowing out from the monitors stuck to the wall of his store. And over the years, Pereira's enthusiasm bled into Smith, causing Smith to chase down that black rabbit known as film as well. In effect, we all owe Vincent thanks for inspiring Smith to share his voice with us. And now... we owe Smith for returning the favor for Vincent.

A Better Place is Pereira's View Askew-funded film festival hit, about a young guy in his last year of high school wrestling with his life and a new friend, who is so mentally unhinged that he's dangerous to everyone in the school. Pretty heavy stuff to be preaching in this age of Columbine. The grand thing is, Pereira's touch is so poetic and real that the film becomes even more dangerous than you'd initially assume it might be. That could be a great thing for film fans... and, unfortunately, for people looking to point their fingers at artists "influencing corruptible minds in society". A Better Place doesn't turn away from the violence it has uncovered in our world, but rather embraces it with a lyrical voice. Like Terence Malick's Badlands (a film A Better Place identifies itself with in more than a few ways), we watch two young people come to grips with not only themselves, but also with the world. One of them sees the world and what it has to offer as a learning vehicle - something to absorb and move on from. The other sees the world as his enemy - something that needs to be taught a lesson of who's boss. But the big question is: who's bigger than life itself?

The film starts off with young Barret Michaelson, haunted by the death of his father who died accidentally about a year ago. He and his mother have relocated to New Jersey to pick up the pieces, although he seems to be having a hard go at it. The "cute girl" Barret sees in the cafeteria won't give him the time of day, and up-and-coming college athletic star (re: dick) Todd DeWolf decides to use Barret to show off his alpha maleness to his friends. While locker room tensions escalate, in comes dark and mysterious Ryan Walker, who proceeds to defend Barret's honor and literally smash in the face of Todd. Barret and Ryan immediately start a friendship. But what begins as a positive bonding experience swirls out of control, when Barret finds that Ryan is unhinged because of his own past involving his father. This is when the story stops being polite and starts getting better - A Better Place on MTV. Catch it after Jackass.

Pereira is a really talented filmmaker, and this is a heck of an introduction to what he has to say cinematically. His touch is light but sure. The acting is pretty good for a bunch of friends and unpaid casting call finds. The writing is incredibly natural and the dialogue sounds like what kids have to say when pent up feelings and abstract philosophizing get out of hand. Filmatically, it has a nice documentary edge to it that adds a spooky flavor to the mix. It's hard to peg the feel, because it's not a horror film in any way shape or form, but it's really easy to see why some horror fans have taken to it. Overall, I was very impressed with the film when I saw it about two years ago, and I'm even more so now, because it really isn't the same film anyone has seen before. Pereira took the time it's taken to get the film on DVD to tweak it to hell and back. New sound, better opening and closing credits, and almost subliminal edits make the film flow so much nicer than before. If you saw A Better Place at Vulgarthon or at Fantasia, expect a newer and better film on DVD.

So that brings us to the DVD. Is it worth the wait? Yep. Synapse has always been a good company for going out of their way to bring little seen films to DVD. I think I should go out of my way here to say that I've been very proud of Don May, Jr. for sticking to his guns and his pocketbook to support films like this. It's not a cheap endeavor, and with the post-production tweaks put into this film by Don and Vincent, this is more a labor of love than a cash cow for anyone involved. Give him a big hug when you see him at the next film or horror convention he shows up at.

The video quality is incredible when you consider a few factors. One, the film was shot 16mm. This flick sure doesn't look like it was shot 16mm anymore. It still has low-budgetitious with bumpy camera shots, out of focus scenes and one jarring shot that went bad in camera but was too important to loose. You'll also see a couple of new shots in the film, added for the DVD director's cut, that were pulled from a work print. But unless you're intimately knowledgeable about the film, I doubt you'll even notice them - they're cleaned up nicely. The video itself is nicely clean. Colors are well rendered and the blacks are pretty solid. Any grain you see (and it's surprisingly not much) is there because this is a 16mm. But the good thing is the transfer was taken from the original film element - not some 35mm blow-up.

Cleaned up even better is the sound. We get a very playful and expansive Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which was pulled together at Skywalker Ranch. You can listen to the film either blown out in 5.1, or with a suped-up Dolby Digital 2.0. Even cooler is an extra feature that allows you to compare the Dolby Digital 5.1 with the original, icky mono track for three scenes. It'll show every wannabe filmmaker out there the power of professional sound, I tell ya.

Additional extras include a running commentary track with Pereira and his cast and crew. It's very technical and Vincent beats himself up a few times. I couldn't help but think, "Vincent - relax. You did a great job. Now go get some real money and a professional crew. You have the talent, you just need to back it up." The track has a lot of light and funny moments as well, thanks mostly to Hollywood's Brian Lynch of Big Helium Dog fame. You'll also get 8 deleted scenes with optional Pereira commentary. A lot of these scenes were in the original festival cut of the film, and they're definitely better viewed separately. It's another lesson that sometimes longer isn't better - sometimes, a director's cut can have a running time shorter than the original release and be better for it. The big piece that all View Askew fans want is the video introduction by Kevin Smith. It's here in triplicate. I think the best one is the third one, but the whole A Butter Place thing is inspired in take one. You'll also find a surprise outtake reel in the color bars and maybe some other stuff as well... hint, hint. You never know what to expect when the Synapse family meets the miscreants at View Askew.

I'm really happy this film's finally come to DVD. The wait was definitely worth it, and the time and money it took to get it out is definitely in evidence here. A Better Place is a dark, funny and frightening film, from an original voice worth listening to. I'm hoping Vincent gives us another film soon (and I'm hoping he finds more money this time to do it). I don't know what's in the water up in Red Bank, but it's gotta be some good stuff.

Todd Doogan
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