Awakening, The (2006)Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/30/06 08:24:09
The darnedest thing happened after I called Mike Conway’s “War of the Planets” one of the worst movies I’d ever seen: the guy emailed me. And he actually thanked me.Of course, he says his movie is better than I said it was, but that’s to be expected. What’s unexpected was his graciousness and his candor. Whenever a filmmaker contacts a critic, it’s usually to thank him for a positive review - or, in the case of some hack screenwriters, to lob misspelled insults. Filmmakers rarely, if ever, drop a line to someone who just tore their baby to shreds in the press just to say howdy. But Conway, well, not only did he actually thank me for my brutal, unforgiving review, he also asked me to take a look at his new movie. And in a bit of Ed Woodian optimism, he promised it’d be better than the last one.
I mention all of this because I’m about to tell you that “The Awakening,” Conway’s follow-up to “Planets,” is in fact not all that bad, and I would rather you know about my chatting with Conway up front, instead of having someone complain later on that I only went soft on the guy because he asked nicely. (Trust me: if I actually knew Conway beyond the very few of brief emails we’ve sent to each other over the course of the past six months, I’d recuse myself from reviewing. It’s called journalistic integrity, kids.)
Plus, it makes for a good story. Indie filmmaker takes one on the chin and keeps one smiling? That’s kinda neat.
Anyway. “The Awakening” is a marked improvement over the disaster of “Planets,” and while it’s not very good, well, at least it’s a little fun. Not fun enough for me to recommend this to the general public, mind you, but fun enough that longtime fans of low budget genre B movies will probably get a kick out of it. This is because unlike his previous outing, Conway (and company) isn’t taking himself too seriously, and the dopey silliness of a homemade B picture has something of an infectious charm. Regular viewers of the Sci-Fi Channel know what I mean.
For “The Awakening,” Conway once again wears all the hats: writer, director, cinematographer, editor, music composer, and yes, even star. Conway plays Dr. David Andrade, who’s the nation’s leading expert in genetic radiation something-or-other. Andrade’s wife, Lara (Tamra Ericson Frame), is dying of bone cancer, unless the good doctor’s newest experiments can zap that cancer for good. The zapping does the trick, but there’s a side effect: Lara is now nigh invincible and slightly insane. Dressed up like a superhero, she’s taken to cruising for punks to kill and cars to throw way up in the air. What will Dr. Dave do?
There’s also some stuff about a cover ops group and some government types and a couple of hard-ass Marines and something called Project Gladiator, although one does not watch movies like “The Awakening” to enjoy the intricacies of the plot. No, Conway knows what kind of film he’s making and what kind of audience he wants (outside of the core audience of friends and family of the cast and crew, that is). And so we get Ericson Frame strutting around in skimpy outfits, kicking ass with the assistance of visual effects director Kelly Johnston’s home computer. There’s also an ample supply of extras dressed up as soldiers and covert agents shooting and/or getting shot. Mix in the occasional intentionally loopy moment and you’re neck-deep in B territory.
Your appreciation/enjoyment of the film, then, will depend entirely on your appreciation/enjoyment of silly homemade quickies made expressly for the sheer delight of those involved in the making and anyone else who might like to pop in for a look. Make no bones about it: this is not a very good movie. It’s shot - cheaply - on digital video, with less than impressive audio and sets that betray the very low budget Conway and his friends are trying to disguise. (It’s guerilla filmmaking, really; in one scene, blood stains on the wall have to be digitally painted in, probably because Conway wasn’t allowed to mess up the place of the nice person who let him film there that one weekend.) The too-clean deep focus of video delivers some iffy imagery - too clear in ways that never help convince us that the film wishes to be legit. (It doesn’t help that the opening credits have all the finesse of a home movie made by someone who’s just learning how to handle the software; our first impression is that this was slapped together as cheaply as possible, and that’s not a good first impression to deliver.)
The cast is the usual mixed bag, a few saving graces sprinkled throughout but for the most part tilting too much toward the amateur side. Several of Conway’s pals from “Planets” return, showing improvement only in the sense that now we can see that they’re doing it for a lark, which actually relaxes them and makes them more bearable. Ericson Frame doesn’t seem as comfortable in her super-vixen role as she should, while Conway comes off as a bit too much of a dope to be convincing as a man of science. Both, however, do have their moments; hidden between some big eye-rollers are quieter moments that somehow actually work. More on that in a bit.
Conway’s other big obstacle is his editing. It’s apparent that he’s often stuck using whatever footage is available, with some shots limiting his choices, thus creating a picture that’s not very visually appealing. (One finds the camera operator sitting in the back seat of a car, capturing some awkward visuals of the actors in the front seat.) Contending with a friends-and-family method of casting also creates limits, as there are only so many ways you can present a dialogue scene in which both actors are stumbling through their lines - and Conway often picks an unappealing array of close-ups, edited “Dragnet” style.
But then there are many little moments that impress. As clumsy as the film is, there’s plenty to admire. I liked the inventiveness that had Conway working around a limited set by shooting one sequence from afar, using night vision. I giggled whenever the movie found a way to work around special effects limitations - you can see the seams, but here, that’s kind of the point. I appreciated the musical score, which rarely sounded hokey and sometimes actually sounded pretty darn solid.
And I got a kick out of some of the smaller touches Conway would drop into the script, allowing he and Ericson Frame (pre-super-vixen) to get close to something that actually clicks in terms of storytelling. There’s a throwaway bit that finds Conway talking on the telephone, and it struck me that the conversation we’re hearing is actually allowed to sound like a conversation you might actually have in real life, instead of these fakey phone calls we get in the movies, with actors repeating lines and behaving unnaturally. Conway puts a few scenes like this in his movie, scenes that hint at the filmmaker being on to something. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Foster Boom’s bit role as a confused doctor. She’s actually quite good, and her appearance early on draws us in where a lesser actor would’ve put us off.)
But most of all, I enjoyed the fact that it’s all just for fun. No, I can’t call it a good movie, or a recommendable movie, but there’s a number of you out there that hears “independent sci-fi action flick made for around five grand (!) that’s got a scantily-clad babe ripping guys’ hearts out of their chests and ripping holes in people’s cars” and your ears perk up just a bit. “The Awakening” is for you, in all its big, stupid, laughable glory.Is that a softball critique of a problematic movie? Nah - just an honest one. For all its faults, there’s something here that a certain group of people will find entertaining. Not bad for a homemade movie from a guy who once made one of the worst films ever.
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