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Worth A Look: 7.69%
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Pretty Bad46.15%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 1 rating

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Colma: The Musical
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by Tony Hansen

"Ebullient? Yes! Heartfelt? Yes! Good? eh."
2 stars

I’ll admit that based on my partiality to indie films I wanted "Colma: The Musical" to be a hidden little gem that got overlooked by so many festivals. I really did. I was a "Colma" cheerleader. Filled with joyous anticipation, I was ready to do backhand-springs over its musical magic and cartwheel into the nirvana of its melodies. I wanted to rock AND roll. But, now, having seen the film, I’m too disappointed to do any tumbling. At this point, even a summersault feels too effusive. The sad truth is that this ugly duckling of a film about an ugly duckling of a town is just plain ugly. It’s the little engine that couldn’t.

Colma tells the story of three friends, just out of high school, who are struggling through the emotional growing pains of becoming adults. Of course, the film drags these characters through different turbulent relationships, all while their connection with each other becomes increasingly strained. As the film is a musical, the setting of the film is entirely ironic. Colma, a dead end town outside of San Francisco, is, essentially, a graveyard. It serves, primarily, as a dumping ground for San Francisco’s recently deceased. But, more importantly, it also serves as a rather fine ongoing metaphor for the characters’ emotional states and inevitable futures.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any part of the film's plot. And it should be stated that the music in the film is both catchy and earnest. The direction of these musical numbers are quite fun, and director Richard Wong does some interesting things with split screens. Really, there is a great deal to like about Colma. It can be sincerely stated that the film gets quite a bit right. Conceptually, Colma is actually quite a little powerhouse. It’s an indie film that cares more about emulating traditional film musicals than it does about breaking new ground. And, ironically, this is exactly how the film does break new ground.

Where the film struggles, however, is in the details. Like it or not, there exists in screenwriting a film lexicon. Or, to state it in different terms, there is a specific rhythmic language to certain genres, particularly musicals. Audiences know what to expect from their movies. In horror films, for example, audiences have a good sense of when to be scared. They know that when an actor slowly looks behind a door, either a monster could be revealed or the filmmakers could be creating a playful fake-out. When watching a musical, you know generally when the jokes will be made, when a song will arrive, and when a pivotal line will be spoken. There is a certain tempo to genre cinema.

As previously stated, even though Colma is an independently produced film, it is nevertheless a genre film. It's another musical. As such, it predictably carries with it the same conventions and cadences of other like fare. The problem with Colma is that as it lives by the sword, it also dies by the sword. When a filmmaker makes a musical, he/she doesn’t just have to hit the comedic beats or emotional rhythms accurately. The filmmaker also has to deliver quality material on those beats and rhythms. And Colma doesn’t do either of these things consistently. With Colma, it’s as if in every scene someone says, “Shave and a haircut,” and then someone else fails to say, “Two bits.” And for a genre, like the musical, this lack of success is fairly jarring.

But Colma’s failures don’t end with the lack of material. The film also takes for granted the audience’s desire to like its characters. The apparent presumption is that we should care about Billy (Jake Moreno), Rodel (H.P. Mendoza), and Maribel (L.A. Renigen) simply because they are our protagonists. But none of the films characters are all that likeable. Honestly, nearly every character in the film is a complete and total ass. In fact, the characters behave so condescendingly to every aspect of society that it’s difficult to imagine the film’s audience not feeling alienated. Of course, this condescension could be seen as a reflection of the characters’ ages and, thus, it has a certain thematic purpose. Someone may be able to use this purpose to make a compelling argument for the film. The problem is that by making all of the characters unlikable, screenwriter/actor Mendoza (who also wrote the music) and Wong completely undercut the ultimate emotional impact of the film, in particular its ending. These young adults want to get out of Colma? Who cares? When the psychological arc of the film takes these characters from selfishness to simply enlightened selfishness, the ending lacks satisfaction on every level.

Perhaps this is an issue with the screenplay, but a certain amount of blame must be given to the actors, themselves. Mendoza, Moreno, and Renigen don’t help out the tinny dialogue with their stilted line readings. It’s like watching a Kevin Smith film that doesn’t have any memorable jokes. Equally detrimental to the film is the casting of 25 to 30-year-old actors in the roles of characters nearly ten years younger. Now, I understand that perhaps the economic restraints of the budget don’t allow the luxury of accurate casting, but come on. Really? The entire film, hinges on the concept that these “kids” are, in fact, kids. They’re still out there searching for their identities. In something as sensitive and human as Colma: The Musical, one can only suspend disbelief so far. With this in mind, it’s difficult to look at Mendoza's Rodel and think, “I remember being this young man’s age and asking myself the same questions.” Instead, one simply ponders, “This child of the 1990s was born in the 1970s.”

The script, the acting, and the casting aside, Colma: The Musical almost works. In fact, it’s almost great. So many times the film does something fantastic and then follows it up with a failed line or idea that topples what was previously built. For every step forward, it takes two steps back. Also, when watching the film, it’s easy to see Colma as a labor of love. Mendoza’s work here is commendable. As most musicals of the past and present had/have multiple musicians and multiple screenwriters, Mendoza’s ability to wear three hats by himself on this film is praiseworthy. Actually, it's easier to cheer for Mendoza, the filmmaker, than it is to cheer for any of the characters that he has created in Colma.

While "Colma" isn’t really great, it is interesting. It does deserve to be seen. The lasting question that a potential viewer should ponder is this: would you rather watch a mediocre indie musical or a dreadful, but polished, piece of Hollywood pap?

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originally posted: 05/27/08 08:42:09
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User Comments

6/18/08 Charles Tatum Often charming and compelling 4 stars
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  22-Jun-2007 (R)
  DVD: 20-Nov-2007



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