Monday, August 6, 2012

Counterfeit Friends


HEAVEN STREWN

It's clear that Heaven Strewn is a good story and decent debut film, albeit one where the budgetary constraints are on display.  The casual viewer may grow slightly frustrated at certain decisions made due to the limited funding and on the early pacing, but while watching if we keep the fact that Heaven Strewn didn't have major backing, we can appreciate its ambitions.

Mickey (Wyatt Denny) is a ne'er do-well, counterfeiter and recovering alcoholic.  His sponsor/best friend Jasper (Rob Tepper) is a struggling journalist with a child on the way.  Mickey has gotten some bad news: his latest counterfeiting plans has been botched, but he's learned of a secret drop of those who have done him wrong.  It's going to be deep in the desert; however, Mickey has no way of getting out there.  His buddy Jasper, however, does have a car...

Under the guise of looking for meteorites (which can bring in much money), Mickey basically cons Jasper to drive out to the desert.  Jasper goes, partly because he cares about Mickey but also because he thinks this could be a good story that could save his job.  With that, off they go.  Naturally, Mickey never tells Jasper what his intentions are, and throughout Heaven Strewn Jasper continues to believe they 'accidentally' came across a group of men burying thousands of dollars.  Mickey takes it over the loud objections of Jasper, but due to the criminal's having smashed the fella's truck window, they recognize it later and follow it to their motel.

Although Jasper and Mickey survive the night, Jasper is still furious at Mickey, swearing to cut him off.  In a remarkable twist of fate, the rock the criminals had hurled into Jasper's truck turns out to be a meteorite worth a considerable amount of money.  Jasper, seeing that this will make a great story, gets Mickey to appear in the newspaper.  Mickey, unable to tell Jasper the whole truth, goes along, gets money, and falls off the wagon.  Heaven Strewn ends abruptly, with Jasper and his girlfriend Anna (Alexandra Williams) about to rush to have their baby, and Mickey being found...

Heaven Strewn is a small picture, and when one watches it, one should remember this.  It is vital to remember that writer/producer/director Jeremiah Gurzi had what appears to be a limited budget because the results are there on the screen.  Heaven Strewn is heavily reliant on natural lighting (even in night scenes), at times almost making it look documentary-like (in particular when Jasper and Mickey are escaping the thugs).  It does lend the story a great sense of authenticity, but it also gives it some of its problems.

In particular, it is when Jasper tries desperately (and unsuccessfully) to talk Mickey to leave the money alone.  The camera captures the setting sun, and it soon becomes literally impossible to see what is going on because the screen turns white.  We have to then rely strictly on the soundtrack to get any sense of the scene.  I figure that this may have been Gurzi's efforts at symbolism, because if it wasn't, then it was a wild miscalculation to make the audience not see to the point it becomes blinding.

Side note: having had eye surgery many years ago, bright light (in particular bright sunlight) causes great discomfort from time to time.  Sadly, this particular scene was one of those times.

Another difficulty Heaven Strewn has is that the first act of the film (between the opening and when Mickey 'finds' the thugs burying the money) moves very slow, almost to where one slowly starts fighting off sleep.  To its credit, once we get to this moment, Heaven Strewn immediately picks up from one tense moment to another (the taking of the cash, the thugs coming to the truck, the siege at the hotel) to where once things finally settle down our interest still doesn't flag.

In terms of performances, Gurzi has done great work with his two leads.  The interplay between Denny's Mickey (side note: Denny at times looks like he could be Paul Rudd's brother) and Tepper's Jasper is excellent.  You believe them to be friends who care about each other but you also see how Mickey plays his buddy. 

The best scene between them is a relatively quiet one (in that slow section).  Mickey has taken Jasper to a pawn shop to find a machine to help him with his 'meteorite search'.  WE know Jasper's being played and that Mickey's intentions are nefarious, but Denny has a naturalism to where his manipulation can be seen by someone unaware of his plans (such as Jasper) into thinking he's just interested in meteorites to get some cash.

Tepper equally excels as Jasper, who is not really a fool but one who genuinely trusts someone he shouldn't.  Throughout Heaven Strewn, Tepper never shows Jasper to ever suspect that everything he's witnessed wasn't just a series of accidents and foolish or rash actions rather than a cold and calculating plan that in the end doesn't pan out.  The scene where Jasper and Mickey take the rock to be analyzed is a chance of Tepper to show his performance: his genuine happiness for his buddy's sudden turn of luck is sincere and hopeful that his friend has come up a winner this time.

Again, it is Gurzi's screenplay that allows us to be ahead of the other characters, which makes the sadness of the situation all the more tragic.

One point that I would hold out for special recognition is Patrick Park's score, which is reminiscent of the music for Drive.  It sets the mood without overwhelming the visuals.

If I had some complaints about Heaven Strewn, is that some of the situations are a little on the cliched side (heavily pregnant girlfriend), the beginning is a bit slow and a bit confusing (by the time we arrive in the desert, we may have forgotten that Mickey is a counterfeiter who knows there's going to a drop), and some of the lighting choices were a mistake. 

Some of the situations are oddly reminiscent of other films.  When the cholos are laying siege to the motel, it brought to mind Vacancy, and my brother Gabe said certain elements (such as the criminals pursuing the leads) reminded him of Judgment Night (a film that I'd never heard of). 

Heaven Strewn is a film with flaws.  However, if one keeps in the back of their mind that A.) Heaven Strewn was obviously made on a shoestring budget and B.) this is the first feature film Gurtzi has directed and written, we can forgive its flaws.  Heaven Strewn is on the whole a good movie with a strong story, an excellent calling card from its writer/director.  Granted, one must prepare for a very slow start that almost drags it down, but once it picks up Heaven Strewn keeps one interested for the rest of its brief running time.   


DECISION: B-

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