Three Quarters Dead (2023)
I don’t normally review short films but I was asked to by an Ohio filmmaker, and so I agreed to do my best in providing a review of a movie that runs a total of only seven minutes. Three Quarters Dead is the latest from writer/director Angelo Thomas, a rising Ohio filmmaker who already has two movies under his belt, The Incredible Jake Parker and the documentary, DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition. Short films must still function under the same guiding rules as feature-length films: there needs to be a beginning, middle, and end; characters should be engaging; conflict should be clear and developed; and the audience needs a reason to care. Granted, you expect more from an 80-minute movie than an eight-minute movie but you’re still expecting the basics of story, character, and entertainment to land. Three Quarters Dead is a cute little movie that nibbles at the edges of some profound concepts but settles a little too quickly.
We begin at the end, well the end of Zach’s (Eric Six) life. He’s moved on from the mortal plane and wakes up inside a peculiar movie theater. There are only three other patrons sitting in attendance and two of them are skeletons. David (David Reid Hatfield) is the only other living patron, though perhaps that term doesn’t even qualify. He has a sickly, zombie-like pallor and prefers to munch on popcorn sprinkled with maggots. David serves as a guide for wayward spirits, helping them transfer to the Great Beyond outside the theater. Until then, they can sit and watch movies for possibly an eternity of downtime.
The premise of a movie theater as purgatory is a fun concept and has several areas to connect with the theological and philosophical aspects inherent in any life-after-death story. I liked the projectionist being the equivalent of God looking down from above, offering light and diversion while the mortals sit and wait for answers that might never come. I liked the idea that David has been here so long that he forgot who he is. He is literally deteriorating physically and mentally. The presence of skeletons implies that you can possibly rot away and never even make it to the other side (unless these are just for ambience). Whenever you present a fantasy setting, the audience is going to be keen to adjust to the rules and expectations of this abnormal setting. The premise begs plenty more questions. I was surprised at no point does the short imply what the souls are even watching. This would provide more material either for comedy, like complaining about being stuck watching only so many movies so many times, for character exploration, maybe the movies are chosen that have a specific meaning to each soul, or some melodramatic rumination, like the characters are watching home movies of their own life and its ups and downs, regrets but also the joys that fill the bounds of a life lived. Considering that Zach is revealed to have taken his own life (he even has the note still with him, though its words are not shared either), it would have been helpful to either shed more details about this unique space and its connections for our newcomer or the newcomer’s life that he’s bidding goodbye to. I was left with an unrequited desire for more than the story was willing to offer for its seven minutes.
The central metaphor of a movie theater as a supernatural setting is a good starting point. The script was a little too locked-in on the discovery period and needed more development. Zach is such a blank from a character standpoint, which is acceptable since he’s the audience’s entry point. He seems to emit no real strong emotions or defiance about his strange situation. This may be a result of just being overwhelmed by the sheer existence of another spiritual plane, or this could also be him trying to remember who he was when he was alive. The dynamic of New Guy/Veteran is a comedy staple, learning the ropes from the charming and wily veteran. It seems like a storytelling disadvantage to limit the knowledge base of both parties. We’ve just spent a few minutes with David when he learns that Zach will actually be his replacement. I wish this had been revealed upfront rather than reserved for an ending meant to provide some uplift and reward. We still could have had the same end results but now there would have been an immediate urgency, David only having so many minutes (maybe even make it real-time) to teach his replacement the ropes before he gets recalled to that Great Beyond. If Zach is taking on this new responsibility, you would think he’d need to understand how exactly he’s supposed to help souls transition.
The movie is technically polished and has a nice score from Brooks Leibee (DeRosa). The shot selections are somewhat minimal, likely a result of budgetary time limits, but it also makes the movie visually staid. Many of the edits are simply from two shots from the same angle. It’s efficient but can also be bland over time. Also, I’m surprised there wasn’t a godlike point of view shot from the projectionist booth, at least a high angle looking down from above, but that might have given away the fact that nothing was actually on the screen during filming. The makeup effects for David are simple but effective and do well to assist the actor’s mordant performance.
I enjoyed both actors, though Hatfield (Dogwood Pass, Quarantwinned) has the more fun role as the decrepit veteran teaching us all about this unique space. He gives glimpses of even more honed comedic skills that I wish the short could have utilized. Six (Christmas Collision) is given the less fun role of being responsive but the character is so subdued that he can feel like a proverbial and literal seat-filler. I liked the two actors together and wished their interaction had a bit more energy to it.
Three Quarters Dead is an amusing and light-hearted short even as it skirts over some more meaningful and darker material. It’s a promising idea with more intriguing directions that are unexplored. Partly because of the limits of short-form storytelling but also partly because the concept just wasn’t creatively pushed further. It’s a quick seven minutes that elicits some smiles and maybe even a chuckle (I enjoyed the quarters classification of its title). You won’t regret watching it, and trust me, I’ve watched dozens of short films that I do very much regret ever having seen. Even with a few precious minutes, bad filmmaking and a paucity of coherent ideas can become most evident. Three Quarters Dead is a fun little horror comedy that coasts on charm, good vibes, and the tantalizing possibility of more, but like the characters trapped inside that theater, you’ll be left waiting.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Incredible Jake Parker (2020)
The Incredible Jake Parker is an Ohio indie written/directed/produced by Angelo Thomas, who just graduated from his arts college this spring. The 22-year-old adapted his own book into his first feature, all while finishing college and taking on activist responsibilities. The fact he has a finished feature film before he even graduated college, a film that was scheduled to open in multiple cities, is a damn impressive feat. Thomas is already well ahead of the game. Unfortunately, Jake Parker became another victim of COVID-19’s theater closings, and the limited release has been postponed. I was graciously given a digital link of the film to review and, even though I know people involved with the production, I vow to be as objective and constructive as possible with this film review. I honestly think the delay might help the movie, allowing for further critical examination and technical tinkering. As is, The Incredible Jake Parker is a well-made, albeit criminally short, indie that feels like it’s missing necessary development and potential drama to convey the steps in the journey of its titular star.
Jake Parker (Liam Wall) is a teenage musical sensation but he’s got a secret. He’s rapidly losing weight, enough to alarm doctors and his manager. Jake is anorexic. His tour is put on hold while he checks into a treatment center that will help him reflect and grow. He’s angry and eager to leave, but the more time he spends with the doctors and fellow patients, the more that Jake is able to tackle his personal demons with his body issues and figure out the man he wants to be.
The filmmakers behind The Incredible Jake Parker have an important and very personal message they take very seriously. Thomas has been open about his own troubles with an eating disorder and has spoken across the country about his experiences and insights. The character of Jake Parker is obviously informed from his own struggles and triumphs. Eating disorders are also a malady not typically associated with men, so smashing that taboo and educating viewers is admirable. We even see this flippant attitude in the movie where catty media figures wave away the implications of an eating disorder, especially for men, and prescribe just “eating a hamburger.” Body dysmorphic disorder is particularly affected by our omnipresent media culture that applies value to being thin, desirable, and staying within the codified boundaries of what is deemed appealing. That level of scrutiny and pressure can affect anyone’s mental health, let alone a performer whose press coverage and album sales can be affected by his good looks. It’s understandable to fall sway to negative thoughts that one’s body just simply isn’t good enough. The movie is filled with useful information about eating disorders as well as steps one can take to regain control over their body and mind and make healthy choices. By that regard, the movie can provide a great outreach to connect with people, especially young people, and inspire them to improve their own mental health and physical well-being. That’s what good art can do.
Now, with all that being said, it doesn’t feel like those good intentions have latched onto a suitable and engaging narrative to carry the burden of its worthy message. The movie is only 64 minutes long before its end credits and has the unmistakable feeling of missing development. We spend the first act establishing the problems for Jake and then in the last five minutes he finds effective solutions to those problems, but the connective tissue, the work, is missing in between. I’m going to go into some mild spoilers here though I don’t consider these to be significant because, realistically, did you expect Jake to not get better? I went back and re-watched what was Jake’s breakthrough therapy session and it amounts to being told that resilience is key and to find his inner strength. The very next scene involves Jake requesting ice cream to dine with a friend, seeming to now be able to manage his eating disorder, but why? Why was this a big breakthrough for Jake and why does it come with so much movie left? There’s another personal revelation that Jake is hiding that takes precedent in the last 15 minutes, which is odd to include so late after he seemed to overcome the movie’s big conflict, and even stranger to consider the fear it could pose to his musical career given modern-day sensibilities. It’s included to provide another scandal but it’s also there to get the plot even further across the hour-mark. Even his other late conflicts resolve so easily, some over text messages, that it begs the question of why introduce obstacles if they are so quickly overcome? When you wrap up your main internal struggle so early and with little elaboration, it leaves us questioning why we still have a movie.
So absent more in-depth examination on those problems, maybe we can use the extra time allotted to get to know Jake more as a character or the other residents of his treatment center, building a friendly network of lovable people leaning on one another to get better. The supporting characters are typically defined by their problem and stay that way. Mom (Rachel Coolidge) is an alcoholic, though we don’t see her drunk or even drink in hand if I recall, and Dad (John French) is a workaholic, though we don’t see him in a hurry to leave (the closest family Jake has is his British manager). Jordan (Sarah Levitch) has an eating disorder and was abandoned by her parents. I’m assuming the supporting characters at this treatment center all suffer from eating disorders but that could be my mistake. I have to go with this assumption because there is a raft of supporting characters that don’t open up about their specific problems, only occasionally their feelings of being helpless or being ashamed. A support group is a fantastic setting to derive some character-driven drama, forcing people to confront their pasts, mistakes, sense of self, vulnerabilities, relationships, and even butt heads before growing closer. It’s a conflict crucible ready for meaty scenes and yet it too is MIA. If Jake’s ultimate triumph over his personal demons is derived from the support he feels with the friends he’s made, then it would naturally need to feature meaningful interactions with supporting characters where we get to understand them and watch that progression of friendship and trust. It’s not that the material with these characters is bad, it’s just that they could all benefit from more of it.
I do want to congratulate Thomas and his team for putting together a very professional looking movie. Even though its budget is a fraction of the Hollywood indie, The Incredible Jake Parker looks polished and proficient. The lighting and cinematography are a highlight of the movie, often finding compelling ways to frame the angular jawline of our titular star in anguish. It was filmed over nine days in Louisiana (boo) with some second unit work filmed in Columbus, Ohio (yeah). The songs we do get from Thomas and co-writers Austin Moore and Liam Wall are peppy and well composed with impressive production value. Just watching Wall sing is enjoyable and he seems at his most comfortable when he’s belting a tune and guitar in hand. The acting overall is generally good. Wall (Gold Dust) is a little stilted at times though it works for the awkwardness or clenched-jaw resentment he holds onto like a lifeline. Sasha Jackson (Blue Crush 2) has a few nicely delivered moments expressing her maternal worry and hope for Jake, who is more than just a client. The assorted supporting players make pleasant impressions, enough so that I desperately wanted them to have even more interactions to better allow the actors to shine.
Given Jake’s musical profession, I was expecting the film to include moments of his singing and guitar-playing for performances and songwriting, a reflection of his inner struggle for control and creative expression. What I wasn’t expecting was the movie to become a traditional movie musical where the characters just break into song and look into the camera. It first happens around the half-hour mark and took me aback, but I liked the two-minute introspective song and thought, “Okay, well if this is going to become a major element of the storytelling, I’m ready now.” I kept waiting for another moment of song-breaking and it didn’t occur until nearly the very end of the movie. It lasted, and I counted, 34 total seconds. Why break reality if it’s only going to last as long as a television commercial? If these two moments are the only ones that break reality to become a movie musical, then why include them if they only amount to two-and-a-half minutes? Could the sentiment not have been expressed with Jake merely playing his guitar and singing to himself rather than the music kicking in from on high? I was actually expecting more musical numbers simply because Wall can sing and play the guitar, as evidenced in the grabber of an opening scene where Jake records his amateur song that goes viral. He has talent so it would make sense that he writes a new song to discuss his journey, something he could perform at the very end to express his maturation and lessons learned, a new Jake Parker. That inspirational song, “Incredible,” plays over the end credits but why not actually see Wall perform the song to the camera, with the emotion pouring out of him, to mark the climax? It’s not like the film was running too long. Imagine the end of 2018’s A Star is Born and instead of Lady Gaga delivering that last powerful song to sum up her experiences, it just played over the credits.
There are some other technical areas where The Incredible Jake Parker could benefit from some further attention before its big release rollout. The sound mix is often noticeably amiss with different shots having fuzzy interference that’s all the more noticeable when it’s edited with shots without. Some shots don’t seem to be using sound from other takes, so an off-screen character will sound distant because their dialogue was recorded away from the boom microphone. Why not pull sound from that character when they were on mic and layer it over? The color grading isn’t consistent at points, most notably when the film transitions from purchased stock footage that is vibrant in color to the more muted colors of the actual movie. I’m also hopeful that a new musical score can be applied (not the songs, the actual score) because it’s often too plain. The bigger technical element that could use another overview is the editing. Jake Parker is edited with a formula that a spoken line equals a shot cut. A character speaks. Next shot. A character speaks. Next shot. Repeat. It’s a stolid rhythm that can gum up the visual flow of scenes. The movie is crying out for another careful pass in the editing suite. It’s little things in the edit and pacing that can help mitigate whatever filming limitations there may have been.
The Incredible Jake Parker is a musical with a message and some spiffy technical acumen, especially considering that Angelo Thomas is only 22 years old and pulled this all off. Even though it’s only 68 minutes with credits, there is much to be impressed with this first film. There’s a late montage of real people (I’m assuming) who speak about their own struggles with eating disorders and mental health, their advice, and what a figure like Jake can mean to them, and while it may be manipulative my heart felt full-to-bursting while watching this genuine outpouring. It made me even more certain that had the film given more space to Jake’s journey, I would have been even more dazzled. Rare is the film I say could use an additional half hour minimum. The Incredible Jake Parker has all the hallmarks of great drama, with the insights of a man who lived it, so I wish we could have really dived into the development of its title character and his incredible story.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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