You have to admire anyone who can manage to make a feature-length film outside of the protective auspices of a movie studio. Drumming up enough money for essentials like film, processing, costumes and props, recruiting actors and technicians willing to work for little or no pay, finding and securing locations, obtaining all the necessary permits and legal forms, and then organizing, directing and feeding the mini-circus one has created, not to mention overseeing the post-production tasks such as editing and promoting -- it's exhausting just to picture it.
So, right off the bat, hats off to Josef Kissel and Gregory LoBue, who managed this feat. The fact that they are natives of the area (Kissel grew up in North Tonawanda, LoBue in Amherst) and chose to film here (like the five Burton sisters and their "Manna from Heaven," shot around town last spring) predisposes Western New Yorkers to a certain proprietary affection for the two and their film. Add to that that they're a personable pair, and one really wants to like "Where in the Hell is North Tonawanda?"
But I just couldn't manage it.
When a film is made on a shoestring and is a first-time effort, as this is, one doesn't expect a perfect product. You don't look for slick photography or lighting, and you anticipate some awkwardness in the editing and, possibly, the acting. What makes a low-budget and/or first effort overcome these is a certain charm, in the actors if not in the director's view and style, and having a script that is, at least in parts, well-written, showing intelligence and possibly wit. A good visual sense is revealed by how scenes are composed in the camera and how action is followed. None of these require a big budget -- for just one example, see Spike Lee's "She's All That."
Alas, these attributes were lacking in this film.
Perhaps the biggest offender was the lack of a coherent narrative. All through the film, which is being shown at the Screening Room in Amherst until Sunday, I had questions: Who are these people? Where are they, and why? What are they doing? Although the film answers the question posed in its title, more than once I found myself wondering, "What the hell is going on?"
Every once in a while, the answer would seem forthcoming, but every darn time, the film would freeze at the pivotal moment, usually with one of many cheesy, '60s-style camcorder special effects (it was shot on digital video). Then it would launch into yet another dance sequence set to pounding electronica, making it seem like a protracted music video. (The music, by local composer/performer Kendall, wasn't bad, actually. There was just too much of it. Ditto the dancing.)
What I could decipher of the story is this: In 2004, the beautiful and greedy Ahn Fresnel (Linda Leisling) tries to gain control over Western New York through devious means. One woman, Rita Morning (Cynthia Janus), fights to stop her from turning Buffalo into a den of iniquity.
Along the way, we get a glimpse of area sites such as the Riviera Theatre, Niawanda Park, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Club Marcella.
Leisling, an inexperienced actor, has a certain style and charisma as Ahn, as does Armani, a regularly performing transsexual at Club Marcella who plays one of Ahn's followers. Morning comes across as too shrill to make a likable heroine. LoBue's costumes are fanciful and colorful and show creativity.
Kissel and LoBue have another film in the works. Tentatively titled "Z77," it is supposed to take place during the Blizzard of '77 and center on people who are all listening to the same radio station. Not a bad story idea, but they need to do basic homework before telling their next story.
WHERE IN THE HELL IS NORTH TONAWANDA?
Where in the Hell is North Tonawanda? , directed by Josef Kissel and Gregory LoBue Not rated. playing at the Screening Room in Amherst