Saturday, January 17, 2015

Cement Suitcase (2013)

Director: Rick Castañeda                                Writer: Rick Castañeda
Film Score: Nick Jaina                                    Cinematography: Jeffrey Waldron
Starring: Dwayne Bartholomew, Kristina Guerrero, Nathan Sapsford and Shawn Parsons

My interest in Cement Suitcase was twofold. First, I have been so impressed with independent films coming out of Portland, Oregon that I wanted to check out what was happening in the Seattle film scene. The second was the setting. One of my favorite films is Sideways, a comedy set in California’s central coast wine region. Likewise, this film is set in Washington wine country, an area of the state that I am particularly familiar with. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I would have liked. Writer-director Rick Castañeda does, however, have some fine moments of comedy in the film and that keeps it from being a complete loss. One of the things he wanted to do with the project was showcase a little-filmed area of Washington State, the Yakima Valley, and that is probably the most impressive aspect of the film. The landscapes are incredibly beautiful. But Castañeda also uses some animated sequences in the film that are interesting and has a nice directorial touch. It’s the director’s first feature film and, in some respects, it shows. And while it fails to impress overall, there are still plenty of good things in it that keep it from being a failure.

The film begins with Dwayne Bartholomew going up onstage in front of an empty house in an auditorium, but before he can speak he wakes up from his dream. In the first-person narrative he tells of his sad life in Granger, Washington as a wine pourer at the Airfield Winery in Prosser. He lives in a modest house that used to be his mother’s. He’s cleared out her room to make room for a boarder so that he can pay the mortgage, which is way overdue, but the only applicant is Australian Nathan Sapsford, whom he takes an instant dislike to. One day at the winery Shawn Parsons strikes up a conversation and asks him to play golf sometime, the only problem is that his girlfriend, Kristina Guerrero, is having an affair with him and he doesn’t know how to feel about it. To say that Dwayne’s life is in a rut is an understatement. In a brief bit of animation his life is compared to a river that erodes into the earth over time, with himself at the bottom of the canyon. Finally he relents to Sapsford because he has money and is willing to pay in advance. All that said, however, it’s only then that things really begin going bad.

While the plot actually sounds pretty interesting, the film as a whole is surprisingly tepid. For one thing, the twenty-something loser who is more interested in playing video games than improving his life, still living at home--albeit his mother is dead—has very little originality to it. Writer-director Rick Castañeda wrings about the most he can from the premise, but being so weak to begin with doesn’t give him a lot of room to maneuver. Dwayne Bartholomew at first seems like a poor choice for the lead, but he warms to the role. And while he is a comic actor, he manages to keep things very believable rather than going overboard the way most Hollywood comedies tend to do. The best actor in the film is, ironically, Shawn Parsons, who is playing a stereotyped character but manages to imbue it with a strong sense of reality as well. Overall, though, the acting throughout the film is pretty good. Castañeda is also a terrific creative force and he definitely has some skills. His work behind the camera is very confident. Some of the running visual gags are a “For Rent” sign that keeps falling down, and Bartholomew’s beat up car, but there are also some very clever moments in the writing as well. The first-person narration is a bit awkward because it feels like it should have been used a bit more or not at all. Cement Suitcase may not be a great film, but it is a valiant effort by a young filmmaker that promises much more in the future.

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