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Movie Review: Date Number One

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I have this friend who married a karate instructor, which isn't by itself all that remarkable, except that it allows everyone else to refer to him as "the ninja" and give them Christmas presents of plastic throwing stars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and the like. It's one of those running jokes that's more amusingly self-referential than actually funny to anyone outside a radius of ten people.

To some extent, that's the feeling I get when I watch Sujewa Ekanayake's Date Number One — that I'm watching a self-referential film that's much more entertaining to the creators than it is to an uninvolved third party.

The film revolves around five first date vignettes, ranging from a ninja (punk musician John Stabb Schroeder) looking for love to the pursuit of a long-term threesome to a woman who uses air quotes to the point of overkill. All five contain the same lo-fi production values and are indistinguishable in terms of writing and stylistic techniques, which gives the film a certain cohesiveness that, depending on your point of view, may or may not work to the film's advantage. That is to say, you could certainly make an argument for each segment to have its own distinct look. Whether or not they should, I'm not sure.

But if I had to choose, I'd say they should, since one of the chief problems with Date Number One comes from a production style that's so consistently frustrating. Virtually every shot in the film is a loosely-constructed composition, sloppy and with an abundance of head room, where the camera seems completely unsure of where it wants to be, almost as if it wandered in off the street and happened upon these first dates. It reminds me of things I shot before I knew how to shoot things.

As a stylistic choice used for a specific purpose, this isn't so bad, but without some fundamental framing and composition, the camera looks disinterested, like it can't be bothered to get in place for a two shot that does something as simple as have both actors in the frame. So, what you get is a two shot where the ninja is in the frame, but his date is just out of it and the camera has to pan over slightly to catch her dialogue, at which point the ninja is out of the frame. Rarely does the camera seem to make any strong, artistically-driven choices that further the story, nor does it do something as simple as backing up a couple feet and having the confidence to stay with a master shot. There's a distinct feeling that the film might at any moment get fed up with these characters and move on to something else, but not in a way that invests the audience. Rather, it gives the impression that if the film doesn't really care, why should we?

But maybe the camera doesn't care because the characters haven't given it anything to care about. With a few exceptions (Jennifer Blakemore comes to mind), the performances are wooden and stilted, the sort of thing you get in student films where the filmmaker recruits actors from the football team, and the script feels like a first draft of something that might eventually become substantial and inventive. The actors play it like they've just recently memorized the text and large chunks of the dialogue have the feel of something inspired either by a textbook (most of the dialogue on quantum physics) or a soapbox ("…the enemies of choice are not interested in dialogue and discovery of new and better perspectives. They want women to go back to 'their place' so their neo-conservative, God-fearing, moral majority crap…").

Clearly this is a cast comprised of friends and cohorts willing to give up their free time to get the film finished, and it's hard to fault a no-budget film for going in that direction, but when the performances range from adequate to embarrassing, there has to be a better approach. You could, for example, limit the size of your cast or make a film that isn't as heavily dependent on dialogue, thus minimizing the impact of the performances. But relying on a large cast of non-actors in a film with long stretches of conversation is a recipe for disaster. A good cast can hide a lot of awkward scripting, but an inexperienced cast with anything less than a great script is lethal.

Sadly, the script for Date Number One is littered with cliche and exposition, constantly running afoul of the mandate to "show, don't tell", is mostly devoid of subtext, contains dialogue that reads better than it sounds, and you can see most of the jokes coming far in advance. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good screenplay. The title cards don't help, interrupting the film to tell us things we don't need to know, like that the bartender is the ninja's twin (Why do we need to know this? Why does it matter? Why are we seeing this actor again?), or telling us a proverb seconds before the actors talk about it. Such is the mark of a film either completely unsure of itself or struggling to incorporate audience feedback.

Part of the problem with Date Number One has to do with the sequence of events. The first two segments combine for over half of the 115-minute running time and both segments are at least ten minutes longer than they need to be. So, by the time we get to the second half of the film (which contains segments three and five, the two strongest), our patience is worn thin, especially by the ninja segment, which fills the first thirty minutes with what is easily the film's weakest performance. Trimming that first hour to something more manageable would do wonders.

But that alone wouldn't make it a good film, just a shorter one with fewer problems. What it needs is some harsh re-writes and a cast with a modicum of acting experience. There's no shortage of aspiring actors in the world more than willing to be in a film. Casting people just because they happen to be your friends and have free time is counter-productive and undermines the end product, especially when there are better alternatives willing and able to do the job. Similarly, it never hurts to get a director of photography who will do more than use the camera's auto focus and exposure. Such are the little things that a casual observer won't mind, but others will, and it severely limits the potential audience. There's value to doing everything yourself, but there's usually more value in seeing if there's people around who can just as easily do it better. This film would have been better served with the latter.

Starring: John Stabb Schroeder, Julia Stemper, Jennifer Blakemore, Shervin Boloorian, Dele Williams, and Christine D. Lee
Cinematography by: Sujewa Ekanayake[1]Written and directed by: Sujewa Ekanayake
$10,000/115 min/Washington, D.C.

You can check out Date Number One on IMDb, MySpace, or the official web page. You can read the various writings of Sujewa Ekanayake at his blog.

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About Lucas McNelly

  • DateNumberOneFan

    Re: Date Number One – by people who are actual reviewers & or filmmakers:

    “The film is about as charming as they come…presents a world in which cultures don’t clash, they mesh. It’s refreshing to see characters who all appear to have a natural optimism, as opposed to the typical indie-film predilection for bitterness and cruelty. ”
    – Michael Tully, Rotterdam & SXSW film festivals selected filmmaker & indieWIRE blogger

    “I found the characters and the premise sexy, sexy, sexy.”
    – Jerry Brewington, Hollywood Is Talking blog, on Story 2 of Date Number One

    *

    “…witty…often inventive…and, even better, airy: characters are given time and space to spell out their views…views that never bear the artificial markings of a Hollywood screenwriter’s compulsion to reduce them to sound-bites.”
    – David Hudson, Editor, GreenCine Daily blog

    “FIVE really entertaining, fully realized romantic interludes…a shamefully rare achievement”
    – Tom Kipp, Seattle audience member, former film reviewer for Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger

    “Heartfelt…poignant…I loved it!”
    – Jon Moritsugu, award winning filmmaker
    *
    “…somehow, someway, in the end, the love of the characters, the positiveness of the film, and Sujewa’s disregard for conventions wins you over. The act of making this film wins you over. There is only a positive through line in this film, and that is rare to see, especially when dealing with characters in their late to early thirties.”
    – Amir Motlagh, director of the popular ’04 Atom Films’ short Still Lover & upcoming feature Whale

    “Date Number One is quite funny…twentysomethings and occasional thirtysomethings looking for romance recall Richard Linklater’s philosopher slackers and Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist attention to conversation…also a subtle, thoughtful film…might be understood as the anti-Crash depiction of life in the city…depicts a comfortably multi-ethnic community…I’d happily recommend it.”
    – Chuck Tryon, media professor & blogger, The Chutry Experiment blog

  • http://lmcnelly15.blogspot.com Lucas McNelly

    hey, look, comment spam

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    Lucas, comment #1 isn’t spam, it’s a dissenting view. The internet is like that…

  • http://blogcritics.org/video Lisa McKay

    Christopher, I think Lucas’s comment was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. Commenter #1 hasn’t really offered up his or her own reasoned opinion or engaged in dialogue, or directly addressed Lucas’s critique, but has instead chosen to a) question Lucas’s qualifications, and b) regurgitate a lot of other people’s opinions of said film. That isn’t really presenting a dissenting view, at least not in any meaningful sense.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    I couldn’t say, or tell, if Lucas was being tongue-in-cheek but the comment certainly isn’t spam, ma’am.

  • http://blogcritics.org/video Lisa McKay

    I quite agree with you. I guess my point was that Lucas didn’t really think it was spam either but was making sort of an editorial comment. See?

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    What’s that movie called, American Subtlety? ;-)

  • STM

    Oxymoron? :) Yes, they’re oh so subtle, aren’t they, our American cousins …

    Of course, their big problem is that they drive on the wrong side of the road.

  • Belle 2

    Regardless of his intent, I would like to hear from others who have seen the movie. In your opinion, is is good or not and most importantly WHY do you feel that way? Thanks.

  • http://LesPaulisanexcellentguitarplayerwithanadmirablegraspofgoodjazz. bliffle

    Usually I try to read a review by a person I’ve read before so I have a chance to compare his tastes with my own. Even if our tastes are different I have a chance to calibrate his review against my opinion after I see the movie.

    Usually, around here, that means Richard von Busack in the local weekly tabloid “Metro” available online as metroactive.com.

    For example, in what turned out to be a control test, I saw a movie before I read RVBs review and the comparison confirmed what I figured would have been my reaction.

    And whoever writes the ledes for the movies is clever so that’s fun.

  • http://lmcnelly15.blogspot.com Lucas McNelly

    re: spam

    comment #1 is an exact copy of the movie’s promotional material and the exact same thing is posted in the comment section on my blog, so it may not be spam, but it ain’t exactly a honest, truthful dissenting opinion.

    Belle,

    “Date Number One” is bad in every way a movie can be bad.

  • Alec

    Lucas – A great review that ALMOST makes me want to see this movie, since it seems to commit so many fundamental film making errors. I get frustrated with indie film people, and many mainstream actors, who mistakenly believe that a movie is nothing more than a filmed play meant to showcase actors and a script.

    I really get what you mean when you talk about how the director fails to use the camera to help tell the story because of his sloppy framing and indifferent compositions. Intelligent framing, composition, and movement (of the camera and of actors within the scene) should be part of a good filmmaker’s cinematic vocabulary. On the other hand, there is the example of the Dogme 95 crowd, which tried to avoid fussy or ostentatious production techniques, but still could not consistently produce interesting or compelling work, indicating again how difficult it is to use even deliberately sloppy technique to tell a cinematic story.

  • http://www.diyfilmmaker.blogspot.com/ Sujewa Ekanayake

    From the director of Date Number One:

    Interesting to see that Date Number One is being discussed over here (thanks Google alerts!), off of Lucas’s, hmmm, what’s the word, poorly written & poorly thought out review.

    To begin with, film is both art & entertainment, thus it can’t be good or bad, it is not poison or medicine, if you guys want other people who know about film to take you seriously, you will need to get away from the idea of there being good films and bad films. That kind of uselessly simplistic, grade school mentality will make you miss or misread a lot of new & interesting work. Excellence in art & entertainment is a matter of taste, you can like it for whatever reason & not like it for whatever reason, but that’s about it, you reaction to the work does not alter the work itself – it remains what it is – to be interperted (sp?) by each viewer. I could go on & on re: this subject but I will just cut to problems with Lucas’s review of Date Number One.

    It is obvious by reading that review that Lucas is a frustrated filmmaker. He has started a so-called “helpful” project- the uber-indie project, in order to “help” other filmmakers but in reality that project is an attempt to establish himself as relevant to people who actually make “real” films – full length features as opposed to one line & badly executed jokes such as L’Attente (even though I found it interesting for a couple of reasons, when I showed it to an audience in MD early this year there was not one person in the audience who thought that L’Attente was worth their time). I have not seen Gravida yet, so I will have to wait to comment on that. Anyway, back to Lucas’s work as a critic/reviewer -it is not done in the interest of the audience, rather it is done to compensate for the fact that he has been unable or unwilling thus far to make a feature. As the old saying goes, those who can, do and those who can’t, well, you know the rest…
    Lucas’s motives are made clear in the Date Number One review – one, he believes that there is a right way and a wrong way to make a movie – which is like some 1950’s dude saying that only classical music/Mozart is real music and all other music from all other periods of time & places are not real/bad/whatever negative term music. Then he goes on to state what he would do differently in Date Number One – which reveals his desire to make movies but not really review them in order to benefit audiences.

    Also, the uber-indie project seems to be a very self-serving project for Lucas’s own movies – I just visited the site to see what he’s up to & saw that he had filed an uber-indie entry for Gravida -his own film – & selected only positive or positive sounding reviews to highlight. That’s basically presenting promo material as a review.
    Another example of Lucas claiming to offer one thing but offering something entirely different. The Uber-Indie project claims to be about various indie films by several different filmmakers but it appears to be (in the case of Date Number One & Gravida at least) all about Lucas – how he would have made Date Number One & how he feels that offering promo material for his own movie (gravida) as a review is a fair thing to do.

    Ultimately, Lucas’s review is of no great consequence to Date Number One or my career – DNO is being received very well at screenings and my next film will go in front of the camera as soon as I want it to happen, and there is plenty of interest in the DNO DVD & other distribution.

    I would however advise other indie filmmakers to steer clear of caustic and, in many significant ways, unqualified, web based film reviewers such as Lucas. Because indie filmmakers who are not completely sure about the kind of movie they have on their hands can be lead to believe, by people such as Lucas, that the film is not as good as it actually is,or that the film has no audience.

    Playing your movie to a regular (non-aspiring filmmaker/reviewer) audience & judging the quality of your movie by their reactions is much wiser than sending it to a reviewer such as Lucas – a young/inexperienced filmmaker wanna be (well, feature filmmaker wanna be – since Lucas has already made a couple of shorts) who, in my opinion, writes useless (to many audience members)reviews(at least that is the case with his review of Date Number One, not sure about the other,later reviews, I largely stopped reading Lucas after his comically contrarian (compared to ALL the other reviews & audience reactions to the film) review of DNO.

    Anyway, that’s about it, I have to go get ready for a screening of Date Number One – which is how us real filmmakers spend our time – not talking about how we would re-make someone else’s movie under the guise of a movie review.

    – Sujewa

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    hey, look, a dissenting view!

  • http://lmcnelly15.blogspot.com Lucas McNelly

    I won’t bother to respond to Sujewa’s personal attacks. I’ll only note that as a favor to him for screening L’Attente, I actually toned down the review (and he knows this) by focusing more on ways the film could have been better, rather than a full-scale attack.

    Other than Sujewa, no one has successfully questioned my motives and/or credentials before. Other filmmakers have gotten bad reviews from the uber-indie project, but none of them have acted so negatively.

    But in response to this:

    “I just visited the site to see what he’s up to & saw that he had filed an uber-indie entry for Gravida -his own film – & selected only positive or positive sounding reviews to highlight. That’s basically presenting promo material as a review.”

    Those are the only 4 reviews that exist. If negative ones come in, I’ll add them there. It’s not entirely promo material, but more the idea that if I can dish out criticism I’d better be able to take it.

    Film is both entertainment and art, but criticism is all about judging that based on common, objective standards. In my view as a critic, Date Number One completely fails every objective standard. I stand by the review 100%, regardless of what anyone else says.

    Sujewa,

    you know as well as i do that in giving a negative review of DNO, i had nothing to gain and lots to lose. don’t act like i wanted to attack someone else’s work just because i was having a bad day. if that were the case i would have picked a different film. but more importantly, i would never do that (and deep down, you know that as well)