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BROKEN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Samantha Jane Polay, Paul Gordon, Amber Crawford, Derek Evans
Director: Alex Ferrari
Audio: English Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 or stereo 2.0
Subtitles: None
Video: Color, 1.85:1 widescreen
Studio: Fortuity Films
Features: See Below
Length: 20 minutes
Release Date: August 2, 2005

"I'm sorry, babe, it was never your life to begin with."

Short Film ***

As any avid movie fan knows who follows the horror genre, the best cult horror flicks are generally low-budget affairs which have by-passed the usual production quagmire that is Hollywood.  Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead - the list goes on and on.  A more contemporary example is the film Saw.  Originally produced as an eight-minute short, it was expanded into feature length, and the resulting $1 million film ripped up the box office for over $100 million alone, never mind home video sales.

There is an obvious message here for alert young film auteurs, and that is "Go indie!"  Perhaps the next breakout will come from Broken (2005), a promising short subject with horrific action and visual flair aplenty, too.

Broken's premise is a simple one.  A young woman, Bonnie, is awakened from the dead of sleep one evening by a bad nightmare.  Bad goes to worse, though, as Bonnie soon discovers she is not alone in her own home.  Mysterious abductors suddenly appear from out of the shadows to seize the frightened young woman.  Bonnie is knocked unconscious, and when she revives, she finds herself gagged and bound to a wheelchair in a strange and decrepit basement.  She is still not alone, either.  So begins a frightening night of depravity and torment for the young woman until the film's explosive and unexpected conclusion.

As a blend of visceral creepiness with Matrix-like mind warp, Broken is a rip-roaring popcorn film, albeit a short one.  While the acting is nothing special, Broken's visual style is impressive, much more so than one might expect from its modest budget, reportedly only eight thousand dollars.  This film would appear perfectly at home among a collection of The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt episodes.  In fact, its polished cinematic sheen and aural bombast are comparable with the likes of decidedly more expensive Hollywood productions.

Unfortunately, Broken poses more questions than it answers, which may be the film's biggest flaw - it simply feels incomplete.  The main villain's motivations are unclear at best.  Who are these characters, anyway?  What are their relations to one another?  What do the kidnappers want from Bonnie, and why do they want to kill her?  What is real?  What is fantasy or dementia?  Broken is a film of many loose ends and unfulfilled potential; perhaps an expanded version would help to elucidate many of the film's unanswered mysteries.

Despite being an indie film, Broken is by no means an amateurish effort.  Its production required a dozen weeks of rehearsals with a cast of stage actors and extensive post-production work by a group of skilled professionals.  Director Alex Ferrari himself is well-established in the post-production field, which certainly contributes to Broken's polished look.  Who knows, with a bit more story development, a feature-length expansion of Broken could become the next sleeper hit on the indie circuit.

Video ***

Broken was shot using a Panasonic AG-DVX100A camera on 24p mode.  It is presented on this disc in a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen format.  There is a definite softness to the image quality, but otherwise the picture quality is pristine.

Audio ***

Audio is presented in either English stereo 2.0 or surround 5.1.  No subtitles are available.  The aggressive sound design occasionally drowns out dialogue.  However, this is rather a good thing at times, as the dialogue is unmemorable, frequently campy, or marginally acted.  The villain's main "harmonica" speech, for instance, is rather cringe-inducing.

On the other hand, the unsettling score by Mark Roumelis is quite superb, a top-notch effort.  It really adds significantly to the film's suspenseful atmosphere.

Features ***

What the actual film lacks in length, it makes up for with a plethora of bonus features.  These are divided into individual categories of pre-production, production, and post-production.  There are also the usual commentary tracks with a small sampling of marketing featurettes, including a gag reel.  All in all, around three hours of special features are available, designed as a quick series of mini-lessons to help young filmmakers focus their efforts.  As Broken's creators point out several times, one of the reasons this disc (and the film itself) exists is to demonstrate to aspiring and determined indie filmmakers that making a highly polished product need not require millions of dollars.

As many of the extras on this disc are short in length, a "play all" option would have been a nice addition.  Also, final edits from Broken are shown frequently enough that viewers may tire of seeing the same sequences over and over again ad nauseam.

There are four commentary tracks covering the direction (with Alex Ferrari), the production (with producer Jorge Rodriquez), visual effects, and sound design.  The film's cast also contributes to a fun group commentary, as do director and producer for their own tag-team commentary.  Ferrari even expresses a keen interest in directing a film adaptation of the comics Grendel or Sandman!  I'm all for that!

First in the "Pre-Production" section are four rehearsal scenes with occasional commentary, behind-the-scene footage, and comparisons with the final scenes in the film.  Next are nine storyboard sequences, including the film's opening sequence.  These storyboards reveal some story concepts which were eventually dropped due to budgetary or time constraints.

A brief concept art and location comparison (1 min.) follows, and then the "Pre-Production" section concludes with a costume design gallery with commentary (4 min.).  One senses that a comic book costume design mentality la Elektra was in the works during this phase.

The "Production" section contains numerous short featurettes. They cover a range of topics from stunt work to various special effects, such as a rather gory exploding head effect and the special effects make-up by Megan Graham (such as scars, burnt eyes, and tattoos).  Words of wisdom about safety and preparation (especially with guns) are delivered by technical advisor Tony Gomez, and another featurette addresses how to recreate realistic weapons on a shoestring budget.  The filmmakers even describe how to reproduce a realistic brain-splattering effect; do so at your own risk!

Tips on Producing an Indie Film (7 min.) is an interview with Jorge F. Rodriguez about the process of indie filmmaking.  He briefly touches upon issues of reverse budgeting, insurance, location shooting, feeding the crew, and stunt work.  Rodriquez closes with tips and tricks about props and production design.  He also mentions how actual hurricane damage to the set was later incorporated into the film's final storyline.

The "Production" section concludes with a dozen behind-the-scene production clips (17 min. total).  These are comprised of alternate takes, rehearsals and tests, and different angle shots.

The "Post Production" section opens with a 12-minute featurette on color correction, or "color grading."  In general, the "Post Production" section offers the most detailed and technical discussion about filmmaking on this disc.  For the first featurette, director Ferrari focuses upon composition of shots, the importance of lighting on the set, and filter programs used to give Broken a softer, film-like quality.  Several pre- and post-production scenes from Broken are used to illustrate his point, followed by three further minutes of side-by-side color correction comparisons of rehearsal and actual footage.

How to Make DV look like Film (6 min.) is a quick recap of the various merits or shortcomings of shooting with mini-DV and digital video cameras.  Ferrari again skims over filter packages, production design, costume design, and lighting.

Visual Effects Breakdowns (5 min.) offers comments from visual effect supervisor Sean Falcon about nine scenes from the film.  In the effects breakdown, individual elements are first shown separately, followed by the full composite of the scene and then the final color-corrected scene as it appears in Broken.  Many of the visual effects are not flashy and tend to complement the storyline rather than call attention to themselves.  In short, the more "invisible" the effect, the better!

In VFX Breakdown: The Title Sequence (3 min.), Alex Ferrari and visual effect supervisor Dan Cregan explain how Ferrari's ordinary raw footage was transformed into the film's eerie and nightmarish title sequence.  The metamorphosis is rather impressive.

Visual Effects in Indie Film (18 min.) is an extended interview with Sean Falcon.  The VFX supervisor offers plenty of tips on how pre-production preparation, choice of camera, good lighting, and the use of practical effects all help to ultimately "sell" the visual effects.  Falcon's comments veer towards the technical side at times but are generally easy to follow.

In Cinematography in Indie Film (6 min.), director of photography Angel Barroeta discusses the various equipment used for photographing and lighting Broken.  Barroeta's brief comments also are somewhat technical and will probably be more relevant to filmmakers than to the casual viewer.

The "Post-Production" section closes with Sound Design/Composing in Indie Film (7 min.).  Sound designer and composer Mark Roumelis describes the usage of samples and original composition for Broken's score, also mentioning various tools used for recording and designing the audio track.

The final section is the "After the Short" section which deals with promotional aspects of the filmmaking experience.  The making of Broken is addressed through a series of short interview clips (10 min. total) regarding the film's original concept, first impressions from cast and crew about the premise and the rehearsal process, vignettes from the set, and plans to develop Broken into a true feature film.

The featurette Marketing: Promoting a Short Film (5 min.) covers the importance of grass-roots promotion, touring at film festivals, usage of the internet, and finally the all-important trailer.  Surprisingly, Broken's trailer itself is conspicuously absent from this disc (but can be viewed on the film's website www.whatisbroken.com).  There is a short poster gallery slideshow (1 min.), eerie photography by Nick Monaco in another slideshow (6 min.), and also a three-minute gag reel.  Lastly, there is an intriguing alternate ending (2 min.); this is really an epilogue that provides clues into further plot development (and hints at Broken's Matrix-like psychology).

The disc closes out with biographical blurbs about the Florida-based director and editor Alex Ferrari, producer Jorge F. Rodriguez, and VFX specialists Sean Falcon and Dan Cregan.

Summary:

Time will tell if Alex Ferrari has a promising future as an action-suspense director, but Broken certainly represents a smashing start.

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