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Ulises [Celluloid 09.18.08] movie review drama



Year: 2008
Release date: Unknown
Director: Russell Friedenberg
Writer: Russell Friedenberg & Jason Rainwater & Randy Redroadw
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ulises Silva
Rating: N/A

The bottom line: An experiment in psychedelic indie road-trip filmmaking that’s sure to provoke thought, but that’s also bound to confuse, disorient, and maybe lose you on the way.


From the moment ibid starts, you can tell you’re in for a different kind of film. And it doesn’t even have wto do with the slow-moving march through Trinity Psychiatric Center as we follow a stern-eyed, pigtailed nurse past all varieties of mentally handicapped patients. I think it has more to do with the subdued, drab color palette, and the general blankness of the mise-en-scéne. There’s a lot of white and blank space around the characters, a lot of emptiness that surrounds them, both inside the hospital and out. The movie is, in a way, a blank canvas that invites you to paint your own picture into its road-trip narrative about escaped mental patients trying to inscribe new Commandments. It counts on you to fill in the blanks of its own implicit emptiness, and derive whatever meaning you think is appropriate.

I’m not sure that entirely works. Because while ibid is certainly a provocative and appropriately schizophrenic tale about a very different kind of road trip, maybe it’s too blank, and too schizophrenic. This is a movie that I somehow believe might best be appreciated under the influence of drugs or alcohol, because its disjointed and ultimately confusing narrative itself seems to be tripping on something not over-the-counter.





Ibid follows the journey of Lionel (Christian Campbell) and Tin (Russell Friedenberg), two of Trinity Psychiatric Center’s more industrious residents (having already escaped once). Lionel is schizophrenic, and Tim has borderline personality disorder and a recurring belief that his dead mother is trying to contact him from beyond the grave. We get hints that they’ve committed a grievous crime in their childhood, but what it is isn’t revealed until much later. Until then, we know that they’re haunted by their respective sense of loss and abandonment.

At least until Don the cowboy shows up. Who is Don the cowboy? He’s literally a talking head, a trickster/god figure whose origins is an old cartoon poster, but who now appears magically before Lionel through televisions and hospital monitors. He’s a grizzled old man with a silly cowboy hat, and with a simple, gruff message for Lionel: “Inscribe some new commandments before I kill everyone.” Apparently, the original Ten Commandments just aren’t cutting it anymore, and so Lionel is tasked with finding The Book (the original Bible manuscript, supposedly) and inscribe some much-needed additions.

Lionel is up to the task. Even from the start, his steely glance behind his oversized glasses and his unflinching facial expressions suggest he’s more focused and driven than his fellow residents. Hell, he seems even more sane than the hospital staff, including a red-bow-tie-wearing orderly, Dirk, who was hired by the hospital a year after he himself was discharged from it. Within this void of common sense, Lionel will do Don’s bidding by writing a play. He proceeds to write the screenplay, and then to cast its actors from residents and staff alike.





Only thing is, the play he’s written is happening real time. Lionel has apparently scripted the events for the movie itself, and its first act is, unsurprisingly, an escape from the hospital. Which he, Tin, and a ragtag group of patients pull off with surprising ease. The security at the hospital sucks, Don the cowboy remarks. Once outside, Lionel and Tin have seven days to find The Book, and inscribe the new commandments, all the while dealing with their ‘antagonist’, another grouchy hospital patient/staffer (and former weapons dealer) with visions of being the true savior of humanity. Along the way, they’ll meet Billy Jo (Heather Rae), an “Indian hostage” who becomes an unwitting accomplice—and theatrical critic.

It’s not long before this road trip to find The Book becomes one of self-discovery as the characters go ‘off-script’ from Lionel’s original screenplay. The film eventually returns to Lionel and Tin’s childhood trauma, and the dark secret lying behind it. In looking for the new commandments to appease Don and save the world, they are forced to confront not just their own past, but the past and present of everyone with them. Hence, their first new commandment (Number 11, “Truly see oneself”), sets the tone early on. In Lionel’s view, people don’t see themselves, but rather the false realities they’ve created for and surrounded themselves in (a rather poignant, if ironic, viewpoint from a schizophrenic man). And so, the rest of the journey really becomes about seeing oneself, and finding the meaning that holds everyone together, with themselves and with the rest of humanity.

This sounds lofty enough as an idea. And while the movie has its share of provocative moments and kernels of wisdom (including the film’s final commandment, which I won’t reveal here but that brilliantly frames the final fate of its two central characters), it also has a lot of madness in between. And I do mean madness.

In a way, I think madness was unavoidable; after all, we’re supposedly seeing the events as scripted by a pseudo-omnipotent schizophrenic man. And the film’s visuals, soundtrack, and jilted camera shots have all the frenzy and incoherence of a perspective and a mind well beyond the fringes of sanity. But because of it, there’s a lot in this film that seems random. The film sometimes feels like a highlight reel of Burning Man oddities, with characters prancing about half-naked, a psychedelic school bus full of minstrels, and a severe lack of cohesion to hold them all together.





Making things even more confusing is the film’s deliberate play on the notion of the play itself. Are we watching actual events as they unfold? Or are we just watching the play that Lionel writes and that his fellow patients are enacting? We can never tell, because the film repeatedly blurs this line by interrupting an apparently ‘real’ scene with “CUT!”, and we see Lionel directing his ragtag group of actors. Then it’ll jump right back into a ‘real’ scene, and all the actors vanish. Again, this plays into the film’s blank canvas motif, because we’re meant to derive our own meaning for this, and decide for ourselves what is real, and what isn’t.

The movie has some stellar merits. For one, the cinematography is whimsically brilliant, treating us to some cuts, shots, and onscreen gags and quirks (including cue cards that keep calling out Billy Jo’s constantly evolving character traits) that I’m sure Quentin Tarrantino would drool over. And as an experiment in madness, the film certainly succeeds, because in place of a cohesive narrative is an unrelentingly disjointed narrative model that forces you to pay attention.

Unfortunately, you never know what to pay attention to. And that’s why it’s hard to review this movie (and why I won’t assign it a numerical rating). I don’t think I got it, and while I think a second viewing would help, I can’t bring myself to watch it again. From an entertainment standpoint, there just isn’t much here. For all its awesome shots and quirks, ibid is just hard to follow, hard to make sense of, and hard to enjoy.

From an experimental filmmaking standpoint, there’s plenty for would-be filmmakers and film students to dissect and digest. But for those of us who aren’t feeling as experimental, the film’s schizophrenic blitzkrieg is going to either turn us mad, or make us turn the movie off.

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Anonymous (12 years ago) Reply

Ulises is back baby! Awesome review!!


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