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Tadpole

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Sexual Content, Mature Thematic Elements and Language)

Running Time: 78 minutes

Starring: Aaron Stanford, Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Iler

Written by: Heather McGowan, Niels Mueller
Story by: Heather McGowan, Niels Mueller, Gary Winick

Directed by: Gary Winick

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Audio Commentary with Producer/Director Gary Winick, Sneak Peeks

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (13 Scenes)

Released: January 21st, 2003

 

 

Independent filmmakers have been creating and pushing boundaries for years, making great cost-effective films that end up to be quite successful as well as inspiring a whole new generation of storytellers. Within the past few years, a trend that has been appearing more and more often in indie cinema is the use of filming with digital video. Like anything, the medium has its advantages and disadvantages. Sure, digital video might not create artistic shots or anything, but they do provide for more "close" moments. While the battle rages on if digital video will ever overtake film itself, there's no denying that DV is becoming more and more popular with filmmakers, especially when it comes to personal computers and the like.

"Tadpole" is a film that uses the digital video process to tell its story. Certainly, it seems like the perfect story to tell with digital video since it is very character-driven which means more of those intimate moments. Sadly though, if you don't have the right script and make use of characters correctly, no matter what you film on, then the film is sure to be flawed. Such is the case with "Tadpole." Directed and produced by digital video champion Gary Winick (who runs a production company specializing in DV called indigent - INdependent DIGital ENTertainment), the film was shot in only a mere two weeks and had a super-low, "Blair Witch"-esque budget. Naturally, you wonder if there was more time and more money then you think there could have been more to the movie. Of course, we'll never know.

"Tadpole" follows the misadventures of Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), a fifteen-year-old enrolled in a posh prep school who doesn't enjoy his female peers since they're not on the same level as him. Oscar speaks French. He loves Voltaire. He's cute, he's cultured but he only has one girl on his mind: his stepmother Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Oscar comes home for Thanksgiving, hoping to win over his stepmother. But after getting drunk one night, he soon lands into the arms of a family friend by the name of Diane (Bebe Neuwirth). While Diane enjoyed the night and plays with Oscar's mind in her own way, Oscar soon realizes he's gotten himself in to something quite deep. Paranoid that Diane will blow that they slept together and ruin his chances with Eve, discomfort, emotions and hilarity unravels.

The film's plot is actually quite interesting and intriguing, especially after Diane and Oscar do the deed and you wonder what becomes of everyone. And while I'm not usually big on comparing films, a lot of critics were talking when this film opened that it reminded them of a film with a similar theme, that being 1998's "Rushmore" (also my favorite film of all time). While I was watching "Tadpole," I definitely did feel vibes from Wes Anderson's masterpiece. Yet these films differ more than in what medium they were filmed on and budget sizes. "Rushmore" was stylish, inventive, creative, fully developed and funnier. "Tadpole" has some inventiveness to it and some guffaws, yet a lot of it feels tacked on.

My main problem wasn't with the film's unpolished look or with its storyline or dialogue. The dialogue is snazzy and the idea, while done before, does have a bit of freshness in it. But writers Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller put too much faith into the audience as they always want to get right to the point and not take the time out to think, let things flow a bit more gently and have the characters breathe (which is probably one reason why this film is so short besides budget issues). My main problem was that the film just expects you to buy into every relationship and every coincidence, which is a bit hard given how much - and what - happens.

Oscar comes across as this mature and intelligent teenager, yet he contradicts himself by acting like a "real" teenager - he seems to be only concerned with bedding his stepmother. His father Stan comes across as a bit annoying. He means well and advises Oscar, but there's a flatness and egocentric quality to him. The whole Diane thing also seems a bit too quick and easy, and I found it disappointing in that after the dinner scene Diane leaves the story arc altogether. At first I wondered if that was to symbolize how one-night stands actually are, but if that was the case, then Diane shouldn't have been featured so thoroughly after she slept with Oscar. And despite Oscar's yearning and their nice little moments, I never felt a sense of true depth to whatever relationship Eve and Oscar share. The film just pushes and forces all these meddling conflicts at you, all of which can be considered serious, yet you never tend to really believe them because they don't hold much meaning. The characters are fleshed out decently, but not enough. That is another reason why the relationships don't work at a higher level. The characters all appear to be loners who are not fully in touch with themselves.

Still, the script isn't really terrible as there are some very sweet and very genuine moments. The dinner that Eve, Oscar, Stan and Diane attend captures a nice screwball comedy spirit as Oscar becomes incredibly concerned that Diane might get drunk and blow the big secret (on that note, I also liked in other scenes how Oscar does worry about how things might affected if Diane blows the secret). There is some nice symbolism, particularly the conversation with Eve and Oscar as far as why the heart symbolizes love. And then of course there's also the film's name - "Tadpole." This could have double meaning. Tadpole is Oscar's childhood nickname according to the doorman where Stan and Eve live, and then there's the younger man-older woman relationships the film features, AKA tadpoling. The film does a decent job of balancing the serious endeavors of the heart all while aiming for some natural laughs.

There are even more positive qualities to the film as director Gary Winick does an admirable job here. Despite the film's incredibly short length (the film is only 70 minutes excluding credits), he has some pretty decent shots for digital video and has a rather submersive editing style (that is really nice). And while the script doesn't fully explain everything, Winick is determined to always keep things going and create little detailed moments that add some strength to the movie. On a different note, I liked how the Voltaire and various quotes pop up throughout the movie in title cards as they add more meaning and get you thinking. As far as the music, there are some nice songs that fit in throughout and I loved the charming score by Renaud Pion that was usually played at the right times.

When it comes to the acting, the whole cast is flawless and they truly go the extra mile in adding more to what the limitations the characters offer. John Ritter is rather strong as Stan, wanting the best for his son and pushing him to get his own life but not knowing what's going on. Robert Iler (from TV's "The Sopranos") gives a brief, fun performance as Oscar's best friend Charlie, who obviously isn't as bright as Oscar. Sigourney Weaver once again shows off a very sweet, sensitive side and bounces off nicely against all her castmates. Bebe Neuwirth more or less steals the show, as she is downright sly, sexy and quite energetic (it's pretty apparent this is the perfect role for Neuwirth, as you can tell she's having a fun time being part of this). But of course, newcomer Aaron Stanford is just delightful as Oscar. Stanford captures the anxiety and depression of being fifteen and not being able to relate - not bad for someone who is really twenty-two or twenty-three in the real life. Stanford's portrayal is smart, subdued and rather careful. It's a very impressive comedic performance and a mark that Stanford has a great future as an actor.

"Tadpole" is a film that definitely had some major potential, but in the end, it's not quite satisfying. I had a hard time buying into the relationships, coincidences and its predictability factor. But despite how it's put together and while coherent, the film did not offer the closure and development it so desperately needed. I'm very mixed on "Tadpole," but it must be credited for its attempts to create a solid comedy and even a character study out of so little. I'm wondering if the writers had structured the script - and maybe even the characters - a little bit differently, if the film would have been better.

 

Presented in anamorphic widescreen, "Tadpole" features a decent transfer considering its roots, but it is not exactly true to its source. As mentioned, this film was shot on digital video. For its theatrical release, the digital video had to be transferred to a film print and as a result, the DVD features a transfer from an actual print and not the original video source. This is a bit annoying, since it doesn't truly give the look and overall feel the film was intended to have. It's less intimate and it doesn't give the film it's true luster. I had the same exact problem with another indie film shot on digital video, that being the wonderful Chuck and Buck.

But with all of that aside, this transfer is fine but rather inconsistent. Those who complained during its theatrical run on how bad the film looked and unpolished it seemed since it went to a film print probably won't change their opinion if they choose to see this DVD transfer. Detail is decent, fleshtones look nice and color saturation is rather average. The film can be really grainy at times, but other times, it's pretty smooth. There are times when it seems pretty faded, but other times, somewhat sharp. There is some noise and edge halos, but there isn't any dirt pieces or scratches to be found (but there are some blemishes here and there). If you're a purist you'll likely be disappointed with this transfer, otherwise, you probably won't care as much.

 

The English 5.1 Dolby Digital track for "Tadpole" did exceed my expectations, but only by a little. This was a very cheap film to make as I've mentioned, and I'm wondering if the sound was only picked up by the digital camera themselves or if there was a little extra equipment to go with them. In any case, surround use is more subdued but there are moments for the rear speakers to do their stuff. People calling from opposite directions, door closings and the city ambiance do provide some nice moments. Otherwise, things are pretty front-based with a lack of subwoofer use. Also, things get a bit cluttered at times and sometimes it's hard to hear what characters are saying as other sounds overlap. The musical score sounds pretty good through the channels. In all, this mix isn't perfect but suits the film fine. Also included are English subtitles and English closed captions.

 

There's only one real extra here, and that's a Audio Commentary with Producer/Director Gary Winick. This is quite a strong commentary and should definitely please fans of the film and the casual viewer. Winick, who is quite soft-spoken, covers a lot of ground here. He talks about the film, the advantages (and disadvantages) of shooting digital, the tight schedule of shooting and gets a bit technical in how some shots were established. Winick, while gives a lot of stuff on the technical side, balances it out quite nicely with some tidbits about the story and what he was going for. Winick also refers to some deleted and alternate footage, which is sadly, not found on this DVD. In all, the man really knows what he's doing, remembers all the details and is quite articulate. If you liked the movie, then this is worth listening to. It's a pretty impressive commentary that you can really learn from, and definitely one of the better commentaries I've heard in awhile.

Also included are Sneak Peeks for other titles, such as "Kate & Leopold," "Serendipity," "The Importance Of Being Earnest" and the DVD set for the excellent TV show (with the decent movie "Stolen Summer") "Project Greenlight." And in recent Disney fashion, no trailer for "Tadpole" is included here. I seriously wonder why they've abolished trailers for the actual film on most of their releases. Hmm.

 

"Tadpole" is a fun and really light film, but truly nothing more. The film definitely did have potential that was sadly not met, yet it does offer some killer performances and decent entertainment. Despite its shortcomings, a purchase of this DVD is hard to justify with the rather high $29.99 list price and the film's short 70 minute length. The presentation is decent considering how the film was made, and the sole extra is Winick's nice commentary. If you're interested, it's a fine weekend rental. If you truly love the film and yearn to be Oscar, then go out and buy it.