In many ways, creativity and ambition are the best options for a low budget, independent movie. Those are elements that can overcome budgetary restraints, shoddy effects, or hammy acting. But, there is also something to be said for not overextending oneself and knowing what can be accomplished with the resources available. It is a complicated balancing act to be sure and not every movie that does not succeed in doing so fails at being entertaining. Celluloid Soul, for example, is a bit of a mess, with poor acting and bad dialogue, but sports a brilliantly original plot.
Monty (Dennis Kinard) and Tara (Azize Erim) are driving to a friend’s place for dinner. As they go back and forth about their views on religion, the couple loses control of the car. Monty pulls his significant other out of the wreckage and carries her until he cannot anymore. A short while later, screenwriter Monty returns home to an empty house and realizes Tara has left him.
This sends Monty into a spiral of depression, of which his weekly movie nights with his best friend Patrick (Bill Devlin) can’t even shake off. Until one fateful screening, Monty sees actress Ida Beswick (Lauren Baldwin; who is luminous in the difficult role) in a tiny part in an obscure 1939 film. He is transfixed and vows to watch all her movies. As he views her relatively small filmography, his obsession grows stronger.
“…as he views her relatively small filmography, his obsession grows stronger.”
He then posts an online ad seeking any information about Beswick. A few days later, he receives a phone call from an unknown number. Monty answers it and is flabbergasted to discover that it is Beswick herself calling. They cordially discuss her films and life, when Monty hits upon an idea- he’ll write a screenplay all about Beswick. She’s overwhelmed at first but agrees.
The two only talk over the phone, despite Monty’s insistence on a face-to-face meeting. Eventually, Beswick is convinced to meet in person. She warns him that she is not what he’ll be expecting. When she arrives at Monty’s, he freaks out over her appearance. That’s because Ida Beswick is a walking, talking, black-and-white, flickering, grainy, sentient piece of celluloid. Monty feels as if he’s losing his mind, but Beswick convinces him otherwise. Is he having a nervous breakdown or is Beswick real?
I’ve got to hand it to writer-director Mark Pirro, that is one killer hook. See, creativity and ambition are already equating to praise for this movie. However, before that continues, there are some flaws in Celluloid Soul that do prevent it from reaching its full potential. His reaction to seeing Beswick’s black and white existence is played more as if it is a mild inconvenience than anger or confusion. It is written to be awed, and then baffled, but it does not work. Sadly, any scene where he discusses not being sure what is real and what isn’t fails in a similar fashion. Monty is telling his therapist (a brilliant Judy Tenuta) that he wants to kill himself. She presses him on it, and he states that he doesn’t really want to do that. Whether is lying to her or said it in a moment of passion as a means to express his feelings and did not mean it, the line is delivered monotonously. Therefore the audience has a tough time caring for Monty for the first half of the movie.
The other big issue is that even though Celluloid Soul clocks in at 93 minutes (approximately), it feels very padded. Many scenes repeat topics or conversations heard in other sequences. Beswick and Monty first meet and she convinces him that she is real. They drink wine and talk and eventually go to bed together. The next morning in the park, Monty is telling Patrick about everything that happened. Patrick tells Monty that he worries for his friend’s sanity, then Patrick has to leave. Beswick shows up on the wooden bench near Monty. And she has to convince Monty yet again that her black and white-flickering existence is not a hoax. If more time had happened between the first meeting and now, maybe this would work. As it is, it is pointlessly repetitive.
“…sets up the characters well, and the ending proves just how resonant their arcs…”
At the end of the movie, Patrick and Valerie, his wife, go to visit Monty in the hospital. Patrick tells Valerie that Monty will be released in a few days time. They talk to the doctor, and the entire conversation relays what the audience just found out. Then the friends see Monty, and what do they discuss? How long until he is out of there, of course!
However, there still strong elements to Celluloid Soul, starting with Ida Beswick herself. The effect utilized to create Beswick’s look is awe-inspiring, adding a striking visual element to an otherwise competent but dull looking movie.
More importantly though, is the ending. The last 10 minutes, or so, of Celluloid Soul is breathtaking. See, through all the issues, the movie sets up the characters well, and the ending proves just how resonant their arcs are for the viewer. Without spoiling much, Monty sees Beswick and reads her their screenplay. It works in a way the rest of the movie never quite reaches and almost (almost) makes all the issues in the film moot with how heartbreakingly sweet it all winds up being.
Celluloid Soul is original and crafted with great creativity and care. Sadly the writing isn’t as strong as the directing, so a lot of scenes feel unnecessary and don’t go anywhere. Couple that with an unconvincing leading man and you are left with a movie that is high on ambition, wholly original, yet only a mediocre final product.
Celluloid Soul (2018) Directed by Mark Pirro. Written by Mark Pirro. Starring Dennis Kinard, Lauren Baldwin, Bill Devlin, Azize Erim, Judy Tenuta.
5 Film Reels (out of 10)