23 Hours

Director: Eric Thornett            
David Stewart, Jason Wauer, Duane Rouch

Since starting The Unknown Movies, I've had a few opportunities to review truly independent movies - that is, movies that are not only not made by the major Hollywood studios, but not even made by regular direct-to-video studios like Curb Entertainment or Citadel Films, or even those made by poverty row B movie churners like Phoenician Entertainment. I'm talking about movies made by true independents, ordinary people who more or less picked up a camera one day, gathered some friends, and with no kind of studio interference shot and edited together a movie of their very own. Whenever I have received one of these movies in the mail, my curiosity always goes up - I know that I'm going to watch something that, to a large degree, is going to be much different from the stuff I usually watch. And I always think the viewing experience is worthwhile.

What about, you might be asking, homemade movies like The Third Society? Didn't I say at the time that movie virtually failed at Nick suddenly finds himself with the Pulp Fiction briefcaseeverything it tried to do? Well yes, you are right. In fact, I still feel that way about it. But I still found it worthwhile to watch because of two reasons. One was the obvious - it failed so badly that it became interesting because of that. It was like a big lesson as how to not make a movie. In fact, I learned a lot about the process of making a movie from watching it. The second reason why I felt the time spent watching it was that this movie had that quality that even a lot of better movies lack. That quality is a love of filmmaking. As bad as The Third Society was, you get the sense that the people who made it put their heart into it, that they were enjoying themselves even if they did a poor job. I've found in a lot of these backyard movies there is a lack of pretentiousness, and a lack of pretending to be something else. You are, in effect, seeing raw filmmaking, and you sense the sweat and effort that went into making it. This good nature can keep you watching and interested even if the film itself is substandard. That is, however, if the movie is not one of those pretentious arty or "isn't that how life is!" movies made by those people who carp about how all Hollywood movies are crap in interviews - that's a whole different ball of wax. Nothing can save those particular kind of movies, and the amateur style of filmmaking in those cases just makes their work even more unbearable to sit through. No, this is not some personal prejudice - that's just how life is.

So when Eric Thornett of Piranha Pictures recently inquired if I would like to take a look at his movie 23 Hours, I was definitely game. Especially when learning he was an acquaintance of Alvin Ecarma, the promising director of the homemade action movie Lethal Force, which I thought was pretty enjoyable. With friends like that, it didn't seem to me that whatever Thronett send me would be boring to sit through, and I was proved correct. 23 Hours is another movie that I found interesting to watch, and I had no regrets that I did so. It's a movie that determingly takes the poverty row budget by the horns and struggles hard to overcome it. It has a sense of creativity, with some good ideas and in the execution of them. It definitely keeps you watching. But if you put aside the facts that Thronett was working with no money and no big studio support, is it by itself a good movie? Well... that's another thing entirely. Though it certainly has that positive stuff I wrote about above and a few other things of note, it still has far more problems with it that prevent it from being little more than a poverty-row curiosity. That may be enough for some people, though not knowing your tastes, dear reader, I don't know if it will be enough for you. Read on, and decide for yourself.

The opening title crawl sets the scene for us: In some anonymous metropolitan city in the Eastern United States, the Sardonyx corporation, a technological firm that is responsible for creating many new kinds of exotic technology for public and private use, has based its headquarters. Ironically, Nick Miles (Stewart) - one of the employees of this firm who is to be the protagonist of the story - is himself not that flashy and exciting. A single man with apparently no family or significant other, he is not only bored with his life but is boring in his personality - it can be considered a great triumph when we find out in the beginning that he's managed to change one thing about his boring self, even if it is just changing the tie he wears to work each day. To his credit, we also see in the beginning he is trying to change something else about his life, something that's a bigger step. He is determined to quit smoking, and has already managed to limit himself to one cigarette every three hours thanks not only to his building willpower, but working with a hypnotherapist so that his unconsciousness will also encourage him to quit.

Big corporation working with technology... and a hypnotherapist... If you somehow Despite their blocking plan, they still left room for Nick to squeeze throughguessed that soon some strange things start happening to Nick, you are right. One night he wakes up and is unable to get to sleep, so he decides to have a cigarette right when the minute hand hits 12 and the time is 3 AM. But when it gets to that time, Nick is shocked to discover that the time has suddenly become 4 AM. Not only that, looking at the opened lock on his door and his one pair of shoes, there's evidence suggesting that he somehow went out during this missing hour. The next few nights the same thing more or less happens, and Nick manages to confirm that he is indeed somehow going out and not being able to remember what happens during this hour. Not only that, he starts to get images of a woman he's never seen in his life. Shortly afterwards he goes to an all-night diner to see if this missing hour will happen in front of witnesses. It does -  but this time he wakes up in a strange room, with a fired gun in his hand... and a dead body in the next room. Nick runs out of there... and very quickly finds himself running for his life.

This plot isn't exactly original - while these and subsequent events of 23 Hours don't copy a specific movie scene by scene, there are definitely elements most people will recognize from other movies, some of which include D.O.A., 3 Days Of The Condor, and even a hint of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. But to his credit, Thornett (who also wrote the screenplay) does present all of these familiar elements in a new light so that they seem more fresh than they actually are. The other movies that these familiar elements come from are more flashy, more high strung, where the tension usually comes from the fact that there is a specific kind of relentless danger out there. This time around, however, the atmosphere is quite different. There is a feeling of bleakness, a feeling of despair in the air right from the beginning. It's an unexpected atmosphere to encounter, and the viewer is at the beginning disoriented from being hit with this unexpectedness. Even after steadying yourself, it's still clear something is not quite normal, and you feel slightly uneasy even though you don't know why. There is danger here, but you don't know for a long time the different manifestations it has, and until then it seems it can pop out of anywhere - a danger than can be more creepy than a horror that's more specific.

Another touch that Thornett brings for a refreshing change is the depiction of the protagonist. The other movies that inspired 23 Hours typically have a protagonist who is somewhat charismatic and confident, Bet you now won't think big-budget CGI looks lousy after seeing this stillone who is more gung-ho than the average Joe and is willing to take a particular challenge head-on during his ongoing struggle. The character of Nick Miles is nothing like this. Though we didn't need to see yet again the gag of a man having a closet full of identical-looking suits (and I doubt such an introverted man would bring attention to himself by wearing a fancy man's hat all of the time), the depiction of him otherwise hits a believable note. He is truly isolated, a bland man who seems to have already accepted a terrible fate even before he found himself in this present mess. When confronted with danger, he will prefer to run than fight, should there be a method of escape available. Yet despite all of this behaviour, he still remains very sympathetic in our eyes. Some of this is due to Stewart's performance, whose facial expressions accurately capture someone who is desperately trying to hide his sadness in any situation under a neutral or business-like expression, but not quite succeeding. Though since the movie was apparently shot in silence and completely dubbed in the editing room, Stewart can only do so much. Thornett then takes over to do the rest of bringing this character to (pathetic) life yet be sympathetic, and he succeeds by using techniques like muting Nick Miles' body language. The results are admirable, especially under the circumstances.

Throughout the movie Thornett adds some neat little touches every so often. Some of these include the effective way Nick is presented his first clue that an hour has slipped away from him, and an exciting, extremely well-directed and edited chase sequence where Nick vainly tries to run away from an enemy downtown while that same enemy gets closer and closer to him by leaping and bounding through shortcuts taken over rooftops. There are also some camerawork stunts involving swoops and zooms in/out that are very effective as well. Let me emphasize the word "some", because the movie is simply packed with camera swoops, zooms in/out, odd camera angles, and so much shaky hand-held camera shots that even before a third of the movie had gone by that I seriously thought of sending Thornett a check so that he could buy a tripod. There is so much camera trickery and rapid edits that even director Scott Spiegel of From Dusk Till Dawn 2 notoriety would soon be curled on the floor whimpering for mercy. As for me, all of this was so much for me that although I try to watch a movie I want to review all at once, this movie exhausted me so much that I had to switch it off about half way through and watch the remainder the next day.

This MTV-inspired presentation style is also annoying in that is seems to be a vain effort to hide the fact that from the point where Nick first finds himself on the run, there is hardly any advance in the story itself - the biggest problem I had with the movie, and what ultimately makes it a disappointment. Until about the last ten minutes of the movie, practically all that Nick does is repeatedly encounter various karate-skilled hunters after him, and then Nick either (1) gets involved in a five minute hand-to-hand fight with the particular hunter(s) in the scene, usually with the shaky camera held far to close to the action, or (2) gets involved in a five minute run for his life, with the particular hunter(s) right at his heels. Though these sequences do have some excitement For painful wax build-up, sometimes you need something to dig it all outand a few good stunts, it gets really boring quickly. An action movie can't be endless scenes of action - you have to keep reminding the audience what the issues are, and why we should hope the protagonist will make it out of the crisis alive and unharmed. 23 Hours doesn't seem to care about this until near the end, and by then we've long stopped caring about Nick. It also doesn't help that when Nick finally tries to track down whoever is behind all of this, there is no clear explanation as to how he finally figures it out, and that when he writes down something that's key, the film has been so overexposed that you can't make out what he wrote.

The other outdoor sequences generally have enough light (though the film stock makes these and other scenes look creepily like footage from a '70s porn loop), which is more you can say about the scene shot indoors. It appears that Thornett did not, for one reason or another, use any spotlights to light rooms he used, instead relying on the natural level of light found in each room he shot in. As you can imagine, the result often look as if the rooms are lit by candles, and the hallways right outside the rooms are almost pitch black. Yes, he was working with a low budget, but other microbudgeted movies like Completely Totally Utterly and Lethal Force managed to give their indoor scenes proper lighting all the same. I just wish he planned this aspect some more, as well as some other parts where a little more imagination could have masked a low budget; I think most people, even with no money, could portray a ransacked apartment better than just upturning the cushions of a couch, as well as not to forget to upturn the perfectly straight lamp on the table beside the couch. And even though someone else composed the score, I think even Thronett could have easily rewritten and composed himself the parts of the score that have a static sound that actually made me think at first there was something wrong with the tracking on my VCR.

Still, 23 Hours was an interesting experience, a flawed movie yet one that does show some degree of originality and imagination. At the very least, it's proof that you can still accomplish quite a bit even when you are limited in.. well, everything. Thornett may be again limited in his resources if he makes another movie, but there is one thing he can do to increase his chances of success greatly all the same - spend less time with planning flashy direction, and spend more time developing the story. Get a story that can not only last for feature-length, but can go from act to act at a proper pace. It's funny but true -  flashy direction and production slickness cannot make up for a lame story and weak characters, yet great stories and characters can make up for so many different kinds of weaknesses a movie might offer.

Also reviewed at: Cold Fusion Video

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See also: Dance Or Die, Timebomb, White Light