November 3, 2009


Is it fair to judge a film based on its bang-for-the-buck value (low budget, high production), and ignore otherwise standard criteria like writing and acting? Is the bar set a little lower for independent films, making the mediocre ones appear good and the good ones appear great?

Your perspective around these two questions will undoubtedly influence your opinion of Ink, the low budget ($250,000) sci-fi fairytale from Jamin Winans that recently played on Opening Night of the Flyway Film Festival. It's been receiving a healthy supply of positive buzz from Ain't It Cool News and Film School Rejects, and the filmmaker's comparisons of the film to Donnie Darko, The Matrix, and especially Pan's Labyrinth are justified.

But the problem with comparisons to those critically acclaimed hits is that if the film in question doesn't measure up to them (and Ink does not, in my opinion), it's maybe better not to mention the similarities at all - like hearing somebody can dance like Michael Jackson and then finding out they can't even moonwalk.

It's not for lack of trying that Ink didn't bowl me over; considering its budget this is a monumental achievement of visual filmmaking. The special effects, cinematography, and stunt work are a feast for the eyes. Winans obviously had a clear (and very ambitious) vision for Ink, and it would be unfair for me to say that what he had in his mind wasn't realized on the screen.

But I feel like too often these early-career feature films bite off more than they can chew, and a filmmaker will try to impress people on too many levels. Now, if you know me you know I love bare-bones filmmaking to begin with (Ballast, Take Out), so I found the plot of Ink barely engrossing at its best, and plodding and tedious at its worst.

The film shows us an alternate dimension of reality, where our dreams are controlled by spiritual beings known as the Incubi (bad) and Storytellers (good), who come into our bedrooms by shadow of night and battle for our souls. Humans are unaware of these forces and their influences on daily life. A decent little concept from which to build a story, right? If only it was kept that simple.

Our protagonists are the stereotypical little blonde girl, Emma (Quinn Hunchar), her widowed and self-absorbed father, John (Chris Kelly), and a mysterious dreamworld creature named Ink (for reasons that are unexplained, Ink has a nose the size of an extra limb protruding from his face). Ink has kidnapped Emma's soul in an effort to join the ranks of the Incubi. This all takes place in the first 15 minutes or so of the film, and I was hooked by a particularly well choreographed fight scene in Emma's house.

Like I said at the outset, it's all amazing to watch, but I soon found the plot so muddled and melodramatic that the spectactle eventually lost its spark. Removing a few characters and about 20 minutes would have done the trick for me, but again, I'm biased toward a style of filmmaking that usually bores people by its simplicity (Gerry, anybody?).

So bringing it back to the questions I opened with: I think there is definitely something to be said for champagne filmmaking on a beer budget, and Winans deserves credit for Ink's astounding production value, cinematography, stunt work, and terrific musical score (done by Winans himself). But that's as far as my personal recommendation can go, because I just wasn't compelled by the story or characters. Then again, I'm in the minority in feeling the same way about Pan's Labyrinth, so take that into consideration.

Ink played at the 2009 Flyway Film Festival and is now available for purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD. It will be released on Netflix, Blockbuster, and iTunes on November 10. Give it a shot - a movie with this much effort behind it deserves to be seen.


  1. The question you raise in your first paragraph is a fascinating one because I feel that so many times critics fall in love with a film if it is small and original. Examples that come to mind are films I have seen recently such as Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project.

    I loved Paranormal and was a little disappointed with Blair Witch, but they were both efficiently made films regardless of the budget. I think that it is unfair to give "leeway" to a film simply because its budget is small. However, I do think it is fair in some ways to praise a good film with a small budget over a good film with a large budget. It is a bit of a paradox, but when a filmmaker is able to make the most out of his resources, it is certainly an admirable thing.

  2. Couldn't have said it much better myself, Danny. I'm not trying to take anything away from Ink as a sharp-looking film made on a dime, but as I see more "truly" independent films like this I'm increasingly hesitant to give them a pass primarily on effort. I didn't see Paranormal Activity, but I did see at this festival the zombie hit Colin, reportedly made for $70. That movie is probably the best example of this new trend that we've seen, and I'll have some thoughts up on that one soon.

    Moral of the story is: great job getting a movie made and not wasting a lot of money, but frugal filmmaking does not necessarily mean fantastic filmmaking.

  3. "Frugal filmmaking does not necessarily mean fantastic filmmaking." That's exactly it.

    $70?! That's insane.

  4. Yeah I'm totally slacking on a review, but that was the rumor on Colin - $70, or 45 British Pounds, however the conversion works.


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