There's one question that I receive quite often when people learn that I review low-budget indie films alongside the wide release films most of you are seeing in the multipexes.
Okay, actually there are two.
The first question is "Why?"
The "Why" answer is really quite simple...If I limit myself and "The Independent Critic" to the wide release films that most of you see, I'm ignoring the heart & soul of filmmaking around the world. While the vast majority of Hollywood's financing may back a mere 300 or so films a year, the VAST majority of working actors, directors, writers, tech crew and behind-the-scenes film professionals are toiling away on films not financed by the Hollywood machinery and not likely to ever see a single multiplex unless the filmmaker rents one out.
If I don't review the films made outside the Hollywood machinery, and a lot of film websites and publications don't, then I'm ignoring the vast majority of people working in film today...the up-and-comers, the stars in waiting, the wannabe's, the never will be's and, yes, the future stars and award-winners of tomorrow.
The second question I often receive is "How do you review these low budget films, often with budgets of only a few hundred or thousand dollars? Surely you have a separate scale for them? You can't possibly rate them the same as you do the big budget, wide release films?"
The approach that I take to film review allows, in a general sense, for budgets of a wide range. The approach that I take to reviewing a film is based almost solely on the art and technicality of film-making and not from the perspective of "entertainment value" and flawless technology.
My interest as a film critic is in how the filmmaker, crew and performers utilize what is available to them. In other words, a filmmaker making a film for $10,000 is utilizing a cast, crew and equipment available to them for that price.
What's the final result? Does the finished product reflect an appropriate finished product? Does the finished product reflect skillful use of the technology available, talented acting and efficient use of equipment?
The scale is the same if the budget is $10 million or $100 million.
In other words, I have the same scale for all films applied on an individual basis.
This brings me to Princeton Holt's first feature length narrative film, the adult drama "Cookies & Cream." Offered the chance to review "Cookies & Cream" after my review of co-star Brian Ackley's most recent film, "Uptown," "Cookies & Cream" is a decidedly different cinematic beast centered on the life of Carmen (Jace Nicole), a mixed race single mother who maintains a job in the adult entertainment industry in order to provide the best life possible for her daughter and herself.
One look at the DVD cover might lead you to believe you're in for a titillating, exploitative cinema experience?
Then, the opening credits role and within a few moments it becomes abundantly clear that Princeton Holt and Jace Nicole have sucked us into their universe and, yes, we've bought into our stereotypes.
Rather than a titillating and exploitative experience, "Cookies & Cream" is an intelligent, thoughtful, strange and wonderful film featuring a divinely nuanced and balanced performance from Nicole and her supporting cast of players including the aforementioned Ackley as Dylan, a potential suitor for the rather romantically challenged Carmen.
In a weird way, "Cookies & Cream" is most easily described as a twisted blend of Kevin Smith's "Zack & Miri Make a Porno" with Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," both films that unexpected approaches to the adult entertainment industry.
The really great thing about "Cookies & Cream" is that Holt makes the incredibly wise choice to focus the film on the matters at hand, perhaps recognizing that the film could dissolve into a chaotic sea of cinematic cliche's were he to explore every potential storyline, including the very basic storyline of the mixed race Carmen and the caucasian Dylan.
Rather than exploring all the side issues, "Cookies & Cream" centers itself almost squarely on the life of Carmen and how she struggles to be a single parent and find love when every guy she meets seems to want her to be the porn star girlfriend.
Time and time again, Carmen chooses to be honest about her job path with potential suitors and, not surprisingly, time and time again she's disappointed by men who refuse to see her for the women that she is when the cameras are off.
Seriously, what would you do?
It's an interesting dilemma.
After so many disappointments, Carmen decides not to tell Dylan right away about her "career."
They click. They grow closer.
What should she do?
"Cookies & Cream" couldn't possibly work without strong performances and a script that sells the drama without dissolving into unnecessary histrionics. "Cookies & Cream" succeeds on both counts, with a stellar performance by lead Jace Nicole and balanced along with disciplined performances from Brian Ackley and a rare dramatic supporting performance from Def Comedy Jam's Ardie Fuqua. Naama Kates and Chris Riquinha also did a nice job in supporting roles.
Holt, who wrote "Cookies & Cream" as well as directing it, has constructed a creative and intelligent dialogue about a world in which few of us have actual knowledge but most of us are willing to offer opinions. Flying in the face of stereotypes, Holt neither over-sympathizes nor embellishes Carmen's world. Rather, much like Anderson's "Boogie Nights," he simply presents these characters as living, breathing human beings struggling to make the right decisions for themselves regardless of their circumstances.
Where "Cookies & Cream" falls short and ultimately gets knocked down a notch on this writer's scale is in Holt's seeming desire to move "Cookies & Cream" a touch beyond what he can achieve technically on a modestly budgeted film. Early scenes, impacting approximately the film's first five minutes, on the screener copy I received featured a few distracting flickers indicating either a camera issue or an editing issue that is likely too essential to be edited out and too expensive to reshoot.
Likewise, Holt seems to rather extensively utilize audio dubbing for those scenes in which his available sound equipment would have been inadequate to result in a decently shot scene for such scenarios as walking across a parking lot or scenes that may have involved excessive background noise. While it's understandable why Holt chose to obviously utilize post-shoot vocal dubbing, it's a distracting and obvious choice and, at times, the dub is rather clearly not matched with the words onscreen. If you've ever seen a film dubbed from English into a foreign language, then you likely understand what I mean.
These modest technological quibbles aside, clearly a result of working with a limited budget, Holt has fashioned together a film that clearly reveals him to be an up-and-coming filmmaker and screenwriter with a knack for creating characters who transcend their Hollywood cliche's and blossom into a life all their own. Along with a well written script and strong performances, "Cookies & Cream" features a solid soundtrack featuring the likes of The Rollo Treadway and Rosemary's Garden as a perfect complement to the film's varying tones.
"Cookies & Cream" is the kind of film that reminds me why I review low-budget, independent films. I have this deep down hope that, in some small way, I'm helping bring to the cinematic world a new writer, director, performer or previously undiscovered film voice. "Cookies & Cream" is a film you should remember featuring such cinematic voices of tomorrow as Princeton Holt, Jace Nicole, Brian Ackley and others.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic