After two 'Deadlands' films, writer/director Gary Ugarek takes a stab at a different genre with the crime drama 'All in the Game.' Made on a micro-budget of under two grand, this black and white flick feature is another noticeable step forward in terms of final product from the up and comer. While growing pains may still be visible from time to time, this first step away from flesh-eating fare is a tightly spun yarn that picks up plenty of steam as it barrels towards its finale.
Set on the streets of Baltimore, 'All in the Game' captures the the workings of a tightly nit group of drug dealers (Micaiah Jones and Chris Clanton from HBO's 'The Wire,' Nelson Irizarry and Kelvin Page) as they begin their ascent to the big time. As they eliminate the competition, they soon find themselves up against Michael Caprisci (Mike McMullin), the top dog who isn't quite ready to relinquish his crown. The bloody little war being waged behind closed doors is about to reach its apex, and there's no telling who will be standing when the last bullet is fired.
For about the first thirty minutes of this 73 minute flick, I'll admit I wasn't entirely impressed or fully hooked. The characters weren't quite clicking, nor did they do much to differentiate themselves from each other, and I started to wonder if the film would be like a zombie survival tale, in that we really don't need much characterization, just a setup in which to tell the story. While some of the longer scenes, centered around a speech or two, were really well written and fun to listen to, they dragged the film's pace down to a crawl, and needless to say, some of the acting proved to be a little uneven, especially in moments where one performer would sell the character and scene, while the other seemed to have a little trouble getting the right words out. A few mis-framed shots drew the eye, while the use of split-screen seemed a little excessive in its repetitiveness.
The thing about "All in the Game' is that it ultimately overcomes these obstacles and provides a pretty darned fulfilling, enjoyable movie experience. It's not like a switch is suddenly flipped, and we're on to a new experience, but the bugs seem to work themselves out, the characters start to stand out better, and once we get to some torture scenes, we get to the real grit and grime that sells the game being played. The dialogue, which is always very natural feeling, starts to sound less forced, the action starts to feel like it matters, and the events that unfold start to connect the dots in a way that wasn't all too clear in the beginning.
'All in the Game' operates at peak performance when we see the crew (led by Irizarry's Ontario character) take it straight to the Caprisci family. When the former associates turned rivals face off, the stakes are raised significantly, and so is the drama and the brutality, with a number of memorable little sequences that pack a fun punch. The violence isn't quite cartoonish (even with the budget limiting the possible effects, making for some very soft gun pops and cutaways to the recently departed), but it also isn't quite brutal enough to make viewers uncomfortable with the content. The language on the other hand may not make many friends, as the racial tensions do lead to some words being said that may offend.
This third effort from Ugarek definitely impressed me, even with the aforementioned shortcomings. There is more change from his previous works here than just the lack of zombies and color, as this is his first film without a proper score, instead featuring a soundtrack. This is also the first Ugarek didn't personally edit. On top of that, it's also the first to feature recognizable faces. What is captured here for less money than I spend annually on Blu-rays definitely provides a solid payoff. I can only imagine if this film had a slightly bigger budget the small things that would have helped it be a little less noticeably independent...those little quirks that remind you that you're watching someone putting his all into a film and letting the end result speak for itself.
'All in the Game' isn't as viable as, say, the found footage features that took similar budgets and made hundreds of millions, but really...aren't we tired of those damn films, anyways? This original crime story is definitely one that will grow on you...if you have the patience to get past the first act.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'All in the Game' is not found in any stores. Ugarek is currently selling the title on his website (www.wetnwildradio.com) on Blu-ray, DVD, and HD DVD for $25.00, shipped in the United States, and also has listings on eBay for the Blu-ray and DVD editions. The Blu-ray release is a limited edition of 100 copies, signed and numbered, and features cover art designed by HDD forum member Torrente! Like the pressings of the 'Deadlands' films, this title is highly likely to sell out fairly fast!
The disc itself is a Region A/B/C BD25 (BD-R), that has no-pre-menu content. The menu itself features a tab for extras, and a tab for the movie itself, though loading the extras page makes it function slow like a DVD. While there are three audio options, pressing the play button instructs you that you can access them through the alternate audio buttons on your Blu-ray remote. The packaging features information that was relevant to the HD DVD disc, concerning a second disc which wasn't quite necessary on this Blu-ray to get all the content, so ignore the portion that states there is a second disc, as Ugarek has confirmed this is a typo.
Be sure to stay through the trailers for one extra scene. It's a little bit of an anti-climax. Also, some of the images for this review were taken from the press kit for the film. There is not a single color scene in the film.
'All in the Game' comes to Blu-ray in 1080p using the MPEG-2 encode. The black and white film (made in color, with no obvious off colors to create b&w contrast, though some tweaking was admittedly done in post) honestly looks pretty damn good. I was fighting for a while between the score featured in this review, and a half star higher, and only aimed low because some of the nagging problems ultimately added up.
This disc defines inky black. I mean, spill a jar of ink all over your screen, rub against it like some kind of pervert, and you still won't come close to the level of deep, obsidian awesomeness that this disc boasts. Detail levels fluctuate, but in may shots, there's a wealth of detail in the characters, their skin and hair. It's a little hit or miss, but when it's on, it's really something! Midrange shots can also look pretty damned solid.
Yes, this disc has some artifacting visible, including a few shots with a really bad banding effect (view the skies when the soundtrack gets a credit in the opening for an example). Sure, there's some jaggies in diagonals here and there, like a sharp rail or a zipper, but for the most part, this issue is kept to a minimum. Grain levels jump back and forth a little bit, including times inside scenes with no lighting change, which is a little frustrating. The two biggest issues are the whites that are so bright that they're borderline blown out, and the obvious fact that some shots, even after the tweaking to make the film look better in black and white, really don't lend themselves to the two tone color palette. Trees and brick walls should not fuse, but this is not the fault of the disc. Another small issue I had was the sometimes shaky camera work that made it tougher to focus on some shots, but, again, not the disc's fault.
'All in the Game' is a marked improvement over the previous two discs released by Ugarek on Blu-ray. Taking all things into consideration, it's really an appreciable disc!
The audio for 'All in the Game' is the one area in which I was dissatisfied. There are two audio options, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track being the default for the disc. I'll admit, there's some nice separation at times, and pretty darn good dynamics, but that's about all the niceties I can offer. For one, the disc is amazingly quiet, requiring me to crank up the levels on my receiver to get much volume coming out of the speakers. Dialogue and other elements sometimes blend, creating prioritization issues, while words can be a little difficult already. There are some audio sync issues, like the end of the three amigos torture scene, as his dialogue was way off in a number of shots, probably ones used from other takes to make a back and forth conversation using a single take's verbal performance. There's a good amount of breath on mics, and an entire scene that sounds like there's not only a geiger counter nearby, but also some serious radiation to set it off. I'd say going into this release with no expectations for the sound may be the best thing.
Discs pressed after the copy I'm reviewing include an extra bonus teaser trailer, introducing the Littles character, similar to the teaser found here that spotlights the Lucky character.
Not every extra found here is also on the HD DVD disc, and said additions are noted.
Gary Ugarek's third film, and first outside the zombie sub-genre, is his best to date. It starts slow, but gathers plenty of steam to provide a solid payoff. Fans of urban power struggle dramas should definitely check this one out. It's not overly violent due to budget obvious constraints, and isn't a glossy, perfect little film, but it has enough going for it to get at least one thumb up. This self-made Blu-ray release has good but occasionally problematic video, though the audio left much to be desired. A fun oddity or obscurity to have, which supports a great cause in helping the director make more films. As such, it's worth a look.