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Below the Belt

Amerindie pioneer Robert M. Young's fifth decade of work commences on an inspiring note of experimentation in "Below the Belt." Sci-fi comedy about three corporate middle-managers stuck in a godforsaken factory outpost benefits from blend of live actors with computer-generated effects and backgrounds. Feature comes off as routine satire.

Cast:
Hanrahan - Xander Berkeley Merkin - Tom Bower Dobbitt - Robert Knott

Amerindie pioneer Robert M. Young’s fifth decade of work commences on an inspiring note of experimentation in “Below the Belt.” Sci-fi comedy about three corporate middle-managers stuck in a godforsaken factory outpost benefits from blend of live actors with computer-generated effects and backgrounds. Feature doesn’t add up to much more than an enjoyable novelty due to its source material, Richard Dresser’s eponymous stage play — which won some praise on the boards, but here comes off as routine satire of a too-familiar target (bureaucratic dehumanization). Viable tube item — iffier as a theatrical prospect — should intrigue adventuresome grownup animation and fantasy fans.Arriving at his destination via various strenuous forms of transit, Dobbitt (Robert Knott) is the amiable new guy assigned as checker at a remote, “off-country” industrial plant that manufactures … well, something even he can’t figure out. Judging from the pervasive globs, currents and vaporous clouds of phosphorescent green toxicity, however, it’s nothing very healthy.

His coworker is the awfully surly Hanrahan (Xander Berkeley), and their boss is persnickety dweeb Merkin (Tom Bower). Both men are hostile, manipulative and insecure, immediately placing the guileless newcomer on shaky footing. Nor are the grunt workers any more welcoming — nearly all black, they regard their three white overseers with mute, arms-length suspicion.

As a shipment deadline approaches, Dobbitt and Hanrahan begin to communicate on more agreeable terms — to petty tyrant Merkin’s chagrin. But even this small improvement is threatened when Merkin convinces Dobbitt to help hide some bad personal news from Hanrahan. Meanwhile, only Dobbitt seems worried about the mysterious, glowing-eyed creatures lurking outside the factory gates.

Late glimpse of carnivorous giant snakes aside, that last element comes to nothing, and indeed “Below the Belt” is rather low on narrative incident. Occupying the majority screentime is Dresser’s dialogue, which quickly wears out its welcome with its long, just occasionally funny stretches of niggling argument and bureaucratic doubletalk. Surely this stuff worked better on stage, but even there one suspects it was too redolent of Ionesco and other such conformity parodists.

The three able lead performers do their best to maximize comic potential, peaking with a slapstick tango between Dobbitt and Hanrahan — alas, the sole notable instance of physical humor.

The main attraction on visual or any other terms is the use of CGI, which is nearly continuous (30 of 32 shooting days were spent on a Denver soundstage against bluescreens). Though Young reportedly consented to this tack only because his original plan to shoot amid decaying Puerto Rican industrial sites fell through, the resulting graphics give the pic a big boost. Actors are posited within post-apocalyptic landscapes of poisonously beautiful hues, recalling everything from “Metropolis” to Hieronymous Bosch. Though “seams” between these effects and actors are obvious, suspension of disbelief is hardly the goal.

Tech and design aspects are all admirable on no doubt a limited budget. Score by three-man musical unit (including helmer’s two sons) a.i. is amusingly kitschy at times, but sometimes resorts to pedestrian synth filler.

Below the Belt

Production: A New Deal Pictures presentation. Produced by Joel Ehrich. Executive producer, Hank Lightstone, Tom Bower, Ehrich. Directed by Robert M. Young. Screenplay, Richard Dresser, based on his stage play.

Crew: Camera (color, Sony HD Cam), Michael Barrow; editor, Roger Cohen; music/sound design, a.i.; production designer, Hilary Rosenfeld; visual FX designer/computer graphics designer, Chris Healer; art director, Leah P. Katznelson; costume designer, Rosenfeld; assistant director, Charity Thompson Ozorowsky. Reviewed at Sundance Film Fest (Frontier), Jan. 19, 2004. Running time: 95 MIN.

With: Hanrahan - Xander Berkeley Merkin - Tom Bower Dobbitt - Robert Knott

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