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I came so far for beauty
A UK region 2 DVD review of ONE LAST THING by L.K. Weston
 

“Even if you think you don't have a
chance in hell, just take a shot.”

Earl

 

After seeing Alex Steyermark's debut film Pray for Rock & Roll a few years ago, I wondered what else this seasoned music producer-turned-director had up his sleeve. What can I say? I was young and impressionable. Back then, if you made a film remotely based around music, with any vague hint of female empowerment, set anywhere other than rainy England, you had my attention. But, if you'd told me the director of a cooler than cool independent film about the Los Angeles rock scene, which featuring a Joan Jett-esque rock star called Jacki (played by Bound's Gina Gershon), would just two years later, end up making a sweet, more than slightly moralistic drama about a sixteen-year-old high schooler with a terminal illness, I probably would've laughed in your face.

That's exactly what One Last Thing is.

OK, so, on reflection Pray for Rock & Roll wasn't exactly raucous (the film merited at 15 certificate here), but it was clear Steyermark wasn't afraid to explore less conventional narratives, even if aesthetically they played that way. The fact that its only release here came via the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival should point you in the right direction, even before you set eyes on Gershon's Jacki. Whilst recognising it wasn't the greatest film in terms of technique or innovation, and the writing was a little hackneyed, I did enjoy the story and the music choices. When the latter took precedence, I didn't really mind.

Armed with that knowledge, I did wonder, script notwithstanding, how Steyermark would deal with heavier material in general, nevermind if he could pull something like One Last Thing off. There's no denying that the somewhat light story of a rock band is the polar opposite of the social emotional and moral complexities which are inherent in dealing with the subject matter of cancer and other terminal illness in general, before adding the further complication of a main character who is yet to leave high school. As soon as I looked at the promotional material for the film, I found out how such difficulties were overcome – by reducing them. Somewhere off in the mists of Marketing Land, someone very clever decided to pitch One Last Thing as a feather-light, teen-sex comedy, emblazoning the poster (and subsequent DVD covers) with a bikini-clad Summer Mabrey – replete with a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon, I'll give them points for trying, if nothing else – the alter ego of supermodel Nikki Sinclair, object of dying boy's affections (played by Michael Angarano). Add to this incredibly badly Photoshopped stills of Angarano and screen mom Cynthia Nixon.

The word disappointment doesn't even begin to describe it.

How many of you went into Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire expecting a sweet little feel-good film? Raise your hands now! After all, the poster and the voiceover man told us so, therefore, it must be true! How many were more than a little shocked at its less saccharine and more downbeat moments? I'll grant you that it wasn't quite as bad as Ewan McGregor's Renton emerging from filthy toilet bowl in Trainspotting, but it was no walk in the park either. How many times have you browsed your DVD section, spying an unknown film by your favourite actor, their face (and name) writ large on the cover, only to discover they're only in the first five minutes, and even at that early, nay embryonic stage, they're still the best thing about it? After mis-marketed films, badly designed, lazy film posters and promotional materials are by pet peeve. They were trying to make me swallow this as something like a cross between Luke Greenfield's The Girl Next Door, Todd Phillips' Road Trip, and any of the American Pie franchise. I didn't like it. Not one bit.

Things for Steyermark and his cast didn't look all that good and I hadn't even read the plot synopsis, which goes like this: Pennsylvanian high school student Dylan Jamieson is offered the chance to have his last wish granted by The United Wish Givers' Foundation. Originally intending to ask to go on a fishing trip with his sporting idol, quarterback Jason O'Malley (Johnny Messner), he has a change of mind right in the middle of the televised press conference. Buoyed by his friends Slap (Gideon Glick) and Ricky (Matt Bush), he declares that he wishes to spend the weekend with supermodel Nikki Sinclair, much to the horror of everyone present, including his widowed mother Karen. Initially Nikki and her agent Arlene (Gina Gershon) think it a good photo opportunity, hoping to gain some much-needed good publicity from Dylan's plight, but get more than they bargained for.

Ah, now I understood. This was going to be the lite depiction of a very serious subject, an earnest after school special kind of film, that you'd usually find one of the many 'true move' type channels. Appropriately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, after struggling to find backing, HDnet Films rescued One Last Thing from the wilderness, acting as co-producer with Magnolia Films, before airing it domestically in the US on its cable film channel, prior to an eventual DVD release. Considering I bemoan the fact that so many films get lost for the want of an outlet, I realised I was being rather harsh, and I wasn't giving the film fair shot. Like it or not, I had to put my misgivings aside.

In fairness, subject matter like this is a hard sell, and the fact that the director struggled so long to find an outlet for the film is proof of that difficulty. Unlike Adam Shankman's A Walk to Remember or Nick Cassavetes' My Sister's Keeper, this film doesn't have the added bonus of a built in audience via bestselling source novel (written by Nicholas Sparks and Jodi Picoult respectively); the star pull of either picture; nor the critical acclaim and credible pull Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo brought to Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me. Aside from Nixon and the draw of her Sex and the City fame, the rest of the cast are little known. In the face of such stiff competition, both Angarano and Mabrey are minnows in a sea full of sharks and Steyermark's film would struggle to be a blip on the radar.

And therein lies its charm. I like an underdog, I like something to champion, so now my interest was most certainly piqued. One Last Thing is by no means a great film, but it is a good one, much more than it's frankly rather cheap, if well-intended marketing campaign would suggest. Those involved have to be given further points for attempting to tap into the 2005 vogue for teen sex comedies, which has probably lured in a larger audience than it could have anticipated if they had approached things from a different angle. In that context Dylan's wish seems obvious rather than unconventional. Not surprisingly this film has something of an identity crisis, and it can't really decide if it wants to be one of those comedies or a more meaningful Frank Capra / It's a Wonderful Life type meditation upon life and death. Sometimes, both elements can be exhibited in one scene. I still can't decide if that's a good or bad thing. One Last Thing feels like a film with a lot of promise, and with the makings of good ideas, not all of which are fully conceived. Thankfully, doesn't resort to giving Dylan massive life revelations or turn him toward God, but it does imply to some degree that he affects everyone he meets, regardless of how much time they spend with him.

Steyermark and his screenwriter Barry Stringfellow have good intentions, and the result on screen is honest and heartfelt without veering off into the melodramatic, as is so common with such material, even more so when romance is involved, a huge part of the success of the classic Ali MacGraw, Ryan O'Neal vehicle Love Story stemmed from its epic and tragic love story, something that's been replicated on ever since – a recipe that A Walk to Remember also found successful. As unlikely as it seems, you can already tell love is in the air for Nikki and Dylan from their first awkward meeting. Since we already know what will befall him from the first frame, the very nature of the film means we suspend disbelief, and even yearn for the strokes of serendipitous luck and fantastical romance it offers up, akin to that of the aforementioned Girl Next Door.

However, in terms of its depiction of adolescence, the film can't be faulted and is much more realistic than mainstream fare. It makes a change for actors to be cast age appropriately, and to see them exhibit vulnerability and awkwardness that we all experience as teens but rarely see in the glossy, airbrushed visions of cinematic teendom. Dylan Jamieson is different kind of teen, more Paulie Bleeker and less Troy Bolton, a definite bonus in a narrative already hampered by moral minefields and genre clichés. Our connection with Dylan is an important one, though his predicament means that unless you're in possession of a heart of stone, he's impossible not to like. But, if Angarano fails, so does the film. Luckily for Alex Steyermark, his casting directors Amanda Harting and Amanda Koblin made the right decision in giving Micahel Angarano the top spot. If you're a fan of independents, you'll have seen him without knowing it's him. With a talent that belies his years, he's turned in some incredibly assured and well-received performances, from Kristen Stewart's rebellious classmate Dave in Jessica Sharzer's Speak to the leading role of Cole McKay in Brad Gann's Black Irish, which would follow One Last Thing. While he might not be your classic teen idol, he proves himself to be a more than able lead.

The run of casting luck continues right down to the smallest of characters. Angarano has a surprisingly strong leading lady in Sunny Mabrey, but compared to her co-star, she has a much harder task. Nikki is selfish, rude, obnoxious and arrogant, but Mabrey rises to the occasion admirably. Like the film itself, Nikki wins you over. Elsewhere, Cynthia Nixon proves she has many more strings to her bow than her portrayal of career-driven lawyer Miranda in Sex and the City. Outside of the main plot, the smaller one of Karen's struggle with the impending loss of her son brings some much-needed depth.

One Last Thing's minor characters are just as interesting as the major players, with a particularly affecting turn from an unaccredited Ethan Hawke (a friend of Steyermark, doing the indie equivalent of a Richard Curtis cameo) as Dylan's late father Earl, and former Fugee Wyclef Jean (who also provides contributes a song to the soundtrack) turns in an interesting performance as sage New York taxi driver Emmett Ducasse.

When the film reaches its inevitable conclusion – that we somehow think it never will – it's dealt with sensitively, with a great deal of care and without resorting to cliché's, buffeting of the understated approach taken by Nixon and Angarano throughout. We see their pain, we feel it ourselves, but we aren't beaten over the head with it, and Dylan never once asks to be pitied. He takes thinks as they come. That said, those final scenes are no less powerful for their subtlety, in fact, I'd argue that they're made better for it.

One Last Thing is a film of lessons, of reflection and evaluation. Once you get beyond its rather silly surface, it's an engaging film. More than anything else, I learned that old adage remains true: never judge a book, or rather a DVD, by its cover. Though it's a rather sneaky ploy to maximise certain plot elements to garner the widest possible potential audience, in an incredibly competitive market it's easy to see why it happened even if it isn't all that easy to forgive. That said, it's lamentable that films which approach the subject of terminal illness in this way have become rare. So rare in fact, that they have to pass themselves off as something different just to get a foot in the door.

sound and vision

In what is becoming an increasingly common pandering to those who expect every pixel of their new widescreen TV to be used, the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly cropped to 1.78:1, although this presents no noticeable framing crampness. On the plus side, the transfer itself is largely excellent, with a crisp level of detail, nicely balanced contrast and a colour palette that attractively favours pastel shades. There's also a welcome lack of the post-production colour tinkering that makes it so hard to judge the accuracy of the transfer in this area. Pleasingly, scenes set inside look as good as the exteriors.

Dolby stereo 2.0 only on the soundtrack, but a very good one with excellent claridy and breadth and some fine bass – the sound of surf in particular has considerable punch. The music always sounds good and there is some subtle frontal separation.

extra features

Compared to American counterpart, this Freemantle Media release is rather sparse, omitting both the director's commentary and the short but interesting episode of HDnet's 'Higher Definition' dedicated to the film, amongst a few other extras which were part of its Magnolia Pictures HD-DVD and standard DVD releases. The lack of them won't really leave your bereft, but their absence is odd considering the film's long passage from domestic to international release, and would have been a nice bonus.

Photo Gallery (1:59)
A slideshow style selection of production and behind-the-scenes stills, set to Wyclef Jean's 'Heaven's in New York,' used elsewhere in the film's soundtrack. Most of these are available online, with a few exceptions.

Trailer (1:58)
This is edited with a bias toward the uplifting, inspirational and less sombre aspects of the story, while eliding its more difficult material giving it a warm, almost nostalgic feel. Clearly made to tug at the heart strings and maybe prick the conscience. For a relatively new film, the print is surprisingly poor. Thankfully, this isn't a reflection of One Last Thing entire, and the feature transfer is of significantly better quality.

summary

One Last Thing is not the most visually creative of films, somewhat thwarted by an uneven tone, but it has its heart in the right place. With a strong cast to drive it along, it's definitely worth a look if you're a fan of any one of its members. If you're after a tearjerker, romance or teen film that steps off the beaten path and favours substance over style, then this one is for you.

One Last Thing

US 2005
96 mins
director
Alex Steyermark
starring
Michael Angarano
Cynthia Nixon
Sunny Mabrey
Matt Bush
Gideon Glick

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
TBC
extras
Photo gallery
Trailers
distributor
Fremantle Entertainment
release date
24 August 2009
review posted
26 August 2009

See all of L.K. Weston's reviews