Punk James (2001)

Rating: C+

Dir: Jeff Cochran
Star: Robert Anderson, Michelle Aldama, Doug Hotchkiss, Kent Kamish

The first feature from Cochran is rough at the edges, but like Baron Dixon, is jammed chock-full of interesting characters. James (Anderson) is an artist who dreams of running away with an old flame, but to raise money, ends up taking work from the seriously dubious Kim (Kamish), a proposition you just know is going to blow up in his face. The events of that day are what forms the basis of the plot.

The film is hugely watchable, purely on a “what’s going to happen next?” level – James is a wonderful hero, flawed and perhaps doomed, but acting from the best of intentions, and perhaps for the finest of reasons: love. The rest of the cast are equally well thought-out, with even minor parts being given colour and zest, and performed with enthusiasm; even James’ car and dog seem to have distinct personalities. Particularly memorable is Punk’s conscience (Cochran in an uncredited cameo) – a master at stating the bleedin’ obvious, who vanishes with the pop of a beer-can. There are bizarre Lynchian touches too – Kim spends his time watching someone with a papier-mache head of Bert (from Sesame Street!) sway back and forth to classic songs…

Shot on camcorder, yet the picture really doesn’t look like it, clever ways constantly being used to film around the limitations. Editing on the conversations needed tightening though, with awkward pauses in the cross-cutting often making them seem stilted. There are also elements to the script which just hang loose e.g. two suits in dark glasses who turn up in search of James, then vanish without trace. According to the director, there was an explanation, but it wasn’t filmed – it might have been better to cut out their characters altogether, rather than leaving that scene dangling.

This also leaves the film better at setting up problem situations than solving them. For example, one of the things running interference against Punk is the task of picking up his landlord’s cats from the vet. This goes wrong (horribly wrong!), but again, there’s no resulting confrontation as you’d expect and hope. Indeed, the only genuine threat posed to James is from a bunch of Indians (it took Chris’s explanation for me to realise they were speaking Navajo!), and they really aren’t much of a challenge. Still, for a first feature, it’s very assured and, while fairly ambitious, it succeeds on more levels than most.