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March 7-13, 2007

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'We Are the Strange'

Mystery man: M Dot Strange brings the idea of homemade film to a new level in 'We Are the Strange.'

Dot Strange Matrix

San Jose filmmaker M Dot Strange spent three years alone in his apartment making 'We Are the Strange'—is this the future of cinema?

By Matt Stroud

'WHEN YOU'RE working on a movie alone, for years, it's like you're in a cave," says Mike Belmont, a.k.a. M Dot Strange, the 27-year-old San Jose filmmaker behind the animated feature We Are the Strange (WATS), which screens Saturday at Cinequest.

Belmont wrote, directed and filmed WATS over three years in his San Jose apartment. "And while you're in that cave, you might think you know what people are thinking outside, but, chances are, you probably don't."

After hyping the film for six months via blog and vidcasts on YouTube, Belmont unveiled WATS at the Sundance Film Festival last November. In all, the Sundance release was successful. Although some Utah patrons walked out during the film's esoteric opening 20 minutes, WATS was praised internationally by the likes of Variety, Wired and ABC News as innovative and new—a production destined to scramble Hollywood's notions of creativity.

Here's our take.

The Good: Using an anima-tion style that Belmont calls "Str8nime" (i.e., "Strangeness + 8-bit videogame culture + Japanese Anime," according to the WATS press kit—"think Monsters Inc. meets Nightmare Before Christmas inside of a retro Japanese video game"), WATS is beautiful, interesting and thought-provoking.

In the 84-minute feature, there are angels and demons, sex and violence, confusion and introspection, deceit and betrayal, and possibly the cutest, scariest miniature puppet ever to star in a film lauded by The New York Times as representing "a new paradigm of filmmaking."

Belmont tells me that "because people still think animation is for kids, audiences come to the film thinking it's going to be Barnyard, but it's not at all—it's radically different."

Why animation? "Without having a budget," says Belmont, who produced WATS for under $20,000, "there's only so many stories you can tell with live action actors. You can't tell an epic story. You're really constrained. But with animation, the universe is your boundary."

The Not Quite So Good: WATS seems like a movie produced by a talented, ambitious person who has locked himself in a room for years. Problems with WATS are not, as some irritated Sundance viewers imply for him on YouTube, that its reality is a hyperstylized world with surreal complexities that only enlightened young people can comprehend.

No, the flaws arise within the notion that WATS is a video game you can't play. (There is a short video game available online, in which the viewer is able to interact with, and manipulate, the actions of the characters he or she watches. It's called Facade, and it can be downloaded free, here:

And without the option of manipulating the decisions of characters, WATS is more exercise than entertainment—a patience drill in which the viewer is pummeled with constant scene changes and aggressive noise, asked to persevere through an hour and a half of unrelentingly striking images, layers upon layers of digital filtering, 8-bit Nintendo homaging and complex visual concepts—all to essentially determine whether or not Belmont has beat the game you're watching.

It can be argued that WATS is self-indulgent. But it can also be argued that its themes—alienation, sadness, unity, a longing for something more, something better—are universal and worth considering, regardless of the filmmaker's self-involvement, the viewer's lack of interaction with the film's outcome or the creeping tendency of some viewers to walk out of the theater as the narrative unfolds all too slowly.

Things to Consider: Don't leave the theater. The film is not lyrical in the way Glengarry Glen Ross is lyrical, and it's certainly not Shakespeare (or Old School, or Looney Toons). But it's worth seeing now. WATS provides fodder for conversation and introspection.

It will undoubtedly make people rethink the way movies are produced, and how we will experience film when technological boundaries diminish and more viewers have further access to better equipment. It's probably best to lock yourself in a cave afterward, though—in order to forget that Ghost Rider was No. 1 at the box office last week, and that M Dot Strange As Big Time Mainstream Player is likely very far off.

Movie Times We Are the Strange screens Saturday at 10:15pm at the San Jose Repertory Theatre as part of Cinequest. For ticket info, call 408.295.FEST. (Disclosure: Metro is a sponsor of Cinequest.) The artwork of M Dot Strange is on display through April at Anno Domini Gallery, 366 S. First St., San Jose. (408.271.5155)

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