Sounds of D.C. or conspiracy?
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, June 1, 2012
There is something pleasantly surprising about a movie set in Washington, D.C., that was actually shot in Washington, D.C. In place of the requisite Lincoln Memorial once-over followed by street scenes clearly captured on another coast, “Ultrasonic” was filmed in local neighborhoods, even offering the familiar drone of the “dee-do-dee-do -- doors closing” of a Metro train. And there isn’t a monument in sight.
Of course, there are trade-offs. The winner of best feature at the D.C. Independent Film Festival is an ultra-low-budget film; authentic scenery abounds, but so does some amateurish camerawork. Is it even fair to compare director-producer and co-writer Rohit Colin Rao’s mysterious drama with Hollywood confections, which are so often contrived but also sparkling with the impossible beauty of big-name actors and the sheen of high production costs?
Not exactly. But the black-and-white “Ultrasonic” does have a few things going for it, including an inspired, enigmatic plot.
Musician and piano teacher Simon (Silas Gordon Brigham) is married to Ruth (Cate Buscher), who is pregnant with their first child. What may be a bundle of joy is also something of a stressor given the couple’s finances. And to make matters worse, Simon has started hearing things. Specifically, he can’t seem to escape a B note with piercing overtones, which comes in waves and seems to get more intense in certain neighborhoods.
Most people would head to the doctor, assuming a case of tinnitus or some other malady, but Simon is close with Ruth’s brother, Jonas (Sam Repshas), whose de facto culprit is always the government. You know the type -- chubby, bearded and disheveled, he spends his days handing out conspiracy theory pamphlets on the street. You’ve avoided such a character by pantomiming an important phone call while giving the individual a wide berth.
Jonas is certain Simon’s inescapable auditory stalker may be the work of an Uncle Sam-sanctioned experiment, perhaps a type of conditioning to make locals friendlier and more docile. This may be bad news for Simon, but local audiences accustomed to Interstate 66-induced road rage may not find this such a bad proposition.
Nevertheless, the pair attempts to hunt down the root of the sound, much to the chagrin of Ruth, who believes first that her brother is a little unhinged and second that the source of the problem must be medical.
While some of the dialogue and acting early on veer toward the stilted, the actors settle into a nice rhythm as the atmosphere turns more mysterious. Sound work for the film is particularly impressive, bouncing from catchy ditties to resonant tones that give some insight into Simon’s misery.
The camerawork, however, is less organic and tends to distract, calling attention to its own bells and whistles. The shots can feel like a grab bag of film school lessons. Rao tends to capture the back of a character’s head, and is given to needless quick cuts and time-lapse shots. At one point, Simon tries to blunt the noise with ear plugs, which are orange in an otherwise sepia-toned film. It would be an interesting choice, except that the implements aren’t consistently colorful.
Bloopers happen, of course, even on big-budget endeavors, so it’s helpful to keep in mind that “Ultrasonic” was reportedly made for a paltry $20,000. While that’s not entirely unheard of -- films such as “The Puffy Chair” and “The Blair Witch Project” were rumored to have been shot for a similar amount, advertising costs not included -- it’s still an impressive feat. Almost as laudatory as setting a film in the nation’s capital while avoiding the same old Washington Monument B-roll.
Contains sexual situations, some violence, troubling images of a man sticking tweezers into his ear and crude language.