Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

One disturbing trend at IMDb since it got "discovered" is that the comments and scores are less sincere than they were years ago. It is common to see the minions and flacks of the filmmakers flooding the comments and scores with fatuous and fulsome praise, or casting negative votes for the work of rival studios.

I have found a fairly good workaround for this problem. In the IMDb score area, press on the "vote here" column and check to see how the Top 1000 voters score it. These are people like me and Tuna, people that watch a vast number of movies. We are not affiliated with any particular film, and we don't even pay attention to which studio produces or distributes a film, so we are obviously not inflating or deflating the scores of a particular studio.

Overall, this is scored 5.4 at IMDb, which is not very high at all, about like two stars, but much too high for this movie. The Top 1000 voters score this 3.6, which is just about where it belongs.

By the way, this is the grand prize winner from the 2002 Sundance Festival.


Here is the deal.

Rebecca Miller, daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller (remember him? You read his plays in high school, and he was married to Marilyn Monroe), wrote a book of short stories. She decided she didn't need no stinkin' filmmaker to bring her precious words to the screen, just a video camera.

She either didn't get a camcorder that works properly, or maybe used some 1975 analog model from her dad's closet somewhere, because the photographic quality is the worst I've ever seen on screen. I'm talking any screen, at any time. Including my own home movies that I made of the kids back in the late 70's. The colors are faded, bleached, and/or unrealistic. The photographer has no idea how or when to use lighting, nor how to keep moving images in focus or even in the frame. There is significant motion blur. And that isn't an easy thing to achieve in a film where nobody moves very much. It's not like we're watching the battle of Helm's Deep, after all. It's a bunch of people whose biggest exercise is dialing the telephone.

The stories have some merit, but I was shocked by the fact that nearly every critic ignored the truly amateurish filming. Personally, I have to stick by a tried-and-true rule. No matter how good an idea you have, and no matter how good the performers, if you're going to make a good film, you have to read additional chapters in the camera operator's manual after you finish the reminder to remove the lens cap.

As one IMDb comment said, ""This isn't even a movie. It's a collection of ugly, washed out, grainy, pixelated, flat, unlit, out-of-focus images, often still, with very little dialogue, while a narrator reads three of the auteur's unrelated short stories. Just because it's possible to shoot a movie with a consumer camcorder doesn't mean that everyone should try to do it."

If Ed Wood could come back from the dead and make a chick-flick on video, this would be it. You want to know the best part? It won the award for best cinematography at Sundance! Best film? OK, I could understand that, because it's the kind of precious material that sometimes moves people who crave a fusion of film and literature. I'll admit that the stories could be evocative, and appealing, especially to the uptown frou-frou set. They were probably very good stories in written form, and could appeal powerfully to women. But best cinematography? C'mon! That tells you more about Sundance than about the film. As Ty Burr of the Boston Globe wrote: "'Velocity'' represents everything wrong with ''independent film'' as a commodified, sold-out concept on the American filmmaking scene. It's a series of postures signifying immediate Sundance acceptance".  He's right on the money, dadgummit! When I read his essay, I realized that this is essentially a made-for-Sundance movie.

The technical problems are compounded by the process of converting the DV images to film, which induces additional artifacts, giving the whole thing a "grainy" quality.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the overall video quality is much, much worse than those bootlegs that they make in Asia by watching real movies and filming the screen with a digital camera. The sound is better than a bootleg, of course, since you can't hear the audience chatting and sneezing, but I'm sure they would have added that if they could have figured out how.

We might overlook the technical quality if the photographer at least knew what to do with the camera, but the whole thing has a hand-held aesthetic that just cries, "look at me, I'm deliberately avoiding the look of Kodak moments". People go in and out of focus. The image is shaky. People seem to be barely in the frame while the camera focuses on the middle of a a bare wall. It has a amateurishness that makes a Lars van Trier film look to be as studied and orchestrated as a David Lean epic. It has so many close-ups of eyes that Sergio Leone would be embarrassed. Especially since Sergio would at least have had them in focus.

Rather than elaborate on this, I think the point is best made with this frame to the right. Do you have anything worse than this in your family films or photo albums? I'll bet not. Not even the ones taken when drunken Uncle Dwight commandeered the camera at family Christmas.

As for the content, well, I'll let the tag line speak for itself:

"Three women's escapes from their afflicted lives. Each struggles to flee from the men who confine their personal freedom."

Its thought process consists solely of "men are evil". I suppose many of you will not need to know any more. People either love or hate that kind of material. You know which group you are in.


One of Parker Posey's breasts was seen fleetingly in a sex scene.

Seth Gilliam's butt was seen as he slept naked. 

If you are still considering watching it after the summary, please note that the so-called dramatization of these stories mostly consists of some guy reading from Rebecca Miller's book. And this guy is not exactly Kenneth Branagh or Orson Welles. His voice is so lacking in animation, inflection, and energy that he makes Steven Wright seem to be as enthusiastic and colorful as Dick Vitale.

Also take note of the fact that women rate it lower than men at IMDb, and that women over 45 rate it lowest of all demographic groups (2.1/10).

The one positive: they did hire three competent actresses to play the leads. Rebecca Miller is married to Daniel Day-Lewis, and has some inside access to a talent pool that would not normally be available to a no-budget filmmaker - people like Parker Posey - although the value of that talent would have been much greater if the women had been allowed to act rather than just standing there while the Steven Wright guy read a monotonous literary passage.

Actually, there is a second positive. To be fair, the basic stories had some potential. They felt sincere to me. The Parker Posey story was pretty lame - a neurotic Manhattan chick with more shoes than Mrs. Marcos realizes that she doesn't love her kind-but-dull husband any more now that she's made it big - but I think it was told honestly, with a satirical edge. I just didn't care about it. The other two had some relevance to go with the honesty.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic

If only Rebecca Miler could start again, keeping the same three stories and same actresses, but allowing professionals to write and film a screenplay.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Entertainment Weekly A.

  • The film won the Grand Prize at Sundance

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. Voting results: IMDb voters score it 5.4/10 (3.6 from the Top 1000 voters) , Yahoo voters appraise it at 3.3/5.
  • The film won the Grand Prize at Sundance, then sat on the shelves for ten months. It is now getting some art house distribution, and has grossed a half million or so.


Special Scoopy awards for excellence in criticism go to:

Order of merit in accuracy: Ty Burr of the Boston Globe. "This sounds like a smart, thoughtful movie - a good one, even. Yet Miller's overbearing direction sucks all the life out of ''Personal Velocity.'' The literary connection that would seem to give the movie its heft only cripples it: In adapting her stories, Miller has retained long, indigestible chunks of voice-over narration that end up oppressing the characters far more than anything in their lives. A sentence such as ''The damp underwear on the radiator filled her with panic'' may flow interestingly on the printed page, but hasn't anyone told Miller that film is for showing, not telling? (As for a sentence like ''She felt the ambition drain out of her like pus from a lanced boil'' - well, that's just bad.) This isn't a movie - it's an author in love with the sound of her own voice."

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, you could fairly argue for an F because it is technically incompetent, but I suppose C- is a fairer score, although it pains me to admit it. If you like self-absorbed "women's issue" films, this is at the very bottom of the pecking order, but must still be in the C range because many people sincerely liked it, including almost all critics. If you don't like that kind of film, you will find this one to be as bad a way to pass the time as anything in your life's experience, including gratuitous dental work.

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