Assumption of Risk (Feature Critique)

Posted by on Jun 27, 2014 | 0 comments

Feature Critique
Assumption of Risk
Assumption of Risk PosterDirector: Mark Kochanowicz
Expected Rating: PG-13 for language
Distribution: Self Distribution Through Vimeo
Budget: $42,700
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Release Date: March 1, 2014
Official Website:
Trailer: Click Here
Running Time: 97 minutes
Critique Issue: Iss. #99 (06/14)
Critiqued By: Jeremy T. Hanke
Final Score: 7.0 (out of 10)

Wes Riemann (Dan McLaughlin) is a numerical savant. He can predict your life expectancy better than almost anyone else—and it’s led him on a fast ride into one of the most lucrative life insurance companies in the country. However, when a new colleague, Darci Bettencourt (Patricia Mizen), points out some shocking anomalies in the company, Wes discovers that there are some dark secrets to his company’s success that he’s not aware of.

Together, they’ll have to try to figure out how the insurance company has gotten so good at predicting life expectancy—allowing them to preternaturally drop people just before they actually die. Of course, there are powerful people who have no interest in these secrets coming to light—who have no problem killing them both to assure that they never do.


The goal of making an edgy dark-side-of-business thriller, with a secret technology powering it, is a very lofty one. If feature filmmaking were a martial art, these sorts of suspense thrillers would be the black belt test. Even Christopher Nolan, who may be one of my favorite filmmakers, had mixed success with his first feature film, which was a crime thriller that didn’t try as many twists as this one does.

That being said, Assumption of Risk had some high points—like solid acting from the two leads, good chemistry between Mr. McLaughlin and Ms. Mizen, and some clever motivators to explore: dying boss, dead sister, dying father, cryogenics, secret devices that tell when you die, etc.–but, in the end, the film just didn’t work for me.

Warning! Spoilers Ahead
The reason it didn’t work for me is that so many elements in the film were extremely predictable to the very fans of the mystery thriller who are going to give an Indie candidate in this genre a chance. It felt as though there was a desire to recapture some great moments from really large budget Hollywood films like “Enemy of the State” or “Patriot Games”–but without the resources to do so, they fell flat. (The best Indie films use their limits to their advantage to create the sort of films no one in Hollywood would think to do because they don’t have those limits. Mike Flanagan’s suspense thriller, “Oculus,” used a single room and a single actor and a single mirror to create a suspenseful tale. He told it as a 30 minute film for $2K and then later, he got a chance to do a Studio-released feature of it with a larger budget.)

To clarify some of the parts that felt really offputtingly clichéd is the fact that the mysterious and attractive Darci, who comes into the office and befriends Wes, is actually an undercover fed. This is really well-covered territory—and they weren’t able to explore it in a way that felt unique or unusual. Interestingly enough, it would’ve been more unusual and less cliché if she were just a co-worker who’s pulled into this mystery. If we had taken all the feds scenes out of the film, it would have been more suspenseful as they try to figure things out together—with no backup to call. And the ending would’ve been tighter, as you could’ve added drama with two people trying to run from bad guys which is harder to create with only one.

Which brings us to the end, where the main character is running from the main bad guy. Repeatedly he makes decisions that seem to exist only to put him in danger—not because there was any sort of driving internal reason for him to do to these things, but because the script needed him to do these things for him to be put in additional peril.

The final concluding parts of the film worked pretty well, although, again, they were pretty blatantly predictable.

For future films, I would definitely suggest looking in the Hollywood/Los Angeles Craig’s list for professional script readers. Many of these are people who pre-read scripts for Hollywood studios and are willing to hire their services for a couple hundred dollars. There are also script communities where people each read a few other people’s scripts and provide their insights, and a few other people will provide insights on their scripts. Both of these elements will help make a more polished script, which will give a much greater chance of success.

Visual Look

Well shot with the Sony FS100 Cinema camera, there is some great cinematography throughout this film.

With that said, the lighting is a mixed bag. In shaded outdoor scenes, things look really amazing. In bright outdoor scenes, the light doesn’t seem to have been diffused before hitting the actors, so you have very striking light that feels on the edge of blowing out, while eyes are much more shadowed. (One of the strangest things I’ve learned doing films is that you have to control your light outdoors as much as indoors. If you need to have your characters stand out in an area with no shade, then, for future films, it’s a good idea to use large diffusion panels to bring down the intensity and hardness of the light that hits them. Of course, it’s usually cheaper and easier to just rewrite the scene so that they’re in a place where they can be in some shade.)

Many indoor scenes don’t seem to be lit brightly enough for the camera, leading to dingier interiors in places like Wes’ office. (This can also occur if regular fluorescent lights are utilized—even if they’re color balanced in post, they deliver a dingy light. I learned this on my first film, where we swapped out regular fluorescents with white tubes, thinking that would fix the issue—but it didn’t because the tubes weren’t actually balanced, nor was the ballast, so the light was dingy and unflattering. I’ve only found specialized fluorescents like Kinoflos to deliver consistent light.)

The most noticeable areas of lighting are in regards to faces, where there’s often not a strong enough fill light on faces so their eyes get lost in shadow or where you have black actors with white actors, without providing enough additional light on the black actors faces. (I’m reminded of the famous party intro scene from the film, Swingers, where they had the black actor in the group light a cigarette in the shot that had all of them, so they could practically add enough light to his face to illuminate it.)

For the current film, I would suggest looking at Red Giant’s Colorista II, which I’ve found does a good job at being able to color correct and bring brightness into a scene organically. (You can also create animatable feathered masks with it for illuminating faces and eyes.)

Use of Audio

Recorded with an Audio Technica AT897 shotgun mic, the dialogue is recorded pretty well. The sound effects are mostly wild sound (recorded on site) and are pretty decent. The score created by John Avarese works well, overall, helping to add impact to certain scenes and infer danger.

My main problem with this film is that the audio hasn’t been mastered for digital distribution—which is crucial because the film is being digitally distributed (as opposed to BluRay or other forms that have more audio latitude).

When you first mix your audio for your film, the dialogue volume can change pretty drastically due to a number of different things, so you need to account for that in the mix and mastering process so viewers don’t have to keep messing with their remote controls to clearly hear the dialogue. (Easy way to check for this is to play you film through an iphone’s external speakers or through a thin LED TV’s speakers.)

I personally discovered this on a show MFM helps with for our sister magazine, DarkestGoth Magazine, called the Silas & Ami Show, which we use Crazytalk 7 to animate. The audio for the first few episodes was mixed really nicely for watching with a nice speaker system, but was awful on simpler speakers like an iphone or a multimedia TV. That’s when I went to the folks over at Oakwood Sound Design and they came up with a series of presets for both characters that I could punch into an audio plugin that maximized the audio of their voices (without letting them clip) so they stayed clear, distinct and easy to hear, regardless of what audio system you were watching it on. (We used iZotope’s Ozone 5 for this and I was blown away by how well it worked. Users can download a variety of presets from the user community for this plugin for different types of voices and see what you get. As this was edited on Sony Vegas, which started out as an audio program, the iZotope plugins will work natively with it.)

The other issue, which is smaller, is that there were a number of scenes that could stand to be expanded in post with sound effects and foley. While we often think of this most often in terms of close up shots, its actually equally important for scenes where something iconic is occurring–like a scene at the shooting range where a female officer who couldn’t pull the trigger in an earlier case, is cocking her gun. While there are great gunfire sound effects that come later, a lot more impact is created by adding an emphatic sound effect to the gun cocking that reverberates in her ears, since it reminds her of her past failure. (In fact, when she actually successfully pulls the trigger, the edit could actually dip to black and use the explosion sound as a transition into the next scene—since her actually pulling the trigger really concludes the scene.)

Use of Budget

This film was created under one of the SAG Indie contracts, so Mark was able to utilize SAG/AFTRA actors for the film. With the costs associated with this type of film, the fact that they were able to come in under $50K is really impressive. Shot in only 20 days, this was done in less time than Kevin Smith’s Clerks, at far more locations! Very impressive.

Lasting Appeal

Currently, this isn’t a film that I’d rewatch or that I’d recommend to my friends. With that said, film is subjective even when we’re trying to be as objective as possible, so I guarantee that there are some folks who will love this film. I think the likelihood of that happening is increased if the audio is mastered for digital release and if some of the lighting issues are improved in post.

Overall Comment

I critiqued Mr. Kochanowicz’s short, “Breath of Twilight,” seven years ago and it’s great to see him stepping into the feature film market, after doing such interesting short films! Assumption of Risk was a huge leap, and, although there were problems with it for me, it still shows a lot of potential. I’m really excited to see his upcoming work as he continues to grow and improve!

Visual Look
Use of Audio
Use of Budget
Lasting Appeal

Overall Score


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The director of two feature length films and half a dozen short films, Jeremy Hanke founded MicroFilmmaker Magazine to help all no-budget filmmakers make better films. The second edition of his well-received book on low-budget special effects techniques, GreenScreen Made Easy, (which he co-wrote with Michele Yamazaki) is being released by MWP in fall 2016. He's curently working on the sci-fi collaborative community, World of Depleted, and directed the debut action short in this series, Depleted: Day 419 .

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