Mini-Review Round-Up April 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases will get full reviews.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

Meeting Evil

Samuel L. Jackson in Meeting Evil (Magnet Releasing)

Perhaps what’s most enjoyable about Meeting Evil is that it really plays with your expectations. It’s kind of a down the rabbit hole scenario wherein the protagonist (Luke Wilson) unwittingly gets himself further and further ensnared in a web of murder, duplicity and intrigue. Where we the audience come into play is that the film never cheats but has some really great twists along the way playing into one trope or another and then pulls a switch on us. It’s great stuff because what it does is keep you engaged and stays just a step or so ahead of you but you never feel bamboozled, for better or worse.

It’s also a film that allows its actors some room to play, Samuel L. Jackson in particular seems to truly relish this part and does great things in this film. Jackson is menacing, funny and truly a character in this tale, there’s a depth and intelligence to his madness. When all is said and done and you look back upon it you’ll see Luke Wilson does well too, faults you may find are more likely attributable to his character, but necessary for the story to function. The film also has a great sequence at a dilapidated farm house. It’s sequences like this and performances in small roles that can sometimes stick out most in a movie, granted the nature of the film makes it memorable regardless, but this sequence is where it shines. The performance in a small role of which I speak is that of Ryan Lee (Super 8) who has a brief but intense interaction with Jackson that stands out in similar fashion to Young Erik’s backstory in X-Men: First Class.

Meeting Evil
is a film that does not stand still for long and is memorable for it, and for refusing to be run-of-the-mill. It will be in limited release on May 4th and is available via Amazon, Vudu and iTunes streaming right now.

8/10

Ghoul

Nolan Gould in Ghoul (Chiller)

To start off with the positives on this film: Firstly, on a personal note, I was thrilled to discover I even get Chiller via my cable provider, as I had not in the past. Secondly, any time a fledgling network is branching out into original programming be they series or films I support that wholeheartedly. Thirdly, this is a very ambitious story, even more so when you consider it’s the first production you’re airing so that bodes well for the future, but sadly it feels like a bit of an over-reach here.

The main issues are with performance and adaptation. For the tale this film entails you need every single person in the cast to have serious chops and to fit the role to a tee and you don’t quite have the depth here. The only two noteworthy turns are Nolan Gould, best known as Luke on Modern Family, in the first truly dramatic piece I’ve seen him do and Trevor Harker, who shows the most promise in the young ensemble. With regards to the adaptation: First, the dialogue issues are rampant, and second, it seems like it might have been a bit slavish structurally and when telling a tale a bit more involved than most it makes the end seem rather abrupt and certain portions disjointed. It’s not an easy task, as there are a few pieces of commentary being attempted but all the more reason to do it properly. Few things are worse than well-intentioned commentary in an unfortunate vehicle.

I don’t know the source material but it seems as if they needed to get a bit creative in structuring and editing material, as well as streamlining events. This also throws the pace way off. There are some issues with production value like the not-quite-so-period costuming and the intolerable scoring.

While the film does end much stronger than it starts it’s still too much of a mess to be passable, however, I am looking forward to what else Chiller has to offer in the future.

4/10

7 Below

The Cast of 7 Below (Arc Entertainment)

There’s a bunch of random stuff that ends up at Redbox that never really gets on your Netflix radar so if you’re looking for a quick, cheap rental it’s a good resource to check every so often. Redbox also seems to be attracting, and placing in a more prominent way, some indie titles that are getting overlooked as other outlets balloon. That leads me to 7 Below. This is a horror film which boasts brief turns by both Val Kilmer, very brief, and Ving Rhames, not as brief, however, it’s carried mainly by its as of yet unknown cast. There’s a lack of focus in the early going with regards to the MacGuffin and a lack of detail and an air of mystery about everything. It’s a film that would be better served by not playing things so very close to the vest. There are some good and surprising twists to be had and the results of which I actually enjoy, but the whole film plods towards them such that I waited for them and expected them I just wasn’t sure quite what. It truly is a shame that certain aspects were quite predictable when others weren’t it just required a bit more fine-tuning to get just right.

5/10

Harley’s Hill

Kirstin Dorn in Harley's Hill (eKidsFilms)

Not to sound cute but, Harley’s Hill really is run-of-the-mill. It’s your standard low-rent family geared entertainment. In it you have a girl and a found horse and you can likely fill in the rest of the blanks yourself. What makes it even more standard is that from the adult ensemble has forgettable and at times regrettable performances while the few young performers are much better on the whole and do have their moments to shine. Most notable in the youth ensemble is Kirstin Dorn in the lead and main sidekick Lexi Di Benedetto, they are also well supported by very promising turns by Jacob Rodier and Elmo Riley. There are a few weak spots in the script but for the most part it sticks to its prefabricated plot fairly well. What is refreshing is that there are several passage of time montages, which although in need of tightening, allow the film to be more visual than anticipated. Typically, when a film is innocuous enough, as this one is, the line between a good rating and a bad one is very hazy. This film likely would’ve been for more enjoyable were I in the target demographic, however, seeing as I’m not and I found some issue with it I must give it:

5/10

With the caveat that I would recommend it if asked. It’s likely to be enjoyable for younger viewers and I did really enjoy the fact that it focuses on the equestrian discipline of dressage that you don’t see often on film.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

Mira Sorvino, Maxwell Beer, Ryan Simpkins and Daniel Cosgrove in Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (Phase 4 Films)

In the interest of full disclosure this film and the one added yesterday were really only viewed to start populating the Performance by Young Actress in a Leading Role field in the BAM Awards and thank goodness I felt compelled to do so. It wasn’t all at once, but boy was I in for a surprise when I started watching this film. Based in part on the some what mystical illustrations on the cover image, I was likely more wary of this rental than the former.

I was not only pleasantly surprised but rather blown away. I have not seen an independent family film of this quality since The Dust Factory, which I believe I only saw in 2005 when it was on DVD.

The title character is most definitely the lead in this film, and newcomer Maxwell Beer is outstanding in this part. Based on the nature of the story it’s quite possible that the shooting schedule was rather continuous, and it really shows as he especially grew as the movie progressed and it turns into a rather special performance. It gets better because not only does he pair very well with Ryan Simpkins but she is quite a scene stealer both comedically and dramatically, which I love, and her performance is very powerful.

For all its quirks, and it does have a few, this is a film that stays very grounded and rather real, it may seem as if it’s skewing outside of that realm but bear with it. It’s set in New York but uses the setting tremendously as the world of the story, as is that of the protagonist, is very insular. This is something I can relate to quite a bit, as big as New York is you can find your own little corner and tuck yourself away there, and that is part of its charm.

It also does things like building character so seamlessly such that its not rote and you don’t feel your attachment to these characters and their problems growing and it does.

I was moved greatly by it, probably even more so than by Fireflies in the Garden, whereas this film had zero casting stumbling blocks to overcome.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is currently available from Amazon both on DVD and on Instant Video and Redbox. I highly recommend it.

10/10

Smitty

Brandon Tyler Russell in Smitty (Phase 4 Films)

My favorite film of this post (above) has the same distributor as this film, which just goes to show you that family-geared entertainment can really run the gamut quality-wise regardless of budget and production values. In fact, it also shares a cast member with the aforementioned film (Mira Sorvino), and while her part here is larger, it’s not quite up to par with her turn in Jeremy Fink, wherein she also played a mother albeit an eclectic one.

Comparisons aside, for they are ultimately irrelevant, Smitty stays middle-of-the-road at best and what’s frustrating is that it wouldn’t have taken much to make it pretty good. There’s a director who’s had notable works (The Sandlot, Radio Flyer [uncredited]) and an experienced, award-winning and -nominated cast members like Peter Fonda and Louis Gosset, Jr. but the script is tepid, standard and repetitive, and doesn’t give the actors a lot to work with. There are some curious structuring decisions, which doesn’t even include the “non-guffin” of the local hoods, who serve minimal purpose except to bloat running time and coax our protagonist into bad choices, dramatically as well as morally.

The film could be decent, fairly light family fare but as indicated above there are many missteps, and it also falls into the standard family film mold in this way: the young lead being the bright spot. Brandon Tyler Russell is raw, but quite convincing in his emotional moments and perhaps the most under-served by the script, in as much as many of his scenes are hard to believe textually much less when played. However, there is a lot of potential there and it’d be great to see him with better material supporting him.

5/10

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Review- The Cabin in the Woods

Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison in The Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate)

My initial Twitter reaction to The Cabin in the Woods was to say that “it’s like every horror movie you’ve ever seen combined into the most awesome way imaginable.” After all the hullabaloo on the web about critics who had disliked the film and explained why by using spoilers I was afraid that even my exultation of glee was a bit too much. Having already seen the film I then proceeded to read Scott E. Weinberg’s review, which I’ll agree is spoiler-free so I feel better about myself and thus I can continue.

The more one watches films the more one becomes accustomed to genres and their tropes. Depending on how well or poorly said tropes are played, if they’re dealt with originally or lazily is usually what the quality of a genre-specific film hangs on. Typically, when a film breaks a mold, whether it works or it doesn’t, it’s applauded for the effort. What you get in this film is much more smart and far more daring in as much as it takes the set-up you’ve seen far too often: five teenage archetypes heading to a remote cabin in the woods, where you know they’ll meet their untimely demise (or come very close), and absolutely relishes every single horror staple it can lay its hands on. It packs them in at one point or another and this may all seem like too much of a good thing but it’s handled so cleverly it works. How you might ask? Ah, therein lie the spoilers and I won’t tell you that.

A great hint of what you might be in store for is to think on the films that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have written together. In both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz you have send-ups of very specific kinds of movies, namely zombie films and cop films. They are both funny and lampoon the genres they emulate but do it so brilliantly that they inherently evolve into a genre film. Now The Cabin in the Woods kind of reverse engineers this approach, in as much as you understand the basic horror premise and follow that and the mystery is really shrouded in the second part of the film, the comedy and commentary is coming from the B-plot, of which, the less you know about going in the better off you are.

Now as this film slowly unravels the layers of its mystery, and rewards the attentive viewer with every unfurling, essentially what you’re getting is a two-pronged prolonged set-up. Now, I recently wrote about how I like the set-up in films, but what’s amazing here is that there is some tension and mystery to it when there really shouldn’t be. Mainly because in one scenario you’re in on something the protagonists are not and in another you’re trying to figure out precisely what it is they’re doing. It makes the tropes work even better than they could hope to in a film that was playing it straight. It also makes the trope work in either functionality: horror or comedy.

The effects work in this film is absolutely fantastic and as the film progresses you will see why. Allow me to just say that it might single-handedly expunge all the bad horror CG you’ve seen from your mind with its sheer awesomeness.

As with any horror film the music is of paramount importance and believe me this film does not ignore that element of the equation, and is always playing up the genre. When there’s comedy it allows the visuals and the dialogue to deliver the jokes, it doesn’t try to deliver punchlines and that’s greatly appreciated.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that horror films do not typically hinge on performance, as a matter of fact, some films excel in spite of performance, however, ascendant horror feature great acting, and when it comes to this film that has to be playfully comedic and also an effective genre piece it is an essential piece of the equation, and all the players contribute tremendously to the success of this film.

Very recently I was complaining about how paltry running list of the best horror films of 2012 was looking, even as it stands it’s only half-populated with decent films, however, as long as enough decent titles trickle in later on it could be a banner year because it is incredibly strong at the top because this film will be very hard to beat. It will likely not only go down as one of the best horror films of the year but as one of the best films of the year, period.

10/10