Mini-Review Round-Up April 2013
Here’s my standard intro to this post:
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, regardless of how they are seen whether in an auditorium or on VOD, will get full reviews [That is when deemed necessary. As I wrote here I do want to focus more on non-review writing wherever possible].
For a guide to what scores mean go here.
Survive and Advance
So the ESPN 30 for 30 films are back at it in full force. Even those who turn a critical eye to ESPN look upon this series of documentaries as an example of what the self-proclaimed worldwide leader is still capable of when it sets its mind to it, and perhaps this film is now at the forefront of that conversation.
The set-up and structure is as simple as it is powerful, but in ways unexpected. Many, who have even a passing knowledge of sports, know of the improbable championship run of NC State in 1983 and later on the passionate, legendary speech by Jim Valvano at the ESPYs (Perhaps the last time they had true relevance) what the film does is take a step or two beyond those known moments. It starts with the funeral of Lorenzo Charles, the man who scored the now iconic dunk off a just-short Hail Mary three-point attempt. This is the impetus for the players to have reunions “If we don’t see each other once a year, we’ll only be coming to each other’s funerals.” says Whittenburg, and thus, they meet and form the frame of the tale. However, the film navigates through the pre-championship years and championship year runs with flash-forwards containing prophetic, funny and entertaining Valvano sound bites. It gives the title further poignance that is never too finely underlined.
After the championship things come closer to a point of convergence and carry more impact and the two meanings intertwine, again without being over-stressed. It’s a film ostensibly about a miraculous run, but it’s very clear from early on that the run will occur and the miracle truly becomes the off-the-court impact and what comes from it all, as sad a tale as it is.
Time of My Life
This is the kind of film that faces and overcomes the danger of falling into an issue-film trap of being overly-involved in stump-speeching, soap-boxing and campaigning. When your film purports to highlight seminal case in the instituting of euthanasia laws in a country both that, and an eventual death, become inevitable.
However, what Time of My Life does so well is tell the personal narrative first and foremost and then fold in the issue film as the tale progresses. Yes, there are many issue films that will have circumstances dictate their cause, but what you also get here is a film whose emotional impact is withheld until later.
That is not to say this film doesn’t pack an emotional wallop, it most certainly does, and quite a big one. What it does do is postpone the big hit. The story travels through time and each of the early, fairly short sequences have their own tenor and know when they should end. What it builds is a more rounded, bittersweet emotion not overly-concerned in melancholy, not consciously pulling at heartstrings until the very end. When it does attempt to play them it does so very successfully.
Time of My Life features brilliant performances throughout, and some really smart, great writing; especially as it draws towards its conclusion and a crushingly beautiful emotional climax. If you know what you’re signing up for, it’s a tremendously moving and rewarding experience.
John Dies at the End
Conventional wisdom is that the horror film, one could even extrapolate this to any kind of genre cinema, cannot be too smart. This is a notion that Don Coscarelli seemingly disdains in his cinema, and usually in the best way possible. Coscarelli’s constructs usually have a surface that are engaging enough to get you beyond the murk of the not-as-clear moment, but if you dig beneath the seeming clarity into the ambiguity, the areas open to interpretation, you are further rewarded.
Coscarelli’s films usually play in this milieu through nightmare logic, in this case in the guise of a mind-expanding, dimension-crossing drug. So it usually leads you to a place where you’re ready to slough off the normal restraints of time and space, which helps you to dive in.
There’s been much unoriginal talk about the lack of originality in cinema. What John Dies at the End exemplifies from the start is that it’s looking to take the road less traveled, in a way it’s not usually trod.
It’s an enjoyable ride, which I may be better able to quantify should I happen to watch it again, but it’s well worth taking. It’s especially worth taking if you’re looking for something a little bit out of the ordinary. Something that’s funny, weird and unexpected and all Coscarelli.
Whereas prior I discussed a film that is fairly unique, here we deal with a film that’s on well-trod ground: the obsessive-psychotic female crush. It’s not a subgenre I’ve seen too much of, but I have seen it and it is one I am open too. In the horror and thriller genres it is far too often a female character who is victimized, pursued and the subject of gaze. The reversal of that gender role is refreshing.
Sadly, it is in these fairly academic trappings that are givens of the synopsis of Crush where its greatest successes lie. The execution of the narrative constructs and precepts leaves a lot to be desired.
The performance of the main target, the default lead played by Lucas Till, is quite good. However, the story may not hinge on, but works towards and spins off from, a major reversal and neither the build-up or the follow-through is sufficiently paced or engaging enough. Not to mention that the film insists on buttoning up several narrative threads in its denouement unnecessarily.
To not put too fine a point on it this is a film that features a circle closing. It’s a character study, a low-key drama which isn’t going to have outlandish plot points and twists and turns. There is progression and conflict, mostly of the internal variety, but it’s more subtle than one is used to. The circle closes on this story, but some slight coming to terms has occurred.
So how does one go about assessing a tale wherein little to seemingly nothing changed? It comes down to the engaging nature of the narrative, how it builds, how the subtle construction of it works.
Carlyle’s performance is great, but in a tale such as this that tends to be a given rather than a boon. What seems to be missing here is not the change or the evolution but the crescendo. Instead the impetus for change seems to be more of the same. The inciting incident in essence repeats itself such that what our protagonist strove to avoid becomes unavoidable, it’s how he looks at it that changes and it’s very internalized.
To go on much further would be to literally spoil it. It doesn’t have to be revelatory eureka moment, but a more profound, moving, defeated – any kind of emotion really – button to this tale, even with similar structures being supported, would’ve carried more weight.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake
Eventually this film does figure out where its going, and in essence what it wants to be, but its biggest struggle is in the build up. There are parallel story threads that have to join but also there are combative, jarring techniques, and dueling tones that never really find a harmonious balance. Juggling tone is one of the hardest things for a film to do. When a film is doing that and also juggling approaches for much of the first half it can be virtually insurmountable.
When the film settles on what its main narrative thrust will be, oddly enough, is when the pace starts to suffer. The climactic showdown is seemingly never-ending and a full-out assault of the substandard visual effects work we had just gotten the occasional taste of for the first hour of the film. Granted DVD is less forgiving than celluloid, but with many titles shot and projected digitally, films are less and less forgiving and this hits you with its effects work and it hurts.
However, as indicated above, the effects work isn’t the main issue. The fact that the narrative is based on a Chinese legend is also granted. So it’s not what happens in the film that’s the issue as how it happens. It’s the kind of story that may have been more impressive animated when you take into account how certain things were handled in live action from the stuntwork, to prosthetics, acting, dialogue and so forth.
Oddly enough while the film is still patchwork is when its most successful. When it finds its narrative focus all its deficiencies come into focus as well and there are many.
This can be a tough film to discuss without putting too fine a point on things and giving away several key elements, but like the film I will try to be subtle. There has been much talk in recent years, as it’s been more in vogue as of late than in years past, of the slow burn, particularly as it applies to the horror genre. A slow burning tale, as I’ve likely stated before, is not one that’s in and of itself problematic. Usually, the key to success for these films is either of two things: first, incremental and consistent, even if slight, escalation of stakes, and second, a sufficiently impressive and resonant pay-off to the wait.
The Condemned does not build quickly, even for a slow burn, but it excels tremendously in the pay-off department. What’s interesting is that it dabbles with many known tropes: haunting, children, secrets and the like, but with the way things play out it even toys with the very notion it even being a horror film, in a similar way to how last year’s The Hidden Face did, but ultimately remains one for all else it is.
There are subtleties throughout, things you are advised to recall though you may not think it crucial at the time. The Condemned is a wonderfully rendered tale that does sufficient visual exposition and elaboration on its turning points such that most, if not all, loose ends are tied up and the whole piece is elevated by, and not subjugated to, its trickery.
Its surely for horror fans, and I’d say art house fans too as it is an intelligent, well-acted and crafted film that does linger. It seems like the horror crop of 2013 may be a brainier bunch than ones in the past few years.
Rather than be a broken record and say yet again, like some truism that must be inherently understood and not questioned, that when I say I dislike comparative analysis in reviews, I say it because it runs the risk of making a review about pitting one film against another. If there’s one thing I believe firmly is that each and every film must be judged solely on its own merits. Meaning it’s judged on how well it creates its world, exercises its dramatic questions, builds its conflicts and so and so forth. Each film, no matter how similar it may be to another, has its own goals and desires.
Having said that we’re all human and recognize patterns and themes, and that can be helpful, useful, educational and fun. So when I started watching 4Some immediately Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice came to mind. The difference of time and place is obvious, but aside from inherent philosophical and aesthetic differences between America of the 70s and the Czech Republic of today there is a lighter approach to this version. I’d say the acting in this film rivals the brilliant foursome of that one, though the prior film treated its subject heavier. Though there are clear implications, conflicts and issues created by the unusual arrangement the couples find, they try to take it in stride and the situations are mostly comical. The marriages deal more in malaise rather than suppressed emotion; so what boils over is more humorous and less combustible. Rather than the dull squalor the couples experienced, their romances come alive.
The largest success of the film is that the couples’ children, themselves paired off (though not openly), also form a quartet that is a refracted image of their parents generation. They give a glimpse of the future, comment on the story in choir-like fashion, but more subtly and provide a good counterpoint subplot.
The only issues the film really has are a bit unfortunate and hold it back from being much better than it is. There are some drowsy, time-filling montages, which are more problematic in a film this short. Then there’s also the rather abrupt, slapped-through-the-end-credits, somewhat half-baked conclusion of the tale. It’s good for a chuckle but a bit odd and opaque such that it tonally didn’t jibe as well. It’s a minor, mostly personal complaint, others may interpreted differently, and its still very enjoyable on the whole.
At the Gate of the Ghost
As soon as I saw that this film was an adaptation of Rashomon, I knew I wanted to see it. Now, knowing that some statements need to be made: Firstly, there mere fact that it builds its narrative on a great skeleton is not enough to make or break it. It also bears noting that even Kurosawa’s version was based on earlier Japanese texts so the opportunity to create new renditions of the tales exist all the time, and doesn’t really fit into any perceived “scourge of remakes” complaints one might have. The same goes with Hitchock’s films as he dealt almost exclusively in literary adaptations. Any other asides to these effects are likely covered in my fanboy series, so I shall proceed.
What makes a new, transplanted version of a known classic tale either work or not usually has to do with what’s done to make the story particular to the new locale and how well it embodies the spirit of the original narrative rather than how dogmatically it sticks to the script. The new local is incorporated quite well, on the surface turning a Shinto priest into a Buddhist monk might seem a superficial change, that analysis would be too reductive. It would discount the connection between religion and national identity far too much, especially considering the period in which this film is set (16th Century Thailand).
The other thing this film does well is that it quickly inserts an artfully rendered, character-building montage so that the monk’s inner-turmoil is explained and we get a sense of him and what he sees his duties as. At the start of the film he makes a difficult decision. We then see all that factored into the aforementioned decision and the bulk of the film is about the straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak.
As with any tale based on Rashomon, or of a similar construction, much of the success hinges of the interpretation and execution of the varied interpretations of an incident from different points of view. The wildly variegated versions delivered here are nearly flawless told and very well-executed with fantastic acting throughout.
If you have not seen Rashomon I would, of course, recommend you see that first. However, whether you have or have not, I think this alternate take is one that is likely to find many fans of its own as it is a rather gripping, evocative and emotionally charged version in its own right.
Though this film by rights should be included in this post, but the review written for it was too long. You can read its review separately here.
Elway to Marino
I almost waited to write this one more time than I did. As a football fan, especially one who grew up with John Elway being my favorite player, it’s hard to keep a documentary like this in perspective. However, aside from the mind-blowing revelations about the intricacies and the process that was the most pivotal draft in the history of the league, I keep going back to cinematic elements, to the storytelling and ask myself: is this picture being painted as well for all as it is for me?
Naturally, the seismic impact of the would-be moves have more effect when you have hindsight, but the film really does a wonderful job. Any documentary owes its success to perseverance and a little bit of good fortune. The good fortune in this case is that Elway’s agent, Marvin Demoff, not only also represented Dan Marino, but kept a diary of the meetings and calls regarding John Elway’s pursuers as the process for him was always likely to be complex and he wanted to relate information accurately, but he still had it.
In narrative terms it has subplots, dovetails, ironies, revelations and everything you could want. In technical terms, in terms of building a documentary, I think it has a lot of that going too. The scoring highlights and builds the tension, the b-roll shots and editing decisions build the drama, the narration is well-written and excellently delivered by Tom Selleck. It contains interviews with most of the key players you’d want to hear from. Not only that, but in terms of structuring it doesn’t do anything tremendously unique like some have done, but the little touches really do act as the coup de grâce, the withholding of title cards with player resumes for dramatic impact fore example.
Lest I go on too long to keep this “mini,” this truly is a great installment in the series that may not have the “human interest” emotional wallop some do, but for fans it’s a must. There’s drama for all concerned, for non-fans this series should be able to bring you along for the ride also. It’s incredible.