Mini-Review Round-Up May 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.

Deep Dark Canyon

Deep Dark Cayon (2013, Screen Media Films)

Two things I often write about with regard to film-watching came into blissful convergence when I saw this film: first, there’s the Blank Slate Theory. Granted I read a line or two of synopsis, but up until that email from Redbox I hadn’t heard of this film. Secondly, and closely related to the first part, whatever expectations I created, over-inflated, and then guarded against in my head; were exceeded.

So why’s that? What Deep Dark Canyon does is take something that may sound like a higher concept or gimmicky set-up: two fugitives on the run while handcuffed to one another, and grounds it. What it gets grounded in is a wicked microcosm wherein one family, the Cavanaughs, calls all the shots and stacks the deck, whether inside or outside the law. When the Towne family won’t stand for it anymore things start to get complicated.

There are quite a few great turns of the plot in this tale, which coaxed audible reactions from me. This is a film that doesn’t fear going down the rabbit hole of further and greater consequences, but it never gets unreal in the given parameters.

While crimes, secrets and conspiracies bring you into the tale, it’s the human story that keeps you engaged in it. The revelations among Towne family members (uncle, father and brothers) swing the pendulum of power back and forth and the struggle is intriguing.

Of course, in a story that’s contained and stripped down, plot points can only take you so far. The performances have to keep you engaged. Spencer Treat Clark, in his first role as an adult performer that allows him to follow-through on the promise he showed as a young actor (there will likely be more to come soon like Much Ado About Nothing), and Nick Eversman, has quite a breakthrough performance (All I had seen him in prior was Hellraiser: Revelations); are captivating co-leads, who deliver incredibly raw, earnest performances.

Deep Dark Canyon delivers quite a bit of drama in the guise of a fugitive film, but delivers in both respects. It’s a fairly enthralling film that’s worthwhile viewing for sure.



Jacob (2011, Odyssee Pictures)

There are a few things that are bit odd that are going on in Jacob. They are all easily explicable, however, that doesn’t stop them from being odd. The main thing I noticed is that the film, while never on easy footing, is far more comfortable and closer to offering escapism in its hyper-reality flashback sequence, which dominates the film. In the few present sections the film is far more stilted an awkward in its cinematography, performances and make-up.

The structure of the film is curious because it’s not as involved as the armature of the film would have you believe. It’s your standard flashback to the birth of a legend. However, what’s incumbent on a film when it flashes back not once but twice is some upping of the stakes. The conclusion of the film is fairly predictable and anticlimactic because we get a glimpse of the future beforehand.

The pace is never right and much of what holds the piece back is that it feels like it gets its tongue stuck in its cheek rather than just planted firmly. The inspiration appears to be the works of Rob Zombie based on some of the aesthetic, tonal, character and story choices, but no one involved can even bring the film up to that level. On occasion there is a wrinkle, a look, shot or set piece that stands out but overall the center is never found, so one can’t expect it to hold.


In Their Skin

In Their Skin (2012, IFC Films)

If there’s one thing that’s plainly easy to appreciate about In Their Skin is that its a very well regimented film, that through its structuring not only easily raises the stakes, but also slowly and surely disturbs and unnerves. It’s the kind of film that remembers that the most frightening concepts are those that hit closest to home and seem most plausible. It gives you some answers, the ones you need, but not all or more than necessary.

Through its traversing and escalating in tone it also allows each of the actors involved to give fairly layered performances. Much of the first act the family at the core of the drama is disconnected and distant. Then upon meeting their offbeat neighbors there is an extended period of awkwardness before things escalate.

There is a fearless approach to some of the sound design and scoring choices later on in the film, which is great. In fact, the only major quibble I really have with it, aside from some stock horror film brain-farting by the protagonists, is that the denouement feels more like a flopping thud than the breath of fresh air it should feel like. There’s a bit of a disconnect between that and what passed before that robs the film of a bit of the potency it had built up.



Yossi (2012, Strand Releasing)

If there’s one thing I didn’t want inferred in my writing about North Sea Texas, is that all gay cinema should send out that ray of hope. There are as many stories as there are people. What I feel is important about that film cinematically and socially is that now that story exists in the face of many overwhelmingly dour and/or tragic tales. That’s not to say that it’s a mandate. Granted there’s drama in a tragic set of circumstances, at times unparalleled in pathos, but the seeming disproportion also needs to be held in check. However, this by no means there should be a Hollywood formula implemented.

I say this by way of introduction to Yossi because a few things need to be taken into consideration when viewing it. Firstly, even if targeting a niche, a film needn’t have far-reaching ramifications, but can be merely a character study. Secondly, there is the matter of another culture at play so we’d be wise not to judge the film by our standards mores. However, those concerns are mostly about lesser details.

What does bear considering cinematically is that this is a sequel and it would behoove you to see the first part before this one as I did. It finishes up a story neatly and rather well after much internal conflict. The only issue that’s created is that the end is kind of abrupt. However, there is a slow progress, slower than preferable, but it’s true to the character. What’s most intriguing is that it is a two-part process of being inwardly comfortable and outwardly comfortable with oneself. It happens in babysteps without fireworks or a parade, but there is an arc and there are moving scenes specifically one played among Orly Silbersatz, Raffi Tevor and Ohad Knoller that each echoes the last film. This is a film worth viewing in tandem with its predecessor Yossi & Jagger.


2 + 2 (Dos más Dos)

2 + 2 (Strand Releasing, 2012)

It’s funny that 2 + 2 should come to me now in short succession after having seen 4some and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. The difference here is not just another cultural one this film being from Argentina as opposed to the Czech Republic and US respectively. There is a slight twist because two couples who have been longtime friends have had a secret. Betina (Carla Peterson) and Richard (Adrián Suar) tell their friends they’re swingers.

What works best here is that it not only creates conflicts as many ways as it can (tell the secret/don’t tell the secret, do it/don’t do it, Test it out/don’t test it out) but it also fully explores them without seeming to be methodical, but rather natural.

One function of a tale like this is that it really gets to the core of a relationship and puts a divide in couples and forces them to examine themselves and each other. This is usually great fodder for actors to work with, and the performances here are stellar. The tone can also go either of two ways it can be very dramatic or very comedic. This one, like 4some, is mostly comedic but it balances the dramatic intentions of the stories well, and it handles long passages of time with unusual deftness.

Comedy is one of the genres where you usually look for a standout in a given year. There have been a dearth of offerings and only on pretty good result until now. This is the first film this year I laughed pretty persistently with through lengthy sequences, and it stands up on the dramatic end in equally well. There are great touches a long the way, really funny dialogue and committed performances. It’s one to look out for.


The ABCs of Death

The ABCs of Death (2012, Magnet Releasing)

Most of the things that are interesting to consider about this film, sadly, have little to do with the film itself. For one, due to the fact that it is an extreme example, it forever defeated to notion of averaging out scores in an anthology. Math is no way to quantify such an experience, and I may highlight that in a separate post at some point.

Another thing that is interesting to consider, though it does not make it better or worse, is that filmmakers were assigned their letter and given a $5,000 budget. The only way either of these traits makes itself apparent is with the two shorts that decided to go the “we don’t have a decent idea for this letter” route, which is fairly lazy and uninspired. Many of them do well at least in terms of production value.

However, what it more often than not reaffirms is that telling a story in approximately five minutes is very hard. Sadly, in most of the cases neither a style or a decent narrative was firmly established. Overall it becomes a very unnerving viewing experience because of the wide array of voices and variegated quality of the shorts.

If I had to put a number on it I’d say about five work very well. Two of those on a style over substance basis. It ends nearly as badly as possible and the convention established of revealing title, letter indicated and director after the short is over rendered many predictable, a few insipid and most frustrating.

It’s not for the feint of heart or weak of stomach, that in and of itself does not make the film an excruciating experience, but the envelope being torn apart to tell mostly inane and inept tales does.


This Girl is Badass!

This Girl is Badass! (2012, Magnet Releasing)

This is a film that does promise action and comedy and delivers small, portioned doses of both. Sadly, there is never really a good balance struck between the two. It usually seems to be one or the other, with comedy far outweighing the action.

The action is never overly dynamic, and the plot, which is not terribly involved, never develops at a sufficient rate to raise this above being a mere diversion into being genuinely entertaining. It’d be a passable film if it didn’t drag through certain sections, but unfrotunately it does.


Space Warriors

Space Warriors (2013, Walden Media/Hallmark Channel)

Director Sean McNamara, despite having mostly TV credits, has successfully brought for cinematic tales before; most recently Soul Surfer. It appears that Space Warriors with a proper theatrical premiere in Alabama and a brief limited run would be closer to film caliber than a made-for-TV project, which Walden Media and the Hallmark Channel recently repackaged it as. Especially when you include cast members such as Thomas Horn of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Ryan Simpkins, Grayson Russell, Dermot Mulrooney, Mira Sorvino and Danny Glover.

Sadly the film goes from the run-of-the-mill half-developed kid-with-a-dream narrative with a standard lie to get what he wants and several conventional plot twists along the way to an absolutely outlandish finale that surely and slowly creeps up on you. That intent, however, is not always apparent and the staging, set-up and writing of that conclusion is lackluster to say the least.

It really is a shame because through all the cheese the premise had promise with more sure-handed writing and directing but the foundation that this story built itself upon was weak so it was sure to implode at some point.


Poverty Row April: Wrap-Up

I planned this theme by downloading many of the films I wanted to see ahead of time. All downloads are free and legal through The Internet Archive, as all titles selected are in the Public Domain. My grandiose plans called for over 50 films. That didn’t happen, and I did improvise through the month, and will likely continue to watch them through the year for personal viewings. However, the theme has come to an end so the reviews will cease and a wrap-up is required since the only other post in the theme I wrote was about the book that acts as my bible for this theme.

First, a statistical overview may be in order:

By the Numbers

Films: 23
Cumulative Score: 125
Average Score: 5.435

Titles scoring 6 and above: 10
Titles scoring 5 and below: 13

Best Films:
The Phantom Express
In Love with Life
The Ghost Walks
Hearts of Humanity
The World Accuses
Tangled Destinies

General Observations

In Love with Life (1934, Invincible)

Usually the case with such a focused theme is that eventually I do seek to get out from under it. However, and perhaps this has to do with only seeing nearly half the number of films I expected, I leave this series wanting more. I attribute this to three main factors: first, there is the personal writing fiction writing project that this acts as research for (For my prior project(s) you can go here). Second, there is the fact that I’ve always had an affinity, not necessarily matched by viewing patterns, with this era of film history. Lastly, I think I chose well. Based on my reading Poverty Row titles that were good seemed like they’d be diamonds in the rough. However, by narrowing down my options to ones that sounded interesting to me I upped my odds and liked nearly half of the selections I made.


The Ghost Walks (1934)

In my Favorite Older Films lists, as in my film viewing in general, I do like to celebrate diversity in era, country of production, director, genre and however else I can. However, I feel that Poverty Row titles, whether featured on this blog or not, will factor into my viewing choices, and the theme may be back next year.