Mini-Review Round-Up Late August/September 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.

Here’s a specific introduction to this month’s post:

Due to the fact that I was recently back from vacation during the last few days in August, I fell into arrears on my review writing. Rather than keep the August post active, I decided to start a new one. I’ll get just one review down today and try to get current over the course of the next several days.

Runner

Mary Decker-Slaney (2013, ESPN Films)

As I’ve previously noted, one of the great things about ESPN’s films is that they can put into greater perspective events and athletes whose story was either at the periphery or, or outside my understanding due to my age when they were at their zenith. Mary Slaney would fall into that category. By the time I became aware of an interested in the Olympics, the collision at the 1984 games that caused: Slaney to lose, get injured, her last/best chance at a medal and cost the racing world an epic race; was but a snippet in a “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” kind of montage. You really couldn’t get the full sense of the unfortunateness of the event without a closer examination both of Slaney and the race.

There is an writing axiom that states: some characters insist on being in a story despite the author’s best laid plans. Zola Budd is just such a character in this real life drama and her backstory, intrigue and involvement would be scoffed at as unrealistic in scripted entertainment. Furthermore, the fair portrait both athletes get in this telling make the story all the more compelling.

Moreover, the tale highlights better than most in the series the uneasy existence with the Olympics many American athletes have. Yes, it matters to them, and they want to win, but the entirety of their career and achieving an Olympic appearance matters too. The fragile nature of Slaney’s health underscores the fact that going to the olympics and medaling are two separate goals.

This is a tautly-rendered tale of a life and career through the prism of one unforgettable event and how it affected its participants.

10/10

The 99ers

The 99ers (2013, ESPN Films)

I have to say this one has a tremendous hook. With the fact that Julie Foudy was by natural proclivity the de facto videographer on the team there are some great candid moments in this film. The editing really does well to incorporate them to establish a tone. However, they’re discussed up front and not so much the thrust. A lot of it is a chronicle and a reminiscing as several players meet.

Not that there are not great moments to be found, both in new footage and in the old, but the film buries both that and its most important question about where the game has come since then. The answer, when taken fully into consideration, is about as good as it can be, there’s just little lead up. The forays outside the personal chronology to the wider impact of the event since then are few.

This is still, overall, a very well done and compelling piece, it just had the potential to be a lot more than it was.

7/10

Branded

Branded (2013, ESPN Films)

Out of the recent Nine for IX series this is the one film that takes on a rather broad subject: marketing female athletes. It takes a chronological look from the early days of the first athletes to sign endorsement deals in the still very sexist world of the ’70s through to today. While many of these titles excel in part due to their truncated nature (50+ minute stories formatted for an hour-long TV slot) this one could’ve dealt with more time. I would’ve welcomed the overlap of discussing Sheryl Swoopes, or delving into the Martina Navratilova/Tracey Austin rivalry more.

The insight that women athletes much choose between a vixen image or wholesome All-American girl to land deals is appreciated if rather obvious. It’s also one of the installments where one of the more memorable moments is an interview not acquired. There is a clip of Anna Kournikova walking out of an interview angered, but no new footage of her looking back on her career. That would’ve been great to put a perspective on the idea of conscious marketing decisions women make simply because her popularity at one point was so great.

That ground is well-covered by Gabrielle Reece and Lolo Jones, especially the former who does well to mention that there is a three-year window when American Olympic athletes can’t get sponsors looking their way. All in all, it’s another very solid installment of the series even if it did leave me wanting more a bit more.

8/10

A Haunting at Silver Falls

A Haunting at Silver Falls (2013, Inception Media Group)

When it comes to any kind of film, especially horror films, it’s not so much about doing something new so much as it is about doing it well. Rendering a style of tale well, and if you have some new twists or a new angle to tell the story with, even better. This film fails miserably on both accounts. It’s not for lack of effort, but were it not for late-narrative reversals there’d be nothing going for it. The staging and execution of scares a terribly substandard and the performances do nothing to lend any credence to the story being attempted. The tale difficultly slogs its way through two acts then really tries in the end, but even a perfect latter third would not have redeemed it.

3/10

Kiss of the Damned

Kiss of the Damned (2012, Magnet Releasing)

WARNING: This review has a spoiler within, albeit one that occurs in the first 10 minutes.

If you thought the Twilight films over-played the indecision on Bella’s part with regards to her deciding to turn into a vampire (which it did), you should see the alternative and decide which is worse. This honestly isn’t a terrible spoiler. The leading man’s decision to allow himself to be turned happens quickly, without much struggle and his character is virtually without function thereafter. For much of Kiss of the Damned there are allusions to would-be plots that never get followed through. The closest thing that exists is the ongoing quasi-explicated bickering between two sisters. However, the only thing really driving the film forward is the fact that the closing credits have yet to roll and not anything organic in the story. It’s a pastiche without semblance of rhythm. The film is an occlusive facade sheltering a vapid narrative.

1/10

Museum Hours

Museum Hours (2012, Cinema Guild)

This is a film that is most effective in how it examines its two characters in passing glances, much like museum exhibits themselves. That may sound as if it’s sophistry but I think if you were to apply that thesis to the whole of the way the film is constructed, the tales that are being told, you’ll see it holds.

The film is ostensibly about a woman (Mary Margaret O’Hara) who heads to Vienna at her cousin’s side while she is sick. With much time to herself to wander a strange city she spends much time at the art museum and befriends one of the guards there (Bobby Sommer). After he helps her, they become friendly. In the film you see: snatches of their conversations where they talk about their lives, shots of paintings and other exhibits and there’s one extended scene of a tour guide (Ela Piplits) espousing her theories on the works of Bruegel. Her dialogue is key to reading the film, in my estimation.

This is not to say that the film is a difficult one to follow. It’s quite a straightforward one. However, it’s connecting these disparate threads through that notion that give it a greater significance and unity. Leaving those pieces apart it can seem a fine, albeit disjointed effort. When one considers that we look at art and try to interpret the artists, that we speak to others and try to interpret them and that we tell our tales and try to interpret ourselves; but can only so in small strokes, in passing glances, within the short amount of time that “museum hours” encompass, then the whole of this work comes together much more strongly. It’s not a film about Bobby, who is Austrian, or Anne, who is Canadian, or Pieter Bruegel who was a Dutch master, but rather about all of us and our journey to understand and be understood, to empathize and to have empathy shown toward us.

10/10

House of Bodies

House of Bodies (2013, BET)

If you’ve ever wanted to see a feature that legitimately ought not be due to the fact that it’s essentially an under-edited short then this film is for you. There are two main parallel sequences that are drawn out: the former home of a mass-murderer that’s now the home base of a porno site, and a police interrogation room with said killer. The interrogation feels like it will be a springboard for early escalating events instead they lead to an anti-climactic discovery at the very end. I viewed this on Netflix and the story developed in the synopsis, which sounds like merely an inciting incident also takes too long to occur. Forget that the character who is the subject of the synopsis is non-existent for a quite a few minutes. The bottom line is there’s not enough story and while the running time is short the pace is glacial. I don’t know why Terrence Howard, Peter Fonda and Queen Latifah are in anyway involved in this film, but they are and that’s unfortunate as there’s nothing they can do to save this hopelessly cockeyed in structure, scarcely flinching tale.

I was “glad” to learn when searching for photos that the director has publicly Tweeted that the finished version of the film is something he does not recognize. I’m sad to hear that’s happened, however, it doesn’t alter the fact that the film as it exists it nightmarish.

1/10

No Place on Earth

No Place on Earth (2012, Magnolia Pictures)

When you see the logo pop up that reads History Channel Films you should know what you’re in for at least to an extent. The dramatization is a fine line between narrative and documentary cinema that this film likes to walk most of the time. The dramatization takes things a step further say than Flaherty did in Nanook of the North when setting up shots. Here there are reenactments that are cast, staged and immaculately lit. It takes a deft hand to weave talking-heads interviews (also immaculately lit) and staged reenactments and it’s a balance this film never strikes. Oddly, in trying to closer represent things visually much of the power is drained from the film.

If you contrast this with say Cave of Forgotten Dreams where Herzog instead moves about an uninhabited cave and films the art and people discussing it without having a visual representation of the work being made, you can see the power of the restraint. However, even closer in construction was this year’s Nicky’s Family that included modern-day interviews with refugees of the holocaust, stills and reenactments with great balance. Here the equation split the story, and as interesting as that is it levels out and fails to give us the best of either technique.

5/10

Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer (2012, Magnolia Releasing)

This is the kind of film you want to talk about gingerly because there are a few gut-punches in it that bookend the film. Those are great and best left preserved. However, all that you need to know about it going in can be found on the synopsis on the IMDb/box: a woman is arrested in a failed IRA terrorist attack and asked to spy on her family.

While the film is very enjoyable, dramatic and intriguing the intervening majority that sits between the two bookends isn’t quite as tight as it could be. This is a quibble-level complaint though because of how strong it sets things up and closes them out, I just wish the middle met it. However, smart, character-driver thrillers are too hard to find so it doesn’t hurt the film that much. This is very good film that deserves your viewership. The performances by Riseborough and Owen especially make it work.

8/10

Amour

Amour (2012, Sony Pictures Classics)

It’s funny, weird not ha-ha, how certain topics make themselves known during given cinematic years. I already had Amour on My Radar even before that was an official post on this site. However, earlier this year I saw another film that dealt with the topics of terminal illness and euthanasia, Time of My Life. That film was slightly more up my alley because of how it was handled.

This being a Haneke film I knew it would be handled differently in tone. That’s fine. While this film is quite good: especially in terms of the triad of Trintignant, Riva and Huppert; there’s a certain cessation of the pre-established flow late in the third act. It’s not as if the scene in question (which I’ll not describe here) didn’t work logically, it was an editorial choice that was dubious to say the least in terms of pacing and emotional impact that really hurt the overall effect.

7/10

Beyond the Walls

Beyond the Walls (2012, Strand Releasing)

While the performances by the films two leads (Guillaume Gouix & Matila Malliarakis) are quite good, especially the latter, what passes in this film is ultimately an ineffectual drama. What you have here is a tale where one man discovering his sexual identity falls for another. As fate would have it, when they’ve barely established anything, they are torn apart. The link remains longer than logical, which is fine but there is minimal consequence to it. There is then a bittersweet passage toward the end that is well-rendered but really does not feel earned in the slightest.

5/10

Branca’s Pitch

Branca's Pitch (2013, Strand Releasing)

This is a fascinating bifurcated documentary about the man who threw the pitch that became “the shot heard ’round the world.” The bifurcation comes not only from not only telling his life story, both before and after that seismic moment, but also discussing the ghostwriting of his autobiography. There was also a shocking turn in this film, which is as much as I’ll say but baseball fans are in for quite a fascinating turn of events if they weren’t already aware of recent developments regarding that Branca-Thomson at-bat.

The most interesting part of the ghostwriting aspect of the film is that it really examines how everyone has their own story that is their individual truth. Aside from the fact that it it illuminates a career that was otherwise quite accomplished that got reduced to that moment, that is it’s most valuable contribution.

8/10

Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (2012, Magnolia Releasing)

As I’ve mentioned in the past, particularly with ESPN’s sports documentaries, it’s always fascinating to me to get perspective on things that were at the periphery of my awareness due to my young age in the 1980s. I love the decade in which I was born, and due to my own personal philosophy consider myself more a child of that decade than the one I came of age in. However, being so young there were some things I only had a passing knowledge of. The Morton Downey Jr. Show was something I was aware of either when it started on WWOR (living not far from Secaucus, NJ that network was on my TV) or on MTV, but I didn’t fully realize the meteoric nature of his ascendency on a wave of vitriol whose earnestness was questionable.

And therein lies the brilliance of this documentary’s approach: it goes forward and backward in time to chart certain catalytic factors in his life and chart changes, but he remains an intriguing enigma the film does not judge its subject but presents him with utmost showmanship, as he likely would have wanted, with opinions on him from those who knew him on either side and with impeccably-time revelations. It is highly recommended and only held back by its animated interludes and a rather soft landing in its very last moment.

8/10

Aliyah

Aliyah (2012, Film Movement)

This film has a very interesting premise: a Parisian man dissatisfied with his life of dealing drugs and bailing his brother out of trouble seeks “Aliyah,” emigration to Israel, though he’s never been that in touch with his roots; he just seeks a new start. However, what occurs is a fairly bland, opaque character study of a many scarcely changing and hardly facing obstacles to reach what he thinks will be his change. There’s a rather New Wave ethos of seeing scene X then Z, such that you know Y occurred, so why bother watching it? However, that works better when impact is heightened. Here it is lessened. Furthermore, there is a late-film scene where if you haven’t followed the character’s plot his would-be girlfriend literally plots it out in a very thinly-veiled parable trying to keep him in Paris. Worse yet it changes nothing and her sudden head-over-heels passion for him never makes sense. This is a film that keeps one more disengaged than its lead seeks to be and fails because of it.

5/10

Three Worlds

Three Worlds (2012, Film Movement)

What you get in Three Worlds is a very compelling situation (a witness to a hit-and-run unwittingly becomes a liaison between the victim’s wife and the culprit) handled in a fairly unconventional way. What this film could turn into is one of histrionics that quickly spirals into things hard to believe or identify with. What instead it chooses to do is be a morality play. As it examines how the incident affects three characters, the push-and-pull, the ebb and flow of each turn of events puts the characters in places they did not expect to be. It’s not as if each decision in the film does not lead to a domino effect, it’s the path that the dominoes take that makes it most enjoyable to watch.

No character in this film is simplistic or one-dimensional, neither entirely altruistic or calculated. This allows for, and requires, much greatness from each of the principal actors and they do bring that. Raphaël Personnaz make me think of what a young Jean-Pierre Leaud would have brought to this film in a different time. Clotilde Hesme’s performance as a woman whose desire to help people, and her inclination to see the good in them, gets the best of her is pitch perfect. Arta Dobroshi, who has perhaps the most demanding tasks assigned her plays conflicting emotions and philosophies such that you always understand her and sympathize with her position.

Three Worlds reveals its characters throughout while still telling a very compelling tale and is worth looking out for.

9/10

To the Wonder

wonder

While this latest offering from Terrence Malick would make an interesting double-feature companion to The Tree of Life, the major differences between the two are in terms of scope and quality. With the prior film there was a dilation of narrative, not unlike an iris opening and closing, that made it so spellbinding; it went from the metaphysical to mental and back again. Here the narrative is all told from the perspective of its characters through a poetical inner-monologue style of narration that allows for the fluid kinetics of the edit to be similar. That more internalized approach in and of itself is not an issue, but when there are five main parts to that equation and one just doesn’t stack up that’s problematic. The film also has a sort of a flat-line mot of the time. Not a great deal of ebb and flow. It’s a title about exploration of faith, relationships and life; however, the journey is not all it could be. When results of the characters’ quests prove mostly inconclusive reaching that point needs to be a slightly more rounded experience to make greater impact.

6/10

In the Name Of

in-the-name-of-movie

Whenever a film is dealing with the topic of clerical celibacy there is always the concern about whether or not the film will handle said topic in a sensationalistic way. This is a concern not because of any religious or politically correct hypersensitivity, but a concern over the artistry of the piece. A sensationalistic piece that exists only to shock and push the envelope, and do nothing more, is of little worth. This is a sensitive character study of a man torn between his sexual and religious identity.

With regards to how the film portrays its protagonist I don’t really take an issue with the film. Where the film has struggles is in terms of its narrative flow and progression and its conclusion. It seems for a vast majority of its running time a film that seems to want to avoid making a “statement” but rather paint a picture of a person rather than a hot-button issue, and that is admirable. The end of the film seems to be more towards the statement realm and in a dichotomous way that is the the detriment of the whole. Any number of resolutions including even being bereft of one may have been preferable.

However, it’s not a twist in the narrative that has the whole film implode upon itself, but rather salt in the wound of a film that was already on a downward spiral to its finale.

4/10

Hammer of the Gods

Hammer-of-the-Gods-2

This is a film that is a prime example of the fact that the beginning and end of a tale are easier to make compelling than the middle bulk of the narrative. There is a decent set-up and a pretty intriguing turn of events at the very end, but the intervening 80-85 minutes or so there is little by way of intrigue to be found. Based on the content that made it into the cut the running time was a bit bloated. The cinematography is great but this title rivals The Lord of the Rings films in terms of the amount of walking in a much shorter, less epic tale, and there are also scenes that don’t even feel like they belong in the final cut.

It also provides you with an prince, aspiring to be king, who is difficult to root for, or identify with, lest it be by default. There is also a fair amount of vacillation on his part, which makes it a rather annoying affair.

I cannot say that the film plays it safe regarding one of its choices. It creates a very weird locale toward the end, but even that is not without its issues as the staging, blocking and fight choreography need to be at their best there and they are not.

A few interesting touches, some great shots and costume work are not enough to salvage this tale by any means.

3/10

Breakout

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This one is the kind of tale that should work on an escapist, popcorn-movie, silly action film basis but it doesn’t do so. There is a collision course set in motion: criminals on the lam, a man’s family caught in their crosshairs, and a father escaping prison to protect his family from them. This collision is set in motion slowly, too slowly; far too much setting up of each narrative occurs and then when they do collide the edit, the blocking and the action itself are far to stagnant and uninteresting.

The pair of criminals on the lam look more like they’ve been plucked out of a sitcom episode about criminals than who you might expect to see in a action film, meaning they’re not menacing or frightening at all, which drains much of the potential drama and suspense from this title. Nearly every phase of production under-serves a decent concept the score included making this a terribly flaccid, forgettable affair.

2/10

Standing Up

hero_StandingUp-2013-2

There’s a few oddities at work in Standing Up that work against it in a most unfortunate way. One is that there’s a nearly inappropriate tonal shift in the film. I only read half the book before putting it down so this isn’t fanboydom taking over, but aside from near the end and the inciting incident there is a lack of gravitas in the tale. It, in fact, gets siphoned off far too much. Another odd occurrence is that the further you get away from the protagonists the less natural, and grounded in reality their portrayals are. It can be argued that it’s a byproduct of having the narrator of the story be one of the kids, even still it’s a step too far and has the potential to take the audience out of the moment, as it did me. This is especially evident in what is intended to be a very dramatic moment in the film, one filled with tension as they are uncertain of the intent of one character. However, due to the writing, direction, and performance in the scene it falls flat.

It is difficult to come down against a film that has a firmly anti-bullying message and two great turns from the young leads Chandler Canterbury and Annalise Basso, but much of the production detracts rather than augments what they bring to the film. Furthermore, there’s not a build, or an overwhelmingly solid, memorable redemptive segment to the film; it’s all a bit too inconsistent overall.

5/10

Cody the Robosapien

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I previously had occasion to discuss the odd resume of Sean McNamara when Space Warriors was released earlier this year. This the same guy who directed Soul Surfer and that is good, while Space Warriors most certainly is not. Some of it could have to do with the production gathered around the film. Some also invariably has to do with the story being told. I would peg Cody the Robosapien as being somewhere in between the two.

I knew that this was a pre-existing property but it was one I was merely aware of and not one I knew well. Regardless at one point this film was referred to as Robosapien: Rebooted and acts like an origin story so there’s no issue of pre-existing information we don’t have access to.

As a narrative this film is quite the weird one, it barely gets by (if you suspend much disbelief) when looking at the first and third acts in isolation. It’s in act two when the robosapien becomes more Jar Jar Binks like than the affable, smart-kid prototype he was that issues come in, especially when trying to make it a whole. Yes, there is also filler and lapses, but it’s really the sideshow nature of the comedy, the seemingly unquestioned acceptance of the robot’s existence at school that start the downhill slide and introduces other issues.

As per usual, Bobby Coleman, as the young lead, is fantastic and a standout in this cast. He buoys the title much more than most would deem possible, and more than most actors his age could possibly hope to.

Considering how long this one sat around in the can I don’t know if there’s a future for this property anymore. However, it seems like if the vaudevillian aspect of Cody’s persona was reprogrammed it is a concept that could work.

5/10

V8 – Start Your Engines!

V8 - Start Your Engines (2013,  Universal/Rat Pack)

This review was not-so-mini, you can find it here.

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61 Days of Halloween: Woman in a Lizard’s Skin (1971)

Introduction

An introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween as well as past films discussed can be found here.

Woman in a Lizard’s Skin (1971)

Although, this was released through a Scream Factory four-pack (as Schizoid), I viewed it on a region 2 import I found at the Diabolik DVD table at a Monster-Mania Con.

The facets of this Lucio Fulci film that make it fascinating are as intertwined as the seemingly disparate, or unclear, story elements that come into focus as the film progresses. Starting in a dream sequences the way it does (a potently rendered one at that), which is languid temporally, but frantic editorially, makes you wonder at times if there’s design to the madness. Staying with it you find there most certainly is.

The camera, the film’s very eye, many times twists and jerks about like the tale but in the end always finds its target, always finds its purpose while reflecting the fragile mental state of its protagonist, while always probing deeper into the workings of her mind, until it finds order in the chaotic images that the film had unfurled until that point.

The detective work that is requisite in gialli does not feel like an encumbrance at all. Rather, much like them we are trying to piece things together and though we think we may understand at first the significance of a referenced prior case or the role certain dream figures we find we do not as the narrative turns on us.

When one gravitates towards Italian horror and starts to navigate it, one is generally made aware of the two most titanic figures in it: Argento and Fulci. Many viewers make it seem like you have to embrace one and scorn the other. I do not believe that is so. They both operate in rather different ways, but this title perhaps could be viewed as the closest to there being a stylistic overlap, certain tropes are similar: the approach to the narrative highly stylized, while the protagonist “witnessed” the incident in a dream, or fugue state early she (like us) is trying to make sense of what she saw, to identify the culprit, going in chase of them parallel to police activity, and independent of them.

Woman in a Lizard’s Skin may not be Fulci’s greatest work, but it is another great work of Fulci’s I was glad to discover.