The Other Woman (2009, IFC Films)

Mini-Review: The Other Woman

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

The Other Woman

Natalie Portman and Charlie Tahan in The Other Woman (IFC Films)

A young woman deals with the difficulty of the loss of a child, a relationship with her stepson and being newly married.

This is a film which is interesting structurally and gives Portman a chance to really shine. When I saw the trailer it smacked of Stepmom but what I was hoping for was a lack schmaltzy melodrama. I got that but it was replaced by a lot of armchair psychology. There are some surprises and also good performances by Scott Cohen, Charlie Tahan and Lisa Kudrow, who for the first time made me forget about Friends entirely until it was over. It just left me wanting a little but it was enjoyable.

7/10

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Thankful for World Cinema- Mini-Review: It’s All So Quiet (2013)

Introduction

When summarizing It’s All So Quiet, it can be tempting to say too much seeing as how there are not a lot of salient plot points worth discussion. As such I have decided to write about in two different posts.

In the first part (below) I will merely state my reaction to the film without divulging too much of the film. In a separate post, and if you choose to see the film I hope you come back and read it, I will discuss it at bit more in depth going over those few salient plot points.

For an introduction to Thankful for World Cinema in general, please go here.

Mini-Review

It’s All So Quiet is a film that sets you up from its pace virtually from the start. The opening titles roll for two-and-a-half minutes on a shot of wheat, with farmland and sunlight behind it. From this you should be prepared for a fairly deliberately paced film. If you’re not you’ll surely get the hint from the next few scenes where the protagonist Helmer (Jeroen Willems) first moves his bedridden father and then sets him up upstairs with a new bed in the living room.

However, as deliberate as the pace is the subtext of the film is fairly clear throughout and thanks to the actors most of their thought processes communicate their sentiments where words do not.

Helmer’s deciding to move his father upstairs is just the first upheaval in this film. The next that will occur is that a new, young farmhand Henk (Martijn Lakemeier) comes to work and live there and throws things into further disarray.

The cinematography in this film is magnificent. The cast proves time and again that so little of film acting is about the spoken word but rather playing the frame and physicality; dialogue-free Willems and Lakemeier share one of the most poignant and moving scenes I’ve watched this year.

As the story progresses, despite its lack of blunt commentary on the fact you soon will see what the film is about and the tale of repressed desire and unrequited love woven so skillfully by Nanouk Leopold here is one of the best of its rare breed that I’ve seen.

10/10

Ole_Miss_vs_Tennessee_1969_(4233310964)

Mini-Review Round-Up October 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.

The Book of Manning

The Manning Family (Ibid.)

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

The Almost Man

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The man-child has been the topic of comedies, and discussed in film writing, for most of the history of cinema. The brand of childishness in these men changes as society does. The recent trend is skewing toward adolescent man-children who still have the same sense of humor, a similar outlook on the world, and terrors as children do at that formative time (where some grapple with those issues persist into adulthood). Few films have likely, and none that I’ve seen or can think of, taken this character/problem type to a seriocomic place with such commitment and results.

If I had to venture a guess I’d say it’s the inciting incident of this film where (the event that propels the story and sparks conflict) most audience members will go along with or abandon it. If you go along with it and focus on characters, especially Henrik (Henrik Rafaelson), specifically what they want and how they go about trying to get it; then you’ll get into the film. The handling of it is mature even if the act was not: it’s about “what now?” and not “why?” A crossroads has been reached, and, thus, the struggle; the delicate balance of finding true adulthood without losing oneself, begins.

Rafaelson is especially impressive because it’s one thing to play an overgrown goofball and get laughs and another to then get introspective dour and try to assume new responsibility and maturity. He achieves both and engenders empathy as well.

This film is a briskly told tale is one that never feels insincere whether in its stasis (when the young couple enjoys one another’s company and is content to lark about), or later when there is an ebb-and-flow, an attempt to change. Likewise, the film does not end with an insincerely sudden fairy-tale ending, but rather, at a new beginning; the dawn of a new-found maturity.

8/10

Free Spirits

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The difference this ESPN 30 for 30 doc and any other that this is the first to deal with one of the maverick sports leagues of the 1960s and 1970s. While there was already a USFL doc, the ABA and AFL had not been addressed. Of course, the USFL merging with the NFL was never a possibility. This film tells the tale of the Spirits of St. Louis, one of the two teams left out in the cold when the ill-fated league merged with the NBA.

The film mainly just traces the short, but significant two-year history of the team. The reason they were not absorbed, is not really a mystery. However, though there is an abrupt shift in gears late in the game (though the writing is on the wall throughout) the surprise this film has in store is the fallout and windfall from the non-merger.

It seems some of these docs thrive because of their running time and others could use a little more. This one would’ve been served by a little more of a lead-in, but it still tells its tale well.

7/10

Big Shot

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Growing up in New York, but being a New York Ranger fan I was only vaguely aware of the fiasco that was John Spano’s scam to try and purchase the New York Islanders. However, after being fully informed of all that went on here I can say that no team or its fans (no matter how big an arch-rival) deserves to go through this, especially when you consider that the league was at least partly to blame.

Actor-turned-director Kevin Connolly would’ve already scored in my book by not only giving appropriate background on what the Islanders were very early in their existence, but also how they declined, and that he had seen the best and worst of times. However, where the film transcends that is that he actually got to sit down with the man himself and not only faced him in as respectful a fashion as you could ask for, but allowed him to tell his story about how this all happened, and explain (to the extent possible) what he was thinking when things went down.

It’s the kind of story that could only be true and it’s a truly brilliantly rendered account of it quite-nearly blow-by-blow with many of the most concerned parties involved.

10/10

No Más

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I am glad I sought other reviews before sitting down to write this one. In doing so I discovered that the director of this film also directed Renee, which could still be the greatest 30 for 30 installment yet. And he has also covered boxing before. That gives me some perspective but still leaves me perplexed and greatly disappointed.

Firstly, there is a question of balance: whereas the most recent installment, which I will discuss below, evenhandedly presents interpretations of the career of a controversial figure. This one becomes skewed down the line. Both fighters (Leonard and Duran) are introduced. However, after the infamous incident (wherein Duran quit during the rematch), and many theories are examined to no satisfactory conclusion; the film takes a few odd turns.

In one turn, Leonard (at least based on the way this story I knew the bare minimum about) comes off almost like a sore-winner who never faced any backlash for that fact. Almost like the antithesis of Mary Decker Slaney in terms of public perception.

This shift is a weird occurrence because the film, based on what footage they do have, is seeking a resolution and an answer. Yet, it becomes increasingly apparent that no new or publicly acceptable version of why Duran quit would surface. Despite that there they are face-to-face in a boxing ring in the present day, talking in a highly staged manner, and when Duran is giving at least a more detailed version of his truth than he ever told his audio is drowned out for Sugar Ray’s take on it and how he was able to (eventually) let it go.

I’m not saying I believe Duran’s story or questioning Leonard’s right to a vantage point, but in documentary terms starts to bang its head against the proverbial wall insisting on its interpretation of events being told.

At this point in the series a mediocre doc would be the worst 30 for 30, but this one sadly isn’t even good because of its insistence on seeking an absolute truth and its skewed narrative.

4/10

This is What They Want

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Here’s a 30 for 30 that deals with something I witnessed, at least in part, and still have images of seared on my mind’s eye. How final the run was at the time was something I didn’t realize but I knew I liked Connors, and I’m glad that this documentary spent at least some of its time discussing his oft overlooked prowess which is lost amidst his antics, perception and longevity.

As mentioned above, the film is evenhanded. It neither paints Connors as seen through rose-colored glasses nor does it judge. Certain things said about him by other subjects are related back to him and he responds and then the ball is in your court.

However, a bulk of the narrative is chronicling how a 39-year-old Connors (a feat that will likely never be duplicated) made it all the way to the semifinals of the US Open in 1991. It focuses most on the Patrick McEnroe and Aaron Krickstein matches, but also has great insights to the Paul Haarhuis and Jim Courier match-ups.

There are cinematic elements that take this film to another level from the edit (how it humorously illustrates certain perceived notions), the music that underscores the emotions of the film beautifully and the persistent flow. Furthermore, as you might expect from a film crowded with former players, analysts and writers there are great insights for the fan of the game and the layman alike; as well as some illuminating nuances of tennis explained that differentiate it from other sports.

This is What They Want, much like Connors’ improbable run that year, is quite nearly immaculate.

10/10

Zola Budd Mary Decker (The Mirror)

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Funeral Kings (2012, Freestyle Releasing)

Mini-Review Round-Up August 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.

Under the Bed

Under the Bed (2012, XLrator Media)

This is a film that’s a classic non-starter. The work that’s done to build the characters, the brothers, at least, is appreciated; as is the late reveal of several key pieces of information. However, the issues that come into play are that the film ends up not having enough jolts or enough incidents. The battle against the evil entity these brothers fight is forestalled too long, is resolved to quickly and far too anti-climacticly. So you have a film where engagement is barely kept for as long as it takes and then there’s no real pay-off. With a horror film, especially one of this type, you know certain characters are going to be safe so it really ends up being more about how things occur rather than who makes it. The film has really good performances by Jonny Weston and Gattlin Griffith, especially the latter, but not much else to show for itself.

3/10

Funeral Kings

Funeral Kings (2012, Freestyle Releasing)

In most cases, it takes some fairly brave filmmaking, the kind you usually only find on the indie scene; to get a refreshing and fairly honest coming-of-age style tale. This is not just a question of using profanity and making “kids sound like kids,” but also being unafraid to make the characters fairly complicated; gray, neither black nor white. For in this tale the two main foci Charlie (Alex Maizus) and Andy (Dylan Hartigan) are inclined to make trouble and misbehave, but when backed into a corner they reach the point of maturation, and reveal their true character. The closest thing to a “white” character is Dave (Jordan Puzzo) but even he, as the plot necessitates, shows a little added dimension and isn’t entirely squeaky-clean.

Of course, none of this journey, which is more a life-like domino-effect of events than a standard plot; without very realistic performances from the young actors in question. This leading trio is exceptional. Maizus has before him what can likely be considered as the most daunting task having to juggle streetwise smart-aleckness, Napoleonic complex and a well-guarded sensitivity and excels. However, Hartigan matches Maizus’ worldliness and brings his own brand of alpha to the part. Last, but most certainly not least is the performance most likely to be overlooked, and it oughtn’t be, is Jordan Puzzo. Puzzo has to be earnest and deadpan and absolutely nails all of his dialogue that has to land.

Funeral Kings is very funny, insightful and refreshing take on a coming-of-age tale that put character first and circumstance second even though it sets itself up for potentially sensationalistic scenarios.

8/10

Swoopes

Swoopes (2013, ESPN Films)

Nine for IX continues with the tale of Sheryl Swoopes carer. It’s always great when I don’t know much about the subjects of these films, or as much as I thought I did. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Swoopes as a subject is the fact that she is not easily definable and is an individual. She’s not at all interested in labels of any kind. The only issues I really had with the film itself was that it glossed over what she did in the two-year span between her graduation and the Olympics, and then one interviewees seemed to have responses that made him seem the mandatory contrarian. It would’ve benefitted the film all the more if one subject had varying interpretations of her actions and career choices. However, it’s still a very effective piece that highlights many aspects of the game and the player that would otherwise be overlooked. A job very-well done by director Hannah Storm.

8/10

Pat XO

Pat XO (2013, ESPN Films)

Here’s another Nine for IX title that takes an unexpected avenue. Not only was I unaware for Pat Summitt’s early career, both in being Head coach at such a young age and also her close-calls, but it tells the story mostly through her and her son, Tyler Summitt (recent University of Tennessee graduate), reminiscing and other colleagues, former players, etc. The film reflexively talks about how it likely helped her remember things she wouldn’t have otherwise (Summitt recently retired due to early onset dementia). Therefore, aside from being a great piece on her life and career it also becomes a living document for her and her family and all those she coached and helped along the way. The film could end up being far too loose with such a format but it crafts itself into a very neat and highly effective narrative.

9/10

Cherry Tree Lane

Cherry Tree Lane (2010, Metrodome Distribution)

It’s not that the attempt being made by this film isn’t understood or appreciated, it’s just that somewhere along the way it loses the plot. The film deals within a home invasion wherein thugs are really after their teenage son. While it occasionally elicits the desired emotional response, ennui eventually wins out. It tests the limits of voyeurism and fails. It brings existential questions to mind like “Why am I watching this?”.

An example of how it loses the plot is by having a fairly standard horror-film jolt-ending which feels tawdry, unearned, and mostly disingenuous. If we’re meant to just bask in the terror of how quickly and nearly irrevocably things change for this family the end should be more low-key and broken. This film by no means wants to be The Strangers, but it reaches wildly for it end when perhaps its prior sin was being unambitious. Perhaps the most enjoyable passage of the film is the set-up where there’s mundane small-talk that establishes character- that’s not good enough because there’s a second and third act where it can’t be compelling enough one way and tries another at the end.

1/10

The Diplomat

The Diplomat (2013, ESPN Films)

As I was a young when the Berlin Wall came down and communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, documentaries like this that take a more focused look at things are really beneficial. For example, I was under the impression that it was just because I was young that it felt like the wall’s coming down was fairly sudden; as it turns out, it was, compared to other similarly seismic sociopolitical touchstones. However, that’s a detail about a larger event. What this film does is take the diplomatic, athletic lightning-rod that was Witt and examines East Germany, both their sports regimen (pro and con) and the Stasi (only cons) through that guise and billows out from there to close relations and the everyman – and it has great and significant interview subjects on the matter. However, it’s also about Witt, some of conflicting feelings about the time, about her relationship with her coach; and how her coaches struggle molded her path to an extent. It’s a film that made me want to delve into that period, into other films about East and West Germany, made me want to see Carmen on Ice; in short, I wanted more and lots of it, and there’s hardly a higher compliment one can pay a film.

10/10

Shadow People

Shadow People (2013, Anchor Bay Films)

I could probably write a much longer piece on this film. One thing it does fairly successfully is mash feature and documentary techniques together. It fully commits to the this “inspired by real events.” The subject matter (Seeing malevolent shadows that would kill you in your sleep if you know they exist) is very strong. This commitment to approach, and the scoring help driving home despite missteps in the approach on occasion and casting issues. A testament to it’s efficacy is that it still was unsettling even in spite of nagging doubts about the quick escalation of the investigation of the phenomena and the fact that much of the second into the third act is spent crystallizing the modus operandi of these beings. Some aspects work brilliantly, for example, it’s a shame I watched it on TV because it was trying deft, slight scares at time that would read better in a theatre, some facets of the myth aren’t quite as strong as the others, however, it’s a fascinating one.

Granted the bones of it do have a source in popular culutre but its impact on the cinematic realm, as far as I know, is fairly small at current. What one can say is that this film is not unlike The Curse with better production values that’s slightly less clear on its own rules – in short, it excels in spite of itself. Taking that into account, and owing to how it made my skin crawl, I can give it a…

8/10…

despite my reservations.

Into the White (2012, Magnolia Releasing)

Mini-Review Round-Up July 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.

Into the White

Into the White (2012, Magnolia Releasing)

Here’s another case where I had a little inadvertent crossover between months. I saw this film towards the end of June and included it in the BAM Considerations there, then I stalled on writing the review until now so it kicks off July.

This film does a few things that are a little out of the norm that I feel work for it every well: first, though it is a wartime tale it’s not really concerned with battle sequences, but rather with human nature and survival. Two World War II fighter planes, one British and one German, are downed in Norway. The crews of both find refuge in the same abandoned hunting cabin and seek to survive the harsh winter. Second, while there is some of the expected banter, power struggles and a effective chamber drama setpieces; the film is the latest in a gray-area treatment of World War II inasmuch as it tell not a black-and-white tale but a more involved human character study and psychological approach to those involved. In short, these are people, not types.

With a common goal of survival this film studies its individual characters both on their own and in relation to one another. Eventually façade come down and they are able to see each other as individuals. One of the pitfalls of a tale like this is that there could be the danger of going too far in the other direction. Things end too well and they get too chummy. The film walks that tightrope well. The performances all around are great by the five central figures particular standouts being Florian Lukas, David Kross and Rupert Grint.

7/10

A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table (2012, Magnolia Pictures)

When one discusses hunger in America there are a lot of seemingly disparate facts that need to be connected so that the roots of the problem are readily understood to all. When No Kid Hungry and other similar charities started to have more of a national presence the dots weren’t quite connecting. That’s not meant to downplay the quality of filmmaking here to one similar to a PSA. I merely mention that to illustrate that some issues have enough layers such that a film such as this one is a necessity. The economic restraints of having and applying for food stamps; concepts such as food deserts, food insecurity; the budgeting of school lunches; the link between poverty and obesity; the dated structure of food subsidies; are all things that cannot quickly be discussed and this film does well to correlate these facts and paint a picture.

However, the film is issue-centric only when needed. As much as it can, it dramatizes these political issues with tales of actual people that personify certain struggles. Thus, the issues are brought home more so than they would be otherwise. It’s yet another documentary that tackles a dangerously large scope but it does fairly well to rein in all the contributing factors. Any who see it will be made more aware and it will likely spur action by many.

8/10

The Iran Job

The Iran Job (2012, Film Movement)

This is a film that very interestingly finds a back door into being a precursor to the Arab Spring movements and a testimonial about how women in the Middle East feel about their current situation. You embark on a film expecting a fish-out-of-water tale about an American basketball player going overseas to earn a living. You get that and the basketball angle, but slowly as he’s there he makes friends. While he wisely tries to stay away from politics as much as he can knowing people starts to bring insights into the state of affairs. There is always a political undercurrent with the election of Barack Obama near the beginning of the film and the controversial Iranian elections coming towards the end.

The Iran Job has a balancing act to pull off and it does so fairly well. It’s a prime example of a documentary going where the footage starts to lead it. Surely, the film may have started out with only aspirations of political undercurrents, ones that may have been shoehorned in had events not conspired otherwise, alas they did and the film is better for it.

7/10

The Brass Teapot

The Brass Teapot (2013, Magnolia Releasing)

This is a film that tells a quirky, fairly originally-spun tale about unlimited riches being made available to a young, struggling couple and the toll that takes on their life. As funny as the film manages to be for a while, it does start to lose its bearings as it moves on. The rules seemingly change on a whim and it builds to a chaotic yet fairly anticlimactic finale.

The film has its moments and its laughs as well as good performances but it ultimately doesn’t keep itself in check and loses its chance to be a quirky charmer as it goes off the deep end.

5/10

Bad Kids Go to Hell

Bad Kids Go to Hell (2012, Phase 4)

This is a film, which in a similar vein to Detention you can’t knock because it’s not trying, but rather it’s the method in which the attempt is made where its issues come to play, and there are several. Namely one persistent issue that comes to the for is that the film never truly justifies my engaging in the stories or the characters. This isn’t a generic likability complaint, the film quite firmly states it’s not going to be a warm-and-fuzzy detention tale like The Breakfast Club (Though parts definitely echo it). However, the characters do have skeletons in their closets that are discussed, and while none of them are ever likable or well-drawn, they’re mostly uninteresting too.

It’s a film that goes down a rabbit hole, and flips the script on you a few times, but each concussant shift in the story makes it a more frustrating journey. It’s built on a flimsy pretext that gets eschewed, questioned, left vague, then gives us rather ridiculous renditions for the detainees punishment and a tangled, overly-contrived web that unravels itself out of the horror genre the film seems to be taking you into the whole time.

However, it is mainly the decisions, execution, casting, performances, characters and writing that are the culprits here and not the genre it plays in. The movie starts out poorly and spirals ever downward from there; the twists only serving to frustrate you as you are still not heading back in a desirable direction.

2/10

Venus and Serena

Venus and Serena (2012, Magnolia Releasing)

Whenever you’re dealing with a documentary about current athletes there is always a undercurrent of concern about the PR spin or publicity angle of the piece. However, Venus and Serena does manage to a bit more even-handed than anticipated in three notable instances once about an early coaching stint and two times about Serena’s more noteworthy on court outbursts. What is also fortunate is that the film was allowed to be a more human tale as for the most part it chronicled the 2011 season where they both dealt with their share of injuries so the film goes back and forth between the rehab process and personal information and their path to that point.

While the film does lack a bit in narrative thrust, it is a good portrait of their lives and career to that point.

6/10

La Sirga

La Sirga (2012, Film Movement)

This is a film where much happens beneath the surface. It’s a narrative wherein we also have few, if any, assurances of what occurred prior to the film beginning and what occurs after it is completed. In fact, what can be considered the climactic moment of the film isn’t visible, but rather takes place behind a closed door. There isn’t too much said, but what is said bears thinking about and reading between the lines; as nothing jumps out and screams “Hey, this is important!”

That’s not to say the film isn’t engaging, or that conflict is absent. It’s just that it’s not as engaging as it might be and the conflict is highly internalized. The cinematography of the film is quite spectacular especially in terms of framing. It features some of the most exacting frames I’ve seen since Found Memories. It’s definitely a film worth viewing and considering.

7/10

Teen Beach Movie

Teen Beach Movie (2013, Disney Channel)

I’ve discussed previously when DCOMs come up that all films are judged on their own and not in comparison to one other kinds of films. Having got that out of the way, save for a few issues, I was taken aback by Teen Beach Movie; inasmuch as there’s one hysterically funny song/commentary on the nature of the musical. Also enjoyable is the fact that it’s a tongue-in-cheek homage to teen subculture cinema of the ’60s spun forward to the present.

First and foremost among the issues is that you have to completely suspend disbelief and go with the concept that a surfboard with magic powers transports the leads into the film they’re stuck in. While it’s the need of the characters that gets it to act, but it’s not as mysterious or as clear as it could be. The second large one was the occasional temporal breaks in dialogue the film-within-film characters had saying things that didn’t feel true to their period.

However, it establishes early what the conflict that arises between the heroes is and there is a clarity throughout that they need to find a way out of the situation. Slowly, almost without they or us noticing, there are consequences of being stuck in the film. It’s less bombastically self-important than other DCOMs with even sillier premises and ultimately it comes back to the main characters and not the parody or the revisionist look at gender roles in the sixties. It’s far funnier and more enjoyable than it likely has any business being.

7/10

Paradise: Love

Paradise: Love (2012, Strand Releasing)

In a very naturalistic and non-sensationalist way Paradise: Love seeks to explore the sex tourism trade. It does so through the guise (and eyes) of a woman who is new to such things. She goes from Austria to Kenya in search of a new experience. Being new and not-yet-jaded she runs the gamut from being shy; falling for lies; falling in love; trying to deal with it coolly, heartlessly and feeling regret.

Where the film finds its difficulties is that it plays things so close to the vest, in a very authentic seeming way, at times, in spite of a great lead performance by Margarete Tiesel, it’s at times hard to decipher if she’s willingly being duped or just duped. The pace suffers a bit through act two despite being usually engaging.

The conclusion feels proper and earned but the climactic sequence, a birthday rent boy party attended by all her “friends” achieves what it seems to want (an uncomfortable ambivalence and tenuous balance between expose and exploitation), but it, too, lingers well after its point has been made.

This is one of the films where it’s about the journey not the destination. It is in the journey where it issues lie.

6/10

Post Tenebras Lux

Post Tenebras Lux (2013, Strand Releasing)

At some point while watching Post Tenebras Lux I paused to make sure I had an a correct understanding of what the title meant. I knew it was Latin, I had a notion of each individual word, but wanted to make sure that in context it meant “After Darkness, Light.”

Slowly after the film was complete I had a theory about what it was I had read as I crossed the terrain. In a fashion not dissimilar to when I first saw Holy Motors, where it has sections that I had to ferret out rather than an ultimate goal, or feeling; here it was a bit of both that needed to be ferreted out simultaneously. I believe I have those answers now. However, the overriding point of a film in the style of Post Tenebras Lux is not ultimately what is its “truth,” but how it weaves its mysterious web, what an audience’s level of engagement is and if you find a connection to it.

It’s almost disappointing to describe it in such an alchemical way, but what it boils down to is do its ellipses, its seeming impenetrability, repel or compel you; frustrate or fascinate; goad or gratify. In the end, I enjoyed the grapple more than I fought with it. I enjoyed parsing scenes, sequences and the whole based on what I perceived to be the perspective; whether I felt it reality or hallucination; past, present or future.

The impact I felt from it may not have been as big as the aforementioned Holy Motors, but it is quite nearly as fascinating, in a quieter, more introspective (just whose introspection it is, is debatable) rumination on life, culture and humanity.

8/10

Stoker

Stoker (2013, Fox Searchlight)

This is one of those films that grabs you from the first frame and scarcely ceases long enough to let go. It’s the kind of film that peels back layers of mystery and intrigue, slowly at first, but, then it escalates them until you find yourself in a delirious whirl of rapt tension and drama. All the while, as it slowly sets the foundation of the most basic facts, it’s setting up reveals of more precisely sinister revelations of motivation and past incidents.

The film is technically constructed to match this narrative drive employing montages, cross-cutting sequences, frames and L-cuts (cuts where audio lingers after a scene, or starts before an accompanying visual) to link what are at first seemingly disconnected events.

Stoker builds mystery regarding enough elements of its story, while keeping things simple, such that it easily achieves misdirection from one unanswered riddle to another. Thus, answers you had half-formed are forgotten briefly as you puzzle something else and when you’re confronted with confirmation of a fact it lands with the desired impact, whether you intuited the information or not.

Practically everything regarding Stoker is precise and stylized to the utmost for impact, yet scarcely ever feels forced when you consider all the pieces in the whole. It’s a mesmerizing portrait that is sure to rank among the best of the year.

10/10

The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia

The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (2013, LionsGate)

I nearly did a commentary on the rise of, and you may even consider it to be a re-emergence; of nonsensical, paradoxical film titles such as this one. Essentially, I made peace with this silly title by likening it to Halloween III. The fact that a disconnected narrative was lumped into a series should not influence my opinion of the title. Sadly, this film is not quite of the caliber of Season of the Witch.

While I can’t knock it entirely, I can’t say I came away from it liking it. What the film does have going for it are the occasional good scare and an interesting mythology and themes it plays upon. Southern gothic tales seem like they’re the latest milieu ripe for the picking in horror, and this film at least starts the conversation. However, the build is a bit staggered such that the climax is drained of some of its tension by flashing back to fill in blanks that have already mostly been filled in by us being allowed time to reflect.

Unnecessary doubt can always be a bothersome aspect in horror and this film eschews most of that and almost reverses it to be too willing to believe visions, but it works. Thus, there’s not quite balance: there’s a doubter you know is in denial, a fairly silent skeptic and a vocal prodder. Ultimately it is the construction of the myth from near the mid-point in act two into act three which cause issues, and could very well be an editing issue as opposed to a writing one.

It’s not a film I would not be averse to revisiting, and it doesn’t feel like a wasted experience, but also doesn’t feel like it’s quite up to what it could’ve achieved. A lot of what does buoy it is the performances of mother and daughter, Abigail Spencer and Emily Alyn Lind.

5/10

Let Them Wear Towels

Let Them Wear Towels (2013, ESPN Films)

I have been a bit behind but have wanted to start up on the Nine for IX series by ESPN Films. What Nine for IX is is a companion series of documentaries to ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series. The difference in the two is that this series of films is that this series started to commemorate the passing of title IX, which assured equality of opportunity between the sexes in college sports; and therefore, focuses on stories about female athletes or women in sports in general.

The first tale I took in was the corollary-to-women’s-liberation tale of the struggle for female sports writers to be allowed into pro locker rooms so that they could do their jobs. In factual terms it’s an interesting, incisive survey of the battle in three of the major sports leagues in the US (MLB, NFL and NHL). The NBA is conspicuously absent and why that is so is never mentioned. Another thing is that while it’s effective didactically it’s not as strong dramatically. Its briskness absolves its slightly repetitive nature. It’s an important story that needed telling and deserved being told in a somewhat more compelling way.

6/10

The Deflowering of Eva Van End

The Deflowering of Eva Van End (2012, Film Movement)

I’ve discussed the fact that I quite enjoy the Film Movement film-of-the-month club. One aspect I’ve mentioned less frequently than the included short films on each DVD release, is the fact that on the inside cover there is usually a statement about the film from both the company and the director of the film. I make it a point to not read either until after I’m done watching the feature. The reason I mention that is because what struck me from the first frame is what Eva’s (Vivian Dierickx) look, her persona; reminded me of was Dawn Wiener, the protagonist of Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, and as the opening scene played out that notion was reinforced. Those sentiments were echoed in the statement. However, I agree this is its own film because it’s not a myopic view of a world but rather a portrait of an entire family.

Eva is our entry into their world. She gives us our first glimpse of them and thus we see them in a very broad stroke. As Veit (Rafael Gareisen), the German exchange student who turns their world upside down, changes their behavior we learn about them, what their insecurities were and what they try to do to take control of an alter their lives.

It’s a very funny film in both its exaggerated renditions of reality, but also a very real one with dramatic consequences. The characters progress but are not perfect; they remain flawed in the end, but better for the experience. Veit could be the only one who walks through it unchanged. He is what he always is, it’s what the family projects him to be that alters.

Through artful cinematography, editorial finesse and music that enchantingly encapsulates this odd world, there are well-executed tonal shifts and visceral impact that far overcome any minor quibbles I may have. The Deflowering of Eva Van End is a film that paints the portrait of a family far more fully than its title suggest and is recommended viewing if you see it about.

9/10

56 Up

56 Up (2012, First Run Features)

It’s a bit difficult to discuss 56 Up in a vacuum. Most of the reason behind that is that it is the 8th installment in a series that ought not be viewed in before the prior films. Starting on the UK’s Granada Television in 1964 the series has revisited its subject every seven years. Starting under director Paul Almond it has since been taken over by renowned director Michael Apted.

As this film touches on, it seems the initial these of the series stated first that the child at seven was a forerunner of the adult, but the more overriding theme of the initial installment was a commentary on the class society in England. I re-introduce the initial concepts because they are touched on by the subjects anew. In fact, of all prior installments this is without question the film that most fully, totally and maturely (with respect to the subjects’ comments) deals with the nature of the series both in terms of the class question and in terms of the odd life of its own that the series has developed over the years, the paradoxical attachment that some subjects have with it no matter how much they may dislike it.

As a follow-up to 49 Up, it’s quite the impressive installment. As always, it’s next to impossible to predict the changes life brings to people, but on the filmmaking end it has perhaps the best order and compartmentalization of subjects yet.

Released in the UK last year it remains to be seen if Apted and the “cast,” a few of whom come and go (look out for a surprising return here),will be back in 2019 with 63 Up, but one can only hope. If only conception, it’s perhaps the most fascinating long-term documentary project in history. However, many of the installments are about as good as documentaries get. I may take a bit of time to see just how this one stacks up.

8/10

Hayride

Hayride (2012, Uncork'd Entertainment)

About the only thing Hayride does in something akin to a proper fashion is create a legend. However, that legend is lodged a bit too deep into the story, nearly usurped by others and leads up to quite a clunker of a climax.

The film spends a bit of time with its characters, which is fine as an isolated fact, but it’s less desirable when they are so simply drawn and so unconvincingly interpreted. There is a supposed hayride attraction that is incredibly poorly staged in both filmic and hayride terms. Lastly, there is the open ending which is not only expected but is quite nearly an anti-jolt. There are very small patches that show promise, but overall it’s quite a wasted effort.

2/10

No Limits

No Limits (2012, ESPN Films)

Here is the second Nine for IX title that I got to in the course of the month, you can find the other above. This film deals both with a sport and an event that I had no familiarity with. In the case of some documentaries that could be a hinderance, in the case of this film it is most certainly not.

The precepts of no limits free-driving are simply told enough and the film dramatically, both through recounting of facts, various interviews and use of split-screens and incredibly harrowing footage that audiences do need to be warned of, recreates events such that as a film it overcomes the lack of cooperation in interviews by the key figure in question.

No Limits conveys this terribly tragic event in jaw-clenching fashion, is not recommended for the feint of heart or weak of stomach, but is an excellent documentary nonetheless.

10/10

The Depraved

The Depraved (2011, Uncork'd Entertainment)

Using the concept of urban explorers this film follows five tourists who seek to look about the tunnels underneath Berlin. It’s hard to say what’s most interesting about this film whether it be the proper execution of an extreme tourism concept that The Chernobyl Diaries failed with, or the fact that it combines in a horror film both tropes of Nazi Germany and the Cold War mindset of postbellum Germany.

The film not only has a strong sense of locale and finds one with tremendous visual appeal but there are also some brilliant practical effects work and strong performances all around, most especially by Nick Eversman and Klaus Stiglmeier.

8/10

Ginger & Rosa

Ginger & Rosa (2012, A24)

One cannot summarily dismiss this film if only for the performances of Elle Fanning and Alice Englert if nothing else. It starts out on a very visual note, it doesn’t quite persist in that regard. In many ways many of its failings can be perceived through the lens of persisting: persisting in an overly-minimal tale and lacking persistence in narrative progression.

The first act seems most concerned with establishing character, the second with slowly unraveling the superficial and actual causes of angst that Ginger feels. This all builds to very subdued if real climax. It’s a climax that could be earned if there was sufficient forward momentum prior, but there is not.

5/10

Byzantium

Byzantium (2013, IFC Films)

If one were to just look at the surface of Byzantium you might think it rings a bit too familiar as compared to other vampire-related films of recent vintage. However, when you consider the fact that this film has Neil Jordan at the helm, or if you just simply watch it then you see that surface similarities are merely what the name suggests: superficial. For what Byzantium has in spades are what other vampire narratives all too often lack: backstory, character, emotion, depth, conflict and humanity.

To put it quite simply, the only thing Byzantium does that is a little tiresome is something that’s true to a teenage character, it’s that it rehashes the same conflict over a few times without true progression of the struggle. However, it does move forward and unravel more of the web that these characters find themselves in.

The film is spearheaded by another brilliant turn by Saoirse Ronan and by far the best performance I’ve seen by Gemma Arterton to date. It’s another film that epitomizes the fact that drama is the foundation of all other genres and is intrinsic to building a good horror tale, and this is a great one.

9/10

Come Out and Play

Come Out and Play (2012, Cinedigm/Cinetic)

Whenever possible I try to give those who may be reading these reviews a frame of reference of where I’m coming from with a particular title. That can in large part become relevant when one discusses a remake. I believe I viewed Who Can Kill a Child? last year and I was not a fan in the slightest. When dealing with a remake, you want to try to have a clean slate, but I realize this can be difficult as certain things are expected. I liked this version just marginally and here’s why:

The biggest faults the film has are in the beginning and the end, there’s far too much unspoken and not enough urgency as the weird situations start to present themselves. I’ve not read the book, but so far as I’m concerned there’s not yet the perfect rendition of this tale, regardless of how faithful each may or may not be to the book.

As the film progresses further from the overly-coy beginning, it does start to address some concerns, seriously up the stakes and after some missteps in the suspense department early playing that up. The score is consistently effective, and the all-too-ghostly children start to have presence, a bit of information to them, which makes them more dangerous, and in turn makes the audience engage further. It creates some mystery and makes you interpret events after a minimal mandatory amount of information is handed out.

Where I feel the film could’ve further excelled was at the very, very end. However, what it manages to do after being a fairly ineffectual carbon copy elevates it oh-so-slightly from its predecessor.

6/10

Dracula 3D (2012, IFC Midnight)

Mini-Review Round-Up June 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.

Dracula 3D

Dracula 3D (2012, IFC Midnight)

This particular selection from Dario Argento was an official selection of last year’s Cannes Film Festival and was recently picked up by IFC Midnight here in the US. However, if you are a fan of his I would not recommend you go out of your way to acquire the film, as I did, and simply wait for it to roll around as a rental. If you are not familiar with Argento do not start here. I’d recommend Suspiria as a jumping off point.

Much of what’s unfortunate about this film is the disconnect between certain elements: there is throughout a very uneasy relationship between the well-photographed, geometrically intricate, well-lit shots; gorgeous production design and a tendency to go for really unconvincing and unfortunate CG. This is not just a complaint about CG blood, but larger elements. Much of the CG blood usually upon opening wounds and then the close-ups use practical effects well.

An issue of a less nitpicky nature is the that there isn’t a consistent enough progression and amplification of stakes and incidents. Argento has always had a leaning to a slow-burning style but there there’s not a lot of intrigue to buffer that slight build here. Those peaks where there are spikes in the action, where we need to feel the oomph, are usually undercut by the CG work.

The scoring is great, and minus some seriously off moments by some lesser players the acting is good to passable. One thing that had me searching online after it was over was that there is a veritable bestiary of creatures that this Dracula can become. This is not inaccurate, but with the redefinition that cinema has had in various versions over the years it rather took me aback without a more overt introduction in this tale. However, it really is the stuttering pace, the disjointed nature of certain elements and fairly lifeless final third that keep this version from staying afloat.

5/10

Deadfall

Deadfall (2012, Magnolia Pictures)

The hook in Deadfall, or what pulls you into the story, is the inevitable collision course of events and people at a Thanksgiving dinner. From the start when a bank heist escape goes awry in a blizzard and characters split up, you can feel it coming. However, what keeps you engaged throughout is the characters and their personal journey leading up to the moment.

You have in the tale essentially four parallel story-structures surround the manhunt. There is Addison (Eric Bana) who takes off and tries to keep on the move and get to the US-Canada border, who while on the run encounters some foes and plays out some family traumas of his own. Liza (Olivia Wilde) who sets the collision course in motion by finding Jay (Charlie Hunnam) whose troubles and complications we are introduced to early.

Then there’s the law enforcement side with another family dynamic of Sheriff Marshall T. Becker (Treat Williams) and his daughter, a trooper named Hanna (Kate Mara). Lastly, the parents awaiting Jay, and little do they know the trouble coming with them, Chet (Kris Kristofferson) and June (Sissy Spacek). What occurs in the end is a tense, though not overly-melodramatic, confrontation. There is great acting throughout, particularly by Bana, and the story takes its time so there are stakes invested on behalf of characters who we now know and understand. Some of the explosive dynamics of the climactic sequence we know will occur, just not how, are set up wonderfully; but they have even more impact with the work that has been put into these personages.

Deadfall is a beautifully photographed film that doesn’t neglect development while creating a compelling crime thriller. It delivers plenty of shocks, heart and intelligence.

8/10

Room 514

Room 514 (2012, Film Movement)

This film contains one of the slyest, most telling pieces of foreshadowing I’ve seen in some time. I won’t give it away, but as I reflected on this film it seemed to me to be a modern, Israeli-set version of A Few Good Men. The drama is more intimate and behind closed doors, but what the film is about is the people and how they react in a given set of circumstances rather than what the consequences for said action is. The comments both societal and militaristic have been made and the story is at an end. The outside world may never feel any ramifications or repercussions from what occurred, but those behind said closed doors do.

What director Sharon Bar-Ziv achieves is an intimate tale not only in terms of the number of participants but also in the frame. There are many times where there is scarcely background to be spoken of as two faces, within very close proximity to one another, dominate our view. Their is an intense focus on the characters studying one another and we in turn study them and not only how they react to one another but also what they are saying.

For a film of this nature to achieve maximum effectiveness it needs great acting and it gets that from its three main players: Asia Naifeld, Guy Kapulnik and Udi Persi. Neifeld plays Anna the Military Police interrogator at the center of virtually every scene and her performance is a veritable tour de force. Her choices as an actress are as clear as the convictions of her character and really help bring this film home. It’s a fascinating tale that is worth your time as it really and truly engages you.

Room 514 will be available on home video from Film Movement on 6/18.

9/10

Brooklyn CastleBrooklyn Castle (2012, Millennium Entertainment)

A few things with regards to documentaries that most of the good ones prove true is that: the quality of the documentary is determined by the filmmaking and not by the subject being examined, and, second, when making a documentary you have to go where the story is taking you and not the other way around.

Clearly if you enjoy chess this will be a film you are drawn to. However, this film works well enough, and focuses enough on its the people involved and their journey, such that it should connect with anyone and everyone.

While the story of a junior high school (I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, NY) where the chess team not only excels in unparalleled ways, but also where the players not the outcasts but some of the most popular kids in school, is certainly enough of a hook; it carries even further significance following the recent economic crash. While we engage readily in the personal struggles, victories and defeats big and small alike, there is a greater game at play as budgeting becomes a large concern of the film and the importance of extracurricular activities in the lives of students, both academically and otherwise, is made abundantly clear.

It is the people whom we get to know that drive and tell this story. What the filmmakers do is craft the tale for maximum efficacy that allows you to connect with the tale. An perhaps having seen a successful program personified it may convince others of the vitality they possess and why they should be preserved. It really is a great film that will put a smile on your face, get your rooting for these kids and make you wish all students had a program like it available to them.

10/10

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (2012, Strand Releasing)

There is an odd concoction of elements that the Ghastly Love of Johnny X is trying to blend. Its charms, however, are not enough and the spell it attempts to weave doesn’t have enough staying power to make it a truly successful venture.

What it does well is riff on nuance pretty brilliantly, create some memorable lines, it’s odd and unique and has its moments in terms of cinematography, production design and musically (in terms of arrangement if not always the singing – yes, it’s a musical too).

All that sounds good and the tale of a man exiled from his home planet to earth to wander with a gang of ’50s style hoods and try to earn his way home does have potential. The issues it ends up facing are that it devolves into being what it seeks to emulate in the worst ways as opposed to transcending to it while still making us laugh at its tropes; namely a cheesy ’50s movie except this one plays quite a few genres at once. In short, the pace begins to suffer; there are touches slightly too modern; the plot, goals and motivations of characters become muddled and the comedy starts to click less consistently.

Also, as a musical there are some very long stretches between some of the numbers that are far too big. It’s not an entirely regrettable experience, but one I can’t say I’d recommend.

4/10

Upstream Color

Upstram Color (Erbp, 2013)

The one thing I can advise potential viewers of this film is: you should not embark on this journey if you’re not ready to be challenged. If you’re looking for escapist hit-me entertainment, this isn’t it.

The film is quietly cacophonous and, on the surface, visually disjointed. This is all by design as, much like characters in the film, we go off in search of as to how and why things occur. The answers to the questions are not disseminated in an overt manner, but most of the ones that truly matter are there. Ones that seemingly aren’t would likely be there upon review, or aren’t as much of a concern.

The heavily visual nature of the film is among its greatest assets, along with its edit. Some of the performances and the sound work, and the plot that is unearthed, are among its more uneven elements. Ultimately, its the craftsmanship and artistry of the film that has it succeed in spite of its missteps.

It welcomes revisiting, debate and discussion but once most of its mystery fades, and its minor ambiguities settle in, there’s not as much impact as it seems to promise early on. It’d make a great double feature with Beyond the Black Rainbow; though I find this to be a better film in a similar vein.

7/10

The Giants

The Giants (Kino Lorber, 2011)

If there’s a trope, or worse yet a cliché, you can name in a coming-of-age film it’s very likely that The Giants sets you up to expect it and then subverts it. That is not to say you should approach this film with a checklist, but there are many times wherein either salvation or damnation threatens these characters, but what you see instead is maturation and survival. Brothers, Zak and Seth, along with their friend Danny are isolated both by circumstance and by choice. The adult world is an invasive burden on their existence but one they are ultimately forced to cope with by themselves.

The film has opportunities to embrace conventions either of dystopian coming-of-age stories, like Kids, or more utopian ones where despite all the travails the characters go through there’s a classical Hollywood ending. This film takes the road less traveled as often as possible when faced with a plot point that can be seen as fairly common and that choices pays off over and over again.

With parents that are perpetually absent without true explanation, it’s a tale essentially of individuation rather than any of the other pitfalls of growing up. There’s definitely no love interest in the tale, and, without station too much, if there is even any true commentary on sexuality is left ambiguous.

The restraint and certainty that the film has in the handling of its plot, edit and musical selections is matched by the young cast. This especially applies to Zacherie Chasseriaud shows the poise and control of a veteran from first scene when he deals with his mother’s absence and nearly cries, but doesn’t, through to the end.

Bouli Lanners does not seem to be going for either extreme of the emotional spectrum with this tale, but rather and accurate portrayal of kids in circumstances out of the ordinary forced to grow up. They are neither idealized through nostalgia or auteristic proclivity nor are they “gritty” just for the sake of it. Elements that could be used for shock value in less-skilled hands here are what they are, meaning part of their existence and are there without commentary. The Giants is a highly effective, well-crafted tale deserving of a larger audience.

10/10

Kai Po Che!

Kai Po Che! (2013, UTV Motion Pictures)

I took a Bollywood film course which got my feet wet in the style of popular cinema that emerges from India in college. Since then I can’t say I’ve taken many forays back there again, though both Netflix and certain multiplexes make it a distinct possibility. However, what I’ve noticed in my last few forays (Namely Zokkomon and Chillar Party) is that there are stories that have featured aspects of subgenres and tales tied together by approximately a half dozen montages throughout a two-hour-plus film.

This film is about three friends who want to start a cricket supply store/training academy. The motivation for each to get involved is different and there are different narrative threads throughout. There is the assisting the underdog plot which leads into the sociopolitical commentary the film has to make, that eventually becomes a factor in the friendship. While there are not non-diegetic bursts of song there is source music during said montages. There is a romantic subplot, which links its way into the interaction of these friends and so on.

While the sports theme is always there, and as tends to happen I picked up a bit more about cricket through this film, it never becomes a sports film per se. It essentially remains a slice-slice-of-life drama with much fenestration throughout that charts many years in the lives of this group of friends.

The film through judicious editing tells a lot of story in not a lot of time and handles its tonal shifts fairly well and it is very capably performed. It’s an entertaining film, and I hope to be able to catch some more recent titles from India before the year is out.

7/10

Imaginaerum

Imaginaerum (2012, Solar Films)

What the Finnish symphonic metal group Nightwish brings with this film is not so much a musical but a film built around music. It’s the visual accompaniment to their concept album that’s the kind of thing that I would’ve liked to have seen from the titans of the music video form at their zenith as well. Having said that there is not much at all un-cinematic about this tale, quite to the contrary.

What Imaginaerum is, is a mind-play and it implements the inner-workings of a man’s psyche and imagination to create a personal and engaging fantasy. Throughout symbols consistently come to the fore and return to create their meaning to tell the tale of a quasi-willful descent into dementia, and what precipitated it all.

The way in which it does all this is a gradual process and the implementation of the music, which is fantastic, is always at the service of the narrative. In other words, it gets the equation right and doesn’t live to support the music but the music serves to buoy the tale.

There is fine editing, cinematography, production design and quite a few good special effects throughout. The film is also aided by very engaging performances by Joanna Noyes and Quinn Lord.

This film is not readily available in the US, but fans of Nightwish and inventive cinema should seek it out.

8/10

Upside Down

Upside Down (2012, Millennium Entertainment)

It’s all too easily to come out swinging at Upside Down. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the story does hold a lot of potential. The issues the film faces, and never really overcomes, are two-fold: firstly, the film starts with a long, overly-storybook, poorly-delivered voice over explaining the rules of the solar system wherein the story takes place. This type of exposition can be overcome but when you feel like you’ll be tested on rules and plot points at the end it’s the wrong foot to start on. Second, whether or not the science fiction element of the tale is hokey becomes irrelevant because, and it is honest about this at least, it’s perhaps one the most over-fenestrated love stories yet told.

The science fiction aspect makes shallow, general observations that could apply to any place or time, and they are not the point, which makes the facade quasi-farcical and cumbersome. There are some clever things that occur as the story progresses, which owe their debt to rules-establishing, but it’s little more than smoke and mirrors.

It’s a creative film visually, but it’s the same story that’s been told countless times on fancy, colorful stationery; thus it’s a highly redundant experience of little value save for the superficial.

4/10

23:59

23:59 (2011, Magnet Releasing)

Where this film succeeds in in bringing oral history and the element of fireside horror stories into a mostly cohesive narrative. Where it finds troubles is unfortunately towards its ending. What was a very simple and straightforward story decides it’s going to take a dip into the coy and vague.

Sadly, the ending though does feel a bit of a letdown and incongruous when it first occurs is truly symptomatic of the lack of ebb and flow of the film as whole. During act one, when most of the flashbacks are occurring there are some good moments, and maybe even a shock or two, as the suspicions of what’s really occurring come to the fore the film becomes increasingly uninteresting and uninspired.

The ending is the built-to whimper rather than a necessary jolt.

5/10

Hanson Re Made In America

Hanson Re Made in America (2013, 3CG)

As I tweeted when I recently acquired tickets to one of their upcoming tour dates, I’m no longer in high school so I really don’t care who knows about this fandom of mine at this point – like what you like and haters be damned. However, a large part of the reason I include this review in this round-up is not just the fact that this self-produced documentary does qualify, but it’s a further chronicle of the band’s trajectory as indie musicians that may surprise those who still wrongly perceive the group as a “one hit wonder.”

Granted there isn’t the turmoil in this narrative that there was in Strong Enough to Break, a doc that was put together over the course of many years that chronicled the group’s failed attempt to release their third studio album with a major label and the ultimate formation of their indie label 3CG; but anyone interested in a glimpse of the creative process, regardless of the form it takes, will be interested in this film. While many of the discussions occur in a vernacular all their own that doesn’t always necessarily incorporate musical jargon you do eventually see the follow-through and progression as the tracks are laid down.

Aside from just not following as tumultuous a time in their career the film’s climax has its literal, if not figurative, fireworks and not too much else. The only other slightly disappointing thing is that certain processes of creating an album like additional recordings and overdubs are explained in a cursory manner, but they can seem redundant to the layman. This is a doc recommended for fans and music enthusiasts. Fans of music, Hanson specifically, and film in general, are urged to watch Strong Enough to Break.

6/10

Deep Dark Canyon (2013, Screen Media Films)

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.

8/10

Jacob

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.

3/10

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.

7/10

Yossi

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.

7/10

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.

10/10

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.

1/10

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.

4/10

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.

3/10

Lorenzo Charles (1983/ AP)

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

Lorenzo Charles (1983/ AP)

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.

10/10

Time of My Life

Time of My Life (2012, Strand Releasing)

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.

10/10

John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End (2012, Magnet Releasing)

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.

8/10

Crush

Crush (2013, Millennium Entertainment)

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.

4/10

California Solo

California Solo (2012, Strand Releasing)

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.

5/10

The Sorcerer and the White Snake

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2012, Magnet Releasing)

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.

3/10

The Condemned

The Condemned (2012, Strand Releasing)

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.

10/10

4Some

4Some (2012, Strand Releasing)

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.

7/10

At the Gate of the Ghost

At the Gate of the Ghost (2012, Magnet Releasing)

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.

9/10

Allez, Eddy!

Allez, Eddy! (2012, Benelux Film Distributors)

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

John Elway and Dan Marino (LA Times)

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.

10/10

Bestiaire (2012, Kimstim Films)

Mini-Review Round-Up March 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.

Bestiaire

Bestiaire (2012, Kimstim Films)

This is a film that qualifies for this year because, though I heard of it last year, I had no legitimate chance to see it. I learned of it through a coming soon postcard while I was in New York, the soon it was referring to was not while I would be there.

What’s interesting is that I was anticipating seeing another documentary free of significant dialogue prior to this one, but when I saw this pop up on Netflix instant I had to jump at it.

Bestiare plays out like a non-fiction version of Le Quattro Volte inasmuch as the structuring of the very slight, and completely open to interpretation, narrative is nearly invisible. The description of this film on Netflix is appropriately stripped down there are extended sequences of static shot either of animals observing humans, vice versa or sometimes they seem to be staring right at us.

Some of the shots are framed beautifully to convey either claustrophobia or just how nestled some animal enclosures in the modern world are be they farms, ranches, zoos or what have you. As I mentioned, it doesn’t insist upon deciding for you what the interpretation of the film should be, believing instead that the audience is the ultimate arbiter of meaning.

I found the film very effective in places with some great cuts and angles that underscored a harsh indifference. The incessant rhythmic banging of a zebra against a wall, or the frantic pacing of an ostrich, and the, to me, disquietingly laid back work of a proficient taxidermist were scenes that really shocked me out of the lull that this hypnotic film can get you into.

It’s not a long film but it is deliberate. I would qualify it as experimental, and I think more times than not the scenes work, so I believe a 6/10 is fair for now.

The Awakening

The Awakening (Universal Home Video, 2011)

I will elaborate on this point in a separate piece, but this film is a testament to my theory that drama is the foundation of all other genres. To be brief, even if this film fails to affect you with its creepy atmosphere, it is an effective character piece that delves into psychology as well as the supernatural.

When telling with a ghost tale, especially one that deals with characters who have been so greatly impacted by the sightings, or even suppositions thereof, the acting needs to be up to snuff. This film brings much more than that to the table, there are four top notch performances, one of each “award type” both lead and supporting.

Rebecca Hall, in the lead, is someone I personally I have seen far too little of since Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and she carries this film brilliantly with a fine double-edged performance as a now skeptical ghost hunter. Dominic West plays a character who also has a facade, as seemingly everyone in this film does, his stoicalness is matched by his private pain in this work. Imelda Staunton, is nothing short of riveting. Then there’s Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran on Game of Thrones, where he’s shown flashes of his capability) whom steals scenes and redoubles the impact this film has.

This is a film that eases into its narrative, it never gives its answers away too easily and stays nebulous about some things. Its timing of reveals is perfect and just when you think you’ve lost it, or it’ll flatline, there’s always one more turn than you expected.

10/10

Sleep Tight

Sleep Tight (2012, Dark Sky Films)

Upon conferring on his IMDb page I am missing one feature from Jaume Balaguero’s filmography after having seen Sleep Tight. His films that worked for me thus far have worked exceedingly well, namely The Nameless, [REC] and [REC] 2. I barely recall it, but judging by my score of Darkness that was more of complete miss than either of his apartment tales (To Let and Sleep Tight).

Balaguero is still a director I’d put at the vanguard of the current Spanish horror scene due to his voice, and it’s why I want to complete his current filmography and why his name being attached to something still garners my interest.

With regards to these apartment tales, a lot of To Let‘s struggles I attribute to a restricted timeframe for an intimate, nebulous portrait to be painted, which is why half the Films to Keep You Awake titles are amazing, and why the other three are forgettable to poor. Here it’s not that there is anything inherently wrong, it’s more a question of insufficient build, unmoving voyeurism and predictable plot points with minimal impact. The actions and motivations are always fairly clear, which in a way makes this film less engaging than his other ventures. There’s a stark blandness and removal of encumbrance that’s supposed to compound the impact but instead dulls it.

In the end, Sleep Tight presents a portrait of a psychopath with out an excess of depth, engagement or shock; it’s sadly flat.

4/10

Leviathan

Leviathan (2012, Cinema Guild)

If you scroll to the top of this post you’ll note that in my review of Bestiaire I stated that it was not the first doc of its kind I was anticipating seeing. The one I thought I’d see first was this film, Leviathan.

Why that came first boils down to chance, but I am glad I saw it first. Both these films have similar constructs in that they’re documentary features with no narration, and practically no dialogue of any significance. Both deal, in part, with the interaction of modern man with animal kingdom, but Leviathan offers a more focused, kinetic, at times dreamlike, other times haunting, look at the subject.

If one were to enter the film completely cold, and watched all the credits through to the end, virtually the only tidbit of information left out of the synopsis was that fisherman were given cameras and told to shoot with them.

The location comes though the end credits, and as nebulous and surreal as some of the early images of the film are, you soon start to see what’s happening.

The most impressive things about Leviathan are: first, the sound design, which more so than the images most of the time, drive home the uneasy balance between monotony and danger of the job. Second, how the Bible passage at the beginning sinks in after it’s done, as does information disseminated in the end credits.

Without knowing what to expect precisely, I found myself retracing certain visual passages and started coming to grips with what I had just seen through the lens.

Leviathan, much like the aforementioned film Bestiaire, is not for everyone, but it is certainly a unique experience and it’s a more immersive, less observational take of this particular documentary niche.

7/10

A Dark Truth

A Dark Truth (2012, Magnolia/Sony Home Entertainment)

More and more in modern cinema, in part because audiences sense it and in part because it’s been seen/done, stories with a moral, considered important, or that have some sort of social or political statement, are harder and harder to make. As enthusiasts of film or sociopolitically aware individuals, there are things you’d like to see on screen. The wants of the latter group can be said to be more altruistic and deserving of representation, regardless, a good film is required to support the aesthetic or activist statement it seeks to make.

To be clearer, here are some hypothetical examples: a film fan can say I’d love to see a serious take on rabies as a horror motif, it’s been too long. Now, outside the world of film that has no real weight. Whereas, if you were to say it’d be great if a film could show the negative aspects of privatizing water, there could be real life impact and eventual change.

Now for either rabies to become a popular horror motif or for privatization of resources and utilities to garner serious attention, the film espousing these things has to be good. Which brings me to A Dark Truth, which deals with the latter subject matter. The film has some very good touches, and the finest intentions in the world regarding the aforementioned issue. However, the anti-corporate, water-should-be-free-and-here-are-the-consequences-if-it’s-not messages, which are very valid viewpoints, are squandered in a film that’s poorly executed on some technical levels, is overlong, has some unfortunate and questionable dialogue and a few questionable casting choices and some good actors in uncomfortable surroundings. The extra-long lead-in to this piece is essentially due to the fact that I like the concept and the goals, but the end product failed to live up to the promise, which is sad.

4/10

Straight A’s

Straight A's (2013, Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment)

A review of this film can be found here.

Storage 24

Storage 24 (2012, Magnet Releasing)

One certainly cannot complain that Storage 24 doesn’t try to develop its characters. However, it does so to such an extent that it very nearly turns the plot detailed in the synopsis into a MacGuffin. The tale is essentially a couple that recently broke up and their friends meet by chance in a storage facility. They make it there despite a suspected plane crash that shut down most of central London. The cargo was an alien creature that’s not trapped in there with them during a power outage. It’s a good set-up.

The sound design, however, isn’t always great and makes the characters seem more oblivious than they are to what is going on. The effects work is pretty good, as is the design of the creature. The alien does end up being a dominant story force you expect it to, but in a film that runs under 90 minutes about half the time is spent mostly in repetitive discussions that are cited as such, and don’t move things along quickly enough. When things do happen it gets better.

Another failing is that the film tries to have character-based connections to the creature à la Super 8, and to be not about the creature, but is more blunt about it, and far less successful for as much time is spent in development, there aren’t many facets to the characters created. They’re fairly basic.

The scenario doesn’t end up being a MacGuffin, but the narrative pendulum swings very wildly and ineffectively in the film. Lastly, the pace, which isn’t bad overall, takes a hit from one too many tracking establishing shots down the corridor, which are void of significance save to try and build suspense, but it doesn’t. Storage 24 tries its hand at a few things, but is too uneven and unsuccessful with regards to most in order to work.

4/10