Mini-Review Round-Up June 2012

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

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

Piranha 3DD

A film like Piranha 3DD always prompts the question: “Well, what did you expect?” Whether this question is asked in sincerity or sarcastically it is a valid one, as I always strive to judge a film on what it’s trying to be and whether or not it succeeds in that aim. Due to this fact, I have no problem giving disparate films the same grade without ever questioning whether one is better than the other. After all, if you think on it Jurassic Park and Citizen Kane might be two films you like, but no one will ever confuse them with regards to their aims.

So what did I expect from Piranha 3DD? It may be easier to explain what I didn’t expect first. I did not expect anything remotely like Piranha (1978). I didn’t expect to need to have seen the new incarnation of this series to follow this. I expected the film to be silly and strive to land in the so bad it’s good realm based on its premise. I did expect a passable horror story regardless of said fact. Considering that John Gulager was attached, and that I did like Feast, I had some hopes to see this film achieve these aims.

What unfolds instead is a film that you laugh at not with. It’s a film that wants badly to fall into an exploitation mold but it more frequently is an uneasy mix of attempts at such, mainly sex and star exploitation. Both aspects are so poorly handled the film more closely resembles a softcore porn/vanity press hybrid. Yes, the silly, poorly-animated piranha take a backseat in this film to implants, David Hasselhoff and sorry, lazy comedy, which works all too infrequently, especially considering some of the people they wrangled into being in this thing.

Speaking of the people they got in this thing: Christopher Lloyd deserves a medal for being the only redeeming quality this sorry excuse for a film has. In all honesty they would’ve been better served turning the camera on him for 83 minutes and allowing him to improvise, with no rehearsals and no editing. Lloyd is a truly gifted actor and why he ends up in films of this ilk these days baffles me to no end.

What I was expecting, in all honesty, was not nearly as bad as I got. As silly and ill-conceived as the oh-so-thin plot is it also lacks focus. It contains no flair or verve that gives me any cause to forgive it its sins. The key to good exploitation is that the subject matter is the only thing being exploited. This film also exploits its audience, and I was actually very surprised and disappointed that it was the worst thing I’ve seen this year to date.

2/10

Beautiful Wave

I quipped, with a lack of anything of real significance to say, after having seen Beautiful Wave that it was “neither beautiful nor a wave” in my best Linda Richman voice. However, the Mike Myers character-inspired jab may have been the most succinct way to put it. This is a film which seems like an excuse for a surfing film. I haven’t seen every surfing film, but I honestly can’t remember it being almost incidental to the story, as it is here.

Sadly, the protagonist is also rather incidental. Very little of her conflict is externalized and ultimately the film feels like it’s about everyone around her rather than her. I’d critique the pace if there was any discernible pace to criticize. The film telegraphs its climax and denouement very early on making much of the film transient.

As you can tell the issues are mainly structural but there are a few decent to good scenes along the way. I can’t fault the performances of the three main players Aimee Teegarden, Patricia Richardson and Lance Henriksen. It’s just so inconsequential.

Why she’s jettisoned to California just occurs as this forced inciting incident, which really has no impetus aside from the narrative necessity placed upon it by the makers. Somewhere in its running time there’s a perfectly innocuous, enjoyable albeit nebulous short film, but it really ought not be a feature. This is essentially Soul Surfer almost entirely devoid of pathos.

3/10

I’m Not Jesus Mommy

Here’s another one of those movies you just happen upon and then you look into it and you realize that the idea is so outlandish, and could end up being either brilliant or a disaster, and based on its premise that you absolutely have to see it.

Perhaps what’s most unfortunate about the film is that both in its title and in its synopsis it divulges what is truly revealed in the third act, however, intimations to the fact in question are made well before the revelation.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is despite a rather flat, blank performance by its lead actress and clearly video cinematography is that it has a strong first act. It mixes in some themes that I don’t necessarily expect to see touched upon at all and rather well. Then there’s a time jump, now this is where the excessive amount of restraint comes into the mix, where the plot really begins plodding. There’s some sort of plague about, the world is a really crazed place. However, vague allusions as to why are all that’s ever made. Similarly, visual motifs come into play that are also unclear, but the real issue is that the near cessation of incident.

Unlike some who have seen it, I have no issue with the fact that this film handles what is potentially such a polemic, sacrilegious premise with utmost seriousness of tone. The issue seems to stem from, at least in part, a bit of reticence to fully commit and it’s a shame.

The music, the lack of dialogue and the edit set the stage but there’s virtually no show upon it. I would see another work by Vaughan but what is most aggravating here is that it seems there was the courage and commitment to take a potentially ludicrous idea, treat it seriously and make it a film. However, the follow-through to make the film as shocking and effective as it could be doesn’t seem to be there. The film does become somewhat memorable for the previously alluded to fact but that’s rather dubious.

4/10

Playback

This is a film that has a formula shared by quite a few films in the horror genre: A town with a scarred past that comes back to haunt it anew. However, what this film attempts to is to double said formula. There is the now local-legend of a mass murder in a house but that fuses with a completely fictitious legend about the birth of cinema that borrows more than liberally from a few other films. I certainly cannot knock this film on the ambition front. However, where it does falter are in a few ways: first, the leads are very much in the dark about the famous case, which is an issue. We the audience don’t know the information and need it, but it seems unrealistic that most know nothing or care nothing about it. Second, I appreciate the attempted misdirection, however, the decisions about the paths the leads take also somewhat derails the story. Next, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the divulging of information. In certain cases it’s overly-expository and certain people know too much, yet in others certain aspects keep a little mystery. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s botched here I feel. Lastly, the ending does offer a resolution but it’s another one of those unsatisfactory shock cuts that puts a damper on the film when it had grown, just a bit in the last third.

The elements for Playback are all there for it to work in hindsight but they’re either mismatched or mishandled in some way such that the center doesn’t hold.

4/10

Found Memories

This film is a perfect example of a translated title that doesn’t quite do the film in question justice. If you were to translate the Brazilian title of Found Memories literally it would be Stories That Only Exist When Remembered. Granted that is more of a mouthful but it gives you a better sense of the kind of film you’re getting I feel, because as I watched the film I realized there was perhaps one of the more subtle Magical Realism tales I’d seen, one with with extreme emphasis on the the realism. Yes, there is a rather mundane, repetitious nature to certain scenes but the equation is skewed as the film progresses by a newcomer. The framing of many shots is wonderfully precise and as the story unfolds you are taken in both by the stories being told by the characters themselves as well as the ones being told about them by the film, which in many cases are parallel but not identical. Found Memories is a tremendously subtle, yet at times rapturous, look at small town life in a Brazilian town that should still be able to play anywhere and I highly recommend it.

9/10

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Review- Beneath the Darkness

Tony Oller and Dennis Quaid in Beneath the Darkness (Image Entertainment)

It’s a bit frustrating that a film like Beneath the Darkness can scarcely find an actual screen to play on while the universally reviled The Devil Inside is out making January box office history. That’s really neither here nor there but is something that needed saying in my estimation. That being said I do like this film.

While not the most ground-breakingly original in conception this film does feature a rather good teaser. It’s the kind of opening that is vague enough such that you can’t quite connect the dots to how it will factor in later on in the film but you know it will. Not only is it well-done but it’s a quick effective table-setter that adds unease to the next section of the film despite the lightening of tone incumbent thereafter.

In the horror genre substandard to poor performances from the cast are nearly expected and for those most familiar with the genre rather easy to overlook. I’m not sure if it’s that horror generally scares away actors with chops or there is a commitment issue from those involved but that’s really not the case here at all, in fact, much of the success of this film hinges on the fact that it gets good to very good turns by most everyone involved.

Tony Oller has the unenviable task of being a male lead in a horror film which usually doesn’t amount to more than a hill of beans, however, he is the protagonist and carries the movie rather well. Ultimately, he does not fall into tiresome horror movie tropes and is affable and relatable, which lends a level of credence to the plot not easily found.

Were Oller alone in his impressive turn the film would not work nearly as well as it does. Devon Werkheiser also manages to add a layered performance to his character distinguishing him as the good-natured joker of the group, a role which suits his talents very well and then there’s Aimee Teegarden an actress of such abilities that she automatically elevates any genre film she’s in even if she were written into a scream queen type but thankfully she is given some dimension.

So there’s a likable core of leads who despite their missteps we end up rooting for as we should. Now we get to the antagonist. How good is he? This is a film that’s in the psycho mold rather than the slasher mold. It makes the identity of the killer apparent to all except to bumbling local cops, whose aloofness adds some good comedic value but with this higher visibility is the antagonist a good one? Absolutely. Dennis Quaid relishes the role it seems and adds some life to a film that while well-executed wouldn’t have been as memorable otherwise. He’s funny, creepy and believably nuts and really makes it work.

Two other things that really work in this film’s favor are through the voyeurism of our young leads we are left wondering what the precise nature of the antagonist’s oddity is, it could either be a ghost tale or a necrophilic tale. Another wonderful step is that it brilliantly sidesteps it’s biggest opportunity to be incredibly stupid by having their be a disagreement about whether to enter the house.

I saw this movie On Demand and not only was it a great value, which was a given but it was also quite a pleasant surprise. It’s a funny, well done and intriguing little horror tale that pulls off the rare feat of having a nearly flawless core of young leads and an engaging, magnetic antagonist. It’s well worth looking for.

8/10

Review- Prom

Aimee Teegarden and Thomas McDonell in Prom (Disney)

This isn’t a review that’s easy to write and I’ll tell you why straight off the bat. It’s due to the duality of my feelings about the film in question. As I plotted it in my head it seemed appropriate that it be somewhat similar to the Win Win review, in as much as it would focus heavily on performance. The reason for that in this film is that I’m sad to say I didn’t walk away from this film liking it but in watching it and re-watching it I really did love the cast that was assembled for it and what they did with the material with which they were asked to work.

To get the negative out of the way first a lot of my dissatisfaction in the film can be attributed mainly to narrative and script. It’s a difficult task to juggle multiple storylines, especially in a romantic comedy. You’ll find varying degrees of success in this kind of film because it’s hard to balance the stories, tell enough of them, keep them fresh and make them equally compelling. A lot of the strands while they are engaging enough are all too easily predictable.

The film also struggles with believability as it does have a tendency to transpose Nova’s (Aimee Teegarden) pie-in-the-sky feelings about the prom to a few characters. In the beginning it’s contained just to her but it spreads. Aside from the strands being predictable none of them are really stories we haven’t seen: there’s the Triangle, the Jilted Girlfriend, The Presumably Imaginary Girlfriend, The College Split-Up, The Honor Student and the Bad Boy and so on. Again no inherently bad templates but there’s not enough of a twist to freshen these up and of course all these tales each have their own arc and thus we have to wait as each starts a little awkwardly and ends nicely in due course. The only truly refreshing end of any strand was Corey’s. Corey (Cameron Monaghan) being the friend who feels left behind when his friend Lucas (Nolan Sotillo) falls for Simone (Danielle Campbell).

In spite of all of this the cast does wonders with the material. The main thrust of the film is, of course, The Nova and Jesse (Thomas McDonnell) tale. It starts as love-hate as they are forced to work together to rebuild the ruined prom decorations. There is real chemistry in this pairing. Months ago I had read that McDonnell’s performance had created some pre-release buzz in the industry and it’s easy to see why. There’s a potential star in the making there. Teegarden overcomes some very clunky and awkward dialogue at times to deliver a very good performance that is a step above what she showed on Friday Night Lights and the flip-side of her Scream 4 turn.

The Triangle of the film is actually two, which is not an easy trick to pull off so the film does deserve credit for that. Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon) is dating Jordan (Kylie Bunbury) but he’s cheating on her and wants to be with Simone. Simone also gains the interest of Lucas and Lucas likes her. It’s this dynamic where you’ll find some of the better dramatic moments of the story. Nixon, while getting his comeuppance, does give a good portrayal of the guy who will never really get it and is just out for himself. Bunbury of the four probably has the least amount of screen time but she always exudes a nobody’s fool air and she’s waiting to catch Tyler in flagrante to unleash her claws. Danielle Campbell shines as she is consistently torn throughout the film once you see the crack in her facade she is a confused character pained by the situation she’s been placed in.

Nolan Sotillo and his frequent scene partner Cameron Monaghan frequently steal the show in this film. Their chemistry is great and they work really well off one another. They also bring some of the most genuine comedy to the film and genuine emotion in general. It’s that very word that popped into my head as Lucas was fighting for Simone’s affections and was getting swatted away, he and she are quite genuine in their emotion in those scenes. Furthermore, Sotillo adds a song to the soundtrack of the film which is fantastic, it’s just a shame that it’s buried as the second song in the end credits it really could’ve been a boon to the climactic moments of the film.

The next major pairing is that of Mae (Yin Chang) and Justin (Jared Kusnitz). It was in watching these scenes that I really realized the arduous task these actors were given, few if any of them deal with scenes that allowed their to be a rhythmic ebb and flow to their performance, they were either dealing in just one note or they were constantly at high tension. Yin Chang is constantly at high tension it’s just a matter of how much she shows it that changes and her performance is very good. It’s a shame, however, that the talents of these two are utilized in one of the least compelling narrative strands.

The loners of note are: Rolo (Joe Adler) who offers a necessary and perfectly offbeat dose of comic relief and Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) who is the nice guy desperately trying to find just one girl who can or wants to go out with him. As if that wasn’t enough story Lloyd also has a constant companion, his stepsister played wonderfully by Raini Rodriguez.

In the adults of this tale a few more issues are brought to the fore. Yes, of course, there has to be an obstacle to Nova and Jesse going to the prom but the machinations by which her awkwardly played father (Dean Norris) goes through to prevent it are hard to swallow. Not neglecting to mention that somehow this high school is big enough such that people can go there for four years and not speak to one another but Nova’s dad instantly knows who Jesse Richter is at the mention of his name.

Ultimately, I’d say if you want to see a group of young actors you’re likely going to want to see again in something else go out and see this film. If you’re all about narrative and don’t care about the acting, sadly I can’t recommend it and as much as I do like this cast and what they did with what they were given, sadly I can’t give this film a passing grade.

5/10