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

Advertisements

March to Disney: Zokkomon and Disney World Cinema

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

Disney has two fairly recently initiated and under-exploited and under-publicized home video lines. I may write about them both here today, but the focus of this piece is Disney World Cinema rather than Disney Generations Collection.

Disney World Cinema, as the title implies, makes available in the US Disney-Produced titles from overseas. The selections so far a mainly original content, and not as diverse as they could be.

For example, I was once linked to a clip of a visually stunning film produced by Russia’s Disney Channel, but understanding 0.001% of the Russian language I couldn’t watch all of it. The point being there is plenty of content out there this line could make available. Out of the initial wave of releases I selected one and finally gave it a whirl for this theme.

One of the examples in this line is a High School Musical set in China. Now Foreign versions of movies or TV shows, that are remakes as opposed to subtitled or dubbed are not new. In fact, in the early days of sound, scripts used to be translated and re-shot on the cheap after an A-List feature was done. Paramount was a prime example using everything identical to the American version for Spanish features.

The film I saw comes from India and is entitled Zokkomon. Now, while simplified, there is a more indigenous approach to the film in terms of the fairly apparent themes it tackles with minimal didacticism. The feel of the film is a hybrid between a DCOM and a big budget Bollywood musical, which also includes elements of tentpole action films towards the end. Yes, there are story-commenting, fairly random musical numbers that border on non-diegitic inasmuch as a narrator/singer is introduced, but it still remains a fairly hybrid product.

While even at a relatively short 105 minutes there are a few flashback montages too many and a spare song or two, but it’s not so bloated that it weighs down the entire project. There are some universally recognizable, and identifiable fairy tale tropes updated to make this perhaps one of the more obvious titles to try this series out on. The principal cast is fairly good as a whole, namely Majari Phandis, Tinnu Anand with the standout being the young lead Darsheel Safary.

Disney has their Channel and distribution arms the world over, there are likely more markets where titles can be found for this line. Perhaps merging this concept with the also under-ultilized and under-publicized Disney Generations Collection, a disc-on-demand concept similar to Warner Archive in conception, if not in practice, is the way to go for these films, such that there’s less monetary commitment to pressing copies, thus making a larger library available. In a similar vein, a DisneyNature feature, Wings of Life, that was originally only released in France will soon hit US home video for the first time. This will be its only release here, in lieu of a theatrical run, but in time for Earth Day.

Zokkomon served as a good introduction, that had I seen it as soon as it was available may have been in the running for some BAM Awards, I may look into the other selections and you should check them out and see if any titles appeal to you.