DVD Review – Straight A’s

Introduction

I don’t frequently write DVD reviews, but upon seeing this film I was compelled to watch the special bonus features on it as well. Typically, I would stick to a review of the program on the disc, but have included thoughts on the features below.

Film

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

The film has a very basic synopsis and I will not elaborate much at all on that here. It’s likely better that you go in knowing that much or less about this film. Straight A’s really caught me by surprise as a refreshing, character-driven family dramedy, that doesn’t get bogged down in the histrionics that are potential pitfalls of a film with a synopsis such as this one.

I will readily admit that I just may have a soft spot for family dramedies. However, the recent film in the subgenre that comes to mind for me is Fireflies in the Garden, and that film pushes its melodramatic limits, whereas there is a fairly realistic grounding to be found here. Characters’ motivations and reactions make sense, things are played up as much as they need to be and are still fairly effective. While the overtures of external conflict are apparent, there is also a lot inner-turmoil that the film is wise enough to hold the reins on, and allow some disputes to be settled sub-textually rather than textually.

There are two things this film does very well early on that set it up for success: The first is that it establishes an overt structure for the titles that confirm the passage of time and that a new day has begun. I’m not one who is slavish towards a ticking clock mentality, but far too often films employing this sub-division approach lag because we as an audience have no clue what the endgame is, and they’d be better off letting time flow organically. This structure becomes intrinsic to this film and aids the flow of it.

That narrative structure established is confirmed by the voice over of the film’s narrator Charles (Thomas Riley Stewart) and that sets up one of the many wonderful symmetries of this film. Quite a few pieces of dialogue, motifs and themes come back around unexpectedly and close many a tidy, well-wrought circle. This is assisted by the strong, certain manner in which the narrative asserts itself.

In building these characters the film does well to split the job. It always shows something about them when they’re alone, usually visually, and is constantly rounding in interaction, but perhaps the best work the film does is through dialogue. The black sheep returning to the fold is Scott (Ryan Phillippe) who is always direct. There is also the fact that Charles is very intelligent that could lead to a number of pitfalls, but his dialogue isn’t instantly and persistently showy, and neither of the kids are condescended to. It’s just one tool that that the film uses to constantly add new definition to its main characters, but one of the best used.

One good example both of dialogue and of how the film avoids overplaying its hand is one of the lead-up-to events – an oral presentation Charles has before his whole school. In this sequence, I was reminded of how the speech in Crazy, Stupid, Love devolved from its diegetic script to being a very literal thinking out loud. There’s a clear message, but never one that’s bluntly said. It’s also another good case of follow-through in the subjective editing choices that are made.

There is also good use of montages and cross-cutting sequences that are more nested and less overt than you see many times. For as strong as the film is with its use of dialogue, it doesn’t ignore the visual end of things either and has quite a few visual signatures throughout.

Of course, any film described as character-driven needs its actors to deliver in order to work and this film has that as well. Ryan Phillippe seems to be quite connected throughout and fills in those blanks the script can’t; portraying troubled, irresponsible with good intentions that could just read like a jerk. Luke Wilson, like in Meeting Evil, finds a part that really seems to suit his type, his poker-faced, button-lipped character’s moment of decision reads better due the whole of his performance. Paquin’s facade of control is always erected, even as she loses it, and it makes her a presence that can be reasonable seem to be one that would be acquiesced to, even by Scott. There’s also Powers Boothe with a significant secondary role, that’s sensitive and understated. Boothe is an actor who you literally can’t see enough of. Last, but not least, there’s Riley Thomas Stewart who has the unenviable task of playing intelligent, precocious yet still childlike and endearing, and he succeeds with flying colors. Even when the dialogue is clearly designed to show his vast intellect it just sounds like Charles talking as opposed to an actor doing a line reading, which is a hard task with verbose lines.

Straight A‘s is the kind of film that might slip under one’s radar. I know I’m glad I found it, as it’s yet another dark horse for this year that I really connected with.

9/10

Special Features

Straight A's (2013, Millennium Entertainment)

While they are a little stripped-down with quick cuts to black and spotty audio, the three special features on the disc make up for in content what they lack in flash.

There’s a featurette, which is about trailer-length that’s a quick splicing together of interview and final film footage.

There are interviews with director, producers and several stars of the film, which run about 17 minutes and explore the themes of the work rather well without getting overly-bogged down in minutiae, but also lends a personal perspective from each participant with interesting tidbits.

Most interesting to me was the behind the scenes footage. They were usually rather quick shots taken during production of the set-up of shots, gear being put in place or moved, takes being done, or re-done and the like. This runs around six minutes. It’s bereft of commentary so it would likely be more intriguing for a filmmaker, but it is an interesting touch to be added to the package.

Straight A‘s is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today.

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Mini-Review Round-Up: July 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.

The Theatre Bizarre

Recently I’ve been seeing quite a few horror anthologies. Part of the reason behind that is just to familiarize myself with a few more of them and the voices involved in creating them. The second reason, to be perfectly honest, is that due to their episodic nature they are conducive to fractured viewing, which makes them easier to schedule. However, I did see The Theatre Bizarre all the way through in one sitting.

This one, like many horror anthologies, is a bit inconsistent in its quality, which is to be expected when different directors handle each segment. In my estimation, the highs are rather high and the lows are rather low. There are some interesting and at times daring attempts. It’s always hard to gauge them as a whole because this see-sawing in quality is not unusual at all. However, for fans of the genre I do think it’s one worth checking out, your feelings on the whole piece or a particular segment may be greatly different than my own. In the end, I really liked more of the installments than I disliked so it’s worth a watch.

6/10

Cold Sweat

One thing I thought was particularly interesting an effective about Cold Sweat was the implementation of antagonists who just could not let go of the past in a very villainous way. At the start of Cold Sweat there is archival footage that gives you a brief overview of the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary factions at play in Argentina in the 1970s, then you get a very specific incident chronicled. You know this will all come back into play, you just don’t know how. Now, using overt political symbols in horror has been done, most commonly with Nazis in all likelihood. However, the circumstances and players of each countries political past (and seedy underbelly) are all somewhat different, and the refracted ideologies, and reverberations thereof, can still be felt at current, in one way or another. So it is rather fascinating to find this angle in this film because it lends a specificity to the film and a voice; a stamp of a national cinema. Coincidentally, I saw another Argentinian (co-produced with Spain) horror film soon after this one that implemented many similar threads. The horror setpieces and manipulation of given tropes in this film is quite effective, but it its this backdrop of sociopolitical commentary, past and present, combined with the narrative that makes this such an intriguing film.

8/10

Hiding

Hiding in some ways reminded me of Beautiful Wave in as much as we see a teenage girl do a lot of brooding with minimal backstory given to the audience so it becomes tiresome. The good news is that this film is quite a bit better than Beautiful Wave. The bad news is that it still doesn’t end up being good. It concerns this brooding girl (Ana Villafañe) who is in witness protection and there’s a given that she’ll be found and there’ll be this dramatic showdown. What really matters is how do you get to that point and sadly much of it seems like they’re just trying to fill time. She is interested in two guys at her new school and has similar, nearly mirrored scenes with them, at times. There’s a psycho jealous cheerleader (Kelcie Stranahan) who does a lot of digging into her on a delusional whim, there are flashbacks some of consequence and some not; all with an an annoyingly unnecessary excess of jiggling. Many characters make really bad or dumb decisions and we don’t necessary have enough affection or interest to let that slide. The best part of the film is unquestionably Jeremy Sumpter‘s supporting turn. He remains a heinously under-utilized and under-valued talent.

4/10

Goon

For my thoughts on this film please go here.
10/10

Absentia

As per usual, and as I say quite frequently, I went into Absentia knowing very little and that’s the way I prefer it. I knew it was was a low-budget horror film and what the basic synopsis was from Netflix. That’s about it. Only later on did I learn more details like the budget was purportedly $70,000 and funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign.

All that stuff is great to know after the fact. Knowing it before you see something can be a double-edged sword. Essentially, either the movie works or it doesn’t. What the budget is, whether exorbitantly high or incredibly low, does not make it immune from, or more deserving of, criticism.

As for the film I really enjoyed it a great deal. It tells a tight-knit simple horror story that gives you just enough information to keep things going but never gets ahead of itself, and the idea is a low-concept production of a rather high-concept idea at the bottom of it. However, the curtain is only barely raised on the horrors being uncovered by these characters. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film was shot rather in continuity because it certainly was doable and the performances across the board got much stronger as the film progressed, and even rather impressive at times. The score is really good and there are good twists to it. This is definitely a Netflix gamble worth taking.

8/10

Exit Humanity

Exit Humanity is a horror film that has a rather interesting take on the zombie subgenre. With the proliferation of such a genre one must contend with both fatigue and differentiating one’s own story from the crowd. In these aspects is where the film is most successful, and that’s without including the fact that this is an alternate history tale of the postbellum south. The story is an introspective one that is more concerned about those left behind after a plague of zombieism, and isn’t so concerned with making the walking dead of this tale a metaphor. Yes, there is a somewhat different spin to the cause and the history, but that ends up being more a narrative necessity than a focus.

With a fairly original take the film is setup to succeed and does, but only barely. Where the film struggles most is in terms of balance. The score is really good but at times only in isolation, at times it’s too intrusive and too intense. There is some wonderfully florid voice-over, but at times it’s too much, and at other times the scene would’ve been better demonstrated visually than through monologue. The film does have its twists and turns that are rather surprising, but after some of those unusual decisions some quickening of pace is needed so that it doesn’t feel aimless.

The film never really lost me as a viewer, however, it had me reeled in at times and let go just a little bit due to some of these inconsistencies. I don’t want to over-accentuate them because I do still like the film, but feel it easily could’ve been something truly special had certain edits been made. It’s worth watching for fans of the genre for sure. I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if some professed greater admiration for it than I do, especially considering some of the touches it employs such as animation, colored shots and top notch make-up effects.

7/10

61 Days of Halloween- Children of the Corn (1984)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Children of the Corn (1984)

John Franklin in Children of the Corn (New World Pictures)

In my opinion this is a great film and here’s why: Even before we see anything we feel that the score will be of great importance in this film. Aside from a slightly electronic new wave 80s score provided by Jonathan Elias the film is also scored by a children’s choir appropriate and both chilling in tandem with the events that occur onscreen and with the theme of the film.

Like in many horror films we begin in flashback to prior event that led to current unusual circumstances with voice over narration of Job (Robbie Kiger) who is the older brother of Sarah (AnneMarie McAoy). Throughout the film these two are involved in simple activities which are banned under the rules but because of Sarah’s gift they generally are allowed to do what they wish.

What separates this film from most in the 80s is that it’s not necessarily into gore. We get dead bodies and the after-affect of the massacres. The obsession of needing to see the blade or bullet, whatever it may be, pierce the skin is absolutely eliminated and the result is even more frightening.

Joseph (Jonas Marlowe), a child displeased with the ways Isaac has placed upon the town of Gatlin, tries to escape but he is caught. All we see when he dies is a few drops of blood falling on a suitcase he was going to take with him on the road.

Film is a medium that is at times binding to the imagination. When any director, Fritz Kiersch, in this instance allows the audience to imagine what may have been done to these people it deserves notice. Another example of this being the massacre three years prior that kicks off the film we hear a mother’s death over the phone and see a father’s blood splatter over a son’s face. A lot of what makes this film great is the mounting tension that is created when we see these two trying to get around this seemingly abandoned town.

One of the most effective techniques Kiersch uses to heighten tension while the film was progressing is the use of shots from an anonymous yet subjective POV after we know the children were already out to get them. There’s a shot through broken glass that’s been stained brown, a shot of someone peering over a garbage can, low-angle shots of the corn when Joseph’s being chased. He also employs time to his advantage because the young couple does not enter the town of Gatlin where all the horrors will occur until the 39th minute of the film and even when there things creep along slowly.

There is a great use of wide-angle shots throughout to demonstrate the emptiness of the town. The audio and visual effects of this film are absolutely breathtaking, except maybe for one notable one at the very end (You know which I mean). There’s a great use of what appears to be time lapse footage coupled with the audio effect of gushing wind to signify the wrath of God. Near the conclusion of the film we hear the greatest demonic voices in the history of film (In my humble opinion). They’re deep, raspy and frightening without going overboard. And just when we think the most psychotic of all the town’s children is going to walk away from this Isaac speaks to him in that voice and delivers a line that helps make that voice: “He wants you too, Malachai. He wants you too.” The escalating horror of the climax continues when there is a gorgeous fiery apparition in the sky and later an obviously processed flame beneath it which we assume is supernatural but to say more would be giving it away.

The end of Children of the Corn is wonderful the very last scene gives you a fright which is conceivable and doesn’t seem fake at all due to some crafty editing. It takes away that artificial happy ending feeling. The happy ending in any horror movie is absolutely false because we know the characters usually have been through a harrowing experience and it’ll be hard for them to walk away smiling. Watch for the sound of the crickets and the return of a choir, this ending will run a chill through you all over again!

This film is also steeped in religious commentary. First, there is Horton and Hamilton in the car listening to a televangelist and mocking him and showing very good comedic interplay. They find a cross made of corn and Horton says in an offhand and stunned way “Jesus Christ” to which Hamilton responds “Not in my book.”

We witness a mass of those who worship He Who Walks Behind the Rows and see the irony of their words screaming at us. All the names of the children in this town Isaac, Malachai (Though spelled differently in the story), Job and Sarah are biblical figures. These are the children of God-fearing people who have twisted the scripture to suit the needs of a few sick souls who are power hungry those who stand against the clan generally have no chance. Vicky is kidnapped and hung from a cross made of corn, biblical passages are written in blood on church walls the same church where a desecrated portrait of Jesus hangs.

There is but one point where the film climbs towards the didactic and even so it’s but a moment and almost necessary because it shows how insane Malachai’s followers have gone. One other thing that make this film is unique is that we get inside the cult and see the way Isaac and Malachi differ. In what makes horror films fun we get to side with one of them over the other because if we were involved with them in any way he’s the one we’d prefer. There is much infighting with these two and it adds to the tension and adds a wallop to the climax.

9/10

Review- Bridesmaids

Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids (Universal)

Timing is an interesting thing and I think if I sat down to write this yesterday it might’ve been rather uninteresting, however, today is when I’m writing this and it’s after having read a very interesting New York Times article about the “Jokeless Comedy.” Bridesmaids is mentioned there and it fits the more character-driven mold Sternbergh makes reference to.

As with any approach it has its pros and cons and some cons can be avoided entirely if executed perfectly or very, very well. While it is very funny and enjoyable Bridesmaids doesn’t hit all the marks perfectly.

One of the best parts of the film is through these ladies, even in their silly exploits, we find quite a bit of commentary on youth, parenting, marriage, self-pity, jealousy, etc.

The script which is co-written by star Kristen Wiig is rather strong in building its protagonist and breaking her down. We are also very tenuously able to laugh at her misfortune without feeling sorry for her. This is made more difficult by the fact that it seeks sympathy and not pity but it succeeds.

It will never be a fault of a film if they attempt and take the time to build character and this film does. This films builds it and builds it well but the only sin that can be committed is building too much. The over-building and a montage too many happen in Act II making it a bit too long. Not too much of the information is redundant but some of it is.

This makes the film a bit longer than it should be and not too many laughs are added to the mix because of it. Judd Apatow is attached as producer to this film and another mandate of his lately apparently is that no film shall less than two hours long. This is not to say comedies ought never be that long but the reason so many run 90 minutes is because it works. It’s still just very hard but it’s easier to get your momentum up and keep the laughs rolling if the film is on the shorter side.

The cast of the film is brilliant, which helps greatly. Kristen Wiig does carry the film very well both in dramatic and comedic scenes. Maya Rudolph also does very well and makes a great partner for Wiig. Melissa McCarthy frequently steals scenes but Wendi McLendon-Covey was not to be outdone either.

The film is quite funny but I’d be hard-pressed to call it one of the funnier films in recent years, however, it is definitely recommended.

8/10

Review- Scream 4

Emma Roberts in Scream 4 (Dimension)

Scream has always been, and will always be, perhaps the most reflexive of all properties. You can call it self-referential, meta or reflexive, whatever you want that’s what it is and it’s not about to change and what’s better is that it’s not about to start apologizing for it. So that much at least is a given and should be expected and now to see how it operates within that milieu is another story entirely. I, for one, believe it does very well there.

The horror genre is living a very interesting time and we all know what ancient Chinese curses say about those. It like many other genres in film are embroiled in a perceived plague of sequels, remakes and what have you. The inherent value or lack thereof of said trend is not in question here it just is a fact. Similarly, the genre may be more recognized and known than it ever has been. Whether loved or reviled almost any horror property now is scrutinized and analyzed to the nth degree. Attendance at conventions just keeps rising. Even if you’re not a certified aficionado you have at least enough familiarity to watch this film and get what they’re driving at, regardless of if you like where it’s going.

That is said to postulate this theory: that the rules of the horror genre and whether or not you know them aren’t enough to breathe life to a new Scream. Another hook is necessary and aside from always offering commentary on the genre, which it perhaps has never done so well as it does in this film, it needs a topical hinge to cling to, as it kind of always has in the past as well. It finds that as well in this installment and that’s what elevates it just above an enjoyable piece of escapist entertainment.

This film escapes many of the trappings that other horror films fall prey to almost by definition. The cast is rock solid top to bottom and they really help pull you into the tale, as much as you can be pulled in by a film that constantly reminds you that you are watching a film, however, that has always been the most ingenious thing about the series is that the audience is perhaps never more aware of the fact that they’re watching a film than when watching a horror film so this franchise addresses that head on each and every time and shifts it out of the equation.

What this also does is de-emphasize the whodunit aspect of the narrative, which is kind of old hat in any and all films, such that you don’t see it as much anymore, but it is a staple of this series as well. Whether or not you crack the identity of the new Ghost Face is rather irrelevant in the end because after the who always comes the why and as I may have intimated above I absolutely love the why. I will not divulge that as it might inadvertently give away the who but a good motive is also very important and this film does have that indeed.

The comedic aspect of this film is also alive in full force. It is always a bit like playing with fire when trying to balance out the amount of comedy that needs to be inserted into a horror film but the balance is struck here at least to an extent. It’s there and balanced with the gory scenes enough such that you’re never jarred by the lack or pervasiveness of it. It’s omnipresence may dissipate some of the tension but not much of the enjoyment.

The only parts wherein the film falls flat is when it does stupid horror movie things. This being two instances where you’re left wondering how someone is not yet dead. It’s all well and good to have characters act stupid in the Stab vignettes so it gives you something to talk about but to fall into a tedious cliché within your actual narrative is a bit bothersome.

All told, however, Scream 4 is a very enjoyable film on a number of levels, take your pick: If you’re squeamish at the sight of blood; it’s got plenty of that and it looks great too (easily overcoming one of my pet peeves), if you like comedy there are some great jokes in there (My favorite being where the likelihood of Courteney Cox’s marriage is called into question) and if you like a little social commentary thrown in with whatever you’re watching it’s got that too.

8/10