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 April 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.

Meeting Evil

Samuel L. Jackson in Meeting Evil (Magnet Releasing)

Perhaps what’s most enjoyable about Meeting Evil is that it really plays with your expectations. It’s kind of a down the rabbit hole scenario wherein the protagonist (Luke Wilson) unwittingly gets himself further and further ensnared in a web of murder, duplicity and intrigue. Where we the audience come into play is that the film never cheats but has some really great twists along the way playing into one trope or another and then pulls a switch on us. It’s great stuff because what it does is keep you engaged and stays just a step or so ahead of you but you never feel bamboozled, for better or worse.

It’s also a film that allows its actors some room to play, Samuel L. Jackson in particular seems to truly relish this part and does great things in this film. Jackson is menacing, funny and truly a character in this tale, there’s a depth and intelligence to his madness. When all is said and done and you look back upon it you’ll see Luke Wilson does well too, faults you may find are more likely attributable to his character, but necessary for the story to function. The film also has a great sequence at a dilapidated farm house. It’s sequences like this and performances in small roles that can sometimes stick out most in a movie, granted the nature of the film makes it memorable regardless, but this sequence is where it shines. The performance in a small role of which I speak is that of Ryan Lee (Super 8) who has a brief but intense interaction with Jackson that stands out in similar fashion to Young Erik’s backstory in X-Men: First Class.

Meeting Evil
is a film that does not stand still for long and is memorable for it, and for refusing to be run-of-the-mill. It will be in limited release on May 4th and is available via Amazon, Vudu and iTunes streaming right now.

8/10

Ghoul

Nolan Gould in Ghoul (Chiller)

To start off with the positives on this film: Firstly, on a personal note, I was thrilled to discover I even get Chiller via my cable provider, as I had not in the past. Secondly, any time a fledgling network is branching out into original programming be they series or films I support that wholeheartedly. Thirdly, this is a very ambitious story, even more so when you consider it’s the first production you’re airing so that bodes well for the future, but sadly it feels like a bit of an over-reach here.

The main issues are with performance and adaptation. For the tale this film entails you need every single person in the cast to have serious chops and to fit the role to a tee and you don’t quite have the depth here. The only two noteworthy turns are Nolan Gould, best known as Luke on Modern Family, in the first truly dramatic piece I’ve seen him do and Trevor Harker, who shows the most promise in the young ensemble. With regards to the adaptation: First, the dialogue issues are rampant, and second, it seems like it might have been a bit slavish structurally and when telling a tale a bit more involved than most it makes the end seem rather abrupt and certain portions disjointed. It’s not an easy task, as there are a few pieces of commentary being attempted but all the more reason to do it properly. Few things are worse than well-intentioned commentary in an unfortunate vehicle.

I don’t know the source material but it seems as if they needed to get a bit creative in structuring and editing material, as well as streamlining events. This also throws the pace way off. There are some issues with production value like the not-quite-so-period costuming and the intolerable scoring.

While the film does end much stronger than it starts it’s still too much of a mess to be passable, however, I am looking forward to what else Chiller has to offer in the future.

4/10

7 Below

The Cast of 7 Below (Arc Entertainment)

There’s a bunch of random stuff that ends up at Redbox that never really gets on your Netflix radar so if you’re looking for a quick, cheap rental it’s a good resource to check every so often. Redbox also seems to be attracting, and placing in a more prominent way, some indie titles that are getting overlooked as other outlets balloon. That leads me to 7 Below. This is a horror film which boasts brief turns by both Val Kilmer, very brief, and Ving Rhames, not as brief, however, it’s carried mainly by its as of yet unknown cast. There’s a lack of focus in the early going with regards to the MacGuffin and a lack of detail and an air of mystery about everything. It’s a film that would be better served by not playing things so very close to the vest. There are some good and surprising twists to be had and the results of which I actually enjoy, but the whole film plods towards them such that I waited for them and expected them I just wasn’t sure quite what. It truly is a shame that certain aspects were quite predictable when others weren’t it just required a bit more fine-tuning to get just right.

5/10

Harley’s Hill

Kirstin Dorn in Harley's Hill (eKidsFilms)

Not to sound cute but, Harley’s Hill really is run-of-the-mill. It’s your standard low-rent family geared entertainment. In it you have a girl and a found horse and you can likely fill in the rest of the blanks yourself. What makes it even more standard is that from the adult ensemble has forgettable and at times regrettable performances while the few young performers are much better on the whole and do have their moments to shine. Most notable in the youth ensemble is Kirstin Dorn in the lead and main sidekick Lexi Di Benedetto, they are also well supported by very promising turns by Jacob Rodier and Elmo Riley. There are a few weak spots in the script but for the most part it sticks to its prefabricated plot fairly well. What is refreshing is that there are several passage of time montages, which although in need of tightening, allow the film to be more visual than anticipated. Typically, when a film is innocuous enough, as this one is, the line between a good rating and a bad one is very hazy. This film likely would’ve been for more enjoyable were I in the target demographic, however, seeing as I’m not and I found some issue with it I must give it:

5/10

With the caveat that I would recommend it if asked. It’s likely to be enjoyable for younger viewers and I did really enjoy the fact that it focuses on the equestrian discipline of dressage that you don’t see often on film.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

Mira Sorvino, Maxwell Beer, Ryan Simpkins and Daniel Cosgrove in Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (Phase 4 Films)

In the interest of full disclosure this film and the one added yesterday were really only viewed to start populating the Performance by Young Actress in a Leading Role field in the BAM Awards and thank goodness I felt compelled to do so. It wasn’t all at once, but boy was I in for a surprise when I started watching this film. Based in part on the some what mystical illustrations on the cover image, I was likely more wary of this rental than the former.

I was not only pleasantly surprised but rather blown away. I have not seen an independent family film of this quality since The Dust Factory, which I believe I only saw in 2005 when it was on DVD.

The title character is most definitely the lead in this film, and newcomer Maxwell Beer is outstanding in this part. Based on the nature of the story it’s quite possible that the shooting schedule was rather continuous, and it really shows as he especially grew as the movie progressed and it turns into a rather special performance. It gets better because not only does he pair very well with Ryan Simpkins but she is quite a scene stealer both comedically and dramatically, which I love, and her performance is very powerful.

For all its quirks, and it does have a few, this is a film that stays very grounded and rather real, it may seem as if it’s skewing outside of that realm but bear with it. It’s set in New York but uses the setting tremendously as the world of the story, as is that of the protagonist, is very insular. This is something I can relate to quite a bit, as big as New York is you can find your own little corner and tuck yourself away there, and that is part of its charm.

It also does things like building character so seamlessly such that its not rote and you don’t feel your attachment to these characters and their problems growing and it does.

I was moved greatly by it, probably even more so than by Fireflies in the Garden, whereas this film had zero casting stumbling blocks to overcome.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is currently available from Amazon both on DVD and on Instant Video and Redbox. I highly recommend it.

10/10

Smitty

Brandon Tyler Russell in Smitty (Phase 4 Films)

My favorite film of this post (above) has the same distributor as this film, which just goes to show you that family-geared entertainment can really run the gamut quality-wise regardless of budget and production values. In fact, it also shares a cast member with the aforementioned film (Mira Sorvino), and while her part here is larger, it’s not quite up to par with her turn in Jeremy Fink, wherein she also played a mother albeit an eclectic one.

Comparisons aside, for they are ultimately irrelevant, Smitty stays middle-of-the-road at best and what’s frustrating is that it wouldn’t have taken much to make it pretty good. There’s a director who’s had notable works (The Sandlot, Radio Flyer [uncredited]) and an experienced, award-winning and -nominated cast members like Peter Fonda and Louis Gosset, Jr. but the script is tepid, standard and repetitive, and doesn’t give the actors a lot to work with. There are some curious structuring decisions, which doesn’t even include the “non-guffin” of the local hoods, who serve minimal purpose except to bloat running time and coax our protagonist into bad choices, dramatically as well as morally.

The film could be decent, fairly light family fare but as indicated above there are many missteps, and it also falls into the standard family film mold in this way: the young lead being the bright spot. Brandon Tyler Russell is raw, but quite convincing in his emotional moments and perhaps the most under-served by the script, in as much as many of his scenes are hard to believe textually much less when played. However, there is a lot of potential there and it’d be great to see him with better material supporting him.

5/10