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
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.
A Place at the Table
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.
The Iran Job
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.
The Brass Teapot
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.
Bad Kids Go to Hell
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.
Venus and Serena
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.
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.
Teen Beach Movie
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.
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.
Post Tenebras Lux
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.
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.
The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia
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.
Let Them Wear Towels
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.
The Deflowering of Eva Van End
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ginger & Rosa
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.
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.
Come Out and Play
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.