Mini-Review Round-Up May 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.

From Time to Time

Kwayedza Kureya, Alex Etel and Eliza Bennett in From Time to Time (Freestyle Digital Media)

This is a film that I saw a little bit ago and I struggled with whether I’d qualify it for this year’s BAM Awards or just leave it in the Gray Area. Typically, I go by US release date (so long as I had a legitimate chance to see it), should a film have not had a US release date (namely only released overseas, or seen in a festival, etc.) it’s qualified in the year viewed. With regards to From Time to Time, I knew that its actual vintage was a few years old and it was released in the UK some time back, however, it only his US home video very recently. Technically, that is is its US release since it didn’t have a theatrical run, so there you have it.

This is a very interesting ghost drama, which has a few interesting things going in its favor: first, it cuts through time with great facility and creates a British gothic tale with the ease of Magical Realism. This stripping down of the typical pretensions of supernatural tales making the acceptance of these other-worldly facts commonplace allows the film to dwell in a more dramatic and intriguing milieu. Second, as clearly intimated above this film deals in two periods but makes them both intriguing and vital and blends them wonderfully. Lastly, this film features very strong performances most notably by the under-utilized Alex Etel, last seen by me in Sea Horse; Maggie Smith, whom at this point could benefit any and every film in creation and Carice Van Houten, whom viewers of Game of Thrones may recognize.

This is an intriguing film that is worth looking for on Netflix or other home video resources.

8/10

Chronicle

Dane DeHaan in Chronicle (20th Century Fox)

Since I viewed this film on a plane it was easy and not distracting to take notes on an iPhone, but I will try to keep these comments brief as the review is supposed to be “mini.” Having said that, this was a film I heard a lot about and I love the fact that it is divisive. I had a lot of stumbling blocks to overcome in this one, but seeing elements enacted as opposed to just hearing about them are two completely different things.

This being a found footage film there are “cheats,” inasmuch as it’s not always the same source camera providing the footage, but as events escalate you’ll see why it’s possible, you just get no hint as to who put it all together. That’s a minor concern regarding the handling of technique.

In fact, the only other quibble I have has to do with Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) who is a blogger, thus she too obsessively records things. It’s a bit convenient but mostly the film works in the found footage milieu because it remains tremendously reflexive, and it has to. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) feels compelled to record his life due to his abusive father (a wonderfully malignant villain with few parallels), it clearly continues after the mysterious inciting incident.

Perhaps what is most brilliant and moving about the film is that it creates a sense of identification immediately and it builds from there. It’s not a case of likability but rather understanding. It gives characters powers, and inherently responsibilities, they’re not necessarily equipped to cope with and shows you what they do.

Yes, there is a slightly Jackass, slight YouTube voyeuristic quality to certain scenes inherent in the found footage approach but things to do come back that seemed as if they didn’t fit, and the seemingly frivolous is sublimated quickly. Through it all it remains a character study. It’s a film that does not get overly-concerned with its technique to the detriment of its plot or personages.

Clearly, the performances need to be really strong for a film of this kind to work. That is the case with Michael B. Jordan as Steve, who convincingly plays the winning, popular, untouchable jock but also conveys some hidden depths when allowed to. However, the true standout is Dane DeHaan who is asked to deal with far more range in a film of this kind than you’d expect and is magnetic and captivating in all facets of his character. The scripting shows a certain amount of restraint in many of his scenes and intonation and expression have to convey a lot and he does.

There’s an air of mystery to the story even after the inciting incident as you learn with the characters but are still not overly-inundated with facts.

The sound mix is rather effective especially as it counterbalances with certain moments of dead silence paired with powerful images. The visual effects aren’t as flashy as some other films but very strong.

I tend to try and avoid things that can be construed as pull quotes but the film did get quick a few visceral, nearly unconscious reactions from me I laughed, I was was on the verge of tears a few times and my jaw literally dropped at least once.

I have the few small reservations mentioned above but many prejudices I had coming in vanished entirely and I came away resoundingly impressed with this film.

9/10

Corpo Celeste

Yle Vianello in Corpo Celeste (Film Movement)

I have previously discussed the benefits of programs like Film Movement. This film is their most recent offering.

What is most interesting about Corpo Celeste is that it comments through its narrative or visuals on any number of topics but always does so in an interesting, thoughtful and compelling way it is never didactic, pedagogic or heavy-handed. This is key with themes such as coming of age, religion, politics, family and nationalism (to name a few) being discussed. Most of the reason the film can do this is that all of these things are discussed personally and visually. They barely need to be elucidated. When dialogue is employed to convey the touched-upon themes it is used sparingly and tightly.

The personal approach keeps a film that might be overly aloof rather cool and connected. One of the more interesting things about it is the approach the film takes in bringing its protagonist to the fore. The first few images, scenes even you rarely see Marta alone, she is in crowd scenes and crowded dinner tables and gatherings. Our knowledge the story is to be about her allows us to get a glimpse of her world and her not really seeing a place in yet, hence she’s coming of age. She soon comes further and further into focus and in some way identification is already established.

The film features a tremendously natural performance by Yle Vianello, which enables you to connect to the film not only through her character but through any facet you see fit. The two major ways to connect to the film are either as a coming-of-age tale or a spiritual journey. Many of us have been through either, if not both, so closely examining these two major journeys in one protagonist makes it quite effective.

This is a really good film that is worth your while. The DVD also features the Academy Award nominated short Raju, which I saw earlier.

8/10

Hick

Chloe Grace Moretz in Hick (Phase 4 Films)

Hick is a resoundingly disappointing experience on a number of levels. One reason this is so is that Derick Martini, the director of this film, crafted a wonderful film a few years back entitled Lymelife. It was one of my favorite films of the year in question, while some of those same motifs and actors that made that film work are back in this film there’s little else that binds the two. Part of the issue with this film is it’s a case of novelist acting as screenwriter backfiring, it can be a wonderful thing, but here it’s a detriment. The film does not move well; the denouement is massive; the amount of coincidence; the lack of clear motivation on the part of certain characters; seemingly extraneous elements, and awkwardly staged situations are some of those reasons. The lead in the film is Chloe Grace Moretz, who as previous honors have indicated is very talented, yet even her excellent performance cannot salvage this film.

What it reminded me of was Leolo gone wrong. You have a very strange home life and an adolescent seeking to escape. The world isn’t very firmly established neither is the protagonist’s desire, not at first. She clearly is haunted by the loss of a sibling but that’s not clear imemdiately. She has a goal but it quickly becomes clear she’ll need a new one, and how she finds it and why is underdeveloped and is a tremendous example of deus ex machina. The pace of the film is also off and it feels a lot longer than it is. Hick is one worth avoiding.

4/10

First Position

Gaya Bommer Yemini and Aran Bell in First Position (Sundance Selects)

I can’t claim to be an aficionado but I am a fan of dance. Through my production company I sponsor a dance competition, so while not an insider I do know my fair share about the world this film describes. What I was somewhat fearful of was that this film would serve as a glorified infomercial for YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix), which is the world’s largest youth dance competition.

All those fears are soon allayed. The necessary information is divulged such that the layman understands the enormity and the gravity of the competition and the controversy regarding any competition is vaguely hinted at, but mostly the film is an introduction to just how competitive the world of dance is, and also a glimpse into how dedicated these artists must be from a very young age.

Yet any film can only get so far on the facts alone. Where First Position succeeds is that it profiles dancers from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds and also with varying aesthetic philosophies. The film is structured very dramatically such that the performances with the highest stakes appear latest in the cut and the flow from performer to performer is just right and well-ordered.

What starts as an informative, introductory doc soon turns quite the emotional experience that gets you very invested in the outcome. It’s a great film sure to please fans of film and dance alike.

10/10

Citizen Gangster

Scott Speedman in Citizen Gangster (IFC Films)

This an interesting story about a man, Eddie Boyd (Scott Speedman), in post-WW II Canada who frustrated with his job and trying to get by embarks on a career as a bank robber. The film interestingly has a quick and effective genesis. The pathology and inspiration is properly established in a short time such that through the course of the film you follow the protagonist further and further past the point of no return. It’s the case of an anti-hero plot in as much as it does at least create a sense of identification if not sympathy.

The film also has a tremendous amount of technical prowess that helps create the world of the story. The cinematography offers a tremendous balance between stark, pale sunlit exteriors and blown-out interiors. When you combine this with the production design which was very concerted on white interiors with one accent to break up the monotony.

When you consider some of the scoring and performances there is quite a lot working for this film. The only thing that really holds it back in anyway is that from about the mid-point on the pace does become very stilted, which is especially noticeable towards the climax and denouement. Having said all that, this is a film that should be getting more notice and I’m glad to have seen it. As indicated above, it’s especially strong in compartmental areas but is intriguing enough in its narrative, especially for those unfamiliar with the details of the story upon which it is based, to sustain interest.

7/10

Hospitalité

Kanji Furutachi, Bryerly Long, Kenji Yamauchi, Kiki Sugino, Kumi Hirodo and Eriko Ono in Hospitalité (Film Movement)

Comedy just may be the most culturally specific genre of them all. In my experience, each culture has their own precepts it brings to comedy. Granted there are some things that are universally embraced as funny, but cinematic aesthetics, narrative constructs and indigenous commonalities often color how these tropes are conveyed. Which is a very roundabout way of saying that certain films purported to be comedies have struck me with confusion, surprise, and consternation on occasion. American comedy being typically rather broad is rather accessible; British comedy being somewhat dry and witty I’ve always been drawn too and being Brazilian I have a grounding there in where the jokes are coming from.

Hospitalité is a Japanese film, which is quite funny at times simply because it relies almost wholly on situations, characters and the element of surprise to deliver its humor. Where it loses a bit of its steam is that it could use a bit of tightening up in length and towards the end. The power plays exhibited are necessary but perhaps a bit drawn out there too. In essence, the dramatic elements of the narrative are overplayed as there isn’t a lot of follow through.

You may find it more funny than I did, and to be fair there are effective dramatic elements and pieces of commentary being made, but as it is a situation that is seemingly simple and does follow the house-guest-from-hell mold rather there’s just a certain deliberateness and gravitas to it all that drains it a bit.

6/10

Michael

Michael Fuith in Michael (Films du Losange)

I generally remain vague about plot descriptions in my reviews. Philosophically I believe that if you happened upon my review you know enough about the film and you’re just looking for some further information. With a film such as Michael one does need to be forewarned: while not sensationalistic or exploitative this film does chronicle about five months in the life of a pedophile. You will be disturbed and affected by it: I guarantee it. What is most effective is that the film does so almost exclusively through implication.

The film edit of the film is tremendous and much of the dialogue on reflection implies so much more than is said. One example of how the film communicates horrible consequences while doing little is a simple visual: Michael and Wolfgang, the child he has captive, are setting up a bunk bed in his room. That scene has made its point and hits you in the gut.

What makes the film most harrowing is the humanistic portrait painted of Michael. With an act as awful as child abuse, whether of a physical or sexual nature, some films overplay their hands. Meaning they feel the need to make the antagonist over-the-top and borderline cartoony as if to re-emphasize the inherent villainy and cruelty of their actions. Yet more often than not that kind of writing takes a viewer out of the moment. This film takes things as mundane as decorating a Christmas tree, talking to a neighbor or a haircut and tinges them with malignancy and implications that belie the simplicity of the line spoken or the action taken.

You also have in this film two performances that make this film work and they are those of Michael Fuith, who used his awkwardness to endearing effect in Rammbock, but here is intimidating, frightening, awkward and charming as needed. Then there’s also David Rauchenberger, who while not in the film a tremendous lot, has the unenviable task of playing the victim who as times dour, at times detached, at times a child and also rebellious.

The craftsmanship of the film is what truly makes it work. There’s one scene that really doesn’t jibe with the restraint, and the ending is one I stewed on but decided it is earned, as a whole other film would start had it continued.

8/10

Review- The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games (Lionsgate)

The Hunger Games, as many expected, was one of the most anticipated films of the year. It will likely go down as one of the top earners of the year as its early run totals rank amongst all time highs, and it’s a three-time box office champion. I wanted to read the books but never really did, I borrowed the first book from the library and got through half of the first chapter and didn’t get to renew it. Therefore, I had little foundation to go upon but found the film for the most part to be quite enjoyable and captivating.

The double-edged sword in this film is that the backstory of this world, this dystopian future where America is unrecognizable and not even named as such anymore, is not overtly told. The positive to that is that there are not really any overly-elongated and elaborate expository sequences and the negative is that at times you are left flailing about awaiting the next tidbit of information that will enlighten you. You eventually do get sufficient information to get by but you also get the sense that there are unplumbed depths that are likely the key to the book’s success.

The only other truly significant struggle this film faces is in the game itself Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is steadfast in her character but she only attacks her opponents when in a bind, which is admirable but there is much waiting, hiding and running. Essentially, it’s a slight editorial problem more so than a character flaw. Virtue is a positive and Katniss has it in spades there were just a few opportunities that are better off not presenting themselves if that is to be her approach.

Those minor reproaches aside there is a lot to like in The Hunger Games. Perhaps the best part of the film’s success is that now everyone can see just how awesome Jennifer Lawrence is. She already has an Oscar nomination that she was very worthy of, but it was Natalie Portman’s year, for which she was woefully under-publicized and Winter’s Bone is not the kind of draw that this film is. In a similar vain, I’ve known for quite some time that Josh Hutcherson would be a superstar and this is truly his breakout. Now, Josh has a long track record from the Journey series, to appearing in the Best Picture Nominated The Kids Are All Right, to his early days as a young performer that garnered him a BAM nomination for Bridge to Terabithia, however, here as Peeta, a character who knows the game better than Katniss at the start but isn’t as steadfast or strong-willed as she is, he brings his chops to a big vehicle. That could be the most impressive facet of the film; not only is there action and commentary but also room for performances. You should also look for Stanley Tucci’s great supporting turn.

Aside from the aforementioned concern in the Game the film’s pace stays rather brisk even if its running time tops two hours. The tale is a bifurcated one: before the games and the games themselves and they are distinctive sections of the film that are a bit different but they balance quite well. The before the games section builds up some good drama and anticipation and to an extent the game brings good sequences and tension.

The Hunger Games also presents a pretty interesting vision of a futureworld most vividly conveyed by the production design, which is amazing and also the makeup and costuming. Now the latter is not something I was not instantly enamored with but it was a bold and consistent choice and it is a class distinction that is a kind of interesting future-retro hybrid, as the exaggerated hair and makeup hearkens eons past where powdered wigs and ivory faces were status symbols.

The ending of the film foreshadows much larger hurdles and problems to come in the series that even teases it will grow outside just the insular world of the Games and branch out into the politics of this world. Perhaps the upcoming installments will fill in some of the nagging blanks.

When a film does a lot very well the few things that leave you wondering do tend to stand out a little more than they would otherwise but this is a very enjoyable, occasionally funny, romantic, dramatic and thrilling film.

8/10

Review- Thor

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in Thor (Paramount/Marvel)

To make it very clear I have in the past set down a list of rules regarding adaptations of any materials wherein I try to divorce myself entirely from the source material when gauging a movie. Meaning that I will not comment on adaptation choices or omissions. With Thor that task was much easier as my knowledge of both the legend and the Marvel rendition thereof is severely limited so I came into the film with a fairly clean slate.

Perhaps what is the most surprising part of the story to me is the fact that the film struck a very good balance of locations. It started for an extended period of time in Asgard establishing the characters and setting up Thor’s predicament and then after he’s exiled to earth switches back frequently. The advertising did make it seem as if it’d be very heavy on Earth-based action but I guess they just didn’t want you seeing too much of Asgard.

I think this balance serves the narrative quite well indeed. As Thor struggles to repent and reclaim his hammer at home the stakes keep on rising and events continue to conspire against him unbeknown to him. The pace is tempered so as the tale isn’t rushed and more meaning can be added to the spectacle rather than there just being a spectacle to behold and the audience “Oohs” and “Aahs” and walks out bloated by candy and soda gas.

You film buffs/comics fans out there might be aware, especially through the intimations made in prior films, that Marvel has been gearing up for an Avengers films. They have been doing so very methodically with slight dovetails in previous films. For the uninitiated where S.H.I.E.L.D. gets involved in the story has been the prelude to The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. is more of a presence in this film as they cordon off his hammer in a makeshift compound and detain Thor for a while but they’re only as much of an obstruction as they have to be they never become an encumbrance to the plot as a whole.

Having said that if you should see Thor be sure to plan your bathroom trip carefully because you’ll want to sit through the end credits for a teaser and a cameo appearance.

What might perhaps be overlooked is that in a tale such as Thor where you’re dealing with gods in another realm, the Earthlings who find him and those trying to detain him is that acting is pivotal. It’s pivotal both in the casting and the direction of the film. Which is why Kenneth Branagh, as counter-intuitive as it likely sounded to you at first, is the perfect director for this vehicle. This is a man who made his name as an actor and a director by interpreting Shakespeare if anyone can infuse some comedy but also lend this kind of tale the kind of gravitas it needs to succeed it’s him. Yes, it’s strange to see his name attached to something CG-heavy but there umpteen thousand people involved in that aspect he’s just making sure the tale is communicated and it is.

Speaking of the effects they were absolutely fantastic. The most challenging thing for a film is to create a wholly new world and this clan did that with ease. There is some pretty effective creature-work in here too, chilling stuff. The effects, of course, can only do so much it’s merely an interpretation of the production design which is also great. The sets and locations, where they need to be, are grandiose and majestic and just marvelous.

And now for my token paragraph on the 3D. I did see it in 3D. I debated not seeing it in 3D. I don’t think I would’ve liked it one iota less if I had gone the conventional route. If you want to save some money go for it. The colors, scope and vistas will be just as impressive.

I will readily admit my expectations were not very high for Thor. I’ve given you the positives as there were many. It wasn’t perfect but it was darn good and enjoyable and left me wanting more no matter how I come about it (be it comics or a sequel).

8/10