Mini-Review: The Beaver

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

The Beaver (2011)

One of the quirkiest films I’ve seen this year. It’s a bit inconsistent towards the latter half of the second act but overall it’s effective and all the laughs about the situation are intended. Mel Gibson does a fantastic job in this film. It’s perhaps Foster’s best directorial turn but not her strongest story. The tightness of the cast, few ancillary characters, helps this film connect.

7/10

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.

Review- The Lucky One

Taylor Schilling and Zac Efron in The Lucky One (Warner Bros.)

When you have either a romantic comedy or even just a flat-out romance there will be several things you expect and very little that will surprise you. There’s not anything wrong with that, as with almost any film it’s not about the final destination but rather the journey there. Sadly, there are some issues that mar the journey in this film, which is otherwise enjoyable with likable characters for the most part.

I don’t have a great deal of experience watching Nicholas Sparks adaptations, I have only previously seen The Last Song, however, it doesn’t take long to see what one’s formula is. An any writer regardless of what your tastes are have their preferred genres and themes and certain similarities in their voice and narratives. So I was expecting certain things but I also am not yet fatigued by these adaptations, as I’ve not had to see all of them.

Now the first concern is one I can forgive, but again it’s about execution. The film tells the tale of a Marine (Zac Efron) who by chance finds a photo while in combat, his being distracted by it saves his life and it ends up being a good luck charm. Upon his return he is determined to find the girl in the photo, after failing to find out who it belonged to, and thank her. Now, we all know he won’t be able to say anything right away, that’s not usually how these stories work (it’d be a tremendously interesting experiment though) but it’s how he’s not allowed to say anything that’s really bothersome. And that’s on the heels of a pretty good and fluid sequence that illustrates some of his battlefield experiences, his search for the photo’s owner and his struggle to re-adjust to a life at home.

So after a surprisingly good and cinematic start the bungles come into play. However, as I said there are certain expectations and the cat having his tongue was one of them, at that point it’s just a minor irritant. The biggest overriding issue of the film is the ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson) both his character and his interpretation thereof. Not only is it comedically broad to start but then it gets more real and natural as the drama of the tale intensifies, so not only does it start cartoonish but it doesn’t stay here, so it’s also inconsistent. Not to mention the fact that a psycho ex, who is not only an intimidator but a cop is so old and expected. There’s enough conflict inherent in the situation that this externalization is an exaggeration. There can be an ex, he can be jealous but it really is going above and beyond such that it detracts from the end product greatly. Most of the worst scenes in terms of writing and flow are the ones he’s in, the movie picks up steam again and then right on schedule he arrives and then it’s sigh, eye roll and sit through it.

His precipitously asinine behavior extends the climax of the film unnecessarily, not that the resolution of the film is perfect. There’s a slight monkey-wrench thrown in granted but the estrangement prior to the happy ending is really annoying in how it unfolds and also prolongs matters. Suffice it to say the amount of explication that Logan (Efron) is allowed shouldn’t really have occurred if we’re to have the standard “I’m so mad at you scene.”

Now every time I started one of these paragraphs I was intimating that “It’s not all that bad” but not really discussing that. And it’s not all that bad, really. It gets pretty good sometimes and then something comes along and messes it up. Most of what makes it good, when it is, are the actors. In many cases they likely breathe more life into fairly standard characters than they should have a right to so they ought to be applauded for that. Zac Efron is a very good romantic lead, he does play a soldier at all times but slowly but surely, with a bit of subtlety reveals character and emotion; Taylor Schilling certainly gives it her all and is always real; Blythe Danner adds necessary charm and sass to the film and great deal of comedy and Riley Thomas Stewart, as Beth’s (Taylor Schilling) son Ben, is a naturally gifted young actor who plays a rather multi-faceted, normal yet misunderstood by his peers kid.

Ultimately, I liked the characters and the actors enough that, yes I did invest in what became of them, even though it was a seemingly foregone conclusion, however, with so few events that had a lot of weight in terms of whether the film sink or swam I just couldn’t get over the couple of glaring issues it did have.

5/10