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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Short Film Saturday- Bateyes

Here’s a film that very quickly proves that shorts can have layers to them and also have pretty interesting structures. There’s flashback in here but it’s not in your face about it, there’s a precise trigger but that comes later and there’s a bit of psychology at play too as the subject of this piece is re-examining his life because of a rather mundane, yet significant moment he’s going through.

I also enjoy that this short was created based on a monologue and produced by a theatre program for young people. All in all it serves everyone who comes in contact with it, artists and viewers alike.

Review- In the Family

It seems to me more often than not, whenever I see a good to great film that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see there’s always at least a decent story to it. Somehow, in the barrage of year-end awards and best of lists, I missed noting the title In the Family, at the tail end of 2011. I guess I didn’t retain or read Slant’s list as carefully as I thought, either that or I hadn’t seen it anywhere near me so it was almost like it had yet to exist. However, that lack of availability kept it alive for this year’s BAMs. Now, oddly enough when I saw this month’s schedule at Theatre N, I saw it, it seemed like a likely view but it didn’t jump out not right away. Then the weekend it’s playing came, and thanks to an abysmal weekend of new summer releases it was the only game in town, so far as I was concerned. However, I was still under-informed. I read the synopsis, seemed good. However, I didn’t immediately note the running time.

In trying to schedule my day, I did. The film runs 2 hours and 49 minutes. I do not have hard and fast rules regarding running-times, as my commendations for Satantango and Berlin Alexanderplatz clearly indicate. Yes, I prefer comedies that run 90 minutes or less when speaking in generalities, that does not mean I’ve never liked one longer. The Avengers is only about 25 minutes shorter and I never heard anyone complain about how long it is. However, I do have to concede that it is a factor. So what I did was I started to read up on it, just a bit. Based on what I saw I wanted to give a go.

With this film, and my prior example, you have two instances that highlight the difference between running time and pace. Anyone can make a film this long, or longer, if they want to, and frequently early assemblies and cuts are. What matters is what you do with the running time you’ve allotted your story. I’ve seen films a third as long as this one that feel twice as long as it actually is. There are films that feel like they will never end and others you wish wouldn’t, and this one is much closer to the latter than the former.

The term deliberate pace is not, in my mind, a polite way of saying slow. There are scenes that don’t cut, but there are scenes that are rather quick, which add to the tone and help the film pace itself. It is by no means the test of endurance that The Turin Horse is, even though that film is shorter.

So preambles aside, the film works beautifully in large part due to the restraints is shows. The film tells the tale of of a custody battle following the death of one partner in a same sex relationship. That’s the film in its simplest terms, now the film could be handled differently and still work but then it would run the risk of pigeonholing itself as a gay film, or a racial film or a courtroom film, depending on how the plot unfolds. It could quickly become maudlin and melodramatic. However, in restraining its emotion, allowing it to build in its characters and its audience it creates a tremendously universal and human story that I’m sure many can relate to, whether it reflects anything in their life or not. One example of the restraint, and a litmus test of sorts for films with gay themes, is that the words “gay” or “homosexual,” or any pejorative variation thereof are not spoken. This is a clear choice it seems that underlines both the humanity of the story and the underlying hostilities and prejudices that exist.

Dave (Peter Hermann), Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), Jefferson (Eugene Brell), Joey (Patrick Wang), Paul (Brian Murray), Court Reporter (Marsha Waterbury) in In the Family (In the Family)

The drama in the film is always palpable because the film cloisters its characters. In certain scenes it just allows us to watch a few characters behave and interact, without dialogue but there is still much being said. There’s a lot of film theory banter about simply watching behavior, but like everything in this film it doesn’t push this aspect to the extreme either. There are small, delicate, wonderful scenes like this sprinkled throughout; a fantastic example is Chip (Sebastian Banes, credited in this film as Sebastian Brodziak) getting himself and Joey (Patrick Wang) a drink after the funeral.

Aside from having well-tempered scene lengths, the film also structures itself well and interestingly. There are three flashbacks, which all occur post-mortem. The film begins in medias res, after Cody’s (Trevor St. John) death is where we start to get to know him and miss him as Joey does. There are also I believe four segments of the film that begin in black with some audio coming in to precede the scene, bringing us slowly into the current moment and visually dividing the story (the first occurs at the very beginning with a gorgeously languid fade in).

Dave (Peter Hermann) and Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) in In the Family (In the Family)

The acting in this film is quite nearly impeccable. It can be said that a running time such as this gives the actors more time to develop their character, hone their performance but that would be ignoring the fact that the work still does have to be done. Wang particularly has a lot of heavy lifting to do in the third act, his physicality is a lot of what takes us along but at the end it’s just him, speaking to his family and speaking to us and it’s nothing less than monumental that this “unedited” deposition scene works. It keeps with the cloistered aspect of the film but brings things full circle and is riveting. However, Kelly McAndrew’s reaction shots during this scene are breathtaking also. The real find of the film, however, may be Sebastian Banes. Actors around his age, he plays a character who is six, with as much natural talent and charisma are rare. A few scenes in I was already comparing him favorably to Drew Barrymore.

In the Family
is a revelation in many ways, not only for my story of not really having heard about it and then having it fall into my lap but also for revealing the tremendous budding auteur that is Patrick Wang. It’s a crime how under-seen this film is and I cannot recommend it to you highly enough.

10/10

Thankful for World Cinema- The Vanishing

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Vanishing

Johanna ter Steege and Gene Bervoets in The Vanishing (Meteor Film Productions)

This film exemplifies many things I like to see in films but rarely get enough of. Often times in Hollywood films we get interesting concepts that never live up to their full potential. In The Vanishing we get a film that forgoes cheap thrills and pace to examine the characters involved in a very thought-provoking way and it manages to achieve a greater level of creepiness than most American films would. After having first watched this film I was looking around in all directions as I walked around and here’s why: One of the first things that strikes you is the music. There’s a deep bass and it doesn’t overly-anticipate the moment but still highlights the film with an overtone of foreboding which is just magnificent. And as this word could apply to the film as a whole it is especially significant in the antagonist; subtlety. Played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Raymond Lemorne is a great villain because he’s believable, well defined and most frighteningly in the end we even understand him and worse yet he seems real.

Another thing this film has going for it is the way the film isn’t told chronologically. We first see the vanishing and the desperate search in the first few hours, then we are introduced to Lemorne, peg him as the man, see his routine and see that three years have gone by. All throughout the film we will skip through time for large periods. The disappearance of Saskia will be filled in over and over again until the actual events are seen through their entirety. And the last piece only falls into place at the very end.

Amazingly, with this unusual structure the film is not hard to follow in the least and certainly much more intriguing then the conventional linear plot we’re used to seeing in the United States. The ‘reality’ of these events are set up in many way by director George Sluizer. Firstly, there was great used of subjective camera and the ‘Zero Degree Style’ common in the States is completely abandoned.

The other touches of reality come as we delve into the two main characters: Rex and Raymond. Raymond, the criminal, is first only seen in a very one-dimensional manner. We see him as a fraud who seems to be scoping out the store for possible victims. Then later in the story we see him begin to formulate his plan, to perfect it over and over again. The one scene where we see him as a biology teacher is just enough to show us that these people could be anyone and can fool you so easily. There is also the scene where Rex is waiting for him at the restaurant. Rex says he’s waiting for Mr. Montmejan and that happens to the waiter’s name. The commonness of the name adds profound statement about the plausibility of the plot.

The tension of the film is also aided by McGuffins, or botched attempts by the professor. In one scene we see him pick up a young girl, we know already that him locking the door is where he makes his move and poisons the girl but it’s his daughter. He also runs into a former student of his and tried to get her in his car and we see a chilling example of how he may have escaped justice for so long for even when someone calls him on it their content to just get away. There’s also the scene where Raymond is out of focus in the background as Rex looks around for him. This is also another great scene of anticipation.

Rex’s relationship with Lieneke and also his quest are also quite believable. He reaches a point where all he seeks to know is the truth. The Vanishing is also greatly helped by some really good dialogue. The image of the Golden Egg as related by Saskia through her dream sort of predestines the film in a way as we’ll see they both have the same fate, however, that is not a fault of the film. I firmly believe that there are only so many ways a story can end and it’s not how it ends that always matters but how you get there. The Vanishing is a toned down psychological thriller that’ll get under your skin. It’s a film that’s had my imagination captive for a week. It’s not only a prime example of a psycho-thriller but also of well-structured and executed character studies. It’s a great achievement.

8/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Last Year at Marienbad

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Last Year at Marienbad

Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi in Last Year at Marienbad (Concinor)

If there is a film that can be said to define the French New Wave it may well be Last Year at Marienbad. A film directed by Alain Resnais (Night and Fog) which deals heavily with memory, or more precisely the accuracy of memory and what is reality. It is a film that moves along dreamlike with many incremental repetitions of phrases, with fractured snatches of conversations creating whole thoughts and at times surrealistically staged scenes.

It is a film that engages the viewer that dares him to follow this Byzantine structure and try to get out the other end, and if he does get out the other end will he have his head on straight when he gets there? It is a fact that film is not a disposable medium and many, if not all films, welcome a second viewing. This film insists on several. It is very likely that every time you’ll walk away from the film with a new piece of information you never considered before. This film is a complex abstract masterpiece that makes Inception look like finger-painting by comparison.

Consider that you examine two characters, their relationship and how much they really know one another and they are never given proper names, in fact, no one is: the three main players are referred to as A, X and M. Most of the rest are referred to as “Une personnage de l’hôtel.”

Which brings to mind another point: The camera pans around this hotel and its surroundings a great deal. Sometimes in conjunction with voice-over sometimes running contrary to the scene. The Baroque architecture of the edifice is quite startling and the hotel becomes a character in the tale in and of itself. As the discussions in which M is trying to convince A they did meet often begin with him stating where in the hotel they were.

It is a fascinating and mind-bending film which has no equal or parallel, an infinitely rewarding experience you’ll want to revisit over and over again.

10/10

Review- Terri

Bridger Zadina, Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly in Terri (ATO Pictures)

Terri is a film, which tells a very low-key, stripped-down and honest account of teenage ostracism and the perils of adolescence which is refreshingly devoid of convention and condescension. In the film you get an honest portrayal of how facile ostracism is, how sudden it can be and an honest look at how it’s dealt with if it’s dealt with at all.

The film has a very deliberate and precise construction at the beginning of the film to illustrate the lack of variety and proclivity to be routine-bound, in Terri’s life. We see from the very start that breakdowns in communication are a major factor in the difficulties he’s facing. When an obsession he has boarders on sociopathy his uncle, played brilliantly by Creed Bratton, is at a loss for words to adequately express what his true disappointment is. Similarly, his homeroom teacher (Tara Karsian) can see he’s bullied and how it affects him but is too beaten down and burned out to do anything about it. It’s these kinds of subtle accurate portrayals that you get in Terri that make the story truly work.

It deals with adolescence not with histrionics or apologies but with understanding and sincerity. A lot of what happens in the movie just happens and there is little to no commentary about it by the characters through much of it so it avoids, by a wide margin, both sensationalism and pandering.

The acting in this film overall is quite brilliant. There is a healthy mix of new faces, tried and true character actors and one notable name in perhaps the most pivotal role. The latter, of course, would be John C. Reilly who plays the well-intentioned but imperfect assistant principal who takes it upon himself to have weekly meetings with the school’s more troubled students. His monologue about his imperfections is so truthful and beautiful it got me teary-eyed out of the blue and although it is a function of the movie to create drama, the fact that he is the one person in the school who does try does ring a little true and there are some wonderful surprises in store from his character.

Then, of course, you have the lead Jacob Wysocki as Terri. Whenever you have an eponymous character you need that character and that performance to connect and for there to be some kind of universal resonance and there most certainly is here. In this film a lot of Terri’s maladjustment on the surface is something many can relate to. The root cause is that he feels like an outsider or freak due to his weight but the symptoms socially and otherwise are ones many can relate to: having difficulty making friends, talking to girls, academics and so on. There’s a timidity and amiableness to both the character and the performance that makes him connect even when he’s making a mistake.

There are also two very strong turns from classmates of Terri’s Bridger Zadina as Chad and Olivia Crocicchia as Heather. The former perhaps runs a larger emotional gamut and has a character whose strangeness and backstory is never defined so the fact that he arrives in place where his performance always feels organic and never contrived is quite a feat in and of itself. Zadina always finds himself in a place where he’s rebelling against the status quo yet there’s a depth and sensitivity to his portrayal that makes Chad equally compelling to the other characters. Crocicchia as Heather also has a lot to do and not much time to do it in and is natural and convincing in all stages from popular girl, to depressed and marginalized to just another student who blends into the background.

It’s the building of these characters which allows for the film to bifurcate yet do it so successfully. One part of the film is very much a cloistered, private confessional between Terri and Mr. Fizgerald (Reilly) and then towards the end there’s a long sequence that’s reminiscent of a modern, private, more exclusive Breakfast Club wherein these characters exorcise their demons over the course of a night and similarly bare their souls.

Perhaps, what’s most intelligent about the film is that it offers no easy answers. There’s no real resolution to it just as there’s no real resolution to adolescent angst. They just all reach a point from which they can move on to a new and hopefully better chapter in their life and that might be what sticks with you most about the film. It’s that fact upon reflection I connected with most and I feel that adolescents who see it would too.

9/10