Mini-Review Round-Up June 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.

Piranha 3DD

A film like Piranha 3DD always prompts the question: “Well, what did you expect?” Whether this question is asked in sincerity or sarcastically it is a valid one, as I always strive to judge a film on what it’s trying to be and whether or not it succeeds in that aim. Due to this fact, I have no problem giving disparate films the same grade without ever questioning whether one is better than the other. After all, if you think on it Jurassic Park and Citizen Kane might be two films you like, but no one will ever confuse them with regards to their aims.

So what did I expect from Piranha 3DD? It may be easier to explain what I didn’t expect first. I did not expect anything remotely like Piranha (1978). I didn’t expect to need to have seen the new incarnation of this series to follow this. I expected the film to be silly and strive to land in the so bad it’s good realm based on its premise. I did expect a passable horror story regardless of said fact. Considering that John Gulager was attached, and that I did like Feast, I had some hopes to see this film achieve these aims.

What unfolds instead is a film that you laugh at not with. It’s a film that wants badly to fall into an exploitation mold but it more frequently is an uneasy mix of attempts at such, mainly sex and star exploitation. Both aspects are so poorly handled the film more closely resembles a softcore porn/vanity press hybrid. Yes, the silly, poorly-animated piranha take a backseat in this film to implants, David Hasselhoff and sorry, lazy comedy, which works all too infrequently, especially considering some of the people they wrangled into being in this thing.

Speaking of the people they got in this thing: Christopher Lloyd deserves a medal for being the only redeeming quality this sorry excuse for a film has. In all honesty they would’ve been better served turning the camera on him for 83 minutes and allowing him to improvise, with no rehearsals and no editing. Lloyd is a truly gifted actor and why he ends up in films of this ilk these days baffles me to no end.

What I was expecting, in all honesty, was not nearly as bad as I got. As silly and ill-conceived as the oh-so-thin plot is it also lacks focus. It contains no flair or verve that gives me any cause to forgive it its sins. The key to good exploitation is that the subject matter is the only thing being exploited. This film also exploits its audience, and I was actually very surprised and disappointed that it was the worst thing I’ve seen this year to date.

2/10

Beautiful Wave

I quipped, with a lack of anything of real significance to say, after having seen Beautiful Wave that it was “neither beautiful nor a wave” in my best Linda Richman voice. However, the Mike Myers character-inspired jab may have been the most succinct way to put it. This is a film which seems like an excuse for a surfing film. I haven’t seen every surfing film, but I honestly can’t remember it being almost incidental to the story, as it is here.

Sadly, the protagonist is also rather incidental. Very little of her conflict is externalized and ultimately the film feels like it’s about everyone around her rather than her. I’d critique the pace if there was any discernible pace to criticize. The film telegraphs its climax and denouement very early on making much of the film transient.

As you can tell the issues are mainly structural but there are a few decent to good scenes along the way. I can’t fault the performances of the three main players Aimee Teegarden, Patricia Richardson and Lance Henriksen. It’s just so inconsequential.

Why she’s jettisoned to California just occurs as this forced inciting incident, which really has no impetus aside from the narrative necessity placed upon it by the makers. Somewhere in its running time there’s a perfectly innocuous, enjoyable albeit nebulous short film, but it really ought not be a feature. This is essentially Soul Surfer almost entirely devoid of pathos.

3/10

I’m Not Jesus Mommy

Here’s another one of those movies you just happen upon and then you look into it and you realize that the idea is so outlandish, and could end up being either brilliant or a disaster, and based on its premise that you absolutely have to see it.

Perhaps what’s most unfortunate about the film is that both in its title and in its synopsis it divulges what is truly revealed in the third act, however, intimations to the fact in question are made well before the revelation.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is despite a rather flat, blank performance by its lead actress and clearly video cinematography is that it has a strong first act. It mixes in some themes that I don’t necessarily expect to see touched upon at all and rather well. Then there’s a time jump, now this is where the excessive amount of restraint comes into the mix, where the plot really begins plodding. There’s some sort of plague about, the world is a really crazed place. However, vague allusions as to why are all that’s ever made. Similarly, visual motifs come into play that are also unclear, but the real issue is that the near cessation of incident.

Unlike some who have seen it, I have no issue with the fact that this film handles what is potentially such a polemic, sacrilegious premise with utmost seriousness of tone. The issue seems to stem from, at least in part, a bit of reticence to fully commit and it’s a shame.

The music, the lack of dialogue and the edit set the stage but there’s virtually no show upon it. I would see another work by Vaughan but what is most aggravating here is that it seems there was the courage and commitment to take a potentially ludicrous idea, treat it seriously and make it a film. However, the follow-through to make the film as shocking and effective as it could be doesn’t seem to be there. The film does become somewhat memorable for the previously alluded to fact but that’s rather dubious.

4/10

Playback

This is a film that has a formula shared by quite a few films in the horror genre: A town with a scarred past that comes back to haunt it anew. However, what this film attempts to is to double said formula. There is the now local-legend of a mass murder in a house but that fuses with a completely fictitious legend about the birth of cinema that borrows more than liberally from a few other films. I certainly cannot knock this film on the ambition front. However, where it does falter are in a few ways: first, the leads are very much in the dark about the famous case, which is an issue. We the audience don’t know the information and need it, but it seems unrealistic that most know nothing or care nothing about it. Second, I appreciate the attempted misdirection, however, the decisions about the paths the leads take also somewhat derails the story. Next, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the divulging of information. In certain cases it’s overly-expository and certain people know too much, yet in others certain aspects keep a little mystery. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s botched here I feel. Lastly, the ending does offer a resolution but it’s another one of those unsatisfactory shock cuts that puts a damper on the film when it had grown, just a bit in the last third.

The elements for Playback are all there for it to work in hindsight but they’re either mismatched or mishandled in some way such that the center doesn’t hold.

4/10

Found Memories

This film is a perfect example of a translated title that doesn’t quite do the film in question justice. If you were to translate the Brazilian title of Found Memories literally it would be Stories That Only Exist When Remembered. Granted that is more of a mouthful but it gives you a better sense of the kind of film you’re getting I feel, because as I watched the film I realized there was perhaps one of the more subtle Magical Realism tales I’d seen, one with with extreme emphasis on the the realism. Yes, there is a rather mundane, repetitious nature to certain scenes but the equation is skewed as the film progresses by a newcomer. The framing of many shots is wonderfully precise and as the story unfolds you are taken in both by the stories being told by the characters themselves as well as the ones being told about them by the film, which in many cases are parallel but not identical. Found Memories is a tremendously subtle, yet at times rapturous, look at small town life in a Brazilian town that should still be able to play anywhere and I highly recommend it.

9/10

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Review- Soul Surfer

AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer (Tristar Pictures)

Soul Surfer is an interesting film that may not yet have found its audience yet for a number of reasons but if I were a betting man, and there were bets on such things, I might be inclined to back this film as one that would find an audience through video over the years to come. It’s kind of a weird property looking at it from afar: a surfing film, which is also a biopic with a religious element to it being released in April. It’s essentially a summer film that didn’t want get buried amidst blockbusters and is trying to make some waves (yes, I can be punny, sue me) in a rather tranquil time.

None of the above is meant to sound like an indictment of the film. The fact of the matter is I truly enjoyed how multi-faceted I found the film to be. When you try and tackle too much in a film it can turn into a mess but when you can connect on disparate elements and tie them together then you’ve got something really good on your hands.

Looking at it from each perspective let’s see how the film works: firstly, there’s the surfing element under the larger umbrella of sports film. As has been said frequently, the best sports films aren’t really about the game, thus, they can hit home with the largest possible audience. However, it must be said that this movie is a sneaky good sports film. Due to the different things the film is trying to accomplish there isn’t a tremendous amount of time dedicated to the varying facets of a sports film but they get it spot on with the most important one: this film communicates in spades the love of the game and it’s mostly through cinematography, sound editing and a really well-written opening voice over, which stands head-and-shoulders above the voice over opening from the Best Picture nominee The Blind Side.

There’s also a sports rivalry, which as a subplot can either add depth or become an encumbrance on the narrative, it does the former and never gets in the way too much. As does the very chaste and timid love interest, just a little more humanity without over-complicating things. The ultimate example of its excelling in its sport movie mold is that it emphasizes, in the end, the joy of competing over that of victory better than most.

The personal journey works as well to fit the biopic mold. The stasis is well-established and then shattered and a new reality must be dealt with. There is also a very brief and practically perfect amount of time spent in the woe-is-me phase of her story. You also get a refreshingly good self-improvement montage and wonderful, if foreseeable, epiphany.

With regards to the religious aspect of the film it’s there, it’s a motivating factor in her recovery, it’s something Bethany questions and leans on. The film handles this very well not only in keeping it and making it a more true biography but adding some depth to the character and avoiding getting overly preachy and pedantic. Some films it seems can’t deal with any type of spirituality in it without it becoming a spiritual film. It’s an element that folds in very well.

If there’s anything that can be said against the narrative it’s just that there is a certain amount of evenness to it. The three facets while working well together allow you to stay on a rather even keel until the final competition. Yet it’s still a fun film to watch regardless of your investment level.

There is also some very impressive CG work done with the missing limb, it’s the best kind of CG work because it’s functional and doesn’t become the film. The sequence of the accident is also rather stunning and one of a few very well-handled and dramatically-rendered sequences in the film.

Much of the cast in this film does very well and the performances run rather deep down the line. You get three very strong performances just out of the family. AnnaSophia Robb has been mostly unseen since Race to Witch Mountain and before that Bridge to Terabithia but she shows here a rather seamless and graceful transformation to an adult role, and a leading one at that. It’s also wonderful to see Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid not just working but doing great and in a quality project. They each have their own moments to shine here. Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu play the usually jovial, supportive brothers but do have their dramatic moments. Kevin Sorbo also plays a refreshingly low-key and sympathetic character here and Jeremy Sumpter has a small part but plays one big scene wherein he shows flashes of greatness and how he is one of the most under-utilized young actors in films today.

Soul Surfer is a very enjoyable film that you should try to see on the big screen before it’s theatrical run ends.

8/10