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.

61 Days of Halloween- The Amityille Horror (1979)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

The Amityille Horror

James Brolin and Margot Kidder in The Amityille Horror (American International Pictures)

What is interesting to note, for what it’s worth is that both the 1979 and 2005 versions of this film have the same score on the IMDb. This score seemingly ignores the biggest difference between the two which is that the original runs 120 minutes and the remake runs 90 and that running time is put to very good use. Not only do the incidents mount and come with greater frequency it allows for more narrative threads to be developed to support what we all know to be true.

What people are likely to hold against it might be that not enough happens but mind you that there are many incidents and there certainly seems to be more of a crescendo than last year’s (at the time of this writing) runaway hit Paranormal Activity which may be the slowest moving horror film ever crafted.

Another rarity that makes this film one worth seeing is that it has always been difficult to attract names to tales of horror or the supernatural but this film boasts James Brolin, who at the time was already an Emmy-winner, Margot Kidder who was just coming off Superman and Rod Steiger who had already won an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night. This is in the same decade as The Exorcist which boasted Ellen Burstyn and Max von Sydow. These are the kinds of casts you can’t find anymore and the kind you need to convey a tale in which terror lives in the characters’ minds even more than it does in reality.
 
The score which opens the film and recurs a few times is reminiscent of certain Giallo films. The score combined with the quick flashbacks at the beginning to illustrate the house’s past are the perfect way to set the table.

I am not going to say this is the quintessential haunted house movie because that would be a disservice to films like The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House which deserve recognition, however, it does take a different approach than those and ushers in the age of suburban terror and perils of home ownership into the genre.

While occasionally you do get some bad looking blood, which is such a pet peeve of mine. There is the compelling case of the priest trying to convince people of what he experienced. The nun who was violently ill on the premises, then subplots that run longer like the obsession with woodcutting due to the cold; Jodie, the “imaginary” friend, The dog digging at the wall in the basement and the police sergeant sensing something is amiss and tailing the family and the priest. All this offers many more layers than you usually get in this type of tale.

Lastly, the film also employs titles very effectively as not many do. It can be an extremely effective when used well and this film does on more than one occasion.The Amityville Horror definitely has a lot to offer the horror connoisseur.

8/10

Monochromatic Monday #1

As I mentioned in my manifesto I endeavor to have viewing themes and post short entries on them. Not necessarily a full review of what I watch but just a bit of information to give you the gist.

Up until early March many of my themes will likely be concurrent with TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. My goal as a side project is to see at least one film from every day of the festival with a little assistance form my DVR. I am currently one behind.

Today’s selections were the first in a while where both films were afforded introductions by TCM hosts which gave some interesting information, more so in the second film. But without much further ado the films.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Columbia Pictures)

Ben Mankiewicz hosted and while he does a fine job, invariably he leaves out a piece of information that puzzles me. The theme for part of the afternoon line-up on this day was good luck charms and it chronicled Bess Flowers, the so-called “Queen of Hollywood Extras,” who was a good luck charm herself. She appeared in over 700 films, yes, 700, this is in the days of the studio system remember, and appeared in 21 Best Picture Nominees and Five winners. Frank Capra employed her often. What I wanted to know, with all this to do being made about someone with a bit part, is where do I look for her, if I can find her that was not mentioned.

This film was a Best Picture nominee and was one of Capra’s three Best Director trophies (amazingly none of them came for his most notable film It’s a Wonderful Life). It certainly does have that Capra touch to it. It’s the story of a simple country man, often mistakenly thought to be a simpleton, who inherits a large sum of money and then has to deal with everyone trying to take advantage of him. It’s a film with a lot of subtle humor and most notably through some Hollywood magic creates some of the most surreal vistas of New York you’re likely to see on film. Capra is often associated with comedy or sentiment but here in this film there is a lot of great cinematography and the visuals really drive the story home. The shot of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) complacently sitting in a cell with barely a highlight upon his profile is a breathtaking piece of chiaroscuro.

Then, of course, there’s Cooper. This is one hell of a performance and most notably so because he is silent for so much of it. However, there’s a clear subtext and thought-process behind his actions. He’s also incredibly naturalistic, especially for the era, which really allows the story to sink in. More often than not he doesn’t let on but is listening, and absorbing information and planning his next move. Of course, there is misplaced trust in an undercover reporter (Jean Arthur) and that plot goes predictably enough but it’s very well executed but there is one surprise in store which is how it looks like out hero will be vanquished and how he triumphs.

This is a truly wonderful film that has Capra’s stamp all over it, which means that it is timeless this one more than most perhaps because it does talk about cynicism in society which is pervasive and being too cynical might allow you to take a film like this for granted but you shouldn’t.

Viva Villa! (1934)

Wallace Beery in Viva Villa!

*****Warning Spoilers Below*****

There’s much less to say about this title. The intro by Robert Osborne was quite interesting. This film was shown during a block of films that were winners of awards the Academy retired. This one winning a certificate, not a statuette, for Best Assistant Director. There were lots of pieces of information to relay here like Howard Hawks’ firing, the unruly extras who were real soldiers and peasants and the actor who relieved himself off a balcony on members of the Mexican military.

Once the film began the story was compelling but not quite compelling enough. First, it needs to be said that Wallace Beery is incredibly effective and endearing as Villa, when I read the cast I thought it might be a stretch but it worked. The film creates an interesting cinematic mestizo situation in as much as the natives of Mexico are all either Mexican or made to look like they are and the Spaniards are mostly white and don’t speak with accents. The mix of different voice stylings was actually pleasurable rather than rampant stereotypes.

While I love how full screen titles in the Golden Age were poetic and verbose there are far too many of them here and it avoids shooting some scenes which would’ve enhanced the film. It seems they might’ve been an afterthought based on the edit and there are some weird cuts in there, scenes that don’t seem to end in a logical place or stop abruptly. If you count the “Villa Wants You!” title montage as one there are 14 instances of full screen titles in this film. It was like a bad joke at times: “I went to a movie and a book broke out.”

Speaking of bad jokes there ‘s a running gag that an artist/writer friend of Villa’s refuses to draw a bull and is willing to die for this artistic standard. He called it advertising. I call it hard to swallow. Won’t draw a bull? Really?

What this film did have going for it was a beautiful little circle that closed. In a prelude that’s too short we see Villa for a child as a moment don’t really get to know him and he grows but what does get set into motion is the path of his destiny. His family was robbed of its land. His father dies for questioning it and off he goes to eventually lead a long multi-faceted revolution. While knowing that a plot is in the offing does drain some of the tension and drama out of Villa’s last words he does say, not ones the reporter puts in his mouth, are great. The reporter had started his fictionalized obit with the words “Mexico, I apologize.” Villa responded in the end “Johnny, what have I done wrong?”

It was a bit uneven and it was the rare film, in my experience, wherein the conventions that date it hold it back rather than exalt it but it is worth a watch and a decent film. Not sure it should’ve been a Best Picture nominee in this top-heavy era though.

In closing Robert Osborne related the fascinating tale of James Wong Howe the DP who was born in China but grew up in Washington State. He was an Assistant Camera at 19 and had done time at Lasky Studios. As a Director of Photography he garnered 10 Oscar nominations and two wins.