This Week on Demand: 15/09/2013

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Editor’s Note: Reviews this week are by Ronan Doyle and Jaime Burchardt

If ever there were a more typical edition of This Week on Demand I don’t recall it. Here we have all we’ve become accustomed to: a shower of subpar horror; a selection of diverse documentary; a handful of amusing animation; a less-than-stellar new indie; a picture bearing Oscar prestige. That’s not to say it’s a poor selection—though by and large it is—rather just to point out how interestingly tiered these releases can be. Have at it.


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100 Below Zero

It’s the end of the world! And it’s brought to you by… The Asylum. You know, that film company that’s coked out, but not on cocaine which makes their behaviour even more unusual. Their “attraction”—the nice way of saying that—for the apocalypse brings a feature starring a slew of some usually awesome B-movie actors, such as John Rhys-Davies and Jeff Fahey, that tries to chill us to the bone (the tagline literally reads “Cold as hell!”). When the resulting ash from a slew of erupting volcanoes blocks out the sun, it creates a whole new ice age (Rhys-Davies’ line read for that is hysterical). It’s part The Day After Tomorrow, part… you know what, it doesn’t matter. The movie’s a mutt made up of the worst parts of the past popular disaster movies, and I do mean the worst parts. It does prove one thing, and that’s that The Asylum’s headache-causing disaster-flick track record is unmatched. UNWATCHABLE. ~JB


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Becoming Chaz

It may be more for his famous parentage than anything else that Chaz Bono—the transsexual man formerly known as Chastity, daughter of Sonny and Cher—carries the clout to become the focus of this documentary on the physical and emotional process of gender reassignment, but that doesn’t make his any less engaging and interesting a story. Becoming Chaz, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, is an often affecting and always enlightening at the toll taken on the people who undergo these operations and those close to them. Bono’s production role may be to blame for preventing the movie being perhaps as incisive as it ought to be; never quite taking him to task for his flaws, it does feel occasionally too controlled for comfort. Nevertheless, his is a fascinating tale, well supplemented with plentiful clips of him—then her—growing up before millions on his parents’ TV show. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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Blood Runs Cold

It’s seems almost cruel to criticise Blood Runs Cold, given its measly budget of a mere five thousand dollars, a sum that wouldn’t cover craft services on a major blockbuster. The thing is, though, there’s always the chance that blockbuster might be good, an adjective that could never be deployed in connection with this redundant effort. It’s abundantly evident in director Sonny Laguna’s setup that he knows precisely how tired his cabin-in-the-woods formula is, yet still we’re given the thirty minutes of needless exposition before the obligatory axeman arrives, still we’re forced to spend time with characters as unlikeable as they are undeveloped. Why, when making a movie of this sort, not just cut right to the chase: spare us the stuff on the side and give us the gore from the first real. Given its impressively gooey effects, that approach might almost make Blood Runs Cold just a little fun. AVOID IT. ~RD


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Lilo & Stitch

Lilo & Stitch has become quite the fan favorite, and for a darn good reason. Stitch, aka Experiment 626, is an abomination according to the galaxy. After he flees from his captivity, 626 sets out to explore its inner destructive soul on a planet called Earth, on a tiny island near Hawaii. What he didn’t count on was being adopted by an awkward little girl named Lilo, who sets out to make him a “model citizen”. The story outline is nothing unfamiliar. The execution, however, is marvellous. The combination of terrific voice acting, a warm and adventurous screenplay, and a fast but thorough pace bring you the joy at an almost relentless level. The most remarkable aspect about this flick is the evolution of Stitch. It’s a sight that brings nothing but glee (the good kind) right into your life. Fun fact: directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois went on to make How to Train Your Dragon. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch

Direct-to-DVD Disney flicks are tricky. A good chunk of them are lacklustre at best. Lilo & Stich 2: Stitch Has a Glitch does not fit that profile. Stitch has made himself right at home with Lilo, Nani and the rest of the quirky alien-filled family. But he’s been having these horrible nightmares; they consist of him going on the rampage. Sure enough, Dr Jumba realizes that something went wrong with Stitch’s creation phase, and the result could prove deadly. It’s really short—just 8 minutes over an hour—and it’s one of the few times that a DTV Disney sequel deserves a longer runtime. The quality from its predecessor is directly transferred into this second outing. While the ending might be a bit overabundant in clichés, the rest of this adventure is filled with all the ecstatic formula that made the first one so appealing. A rare Disney sequel gem. RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Lizzie

Well, you have to give them credit for trying… Lizzie’s angle is quite the set-up: the horrible events—a nice way of saying “hatchet slayings”—that happened in 1892 with the infamous Lizzie Borden acquittal are given a rude awakening when the reincarnation of Lizzie is awarded the childhood home that she barely remembers. Through some help, she starts putting things together piece by piece, and the closer she gets, the more she realizes the horror of the situation… and pause right there. Up to this point, the movie does a decent job of maintaining a steady flow of mystery and dread, and the star, Amanda Baker, is certainly up to the task. But the more things flesh out, the more director David Dunn Jr.—in his feature film debut—displays his eagerness a bit too much. The film gets messy, and although it doesn’t completely spiral out of control, by the end it becomes a mediocre lesson in what could have been. SO-SO. ~JB


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Night Vision

What an abysmal excuse for a movie is Night Vision, Nathaniel Warsh’s stupidly self-important story of a reality TV producer who finds himself at the mercy of a rejected starlet with a thirst for violent vengeance. For a while, for just the slightest, solitary moment, it seems as though Warsh may actually have some slyly satirical point here, but the prominent lack of any production value at all and sharp descent into sub-torture porn territory soon exposes such thinking for the foolishness it is. No, this is little more than that most dreadful of things: exploitation devoid of entertainment, low filmmaking too fond of itself to ever attain the self-awareness that might make it somewhat tolerable. Whether Warsh has sympathy for either of his reprehensible characters is unclear; what’s evident in spades is that he hasn’t the means to explore them with even the faintest hint of depth. UNWATCHABLE. ~RD


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Radio Unnameable

There’s a recurring shot in Radio Unnameable, Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson’s documentary exploring Bob Fass’ long-running radio programme of the same name, where the extensive archives he houses are seen in all their towering imposition. As the film bears witness to their transportation to a more secure home, it remains its underlying goal to make us care that they find the protection and preservation sought for them. It’s a wildly successful effort: here is a fascinating portrait of a man who defined free-form radio and gave a platform to the counterculture that had begun to make itself known when he began airing in 1963. With significant samples from Fass’ files and a welcome selection of engaging talking heads, Lovelace and Wolfson chronicle the growth of a man and a movement both, finding in their subject a remarkable rendition of American history and the way the world has changed across the last half-century. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Strange Frame: Love & Sax

“Lesbian Avatar” is maybe the best effort that’s been made to classify Strange Frame: Love & Sax by people who, in so attempting, seemingly fail to recognise the intently unclassifiable nature of the production. Quite unlike anything else you’re likely to have seen, G.B. Hajim’s debut feature is an eccentric, eclectic, energetic animation that’s part romantic epic, part rock musical, part space opera, and absolutely all over the place in the process. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the movie’s manic tonal shifts arguably add to the intensity of its odd allure. Centred on two young women united by their love of music and each other on the colonised moons of Jupiter in the 28th century, it’s as wildly imaginative a film as you could hope to see. Or indeed to be in; its utter uniqueness ropes in an impressive voice cast, including Tim Curry, Ron Glass, Alan Tudyk, and even George Takei. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Syrup (Read our full review)

Remarkably unremarkable at every last turn, Aram Rappaport’s Syrup is little more than a disastrous effort to capitalise on the capacious satirical possibilities of its premise. Centred on Scat, the unfortunately-monikered layabout whose ostensibly ingenious idea for an image-in-a-can energy drink entitled “fukk” is unceremoniously stolen by his silent roommate and exploited to maximum fiscal reward, it’s an occasionally witty but eventually uninteresting affair that just hasn’t the material to make good on its promises. Fine performances from Shiloh Hernandez and Amber Heard do their part to assuage the tedium, but it’s a losing battle they fight, and what little laughs their exchanges raise are the comic equivalent of shovelling snow in a blizzard. It’s truly sad to see how far foul the film falls of its erstwhile potential; beginning with a real sense of anti-commercial angst, its satirical streak soon gives way to a slew of the-cheaper-the-better gags. AVOID IT. ~RD


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The Emperor’s New Groove

It could be argued that The Emperor’s New Groove was one of the forgotten Disney flicks of the 2000s. If that argument favors the side that it is, then it’s a shame. The story’s about the emperor Kuzco (David Spade). He’s young, spoiled, and has a complete disregard for others. Those attributes become his undoing as his trusted advisors (Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warbuton) turn him into a llama in an effort to get rid of him. Through trials, tribulations and the help of a kind villager (John Goodman), Kuzco goes on a journey to get his groove back. Not like Stella, though. The behind-the-scenes effort is admirable but nothing too special. What is special, however, is the voice acting. The comedic timing between the foursome is hilarious and exceptional, and together they provide some moments that demand your loudest kind of laugh. I dare you not to lose it at “Yay, I’m a llama again!” RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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War Witch (Read our full review)

There’s an extraordinary moment in War Witch, Kim Nguyen’s Canadian-produced, African-set Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-nominee, where the fourteen year-old child soldier protagonist Komona is suddenly faced with the empty, ashen faces of all those—her parents included—her captors have forced her to kill. It’s a striking sequence, not solely for its suddenness: it comes as an unannounced departure from the heavily realist aesthetic in which the movie has heretofore traded. Alarmingly expressionistic, it’s a moment to rival the most distressing horror, the quiet resignation of these pale faces a terrifying manifestation of the pervasive death that defines this life. Rachel Mwanza gives an extremely affecting lead performance, beautifully embodying her character’s lost childhood yet all the while retaining a certain youthful exuberance. Nguyen’s film finds rare joy deep in the heart of darkness; her story, for all the awful things it shows, is oddly hopeful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Welcome to Pine Hill

Jointly conceived by writer/director Keith Miller and star Shanon Harper, Welcome to Pine Hill sees the latter play a loosely disguised version of himself, a drug dealer turned claims adjuster and bouncer struggling to settle into a normal life. It’s a struggle only worsened, of course, by a diagnosis of terminal cancer, prompting a long and difficult evaluation of life in what little time remains. Miller has a fine eye for a nice shot, but his scripting capabilities let the film down, large chunks of subpar dialogue working against the intended emotional gravitas of the story. The lacking performances hardly help; Harper is not without his moments of excellence, yet his lack of experience is abundantly clear. His diagnosis scene, courtesy of his muted reactions and a host of wholly unconvincing medical jargon, is disastrously close to unintentional hilarity. There’s talent here, it’s just not nearly enough. SO-SO. ~RD

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.