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Feature


I’ve heard people lamenting the supposed loss of a subgenre of movies where groups of kids (usually boys) have an unexpected coming-of-age adventure. According to this assumption, such adventures died in the ‘80s with movies like Richard Donner’s The Goonies, Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad, and Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. On the contrary, I’ve found that the subgenre is alive and well – they just aren’t making live-action, kiddie team-up movies in this country anymore. They’ve also become considerably more imaginative and adult-friendly. Films like Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow (2008, Britain) and Paco Plaza’s A Christmas Tale (2005, Spain) have brought arthouse-like class to a simple concept. Now, Canadian filmmakers Jason Lapeyre & Robert Wilson enter the fray with an ode to violent playtime – I Declare War.

 I Declare War
Armed with nothing more than twigs, their imaginations, and a simple set of rules, a group of 12-year-olds engaged in a lively game of Capture the Flag in the neighborhood woods start dangerously blurring the lines between make-believe and reality. Rocks = Grenades. Trees = Control towers. Sticks = Submachine guns. The youthful innocence of the game gradually takes on a different tone as the quest for victory pushes the boundaries of friendship. The would-be warriors get a searing glimpse of humanity’s dark side as their combat scenario takes them beyond the rules of the game and into an adventure where fantasy combat clashes with the real world. (From Drafthouse Film’s official synopsis)

Before I Declare War, Lapeyre, who also wrote the screenplay, worked as director on a mental health documentary called Faceless (2011) and a crime thriller called Cold Blooded (2012). Wilson has previously worked in mostly a production capacity on Canadian B-movies of various genres, but he did act as director on a bio-terrorist-themed horror movie, Warriors of Terra (2006). There’s nothing in either man’s filmography that implies they’d be the guys for this particular job. Stylistically, I Declare War hits the right notes while contrasting the ridiculous subject matter with deathly serious widescreen imagery and entirely sincere performances. Sometimes, the handheld camera style is a bit nauseating, but the mix of rough and smooth imagery definitely works for the oddball subject matter. Lapeyre & Wilson only occasionally heightened the war stuff with special effects and sound design, opting instead to find most of their cinematic drama in the otherwise mundane environment they’re working in. The final effect is, at times, potent in its suspense and even startlingly poignant.

 I Declare War
Lapeyre’s writing smells a little Wes Andersony. More specifically, it’s the kind of unironically R-rated material Rushmore’s Max Fischer would write as a play. I mean this as a positive comparison, because I genuinely enjoy the aesthetic. I suppose the real-life dangers, like threats of disfigurement/torture and rock throwing, are a bit over the top, but you have to admire the filmmakers’ willingness to be cruel with their concept, no matter the possible consequences from angry parent groups that weren’t too fond of the joke. The story, though built upon clichés, is also unusually unpredictable. I was pretty sure the ‘good guys’ would win in the end, but wasn’t as ahead of the narrative as I thought I was. And, of course, none of this would work without the right ensemble of kid actors to enact the mayhem. The cast is uniformly fantastic and treat the material with the proper weight and only break character for the sake of a ‘remember, they’re really kids’-type joke (like the bit where Jess announces she’s going home to get juice). The film’s only real problem is a pretty big one – even at 94 minutes, it’s over-drawn, wearing the concept thin. This concept is ripe with entertainment value, assuming we’re talking about a trailer, sketch, or short film, but the cast and crew’s best efforts don’t quite fill out the feature runtime. I’d also say a fair number of the character arcs go untested or finish in uncharacteristically unsatisfying ways, but to go into specifics would be too spoilery of me.

 I Declare War

Video


I Declare War was shot using Red One MX cameras and is presented in 2.35:1, 1080p video on this Blu-ray. The image quality is super sharp with crisp, deep-set details and realistic textures that aren’t muddied with unwanted edge haloes. The directors and cinematographer Ray Dumas aim for a slightly yellowed palette and lower contrast levels between their fine patterns. This sunny tint sort of flattens out some of the wide-angle hue textures and highlights, but doesn’t necessarily lead to desaturation in the cooler hues. The omnipresent green of the forest is lush and homogenized, as are the blue and red wardrobe pieces. The fake blood that fills the balloon grenades also pops quite nicely against the otherwise natural look. The lack of dynamic contrast doesn’t damage the rich black levels, which steadily darken as the movie carries on and day turns to night and shadows turn longer/harsher. The image features nary a hint of digital noise/grain and this utter clarity is occasionally at odds with the dirt and grime of the great outdoors, but it also seems fitting for the material’s thematic artificiality.

 I Declare War

Audio


I Declare War is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. This is a busy, sometimes aggressive track, but also one that also shows its low price tag in terms of overly digital or ‘canned’ effects. This isn’t exactly a problem, since the children in the film are imagining these sounds, anyway (part of me wanted a couple of cutaways to the kids making gun noises with their mouths for the sake of further contrast). Aural highlights include the swirling of unseen helicopters, the rattling of heavy machine gun fire, and LFE-rumbling explosions. The spatial representations, directional enhancements, and echo of the effects is every bit as impressive as a major Hollywood production; there’s just a lack of organic layering that sets I Declare War on a lower bar. Nick Dyer and Eric Cadesky’s score settles firmly beneath the dialogue-driven scenes with ambient keyboards and drums. This music is also surprisingly active in the rear channels, specifically the percussive elements.

 I Declare War

Extras


The extras begin with two audio commentaries. The first track features the directors and producer Lewin Webb. It’s a fun enough track that starts off needlessly defensive, but eventually evolves into a semi-interesting discussion of child psychology. When focused on the film itself, rather than the implications of violent play, the discussion is full of information, but, frankly, most of us should probably just skip straight to the second track, which features the directors alongside actors Gage Munroe, Michael Friend, Aidan Gouveia, Andy Reid, Spencer Howes, Alex Cardillo, Dyson Fyke, and Eric Hanson. This is a genuinely funny and engaging track, not just an amusing lark. The moms in the audience that were afraid the filmmakers were exploiting young minds should definitely give this a listen – not only are the kids bright and extremely film-savvy – they’re also constantly aware of the difference between them and the characters they were playing (‘I would’ve never said that in real life’ or ‘I felt so bad when I said ____ to _____’). Much to my surprise, as a person that has been forced to endure group tracks with spastic adult casts, these guys don’t talk over each other, go off on tangents, or fall into giggling fits. They also remember plenty of behind-the-scenes factoids that the directors don’t cover on their track, so there’s unusually little overlap.

Up next is Building a Battle (23:40, HD) a making-of featurette that mixes raw, behind-the-scenes footage with cast and crew interviews hosted mostly by Eric Hanson (the kid with the war paint). It’s a little dry and the approach is slightly scattershot, but the footage of filmmakers collaborating with the young actors is disarming. None of them are treated like a child and they are all thoroughly invested in the process. Soldiers and Actors (22:40, HD) mixes Hanson’s interviews with his fellow cast members and choice scenes from the movie. Things are closed out with footage from Drafthouse’s The Ultimate I Declare War Capture The Flag Paintball Challenge (2:20, HD) and a trailer.

 I Declare War

Overall


I Declare War is a very well-made film that runs strong on fantastic performances from a cadre of unknown young actors, but its cute concept runs out of steam long before the credits have rolled. I applaud the filmmakers for forging ahead with their idea and still recommend the movie to anyone that enjoys similarly adult-friendly/kid-centric films, like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow. Drafthouse Films deliver another attractive package, featuring a sharp transfer, a busy soundtrack, and a solid collection of extras that includes a commentary with the kid stars.

 I Declare War

 I Declare War

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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