IFC Films Blu-ray Wrap-Up (US - BD RA)
Gabe reviews a series of IFC Films releases centered around tiny casts...
4:44: Last Day on Earth
As Armageddon movies continue to excel in popular culture their conventions are beginning to be adapted in subversive ways by subversive artists. This year saw indie darling Lorene Scafaria taking the subject on with a substantially twee comedy take, and soon Edgar Wright will be regrouping with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for The World’s End, which will likely be a satirical, character-driven take on the genre. Now, it’s one-time enfant terrible Abel Ferrara’s turn to but his own nihilistic, minimalist spin on the end of the world with his film 4:44: Last Day on Earth – a disaster film set almost entirely in a bohemian couple’s Manhattan apartment. Ferrara is best remembered for his Catholic-guilt heavy, New York-set crime films, Driller Killer, Ms. 45, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant. These films remain among the best of their kind, thanks in large part to Ferarra’s mix of intellectualism and exploitation imagery. More recently his output has been largely defined by staid, meditative films that are mostly defined by their above-average casts and uneventful narratives. 4:44: Last Day on Earth carries many of Ferrara’s trademarks, including visual hallmarks, a claustrophobic atmosphere, and the New York setting. Any viewer expecting the usual mix of bombast and social anxiety found in the most popular end of the world cinema will be sorely disappointed by Ferrara’s approach, but fans will know, more or less, exactly what to expect.
The film is immediately striking for its characters’ surprising indifference towards the onset of the end of days (which have already been announced). Our leads, Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh), go about their business with an alarming calm. Ferrara takes time to lovingly film the mundane details of their final day, including Skype calls (sometimes the film feels like a really dark ad for the platform – one of the two leads practically shares her name with it), painting, watching television, making love, talking to themselves, screaming at each other (easily the dumbest moments of the entire film), taking drugs and watching their neighbours. The cause of the world’s death is explained in the most basic scientific terms, but is mostly a moot point in favour of more quiet images inter-cut with spiritually-tinted, surrealist tone poems, and bizarre images of New Yorkers going about their normal lives, unaware that Ferrara is filming them in the context of the apocalypse. Generally speaking, nothing happens and we’re forced to deal with the listlessness of impending doom. This approach does lead the audience to start thinking about what they’d do with their last day, and it feels strangely authentic. There are stints of Ferrara lobbing politics and philosophies at the screen, but he mostly avoids corralling his audience, leaving the bulk of the reaction up to us. What’s most surprising is that the film isn’t really all that nihilistic, despite being an Abel Ferrara movie about the end of the world.
Shot using Red One digital HD cameras and presented in 1080p video, 4:44: Last Day on Earth looks pretty great. Close-up details are enormously sharp and lifelike and background details are complex without mashing into each other. The compressed footage used for montage and archive interview purposes should not have its digital artefacts counted against it, of course. Problems occur with some of the blends, especially those seen in the darker outdoor sequences. Here banding effects become so extreme that they almost appear intentional, and are easily among the worst I’ve ever seen from a Blu-ray disc (this occurs sometimes with special effects, so it may be an overarching issue with the budget CG Ferrara used). The black levels also tend to absorb the warmer hues in natural light, but are generally well separated and support the vibrant colours. The film’s sound design doesn’t give the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack all that much to do, but there isn’t much to complain about in terms of distortion or shortcomings in the mix. The naturalist approach doesn’t lead to a lot in the way of directional influence, but there is an ambient bustle in the stereo and surround channels that works in the organic sense. Francis Kuipers’ music is plenty big, and features plenty of stereo and LFE support. The only extra here is a trailer.
Featuring a cast of actors on their way out of stardom (sorry, Stephen Dorff) and a largely untried filmmaking crew, Brake doesn’t inspire very much confidence. Often low standards breed pleasant surprises, and Brake ends up being a modestly entertaining thriller experience. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, but it’s solidly crafted, good looking, and, perhaps most importantly, aspires to be something genuinely smart. First time feature writer Timothy Mannion, is smart in its unassuming scale, and he unravels his plot without wasting too much time on unnecessary sequences or subplots. The more complex the tale gets, however, the more familiar it feels, and the more obvious it is that the final payoff probably won’t meet the expectations set. The double twist ending doesn’t help. Prolific television documentary director Gabe Torres is given a pretty complex problem to solve in covering a large part of his narrative from a single, severely compact set. He manages to both make the small set appear consistently interesting, and find a storytelling rhythm that helps maintain interest despite the lack of diversity in onscreen faces. He also times out some potent startles and the illusion of action where there really isn’t any. Stephen Dorff’s recent lack of mainstream appearances has made it easy to forgive years of douche bag typecasting and he’s actually quite good in this more human role, which is good, since we don’t escape him for basically the entire movie. The dialogue also isn’t solid enough on its own to work without a strong central performance to anchor it. The off-screen actors are a bit stiff, save a prime performance from an adorable dog, but not enough to drag down the film too much.
Brake was also shot using the Red One camera system and is also quite good looking in 1080p. The film starts baked exclusively in a bright red hue, supported by super-deep blacks. These images are crisp without more than a hint of compression blocking. Soon after, greens are introduced, along with more highlight options, and the quality of the image takes a slight turn into something more raw and grainy. Eventually, proper lighting takes hold, and the format’s abilities with complex hue separation and fine details are put to good use (you can probably count the hairs in Dorff’s mustache). The digital grain never really clears up, but it’s quite fine and generally adds texture to the gritty situation. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is quite lively adding a sense of hyperrealism to a claustrophobic situation. While Dorff is trapped in the trunk the stereo and surround channels are used to convey the unseen sounds of the outside world, and the immersive effect is largely successful, especially in terms of the directional movements of vehicles. Workhorse composer Brian Tyler’s score is a bit more electronically enhanced than a lot of his more recent work, but certainly adds a bit of class to the modest production. The score is often at odds with the sound effects and could’ve probably been dropped entirely in many cases, but, for the most part, undercuts the mood without overstating itself. Extras include a commentary track with director Gabe Torres, Inside the Box: Making Brake (23:50, HD) with Torres, Stephen Dorff and writer Timothy Mannion, and trailers.
ATM features another first time feature-length director and another high concept, claustrophobic story, but unlike Brake, it doesn’t step beyond its low expectations. In fact, it’s kind of a bad movie altogether. Director David Brooks does pretty well with the basics of camera movement and blocking, but he has major issues with building suspense. There’s not a single genuinely frightening sequence in the entire film and the violence is incredibly tame. Chris Sparling’s screenplay, which traps three young financial industry types in an ATM booth while a masked killer attempts to draw them out for the slaughter, features a reasonably clever, low-budget-friendly premise that plays on post-recession talking points, but like so many high concept horror flicks, the premise would probably work better in a shorter form treatment. Stretched over nearly 90 minutes the story’s lack of ideas wears thin, and the entire premise turns downright silly. There is some surprisingly amusing and particularly sarcastic back and forth dialogue early in the film, but the bulk of interactions are made up of characters either bickering about what to do or wondering allowed why this horrible fate has befallen them. The small cast features a surprisingly recognizable team of actors considering ATM is basically a low-budget slasher, including Alice Eve, Josh Peck and Brian Geraghty, and for the most part they present warm, likeable characters (aside from Peck, who is meant to be annoying). The performances have a huge effect on the film, considering how little occurs in the film’s seemingly endless runtime. Unfortunately, they aren’t enough. I kept waiting for a big twist to appear and save the day, alas, there was none.
And continuing the trend here, ATM was also shot using Red One cameras. Brooks and cinematographer Bengt Jonsson opt for a generally clean, almost sanitary look, cutting between cool, fluorescent-lit hues and, on occasion, warmer, apparently candle-lit (?) hues depending on the scene requirements. The Red One’s abilities with smooth gradations and colour transitions are well utilized, and there are enough deep, supportive black levels to show off the format’s capacity for sharp edges (which is good, considering how extremely dark some sequences are). The transfer also includes an ongoing series of bright highlights, usually in the form of electric reds. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is hit and miss throughout. It’s consistently crisp in terms of natural effects and dialogue, and includes a fair amount of surround ambience when required. The sound of freezing wind blowing outside the ATM booth is particularly effective. Dynamic range plays a regular part in the film, achieving its minor scares, and most of the basic effects are punched up to achieve maximum impact. Shortcomings usually come in the form of musical addition, which are often awkwardly spread over the stereo and surround channels, creating slight aural delays and weird echo effects. David Buckley’s score is mostly unaffected by this problem, and swirls nicely throughout the channels with a punchy LFE backup. The extras include a behind the scenes featurette (8:00, HD) and trailers.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 17th July 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Commentary with director Gabe Torres, Inside the Box: Making Brake, Making ATM, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Abel Ferrara, Gabe Torres, David Brooks
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Shanyn Leigh, Stephen Dorff, Alice Eve, Josh Peck and Brian Geraghty
Genre: Drama and Thriller
Length: 267 minutes
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