For movie watchers, few things can be more frustrating than films that begin with a sequence of immense promise, only to show over the remainder that the emperor truly wears no clothes. Two new examples come from the horror realm.
Until now, Ethan Hawke was having a wonderful year. Before Midnight, the third leg of his trilogy with director Richard Linklater and actress Julie Delpy, brought waves of critical acclaim and talk of another Oscar nomination for their collaborative screenplay, while The Purge turned a meager investment into a highly profitable box-office take.
Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons opens and closes with a montage of abandoned movie theaters. For this film in particular, that choice strikes one as symbolic in several ways: not only as a comment on the state of the industry, but on the state of The Canyons itself. You’re unlikely to find many 2013 films this empty.
What's a director of classic musicals doing in science fiction? Making Saturn 3, one of the worst of the genre Hollywood made in the immediate post-Star Wars / Alien era. Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) takes to it about as well as you'd expect; he's in over his head.
While this institution holds more championship chess titles than any other middle school in the nation (26), the film opens with them experiencing loss — well, second place, at least, among 862 teams. They win so often that not winning is a shock to the kids’ systems.
The bulk of Brooklyn Castle finds them prepping for the next trip to nationals, but facing a road more roughly paved than ever. Not only do these children — mostly African-American and highly disadvantaged financially — have their everyday pressures, but face an impending test that will determine which 600 students among 15,000 applicants will be allowed into a specialized — read: quality — high school.
And on top of that, the U.S. recession hits, and New York City’s billion-dollar deficit threatens to derail school enrichment programs, such as chess. And for these kids, chess is what they live for — more than a game, it’s an anchor attached to the straight-and-narrow, a beacon showing them a way toward a bright future.
On those nonfic-film levels of feel-good and good-for-you, Brooklyn Castle works. It’s like an offshoot of Waiting for “Superman," demonstrating the tangible value of extracurricular education beyond the three Rs that public schools can provide, when only someone cares to.
The film is too long, however; at some point, Dellamaggiore hits a repeat cycle before the final act kicks in. Stories of pint-sized chess champs aren’t new, and the best I’ve encountered were told in print, but this may inspire viewers mildly. It certainly won’t hurt. —Rod Lott