Most people have or will experience a moment in their lives, big or small, when they feel entirely out of control, helplessly replaying the events that led them to where they are as if somehow they can turn back the clock. 96 Minutes sets out to capture that moment for the character of Dre (Evan Ross). Hours after discovering his efforts to keep his head down and graduate have paid off, he finds himself trapped in an increasingly horrific series of violent events that threaten the future he's fought so hard for.
Many viewers will roll their eyes at the film's "unrelated characters in a series of coincidence" structure, similar to Crash and magnolia. However, first-time director Aimée Lagos also folds the film's timeline over in the middle, intercutting between the innocent half moving forward and the dramatic, thrilling half moving backward. The purpose is less about obscuring how college students Carley (Brittany Snow) and Lena (Christian Serratos) come in contact with Dre and his moronic buddy Kevin (Jonathan Michael Trautmann) for the sake of some contrived payoff, and more about putting Dre in that moment, with flashes of his decisions coming back to haunt him.
For the most part, the film rests on the performances of Ross and Snow, and both actors rise to the challenge. Although the viewer is meant to sympathize with Dre to an extent, because he's trying to get his life on track, Lagos puts him in some situations where he can't walk away with his hands clean, and Ross doesn't shy away from any of it, giving his character an angry, resentful side that shows what Dre could've been had he wanted to be. Snow, meanwhile, has to fight through her own fear in order to keep an eye on Dre's internal battle, and use whatever she can to keep Dre calm and collected or find a way out of the situation. David Oyelowo is also good in a small supporting role.
Thanks to the performances, 96 Minutes holds up as an emotional thrill ride, but some of the nuts and bolts of the story are not so successful. Another thing that will remind viewers of Crash: heavy-handed ideals and social and political commentary about the world we live in. It adds nothing to suggest a couple of minor cop characters end up racially profiling a character, or that a character believes one thing in the comfort of debate class and another out on the streets. The story also hinges on the monumentally stupid actions of Kevin, he of the "need to talk about" variety. Thanks to Ross' performance, the film works, but it's a constant battle between his work and the actions of an obnoxiously naive and bitter jackass who figures the least helpful decision he could make in every scene and makes it. Sure, it's part of Dre's lack of control, but the viewer ultimately just has to go with the fact that Dre is going to keep giving Kevin more chances to ruin everything.
Lagos' style as a director is not as interesting as her style as a writer: close-ups and handheld for maximum emotional impact, with the occasional audio drop-out to emphasize a moment here and there. Other elements, like the relationship between Oyelowo's character and his nephew, are fine but not particularly relevant to the story that Lagos is trying to tell. Still, the performances and core ideas of the movie were enough to draw attention away from the bad and toward the good, which is more than can be said for too many debut feature films.
This DVD arrives with the stylish poster art on the front cover and a back cover that accompanies nicely with the same kind of style and color scheme (caution tape yellow and black). There is a cardboard slipcover with identical art to the paper insert, and there is no insert inside an eco-friendly case (the kind with holes punched in it).
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, this transfer of 96 Minutes (which, according to IMDb, was shot on 35mm film) is pretty much on the mark. Most of the film takes place at night, and the movie has a nice rich contrast with deep, inky blacks, while still offering vibrant colors during the movie's occasional daytime or well-lit scene, and plenty of fine detail, down to the strands of Carley's hair. The only issue I noticed in a few scenes was posterization, which is pretty common when the image is so dark all the time.
One nice little touch that Lagos uses to help define the area that the film is set in is the occasional use of a train crossing, one that might separate the "good" and "bad" sides of town. Much of the film takes place inside a vehicle, which adds some interesting sound design as well. Other effects include a few gunshots, some fast driving, people yelling over each other -- all done with nice weight and surround effects on a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. No subtitles are included, but the disc is closed captioned for televisions that offer that option.
There is only one extra: an audio commentary by Lagos and Oyelowo. To all actors who would like to know how to participate in an audio commentary, look no further than this track: Oyelowo wisely acts almost like a moderator. Lagos is usually motivated to say something about what's on screen, but when she isn't, Oyelowo steps in and asks her questions about her choices and her process, which keeps the track lively and interesting. It's a shame that there are no extras with thoughts from Ross or Snow, but this is a strong track.
Trailers for other ARC Entertainment releases play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for 96 Minutes is also included.
Some will feel 96 Minutes is a little too manipulative and heavy-handed for their tastes, and not everything Lagos includes works. However, if the viewer really puts themselves in the shoes of the movie's lead character, I think they'll see what Lagos was going for with the style and structure of the film, and the performances will help carry them along. Recommended.
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