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Frontier, The

Kino // Unrated // December 6, 2016
List Price: $22.19 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted April 29, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

A lot of cinematic gems that were released in the ‘70s remain largely hidden in obscurity, especially in the crime and mystery subgenres involving a drifter of sorts ... but, of course, not all those movies released during that period have the merits or general strengths to be sought after. Oren Shai worked diligently to recreate the aesthetic of the era with The Frontier, a f and murder mystery centered on a young woman fleeing from an abusive relationship with a few skeletons in her closet. The camera movement and brightness of the 16mm footage, the tailoring of the clothing, and the pace of the dialogue itself transports the viewer back to the era's filmmaking, positioned in a small, dusty town in the middle of nowhere and with an odd batch of people populating its focal hotel/diner. The way the story itself operates in The Frontier, however, can't capitalize on its nostalgic whimsy, crafting a clumsy and absurd lark of a pseudo-thriller that plays like one of those relics from the ‘70s that isn't worth pursuing.

The Frontier is the name of the rest stop positioned between wide expanses of desert -- presumably in Arizona, considering its proximity to "Flagstaff" -- that mostly operates on the patronage of locals and the obscure travelers here and there. One day, a slim, timid drifter named Laine (Jocelin Donahue) parks her car in front of the diner and camps out for the evening, to be greeted by the diner/hotel runner Luanne (Kelly Lynch) in the morning, who takes her under her wing and offers some food, shelter, perhaps more if she's interested in sticking around. Laine's not keen on staying for very long, though, expressed through her suspiciousness of her surroundings and the people who come into the diner: a police officer, an enigmatic and curt man (Jim Beaver) with a beard, and a peculiar lavish-living couple (Izabella Miko; Jamie Harris) with distinct accents. As her time extends in The Frontier, Laine gradually learns more about the situation involving the guests and the ownership of the place, eventually resulting in violence and bloodshed in the expanses of the desert.

On the surface, it'd be easy to mistake The Frontier for a legitimate film shot and released during the ‘70s, where the slow zoom-outs and camera panning -- kinda reminiscent of Robert Altman's work -- accentuate the cinematography's framing of body motion in a distinctive, deliberate manner befitting the period. Director Oren Shai tends to lean on that element like a crutch, though, as the novelty of the visual language isn't enough to conceal the threadbare plotting accelerating it forward, full of developments in the diner that are equally simplistic in design as they are convoluted in execution. The speed in which Laine integrates with the moving parts of the diner and hotel becomes a bizarrely unnatural element, where somehow, in a matter of hours, she quickly flips from a timid person uncertain about sticking around to one of the diner's charismatic waitresses who knows where the hidden liquor's kept and feels totally comfortable offering it to the guests. The same care that went into getting the mood right didn't go into nailing down a credible evolution of circumstances for what's largely a character-driven mystery.

Fault doesn't just lie with the progression of events in The Frontier, but in how Oren Shai executes them through stylized verbal exchanges and body language within the diner's confined space, an inspired but awkward effort resulting in the suspense's layers making less sense than needed. There's a lot of stiff, absurd dialogue surrounding Laine, especially from the oddball travelers and denizens of the desert, from the kooky rich couple -- who occasionally make "the millionaire and his wife" from Gilligan's Island look restrained -- to the pompous, flirtatious police officer who keeps everyone updated on certain events happening in Flagstaff. Each character amounts to a collection of traits instead of perceptible individuals, and the ones who are genuine personalities, like Kelly Lynch's rest-stop overseer Luanne, suffer the consequences of the script's cumbersome shifts in circumstances; the way she earnestly presents an offer to Laine then later rescinds it plays out dumbfoundingly through Oren Shai's direction. No guilty-pleasure effervescence to be found here, either, only clunky, inauthentic babble.

That's a bummer, because substantial and perceptive ambitions linger within The Frontier, centered on Laine's reasoning for fleeing her abusive circumstances, her hesitation in returning to her hometown, and how she plots her next moves while stuck in that rock-and-a-hard-place situation. With bruises on her neck and a sharply standoffish attitude, Laine proves to be an intriguing catalyst for the mysteries of the rest-stop to come out into the open, which eventually involve bloodshed and sneaky double-crosses hinged on the information that Laine absorbs from the other guests and their hidden agendas. Director Oren Shai's shock-value endeavors misjudges the audience's appreciation for these characters, though, and the layers of deceit amount to a hectic and lethal climax without any strong attachments to the players caught in the fray … not even Laine, whose willfully enigmatic persona keeps one at a distance from embracing whatever trouble she's endured. Once the dust settles, The Frontier amounts to an imitation of a relic from the ‘70s that would've made the same muffled impact then as it does now.

Video and Audio:

Ah, glorious grain. The Frontier gets to enjoy the best of both worlds through Kino's Blu-ray, sporting the texture and exposure of real 16mm film while also having the cleanliness and detail of something that was photographed recently. The appearance of the film texture is, therefore, impeccable, sporting phenomenal structure from start to finish without intruding on any fine details within the 1.85:1, 1080p image. Every strand of Laine's hair and weave of either knitted or printed fabric is crystal clear. Skin tones are healthily warm yet under control alongside the photography's intentions, with a handful of blasts of color -- especially reds, from decorations in the diner and bright stylized lighting in car to spilled blood -- are boldly saturated yet appropriately handled with the color timing. Black levels are also rather astonishing, ranging from deep yet appropriate casting of shadows to warm browns and tans that communicate splendidly with the cinematography. A tremendous transfer from Kino for a unique visual experience.

Whether we're talking about the 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio or the 2.0 stereo PCM track, The Frontier enjoys a similar fusion of vintage antiquity and modern clarity. Dialogue rings true from start to finish, yet also retains a bit of that aged twang and mildly muffled texture wherever it seems necessary. Mild sound effects are well-pronounced yet under control alongside the other front-end channels, like the chatter of cartoons on an old television, the thump of a heavy bag being gently set on the ground, and the opening and closing of a clasp on a cigarette case, while firmer effects like gunfire possess plenty of volume without distracting rumble. The music sounds universally spectacular, too, projecting great midrange heft and upper-end clarity while coaxing some of that aged twang as well. There isn't much in the way of discernible separation in the front channels (or the rear channels for the full surround treatment, essentially a bloated stereo track itself), and the balance between sound effects and the strong presence of music can get somewhat askew, but this track musters the strength needed to go along with the film's pastiche. English subs are available.

Special Features:

Leading the way with the extras, Kino have included an Audio Commentary with Oren Shai and Co-Writer Webb Wilcoxen, moderated in a fashion by podcast host Elric Kane. The discussion vacillates between chatting about what's onscreen and delving into the inspiration powering this unique project, from their shooting location to how they cast the film. The Devil's Rejects and House of the Devil are name-dropped in the discussion, as well as greats like Errol Flynn and Lee Marvin as templates of sorts for the character portrayals in the film. The discussion meanders and overlaps frequently, but it's a decent listen in spurts.

The rest of the supplemental material revolves around Interviews, starting with Jocelin Donahue (6:03, 16x9 HD) as she delves into her drifter character's malleable morals, unconcealed back-story, and grasping of the setting and characters scuffling around her. AJ Bowen (6:28, 16x9 HD) delves into how his law officer character works around the complicated fabric of Laine's character and how the movie Bus Stop factors into the film's makeup, and Jim Beaver (6:07, 16x9 HD) expands upon the stern and controlling presence of the bearded man and how he had very little endearing traits. The last of the extras features a Theatrical Trailer (1:48, 16x9 HD) and a brief Behind the Scenes (2:56, 4x3 HD) reel of black-and

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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