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December Ends

Echo Bridge Home Entertainment // Unrated // July 8, 2008
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 15, 2008 | E-mail the Author
"Aronofsky does Scarface" can aptly summarize the tone behind December Ends, a gritty and earnest drug traffic film from freshman writer / director Lee Toland Krieger. It's a solid telling of the familiar ascent-descent formula, one with gorgeously shot breadth and sweeping melancholy surrounding an impossible romance. The formidability within Krieger's film lies in the realism focused on a father and son's mangled hierarchy as the latter plunges into a questionable profession. First-time films shouldn't be quite this good, which definitely bodes well for its director.

The Film:

December Ends, as its name implies, comes to its close at a chaotic New Year's Eve party filled with substance abuse and debauchery of all sorts. Chris, a "courier" of contrabands, blitzes through the lingering drug-infused crowd in frantic search for somebody. It's surprisingly easy to imagine him before he sunk into the scene since he's changed so little, probably because of the necessity behind his plight. He's not a prospective entrepreneur akin to Frank Lucas from American Gangster, nor is he a user looking for both a wealthy and abusive lifestyle like Harry from Requiem for a Dream. Chris is just an ex-bookstore clerk taking care of himself and his alcoholic, out-of-work widower father by working a lucrative market. He seems to earn no thrills from his job, his money, or his shadowy peers -- except from the lingering affection for his boss's girlfriend Audrey, someone he had met before his life as a pseudo-dealer.

Krieger's film takes pride in its yielding realism, thriving on a seamless path into a dangerous and illegal underworld. There's no grand scheme, no huge statement of wealth that would make Tony Montana proud; instead the focal explanation for Chris' motives pour from his eyes, bright to painful life by Chumscrubber character actor Josh Janowicz. As he rides the Brooklyn subways and floats around the subdued entities that he interacts with on a consistent basis, including the scatterbrained family member responsible for his introduction to the world, Chris' subtle emotions gives us only mere hints into his psyche. We know that guns are blazing in off-shot connections from his dealings and that even more money is being fought over in subsequent levels above him, but his honest and good-natured plight to support his family at any cost makes his subtle brushes with the drug world's chaos all the more dynamic.

December Ends is a surprisingly significant achievement in crafting an affective temperament. From the second that we meet Chris and Audrey in the nook of the bookstore, there's direct investment in both of their untainted characters. Within a few lines of dialogue, we discover that they share similar reading patterns and tastes in artists -- a connection that quickly comes into play several scenes later. It's a convincing plot device early on in the story arc, one that feels pertinent to the unkempt boy in search of a solution to life's unanswerable puzzle. However, it's mostly care that we have for the boy to achieve normalcy, not so much care for their relationship. A lot of this hinges on Janowicz' budding capabilities as an actor, as he gets similar results out of his quick interactions with his father and fellow drug dealer cousin/brother.

Though few memorable plot points or dramatic stretches leap out from the film as highlights, its pathway through New York's simple, dark subways and apartment complexes build an interwoven network of movement somewhat similar to Requiem for a Dream. It plays off of its influences with strength, never deviating from its originality far enough to feel much of the "been there, done that" vibe. Everything adds up well in Krieger's character drama as it mostly hinges on Chris' forlorn leap of faith into, and his plotting escape strategy out of, his chosen world. Though it's a tad singularly focused in its emotive rhythm and lacks the support it needs from its supplemental cast to diversify its motives, the sheer power behind that one objective is still rather potent.

Once the major plot complication arises in the narrative, meaning Chris and Audrey's ignited spark that flickers once they rediscover each other, this subtlety of realistic edginess shifts and aligns accordingly to the escalating intensity. In rhythmic and thematic waves, it mirrors De Palma's Scarface -- but in an exceedingly more sober and insightful light. Blended with choice photography and wonderful music to match its kitschy underground sheen, December Ends comes out of nowhere and rustles up a poignant drug film with a surprisingly coherent and pure lead in Josh Janowicz's Charlie. It's an effective piece of indie drama that illustrates a dealer's world without romanticism and glory inside of its profession, though plenty of quixotic elements loom outside of its dark and hardened shell begging to be shattered.

The DVD:

Echo Bridge Home Entertainment has brought December Ends to home video in a standard keepcase presentation with coverart that replicates one of its poster concepts.

The Video:

Something's amiss with December Ends' aspect ratio presentation. Presented here in a tightly-encapsulated and dark 1.33:1 fullframe image, it seems to be taken from a taller negative than the film's "other" ratio. According to the film's IMDB page, which is further backed up by the deleted scenes on this very DVD, this was originally framed in a 2.35:1 letterbox image. It's a slightly noisy transfer as well, which further inclines me to believe that maybe the original image ought to be framed at that wider size. The level of detail still looks very nice, as does the black levels visible in the image. However, I do wish that the film was available in the letterbox scale that the deleted scenes allude to, as the photography in the film is quite attractive. If word reaches me that this new framing was the director's intent, then amendments to the rating can be made accordingly.

(Left = Deleted Scenes, Right = FF DVD Transfer)

The Audio:

Presented in 2.0 Stereo, the audio quality isn't half bad considering the less-than-ample sound conditions for the film. Since a lot of the dialogue was recorded in a studio after shooting, most of that is clear. Furthermore, the music sounds fine. It's a very undynamic, front-heavy, and straightforward track.

The Extras:

Commentary with Director Lee Toland Krieger:
Reaffirming my faith in independent director's quality of commentaries, Krieger's track is honest and insightful regarding the film ... at least, what he can remember of it. Since he recorded the track a good 4 years after the film wrapped its shoots, he struggles to piece together a few of the elements. Yet, he can still remember the actor's enthusiasm over shooting locations, the amount of editing to runtimes, as well as his grievances with the cast. It's a blunt infusion of technical cam information and performance appraisal that only starts to lose steam about 3/4ths the way through.

Behind the Scenes Actor Rehearsals:
Nearly 28 minutes of two-on-one rehearsal time with two actors and director Krieger. All of the material, of course, features Janowicz playing out with each of his three focal allies in the film.

Deleted Scenes:
A little over nine minutes of justifiable deleted material is featured here. As mentioned earlier, the interesting part of these scenes lies in the fact that they are all features in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen images -- which alludes to the oddity with the film's aspect ratio.


Final Thoughts:

Both heartfelt and harsh, December Ends takes a soulful independent spin on finding love in desperate circumstances. Mixed with strong photography and solid musical accompaniment for good measure, you'll be soaking in an attractive indie drama with a handful of interesting performances. Though the DVD looks good and has some solid extras, the aspect ratio problem somewhat construes the recommendation. Until the aspect ratio deal is squared away, give December Ends a Rental and check out its poetically urban narrative.

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