Beasts of the Southern Wild


The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

(2012) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Amber Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Brown, Henry D. Coleman, Kaliana Brower, Philip Lawrence, Hannah Holby, Jimmy Lee Moore, Jovan Hathaway, Kendra Harris, Windle Bourg, Jay Oliver, Roxanna Francis, Marilyn Barbarin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin

2013 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Director – Benh Zeitlin
Best Actress – Quvenzhané Wallis
Best Adapted Screenplay – Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
WINS – 0

Oscar Gold 2016

There is something precious about a child’s imagination. It is untamed, full of beasties and monsters but also full of beauty and innocence. Our worldview as adults is well-informed by our daydreams as children. I, for one, wish I could have held on more to those dreams.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) is a resolute 6-year-old girl living in the Bathtub, a (fictional) part of the Louisiana bayou that rests on the “other” side of the levee. Whenever it rains, the Bathtub floods. The people who live there are rough and tumble, really recognizing no authority but their own. Their lives are hardscrabble and they eke by on whatever they can manage.

Hushpuppy has a daddy named Wink (Henry) who is prone to disappearing. After one such disappearance, he returns home with a hospital gown and ID bracelet. He has a rare blood disease and it is slowly killing him. He means to make his daughter as self-sufficient as he can in what time he has left.

Her somewhat prescient teacher Miss Bathsheba (Montana) tells her and her classmates about global warming and the polar ice caps melting, adding that this would release prehistoric beasts called aurochs that would rampage across North America, devouring everything in their path. She also warns that a gigantic storm is coming. When it hits, Wink and Hushpuppy try to ride it out but when all is said and done the devastation is catastrophic. Worse still, the aurochs are on the loose.

First-time feature director Zeitlin has crafted an impressive debut that takes its visual cues from Terrance Malick. He co-wrote the movie along with Lucy Alibar, loosely based on her play. This feels far from the average stage adaptation because those often feel like you’re seeing a filmed version of a stage play with little depth of field so to speak. Almost all of this is outdoors and not just any outdoors but the somewhat wide and endless bayous of south Louisiana where the Gulf and the land are almost one entity.

Wallis won her Oscar nomination deservedly and it is a performance that will startle anyone who has seen juvenile actors “act.” Most of them are fairly unbearable with occasional exceptions but Wallis blows all of them out of the water here. Her Hushpuppy is primordial and wise at the same time, seeing the world with innocent eyes yet with a certain amount of world weariness that comes from living a difficult life. It’s a deep and layered role that would hopelessly stump even veteran actors but Wallis is so natural it’s like it was written for her, which it surprisingly wasn’t.

Most of the rest of the cast are locals; that makes for predictably varying performances although for the most part they are adequate enough. The aurochs are nicely rendered, considering the tiny budget the movie had and there are some moments of real beauty. Zeitlin doesn’t always connect things together real well but it can’t be denied that he has a really uncanny eye. This is a beautiful film.

The movie does move slowly in the middle as the residents of the Bathtub prepare for the storm. And like many movies that dry to depict the imagination of a child, it sometimes isn’t clear what’s real and what isn’t. Overall though this is a gorgeous movie, somewhat bittersweet about the process of growing up and how sometimes, the fantasies of youth are preferable to the realities of adulthood.

WHY RENT THIS: Wallis is a force of nature here. An imaginative story imaginatively told.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of children in peril, brief profanity, disturbing images, some sensuality and adult themes are the order of the day.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At nine years old, Wallis became the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy history, a record that still stands through 2016.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are audition tapes, a featurette on the Aurochs, and a short film that Zeitlin previously made.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.1M on a $1.8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eye of the Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold continues!

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Homefront (2013)


When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn't what he was expecting.

When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn’t what he was expecting.

(2013) Action (Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder, Frank Grillo, Izabela Vidovic, Clancy Brown, Marcus Hester, Omar Benson Miller, Rachelle Lefevre, Chuck Zito, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Linda Edwards, Austin Craig, Owen Harn, Stuart Greer, Joe Chrest, Christa Campbell, Billy Slaughter, Nicole Andrews. Directed by Gary Fleder

Small towns have a habit of being different things to different people. For some, they are an escape from city life. For others they are cherished reminders of how life used to be. For still others, they are a place where they can conduct their affairs in relative anonymity.

Phil Broker (Statham) used to be a DEA agent. He specialized in undercover operations and in his last one which was counted successful by the agency, he took down a powerful biker gang leader named Danny T (Zito) but in the process the biker’s psychotic son went down in a hail of bullets. Phil walked away from the Agency and not long afterwards, his wife passed away from an undisclosed illness. He took his precocious daughter Maddy (Vidovic) to Rayville, a small town in the Louisiana bayous not far from where Phil’s wife grew up.

At first things couldn’t be going better. Phil has found a beautiful property on the river and while the house itself is a bit of a fixer upper, there’s enough land to own horses and it’s far enough off the beaten path that he can live his life in relative peace.

Then a bully (Craig) in Maddy’s school picks a fight with her and true to her dad’s training she stands up for herself, bloodying the bully’s nose. This doesn’t sit well with the bully’s mom, the excitable meth-head Cassie (Bosworth) and she screeches at her husband Jimmy (Hester) to do something about it, so he picks a fight with Phil. Bad idea. Phil kicks Jimmy’s butt in front of Cassie and his son, putting the already irritable Cassie in a rage. Seeking revenge, she goes to her brother Gator (Franco).

Gator is the local meth dealer who has a mean streak a country mile wide. He wants to throw a scare into Phil but the plan goes awry once he breaks into Phil’s house and finds, in a kind of basement, boxes and boxes of case files from Phil’s DEA days. Now that just don’t sit right with good ol’ Gator who doesn’t want a retired DEA agent in his neighborhood – why, that will just screw up the property values something wicked but it might put a bit of a kink in his illegal drug manufacturing gig.

However, Gator discovers a way out of the situation that could wind up being enormously lucrative as well. He sees that Phil was the undercover agent on the Danny T case and lo and behold, his girlfriend Sheryl (Ryder) happens to know Danny’s lawyer. Sheryl, herself a drug addict, a prostitute and a cocktail waitress (in this economy one has to have multiple jobs) sets up a meeting with Cyrus (Grillo), Danny’s psychotic right-hand man. You just know things are going to get ugly from that point forward.

Written by Sylvester Stallone and based on a novel by Chuck Logan, Statham’s new action film follows a tried and true formula that fans of the genre will find comforting and familiar. The problem is that there isn’t much here that pushes the boundaries any from the lone highly-trained specialist trying to protect his family to the evil drug-dealing biker gang. For the record most biker gangs don’t engage in any criminal activity although if you watched Hollywood’s versions of them you probably feel uncomfortable every time you see one on the highway next to you.

Statham may well be the most consistent action star in the world. It is truly rare for him to turn in a poor performance. This is essentially his show and his fans won’t be disappointed by this effort and he may add a few more to the growing list. While there is a romantic subplot (with the comely Rachelle Lefevre), very little screen time is devoted to it and you get the sense that Statham’s Phil Broker is pretty awkward with the ladies. It also makes sense that a recent widower may not necessarily be looking for someone to fill his late wife’s pumps. In any case, Statham does well with the child actress who plays his daughter which is not always as easy as it sounds.

Franco is an Oscar nominated actor whom you might think is slumming in a role like this, a Southern-fried drug dealer with a gator tattooed on his arm but like any good actor playing a villain you get a sense he’s having a real good time with it. He also adds several layers to the role; at one point in the final reel in a conversation with Cyrus when he’s told that Cyrus must do something particularly despicable while Ryder’s Sheryl looks shocked and disgusted, Franco affects a blank expression with very haunted eyes – he knows the act is necessary but he doesn’t particularly like doing it. It’s just a little detail that takes about three seconds of screen time but it’s the kind of thing a great actor does to add depth to a part. Franco is becoming just that – a great actor.

Ryder and Bosworth are both playing drug addicted women and in their own ways add some flavors to roles that are badly under-written. Bosworth’s Cassie has to make an about-face from screeching harpy to concerned parent in a way that doesn’t make sense but whatever – she does the best she can with it. Ryder, normally a beautiful woman, allows herself to be skanky in a role that most actresses of her caliber turn their noses up at. It’s interesting to see what she does with it.

There are more than a few plot holes and contrivances here, the worst being that Gator discovers Phil’s DEA identity through finding boxes and boxes of case files  in the cellar of his home. First of all, case files for any law enforcement agency never leave the offices of said agencies and certainly not in the possession of a retired agent. He would have no reason for having them – except to reveal his identity to a drug dealer who will then in turn inform those whom he sent to jail and would like to see him and his daughter dead, preferably with brutal painful torture in the mix. That’s just lazy writing, Sly.

Still, if you can put up with a precocious kid and plot holes, this is a pretty decent action movie and Statham elevates it as he does with most of his action films. This may not be the kind of thing you want to go and see when all these blockbusters and Oscar contenders are in the theaters but if you prefer action to drama and long lines, this isn’t a bad alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Statham is solid and Ryder and Bosworth do some fine supporting work. Some nice action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too predictable. Too much precocious kid-ism. Lapses in simple logic.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some drug use, sensuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although based on an unrelated novel, Stallone originally envisioned this as the final Rambo movie and wrote it with John Rambo as the retired dad. However he couldn’t get the movie made and eventually it was rewritten to be closer to the original story and with Statham in mind for the lead role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Delivery Man

Hatchet II


Hatchet II

Danielle Harris gets a Hatchet facial

(2010) Horror (Dark Sky) Danielle Harris, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, A.J. Bowen, Tom Holland, R.A. Mihailoff, Alexis Peters, Parry Shen, Kathryn Fiore, Ed Ackerman, David Foy, Colton Dunn, Rick McCallum, John Carl Buechler, Erika Hamilton. Directed by Adam Green

One of the things I liked about slasher films from the 70s and 80s is that they had everything in them an adolescent boy could ask for – sex, chainsaws, pretty girls, disfigured killers and no plot whatsoever. Just a string of murders that were hopefully somewhat imaginative.

The first Hatchet was a tribute to those films and in its own way was fairly clever and inventive. It didn’t possess a particularly original premise but for those who hadn’t seen many of the films of the slasher variety this was all new and wonderful. It had a pretty decent cast as well.

The sequel picks up at the precise moment the last film left off. Marybeth (Harris, but who was portrayed by Tamara Feldman in the first movie) has escaped from the clutches of Victor Crowley (Hodder), the deformed serial killer on the bayou who massacred Marybeth’s entire family. 

She makes her way to the cabin of Jack Cracker (Buechler) who at first takes the hysterical girl in, but once he finds out her last name he sends her packing, telling her to see Brother Voodoo….er, Reverend Zombie (Todd) if she wants help. Victor Crowley arrives just after Marybeth departs and sends ol’ Jack Cracker to join the Choir Invisible in a rather inventive and nasty way.

After Marybeth makes it back to civilization, she confronts Reverend Zombie who tells her that Victor Crowley’s father Thomas (also Hodder) had an affair with Lena (Hamilton), the nurse of Thomas’ wife who was dying of cancer. She finds out about the affair and on her deathbed curses the child. The child is born deformed and Lena dies in childbirth.

Young Victor is the object of fear and ridicule and eventually a trio of schoolkids, including Marybeth’s father and her Uncle Bob (Holland) set a fire in which Victor is killed. A disconsolate Thomas becomes a recluse, confronting the parents of the teens who deny their involvement. He dies some years later, bitter and alone.

Marybeth isn’t content to let things lay the way they are, so she determines to have Zombie take her back into the swamp with a heavily armed escort to retrieve the remains of her family. What Marybeth doesn’t know is that Zombie has an agenda of his own, and her well-being isn’t necessarily a part of the plan.

Whereas the first movie was nonstop action and horror, this one had frequent lulls and breaks in the action which derailed the mood entirely. Green, who directed both the first film and the sequel, was also making Frozen at the time and I get the sense that his full attention wasn’t on this film.

Looking up at the cast of this film, there are a surprising number of familiar names, from Buechler (who directed a number of low-budget horror films in the 80s) to Hodder (a former Jason Voorhees) to Todd (the Candyman himself) and Holland (who directed the original Fright Night). Most of them aren’t known for their acting, although Todd has had a number of fine performances over the years. He’s really the best performer here.

There is nearly twice as much blood here than in the first movie (literally; they measured it) and a lot of icky, gruesome demises. There isn’t much sex (although there is a couple who get busy during the course of the movie under circumstances that could charitably be called “poor decisions”) which the movie could have used more of. Also, Harris was somewhat uninspiring as the lead, which isn’t entirely her fault; the character doesn’t have a whole lot of sense or strength. Most of the time she seems to be looking to others to protect her or guide her. I prefer my scream queens to do more than just scream.

That’s not to say this is a terrible film – it’s not. Despite the lapses in pacing, the movie works well when it does work. Some of the murders are nice and excessive (the first one of Jack Cracker is particularly gruesome, a real Grand Guignol masterpiece) but Victor Crowley, other than the John Merrick look-alike make-up doesn’t really distinguish himself from other supernaturally-based serial killers here. We’ve seen this kind of thing before; and quite frankly, I think it could use a little more spice to liven it up now.

WHY RENT THIS: If you like the slasher film genre of the 70s and 80s, this is for you. Plenty of ghoulish deaths and lots of blood and gore for the aficionados.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough sex. Lots of down time between murders. The plot meanders a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: Well obviously there’s a whole lot of violence and gore; there’s also some nudity and sexuality, as well as a fair amount of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the MPAA insisted on giving the movie an NC-17 rating, the filmmakers and distributor decided to release it unrated. Executives at AMC Theaters managed to view a screening copy and loved the film, deciding to allow the movie to be shown as is in their theaters. However, they pulled it from their theaters after just a few days without any explanation.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $52,604 on an unreported production budget; I can’t imagine that it did anything but lose money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Puss in Boots

Creature (2011)


Creature

Sid Haig keeps mementos from his stripping career.

(2010) Horror (The Bubble Factory) Mehcad Brooks, Serinda Swan, Sid Haig, Dillon Casey, Lauren Schneider, Aaron Hill, Amanda Fuller, Wayne Pere, David Jensen, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Daniel Bernhardt, Jennifer Lynn Warren, Rebekah Kennedy. Directed by Fred Andrews

Some movies try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible while other movies go after a very specific audience. This is one of the latter. If you don’t like monster movies of the late 70s and 80s, just move along. You won’t find much to admire here.

A group of friends are taking a road trip to New Orleans and are taking a backwoods route to get there. They stop at a convenience store in the middle of nowhere for a bathroom break and to replenish the beer supply. Oscar (Casey) is intrigued by a little shrine to a local legend, a creature that is half man, half gator named Lockjaw. The establishment’s proprietor Chopper (Haig) explains that the cabin where the creature lived as a human is still around and gives them directions. Of course, you know they’re going to go.

We have a couple of ex-Marines in the group, including  the over-protective brother Randy (Hill) his girlfriend Beth (Fuller), his sister Emily (Swan), her boyfriend (the other ex-Marine) Niles (Brooks) and Oscar’s sister Karen (Schneider). Throw in a trio of redneck trailer trash for good measure and you’ve got a party.

Of course, what’s a party without a monster to crash it? And what’s a monster without a town hiding a secret to support it? And what’s a movie like this without lots of bare breasts, bloodletting and a really bad monster suit?

This is a lot of cheesy good fun. Those who loved movies like Humanoids of the Deep and The Pit are going to love this. It’s not going to win any acting awards, nor is it going to change your life. It’s just about having a good time in a dark theater (or on your couch) without expending a whole lot of brain power.

Most of the women get topless at one time or another (other than Swan) and almost all of them have some sort of sex scene, which is about par for the course. The men are plenty hunky enough and get chewed up and spit out in all sorts of enjoyable ways by the rubber suited predator. Oddly enough, almost nobody gets eaten – except for the prologue.

This isn’t rocket science and it isn’t lobotomy-inducing either. The movie sets out to be a certain kind of movie and it more than achieves its modest goals. For those who wish there were more movies like this out there, be sure and rent it when it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray – or better still buy it so you can slo-mo through the bouncing boobies and bloody carnage to your hearts delight.

REASONS TO GO: Sid Haig an B-movie monster goodness.

REASONS TO STAY: Confusing plot and been-there-done-that story. Cheesy monster suit.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gore and creature violence, some sexuality, a lot of nudity (especially for these PC times), a bit of drug use and of course, lots of cuss words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two movies that was distributed by Miramax whose release was delayed due to the purchase of the company by Colony Capital. The company eventually made a distribution deal with Focus.

HOME OR THEATER: Mostly gone from theaters now so I’d definitely go the home video route.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

The Mechanic (2011)


The Mechanic

Jason Statham wants to renegotiate his fee.

(2011) Action (CBS) Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Chase, Mini Anden, James Logan, Joshua Bridgewater, Mark Anthony Nutter, John McConnell, Lara Grice, Ada Michelle Loridans, Eddie Fernandez, Lance Nichols, J.D. Evermore. Directed by Simon West

Being an assassin is a lonely business. Killing people for hire tends to breed a certain amount of paranoia into one’s makeup; meticulous planning leads to success in this world, and those who allow a human interaction into the mix are just begging for trouble.

Arthur Bishop (Statham) is the best in the world at what he does. He’s a mechanic, a professional hitman who takes care of problems. He is adept at any sort of hit; be it one that looks like an accident or natural occurrence, or one that sends a message. He is employed by a shadowy company that rents out hired killers to wealthy clients, although Bishop’s hits are apparently only criminals and terrorists. As John Cusack said in a similar role in Grosse Point Blank, “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it.”

After taking care of a Columbian drug lord (Logan) in a typically efficient and professional manner, Bishop returns home to New Orleans to meet with his mentor and corporate contact Harry McKenna (Sutherland) to receive his payment. The two banter about like old friends, which they are; bitching about corporate politics and Harry’s somewhat useless son Steve (Foster) from whom he is estranged. Bishop then goes home to his gorgeous house on the bayou which is accessible only by boat

Not long thereafter Harry meets an untimely end. Bishop is none too thrilled about it, but he has issues to take care of. Harry’s son Steve also shows up, angry at the world and ready to take out a random carjacker (Bridgewater) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bishop shows up just in time to avert a stupid act of vengeance that would have ruined Steve’s life and agrees to take him on as a protégé. He trains him not only in the skill of firing weapons but in the art of killing. He even takes him along on the job to watch him kill a gunrunner (Evermore), a kind of “take your surrogate kid to work day” exercise.

The two then go after a couple of victims on their own, a rival mechanic (Chase) and a preacher/cult leader named Vaughn (McConnell). Due to Steve’s sloppiness and inability to follow instructions, they both turn messy. About then they discover that the death of Steve’s dad was ordered by Dean (Goldwyn), a high-ranking executive of the company which coupled with the botched assignments makes them a corporate liability. The mechanics become problems for other mechanics to fix. Can they get to Dean before he gets to them?

This is a remake of a 1972 film with Charles Bronson in the title role and Jan-Michael Vincent as Steve. That one, directed by frequent Bronson collaborator Michael Winner, was much more noir than this and like many films from the era had a somewhat fatalistic atmosphere. Some of the conceits of that movie don’t really translate well to this era of filmmaking, so the movie is different (although not radically so) than the original.

Director West, who has a mentor of his own in Michael Bay (West is best known for directing Con Air), is a strong action director and knows how to appeal to the hearts of men everywhere. There is nary a woman to be seen except as hookers (Anden) and victims (Grice and Loridans, whose arm Bishop threatens to stuff down a garbage disposal to motivate her dad for information).

Jason Statham was a wise bit of casting. Like Bronson, he plays it close to the vest emotionally. He conveys amusement with a little half-smile and annoyance with a half-frown. He is the perfect ice cold killer, which is what the character needs to be. He bares his chest and then some in the opening moments of the film, and ladies will get a nice up close look at nearly all of him later in the movie; for the guys, he kicks ass without ever breaking a sweat. However, it must be said he has the best stubble beard in the business.

Foster is an up-and-coming actor who already has an Oscar nomination under his belt; although this is most assuredly not going to win him his next one, I think that he’s going to win gold in that department in the very near future. He gives Steve menace and vulnerability at once, as well as a sexual ambiguity that adds some spice to the role. It’s a magnificent portrayal and well worth the price of admission for his performance alone.

The movie is a bit too workmanlike. My problem with it is that Bishop is so good that even when things go south you never get a sense that he’s in danger. He always seems to be two or three steps ahead of everybody else. He’s a bit like Superman in that regard; Superman is so strong and so invulnerable that it’s pretty hard to convey a sense of jeopardy. Bishop needs a really strong opponent and there isn’t one in the movie. No kryptonite here, either.

Still, it’s got all the elements you need in an action film – fast pacing, great stunts, things blowing up, a couple of hot naked (or nearly naked) babes and lots and lots of guns. While action movies have less cachet since the era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, this one at least is a decent enough entry in the genre. Action fans will certainly be satisfied.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent action sequences. Foster is really good in his role. There may be no better action star at the moment than Jason Statham.

REASONS TO STAY: You rarely get a sense that there is any danger for Arthur Bishop – he’s almost too good for there to be a sense of jeopardy here.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect in a movie about an assassin, there’s lots of violence and a couple of disturbing on-screen murders. There’s also plenty of foul language, some nudity and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarah, the role played by Anden, was played by Jill Ireland in the original 1972 version (Ireland was then-wife to Charles Bronson). The character in that movie had no name and was listed in the credits as “The Girl.” 

HOME OR THEATER: The action sequences don’t have that epic a quality to them; the explosions might work better on the big screen. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all a matter of personal preference whether or not you want to see it at home or in a theater; you make the call.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Way Back