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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Southpaw (2015)


Brothers in battle.

Brothers in battle.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Jose Caraballo, Malcolm M. Mays, Aaron Quattrocchi, Lana Young, Danny Henriquez, Patsy Meck, Vito Grassi, Tony Weeks, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Claire Foley. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The popularity of boxing has a lot to do with primal emotions; conquer or be conquered, imposing your physical will on another. But the ring has a lot more to it than that. Some look at it as a symbol of all that is corrupt with our society; others look at it as an opportunity for redemption. The ring is what you make it.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has made a lot out of it. An orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, he has managed to take his strength, his absolute drive and his rage and channel it into the light heavyweight championship. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams), who was also an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen, is concerned. Billy is taking a fearsome amount of punishment with every bout and in his most recent one against a fighter who shouldn’t have come close to doing as much damage, it’s worse than ever. She’s concerned that one day soon that he’ll push himself too far and be permanently damaged.

But in the meantime, they are basking in his success; his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) has negotiated a $30 million deal with HBO which would set him up for life, and while Maureen is hesitant to let Billy fight so soon after the last beating he took, there’s the future to consider.

But that future is about to get changed in a big way. A single moment leads to Billy losing everything; his title, his career, his family, his self-respect – a moment that Weinstein’s trailer department thoughtlessly spoiled. Billy finds himself out on the streets, looking for work. He finds it in a dilapidated old gym, run by dilapidated old Tick Wills (Whitaker).

Eventually Billy finds his center again but in his way is a payday that will help him regain some of what he’s lost but set himself up to take revenge on those who took it. He is left with a conundrum; to continue on the path he’s on and struggle indefinitely, or to go back the way he came to risk losing himself – but to possibly gain regaining himself. Tough choices, but the answer becomes clear – his daughter comes first.

And in fact, this is sort of the same choice that every hero in every boxing movie has ever made, from Rocky Balboa to Jake LaMotta and everywhere in between. This is, in essence, one 124 minute boxing movie cliche and as long as you understand that going in, you’re going to be all right more or less, but that’s as far as you would go normally; just watch it and move on to other entertainments. What elevates this particular film is Jake Gyllenhaal.

After an unjustly Oscar-snubbed performance in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with an equally marvelous showing here. He went from the emaciated weasel in the former film to a buff muscle-bound athlete here and the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar in every other standpoint as well. Both characters are imperfect and somewhat flawed but while his character here has a good heart that his wife brings out of him. While his character in Nightcrawler is slick and savvy, Billy is direct and simple. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts. You never tire of watching him.

Mostly after that the level of supporting performances drop off. McAdams and Whitaker are both just fine but they get little screen time and . Laurence, as Billy and Maureen’s daughter Leila, is clearly a rising child star. She plays a little girl dealing with some absolutely adult issues and pulls it off like a champ. Hopefully being in a film with actors the like of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker will only help her skills rocket into the stratosphere.

The boxing scenes are solidly done, often employing a POV type of camera work that makes you feel like you’re in the ring with Billy and/or his opponent. This could have been gimmicky but it is used to great effect and never feels cheap. It’s a rare case where a camera trick actually enhances the movie rather than makes you realize you’re watching a movie, a very difficult line to balance. Also, Southpaw effectively captures the sordid world of boxing, but truthfully no better or no worse than most of the better movies about boxing.

There is a bit of a thug life vibe here – think Gyllenhaal in his End of Watch role – that at times rings a little false; it’s sort of like 1997 called and wants its attitude back. However, given Gyllenhaal’s performance (and that of Oona Laurence) there is enough to solidly recommend the movie despite a story that feels like it was written in 1949. And the fact that you could apply the story essentially to both eras is a reason to rejoice – or to get very depressed. Maybe both at the same time.

REASONS TO GO: Another outstanding performance by Gyllenhaal. Some fairly intense boxing scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very cliche. A little too thug life for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence both in the ring and out and lots and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Billy Hope was originally cast with Eminem and filming actually began with him in it, but production had to be halted when he opted to concentrate on his music career; Gyllenhaal was eventually cast in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Champ
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Down, But Not Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie


Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Holmes

The Lie (2011)


Your sins will find you out.

Your sins will find you out.

(2011) Drama (Screen Media) Joshua Leonard, Jess Wexler, Mark Webber, Alia Shawkat, Kelli Garner, James Ransone, Jane Adams, Kirk Baltz, Gerry Bednob, Matthew Newton, Holly Woodlawn, Tipper Newton, Kandice Melonakos, Germaine Mozel Sims, Michael McColl, Gwyn Fawcett. Directed by Joshua Leonard

I was once told as a young man by a mentor that being young was easy; everything is simple – black or white, right or wrong, bad or good. There is no middle ground in youth, he told me, no grey areas. Accountability and responsibility are notions that don’t apply to the young. Sooner or later however, we all have to grow up whether we want to or not.

Lonnie (Leonard) is reaching a crossroads in his life. He and his wife Clover (Wexler) have just had a baby and their life of activism and living by their own rules has been turned on its ear as their idealism collides with the realities of raising a baby – particularly in regards to the expense. Clover is considering a job at a pharmaceutical company that as far as Lonnie is concerned is the anti-Christ but whose benefits will make the job of raising their new addition feasible.

But Lonnie, stuck in a job he hates, isn’t on board with this. He’s a hippie in an age of consumerism and in a different age would have found a commune to hang out in with his family. Lonnie is in a crisis and he needs a day off to clear his head, so he just tells his overbearing boss (Bednob) that his baby is sick. Lonnie, now free of any responsibility, gets hammered with his best friend Tank (Webber), smokes a lot of weed and records some really bad rock and roll in Tank’s trailer.

It turns out so well that Lonnie takes another day and another day and another – until he can’t use that fib anymore so in a fit of panic he blurts out that the baby died. Suddenly the little white lie isn’t so white and isn’t so little anymore. This is one he can’t walk away from and one that sooner or later he’ll have to face the consequences for.

Based on a short story by T.C. Boyle, the movie ostensibly debates the question of whether it is okay to compromise one’s principles in order to survive, although that really isn’t it at all. It’s a question of whether one’s responsibility to family outweighs a lifestyle choice.

Leonard, whom most will remember from The Blair Witch Project, is generally a fairly charming onscreen personality and there are elements of that here too, but one wonders about the underlying story going on with the character. Lonnie talks a good game about discovering who he is, but from his actions he appears to be a stoner and a slacker who just wants to get wasted and do whatever makes him feel good. In other words, a selfish prick.

Wexler, who was so delightful in Free Samples, is the polar opposite. She has a baby to consider and the realities of life in Southern California staring her in the face. She realizes that it is time to grow up and make sacrifices, which is why she considers a job at the Big Pharma company. Her moments to shine come towards the end of the movie when the truth inevitably comes out, but sadly, her character (who may go down in cinematic history as the most understanding woman ever) reacts in a way that is counterintuitive to who she seems to be all along.

Webber, as the stoner best friend, provides a lot of the comic relief but also a lot of the film’s center strangely enough. “Dude,” he tells Lonnie in a kind of ironic coda, “You’ve got to stop running away from shit.” Which is, of course, precisely what Lonnie does and the filmmakers seem to embrace that as a viable alternative to, you know, life.

I was once the age that Lonnie is and I will grant him that things are different now than they were then but FFS you’re a dad, you’ve got to man up and grow a pair. One of the things that disturbs me about what I see in the current generation is that there seems to be an unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater good – that self-gratification is the be all and end all of existence. Now I am willing to concede that much of that is simply the flaw of youth and that it’s possible that experience and wisdom will counteract it but I don’t recall ever seeing this self-centeredness to this degree in any generation before. Wow, I sound like my own Dad, don’t I?

The point is that the movie seems to take the point of view that it is more important to be true to one’s own needs whether they are selfish or not than to be responsible for the life that one brings into this world and I simply can’t agree with that point of view – which is why I hate the ending so much because it hints that is precisely what the filmmakers think. Perhaps it is old-fashioned of me but I can’t recommend a movie that condones self-interest over responsibility. If you’re comfortable with that, you are more than welcome to seek this movie out and draw your own conclusions.

WHY RENT THIS: Examines the age old question of freedom vs. responsibility. Wexler and Webber are magnificent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can’t get behind a film that preaches accountability and celebrates that its lead character has none. The ending is absolutely mind-numbing.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s official website gives visitors an opportunity to confess about a lie they’ve told which has been taken up by a number of people including at least one cast member.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,000 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Be Good

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Good Heart

Hobo With a Shotgun


Hobo With a Shotgun

Whaddaya mean they’re remaking Blade Runner?

(2011) Action (Magnet) Rutger Hauer, Brian Downey, Molly Dunsworth, Nick Bateman, Drew O’Hara, Jeremy Akerman, Tim Dunn, Duane Patterson, Brian Jamieson, Robb Wells, Agnes Laan , Pasha Ebrahimi, Gregory Smith, Andre Haines, Juanita Peters. Directed by Jason Eisener

 

Things are tough all over. In some places, they are much rougher. Some places are ruled by anarchy, corruption and violence. The weak are defenseless. Places like that require a hobo. With a shotgun.

Hope City is exactly a place like that. It is ruled, effectively, by Drake (Downey), a gregarious hoodlum who likes conducting his executions game-show style, executions carried out by his sadistic sons Ivan (Bateman) and Slick (Smith). Into this carnival of chaos comes the Hobo (Hauer) who rides the rails into the one town he probably should have kept going at. He witnesses the public execution of Drake’s brother Logan (Wells) but as this isn’t any of his business, he simply moves on.

When he sees a lawnmower in a pawnshop window for $50 (okay, $49.99 – puh-leeease, it’s fifty dollars okay? Friggen retailers) it rekindles dreams of owning a lawn mowing business. Of stability. A future. He aims to buy it but being a hobo he has no money. So he goes panhandling. That night he witnesses Slick and Ivan harassing a young man in a video arcade before a heart of gold prostitute named Abby (Dunsworth) tries to intercede. The psychos turn on her, intending to kill her for her temerity but the Hobo knocks out Slick and takes him to the police station to place him under citizen’s arrest.

Except that the Police Chief (Akerman) is as corrupt as they come. He and his goons carve the word “Scum” in the Hobo’s chest and throw him in a dumpster behind the police station. Abby comes upon the Hobo as he stumbles through town, delirious and dripping blood. She takes him to her apartment and nurses him back to health. Once he is healthy, he decides to finish what he started. He finds a cameraman (Ebrahimi) who films homeless people doing degrading things. After the Hobo performs several acts of humiliation (including chewing on broken glass), the cameraman pays him enough to cover the lawnmower.

The Hobo goes into the pawn shop to purchase the mower but as he does, three hoods come in and rob the place. When they threaten a new mother and her baby, the Hobo snaps. He grabs a shotgun off the rack and proceeds to ventilate all three of the thugs. When he discovers that the firearm is the same price as the lawnmower, he opts for the shotgun.

Pushed to his limit, he decides to clean up Hope Town. He takes out pimps, drug dealers, pedophiles and the cameraman who he chewed broken glass for. His actions unite the townspeople who begin questioning the order of things. This is something Drake cannot allow so he orders Slick and Ivan to bring him the head of the Hobo. In order to get him out of the open, they deliberately set fire to a crowded school bus. They also put a bounty on the Hobo’s head, hinting that further atrocities would be in the town’s future if someone didn’t find him and kill him. Looks like the Hobo’s going to need an awful lot of shells.

This movie started life in a peculiar way. When Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino made Grindhouse back in 2007 (complete with faux trailers), the studio held a contest to find the best fan-made exploitation trailer. The winner was Eisener, whose trailer for Hobo With a Shotgun was famously made for $120 and was included on the Blu-Ray edition of the film as well as in some parts of Canada with the theatrical release. As interest in the fake trailers being made into movies increased, screenwriter John Davies penned a full-length version of the contest winner and Eisener was able to gain enough financing to get it made.

Even though he had limited filmmaking experience, he made a solid decision in casting Hauer in the title role. One of the most admired actors of the ’80s (who can forget his performance as Roy Batty in Blade Runner or Navarre in Ladyhawke?), he has been consigned to a lot of made for cable movies and supporting roles in medium-sized films, having a reputation not unlike Jean Claude van Damme and Steven Seagal. This is one of his better performances of the last 20 years of his career; there is a strange gravitas to the Hobo and even though he goes batcrap on us, he is still believable even at his most outrageous. The dialogue he has to deliver is pretty cheesy and full-on Times Square B-movie but that’s part of the charm.

The gore and nudity are very reminiscent of the splatter movies of the 70s and early 80s. That’s a double-edged sword; it carries all the visceral thrills of those films and all the drawbacks – the hackneyed dialogue, the improbable plot, the woeful acting. Besides Hauer, Bateman and Dunsworth rise above. Bateman (no relation to Jason) is an ex-Abercrombie and Fitch model who turns out to have some decent acting chops; he plays the amoral, psychotic Ivan with gusto and just enough restraint to keep the character from sinking into caricature. Dunsworth is a fresh and pretty face who turns from hooker with a heart of gold into a legitimate badass and if you think that’s an easy transition, guess again. She does both aspects of Abby convincingly.

There is a good deal of gratuitous gore and sex here, as you would expect from a grindhouse film. There are also some drawbacks; some incredibly cheesy dialogue (some of which is just plain painful)  and a plot that beggars description. It goes incredibly over the top which can be a very acquired taste; in all honesty I usually like this kind of thing, but I found it to be uneven in terms of performance other than those specified. I get the sense that Eisener was trying to make a grindhouse film rather than just referencing them, but in the end he succeeded too well. What we tend to forget about those films we remember with such affection is that most of them were pretty bad.

WHY RENT THIS: A great reminder of ’70s exploitation films. Hauer gives the character gravitas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Also a great reminder of the flaws of ’70s exploitation films.

FAMILY VALUES: Extreme amounts of gore, violence and bad language; a good deal of sexuality and some partial nudity. Oh, and drug use too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie was shot digitally, it was digitally processed during post-production to look as if it had been shot and processed the same way B-movies were in the ’70s, resulting in a look that’s oversaturated with shifted colors.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview by Fangoria magazine editor Michael Gingold with Hauer and Eisener. There is also a documentary on the making of the film from its beginnings as a $120 fan trailer to its Sundance premiere.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $703, 372 on an unreported production budget; I’m pretty sure the movie lost money, although it’s possible it did not..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Machete

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: The Last Samurai

Buck


Buck

Buck Brannaman surrounded by his friends.

(2011) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Buck Brannaman, Mary Brannaman, Reata Brannaman, Betsy Shirley, Robert Redford, Bibb Frazier, Betty Staley, Ali Cornish, Shayne Jackson, Smokie Brannaman, Ray Hunt. Directed by Cindy Meehl

We as Americans tend to think of ourselves as the strong silent types. We admire the archetype of the lone cowboy, masculine and kind, prone to doing the right thing and saying little to blow his own horn; he just gets on with things.

Buck Brannaman fits the ideal to a “T”. This documentary follows Brannaman while he goes on the road, which he does nine months of the year. He runs clinics in which he teaches horse owners to gently train their horses without abusing or breaking them. He is the inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in the Nicholas Evans novel “The Horse Whisperer” which later became a Robert Redford movie.

Brannaman has a droll sense of humor; he quips early on “I get called out for people with horse problems, but usually find horses with people problems.” He is self-deprecating but firm in his passions; from time to time he calls out his clients when their behavior is detrimental to the horse. His daughter Reata accompanies him for two months out of the year; she is described by her mother Mary as “her father’s daughter,” which Buck tends to agree with; “Fortunately she got her mother’s looks, but inside she’s more like me.”

There’s something about Buck that you just respond to, whether you’re a human being or a horse. It is his innate humanity, his gentle sense of humor and his empathy for both man and beast. He is a decent human being and that decency radiates from him like an aura.

Horse lovers will find many reasons to love this film; the animals have personalities and are treated with dignity and respect. So too are the people who love horses. Some are those who work with horses on ranches; others are those who use horses in other ways, as show horses and in dressage. Then there are just who just love horses and want to learn to ride.

The most remarkable thing about Buck is that he came from a background of extreme abuse as a child; his father was something of a drunken monster who’s own insecurities led him to beat his children (Buck and his brother Smokie) unmercifully. Buck and Smokie, who were trick ropers as children (Buck and Smokie remain in the Guinness Book of World Records to this day for achievements as children), had their injuries found out by a football coach who immediately reported it to the authorities, and the two boys were remanded to the care of Betsy Shirley, a foster mom who together with her husband raised the two as their own (some of the best moments in the movie come when Betsy comes to visit Buck).

Not all documentaries need to be about an issue. Some of the best ones are about people who are worth knowing more about. People who make the world a better place in their own way. You will be better for even a brief encounter with Buck than you were going in. If there’s a better reason to go see a movie, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: A wonderful portrayal of a real American archetype. Truly inspiring in places, Brannaman’s humanity and compassion shines.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the movie revolves around Brannaman’s clinics and might be a bit repetitive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some discussions of child abuse and one scene of an injury that might be too much for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck Brannaman was not only the inspiration for the lead character in the novel The Horse Whisperer; he also was a technical advisor on the film of the novel.

HOME OR THEATER: Beautifully photographed, this should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Premonition

Swing Vote


Swing Vote

Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll go fishing for an audience but don't catch anything.

(2008) Comedy (Touchstone) Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Judge Reinhold, Willie Nelson, Mare Winningham, Richard Petty,  Nana Visitor.  Directed by Joshua Michael Stern

We all want our system to work, but the fact of the matter is that few of us believe that it does. However, like the eternal cock-eyed optimists that we are, we hope that it could.

Bud Johnson (Costner) is one of those who don’t really care one way of the other. He works a mind-numbing job at an egg-packing plant and further numbs his mind with alcohol. His cute-as-a-button and smart-as-a-whip daughter Molly (Carroll) is really the adult in the family, putting up with his constant hangovers and dead-drunk slumbers with the patience of a saint.

She is passionate about civics however and is urging her dad to vote in the upcoming Presidential election. As usually is the case with her dad, he messes it up and Molly figures out how to vote for him, a contrivance that backfires when a voting machine error winds up not counting his vote. And when the New Mexico electoral votes prove to be crucial in determining the winner of the election, it turns out that Bud Johnson’s vote in an unlikely turn of events is the deciding vote for the whole enchilada.

Of course this brings out a media feeding frenzy and personal visits from the candidates, the incumbent conservative President Andrew Boone (Grammer) and the liberal challenger Donald Greenleaf (Hopper) visiting, promising Bud the sun and the moon with their obsequious campaign managers (Tucci and Lane, respectively) in tow.

Bud’s main goal is not to be the deciding factor but simply not to embarrass his daughter, which he is doing in a big way. The issues of the campaign trail and the resulting chicanery of the candidates gives way to the need for a father to make his daughter proud.

This is not really a polemic, and it isn’t strictly a comedy despite its categorization as such above. This is more or less a look at the modern American electoral process with elements of a spoof to it and certainly elements of a comedy. That it is marketed as a comedy is a very likely reason the movie floundered in its general release.

It’s certainly not the fault of the actors. Kevin Costner has moved from the dashing leading man phase of his career to the respected character actor phase. He takes the all-American schlub who is ignorant and content to remain that way and gives him charm. Bud Johnson isn’t the kind of neat, tidy character who gets rocked by the world’s blows and stands tall. He’s complicated and terminally weak-willed.

He has a match in young Madeline Carroll, who was so excellent in last fall’s Flipped. There are an awful lot of smarter-than-adult juvenile roles out there that are just plain annoying, but Carroll elevates the role to something special. She has a really intense scene with her mom (Winningham) which explains a lot of why both Bud and Molly are the way they are – it’s one of the best scenes in the movie and is the kind of performance that gets you noticed.

In addition to the impressive cast, there are also celebrity cameos of pundits, politicians, politicos and celebrities. A little bit of that can go a long way and before too long you’re overloaded on the famous faces in the film, which also would have benefitted by a little more editing. I don’t know about you, but I thought the movie would have been perfectly fine with at least half an hour of meaningless subplots lopped out, don’t you think?

If Frank Capra was alive today, this would be the kind of thing he’d be selling. He’d just condense it down into an hour and a half or less whereas this drags on for more than two. Its heart is in the right place though – and as examinations of the American political system go, it’s amazingly candid. I thought it was a bit underrated when it came out and thus I’m pleased to give the movie some love now.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprising amount of pathos mixed in with a terrific performance by Costner.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many famous people cameos, gets distracting. The movie is much too long and would have benefitted from a firmer hand on the editing room.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but nothing too rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Costner’s second movie with Hopper, the first being Waterworld (1995).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video from the band Modern West which is fronted by Kevin Costner himself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.6M on a $21M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Tree of Life