Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) – First time feature director Benh Zeitlin’s highly praised Beasts of the Southern Wild plays more like an immersive art exhibit than it does an actual film, which is equally admirable and wholly problematic. What starts off as an enthralling and visually stunning modern fairy tale slowly descends into meandering mythology that betrays its characters, but still looks and feels unlike anything audiences will likely see this year or have ever seen before, but that still doesn’t mean it’s a successful movie overall.
On an island just off the coast of New Orleans known as The Bathtub, nine year old Emma, a.k.a. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) finds herself thrust into learning the ways of the world on her own without the help of her high strung, hard headed, aloof, and ultimately sickly father Wink Doucette (Dwight Henry). When a massive storm effectively wipes the township off the face of the map, the few citizens who stay behind have to band together in a fight for survival to stay above the flood Killwaters, not give into mandatory evacuations, and search for food.
The backstory of The Bathtub and its dwellers is told largely through the narration and recollection of Hushpuppy and through Zeitlin’s impeccably production designed world. For the first twenty minutes or so, Wallis and Henry carry the dramatic weight of the film and set up what should be an inventive take on the traditional father/daughter story. The fact that neither have acted before this isn’t at all apparent, as they both exude a sense of raw emotion that serves the material quite well even as the film starts to falter. While some critics have taken to task the ultimately precious presence of Wallis at the heart of the film and the largely metaphorical and allegorical dialogue she’s asked to read, it’s hard to deny that it’s a difficult role for any actress to pull off and that she does it splendidly.
Similarly, Zeitlin’s attention to detail can be quite stunning even when his script (co-written by Lucy Allbar and based on her stage play Juicy and Delicious) sinks with every act break. From our introduction to The Bathtub with its Terry Gilliam styled firmaments and pickup truck flatbed boats, it becomes apparent that the audience is in the hands of a born stylist. It’s a world equal parts fantastical and believable in the same manner as a classic fairy tale about a kingdom far, far away. But the production design, gorgeous 16mm photography, the dialogue and the performances aren’t what make the film so confounding to watch when looked at objectively.
About thirty minutes into the film it becomes wholly apparent that Zeitlin has the art behind the film more fully in focus than his characters and the story, which would be fine if the film didn’t start feeling like visiting an art gallery and bouncing around, back and forth between disconnected exhibits with little rhyme or reason. Zeitlin abandons the fantastical elements of creating a fairy tale world – where logic, reason, and explanation need not tread – and sets out to create a muddled, epic form of mythology rooted in recent American history that doesn’t work only because the film sets out to do one thing quite well before going in a completely different direction that it doesn’t set out to achieve from the start.
Setting out to create an allegorical myth means that some explanation as to the motives of these characters is necessary beyond a simple nod to all of them being resilient, obstinate survivors. There has to be a moral to the story that’s nowhere in site and that’s never reconciled. As a result, later sequences where Hushpuppy has to face the notion that she might lose her father forever aren’t as effective because Zeitlin expends so much energy on trying to sound poetic and trying to build up this world that he forgets to include anything more than the most basic of characters. There’s never any more emotional investment in the material beyond not wanting to see Hushpuppy get hurt in any way, but without a clearer demarcation point for these characters it only works on the most primal of levels and doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Furthermore, the film’s highly touted subplot involving awakened mythical beasts known as Aurochs has a fairly obvious resolution straight out of a screenwriting 101 class.
Maybe that last statement sound somewhat flippant, but such is the frustration of objectively thinking about the film. To have such basic payoffs in a film this complex, challenging, and avant garde feels like a cheat. Maybe the hype around the film surrounds the fact that when all the elements come together that it really does take on the appearance of being a new and energizing form of storytelling; a jambalaya, if you will, evocative of the setting of the tale. But all it really ends up being is a blunted attempt at bringing art to the masses. Like I said, it’s all admirable in terms of intent and technical prowess, but there’s an empty space around the film’s heart.
The Blu-ray preserves the grit of Zeitlin’s 16mm shoot quite nicely and the sound mix loses very little from its theatrical counterpart. There’s 15 minutes each devoted to deleted scenes that add a bit more local colour (with optional commentary from the director) and the original auditions of Wallis and Henry. Zeitlin’s original 30 minute short Glory at Sea makes an appearance here, and its honestly a lot more tightly constructed than the feature length version. There’s a great 10 minute making of documentary, and brief looks at the creation of the giant pig beasts and the film’s score. (Andrew Parker)
Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2012) – Thank god director William Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts found each other. Through the 90s and early 2000s, Friedkin’s dance with Hollywood had pretty well bottomed out. The director would only get a film off the ground every few years and they were increasingly banal thrillers like Rules Of Engagment that while well made, lacked the hard edge that defined Friedkin’s best work and aggressive personality. Then he stumbled onto the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright’s Bug and delivered a brilliant piece of claustrophobic meta-horror in 2006 that was his best film in years (and might feature Michael Shannon’s finest performance, which for him is really saying something). Now Friedkin and Letts have reunited for an adaptation of the latter’s first play and the result is even better. Killer Joe is a filthy, nasty, disturbing, and hilarious deep fried Southern Gothic that should be a joy for anyone just sick enough to appreciate what the talented duo are up to. As a bonus, it debuts just in time for Christmas, so if you’re looking for a vision of family guaranteed to make you feel better about your own situation, it doesn’t get much better than this (well, maybe Happiness if your family is particularly bad).
The movie opens with a close up of Gina Gershon’s ample trailer park merkin from the perspective of her stepson (Emile Hirsch), which sets the tone for the devilish dirt to follow. Hirsch is a small time drug dealer with deep debts and he catches Gershon in the buff while trying to meet up with his father (Thomas Hayden Church) to discuss a way out. Hirsch has discovered that his mother has a substantial life insurance policy that would be issued to his sister (Juno Temple) were she to kick the bucket. So they decide to have the unseen mother murdered for cash and hire local legend Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed. Joe is a cop who dabbles in contract killing on the side. He takes the gig but only with the understanding that the virginal Temple will be his as a down payment and possibly forever if anything goes wrong with the insurance. With that the stage is set for a tale of backstabbing, double-crossing, money-grubbing, implied sister-lovin’, and the most creatively disturbing use of a fried chicken drumstick in the history of cinema (you’ll never be able to look at K-fry-C again, which is probably a good thing).
Friedkin shoots the film simply and efficiently, yet with a sense of style and an unblinking eye on the seediest aspects of the story. He gently expands the material from its stage bound origins to increase the number of locations and break up the long dialogue scenes. Dream sequences are added and action is expanded without ever feeling forced. The real gift he has here is with the actors. With meaty roles defined by Letts’ hardboiled dialogue, everyone contributes something special from Hirsch’s pathetic murderer with a heart of gold to Temple’s impossible innocent who sees to much, Thomas Haden Church’s white trash moron with a heart, and Gina Gershon’s greasy truck stop femme fatale.
There isn’t a performance in the pack that doesn’t rank amongst the performer’s best work and yet McConaughey ends up stealing the show. This is the crown jewel of the former shirtless wonder’s comeback year and he delivers a terrifyingly cold and manipulative psychopath driven by his own twisted sense of morality. Friedkin introduces the character like an icon through a series of carefully chosen close-ups and then proceeds to let the actor command the screen. While the role is strong enough that it could have been delivered by any number of talented actors, something about McConaughey is a perfect choice. It’s stunt casting of the best kind, with the actor’s good old boy image keeping the character’s true evil hidden until the final, unshakable scene that surely would have earned massive swells of controversy had the flick received the release it deserved.
Killer Joe is ultimately a gritty crime thriller, just one elevated by the talent of everyone involved. Think of it as something along the lines of Blood Simple given a quick rewrite by the Marquis de Sade. Like the Coen Bros. debut, the film can play as straight hard boiled fiction or a dark comedy depending on your point of view, with Letts delivering a ripping yarn with a subversive satire of family values gradually weaved in and peaking with one hell of a black out punch line. A special filmmaker was needed to deliver the required genre punch, attract the right actors, and never lose sight of the sadistic family subtexts. Like I said before, thank God Friedkin and Letts found each other.
While many viewers will be put off and disgusted by what the duo masterfully delivered, those just sick enough to laugh along with the joke will be pleased with the new Blu-ray. Technical specs are strong and while the low budget production isn’t exactly overflowing with beauty shots, all of the crumbling, greased-stained sets and costumes are presented in the nauseating detail they deserve. There are two batches of special features included, a round of fairly interesting and detailed interviews with the director and five main cast members along with 15 minutes of fly on the wall documentary footage of the film being shot (yes, even including the chicken leg scene). It’s a shame that no one took the time to cut it all together into what could have been a strong 30 minute documentary, but at least the raw materials are worth a look for anyone who enjoyed the dark and dirty shenanigans. Killer Joe was easily one of the finest films cranked out last year and while it understandably wasn’t a blockbuster, hopefully the cult audience the movie deeply deserves will discover it in the privacy of their own home, where no questioning eyes can judge you for laughing. (Phil Brown, out this Friday)
Total Recall (Len Wiseman, 2012) – The world didn’t need a new Total Recall. We already have one with Arnold Schwarzenegger and it’s great. It may not have exactly been a brain-tingling masterpiece but at least it was clever, featured Arnie at the peak of his cheesy powers, boasted some stunning makeup effects work by Rob Bottin, and was enlivened by director Paul Verhoeven’s patented campy tone and love of over-the-top ultra violence. The new version, on the other hand, has Colin Farrell at his most disinterested, standard issue CGI, and director Len Wiseman’s usual bland and overly frenetic PG-13 action. All of the rough edges and oddball ideas that made the last Total Recall such a beloved trash-classic have been smoothed over in favor of generic Hollywood sheen. There’s nothing special or unique about this movie. Even the opportunity to honor Dick’s original bizarre concept with more mind-trip sci-fi was set aside in favor of additional indistinguishable action scenes. This is sadly where blockbuster filmmaking has gone in the 22 years since Arnold was first flashed by a three-boobed alien on Mars.
This new movie doesn’t even take place on Mars, but Earth, the first of many changes that add nothing to the material and only serve as a distraction. None of the actors add any personality to the roles and while Wiseman has the resources at hand to pull off some impressive set pieces, he has no sense of pacing whatsoever. Frenetic action scenes pile on top of each other without rhyme, reason, or humor. The final effect is exhausting rather than exhilarating and none of iconic sci-fi author Philip K Dick’s ideas get more than a fleeting flicker of screen time. The lone moments of subversion and excitement are either references to the last Total Recall or other, better action movies. I’d call it a total disaster were it not for the fact that the movie does pretty well exactly what it’s expected to do. Let’s be honest, how high were the expectations for this 2.0? It provides all the explosions and special effects promised in the trailer and has pretty people doing it..
On the plus side, the Total Recall Blu-Ray is one of the slickest of the year. Wiseman’s patented visual style might not feature vibrant color, but ever shot is slicker-than-goose-shit while the CGI and sets are the biggest and most expensive Hollywood is willing to buy. Throw in an HD sound mix that dislodge fillings and you’ve at least got a movie experience that’ll push your home theater equipment to the limit while putting your brain to sleep. On the special features front there’s a director’s cut that manages to add running time without adding any content, a PIP video commentary filled with behind the scenes goodies, well-produced featurettes delving into every action scene, a gag real, animatics, and a bizarre ten minute interview with Theoretical Physics professor Michio Kaku to provide some of the intellectual nourishment that the film lacked. Definitely a fantastic Blu-ray even if there film is far from fantastic. I suppose if all you’re looking for is mindless action, you could do worse than Total Recall. We just should be able to expect more from big screen sci-fi. Especially since, you know, there’s already a pretty great action movie with the same title and from the same source material out there that does everything better with a few laughs and less brooding-as-importance indulgence. (Phil Brown)
Premium Rush (David Koepp, 2012) – Holy shit, you guys. I need to tell you about Premium Rush and just how thoroughly disappointed at how badly this movie tanked at the end of the summer. It’s the most unjustly shoved under the rug bit of pure entertainment this year. Why didn’t any of you guys see it? It has Joseph Gordon Levitt in it, which seems to be an actor everyone adores right now. It has Michael Shannon delivering one of the best performances in an already great career as a scenery chewing villain. It’s also directed by the guy who wrote the script Jurassic Park among dozens of other films you have probably seen and liked quite a bit. Was it the bike thing? Was that it?
Okay, so maybe this story of a bike courier named Wilee (Levitt) forced into taking rush job across the entire length of Manhattan might have seemed a bit strange to hang an entire movie off of, but Koepp shows off his wit and storytelling skills from the opening seconds and never takes his feet off the pedals for a taut and perfectly paced 90 minutes. When it turns out that the envelope he’s delivering is part of a bigger problem involving his ex-girlfriend’s roommate and is a cipher to redeem an extremely large amount of cash, a twitchy cop with a severe gambling problem (Shannon) attempts everything he can to get his hands on the envelope.
Aside from surface thrills and excellent performances all around (especially Shannon who actually deserves an award from somebody for his work here even if I have to make some shit up myself for his maniacal Crypt Keeper-like laugh alone), Koepp has created a live action Road Runner and Coyote cartoon with sly, obscure pop culture references that would likely make Joe Dante and Quentin Tarantino proud at the same time. It’s constantly playing for laughs and genuine emotional affectations from the characters and the situations they find themselves in. It’s also a time shifting narrative told from multiple points of view told in real time without overcomplicating things and creating massive plot holes (save for the entertaining but questionable finale). The cinematography from DP Mitchel Amundsen adds an added degree of technical difficulty that makes cycling out of control extra thrilling. On top of all that, it’s a wonderful love letter to the city of New York. So why in the heck are you not watching it right this second if any of this sounds appealing to you in any way?
Sony gives Premium Rush the same excellent sheen to visuals and sound on this Blu-ray that they have become well known for, but sadly and probably because the film didn’t do so well, the special features are only two brief featurettes: one dealing with general behind the scenes dealings, and the other with the film’s stunt work. (Andrew Parker, out this Friday)
Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012) – Even when adding subplots involving a deadly cover-up, crooked cops, and a shaky marriage, it’s still hard to make a compelling film set against the backdrop of investment banking. Luckily, Arbitrage overcomes potentially dry material with some great performances and a solid cat and mouse story where the mouse is being chased by dozens of cats through several different houses.
Richard Gere, in his Golden Globe nominated performance and the best role he’s had in the better part of a decade, stars as Robert Miller, a hedge fund manager about to usher in his 60th birthday under a cloud of suspicion. He’s on the verge of being investigated for leveraging his fledgling company against his own attempts to sell it to someone who keeps playing an intense game of hardball. As all this is happening, the seemingly well adjusted man goes to see his mistress on the night of his birthday and ends up accidentally killing her in an auto accident. Desperate to save face and ensure the sale goes through (and eventually to stave off any potentially lengthy jail time), Robert covers up his misdeeds, drawing the suspicions of his daughter and co-manager (Brit Marling) and the cop assigned to investigate the accident (Tim Roth).
Gere hasn’t had a role this meaty and well rounded in far too long, and his engagement with the material shows. He races through the film with equal parts extreme exhaustion and nervous energy to the point where the bags under his eyes seem entirely real and not just a trick of the make-up department. His chemistry with those around him – particularly with Susan Sarandon as his possibly clueless wife, Nate Parker as the one man he can trust, and especially Marling with whom he shares the best scene in the film when they finally confront one another – gives the film a lot of it’s strength.
As a director, Nicholas Jarecki (making his first foray into fictional longform filmmaking) can direct actors well and sustain tension, even if some of the choices in the editing and cinematography departments occasionally leads to some head scratching. As a writer, however, Jarecki’s brings an almost claustrophobic feeling to the material, closing the viewer off in one small, singular world that just so happens to have potentially global consequences. As Robert’s lies begin to pile up, Jarecki’s story becomes more and more stomach churning and emotionally weighty.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about finance or that the title refers to a form of deal making designed to minimize losses between different markets of currencies. Arbitrage aims to entertain rather than educate to a great degree, and in that respect it posts a net gain by the end of the film.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds fine enough, but the movie isn’t exactly designed to blow the viewer out of their seat visually or aurally. There are two featurettes, one on developing the character of Robert Miller and the other about the making of the film. They are both far more advisable than the dreadful commentary track from Jarecki (which he also provides for 12 minutes of deleted scenes that don’t really go anywhere exciting), which might be one of the most self-congratulatory commentary tracks in recent history. When he’s not giving his personal history or lauding all the hard work he did making phone calls to other people his trader parents set him up with, he’s simply explaining what’s happening on screen. The commentary track for a Schwarzenegger film has more substance than the one for Arbitrage. (Andrew Parker, out this Friday)
Come back this Friday for looks at Butter, Ten Year, Pitch Perfect, The Trouble With the Curve, and Resident Evil: Retribution.