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Beasts of Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of Southern Wild (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Even if director Benh Zeitlin’s surreal fable Beasts of Southern Wild wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, it would still demand to be seen on the grounds that it was 2012’s little indie that could. Based on the stage play Juicy & Delicious by Lucy Alibar, Beasts of Southern Wild was a small arty offering that was the talk of the cinema world for months before its release and months after. After whipping up critics and audiences into a frenzy at numerous film festivals across the globe including Cannes and Sundance and nabbing various awards, Beasts of Southern Wild was picked up by Fox Searchlight and released into a summer thick with superhero blockbusters and science fiction explosions. Maintaining buzz all the way into awards season, I feared that Beasts of Southern Wild would fail to live up to the massive amount of praise that was being laid before this debut feature from Zeitlin but astonishingly, I found myself swelling with hope as the film tugged me into an emotional coming of age blur. And if you don’t find yourself drawn in to the grungy dream world of the Bathtub, you’ll surely find yourself beaming over the performance from pint-sized heroine Quvenzhané Wallis, a child so fierce and brave, that she can stop charging Aurochs dead in their tracks. In fact, even if you have absolutely no interest in the film’s premise, see it just to marvel at the promising young talent and understand why Wallis is the youngest Best Actress nominee at the tender age of 9. I know I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Beasts of Southern Wild takes us to the southern Louisiana bayou called the Bathtub, a rusting and decaying community that is cut off from the outside world by levee. Despite the constant threat of climate change, flooding, and being forced out of their makeshift homes, the residents of the Bathtub never miss an opportunity to pause for the day to celebrate the joys of life. Among the colorful residents that live in the Bathtub is Hushpuppy (Played by Wallis), a precocious and brave little girl who possesses a vivid imagination. Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Played by Dwight Henry), a testy alcoholic who is also suffering from a mysterious illness that he tries to keep from poor Hushpuppy. One evening, a strong storm hits the Bathtub and floods the homes of the residents, which causes the authorities to step in and force them to evacuate their homes. To make things worse, Hushpuppy fears that the frozen prehistoric beasts called Aurochs are thawing out in the Arctic and are going to charge into the Bathtub, destroying everything in their path.

Zeitlin does everything in his power to make the viewer feel like they are living in the Bathtub right alongside these fiercely loyal folks. They are immensely proud of their tacked together shelters and they do not intend to leave their community (those who do leave before the big storm are heckled by Wink). To make the viewer feel like they are right there, Zeitlin allows his camera to bob around and explore every nook and cranny of this decaying wonderland of shelters that can barely keep the howling winds out at night. When the time comes for the residents to leave, we are feeling their pain even if we would kill for a shower. We almost become used to the sense of seclusion and isolation, liberation from an outside world that consists of a looming gray power plant in the distance. It is an intimidating structure that suggests man has completely overpowered nature. In the Bathtub, man lives hand and hand with nature as animals roam free and homes are dug into thick walls of brush and trees. When the authorities come in, they march through in polos and pressed slacks, yanking the residents of the Bathtub in every single direction and forcing them into sterile waiting rooms where victims of the storm sit quietly with long faces. It really pierces your heart and deflates your spirit.

Beasts of Southern Wild (2012)

Then we have the lack of big name and profession actors in front of the camera, which really allows these Bathtub residents to come to life. The standout is Wallis as 6-year-old Hushpuppy, our adorable narrator who bravely lives by her own code. She has a trailer all to her self, which she proceeds to set on fire. She is left for days alone and confused by Wink, who mysteriously returns to their home in a hospital gown. Poor Hushpuppy is basically raising herself, with only occasional guidance by the unpredictable madman Wink. He shows her a thing or two about catching fish as they drift through the streets of the Bathtub in a makeshift boat and drunkenly teaches her how to crack and gnaw at some crawfish at a candle-lit dinner. As their journey plays out, we really learn to love their complex relationship, one that lacks a compassionate mother, a woman that Wink says was so beautiful, she could make water boil. Meanwhile, Henry continues to impress as the outburst prone Wink, who enjoys sipping from a liquor bottle and blasting his shotgun at the storm outside. Zeitlin slowly reveals the mysterious of his illness and then shatters our hearts in the final few minutes and he shares a touching meal of hot sauce doused gator with the teary-eyed Hushpuppy. It is easily the best sequence of the film, one that will have you scrambling to rewind it just to take in the mesmerizing acting of Wallis and Henry.

Upon first viewing Beasts of Southern Wild, the stark reality of the Bathtub world and the emotionally draining acting threaten to overpower the weightier aspects of the film. You’ll get chills as the Aurochs charge towards the Bathtub, only stopping to feast on one another to regain their strength. You’ll swell with emotion as Hushpuppy embarks on a miniature journey to find her mother, who cooks gator in a seedy strip club and cracks eggs by spitting a beer bottle cap at the shell (just wait until you get a load of her). You’ll fight back tears as Wink finally reveals the severity of his illness to little Hushpuppy. You’ll be filled with warmth as Wink shows Hushpuppy how to crack a fish on the head to kill it. You’ll swoon at the overwhelming sense of hope that flares up in the final frames of the film, as it is revealed that the residents of the Bathtub are one giant family, sticking together, rebuilding, and proudly marching in the face of tremendous devastation. I am reluctant to reveal all the secrets of Beasts of Southern Wild to you, as part of the excitement is finding out what everyone is raving about and then putting it all together. It may require a few viewings and a little bit of patience at first, but I advise you to just loose yourself in this world and I guarantee that you will be swept away into this dreamy fable. You’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A-

Beasts of Southern Wild is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

by Steve Habrat

In 1992, the world was introduced to a jive talking video store clerk turned screenwriter, director, and actor. He made the uptight film snobs squirm (he still does) with the way he borrowed from 70’s trash cinema and made those searching high and low for a sleazy thrill giddy with delight. His name is Quentin Tarantino and the film that shot him into stardom was the bloody crime caper Reservoir Dogs, a film that has to rank as one of the best films from the 90’s. Extremely controversial with its violence (Wes Craven reportedly walked out of a screening of the film) and unapologetically funny (the analysis of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’) even if it is incredibly crass, Reservoir Dogs is a smoothing talking throwback that doesn’t hide the fact that it is borrowing from forgotten cinema. Reservoir Dogs is a film that sucks the viewer in instantly; ripe with fast-talking criminals dressed in too-cool-for-school suits and black Wayfarers. Classic tunes from the 70’s blare over the soundtrack as these crooks, who look more like a 50’s rock n’ roll band than a bunch of jewelry thieves, strut in slow motion through a parking lot. It’s the sequence that is the epitome of cool, my dear readers, and it merely is setting the stage. That is the best way I can describe Reservoir Dogs, as a super cool caper that has the power to disturb and tickle, sometimes at the same time. I should also note that the film is incredibly influential, despite what some may say.

Reservoir Dogs introduces us to six thugs, Mr. White (Played by Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Played by Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Played by Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Played by Steve Buscemi), Mr. Brown (Played by Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Played by Eddie Bunker), who are all gearing up for the perfect heist. They find a leader in Joe Cabot (Played by Lawrence Tierney), a cranky and gravelly-voiced gangster, and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Played by Chris Penn). Together, they plan to rob a jewelry store and it appears they have every angle covered. But something goes horribly wrong and the heist becomes a scene of stomach-churning carnage. Four of the thugs escape to a hideout where they begin to suspect that one member of the group may be an undercover police officer. Meanwhile, the police are gathering outside the hideout, ready to take the group down by any means necessary.

The overall setup of Reservoir Dogs is a pretty simple one but the film sets itself apart by never showing the viewer the heist. We only see the chaotic aftermath of it, allowing our imaginations to run wild. The small budget prevented Tarantino from showing us the heist but the dialogue is pretty graphic in its description to the point where I wasn’t sure I even WANTED to see it. The aftermath is disturbing, with Mr. Orange severely wounded by a gunshot to the gut, an injury that has him bleeding all over the joint. He squirms and shrieks in pain as Mr. White tries desperately to reassure him that he isn’t going to die. Meanwhile, two other group members were wasted in a hail of gunfire and we learn that the psychotic Mr. Blonde executed a handful of innocent civilians (one being only a young nineteen year old). If the bickering and the withering Mr. Orange isn’t enough to upset the viewer, Tarantino then delivers a terrifying and darkly comedic torture sequence that finds Mr. Blonde slashing a captured cop up with a blade and then hacking his ear off. It is a sequence that reportedly made Mr. Madsen a little queasy when he was filming it, especially when the cop adlibbed “I got a little kid at home!” Mr. Tarantino goes for the throat and he never even flinches while doing it.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Savagery aside, Reservoir Dogs is loaded with explosive performances from almost everyone involved. It is constant tug of war between Madsen’s Mr. Blonde, a psychopath who enjoys torturing his victims before he puts them out of their misery and Keitel’s Mr. White, a fatherly figure who isn’t afraid to get a little nasty himself when his back is against the wall. Madsen steals the show with his steely glares and you’d never guess that he got a queasy tummy while filming the notorious torture sequence. And then there is Buscemi, a smart but wimpy gangster who smells something rotten in the group. Buscemi is the king when it comes to playing oily low lives like this and I have to say Reservoir Dogs finds one of his best performances. Roth sends chills down your spine as the wounded Mr. Orange, really doing a lot with a role that demands he lay on the ground and bleed out. It never gets any easier to watch him shriek in pain in the back of a car and wither around in agony. All I can say is I hope I never, ever get shot in the gut. Penn and Tierney bring plenty of hotshot swagger as “Nice Guy” Eddie and Joe Cabot. Tierney is especially intense as Joe, the glaring don who does put up with any shenanigans or backtalk for his team. Tarantino and Bunker do well with the small roles they have but I would have liked to see a bit more from their characters, especially Mr. Blue. Tarantino gives rich back-stories for the thugs yet he leaves out ones for Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue, which doesn’t really make any sense to me. The only theory I have is possibly the tiny budget prevented him from doing anything further with the characters.

Reservoir Dogs is the film that introduced the world to the “Tarantino style” of filmmaking, which includes drawn out conversations and colorful exchanges between the characters, use of ironic music, nonstop film references, and chilling bursts of violence. Some say that this style has ruined film (mostly film professors that are steaming mad over the fact that Tarantino never went to film school and educated himself on film by taking trips to the local grindhouse) and made it unoriginal considering that Tarantino enjoys nabbing his favorite scenes from old exploitation cinema and stitching them all together. I have to disagree that his work is unoriginal considering that he fashions these references into unique creations that could only come from Tarantino’s mind. I really don’t think anyone else could have made Reservoir Dogs as likable as it is and trust me; this film contains some seriously shocking moments that make it a tough pill to swallow. Overall, Reservoir Dogs is maddeningly simple, wickedly funny, and waiting to spring one hell of a twist on the viewer near the end of the film (trust me, the reveal is really awesome). It is best going into the film with as little knowledge of the film as possible and it is one that you won’t soon forget after you’ve seen it. Good luck listening to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ the same way ever again.

Grade: A+

Reservoir Dogs is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Video Review: Absentia (2011)

Monsters (2010)

by Steve Habrat

It is hard to believe that British director Gareth Edwards’ ultra low budget science fiction film Monsters cost only around $500,000 to make. Just take a look at the crisp cinematography, the dreamy score, and charred special effects and you will be absolutely staggered that he made so much out of so little. Edwards masks the low budget by turning Monsters into a character drama, one that only uses the alien invasion as a political backdrop for his two main characters. Heavily critical of the tense American views on immigration and illegal aliens, Monsters is a sharp jab at how some American citizens view our neighbors to the south. That being said, I more than believe that Monsters has its heart in the right place, exploring the idea that we fear what we don’t understand, but I wish Monsters wouldn’t have been so heavy handed with this message, taking advantage of every opportunity to point out what it is attempting to do. I also wish that Edwards had added a bit more action to the film. I enjoyed traveling with these characters and seeing all the nifty little touches along the way but I feel Monsters would have benefitted from a little more action. I say this because the night-vision shootout in the opening moments leaves the viewer shaken, battered, and wanting a hell of a lot more.

At the beginning of Monsters, we are told that a NASA deep-space probe crashed near the United States-Mexico border. In the wake of its crash, alien life forms begin to appear, causing the U.S. and Mexican armed forces to attempt to contain the infected area. The U.S. quickly puts up a massive wall to keep the towering creatures from crossing over onto American soil. Meanwhile, in San José, a young American photojournalist named Andrew (Played by Scoot McNairy) is asked by a wealthy employer to escort his daughter back into America. Andrew reluctantly accepts the offer and sets out to find the beautiful Samantha (Played by Whitney Able). The two strike up a friendship over the course of their journey, Andrew beginning to fall for Samantha, who also happens to be engaged. After getting mugged and loosing their passports, Andrew makes a shaky arrangement to have Samantha escorted to the American wall but the journey will take them through the infected zone and put their lives at risk. Or so they have been led to believe.

Monsters makes the wise choice to make the viewer feel like a tourist on Mexican soil, allowing us to wander around with the characters and take in the local culture. We are shown how difficult it is for these individuals who face constant attacks by the creatures. We see Mexican civilians mourning their losses while America offers little to no aid to the Mexican armed forces. It is this raw emotion that really takes its toll on the viewer and makes Monsters such an emotional journey. Electronic musician John Hopkins’ soaring score, at once dreamily inquisitive, intimate, and romantic, compliments partially destroyed cities and moist eyes of the mourners. It was also interesting to watch how the Mexican civilians have routed their daily lives around the constant problems with the extraterrestrial beings. I was hooked on Edwards’ camera bobbing around and showing me street signs that warn those who travel down that road to have a gas mask handy and indicating that we are near an infected zone. The eeriest is a gigantic sign that indicates just how enormous the infected area is, our heroes silently absorbing their risky situation.

Since the film has such a low budget, Edwards is forced to rely on his main protagonists to drive the film. They need to be convincing and engaging or else the film will loose us, as it can only go so far with the visitors-in-a-foreign-land approach. McNairy and Able do have a spark and it isn’t hard to see that the film is swerving into romantic territory. McNairy’s Andrew desperately tries to keep things as casual as possible, always trying to break the awkward tension between him and Samantha. Able’s Samantha is battling an inner conflict, trying to repress her growing feelings for Andrew, who bottles up a secret of his own. Together they face tense situations that never amount to much of anything, a close-encounter here and a false alarm there, Andrew always quick to whip out his camera and attempt to document what they are seeing. Only once do things really get deadly for the duo, but it is brief and we only really see the gruesome aftermath of what has panned out. I’m all for the subtle approach but I’d like to see why we are all so terrified of these creatures. All we ever really see them do it wander into a city here or pick up a car there, which adds a layer of minor disappointment to the road trip that is Monsters.

For a film that lacks a big Hollywood price tag, Edwards does an incredible job with the special effects, which were said to have been accomplished on his laptop. His aliens are a sight to behold and I’m reluctant to reveal too much about them, as they are one of the only real sources of mystery in the film. Things get very apocalyptic when the duo finally sets foot on American soil, a sequence that offers another minor surprise. As I said, Monsters is too ready to explain itself away to the viewer, refusing to keep its politics ambiguous. It’s not hard to decipher the message of the film if you’ve been filled in on the plot so I feel it was unnecessary to have the characters explain things further to us. For its handful of flaws, Monsters is still an above average science fiction drama, one with likable characters and lovely use of location (wait for the sequence where Andrew and Samantha spend the night at an Aztec pyramid). I just wish Edwards wouldn’t have shied away from tossing us around a little bit more. Monsters would be so much better if you were still recovering from it the next day.

Grade: B

Monsters is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Pontypool (2008)

by Steve Habrat

What would happen if you smashed together George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the 1938 radiobroadcast of War of the Worlds? You would end up with Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, a voluble spin on the zombie horror film that uses semiotics as the virus that turns helpless citizens into mindless cannibals. Pontypool embraces simplicity in every frame, borrowing Romero’s creeping claustrophobic atmosphere and allowing it to play with a mysterious phenomenon that is mostly heard and rarely ever seen. Director McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess, who adapted the script from his own novel, are relentlessly fascinated with the power of words, ideas, and their lasting effect on those who hear them. Giving us only four characters to root for and cementing the action within the walls of a radio station, Pontypool keeps things spooky with distant bumps, thumps, and fuzzy reports from within the chaos, tricks that prod the imagination and send it into a tumult.

Pontypool follows a fussy shock jock radio host named Grant Mazzy (Played by Stephen McHattie), who on his snowy drive to work encounters a woman mumbling unintelligible gibberish. She wanders off into the snow, leaving Mazzy with just an unsettling story to share with his listeners. When he arrives to work, he begins his show Mazzy in the Morning like normal, complaining to his tense producer Sydney Briar (Played by Lisa Houle) about how bland the day’s news is. Caught in the middle of their bickering is Laurel-Ann (Played by Georgina Reilly) who attempts to keep the peace between them. What finally interrupts the battle are strange reports of rioting at the office of a Doctor Mendez (Played by Hrant Alianak). As more reports pour in, the stories begin to describe cannibalism and other bizarre behavior spreading from Mendez’s office. As the masses of mindless ghouls close in on the radio station, Grant, Sydney, and Laurel-Ann discover that the English language may be carrying a bug that turns those who speak certain words into zombies.

McDonald doesn’t hesitate to allow us to get to know these characters, much like the work of Romero, and then begins to pull the rug out from under us. The small number makes the invisible horror and looming danger even more unbearable when it comes crashing in. But McDonald doesn’t stop here, adding the idea that if the ghouls get in, there is nowhere for the people trapped inside to run to. This is what makes Pontypool a winner in my eyes. It was excruciating not truly knowing what was going on outside the walls of the radio station. Things get even more gut wrenching when the heard and not seen weather reporter Ken Loney (Played by Rick Roberts) phones in with what he is seeing and his experiences within the spreading terror. Keeping the viewer in the dark, we get hooked on answers and even when we get them, they are a bit ambiguous, spewing from the mouth of the on-the-run Doctor Mendez, who seeks refuge from the hordes in the radio station.

Pontypool is carried by the performance by McHattie as Grant Mazzy, the self-aware radio personality with quite a bit on his mind. When the truth hits that the reports coming are indeed reality, his hardened face melts into paranoia and apprehension. McHattie is an astonishing actor when it comes to deadpan facial expression. He is a whirlwind when his mouth is flapping but his quieter moments, when he has to piece together a way out, overshadow the moments when he is in front of a microphone. McHattie plays well with Houle as Sydney, who goes to great lengths to keep her wits about her. A phone call to her family will take your breath away and break your heart. McHattie and Houle have drawn out conversations that at times feel scripted, more the fault of Burgess, and you can tell they are straining the aggravation for each other. In the final stretch, they really pull through and click; the final twenty minutes their blaze of glory together. Reilly fairs well as Laurel-Ann, getting to execute some physical stuff halfway through the film and also getting the best gore sequence the film has to offer. Alianak as Doctor Mendenz ends up venturing a little too far into B-movie territory, a choice that ends up paling in comparison to the top-notch performances by the other three actors. I was also heavily impressed with the voice work from Rick Roberts as Ken Loney, who had to convey so much with only his voice. Many of the goosebumps I got while watching Pontypoll came from him. Bravo, sir!

Like almost all zombie movies, Pontypool has much more on its mind than simply chewing on flesh. Critical of the English language and the impact words can have on those who hear them, Pontypool seemed to be saying that we are an impressionable group of people. When the zombies hear new words or phrases, they begin frantically repeating what they hear. The message I took away from Pontypool is that we simply don’t think for ourselves, hanging on the words from shock jock radio commentators and the like, carrying their messages around like mindless prophets. And yet I feel like there is more to be found in Pontypool as the film is practically on its knees for a repeat viewing. It seemed to me that more pieces to this puzzle and the overall message would come together the more we expose ourselves to the film. I’m itching to revisit the film to pull back a few more of its layers.

If you are hoping for an explosion of gore and intestines at the end of Pontypool, you will be severely disappointed. There are only a few scenes that contain graphic sequences of gore. If you are crossing your fingers for lots of roaming cannibals, don’t get your hopes up, as only a handful of the ghouls are actually seen. In fact, many may find themselves bored to tears with the movie but I actually found it to be a nice change of pace. I loved the low budget approach and all the implied horror rather than the all out nasty stuff that many zombie movies indulge in. Pontypool turns out to be one of the creepier modern films that I have seen, one that scares us on a psychological level. It keeps us on pins and needles and the gloomy final stretch of the film would make Romero proud. If Pontypool sounds like your cup of apocalyptic doom, you need to hurry up and see it. Just don’t forget your thinking cap.

Grade: A-

Pontypool is available on DVD.