Youth Conquers Beasts of the Southern Wild

This year’s Sundance darling, Beasts of the Southern Wild, defies description.  Part fable, part real-life, it could take place at almost any time in modern history, though the locale is so clearly defined ~ to the point of being a character in and of itself ~ that you can practically smell it, hear it, taste it and feel it.  Beasts takes place in a Southern Louisiana Delta called The Bathtub ~ earning its name due to it filling up with water when it rains…and oh, does it rain, as if it won’t ever stop.  The living conditions there are meager ~ dirty, cramped and infested with all manner of creatures (some real, some mythical), yet the “residents” of the Bathtub (an array of eccentrics who fit into no clear category) are fiercely devoted and attached (for better or for worse) to their home, refusing to leave, even when a storm reminiscent of Katrina makes their already dismal living conditions virtually unlivable and the government tries to forcibly remove them.

The story centers around an extraordinary 6-year-old girl called Hushpuppy (played by soulful newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) and her distant, tough-loving father, Wink (beautifully played by another first-time actor, Dwight Henry) as they struggle to subsist amidst the many obstacles in their path: his failing health, the dangerous repercussions resulting from the aftermath of the storm, and their previous abandonment by Hushpuppy’s mother (an absence clearly felt by both).  Although Wink often comes across as unfairly harsh, it eventually becomes clear he is only trying to teach his young daughter how to survive on her own, as her impending orphanhood draws ever near.  Hushpuppy, who affectingly narrates the film from her point of view, goes about trying to make sense of the tenuous world around her, doing so with more courage, resolve, imagination and wisdom than most ten times her age.  She is a force of nature, a wonder to behold ~ and one gets the sense that at the tender age of six, the line between “actor” and child is practically non-existent.  It is she ~ with her touchingly delivered voice-overs, her steely and steady gaze, her tenacity, and her remarkable spirit ~ who brings a beating heart to the narrative, lifting the film to the heights it reaches.  It is quite a load to carry on such tiny little shoulders, but she bears it with strength, stamina and grace.  She is a firecracker, a revelation and alone makes the movie worth seeing. Continue reading

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Bernie, Bernie, Oh What Have You Done?

Bernie is a Richard Linklater film unlike any I’ve ever seen…by him or anyone else, for that matter.  I knew very little about the movie going in, which I think contributed to my enjoyment of and appreciation for the film.  It is a sharply droll film with an unexpectedly dark undercurrent so subtly crafted, before you know it, you are every bit as engrossed by and invested in the story as are the real-life townspeople “cast” in the documentary-style narrative.  It is wholly unique in its structure, as it is not quite a “mockumentary” (in the vein of, for instance, Christopher Guest films such as This Is Spinal Tap or Waiting For Guffman – it takes itself more seriously than those), yet precisely because it is based on a true story and so many real-life residents are used within the telling of that story, it often feels like a (fantastically riveting and entertaining) documentary.

Bernie is the remarkably true story of Bernie Tiede (played by the multi-talented and arguably undervalued Jack Black), a small-town Texas mortician whose preternaturally cheerful, caring and generous disposition makes him wildly popular with townsfolk across the board, young and old, male and female alike.  He eventually wins over even the crotchety wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent, played with delicious wickedness by Shirley MacLaine.  Bernie and Ms. Nugent form a curiously uncommon (and definition-defying) relationship that eventually tests even the perpetually patient and optimistic Bernie, causing him, in a moment of temporary insanity (or, one could argue, temporary sanity), to reach a breaking point that drives him to commit a crime you don’t see coming (unless you’re familiar with the true-life case, or have read or seen anything about the movie!)  This act precipitates a chain of events that has to be seen to be believed, culminating in a trial every bit as compelling and absorbing as any modern-day real-life crime drama. Continue reading

Magic Mike Lacks Luster

Director Steven Soderbergh cemented my interest in and appreciation for Independent Film back in 1989 with his seminal movie sex, lies and videotape, a film that was a game-changer for the Independent Film Movement ~ as well as for me.  Ever since, I have paid attention to Soderbergh’s film trajectory, which has taken some interesting turns and certainly doesn’t seem to follow any predictable path.  Like any frequently working director, he’s had his hits (the refreshingly smart and acutely comedic George Clooney and J.Lo-starring crime caper Out Of Sight, and the intelligently effecting Traffic, for which Soderbergh won an Oscar for Directing) and misses (Clooney didn’t get as lucky with Solaris).  Nonetheless, I’ve got to give Soderbergh kudos for experimenting with a broad range of material and genres.  So although it seemed an unlikely pairing for Soderbergh to direct a movie about male strippers, his attachment to it was the very thing that gave the atypical subject matter some interesting credit.  However, after having seen it, I can’t figure out why he chose to do it or why he wasn’t able to bring more to it than he did.

Alex Pettyfer and Channing Tatum

Magic Mike has a fairly thin premise to begin with.  Mike (Channing Tatum, who apparently actually did do some “erotic male dancing” back before he hit it big and does indeed have the moves ~ and abs ~ to prove it!) “recruits” and takes under his wing a young stud struggling to find work (and his way).  Adam (Alex Pettyfer) quickly gets inducted into the group of strippers, inheriting the moniker “The Kid”, and soon gets caught up in some of the seedier aspects of “the business”…just as Mike begins to question his own place in it (which sounds potentially deeper than it ever actually gets).

By far the most enjoyable scenes take place at the nightclub where the group of men perform ~ dancing, disrobing, and often coming perilously close to baring ALL ~ for the throngs of screaming girls in their audience.  The crew is headed up by club owner/MC and sometime “performer” himself, Dallas, hilariously played by Matthew McConaughey, in the second role I’ve seen him in this month in which he has shone (he was fantastic in Bernie as well, which I will be reviewing soon).  He is pitch perfect as the smooth-talking, crowd-cajoling, rebel-rousing leader of the group and frequently steals the show.  In addition to Tatum and Pettyfer, the rest of the group is comprised of the smolderingly handsome Joe Manganiello (True Blood), whose stage name is “Big Dick Richie”, if that tells you anything, the so-good-looking-he’s-pretty Matt Bomer (White Collar), former wrestler Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriquez (CSI: Miami).  While the more recognizable of those names were hugely promoted prior to the release of the film, I was disappointed in how little they actually appeared on-screen.  (I felt a bit cheated on the Manganiello/Bomer front!)  Regardless, the scenes within the club, both backstage AND on stage, are highly entertaining, often extremely funny and provide the most thorough backdrop into the world the film inhabits (and intends to explore).  A sense of camaraderie and comfort exists between these men ~ it’s clear that they’ve formed a sort of family, even if that family is somewhat dysfunctional. Continue reading

Indie Love for Your Sister’s Sister

Your Sister’s Sister is just the kind of small, quiet, contained Indie movie that’s right up my alley.  I happened upon an interview with Writer/Director Lynn Shelton on Fresh Air the other night (this film is her sophomore effort, following 2009’s Humpday, also starring Mark Duplass) and my interest was piqued, by Shelton’s pleasant, unassuming nature, by the naturalistic dialogue i in the audio clips played from the film, and due to the three lead cast members ~ Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt ~ all of whom I like a great deal.  And so I treated myself to a Sunday morning matinée (my version of church).

Jack (Duplass) and Iris (Blunt) are best friends.  Iris sends Jack, who is still dealing with the emotional repercussions of the loss of his brother a year earlier, to her father’s cabin somewhere in the scenic Pacific Northwest in the hopes that some time away ~ and alone ~ will help him to “recharge”.  Upon his arrival, he finds he is not alone, as Iris’ half-sister, Hannah (DeWitt), is already there, escaping her own heartache.  After a comically rocky introduction, the two spend a tequila-fueled night discussing their problems…and then some.  Iris unexpectedly arrives the next morning and the inevitable complexities of the close-knit triangle ensue.  Continue reading