Friday, June 29, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

BEAUTY IN THE BATHTUB                   
by Zac Sanford

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes us deep into the murky waters of the south, not within the safety net of the Louisiana levee system, but just on the other side, in a little commune known as the Bathtub.  Here, the few residents celebrate all that life has to offer them, not confined to work nine-to-five, but to survive off the land, eating those animals that you've raised, spending time with friends and family, but ultimately, surviving even the worst of storms.

Wink (Dwight Henry) knows his time remaining on this planet is coming to an end, so he must take all he's learned in his years and pass it along to his daughter, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).  Once he's gone, she'll have no one left to call family.  Her mother has been gone for countless years, and there really isn't any explanation of what happened to her, other than she simply "swam away."  Life is tough in the Bathtub, so Hushpuppy must learn to catch crawfish barehanded, survive on what little food she can find (even when it isn't meant for human consumption), and ultimately to survive.

Hushpuppy looks up to her father, and with great direction from first timer Benh Zeitlin, along with the superb camerawork of Ben Richardson, everything in the film hovers over her.  The camera movement is free flowing, shot from the hip, as Beasts is a film from the point of view of our six-year old narrator.  In less capable hands, and without the huge influence of Terrence Malick on Zeitlin, the film could easily fall into heavy melodrama as Wink and Hushpuppy are dealt a worse fate than any that came before.

Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry

When a flash-flood of epic proportions (similar in scope to that of Hurricane Katrina) slams into the Bathtub, Wink and Hushpuppy must hold on tight. Wink yells to his daughter over the pounding rain in the shack, stacked high above the ground to avoid being carried away by the waters.  She must be strong; she must not get scared.  The storm will pass, and once again, life will go on within the bayou.  But this is no normal storm.  The bathtub has been ravaged.  Pets and animals that were meant to be food have all but vanished.  The water is too polluted to drink, but somehow, our characters know they must be strong and continue living as a community.

The haunting images of the flooded bayou are enough to break any viewer's heart.  The shacks that are homes to the locals have varying levels of damage.  Even the local bar will be on short supply as no one will be coming in and out of the area for quite some time.  So Wink and a couple cohorts decide to head on out to the levee, to find a way to release some of the pressure, allowing them to live a somewhat normal life, at least in their eyes.

Hushpuppy is once again left to survive on her own.  This is her land and her people, and through her constant narration, she will do whatever it takes to find the way to a lighthouse where she feels her mother has been living.  And if it isn't just to see her mother, it is also to escape the Aurochs, beasts formerly frozen in ice, but now free due to global warming, that are in route to the bathtub.

Quvenzhane Wallis
Beasts has been the buzz on the festival circuit since it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.  What this film lacks in stars, it more than makes up for in the visual imagery and the wonderful performances that easily catapulted it to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Caméra d'Or award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.  One has to wonder why Fox Searchlight decided to release the film so early in the year.  As it stands right now, it is easily the front-runner for many end-of-the-year top-ten lists and countless nominations for its cast and crew.

Most notably of all are the performances by first-time actors, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry.  Wallis was only five years old when she was cast from a local call of over 4,000 submissions.  While most films with kid leads are sunk by their young actors, she shines and carries the film, filling the frame with such a force of emotion and heart.  Dwight, a local baker in New Orleans, carries a heavy burden of impending death and of constant sorrow. It is amazing to think he and his costar had no previous training before being cast in the film.  They both embody their characters, and it will be interesting to see if either of them are able to break through and have a career in their future.  As of release, Dwight Henry will next be seen in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Seeking a Friend For The End Of The World

A DEEPER IMPACT                                
by Zac Sanford

Hollywood has a long running fascination with the "end of the world" scenario, and as the clock ticks closer to the end of the Mayan calendar, a slate of films has hit the multiplexes exclaiming the "end is near."  In Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, it isn't the CGI spectacle that drives the narrative, but the range of real emotions as the human race comes to its end.

And that end is just around the corner, three weeks to be exact, after an Armageddon-style mission to stop a doomsday asteroid fails.  The clock is now ticking and it is too much for many to take.  The first casualty is the marriage of Dodge (Steve Carell), as his wife bolts from the car, running into the night, never to be seen again.  And this is the central question within the movie - with only a finite amount of time before you cease to exist, what would you do?

Dodge takes the high road.   A man to never rest on his laurels, he still arrives to work daily, but won't take the newly vacated CFO position.  He fills the 9 to 5 by answering calls at his insurance job, exclaiming that the pending disaster would not be covered under one's policy.  But why go to work?  To some, the normalcy is a way to keep your mind at a distance from the bleak future that is right around the corner.  Or maybe as best exemplified by Dodge's housekeeper, there may be a bit of faith buried under the surface that things might not go as expected, or there's something better awaiting in the afterlife.

While the themes of the future and what could or couldn't happen aren't really explored within the context of the film, most of the characters Dodge comes across in the first act have a chance to live out every fantasy.  There really aren't any repercussions when the end is near.  Dodge's best, and it seems only friend, Warren (Rob Corddry), wants to make the best out of his last few days.  It's time to smoke those Cubans and to teach his children to "drink through the burn" as they take their first alcoholic drinks.  It is the party to end all parties; girls will sleep with any man, including one of Patton Oswalt's stature, and since there's no time to worry about getting addicted, why not enjoy the heroin that someone brought to the party.

But Dodge doesn't want to try new things.  He is a man who has lived a life of regrets, most notably letting the first love of his life get away from him.  When he comes across a letter that has been in the possession of his neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), for an unknown amount of time, he makes it his mission to find a way to reunite with her one last time.  Penny also has a life of regret.  Instead of heading out on one of the last flights to be with her family in the UK, she decided to stay with her boyfriend (Adam Brody).  When Penny gets in a final fight with her boyfriend, only Dodge is there to console her and says he can get her to a plane if she can drive him to find his lost love.

And that's when the movie shifts gears a little.  Sure there's a couple more episodic bouts with doomsday preppers and overzealous cops, but the real heart in the story is trying to find that human bond and connection within a time of chaos. Lorene Scafaria, who previously wrote Nick and Norah'sInfinite Playlist, penned the script and is behind the camera for the first time.  She perfectly maneuvers the change from an over-the-top comedy into a dramedy, and as the movie gets closer to the final moments before impact, the film goes into longer stretches without a comedic beat.

Keira Knightley and Steve Carell

The road trip aspects allow a real chemistry to be built between Carell and Knightley, considering so much screen time is filled with the two.  Keira does a great job playing against type, while Steve doesn't bring too much new to the table.  We've seen him play the affable guy who is a little down trodden.  But somehow the bond is quickly built and believable between the two.  And like any good rom-com, you hope and root that they'll end up together, but is the end of the world enough to send them in opposite directions?  Or will they ultimately spend the last remaining seconds together, true friends in the end?

Seeking a Friend For the End of the World is a fun twist on the doomsday scenario. What it lacks in special effects in makes up in heart, hopefully making this a memorable film in the end.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Best of 2011 Now on DVD

When Summer Blockbusters Don't Do It
by Mark Dispenza

The kids are out of school and the studios want their money... and yours.  It's the season of the summer blockbuster.

Not wanting to leave money on the table, the larger distribution houses have picked up a few eagerly awaited indies for the summer, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Woody Allen's To Rome with Love among them, but we know it's never going to be enough to fill the void and satisfy the longing for good, adult stories.  For those quiet times when the young people are out with their friends and the grand kids are back home from their visit, here are a few recent releases of outstanding indies from the last awards season.

The Artist

Not only is The Artist a good film, but as a silent movie it's absolutely perfect for those who seek serious quiet time.  You'll need to read the subtitles, but it's well worth the effort.  This marvelously entertaining film won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and numerous other awards.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Scheduled for DVD release on June 19, this film is the best yet from brothers Jay and Mark Duplass.  Like most of the other Duplass films, this one centers on a dysfunctional family and tells a wonderful story about finding the joys of life right in your own backyard.

We Need to Talk about Kevin 

Tilda Swinton deals with the unthinkable when her son becomes the perpetrator of a ripped-from-the-headlines mass murder at his high school.  This film is particularly noteworthy both for Swinton's performance and its unique style of non-linear storytelling.


Not for the squeamish, this film takes a hard look at the long-term consequences of uncontrolled rage and domestic violence.  Amid the horror there is an unexpected and touching humanity that makes this film both satisfying and watchable.


Made in the Phillipines on a shoestring budget, John Sayles said this may be his last indie film.  Let's hope not.  The story takes place during the mostly unknown events of the Phillippine-American War.  The players may look different, but in every war they're the same.


These are a few titles from last year that have been out on DVD for a while, but you may have missed them. Shame on you.

The Descendants - A terrific cast headlined by George Clooney plays family members who explore themes of life and death, love and loss, and the sacrifice of doing the right thing while their wife and mother lies comatose.

Midnight in Paris - Prepare for the upcoming theatrical release of To Rome with Love via a stopover in Paris for Woody Allen's most entertaining and highest grossing film ever.  It may be a romantically self-indulgent view of Paris, but that's exactly the point in this wonderfully enjoyable film.

Attack the Block - You might be tricked into believing those grand kids are still around while listening to all the teen slang in this wonderful cross-genre mash-up from across the pond.  Its theatrical release in the USA was on the same day as the big budget Cowboys & Aliens.  By the time disappointed audiences turned away from that film, Attack the Block was already gone.

Drive - Last year I recommended that you add this film to your guilty pleasure list.  Now you can watch it in the privacy of your own home... over and over again.  It's a must-see for Ryan Gosling fans.

Submarine - A coming-of-age film for both teens and adults, it tells a wonderful story about sustaining love in a world where the pressures of life are always threatening to drive us apart.


The Double Hour - After plying the film festival circuit last year, this Italian noir thriller has finally been released to DVD in the USA.  Your perception of reality will be challenged in this ground-breaking twist on an old genre.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Lola Versus

Millennials Lost                               
by Zac Sanford

On the cusp of turning thirty, all seems on the right track for Lola (Greta Gerwig), the titular character in Fox Searchlight's latest offering, Lola Versus.

Lola's been living with her boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman) for long enough that he's finally ready to settle down. Isn't that typically what people in their thirties do if they haven't already? Besides her wonderful boyfriend and eclectic group of friends, Lola is working on her dissertation covering the topic of the "Silent Moments in French Cinema." What could actually go wrong?

 Joel Kinnaman and Greta Gerwig

As Lola and her parents (played by Bill Pullman and Debra Winger in thankless and under-utilized roles) prepare for the upcoming nuptials, Luke comes down with a case of cold feet and calls off the wedding. Also, since Lola and Luke shared an apartment together, she must now find solace in a new locale as she continues a downward spiral of sexual encounters, alcohol and self-pity. But something about Gerwig's performance makes the sad state of affairs endearing, keeping the viewer locked in and along for the ride.

It also helps that Gerwig has wonderful actors to play against. Alice (Zoe Lister Jones, who co-wrote the script) is the best friend who is always just a phone call away. She's the ear for Lola to dump upon and always fires back with a witty response that isn't always helpful to her friend-in-need. Henry (Hamish Linklater), a close friend of Lola and an even closer friend to Luke, becomes another support system. There's always been somewhat of a spark between them, but based on the previous relationship, they've held back. One night when Lola can't be alone, she calls up Henry, who is more than happy to oblige sharing a bed with her for the night. The two must learn to balance their growing feelings for one another, considering Luke is still in both of their lives.

 Greta Gerwig

If all this sounds a little familiar, it might be the fact that the film doesn't break much new ground in the RomCom genre. The plot is razor thin and lately a typical episode of Girls on HBO will have more depth than the entire run time of Lola Versus. But the chemistry of Greta Gerwig and her close friends make this a more believable ensemble than those littered through the scripts penned by Lena Dunham. If only I could find the best of both programs and combine them into one movie or TV show, I'd be one happy viewer.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

God Bless America

Bobcat in Your Face                         
by Mark Dispenza

Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait continues to go where sane filmmakers fear to tread in God Bless America.  

Better known as the stand-up comic with the high-pitched voice, as well as actor and cast member of the Policy Academy films, Goldthwait moved into a new career phase as an indie writer/director with Sleeping Dogs Lie  in 2006.   Like that film God Bless America comes from the deep, dark, guilty thoughts that may cross our minds in a moment of weakness, but we'd never actually act on.  Goldthwait's protagonists do act on those thoughts.

Before I go any further, I have to warn you that you will be offended by this film. I don't mean you'll be offended if you're particularly sensitive or if you feel Goldthwait takes too many liberties exploring the dark recesses of the human mind.  I mean you will be offended - period - because that's what Goldthwait does.  He reaches into your psyche, grabs onto that terrible fantasy that crosses your mind on the rare occasion, and then he slaps you in the face with it in a humiliating, public way.

That experience is going to be a bit much for many people.  Frankly I found Sleeping Dogs Lie to be so offensive to my sensibilities, I never want to see it again.  While I felt he went too far in that case and I didn't get the relevance of it, I feel like he's getting his sea legs with God Bless America.  This latest film is a cornucopia of visual comedy and timely social commentary.  It was well-received by the audience at its SXSW US premiere.

Frank, played by Joel Murray, is an average, working class, lonely, divorced man who is beaten down by the pointless drudgery of his life.  He fantasizes about taking a gun and blowing away his rude, noisy neighbors and his obnoxious coworkers, but of course, he'd never actually act on those thoughts.  Then one day he is diagnosed with a terminal illness and he gets fired from his job.  His young daughter, who lives with his ex-wife and her new fiance in another city, tells him that she doesn't want to visit him anymore because he's boring and there's nothing to do at his home.

Frank turns on the television and watches a young man with no talent whatsoever be humiliated on the highly-rated American Superstarz, an American Idol-type talent show.  In complete despair he takes his gun and sticks it in his mouth, but before he pulls the trigger he sees another reality star on the screen.  Chloe (Maddie Hasson) is the spoiled, petulant teen star of her own reality series.  She's unbearably obnoxious and prone to go off on temper tantrums at the smallest inconvenience.  Realizing that she's the role model for his own spoiled daughter, Frank decides to perform a service and do away with her before taking his own life.

As he does the deed, he encounters Roxy, a high-strung 16-year-old classmate of Chloe's.  Roxy, played by Tara Lynne Barr, sticks to him like glue and convinces him to continue the work he started with Chloe, because there are a lot more obnoxious people out there who deserve to die.  From there the oddly matched Bonnie & Clyde embark on a road trip of murder and mayhem as they dispatch mean-spirited cable talk show hosts who spread fear to get ratings, reality show stars, and just plain rude people one after another.

Tara Lynne Barr and Joel Murray

With her cute young girl style, bangs and pigtails, Barr perfectly encapsulates the YouTube generation of corrupted innocence.  While on the surface she's the modern teen who'll do anything for a rush, Roxy's awakening adult mind knows that there's something very wrong with the society she's forced to live in.  I'm sure we'll be seeing Barr in a lot more roles after this.

One of Goldthwait's strengths as a director is his ability to present the absurdity of society gone bad with effective, if not somewhat over-the-top, visuals.  In one early scene Frank discusses the previous night's episode of American Superstarz with a coworker.  Like the rest of his office mates, this one can talk about nothing else except the terrific entertainment provided by the episode's humiliation of a talent-deprived young man put on public display.

Frank launches into a monologue in which he perfectly unmasks the mean-spirited nature and mental masturbation inherent in that type of entertainment.  As he delivers his perfectly crafted and sensible argument, other coworkers stop their own conversations and begin to listen - with abject horror on their faces, as if Frank has just engaged in an act of cannibalism right in front of them.  It's a great scene illustrating the absurdity of a world in which right and wrong, good judgement and stupidity have somehow swapped places.

This is not a perfect film by any means.  Although Goldthwait the writer/director appears to be growing and getting better, the film's most glaring weakness is that he succumbs to the temptation of preaching to the audience.  The point he is trying to make is so clear from the story itself, that this tendency to stall the movie while we listen to Frank discourse about the "bread and circuses" decline of our society detracts from the experience.  I kept wanting to say, "Okay, okay, Bobcat, we get it.  Move on!"  I have to share with you what Indie Film Guru co-contributor, Zac, said when I told him I would be posting this film:  "I liked the concept, but ultimately it felt like a long speech over the course of 90 minutes."  That pretty much sums it up.

Despite it's weaknesses, I have to recommend this film for what's good about it.  It's offensive and funny at the same time, the visuals are smart, and the casting is perfect.  If you see this film and are rightly horrified, perhaps you'll think I need counseling, That may be, or perhaps in a world where the concepts of decency and good sense have been turned upside down, I'm on to something here.

Fortunately Goldthwait delivers the coup de gras in the climax of the film without excessive preaching.  After infiltrating the season finale of American Superstarz, Frank and Roxy realize where the fault truly lies for this whole mess, and they finally turn their guns on the right people.

God Bless America is currently playing in limited release, but is also available by Video on Demand.