Tag Archives: 3.5 stars

Way late review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Creating a unique world in film is difficult. The safe bet is to stick to the real world or go so fantastical as to render it unrecognizable. Those who dare to mix the real and fantastical face the challenge of overcoming an audience never believing a single moment. If there is one only one thing Benh Zeitlin pulls off in his first feature length film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is creating a world all its own, with one foot steeped in reality and the other planted in the clouds.

Bathtub is somewhere in the Bayou, an island unto its own, filled with people living in poverty which include a young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√© Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy lives with her dad but in her own home. Dad seems barely capable of caring for himself and demands that Hushpuppy fend for herself, possibly because he senses his days are numbered, but it’s just as likely Wink is skirting responsibility while drowning in his own sorrow (not to mention liquor) of not having Hushpuppy’s mother with him. The feisty independent girl longs for her mother and is angry her father can disappear for days without notice.

Some of the Bathtub community are defiant, so much so that they won’t evacuate when a major storm is approaching. Instead of fleeing, Wink and others hunker down. They do their best to survive the storm and hold onto what little they call their own. Hushpuppy thinks the storm is happening because the icecaps are melting and will unleash some oversize warthog looking beasts. She learned this at school. At this point, shots of melting icecaps invade the screen. I’m not sure if the images and lore were meant to convey a heavy handed message, but it felt like there was a parallel being made between Katrina and global warming. Far from an activist film, Beasts also doesn’t hide the similarities of its world and the one of New Orleans right after hurricane Katrina.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The storm comes and trounces the Bathtub with non-stop water. Wink, Hushpuppy and some of their neighbors are left to survive the elements while figuring out what they’re going to do longer term. The journey meanders a bit, allowing us to get a fuller picture of just how adamant this community is about living life on their terms, no matter how hard the government or other outside forces try to rescue the remaining Bathtub residents.

In between the fantastic voyage and strange images of beasts racing towards the Bathtub, there is a story of a little girl who wants to find her mom and somehow make things work between her and her overbearing, sometimes abusive father. The father-daughter relationship on screen is a challenge. One of them we root for and the other against. While folklore rules the day and people revel in their plight in life, wisdom is in short supply, which is probably why the film’s most touching moments seemed a bit distant for me. The intended impact never hit fully as I found it difficult to completely empathize with a father who can’t seem to look outside of himself and a community that seems to pride itself in debauchery as much as it does in being a loving responsible community.

The cinematography and score are beautiful, creating a world all its own. The challenge is when the deeper emotional moments and themes don’t resonate as much as the gorgeous sights and sounds. What seemed like it could have been a one-of-a-kind masterpiece falls short, but there is much to love, including amazing performances by first time actors, Quvenzhan√© Wallis and Dwight Henry.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Atonement

Having recently finished watching seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey, I’ve been spoiled by a well done serial drama (i.e. soap opera) set around World War I and centered on an aristocratic family and their servants. That’s not to say it’s the greatest but it’s tough to beat the first season. Atonement would seem to be more of the same, minus the serial aspect. Except Joe Wright’s film is unique in almost every way except the one that matters most – expert storytelling.

Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a young teenager in a wealthy English family. One day Briony sees her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), a servant’s son whose education was paid for by the man of the house, get into a strange entanglement. From Briony’s point of view it appears as though Robbie is forcing Cecilia to take off her dress and jump into the large fountain in the backyard. In reality, Cecilia decides to take off her dress, remaining in only her slip, and jump into the fountain in order to rescue a piece of a family heirloom that was broken off accidentally by Robbie and sat at the bottom of the fountain. Both Cecilia and Robbie feel foolish for what took place. Meanwhile Briony is certain her sister has been assaulted in some way. Later that day Robbie struggles to write an apology. He’s conflicted between feelings of guilt and lust. One letter expresses remorse for the earlier incident while another crudely puts to words Robbie’s desires for Cecilia. Grabbing the wrong letter and handing it to Briony was Robbie’s first mistake. The next being his encounter with Cecilia before dinner. Rather than being turned off by Robbie’s explicit note, Cecilia seems turned on and before we know it the two are unbuckling belts and popping off buttons. Briony walks in and cuts things short. The evening goes from awkward to vengeful as Briony finds a way to get back at Robbie, who she sees as a predator. Briony pins a violent crime on Robbie and the servant’s son finds himself in prison. Cecilia is heart broken. Briony is satisfied. Justice was served in her mind, even if it meant lying about the perpetrator.

Robbie eventually finds himself in France fighting in the war. He could serve in the war instead of in a prison cell. That should have been a clear message about how brutal the war was. Robbie roams the fields looking for a way back home as he and a couple other men lost their troop in the thick of battle. Along the way the men see the horrors of WWI. Cecilia becomes a nurse, as does Briony. Cecilia won’t speak to her younger sibling as she hopes to one day reunite with the man her sister put in prison with a false testimony.

The story is rather simple and, likely as a result, is told in a broken time shifted manner. Sometimes scenes are replayed from a different perspective or the year is fast forwarded or rewound abruptly. This broken narrative doesn’t resolve the bloat in the film. For every creative use of a typewriter mixed with a symphony serving as the soundtrack or interesting shots of everyday life, there are long shots and scenes that overstay their welcome; contributing little to character development or story progression. Beautifully shot and far more experimental than most period pieces (even the expertly shot Downton Abbey), the pacing is off and no amount of time shifting can cover that up.

As the title of the film more than hints at, the story revolves around atonement. Briony’s misguided and jealousy driven action to pin a crime on an innocent man leads to unintended consequences. Or did it? Didn’t Briony know she was dooming this servant’s son, whom her father must have loved as he paid for his schooling and her sister loved too, to a life in prison or worse? While Briony feels much remorse, she never repents. Almost as a way of self punishment, she becomes a nurse who has to do the dirtiest jobs and the toughest emotional assignments. And the way the film ends, I’m not sure if we’re supposed to admire Briony’s “gift” to Cecelia and Robbie or if we’re to shake our heads in disbelief of the arrogance. I know which side I fell on.

An interesting visual take on a period piece, Atonement achieves its heights when the actors are allowed to interact with one another and not contend with a desire to extend the story beyond its capabilities by employing time shifting and other similar narrative trickery. Based on the epic nature of the filmmaking and the title itself, Atonement feels like it wants to say something more than it does. An interesting film with a lot to admire but also reaches a bit too far in certain aspects as to render it less potent.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Dial M for Murder


Having been scarred by seeing the most terrifying scenes of The Birds at a young age, I’ve mostly avoided Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Nothing personal, it’s just the thought of those feathered killers that kept me away. After many years I think I’ve finally recovered and am able to take in the renowned filmmaker’s archive. Since it was on Netflix streaming, I decided to watch Dial M for Murder.

Tony (Ray Milland) is a former tennis star whose wealthy wife, Margot (Grace Kelly) is cheating on him with an American crime writer Mark (Robert Cummings). Tony finds this out and decides he’s going to kill his unfaithful wife. The deceit within deceit proceeds with no shortage of twists for which even I, a Hitchcock newbie, am aware are a hallmark of the prolific director.

Everything takes place in one setting which means it is heavily dependent on the acting. Fortunately, the acting is top notch, not annoying as this period of films (really anything before the late 60′s) tends to encourage. Annoying only because the times change, not because it was terrible acting. If we could take back some of today’s best performances and show them to those in the ’50s the audience there would probably wonder if our men and women in front of the camera are even attempting to perform.

Not being the biggest crime and mystery film fan on the planet, I found the constant twists and turns to be a bit tiring towards the end. That’s me, but my eleven year old and seven year old children were fascinated by it all. Even though they struggled to keep up with the fast talking English accents, they were glued to the screen. In fact, my daughter asked me if she could watch the first part of the movie she missed. Who knew that Hitchcock films would appeal to grade schoolers in the year 2012?

Dial M for Murder feels more like a play than a film due to its single setting. Nonetheless, it holds up with compelling performances and a story that begs you to hang on until the very end. Plus, there are no killer birds stalking people in this one. That’s a bonus for my fragile psyche.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: The Hunger Games


Young adult fiction is popular these days, for better or worse. The young adults who read it, obsess over it and turn out in mass for movies based on the source material aren’t always so young. The obsession over and popularity of a series like The Hunger Games makes it difficult to create a good flick. Fans these days tend to demand a faithfulness to the source or they’ll riot, digitally of course, but still. I’m in the envious position of never having read any of the three books. After all, my favorite novel is: I’ll wait for the movie. I consider this a blessing when taking in movies based on modern day popular books. I’m more interested in a good film than allegiance to the author’s writings.

The story behind the film is not completely original. I won’t mention other films which have used similar narratives before because it doesn’t matter. It’s not unlike those who bemoan the cycle of bands whose only purpose seems to be to reinvent what came before. The complaint is one of, why bother? What is missed is that it may have been done before but not for this audience, not by this set of artists. I view The Hunger Games in a similar manner. The story is an interesting one regardless of its originality or lack thereof.

The future is not looking bright. It’s dystopian outside and the select few with wealth and power lord it over the rest. The capitol city is bright, high gloss, wine and dine. The surrounding districts are dark and dingy. In celebration of society’s survival from a nuclear fallout there is a televised competition in which two kids from each district are randomly selected to compete. First prize is you live another day. Second prize is you’re dead. Fairly simple rules, if not the greatest way to commemorate mankind’s continued existence.

Long story short, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister who was picked. She and Peeta represent their district. They train and put on a show to win support of those watching. Viewers can provide help during the competition, though how this is done is not clear, it simply happens. The games begin and lots of kids are killed. For those disturbed by this tale being for a younger audience I will point out that fairy tales could be pretty gruesome as well. Granted, the deaths didn’t normally involved knives, swords, genetically modified dogs and insects, but there were plenty of children meeting their early demise in stories much older than The Hunger Games.

The vast difference of the world between those in the capitol city and those outside it are interesting. Those on the inside wear garish costumes while those on the outside are perfectly dressed for a Charles Dickens novel. The outside districts are about harvesting raw materials to keep those in the high tech city moving along. The dichotomy is intentional if not a little too on the nose. No matter, it’s made clear there are two classes in this society and one is there to work for the other. One class is so subservient it offers up its children to the world’s worst reality TV show.

Katniss is a teenage girl capable of taking care of herself. Early on we see how she moves fluently through the forest hunting food for family. She is convinced no one is looking out for her good. She probably has a point. Every year she lines up waiting to hear her name called for the honor to battle other kids to the death on television. When she discovers one of the keys to surviving and winning the game is to win the hearts of those in the audience, it’s as if she’s already lost. She is no nonsense; and pretending to enjoy the experience of being thrown into the lion’s den for entertainment purposes tips the nonsense scale. She and Peeta have advisors who guide them through the process. They attempt to make Katniss and Peeta as different and as winsome as any two competitors have ever been.

Once the games begin the excitement is less than one might expect considering the setup. The action set pieces are mostly not there. The moral dilemmas presented by the competition and the way the (mostly) reluctant participants go about it are often side stepped with quick and easy solutions. Since the focus is mostly on Katniss the other characters seem almost inconsequential, even as they die painful deaths. Thankfully there is enough cat and mouse action to hold interest. And while some have made a big deal about the shaky cam technique being awful, I thought it fit in nicely with the tight focus on Katniss’ story. Then again, I liked Cloverfield. Nothing goes too far off the rails until there are, inexplicably, miraculously created obstacles which appear out of nowhere on command from central control. Apparently we’re in a world where there is still a need for coal and other natural materials, but the ability to create fireballs and monster dogs out of thin air is easy peasy.

There is an unevenness to The Hunger Games, which is at least partially due to there being two more books to cover. The story is good and the execution is solid if not spectacular. Our reluctant heroine holds interest throughout, even in those moments when the parts don’t make a cohesive whole. There is enough here to serve as a good launching point for the next films. Of course, if we’re to read the tea leaves set forth by its predecessors (Harry Potter, Twilight), we’ll likely see more than two films follow this one. For better or worse.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: We Bought a Zoo

I’ve seen about half a dozen Cameron Crowe films. One thing they all share in common is they tend to be easy watches. Even when I’m not in love with the film, there is something soothing about Crowe’s approach. We Bought a Zoo is a fairly harmless film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Perfect material for Crowe to throw his personally curated soundtrack at, assemble an all-star cast, and churn out a likable, if somewhat forgettable, film.

Benjamin (Matt Damon) lost his wife about six months ago. He has a young daughter, Rosie, who reminds him of his wife and a teenage son, Dylan, who reminds Benjamin of himself. Dylan is angry and hurt over the loss of his mom. His behavior at school results in expulsion and puts the pressure on Benjamin to find a new school for his suddenly troubled teen to attend. House hunting time. The search for a new home leads Benjamin to a perfect house out in the Southern California country side. There is one catch. The sale of the home is contingent on the new owner taking care of the zoo that sits on the home’s property. That gotcha clause doesn’t deter Rosie from falling in love with the animals as they walk the grounds. Dad is an adventurer at heart, wants to make his daughter happy, and thinks his son may enjoy the change of pace. He buys a zoo and the challenges of funding and running the venture ensue along with the on-going struggle to come to grips with life after losing a wife and mother.

The plot may seem eye rolling, but no one can blame Crowe or anyone else involved for making up the core premise. We Bought a Zoo is based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee. I have my doubts that Tom Petty, Neil Young and Bob Dylan tunes accompanied the real life story. I also doubt the zoo keeper was a gorgeous blonde with a raspy voice like Scarlett Johansson. The facts have all changed right from the start with the true story set in the UK while this one is in Southern California. None of this matters. What does matter is the characters are engaging enough and the story moves along at a steady pace as to forget the trite scenes of emotional tug-of-war the premise nearly demands. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.

We Bought a Zoo is one of those films I could probably pop in and pickup at any random point. There is nothing outstanding about it. The cast is enjoyable, the pacing is good, there are some humorous scenes and not too many cringe worthy ones. The music is hand picked from the past and sometimes a little too spot on. In other words, it’s a Cameron Crowe film. And that tends to mean I like it more than I thought I would.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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