Tag Archives: drama

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 (Quvenzhané 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, Quvenzhané 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: The Kid with a Bike

Sometimes you need a punch in the gut. As much fun as action films filled with heroes of all shapes and sizes are, there are times a more intimate and sad tale needs to be told. Enter The Kid with a Bike, a French film by Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

We’re immediately confronted with an angry 11-year-old named Cyril (Thomas Doret). He’s trying desperately to call his dad and when that number rings disconnected several times, the kid makes a break for it. A chase ensues and only takes breaks or slows down in the first half of the film as Cyril makes every attempt to find his dad who has clearly abandoned him. One of Cyril’s attempts to find his dad finds him latching onto an unsuspecting woman waiting in a doctor’s office waiting room. This brief encounter leads the woman, Samantha, (Cécile de France) a hairdresser in the neighborhood, to befriend Cyril by first getting back his bike and later providing him a place to stay on the weekends, away from the group foster home.

The behavior of Cyril as a young boy who has been abandoned is authentic. The anger he feels towards his dad is transferred on everyone else who cares enough to at least be with Cyril which is more than can be said for the father. Contrasted with the self-destructive behavior of the youth is Samantha’s love and care for the boy. Even though she finds herself over her head in taking care of him, she perseveres in a way that displays true love and grace, which is too rare in both movies and real life.

Even though he is loved, Cyril finds comfort from the neighborhood dealer, Wes, who befriends him. Unlike Samantha’s firm yet unending love for the young man, Wes gives Cyril the thrill of the moment; validation and words that serve to puff Cyril’s ego up and provide a quick allegiance to the no good criminal. Still, one can’t blame an 11 year-old boy whose dad wants nothing to do with his son to gravitate towards a male who goes out of his way to give the boy attention.

The last act in the film is a bit puzzling – neither good nor bad. The story grows a bit more complex without losing its focus on the kid with a bike and his struggle to find his way through a harsh life. Bonus points for not abusing a swelling soundtrack. In fact, there are only a couple brief moments where any music is used at all. What could have easily turned into melodramatic drip with a background track made to manipulate versus compliment the on screen drama.

A tight story focusing on a boy who struggles to find real love after his father left him, The Kid with a Bike never strays from the characters who are so real it’s easy to forget you’re watching a fictional tale. In a culture where cynicism and sarcasm rule the day, it’s refreshing to watch a film which doesn’t apologize for its melancholy nor shy away from its underlying altruism.

 ★★★★½ 

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

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Way late review: Take This Waltz

Some films hit instantly – good or bad. Then there are the oddball films which refuse to give in to my scene by scene judgements. Just when I think I have it all figured out, written off as a so-so film desperately trying to be something more, Take This Waltz makes me take it all back. And it’s not because of a sudden turn in the final act, but in piecing together moments which make a greater whole.

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) are a twenty-something married couple. They love each other and show affection for one another but something is missing, at least for Margot. Lou is either too naive or in too much denial to see his wife’s unhappiness. She hugs and kisses yet she mopes around as though life is her ball and chain. Making matters more complicated, the young work from home wife meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) during a business trip and the two hit it off in a slightly awkward yet hard to miss manner. While riding home from the airport Margot tells Daniel she is married and he confesses that is too bad as he walks to his home – across the street.

The dilemma is clear. Temptation sits not in another country, state, city, or neighborhood. No, temptation for Margot is one street crossing away. While she quietly laments her loss of love for her husband, her curiosity of what might be with the handsome neighbor who charms her in every way gets the best of her. In fairness, Daniel doesn’t make things any easier. He makes sure he is around whenever Margot steps foot outside and vice versa. The two talk and flirt with one another to the point where Daniel puts the pressure on thick and direct by describing just what he wants to do with Margot. She resists, at least for a while.

In most films the story is clear. Follow your heart. You fall in love, you fall out of love. Take This Waltz would appear to fall into this trap. The dialogue between Daniel and Margot is at times insufferably cutesy. The disciplined husband whose focus is getting his chicken cookbook out the door more than much else is portrayed as a bit of a yutz as a result. Everything is setup for the typical sabotage of a syrupy tale of love lost then found elsewhere, but something deeper is at the core of the telling of the story. The portrayal of the everyday life of a still young married couple provides a realistic glimpse.

Strong performances across the board lead Take This Waltz through troubled relationship waters. Visual metaphors abound and don’t completely sink in until the credits roll. What seems like an initially forgettable small romantic dramedy turns into something greater with the slightest of twists and the direct blow delivered by an alcoholic sister-in-law whose caved into the allure after a year long remission. Wisdom comes from the strangest of places.

 ★★★★☆ 

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

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Way late review: War Horse


The true gritty World War I tale of a horse who takes on Germany and saves the day. War Horse is like Saving Private Ryan mixed with Platoon, except with a horse saving the day. OK, maybe not. Maybe it’s an overtly sentimental tale of a horse who magically makes it through WWI while impacting the lives of those on both sides of the first world war.

Steven Spielberg is a filmmaking genius not without his faults. One of those faults is his tendency to turn the sentimental faucet on full blast even though it may drown the audience. Then again, the story this time around probably justifies the treatment. Saying War Horse is too sentimental is like saying Forrest Gump was too unrealistic. Both are fairy tales and they revolve around main characters who we may find hard to believe in their setting and impact but that’s part of what makes fairy tales what they are. Of course, Forrest Gump had Tom Hanks and War Horse has a ummm…Joey, the horse, as its leading “man”.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is an English teen whose former war hero dad foolishly bids too much and wins the auction for a thoroughbred horse. The family needs a work horse and dad brings home a racing horse. Dad may have been slightly influenced by the alcohol continually filling his bloodstream and his desire to stick it to his landlord who he was bidding against. From there a familiar story is told where Albert and Joey bond and the impossible happens. Then the war breaks out and Albert’s dad is forced to put Joey up for sale. Despite Albert’s pleas, Joey is sold to an English officer who is heading out to the battlefield. End first act, end Joey, enter War Horse, a horse who endures the worst and keeps clip clopping along.

The cinematography and sweeping soundtrack is what drives War Horse. The story is entertaining enough but the unique shots of war and the sights around it are amazing. The scene of the infantry of men on their horses racing through the tall grass in a sneak attack on their enemies is unlike any I’ve seen before. The colors and look of the film overall is different than Spielberg’s films of the past. They are brighter and more vibrant even though the setting couldn’t be more dreary. Joey races across the battlefield at night and the camera follows the frantic pace from a unique perspective which wouldn’t make sense in a traditional war film centered on the human characters.

Those who complain War Horse is nothing but sentimental drip seem to miss the fact that this is not a tale about war, the people in it, the people impacted by it. It’s about a horse and his incredible journey through a war torn land. Those looking for the second coming of Saving Private Ryan need to look elsewhere. War Horse is a fairy tale driven by beautiful sights and triumphant sounds, and sometimes that’s enough to make a really good film.

 ★★★★☆ 

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

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Way late review: Lost in Translation


Ever watch a film, enjoy it and then come to appreciate it all the more on repeat viewings? I’m there with Lost in Translation. There is something hypnotic about it.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an American movie star making some serious cash as a spokesman for Japanese whisky. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is the wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) and has tagged along with him to Tokyo. Neither Bob or Charlotte want to be where they are, in more ways than one. Both struggle to find meaning in the mundaneness. Bob is far away from home partially because distance is what his twenty five year marriage may need – or not. Charlotte is a Yale graduate unsure of what to do with her life. Her loneliness only grows as she’s left on her own when her husband has to work non-stop. Neither can sleep so they find themselves restless in bed or reluctantly at the bar listening to terrible lounge singers perform.

In between the laughs, which mostly come from observing Bob in a land so foreign to himself, there is a quiet desperation. Contrasts abound. The bustling streets and bright lights of Tokyo are juxtaposed against the serene temples and the backdrop of Mt. Fuji. The hectic lives of Bob’s wife (who we hear on the phone but never see) and Charlotte’s husband are in sharp contrast to the near sleepwalking state Bob and Charlotte are in much of the time. Japan culture and American culture collide on screen. The down to earth movie star opposite the hot mess of a Hollywood actress Charlotte’s husband runs into at the hotel. Middle age Bob and twenty-something Charlotte. Sleepless nights yet an incredibly tired duo. So many contrasts.

There is no big story to tell. The camera follows Bob and Charlotte as they form a friendship in the middle of a city and a moment in their lives where they feel lost. We take in Japanese culture through their eyes. Some may find it disrespectful or, at the very least, patronizing. I found it more a fish out of water story. The truth is, Bob and Charlotte are going to feel out of place anywhere they are. Their lives are in a state of flux and confusion, which makes the scenes of their night on the town filled with strange parties and karaoke all the more entertaining. Neither seems like they would want to be where they are yet they’re there, sort of; singing ’70s and ’80s tunes with all the sincerity and joy one might expect if karaoke were performed at a distant relative’s funeral.

The “will they or won’t they get together” aspect of our odd couple is present but never overwhelming in a sitcom kind of way. OK, maybe not until the very end where we are left to wonder what was whispered briefly in the final goodbye. The mysterious ending doesn’t irk me because it left me wondering what was said but because it puts so much emphasis on the friendship possibly moving to a romantic relationship. Up until that point speculation about the nature of their relationship was never the focus of the film. Again, the mystery is fine. I only wish it didn’t leave so much hanging on a question that the film didn’t spend much (if any) time addressing otherwise.

The chemistry between an unlikely pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson can’t be beat. Their odd and lonesome shuffle through a country foreign to both of them is inexplicably compelling. Lost in Translation says so much in so few words. And who would’ve guessed Bill Murray’s last whisper would be, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”?

 ★★★★★ 

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

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