Tag Archives: PG-13

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: The Dark Knight Rises

Some films demand a grandiose treatment. After The Dark Knight, it is only fitting that Cristopher Nolan indulge in making The Dark Knight Rises a sprawling epic full of thought provoking themes supported by sometimes majestic and other times troubling sights and sounds.

Bruce Wayne is in bad shape. The billionaire and his alter ego, Batman, disappeared after taking the blame for the murder of Gotham’s beloved district attorney turned two face villain, Harvey Dent. As much as Rises is about super heroes and villains, it’s about the inner conflict of a man who has lost his sense of purpose. And, even when he believes he has that purpose back, we’re left to wonder if the purpose has turned into one last suicidal mission to save the city he loves.

The headlining villain this time around is Bane (Tom Hardy), a man who wears a mask that may have been stolen off the set of Silence of The Lambs, which makes him difficult to understand when he speaks. The voice sounds like a mix of Sean Connery and Darth Vader.  (Special thanks to my wife for that one.) There was some serious audio magic performed to make Bane more audible and clear, to the point where it was jarring to hear this booming voice coming from a muzzled mouth. Had the original voice been used (from earlier trailers) I think that and a combination of sub-titles may have been more effective, but I understand why the change was made. Having a villain with sub-titles probably wouldn’t fly with a majority of English speaking audiences. Regardless of the voice, Bane is a menacing character. The lore surrounding him is revealed over time and only adds to his puzzling motives. Whereas the Joker was the maniacal terrorist in a clown motif, Bane is the pro wrestler with a masterminded plot to destroy Gotham, but not before he has a chance to run some evil sociological experiment where he serves as the ringmaster and the people of Gotham revel in a world which punishes the rich and gives them freedom all the while crushing them.

Adding more characters to the mix is always tricky for super hero movies. Add one too many and the story bogs down with the weight of too many stories to tell and not enough time to tell them all in. Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), seemed like she would be the tipping point this time around. Instead of becoming a boat anchor, Catwoman’s story compliments that of Batman’s quite nicely. Catwoman’s arch is much like Han Solo’s in Star Wars IV. She’s a sketchy character whose desire for fortunes outweigh her desire for doing good. Both she and Batman want to be different people. She a thief who can’t get away from her life of crime even if she tries, and he a seemingly washed up crime fighter who wouldn’t mind dying if it meant a valiant effort to save the people of Gotham.

Nolan will never be accused of keeping his stories straight forward and simple. Dialogue here and in his other films is full of exposition, which is a big no-no for most. Somehow the Dark Knight director makes even plodding material interesting. Credit the constant use of an emotionally charged soundtrack for much of that. If all our lives were backed by cinema soundtracks they would instantly seem other worldly and overly dramatic. And maybe the nearly non-stop swelling music is overkill, along with a two hour and forty-five minute running time but I never once did a time check.

Commentary on modern day issues cannot be missed. The attacks on corrupt Wall Street bankers and the one percent are spread throughout much of the film. Providing some equal opportunity of a critical eye, the Occupy movement is also alluded to and, if the allusion is correct, the picture is not a pretty one. The use of laws to make organized crime a thing of the past even though they may overstep civil liberties is touched on lightly. None of it is heavy handed in a preachy manner. Nolan keeps the focus on the story while touching on various themes, some timeless and others capturing current day events.

Some will fondly recall the previous film in the trilogy as superior, with Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker being the main reason. Both films are excellent and both provide numerous areas to nitpick. The Dark Knight Rises goes out with an operatic crescendo, a thrilling yet satisfying ending to a trilogy all about a man dressed as a bat.

 ★★★★★ 

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

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Way late review: Blue Like Jazz


This is a difficult review to write. There is so much opportunity for commentary on Blue Like Jazz, a film based on the semi-autobiographical book written by Donald Miller. The movie is not a success but the themes and topics it touches on stirred up in me a need to delve deeper.

Don is on the verge of going to college. His parents are divorced. His mom is a devout Southern Baptist Christian while his dad is a hippie professor who loves jazz, lives in a trailer and enjoys the company of his much younger female students. Don is close to his mom and heavily involved at their church. He works with the youth pastor in making sure the kids are drenched in an entertaining environment sprinkled with references to Jesus. Puppet shows, junior high all-nighters filled with wacky games, Don dressing up with the “armor of God” (i.e. plastic Roman soldier gear) and slicing open a pinata. In other words, it’s your typical, modern Christian church in the US these days. Whether the theology aligns with historical Christianity is hard to say, both in the film and real life. Theology is a dirty word. Good morals, strong effort and self-affirming words trump the stuffiness of theologians.

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Way late review: The Avengers


Comic book heroes are made for the movies and vice versa. Whether it’s the darker tones of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the lighter comedic fare of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy or something in between yet all together different like Tim Burton’s take on Batman, the caped crusaders, mutants, and wildly skilled men and women of comic books make for promising cinema fodder. So why is it when you take an ensemble of these characters, some of whom have had solo features, the results are so bland? That is the question I have after watching The Avengers. I saw it closer to its release date and again recently at home, and both times I was bored even though the premise was intriguing, the director (Joss Whedon) would seem the perfect pick, and the cast is solid.

Kicking off with exposition promises problems early on. The magical energy source, the Tesseract, first seen in Captain America is back and gets our full attention. S.H.I.E.L.D. possesses the Tesseract and is performing all sorts of experiments. Loki, Thor’s half brother, wants the Tesseract so he can summon an alien force to put the Earth under Loki’s control. So Loki portals through into the headquarters, grabs the glowing blue cube, puts some people under his control and escapes from the compound. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the Avengers are assembled as a last gasp effort to save the world.

The time spent rounding up each of our heroes feels slow and dragged out. The only highlight is when Thor shows up and gets in a tussle with Iron Man and Captain America. Otherwise, the inevitable occurs. Those with super powers come together under one roof. They then spend much of their time holding conversations which are supposed to show us the evolving team dynamics at play. None of it matters or makes much sense. Loki is captured and supposedly doesn’t mind because he’s going to trick them all by somehow harnessing the Hulk to come out and play. How Loki is involved with making this happen, how it will help his cause, and how it will play out in theory or in reality is never made clear. The part we’re supposed to latch onto is how amazing it is to see all these super heroes together for the first time in a feature length film.

Aside from the initial action sequence that follows Loki’s escape with the cube of incredible power, there are two more big action scenes. There are three acts and each one is highlighted with a battle. Unfortunately the action is mostly a big ball of blah. When anything is possible (thanks to computer animation) the danger is to do everything which in turn results in very little feeling consequential, let alone real. The setting for the second big action scene is on a flying aircraft carrier which looks interesting from afar but serves as a lame action set piece. The last showdown is in New York, and while there are some interesting shots and decent attempts at humor, the battle between the Avengers and a generic alien force falls flat. The time wasted leading up to the final act makes the almost two and a half hour runtime feel like an eternity.

None of our heroes is given room to develop. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) feels like a non-stop quip machine. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) mopes around as we’re promised he might explode into the uncontrollable (yet magically controllable later on) Hulk at any moment. Captain America (Chris Evans) should be a fish out of water but he adapts to the future so quick the opportunity is missed. Thor is Thor. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) walks around looking pretty while attempts are made to give her a bit of a back story. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is mostly absent and not missed.

A lot happens in The Avengers, yet not much of any consequence. Loki and his alien allies are placeholder villains at best. The threat they present is never all that real. Far too much time is spent between characters having conversations that neither develop character or the narrative. The end result is an ordinary film filled with characters who hold extraordinary powers. What a shame.

 ★★½☆☆ 

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

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