Category Archives: Redbox Special

Beasts of the Southern Wild (***)

(Quvenzhané Wallis), (Dwight Henry), (Gina Montana), (Levy Easterly)

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in what is either a somewhat removed from reality version of hardscrabble life on the Gulf Coast or a subjective version of that life as seen through the eyes of a child. The film and perspective belong to Hushpuppy (Oscar-nominated 9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives in a liminal wetland called “The Bathtub” with her frustrated and often-angry father. In the vein of classic Terrence Malick, the humans of the film are part and parcel of the ecosystem surrounding them and as put upon by nature as their animal counterparts. As one character says, “All animals are meat. And we’re meat too.” Hence “beasts”.

The film hinges on the question of survival. When Hushpuppy’s daddy is gone, will she have what it takes to get by? He calls her “man” and conditions her to believe that she is strong and can take on the world. He teaches her to fish with just an arm and to break a crab without using tools. This process has the sentimentality sucked out of it by the dehumanizing reduction forced on them by their hardscrabble circumstances: “My job is to keep you alive”, he says. It’s not clear he understands being a father in any terms more complicated than that.

Like The Tree of Life, the “so what” of the film is somewhat obscured. The subjectivity of Hushpuppy’s perspective makes it unclear, for example, as to whether the demonization of the government’s intervention is meant to be taken at face value or merely as a threat to the characters’ highly guarded way of life. I liked it better than Tree, even with its lack of dinosaurs, but it still has the feel of a film reaching for some kind of higher or mythical truth yet lost in its stylistic affectations. If nothing else, the film is worth the price of admission for its curious flattening out of gender roles at the edge of survival. By the end of the film, Hushpuppy has become a “man”–not a role dictating proper behavior in society, but a survivor–a beast.

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Chronicle (*** 1/2)


Chronicle, the most recent entry into the “found footage” canon, slickly updates the superpowers-plus-adolescence-equals-chaos template of Carrie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Three teenage boys discover a strange glowing rock which endues them with telekinetic powers that grow stronger with use. What could easily be the fodder for any generic cash-in on the supernatural teen genre wildly popular with Potter and Twilight fans has been cleverly reshaped as a quasi-naturalistic what-if-this-actually-happened story. That is, when teenagers are given superpowers, they’re much more likely to treat them with the childish fascination usually reserved for the latest Apple product than use them to stop armed robberies. Like last year’s excellent Attack the BlockChronicle expertly delivers an otherwise ho-hum premise through a wealth of character-driven and true to life details.

The story focuses primarily on Andrew, a troubled young teen with a difficult home life. The movie begins with scenes that primarily exist to root the story’s final events in the everyday tragedies of his life, both large and small. Actor Dane DeHaan does an excellent job of fleshing out the wounded boy torn between the fear of further wounding and the irrepressible desire for community. His cousin Matt tries to be helpful, but the prickly Andrew does not readily yield to his friendly overtures. He does, however, follow Matt and his friend Steve down a strange hole at the edge of the woods where the mysterious empowerment occurs.

As in other super-powers and hormones stories, the new-found abilities amplify the characters’ pre-existing traits. While Matt and Steve are relatively normal and approach their powers with a measure of respect, Andrew is slowly discovering a new weapon with which to lash out at the world. It begs the question of Hollow Man: if society’s constraints no longer bind you, what motivation do you have to be a moral being? What if you didn’t like society in the first place?

To the film’s credit, this inevitable march towards madness occurs with a sense of pace and purpose punctuated by emotionally explosive moments (sexual humiliation, paternal abuse) that serve as catalysts to his simmering rage and confusion. He remains a tragic figure throughout, giving the film a soul that another like it might lack; giving its wildly entertaining conclusion just the right amount of emotional freight.


My only real problem with the film was its slavish commitment to the found-footage format, occasionally requiring it to awkwardly invent reasons for people to be holding cameras at different times. For the most part, it works as part of Andrew’s deeply disturbed detachment from others. Also, the introduction of a free-floating camcorder via telekinesis means the sickly shaky-cam of Cloverfield is nowhere to be found in the film’s busiest scenes. Still I think the mixed media format of District 9 might have served it better, switching between camera formats as it served the story while retaining the emphasis on casual naturalism. In the end, it’s that down-to-earth sensibility that makes the film work irrespective of its primary cinematic conceit. The recognizable pieces of normal life provide the needed contrast to let its flights of fancy really soar.

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Haywire (** 1/2, 2011)


Steven Soderbergh, one of my favorite directors, can now check off the super-spy action thriller box on his checklist. A kind of workaholic wunderkind, he has not only put out eight films of stunning variety in six years–including a four hour biopic of Che Guevara, a disease epic, and the conclusion to his casino heist trilogy–but he is also on record as a relentless consumer of books and film.  Watch for his drama (comedy?) about male strippers coming out this summer.

Haywire begs the question of whether or not the man should slow down and let his projects gestate a little longer.  To its credit, the film is a classy action flick with a unique hook:  it stars MMA sensation Gina Carano as a tough and beautiful spy who can more than handle her own in a fight.  This makes for some great fisticuffs, gloriously displayed with minimal editing and no shaky camera movements (that I noticed).  It demonstrates what an action film can be when stunt doubles don’t have to be edited into unrecognizability  (I’m looking at you, ScarJo).  Visually, Haywire wins; Soderbergh’s eye for color and line makes it possibly the most stylish action film in recent memory.


What Carano–and by extension the film–lacks, however, is screen presence.  As a professional non-actress she can hardly be blamed, but throughout her face remains mostly blank and so does our identification with her and her character.  Soderbergh tries to counterbalance this hollowness by importing the reliable screen presences of half a dozen actors (interestingly, there are no other women to speak of in the film)–Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton–but what would be a crackerjack ensemble cast in any other film can’t seem to make up for Carano’s blankness.  It’s a direct counterpoint to The Hunger Games, a lackluster film buoyed by a very strong central performance.

The plot is told mostly in flashbacks, as Carano’s character explains her situation to a young man who is giving her a ride, and it involves the U.S. government hiring her services through the contracting agency she works for to protect an Asian dissident in trouble in Barcelona.  There is a double-cross, of course, and she finds herself on the run and needing to clear her name.  It’s incidental, but stylishly told.  Soderbergh’s work here has all the clear markings of a well made film, but the lead lacks the emotional gravitas needed to make you care.  It’s a very pretty picture in need of a soul.

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Contraband (***)


This little noticed crime thriller starring Mark Wahlberg has the same basic shape as 2000’s Gone in 60 Seconds:   family member owes criminal money, former pro criminal gone clean returns to crime to save their life.  Substitute drugs and smuggling for cars, Wahlberg for Nic Cage and Giovanni Ribisi for Christopher Eccleston and–voila–you get Contraband.

I think enjoyment of this movie boils down to your feelings on Wahlberg himself.  If he annoys you, you have your answer.  If, on the other hand, you find his sublimely existential exasperation with everyone and everything to be a reliably charming shtick, Contraband might be for you.  The film follows Wahlberg’s character from New Orleans to Panama and back, during which he must smuggle a large amount of counterfeit money (he refuses to mule drugs).  He has a relatively short time to pay off the debt incurred by his young brother-in-law who dumped Ribisi’s cocaine right before customs officials boarded his boat (“Even I get boarded sometimes…”).


“He has no use for smugglers who drop their shipments at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser.”

The film throws all kind of obstacles in the way of this objective, from shifty Panamanian criminals on land to a hostile ship captain at sea (J.K. Simmons!).  It remains taut and entertaining without ever devolving into a shoot-em-up.  It’s a solid throwaway diversion, artistically meaningless but it  does exactly what you wish your average movie would do:  tell a story well and keep it interesting.

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The Descendants (****, 2011)

“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise, like a permanent vacation. We’re all just out here, sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we are immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartaches less painful?  Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years.  For the last 23 days I’ve living in a paradise of IV’s and urine bags and tracheal tubes. Paradise?  Paradise can go f*** itself.” ~ Matt King, The Descendants

One of the most valuable experiences a film can give the viewer is a sense of shared humanity with the characters on screen.  At first, The Descendants, whose main character is a lawyer about to become very rich from the sale of inherited beach-front property in Hawaii, seems an unlikely film in which to find such a connection.  As the meme goes, what could it have to tell but first-world problems.  Moreover, our protagonist is played by George Clooney, a charming and charismatic actor who can be very entertaining–but rarely convincing as “one of us.”  The Descendants, and Clooney’s, great success involves stripping back the veneer of wealth and screen-star artifice and telling a bracingly human story about death and the unsettling disclosures which sometimes surface in its wake.

As the film opens, we learn from the opening narration that Clooney’s wife is comatose from a boating accident.  We learn, along with his character, that her condition will not improve and that she will soon be taken off life support in accordance with her will.  The rest of the film concerns the fallout from this, and one other, revelation.  Clooney’s character–a serious man, it would seem–gathers his two daughters (one 10, one 17) on a Hawaiian island hopping trip in order to come to terms with this revelation, in search of whatever peace might be there.

The strength of the story is in the telling:  the script contains recognizably human characters who act unpredictably and without falling into pre-determined categories like “good” and “bad”–even the apparently dumb beach-bum teenager has some meaningful contributions.  There is also much to recommend the acting.  Clooney shows again that he’s not locked into that Tom Cruise-ian leading man role where he can get by with just a swagger and a smile; and Shailene Woodley, the twenty-year old actress playing his oldest daughter, particularly shines as an unlikely but supportive companion during a time of soul-piercing crisis.

This movie was very meaningful to me personally.  At a time when I am tempted to blacklist people who have hurt me through their sins, along comes a film displaying the irreducible humanity of similar sinners.  Like Clooney’s character, I find myself prompted to examine my complicity in the brokenness of my relationships with others, to forgive because I can see myself in them–and to forgive just because.   The Descendants seems to be making a heartfelt case that in death, as in life, we’re all the same.

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