Thursday, December 5, 2013
IMDB says... Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.
The 73rd Virgin says... I haven’t read the books and I saw the first of the franchise on DVD, but I was reasonably impressed. In the endless chain of futuristic dystopian fantasies stretching all the way back to 1927’s Metropolis, this movie falls in the upper 25th percentile. I don’t know what Suzanne Collins had in mind politically, but her vision of a fabulously wealthy and power-centric Capitol surrounded by impoverished subject districts seems more realistic with every lobbyist that moves to DC, and with every small town SWAT team newly decked out in army surplus body armor and M-4s.
I stayed interested and entertained, but those who are comparing this to The Empire Strikes Back need to go re-watch that movie. Still, this was great fun with lots of enjoyable acting, action, flawless effects and convincing evocation of overwhelming glitz and glamour in the Capitol.
To recap: Katniss and her boyfriend #2, Peeta, were the first contestants (or “tributes”) in 74 years to survive The Hunger Games as a team. A clever plot device forced them to declare their rather ambivalent love for each other and win over the public. Their newfound status as the empire’s favorite sweethearts has afforded them some celebrity-based political clout, which immediately puts them in the sights of President Snow. The early focus on Katniss’s conflicted feelings about her status as a celebrity and victor are all necessary, but they take quite a while, as does her sorting out her childhood sweetheart from her public-pleasing official boyfriend.
As this begins – and admirably, the movie just begins; no credits, no backstory – the decision is made to bring surviving victors out of luxurious retirement and force them to compete again in the 75th Hunger Games. Killing all but one of the victors will presumably nip any nascent cults of personality in the bud.
But enough about what you already know. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss is of course very good. However glamorous her off-screen image, those apple cheeks and little nose will always make her convincing as down-to-earth. Her two boyfriends and their interchangeable hairstyles seem pallid although Peeta is always there for her in the trenches. There are lots of old actors who could play President Snow. Bearded Donald Sutherland seems rather too blatantly malevolent and maybe unpolished when the character would be more effective with more charm. Ralph Fiennes would’ve been a good choice.
Stanley Tucci is essential as the toastmaster general of celebrity death culture, Caesar Flickerman, all over-bleached teeth and swirling hair, but Lenny Kravitz as fashion designer Cinna appears to be sleepwalking. Jenna Malone and Jeffrey Wright are very effective as smart victors returned to the game.
Finally, one does not introduce Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new game designer Plutarch Heavensbee without a good reason. As soon as you bring an actor this major into the mix, you know that he will be a significant part from this point forward, which preemptively robs the story of some surprise. Also, either intentionally by production design or because Hoffman didn’t feel like wearing a lot of makeup, his character lacks celebrity zing in a role that seems to call for it. You won’t find a bigger fan, but Hoffman may have phoned this one in.
At 146 minutes, even with very impressive action sequences and special-effects, the ending feels rushed, with boyfriend number one displaying a slight scratch on his face beneath his still perfect hair to exemplify the destruction of an entire district. It doesn’t seem to carry the weight of tragedy. It’s as if Princess Leia witnessed the destruction of the planet Alderaan and just got kind of mad. The fact that the last book of this trilogy will be covered in two movies does not bode well for efficient storytelling. But for now, great fun.
The episode ends with a close-up on Katniss’s suddenly determined and empowered eyes. As such, it ends right about where 1975’s Rollerball ended and, upon reflection; I realized that so far this franchise has covered almost exactly the same ground. At much greater length. I’m sure I’m not the first to notice.
Whereas Rollerball envisioned a future run by regional corporations with a fatality-strewn version of roller derby as a means of keeping the population be-numbed, distracted, and focused almost entirely on “the team”, The Hunger Games offers the slaughter of individuals and the impermanence and distrust of alliances as an ongoing message of submission. Both explore the false and corrosive pre-packaged celebrity culture very effectively.
....and the trailers.
Posted by The 73rd Virgin at Thursday, December 05, 2013
Sunday, November 17, 2013
IMDB says... A coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London, and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age.
The 73rd Virgin says... Some mild spoilers below.
Great acting in service of a coming-of-age story that chickens out at the end.
Carey Mulligan is engaging and precise in her brilliant depiction of a whip-smart and precocious 20 year-old. Unfortunately her character – Jenny - is supposed to be 16. It is no secret that 16 year-olds can be lured into relationships with older men, and it is even believable that her striving parents would allow such a relationship to occur if they thought it would get their daughter ahead, but Mulligan’s dialog is so savvy, so mature, so devoid of stumbling innocence that my eyes just kept rolling. She’s not a 16 year-old imitating maturity – she’s just a flat out mature virgin with a school girl haircut and no makeup.
What you most need to know about the older man, David Goldman, is that he’s played by American Peter Saarsgard (with a pretty good accent). There can’t be many actors who could play a part so brazenly hazardous but still seem so believably sweet, soft-spoken, thoughtful, etc., with no hint or shadowing of menace. Director Lone Sherfig probably deserves credit for this as well. David uses his Jewishness as a way to disarm any early sufferers of WASP-guilt who might be suspicious that his motives are less than noble. Otherwise, the script avoids any short-hand Jew clichés.
Even more great acting comes from a small slice of BBC royalty in Emma Thompson’s cameo as Jenny’s school mistress, elegant Olivia Williams frumped up as a spinster teacher, Dominic Cooper as David’s more matter-of-fact sidekick, and especially Rosamund Pike as his girlfriend. Watch the interaction of the four main characters and how perfectly Pike’s remarkably expressive eyes, and the direction and editing, show her character’s insecurity in the presence of this schooled and worldly girl.
David’s weaknesses as a man are only revealed slowly. In this fine scene we get our first glimmer of his insecurities as his buddy puts very mild moves on Jenny, featuring the undervalued eternal hep-cat Mel Torme on the soundtrack.
In the end Jenny’s attraction to David is more about her boredom and exasperation with middle-class suburban England, and her parents, than it is about a deep if immature love.
...well that’s how life is in most socialist utopias chicky. The criminals are the only bold and interesting people left.
As her disappointments mount, she is rather more upset about the loss of life opportunities than the wreckage of her first love.
I’m glad to find one story of teenaged missteps that doesn’t involve instant pregnancy. Even so, the price of Jenny’s disregard for her teachers, her gender, and her capacity for extraordinary achievement is only briefly paid – and then almost magically wiped away while resorting to that hoariest of script clichés – the musical montage.
At the closing voiceover (yep) she offers that she goes back to dating “boys…and they really were boys”. The odd moral calculus of the movie is that a thirtyish small time crook and operator who: is attracted to teen-aged girls; is so insecure that he offers marriage at the first threat; has premature ejaculation issues; uses baby talk, is still the worldly “man”, while the polite, nervous, anxiously loving young college men are the “boys”. Only modern-day feminism could squeeze that baby out.
See it for the acting and the music but be prepared for a letdown.
Posted by The 73rd Virgin at Sunday, November 17, 2013
Thursday, October 31, 2013
1978. 127 min. Rated X at the time; brief topside nudity, shocking gore in its day; not now; some language.IMDB says... Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia SWAT team members, a traffic reporter, and his television-executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.
The 73rd Virgin says... George Romero made a lot of bad movies. His original classic Night of the Living Dead was always a little bit overrated and is now dated. This impressive looking sequel filmed in color is by far his best. Apparently most of the mall scenes were filmed over a holiday weekend and therefore in a pretty big hurry. Given that it’s in color and on a low budget, it looks good. The makeup blood is perhaps a little too bright red and the blue gray zombie makeup is unevenly applied here and there, but it is still a pretty scary movie.
Better than almost any movie, horror or otherwise, this establishes a feeling of how things fall apart and the center does not hold. Like all great horror fantasy it doesn’t waste time on scientific explanations or exposition. The first 10 minutes or so are set in a TV newsroom where a few dedicated semi-professionals argue over whether to take down lists of rescue stations that they know have fallen to the zombies. This lacks the frenetic sense of panic of so much modern horror but it nicely shows the sort of slow motion disintegration and especially the failure of communication that occurs in real-life emergencies. It’s almost like Romero has been a fire fighter or something or knows this intuitively.
He then cuts to a SWAT team in suspiciously crisp uniforms set to invade a housing project where the tenants have been refusing to turn over their undead for disposal. Although the scene is too brightly lit, it otherwise conveys the claustrophobia and disorder of a violent situation soon to spin out of control. The gunfighters are almost laughably bad but it still works. From these two scenes we collect our 4 protagonists; Peter, a very large bad-ass black dude, Roger, his little white and amazingly athletic sidekick; Stephen, a television news helicopter pilot; and his TV producer girlfriend, Francine.
They steal a chopper and head off into the great unknown. There is a brief funny sequence as they watch Pennsylvania rednecks turn zombie hunting into a sport. Like Peckinpah, Romero doesn’t like rednecks, or at least his idea of rednecks. My college roommate at the time was God’s own original redneck and he thought it was a great scene, with no sense of irony.
At the time, the gore was infamous with squibs blowing blood out of the back of heads all over the place, one head vaporized by shotgun blast, and the requisite zombies-tearing-living-torsos-apart scenes. Now it seems only middling gory.
From there they take over a Pittsburgh(?) shopping mall, which at the time was a completely novel idea for a horror movie. The script is smart in so many ways. It respects the audience enough to know that we will be interested in the logistics of blocking all the mall doors; the logistics of herding and misdirecting zombies, and the eventual culling of the zombie herd in the mall. For some reason it’s all just kind of interesting.
Along with all of these admirable traits Romero provides a sly take on crass late 70s mall-based consumerism. It’s not a novel idea now but it was then, and his use of authentic background mall music and public service announcements in the service of this slyness is funnier than you might expect. Romero had also made a living doing mundane tasks like safety videos and local television commercials. The camera angles he uses as the protagonists drive a bland little sedan up and down the mall evoked giggles in the theater where I saw it all those years ago. He just knew how to put a commercial image on-screen in a way that you would know that’s what it’s supposed to be. There is also a Hare Krishna zombie.
Then there is a slow but believable sequence showing the onset of boredom, dissolution, dissipative living, and time passing in their private mall. We know what must happen; sooner or later roving gangs of survivors must decide they want this jewel for themselves.
And that’s pretty much the story. There is a fair amount of pathos as one of the team gets a little sloppy and the rest of the team must deal with his illness and eventual demise, before an extended very well done, funny, and pretty exciting shoot out with the bad guys, followed by an open-ended conclusion.
Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger are both very good as the SWAT team members. They move with physical competence and quickness of professionals, and Reiniger is convincing when his character begins to display symptoms of battle rattle.
As I thought about this movie in the abstract I assumed it would be 5 stars all the way. I guess it hasn’t worn that well or maybe I’ve seen it too often, but it is still one of the richest horror experiences that I’ve seen. Mostly because of the human drama, solid acting, brisk but not frenetic pace, and convincing background detail.
Ken Foree had a small speaking part in Water For Elephants. I always thought he should have been a bigger star. He was a way better actor than OJ Simpson or Jim Brown and, man could he fill a doorway. Scott Reiniger acted in daytime soaps and is now a career coach. They both had small parts in the 2004 re-make. Gaylen Ross (Francine) is a widely-hailed documentary filmmaker.
Posted by The 73rd Virgin at Thursday, October 31, 2013
Sunday, October 20, 2013
I'm behind on reviews, again. Kyle Smith summarizes ten Criterion Collection movies available on Hulu Plus. I've seen two of them - both documentaries - Burden of Dreams and Hoop Dreams. I have not confirmed any of the ten as available, partly because I don't have Hulu Plus.
Elevator to The Gallows has been on Netflix Instant View for a long time. Guess I need to see it.
Elevator to The Gallows has been on Netflix Instant View for a long time. Guess I need to see it.
Posted by The 73rd Virgin at Sunday, October 20, 2013
Thursday, October 10, 2013
2013. 91 min. PG-13. Scary. Very little language or blood.IMDB says... A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.
The 73rd Virgin says... It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Let’s get that out of the way.
Sure, all the normal space clichés are in place; pre-disaster ground control chatter so bad that you’ll think you’re watching a Michael Bay movie; yes, the hero’s name is Kowalski, one of those focus-grouped Hollywood names intended to convey just the right amount of jaunty ethnicity and blue-collar competence (I guess McBain was already taken); yes, it’s Kowalski’s last mission AND he listens to country music. When disaster strikes, ground controllers inform them that debris is coming at them at something like twice the speed of a bullet. Physicists/astronauts/pilots don’t talk like that.
It’s almost as if writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is making fun of us. The opening screen even goes so far as to explain to us that space is a vacuum that will not transmit sound, and that space is rather dangerous. This at least prepares the Star Trek/Star Wars crowd for realistically silent, and thus enormously effective, explosions.
But Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the special effects produce unbelievable images and a sense of distance and isolation comparable to 2001: A Space Odyssey. A scene in which Sandra Bullock faces the audience and works feverishly on a small bit of equipment while behind her an entire space station ignites and disintegrates with no sound or shockwave should become as iconic as Kubrick’s waltzing space station and space plane.
And what a joy to discover that the entire movie is only 91 minutes long. And if you have to spend 91 minutes with anyone, it might as well be Clooney and Bullock. Clooney is Clooney and his personality is pretty much indistinguishable from The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Bullock is worth all of the $20 million or whatever. In an extended scene of maybe 5 solid minutes that seems to be a single take, Cuaron points the camera at her as she drifts in and out of consciousness, listening to and trying to interact with AM radio broadcasts from obscure parts of Scandinavia, hallucinating about her child and her fate, and talking to herself. These are the kind of scenes that occasionally make me realize that acting must be really hard.
Cuaron jumps breezily back and forth between first person point of view – like the most nausea-inducing video game you’ve ever played – and then to close-ups of the actors in their helmets as all the scenery spins maddeningly around them – and then to shots of bodies and machinery twirling away to just a speck. And he holds these points of view with only Bullock’s terrified gulps for sound effects for loooong sequnces. I know there was music, but I don’t remember it.
The 3-D is definitely worth it, and listening to the very precise sound design in a quality theater is as well. To acclimate us to the space and isolation the movie starts with a long sequence of barely audible radio chatter to your right that slowly gets louder. Hopefully, this also helps get the audience to shut up. I saw it in a nearly empty theater on a Tuesday night and that helps too.
Physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a bunch of tweets devoted to all the things wrong with the movie from a scientific standpoint but indicates that he likes it very much. That’s just one more thing I have in common with physicist Neil Degrasse Tyson.
For homework, all of us should dredge up 1969’s Marooned. Here's the Marooned trailer.
But Gravity is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Posted by The 73rd Virgin at Thursday, October 10, 2013
Monday, September 30, 2013
2013. 128 min. PG-13 - Mild violence, sexual/racial innuendo, no sex, extensive use of "nigger", which, regardless of modern strictures seems appropriate to the difficulty of the hero's situation.IMDB says... The life story of Jackie Robinson and his history-making signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers under the guidance of team executive Branch Rickey.
The 73rd Virgin says... Brian Helgeland made the best baseball movie in quite a while with Money Ball. This isn’t quite that good, but it’s still a rousing, positive, and old-fashioned baseball drama with a nice feel for what it must have been like to play the sport professionally in the 40s and 50s.
As far as Jackie Robinson is concerned, it quickly establishes him as somewhat uniquely qualified for his historic role. By having Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey essentially read off Robinson’s qualifications, it hits on what was unique about the man; touching on his impoverished background, his status as a military officer, his attendance at college and success there, his trumped up court-martial, later dismissed, and as Rickey says “Robinson’s a Methodist; I’m a Methodist; God is a Methodist”. In fact, Rickey’s Christian motivations are placed in a positive light several times.
At first I was put off by Ford’s mannerisms and speech patterns, but it’s a pretty good evocation of Rickey’s charismatic and singular style, and I grew used to it. After Cowboys and Aliens, I didn’t think Ford had it in him to be entertaining ever again but he’s very good throughout.
Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) are presented with almost no drama. They are obviously smart and aimed at establishing themselves in the postwar black middle class. The apparent solidity of their relationship spares the audience many tiresome minutes of the semi-obligatory courting scenes that appear in most biographies. But it leaves Rachel with not much to do except be supportive and brave, although she was a formidable and accomplished person on her own.
There are only four major black roles. Robinson, his wife, journalist Wendell Smith, and a kindly community leader who puts Robinson up in his house while he’s playing in Florida.
Perversely, this opens up the field for a string of skilled white actors to jolly-up and carry much of the narrative forward. Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, the prolific voice actor and beloved Firefly/Serenity veteran Alan Tudyk as the viciously racist Pittsburgh manager Ben Chapman, and a host of others.
And whoever thought of having John McGinley as Dodger’s radio announcer Red Barber deserves a special nod. This scene comes after an old-school full-length version of the national anthem, with Rickey grumbling along off-key, further adding to what my wife simply described as the “old fashioned” feel of the movie.
If you’re old enough, you may recognize Max Gail of 1970s “Barney Miller” fame as aged replacement manager Burt Shotton. I don’t focus on the scene because of Gail but because of the expert way the character endorses Robinson with humor and gentlemanliness.
I guess the overall dramatic affect might be what Helgeland intended. That is, Robinson is the (relative) calm at the center of the storm. He gets to display his temper and the crushing pressure he is under here and there, but in a fine late scene he is beaned by a pitcher and both benches empty onto an on-field brawl, but all the fighting goes on around him as he sits bewildered in the middle of it. I don’t know if it’s historically accurate but it shows the racist attitudes surrounding him as well as the extent to which some of his teammates have adjusted to his presence and are determined to defend him.
It is probably not that expensive nor technically challenging to digitally place modern players in ancient baseball parks, but I still appreciate the effort. One can see what it must have been like to play or sit in The Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, etc.
There are a couple of scenes that are so ham-fisted in their racial lessons for the young audience that one can almost imagine a study guide for the film. And it spends probably too much time on Robinson’s positive effect on one young black boy who will grow up to be a baseball player of modest importance.
A dramatically perfect movie might have found time for his post baseball life rather than white text on black screen focusing on all the great things baseball has done for racial equality since he left. Granted, his stint as an executive at Coca-Cola would not have made interesting viewing, and his tragic early death from diabetes complications would’ve been a downer. His social conservativism and his support of the Vietnam War, and his rather, shall we say, “non-urban” speaking style would’ve been problematic as well, I suppose. Here is video of him addressing a civil rights rally in Birmingham, Alabama.
Like other racial ground breakers of his time, such as Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, he was looked upon with some suspicion by at least some in the more vocal 60s civil rights movement, but that’s just the way of things and social movements.
But these are minor quibbles. Oh hell, I guess it’s better the movie stops when it does. Fine acting and special effects all around, a jaunty and entertaining soundtrack from the era, and obviously made by people who cared.
Posted by The 73rd Virgin at Monday, September 30, 2013
Sunday, September 22, 2013
2011. 120 min. Rated R and I really don't know why. No nudity, very little language, scary dream violence.IMDB says... Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.
The 73rd Virgin says... It’s taken me 6 weeks to slap this review together and I’m not sure I got it right, so it obviously got under my skin.
The tone is set early and never really changes. Curtis stands in his front yard and watches as storm clouds, that only flatlanders can appreciate, roll in. But as rain falls on his hand it looks like motor oil. But not on his face or shirt, significantly.
Curtis and Samantha live an idyllic middle class rural life in Ohio. He works for a drilling contractor; she sells handmade goods at her “booth” at the weekend flea market. They have a darling 3 or 4 year-old daughter who is deaf (as is the natural actress Tova Stewart). Their lives revolve around their neighbors and family and work - and his health insurance. With enough cajoling, it may pay for a cochlear implant for the girl.
Director/writer Jeff Nichols already shines here. The whole effect is affectation-less. These are not Spielberg-style garishly hyper-ordinary Californians sliding into extraordinary circumstances. These are not Norma Rae - style redeemed white trash. These are as close to genuinely ordinary as Hollywood can get. Despite the IMDB overview, this is not a prepper fantasy. Instead, it’s a slow-motion tragedy that combines media-fed obsession with economic instability and formless fears of environmental catastrophes with delicate family politics and abiding familial love.
Nichols has a neat grasp of the non-conversational way that old neighbors, friends, and spouses communicate. Here Curtis brings his work buddy Dewart home way too late after a night of beer. Dewart’s wife has seen it all. The boss’s quandary the next morning is equally well-observed.
Jessica Chastain as Samantha may be slightly too pretty, but her gaunt face could have wandered out of the Kentucky hills a generation or two back, and she is so natural that she could be your sister. These clips don’t really do her or Stewart justice. Kentucky native Michael Shannon as Curtis is playing in his own league. On first viewing his performance seems one-note, but as his sleep is further disrupted by ghastly dreams, as he slowly disengages, as his decision making and prioritizing skills decline, all natural ease exits his performance, and his ticks and facial tension increase incrementally. When Nichols wants to drive it home, he shoots Shannon from the front to accentuate his asymmetrical face and somewhat drifty right eye.
The cumulative effect of watching each scene and expecting the worst, based on every other movie you’ve ever watched, is that you begin to appreciate the tension and paranoia of the protagonist who manifests his condition in dream archetypes formed mostly by popular culture. It’s a very skillful way of sucking you into Curtis’s deteriorating state of mind.
Curtis begins to endure one horrible dream after another, waking up in worse condition every day. They always involve weather, often tornados – (been there myself) – sometimes strangers at the windows. Finally he decides to fix up the storm shelter in the back yard. Not a good sign. And it will become our visualization of Curtis’s increasing isolation and obsession.
The tragedy is compounded by watching this good reliable man with good common sense at war with himself. He knows that compulsively buying canned goods and gas masks and adding a room to the shelter is nuts and could cost him everything including his family, but he can’t help himself. He even methodically tries to self-diagnose.
Nichols again gives us the way people don’t talk, as Samantha discovers what he’s been up to, followed by perfectly artless life in his staging of one of those darkest dark nights of the married soul – sitting at the kitchen table – with exhausted stillness. These are the only two people in the world, but there is no romance.
We are 90 minutes into a very stately 2-hour movie – there may be one too many dreams – when Nichols finally lets all the built-up tension fly. In order to do something normal they go to a Lions Club supper and in a scene almost every reviewer mentions, Shannon gets in his wheelhouse. The body language of the extras is so convincing you wonder if they even knew what was supposed to happen.
And even a broken clock is right once in a while. There is an eyes-looking-through-your-fingers tension as we wait to see if Curtis can allow himself or his family to try normal again.
The final, final scene has caused a storm of spoilers and discussions on the web. If you care at all, avoid them. Nichols remains ambiguous about the intention. If for no other reason, it is brilliant just for Curtis’s momentary glance and Samantha’s almost imperceptible nod of her head, speaking volumes about their relationship. A closing shot of the back of Chastain’s red head as she gazes out on a landscape belongs in a museum for its color and composition alone.
If your family stayed up for hours figuring out Inception, then you may be up ‘til dawn discussing this ending. My best guess is that it’s an oddly positive manifestation of just how committed this little family is. I may have missed something. Hope I didn't give away too much. Ebert gave it his highest rating, Starland, 4 1/2 stars. Talk amongst yourselves.
Posted by The 73rd Virgin at Sunday, September 22, 2013
Saturday, August 31, 2013
IMDB says... Shotgun Stories tracks a feud that erupts between two sets of half brothers following the death of their father. Set against the cotton fields and back roads of Southeast Arkansas, these brothers discover the lengths to which each will go to protect their family. Written by Jeff Nichols
The 73rd Virgin says... Director/writer Jeff Nichols is from Arkansas and star Michael Shannon is from Kentucky so this story of a modern-day feud between two half-families set in the “dead ass” town of England, Arkansas ought to have some bona fides. There are some, but it seems like there’s less here than meets the eye.
With admirably lean and clean scripting we learn there are three Hayes brothers, casually named Son, Kid, and Boy by their alcoholic father and hateful mother. Daddy Hayes takes off, finds Jesus, stops drinkin’, marries a good-hearted woman, and has four more Hayes brothers, Cleamon, Mark, and the other two.
Eldest son Son is played by the towering and glowering Michael Shannon, who is 6 foot 4, ruggedly handsome with a slightly lopsided face, uneven crazy eyes, and hair that is waaaay to good for southeast Arkansas. I like him. He was later a supporting actor Oscar nominee for Revolutionary Road and is given Special Thanks in these credits, so maybe he worked cheap. I read he is now appearing as General Zod in Man of Steel. I can wait.
The movie opens with Son discovering his wife has packed up and left with their boy due to his gambling habit, which he tries to justify as “a system” that he just hasn’t quite cracked yet. As Son walks around shirtless we see his back pock-marked with, one assumes, birdshot scars. That much buckshot and there would be no story. The movie derives its name from all the stories circulating around his fish farming job about how he got the scars. Needless to say he hates his parents and his mother raised him to hate his half-brothers. He knows he needs to get his life together. This is driven home perhaps once too often.
In a believable plot detail, the moment his wife moves out his two brothers move in. As Officer Cartman observed on South Park, “poor people tend to live in clusters”.
Hateful mom drops by one night to tell them their dad is dead. No she’s not going to the funeral.
But the brothers do; just long enough for Son to diss his father, spit on his casket, and launch a feud with the Hayes II brothers that will drive the rest of the movie. Drive it very slowly at times. If you’ve ever followed a combine down a highway…that kind of slow.
Nichols has a neat trick. Every scene begins calmly, or downright flatly, so the viewer is left anticipating that THIS is the scene where the revenge cycle will finally start. Strange trucks pull up in the background but someone else gets out. He always makes us wait through one more scene. Otherwise, why are we watching these somewhat dreary lives in slow-motion? I suspect in part it’s because bi-coastal movie critics like to see us this way and respond in a Pavlovian fashion. Southeast or Midwest = dull life = critical salivation.
Middle son Kid has real Arkansas hair and a ball cap and a devoted and shockingly attractive girlfriend whom he wants to marry, just as soon as he gets out of the tent in his brother’s yard. She longs for his next raise at the fish farm so they can finally be happy. This is driven home perhaps once too often.
And never forget: best looking girlfriend = biggest target on your back. You might as well be the married police veteran with five days to retirement.
Younger son Boy is a puzzle and quietly devastated by his upbringing. He coaches basketball, and presumably teaches, but lives in a nasty van with his dog and busted tape player when he’s not crashed on Son’s couch. I’m not sure why he’s this poor. He is upset that he is being pulled into this feud and responds with something like cowardice when the fists finally start to fly. He seems the least happy and most frustrated with his life. This is driven home perhaps once too often.
Everything escalates. A dog gets killed – that’s big trouble in Arkansas – then a man or two. The remaining protagonists now have to decide just how far they want to take this. The relative beauty and believability of the script comes through when the eldest brothers of the two clans are the first to resort to revenge and threats, but are not the ones who pay the highest price.
In an absolutely perfect detail the youngest brother, already suspected of cowardice, already the least in favor of further violence, is the first to reach for the big iron when things get out of hand. Like a lot of youngest brothers, he wants this shit over with so he can get on with his life. He has been following orders and it has led to THIS.
But the same script has the incomprehensible twist in which everyone goes back to fists after there are deaths (it’s as if the Jets and the Sharks decide to have a dance-off after Tony gets killed). Apparently Son never allowed guns in the house. Now, I’ve known some of these people…a few birdshot scars is NOT a good enough reason to have younger brothers who have never handled a shotgun. Even if Nichols is from Arkansas, I’m from Kansas and Texas and you need to trust me on this.
Also, in a town where everyone knows everything about everybody down to every detail, it somehow escaped the police’s notice that the original killing involved more than just two people.
And you can always tell male first-time story tellers by their female characters; two of them are utterly angelic in their attractiveness and devotion to their rather slipshod beaus. One is a monster-mother.
But this scene is beautifully done.
The pacing and plotting improve near the end. Hopeful decisions are made that everyone will have to live with. It is tense, delicate and nicely done.
Despite this movie, and the more recent Take Shelter, which Ebert also gave four stars and described as “masterful filmmaking”, I’m still not quite ready to embrace Nichols as my auteur of my fly-over country. I love his love for flat horizons shot at a low angle with lots of sky. I love his ear for how real people talk and his willingness to linger on conversations a few beats after they seem to be over. But even an art house fan like me can wish for a little snappier editing and crisper story telling.
Could be I’m just jealous.
Nichol's most recent movie, Mud, is running 98% at Rotten Tomatoes, so I'm there soon.
Posted by The 73rd Virgin at Saturday, August 31, 2013