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Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild


Ever been asked the question, “What would you do with a million dollars?” Most of us have come up with countless answers, but are still waiting for the check. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin put the one and a half million dollars he raised to the best use possible when working on this amazing film.

Garnering critical acclaim at what seems like a record pace, especially after some great recognition at Cannes and Sundance, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” deserves all the praise it can possibly have heaped on it. It was purchased by Fox Searchlight as a result of its showing at Sundance.

Quvenzhané Wallis

Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

The film runs on raw emotion shouldered heavily by the lead character, Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) who is dealing with her home area (called “The Bathtub”) at risk of drowning. At the same time, the health of her father, Wink (played by Dwight Henry), is deteriorating rapidly. All while prehistoric, mythological creatures called aurochs (played by trained wild boars) are approaching with the threat of destroying everything in their path.

To train the wild boars, Zeitlin and his crew raised them from near birth and used popcorn to train them to sit, run, stop, run and turn around. “We basically taught them how to act,” said Zeitlin.

The success of the film lies mainly in director Zeitlin possessing the amazing ability to understand the nitty gritty, goodness, badness, ugliness and beauty of the characters in the story.

The show stealer is hands down six-year-old Wallis. Simply put, she’s a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Handpicked out of 4,000 applicants for the role of Hushpuppy, Zeitlin calls her “an amazing little creature.”

“She’s probably the mature one of the two us,” he added.

You would have a hard time guessing she’s never acted before. Zeitlin believes this “speaks to what a great actress she is.”

If there’s any justice in the movie world, Wallis will be on the scene for many years to come. She’s the loudest, baddest, spiciest Hushpuppy I’ve ever encountered.

Hushpuppy and Wink

Hushpuppy and her father, Wink

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is also Henry’s first role. Henry is the current owner of The Buttermilk Drop Cafe in New Orleans. He used to own Henry’s Bakery in the Marigny. He actually owes his role in the film to Henry’s Bakery.

The bakery was conveniently located across the street from the casting agency used for the film. Henry said the agency would often put up casting audition flyers in the bakery. One day, he decided to try out for a role. A role that he would eventually land — Wink in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

However, he found out he got the role two days after opening The Buttermilk Drop Cafe so he declined. In all, he would turn the role down three times before Zeitlin finally convinced him to accept.

“Benh saw things in me I didn’t see in myself,” said Henry.

Beasts of the Southern Wild Bathtub

Hushpuppy lives in “The Bathtub,” an area at risk of going underwater at any moment.

“Dwight really brought his life to this part in a way no one from outside [Louisiana] could,” said Zeitlin. “There were people with more experience, but no one who could play the role as well.”

Henry, Zeitlin and acting coaches spent many late nights at The Buttermilk Drop Cafe rehearsing lines, editing scripts and polishing the film, often while Henry was in the process of baking.

After seeing the film and hearing from Henry and Zeitlin, you can feel the pride and emotion they both invested in making the film. Needless to say, their efforts paid off in the best possible way with such a brilliant film. There’s a Terrence Malick feel to the cinematography, but Zeitlin’s storytelling ability separates him from his elder in this particular film.

Maybe I’m biased because the film was shot near New Orleans, but this is a cinematic gem in the form of a great story. I’ve always believed great stories leave you wanting more and “Beast of the Southern Wild” left me satisfied, but wanting more in the best possible way.

Go see this movie! It exposes the gamut of human emotions all in just 91 minutes. Fortunately, for us Louisianans we understand the full spectrum of human emotions, know how to roll with the punches, and most importantly, celebrate.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is the perfect culmination of all these elements. It’s a bittersweet celebration of life on full display.

All photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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Posted by on July 8, 2012 in Watchin'

 

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Movie Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen stars Amr Waked, Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.

Based on such a ho-hum title, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” The film boils (bad word choice?) down to an examination of faith through fish. Sounds odd, right? It is, but in a weird way, it works wonderfully. Swimmingly, some might say. Ok, no more fish puns, I promise.

Starring Ewan McGregor as Dr. Alfred Jones, a fisheries scientist with Asperger syndrome, the film revolves around a Yemeni sheikh (played by Amr Waked) on a quest to introduce salmon to his country. It becomes quite clear early on that Dr. Jones finds it “theoretically” impossible and therefore is reluctant to join the adventure.

That all changes when he’s given the $50 million he asks for to start up.

Dr. Jones is introduced to the project by the sheikh’s assistant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (played by Emily Blunt). McGregor and Blunt have a surprisingly great on-screen chemistry. As a whole the acting in the film is superb.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Kristin Scott Davis plays a political adviser to England's prime minister with wit and perfect comedic timing.

But the scenes really come to life when Kristin Scott Davis’ character, press secretary Bridget Maxwell, is on the screen. Scott Davis brings to life a blunt, politically motivated government official with a crazy personality. She handles the role brilliantly and saves it from becoming an over-the-top caricature. I know it’s very early in the film year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she receives an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

The plot of the movie mainly revolves around the evolution of Dr. Jones’ belief/doubt in the salmon project and how it parallels his personal life and rapidly dissolving marriage and career.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Amr Waked plays a sheikh with the goal of bring salmon to the desert of his country, Yemen. To do so, he needs the help of Ewan McGregor's Dr. Jones, a fisheries scientist.

As his character evolves, his faith in the project grows along with his respect for the sheikh and his interest in Ms. Chetwode-Talbot. And honestly, the audience’s investment in the project grows as the film runs as well.

All in all, this is a top-notch dramedy with brilliant acting. The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, The Full Monty) is not too sweet, feels authentic and makes you realize that sometimes it’s not about a project, it’s about succeeding against the odds.

The best part is that if people can get past the title, this is a movie with a little something for everyone.

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is rated PG-13 and runs 1 hour and 47 minutes. The film is currently playing in select cities and will open nationwide soon.

All photos courtesy of CBS Films.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2012 in Watchin'

 

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Movie Review: Safe House

Safe House Poster

Safe House Poster

Denzel Washington is back in the role of the bad guy in Safe House, a C.I.A. thriller that entails the normal C.I.A. verbiage: espionage, missing files, reconnaissance, etc.

Washington, playing the role of former C.I.A. agent/traitor Tobin Frost, played a much more conniving (and convincing) bad guy in Training Day. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to erase his Oscar-winning role in Training Day from your mind while watching Safe House. And Tobin Frost ain’t got nothing on Alonzo Harris (Washington’s Training Day character).

Set in South Africa, Reynolds’ character Matt Weston is in charge of a C.I.A. safe house that doesn’t see a lot of excitement. That all changes when Frost is busted for an info deal gone bad. Frost, who “turned” years ago, is known as the C.I.A. agent who rewrote the book on interrogation. So when he’s brought in for questioning at Weston’s safehouse, things don’t go quite as expected.

Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston in Safe House

Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston in Safe House

After a rogue group attempts to capture Frost due to information he may be holding, Weston makes the decision to try and bring him in on his own. But without field experience, he lacks the confidence to go up against the former C.I.A. big boy Frost.

e Safe House goes in and out of action sequences with Frost and Weston trying to escape bad guys, Frost trying to escape from Weston, Weston figuring out where Frost is going, and the normal formula you would expect from an action flick with a hunter and a hunted. The only thing unique about Safe House is that the role of hunter and hunted are never solidified. Sometimes Weston has the upper hand, other times it’s Frost.

Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost in Safe House

Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost in Safe House

From there Safe House is missing the surprising twist and turns truly great action movies have. Add that to a phoned in performance from Washington and a performance from Reynolds that’s lacking conviction and you have a very average action movie — one I would hesitate to call a “thriller.”

While it’s not a waste of your time to see Safe House, I would definitely relegate it to your Netflix queue or pick it up from Redbox rather than venturing to the theater to see it.

All photos courtesy of Universal Pictures.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2012 in Watchin'

 

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Movie Review: Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst as bride Justine in Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst as bride Justine in Melancholia

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is really two films in one. Broken up into two acts, Melancholia follows the lives of sisters Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) during a life-altering and life-ending event. After opening with gorgeous cinematography and visual effects, the film begins its first act — Justine’s wedding day.

The first act revolves around Dunst’s character, Justine, who is set to marry Alexander Skarsgard’s Michael. While the scenes started out cheery and happy, it soon becomes apparent that Justine has underlying issues.

In a wedding night that seems to never end, Justine manages to lose just about everything she values mainly due to the fact that she can’t accept her future. She seems to be running away from the bright future fate has laid out in front of her. The question “Am I ready to settle down?” is slowly, but surely answered on a night full of drama, laughs and emotions.

Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier's Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier's Melancholia

It becomes quite clear that Justine feels suffocated by all the things going on in her life until she reaches a breaking point. Dunst’s portrayal of Justine is one of her finest roles to date. I wish I could say the same for Skarsgard, but unfortunately, his character is practically neutered. It’s a drastic change from his character on True Blood, but he doesn’t quite nail it so it feels forced.

Gainsbourg as Justine’s sister Claire and Kiefer Sutherland as brother-in-law John both turn in fantastic performances in Act 1. Overall, I enjoyed the first act better than the second act.

Act 2 focuses on the threat of planet Melancholia colliding with Earth. This act is centered around Claire as she cares for her family and Justine with a potential doomsday scenario looming.

In this act, Justine begins as a crumpled depressed mess who Claire ends up taking in. Is Justine depressed because of the impending doom or because of the new direction her life has taken?

As Melancholia plummets closer to Earth, Justine begins to accept the potential apocalyptic result and ceases running. Now it’s Claire’s turn to live scared and running. The second act places relationships under a microscope while examining how such a significant event can either unite or divide.

Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg play sisters in Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg play sisters in Melancholia

The great performances continue in Act 2, but mainly because the number of characters is severely diminished giving each actor a more meaty role. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of roles for Claire and Justine. This act is a true slow burn that is painful yet enjoyable to watch.

Overall, Melancholia is a beautifully rich and deep film. Dunst turns in one of her best performances yet though I’m not sure it will be good enough come awards season. Melancholia is definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

Photos courtesy of Christian Geisnes.

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Watchin'

 

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Movie Review: A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Mind

A Dangerous Mind

Starring Viggo Mortensen as renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Freud’s prodigy Carl Jeung, A Dangerous Method draws from the real-life events of both psychologists during the World War I era. Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a troubled woman who comes between the doctors.

The synopsis Describes A Dangerous Method as a dark tale of sexual and intellectual discovery. However, it’s lacking the depth required to make it truly sexual, romantic or worth intellectual discussion.

This film does very little to truly show the motivation and reasoning for the renowned psychologists’ theories and methods. So unfortunately, the audience never really connects with either of the characters. Slowly, but surely, the relationship between the two mean breaks down, and at the same time, my patience began wearing thin with both characters.

A Dangerous Method had potential with such rich characters and subject matter, but director David Cronenberg makes a mess of the whole thing. There are no peaks nor valleys so the film drags on and ends up feeling much longer than the 99 minutes it lasts.

If you were to hook this film up to an EKG machine, it would instantly flatline. The pacing is non-existent and the flash forwards feel rushed and no backstory is given for the subsequent years that have passed. I have a feeling, the film would have benefits from moving back and forth in time rather than in a linear fashion.

Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender

Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method

The acting isn’t terrible, but it seems as if everyone involved was bored by the subject matter and more worried about pronouncing the big psychology words rather than giving the lines any depth. Keira Knightly starts out engrossing, but quickly devolves into an annoying, self-pitying, desperate character.

Viggo Mortensen never gets down to the nitty gritty in his portrayal of Freud. And the constant talking out of the side of his mouth while smoking on a cigar reminded me of Groucho Marx, not Freud. His character is also treated as an afterthought throughout the film as it’s never fully developed.

Michael Fassbender is the best part of this film, but his depiction of Jeung ends up feeling flat as he character devolves rather than evolves.

I guess that’s my biggest beef with this film. The characters devolve and fail to maintain their humanity. Everything feels overdramatized including the sex scenes, the psychologists’ feud, the romance, the family life. None of it feels authentic.

I will say that the cinematography is above average. Other than that, this is a very flat movie that never fully explores any of the psychological issues it brings up. It’s almost as if the film has undergone a lobotomy.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2011 in Watchin'

 

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Movie Review: Moneyball

Brad Pitt Gives Moneyball the Spark it Needs to Succeed

Moneyball (based on the book by Michael Lewis) tells the true story of Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) and his strategy of managing a team with a limited payroll competing with teams with nine-figure payrolls (New York Yankees, this movie is looking squarely at you).

Set during the 2002 season, the A’s are coming off a first round playoff loss and losing their star players Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi.

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball

Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill star in Columbia Pictures' drama "Moneyball," a film about the unique approach Oakland A's GM Billy Beane used to rebuild his team in 2002.

The challenge: rebuild the A’s organization with one of Major League Baseball’s lowest payrolls.

Enter Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), a statistically driven, Yale-educated economist. Together, they throw conventional MLB wisdom out the window and base the roster solely on player statistics. Initially, this experiment looks like a disaster. Fans, the Oakland media and even the A’s manager (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) are incensed after the dismal start to the season.

Slowly, but surely the season turns around for the A’s as the plan starts to pay off culminating with a 20-game win streak. Beane and Brand’s experiment revolutionizes the league after only one season.

Many critics are throwing out the “O” word for Pitt’s performance. While I think that’s a bit premature, it is one of his strongest performances since Fight Club.

Pitt and Hill have great onscreen chemistry, but the true scene stealer throughout the film is Kerris Dorsey who plays Pitt’s character’s daughter. The scenes between Dorsey and Pitt add an emotional connection that is somewhat lacking in the clubhouse scenes.

The movie completely plays to Pitt’s strengths: quick wits, charm and a little bit of snark.

The Oakland A's are the team in focus in "Moneyball."

The Oakland A's and the team payroll are at the center of "Moneyball."

The hodgepodge of a team features some nice side characters including Scott Hatteberg (played by Park and Recreation‘s Chris Pratt), David Justice (Stephen Bishop) and Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo).

While this film is about baseball at its core, it does an excellent job exploring the mind of Billy Beane, his backstory and his love of the game. It’s a most unknown story (save diehard baseball fans) that truly deserves the big screen treatment.

Overall, it is one of the better films I’ve seen this year. It’s been a while since a baseball movie performed well at the box office, but I’m confident Moneyball will be one of the Fall’s highest-grossing films.

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 133 minutes

All photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Watchin'

 

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