Monday, July 9, 2012

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

When we first meet 6-year-old Hushpuppy (QuvenzhanĂ© Wallis) in the ramshackle environs of the Bathtub (a fictitious shanty town on the delta outside New Orleans’ levies) she’s draped in ragged clothing, chasing chickens, listening to the heartbeat of pigs, and keeping a cautious distance from her surly father Wink (Dwight Henry) who lives in a shack mere shouting distance from her own.  Years earlier her mother disappeared, and the girl converses with a distant lighthouse as proxy when she needs maternal advice and comfort.  She also uses the inside of a cardboard box as a sanctuary, and on the sides of which she draws her brief history.  The denizens of the Bathtub live outside civilized society and distrust it, but many abandon their homes as Hurricane Katrina approaches.  Hushpuppy and Wink stubbornly remain throughout the harrowing, torrential onslaught, as do several others.  The surviving residents wake to a world covered in saltwater and must adapt yet again.  But after this high-profile natural disaster, society can no longer ignore the Bathtub.  Director Benh Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar (upon whose stage play “Juicy and Delicious” this is loosely based) immerse the audience in an alien yet fully realized world from the film’s opening frames.  With the exception of Hushpuppy’s simple yet poetic voiceover, the characters have little time for introspection.  They spend each moment preoccupied with survival.  Zeitlin and Alibar allow us to experience this world through Hushpuppy’s eyes and, like her, we feel under attack when outsiders begin to intrude.  The filmmakers indulge the girl’s childish flights of imagination, which provide a sheen of magical realism, all the while refusing to romanticize her hardscrabble life.  Zeitlin coaxes a natural, often heartbreaking performance from the young Wallis, who carries this film on her narrow yet sturdy shoulders.  She is matched by Henry’s unsentimental work as her father, whose tough love resembles recklessness at best and borders on child endangerment at worst.  Zeitlin’s film is transporting, with haunting images and captivating characters likely to remain with you for days afterward.

Friday, July 6, 2012

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012)

Author Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his novel of the same name, specializes in adding the supernatural and horrific to revered literature (as he did in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and revered historical figures, as he has done here.  If we are to believe this alternate history, Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) spent his formative years learning how to hunt and kill vampires from the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper).  As a boy Lincoln witnessed slaver and vampire Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) draining his sleeping mother and vows revenge.  In Grahame-Smith’s universe, vampires walk in daylight and have the ability to disappear and reappear (usually right behind you).  Also, and this is important, they are unable to attack each other.  Only a human being can attack and kill a vampire.  Got that?  The northern vampire population begins to dwindle thanks to Lincoln, and this brings him to the attention of Adam (Rufus Sewell), a southern plantation and slave owner and, not coincidentally, the father of vampires.  Love and politics sidetrack Lincoln, and he marries Mary Todd (a wasted Mary Elizabeth Winstead) before being elected president.  But vampires are not so easily ignored, and Lincoln will need the help of shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) to fend off a nationwide attack.  For much of the film’s first half director Timur Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith focus on Lincoln’s vendetta and maintain a mostly irreverent tone.  But once slavery and the Civil War become pivotal to the action, what began as a diverting but tasteless exercise nosedives into the patently offensive.  Did you know that the Southern army initially did so well at the battle of Gettysburg because they had undead fighting with them?  Or that, in addition to slaves, the Underground Railroad smuggled silver north to help the Union fight vampire soldiers?  But I digress.  Sewell’s presence is welcome if undistinguished, while Cooper is charismatic and engaging.  Walker, however, is stiff and uninteresting, which matches the overall dreariness of this video game disguised as a movie.