Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution; Beast of the Southern Wild; Body Heat

Poetry of the senses

Was looking over Lawrence Kasdan's memorable '81 feature debut and it looks nice enough, all shadows and subdued colors and slinking camera, and he does evoke the moist heat well enough--I caught myself wiping my brow from time to time and wishing for some ass tea. He does best with the male cast: Ted Danson was an amusing best friend, Mickey Rourke a memorably soft-spoken demolitions expert. William Hurt had this lazy, brazen arrogance, leaning back and admitting he was doing his client; Danson's brows rose about the same time as mine.

What screws up the movie (literally and metaphorically) is the girl. As Matty Walker, Kathleen Turner was a gorgeous creature, all creamy skin, flowing blonde mane and husky cigarette voice. But she has reams of dialogue, much of it with her clothes on, and she can't seem to make all those lines work, much less come alive, much less wrap us and bewitch us (the way she's supposed to be bewitching Hurt's Ned Racine) with the sensuality of her passion. At one point Kasdan has her standing opposite Hurt and talking fast and the scene was just dead, it lay between them like roadkill, and no amount of fast talk was going to bring it back to life. Kept waiting for Kasdan to do something, glide the camera sideways, blind us with a little style, but no: he seemed too in love with the words he wrote for Matty, with his words, to do anything other than insist that we sit and listen (Hurt to his credit looked as if he was listening; he even looked persuaded). Turner wouldn't display the kind of heedless eroticism that would be her trademark until two years later, when she would lampoon her sensuality in Carl Reiner's underrated The Man With Two Brains (apparently she's sexier when she's funnier). For real heat I prefer Richard Rush's demented, much underrated Color of the Night instead--Jane March could raise a felled flagpole without even trying, both hands tied behind her back (especially with hands tied behind her back).

Poor lucky Kasdan--muffs his first attempt which becomes a small boxoffice hit anyway, and goes on to have a so-so filmmaking career. His mistake, of course, was to ignore classic noir's prime directive: Cherchez la femme, pardieu! Cherchez la femme.

Poetry of devastation
There's a lot to dislike about Benh Zeitlin's debut feature (all about debuts today): details don't make sense (it's impossible to slap a chicken the size of a small turkey on a grill and expect it to cook immediately, and demolishing a levee without showing the consequences--more deaths--seems like questionable filmmaking at best), bits seem underwritten (Why leave the shelter? Granted there were stories of assaults and such during Katrina's rampage, but we don't see the reason here) and the lyricism is sometimes troweled on with such lack of restraint you feel like a Fortunato confronted by an overcaffeinated bricklayer ("for the love of God Montresor!").

But Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√© Wallis) is such a strong presence and Zeitlin's film so dense with textural and aural details one can't help but be enchanted, nevertheless. The fictional Bathtub--a bayou located in some unspecified corner of Louisiana (actually the town of Montegut) is like a dank corner of the country's subconscious, where homeless, forgotten wanderers drift in and forage for plywood and chicken mesh to build their dilapidated shacks. Zeitlin achieves the Katrina-like storm effects with almost no budget (a reported $2 million), and his giant creature effects are amazing (mostly forced perspective, some prosthetic tusks, and perhaps a digital touchup here or there)--and of course it makes sense that the aurochs (an ancestor of domesticated cattle) would look like giant feral pigs--they're the only hooved animals Hushpuppy would know about. 

Wallis delivers a memorable performance that is the heart of the film, but most of my admiration is reserved for Dwight Henry's tremendous performance as Wink, Hushpuppy's father. Henry is not afraid to play Wink as an unapologetic monster--he cuffs his daughter when angry, and he's not afraid to yell and toss things around; but he does have love for her, a love that burns as fiercely as any of his other drives (one other would be an independent spirit that refuses to knuckle under to the powers that be).  

It's poetry; sometimes overdone, rarely under complete control, but legitimate poetry, fashioned from crowding forest and muddy waters. At one point Hushpuppy climbs aboard a makeshift raft, basically the back of a Ford truck mounted on oil drums and tied together with rope, and one thinks Huckleberry Finn himself wouldn't turn down this adventure.

Some compare this picture to Terence Malick's Tree of Life. I can see similarities in tone and imagery--the voiceover narration, the glorification of nature, the profundity slipping occasionally into pretentiousness--only Beasts was done for a fraction of Malick's budget with no name stars, a boatload of heedless courage, and a collective heart as big as all of Louisiana. Not bad at all, but I expect to see more from Zeitlin, hopefully better.

Poetry in motion

Was surprised to see Dave Kehr interviewed on Movie Morlocks; was even more surprised to see that Kehr was a fan of Paul Anderson--W.S., not Thomas--and that he loved Resident Evil: Retribution. Did not know Kehr was an Anderson fan. 

Not a big fan, myself (thought Anderson's Death Race was a mere shadow of Paul Bartel's 1975 satiric original), but I did like Soldier, Anderson's sneaky remake of George Stevens' Shane which, taking its cue from Kurt Russell's expressionless title performance, had an even sneakier--furtive, almost--sense of humor. If you gaze at the soldier's genetically impassive face for any length of time you start reading emotions into it, much like with a Rorschach blot; I thought this both a clever parody of the action hero's traditional impassiveness and a surprisingly effective way to suggest soulfulness (?!) in a science fiction action flick (these soldiers may be genetically altered to minimize the impact of pain, guilt, shame but nevertheless they feel these emotions). Later when you're more accustomed to their stylized (Bressonian?) acting you can read pages into their expressionless mugs: a mountain of sarcasm in a slightly tilted brow, a floodplain of sorrow in a mouth's downturned edge.

Several comments raised my brow in the Resident Evil interview--I suppose one can see Milla Jovovich's Alice being lead heroine as some kind of triumph for the feminist cause, but video games (and their big-screen adaptations) often use sexy female protagonists (Lara Croft, anyone?); it's practically a cliche. Same with the Umbrella Corporation--faceless corporate villains are a classic trope in the genre, nothing truly innovative about their use.

Also a pity he needed to use Anderson to bash Joss Whedon's work. Whedon possibly lost some street cred with the ubersuccess of his The Avengers (he's establishment now, for better or worse), but his writing has always sparkled (Cabin in the Woods) and his directing has its own continuity and flow (perhaps not necessarily in this multimillion production--though I'd cite Black Widow's escape scene early in the picture--but in films like Serenity and the "Once More With Feeling" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). He can even do musical numbers, always a plus in my book ("Once More with Feeling," Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog).

Those points set aside, I can see Anderson's film being a continuation of what the Hong Kong filmmakers were doing in the '80s and early '90s; not so much Tsui Hark as John Woo, with his penchant for fetishized gunplay, stylized homoeroticism. Not much development  in this flick into genuine relationships, homoerotic or otherwise, but plenty of development of action sequences, handgun escalating to  automatic rifle, with side forays into weighted chains and curved blades.  Plenty of actual as opposed to digitized stunts--on occasion Alice will face a CGI creature, which she mostly disposes of with a brief strafing and a belt full of grenades; the real confrontations involve human adversaries, doing non-digital kicks and spins, in knock-em-down-drag-em-out fights that recall (distantly) Drunken Master 2.

And they're dances; they're exuberant exhibitions of balletic motion, done with grace and great skill; Anderson shoots them in such a way that the movements remain clear in your head, that entire sequences remain clear in the head (that glorious moment when, at the beginning of this, Resident Evil 5, we get a slow-motion reverse-play recap of the ending of the previous Resident Evil). Astaire would approve, I think; Kelly too, though really the one who would clap his hands in sardonic appreciation would probably be Bob Fosse. What can I say about Resident Evil: Retribution? Best dance movie I've seen in a while, easy--since Robert Rodriguez's Machete, anyway. 


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