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 adequately--caught myself wiping my brow from time to time and wishing for some ass tea.
He does best with the male cast: Ted Danson is an amusing best friend; Mickey Rourke a memorably soft-spoken demolitions expert. William Hurt has a lazy, brazen arrogance, leaning back and admitting he's 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 is 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 Hurt's Ned Racine) with the sensuality of her passion. At one point Kasdan has her stand opposite Hurt and talking fast and the scene was just dead, it lay between them like roadkill and no amount of fast talk was about 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 to do anything other than insist that we sit and listen (Hurt to his credit looks as if he was listening; he even looks persuaded). Turner wouldn't display the kind of heedless eroticism that would be her trademark until two years later, when she would lampoon her fatale persona in Carl Reiner's underrated The Man With Two Brains (apparently she's sexier when she's funny). For real heat I prefer Richard Rush's demented, much underrated Color of the Night--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, 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 (impossible to slap a chicken the size of a small turkey (a turkey the size of a small chicken?) 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 troweled on with such lack of restraint you feel like Fortunato confronted with an overcaffeinated bricklayer ("for the love of God Montresor!").
But Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané 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, 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 love her, and his love burns as fiercely as any of his other drives (another would be an independence that refuses to knuckle under to the powers that be).
It's poetry sometimes overdone, rarely under complete control, but legitimate poetry, fashioned from huddled 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 lashed together with rope, and one thinks Huckleberry Finn himself might sign up for this adventure.
Some compare the picture to 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 hope to see better from Zeitlin, hopefully soon.
Poetry in motion
Was surprised to see Dave Kehr interviewed on Movie Morlocks; was even more surprised to see that Kehr is 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 did like Soldier, Anderson's science-fiction remake of George Stevens' Shane which, taking its cue from Kurt Russell's expressionless title performance, had a sneaky understated 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 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--and the fact that said emotions have been trained out of them and still manage to register suggest the power of these suppressed feelings). 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 raised brow, a floodplain of sorrow in a downturned mouth.
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) use sexy female protagonists (Lara Croft, anyone?) so often 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 I've always thought his writing sparkled (Cabin in the Woods) and his directing capable of continuity and flow (perhaps not necessarily in this multimillion production--though I'd cite Black Widow's escape early in the picture--but in titles 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 and stylized homoeroticism. Not a lot of development with relationships in this, homoerotic or otherwise, but plenty of development of action sequences, from handgun to automatic rifle to rocket-propelled grenade, with side trips into weighted chains and curved blades along the way. 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 explosives; the real confrontations involve human adversaries doing non-digital kicks and spins, in knock-em-down-drag-em-out fights that recall (distantly but authentically) Drunken Master 2.
And they're dances; they're exuberant exhibitions of balletic motion, done with grace and skill; Anderson shoots them in such a way that the movements remain clear in your head, entire sequences glitter like elaborate jewelry in the mind (that glorious moment when, at the beginning of this Resident Evil, we get a slow-motion reverse-play recap of the ending of the previous Resident Evil). Astaire would approve, I think; Kelly too, though I suspect the one who would truly 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.