Deepwater Horizon (2016)

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“She’s gonna blow!”
     Marky Mark and a very funky bunch—Snake “call me Snake” Plissken, Jane the Virgin, and Being John Malkovich as a corporate corner cutter heavy on the gumbo, I garontee—attempt to smother that mother of all man-made ecological disasters, the Deepwater Horizon, in… Deepwater Horizon. All that’s missing from this fraught explode-a-thon is “Norristown’s own” Maria Bello as Marky’s missus. This time out that dubious honor befalls Kate Hudson, who displays convincing concern, but isn’t quite the missus material we’ve come to love from old pro Bello.
     If the name sounds familiar—Deepwater Horizon, not Bello or Hudson—it’s because this thing really happened. April 2010, remember? That oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that exploded and sank? The one that spilled over 200 million gallons of crude into the gulf for three months straight before they eventually put a lid on it?
     It was not cool, people, not a pretty sight. Eleven people died that day. Yet Hollywood somehow decided to turn this colossal personal and eco-tragedy into a raving action flick starring Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell.
     Sure, they honor the dead in an end-credits gallery (insensitive not to) and British Petroleum—who eventually agreed to cough up a record $4 billion in criminal fines and penalties—don’t look too good. But what they—director Peter Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand—really seem to care about is capital-S Spectacle and there’s plenty of that to go around. Deepwater Horizon‘s all about the night in question, not the 87-day aftermath and its endless human and ecological repercussions, because explosions make energetic cinema that sells tickets and oil slicks do not.
     Walhberg, Russell, Malkovich, and Gina Rodriguez as the rig’s navigator turn in credible performances. Unfortunately, beyond the marquee names the workers on the rig are underwritten and mostly indistinguishable.
     Is it tacky, disrespectful, to craft an entertainment based on a true event in which people lost their lives? Berg and Wahlberg seem to think not—they’re already readying Patriot’s Day, about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, for a December release.
     Deepwater Horizon doesn’t blow. It’s competently made, noisy, and intense. But it’s not a pretty picture.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014)

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The discovery, in a cave along the Japanese shoreline, of a beat-up VHS copy of Fargo with its “Based on a True Story” promise of buried treasure, propels Tokyo-based “Office Lady” Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar-nominee for 2006’s Babel) on a whirlwind search for a briefcase full of cash—the one buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi’s character—in the frigid wilds of Minnesota. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a cold, sometimes comic movie.  You feel that cold in your bones as the unmarried 29-year-old, separated from her beloved bunrab Bunzo and funding this fool’s errand with a purloined company credit card, bundles along the chilly north-south corridors, the wind whipping at her hooded hair.  Wising up, she rips open a colorful motel quilt and wears it as a sarape. She accepts the kindness of strangers often but fleetingly, typically bolting before first light.  Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter feels more like a Polish Brothers movie (Northfork, Twin Falls Idaho) than one conceived by Fargo‘s Coen sibs. In actual fact, it’s “A Zellner Bros.” film—David directs and also co-writes with his brother Nathan; both have small roles in the film.  Kumiko is their fifth collaboration, a film of bounteous, crystalline contrasts and atonal rhythms (by the indietronica band The Octopus Project), an ambitious arthouse odyssey with an ambiguous ending.  And, of course, the wonderful, wistful Kikuchi at its core: focused, laconic, and wholly unfit for this world.  We can only hope she finds that better world she believes exists beyond North Dakota’s stark wire fences.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

In the Turn (2014)

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Is the impassioned documentary In the Turn, as its synopsis would have us believe, about “the journey of a 10-year-old transgender girl (Crystal) as she navigates the difficult and complicated world that surrounds her”?
     Partly.
     Or is it about the Vagine Regime, an international sisterhood of queer roller derby combatants who welcome the outcast and the ostracized into their fold—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender—providing a sanctuary where individuals can simply be themselves… while out-muscling usurpers at breakneck speed on an indoor circular track?
     Mostly.
     Or is it about the transgender lifestyle in general, told through a colorful patchwork of outspoken yet vulnerable personalities who have struggled, in one way or another, with who they are—and emerged victorious?
     Somewhat.
     20:60:20 is probably a fair ratio of the percentages allocated the respective themes and it’s encouraging to see these three separate-but-related narratives receiving their cinematic due in some shape or form. But In the Turn would have been more coherent an experience had filmmaker Erica Tremblay simply picked one subject and stuck with it. There’s enough material here to warrant multiple treatments.
     Statistically speaking, hawking the Vagine Regime is clearly Tremblay’s prime motivation here. Crystal’s struggling single mom (who could be played by Patricia Arquette in the dramatized version) discovers the group on Facebook and writes them a heartfelt note. Bullying, including being thrown into a dumpster after school, and an inability to participate in sports because she doesn’t “fit” on either a boy’s or a girl’s team, had caused her daughter to have suicidal thoughts as early as age five. So moved is the VR’s governing body by Crystal’s story of non-acceptance that the collective organizes a fundraiser to fly the pre-teen from Canada to California to attend a junior roller derby camp.
     While Crystal’s story is unfolding, we are witness to multiple brave and candid exposes, mostly of VR members but not exclusively so, with a lot of happy endings—love, marriage, lifelong commitments, but above all else a sense of belonging. Even Crystal, whose induction into the world of junior roller derby is a shaky one, admits that the opportunity afforded her by the ‘Regime was the best day of her life.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)

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Bridget Jones 1: whimsical, sensational, turkey curry night—actual words taken from my actual review of the filmed version of Helen Fielding’s bestseller. Bridget Jones 2: execrable—that’s the entire review. So what hope, then, for Bridget Jones 3?
     Well, Bridget Jones’s Baby is not a good movie. It’s banal and embarrassing and cliched beyond words, trite and awkward and perplexing, populated by performers who should have taken one look at the script and insisted “enough already!” (although Emma Thompson, who plays Bridget’s acerbic gynecologist, co-wrote the thing so that complicates matters). And don’t get me started on its soundtrack. But…
     Sharon Maguire’s film is not mean-spirited and nobody dies (well, except Hugh Grant’s character, who “went down in the bush” nudge nudge) and the whole thing holds together reasonably well. Maguire helmed the original film, but not its disastrous sequel, so she’s back to try to breathe new life into the franchise.
     As Bridget, Renee (Zellweger) does go face down in the muck at Glastonbury—that’s always worth a chuckle. That’s where the 43-year-old SPILF (her coinage; the SP stands for spinster) shags Jack (Patrick Dempsey) in a yurt, accompanied (on guitar, not in person) by The Ginger Hobbit, musician Ed Sheeran. Jack’s a billionaire dating expert although Bridget doesn’t know it at the time. Ah, but she also has spontaneous relations with her one true love Mr. Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) around the same time with a past-its-sell-by-date, dolphin-free prophylactic. See title. Speaking of that title, they insisted on continuing the Chicago Style form of punctuation which might be a difficult sell for some people. Even so, I suppose that’s something.
     Personally my mouth was agape as early as the opening credits, over which Ms. Zellweger lip syncs to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” recalling way fonder memories of the late Robin Williams dancing to that same song atop a table in Mrs. Doubtfire. Back then the song felt fresh and it was funny to see a Pacific Heights grandma blasting out East Coast hip-hop. Fresh and funny do not describe this ‘Baby.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

King Cobra (2016)

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Not to be confused with that just-sack-Pat “Noriyuki” Morita monstrosity King Cobra, a late ’90s straight-to-video nasty about a mutated killer snake that terrorizes a small California town (“It Moves Without Sound… Thirty Feet of Pure Venom!”), Justin Kelly’s King Cobra features Christian Slater still doing the Alpine eyebrows thing as Stephen, a covert backyard gay porn producer sporting that same reptilian moniker—the best tagline they could come up with here is “Inspired by a True Story.” Catchy.
     That story, it turns out, is the real-life murder of adult film entrepreneur Bryan Kocis. And director Kelly, along with producer James Franco (who gets top billing as one of the remorseless killers), focuses on its unsavory aspects with exclusive, mouthwatering glee.
     Stephen’s latest find is a young stud with the boy-next-door charms of Zac Efron, whom he introduces to the world as Brent Corrigan. Brent (real name Sean Paul Lockhart, equally pornographic) is dramatically realized by Disney alum Garrett Clayton (Teen Beach Movie) with boyish naivete but not much more. Brent proves an instant crowd pleaser but with rapid success comes burgeoning dissatisfaction and the young “paid intern” (as he tells his mom, awkwardly played by Alicia Silverstone) decides he wants to branch out and make his own movies. “Legitimate” ones, that is, but Stephen’s got him tied up, contractually.
     Enter modest rival Viper Films—what is it with these guys and snakes anyhow?—whose dirtbag director Joe (Franco) and hunky headliner Harlow (Keegan Allen) are eager to work with the young starlet and come up with a nasty and altogether permanent solution to benefit all (all but Stephen, that is).
     Kelly’s disposable drama manages to convincingly and consistently blur the lines between reality and fantasy—both incarnations are so shamelessly sleazy it’s hard to tell when a high def work-in-progress peters out and ‘Cobra’s central story arc continues. Franco continues to draw his detractors, of course—he seems to be outspoken in all the worst ways—although I myself thought he was pretty good in that movie in which he cuts off his own arm with a butter knife (Maid in Manhattan?). He and Slater seem to be having mucho macho fun being bad (and asses) in King Cobra, and Franco-philes will likely delight in their champion’s no holes barred performance. But what are Silverstone and Molly Ringwald (as Stephen’s sister!?) doing in this slop of horrors (and a little one too, since size matters here)?
     Like its 1999 namesake, this King Cobra deserves to skip the octoplex altogether and slither, in this case, straight to streaming.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Hillsong – Let Hope Rise (2016)

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Being neither Australian nor of the Pentecostal persuasion I had never heard of Hillsong, not the Sydney, New South Wales-based house of prayer (Hillsong Church) nor its training center just down the road (Hillsong International Leadership College) nor its record label (Hillsong Music Australia) nor any one of the bands produced by said label (Hillsong Kids, Hillsong Young & Free, Hillsong Chapel, Hillsong United, and Hillsong Worship, that last one formerly known as Hillsong Live between 1992 and 2014 and plain old Hillsong before that). Fair enough. Like I say, I’m not Australian or Pentecostal. And I’m also not one to attend any of the worldwide places of worship in which some 50 million people sing Hillsong’s songs every Sunday, songs taken from a prolific outpouring of recordings with such non-secular titles as “Stone’s Been Rolled Away,” “God is in the House,” “Touching Heaven Changing Earth,” and “Faith + Hope + Love.” But as an avid filmgoer I would’ve thought I’d have stumbled across one of their many movies—mostly live concert performances—at least.  2014’s Hillsong Live: Cornerstone, for example, or Hillsong United: Live in Miami (2012), or Hillsong: I Heart Revolution (from 2008). Nope. Never heard of them either. So when I first spotted Hillsong: Let Hope Rise adorning the marquee at the AMC Neshaminy 24 in suburban Philadelphia I simply had to check it out. What is—or who are—Hillsong when they’re at home? The answer was right there on Fandango had I only bothered to look. “Every Sunday, 50 million people sing their songs around the world. Hillsong: Let Hope Rise brings the music to life in a theatrical worship experience.” So, for one hundred and three PG-rated minutes I worshipped at the altar of Hillsong. And not even reluctantly so, but with openness and tolerance in my heart. Given the ecumenical clout the Hillsong brand brings to the table I wasn’t surprised to find this so-called “theatrical worship experience” to be both slickly produced and rather fervent. One’s enjoyment of the actual content will depend a lot on one’s enthusiasm for “Christian music,” of which there is rather a lot. But the talking heads, which articulate Hillsong’s “humble beginnings” through “astonishing rise to prominence” as an international phenomenon, warrant attention for their earnestness alone, whether you’re a believer or a naysayer or somewhere in between. My wife, who would appear to be less swayed by shameless marketing practices, tried to talk me out of going, saying she attended an “outdoor Christian Californian church service” once and the music was “extra coat crumble” (she actually said “execrable” but her phone didn’t recognize the word for some reason). She was right of course—she almost always is—but the Power of Christ compelled me. Speaking of which, I suspect I would’ve had more fun at one of those exorcism things.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Bestiaire (2012)

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Billing itself as “a zoo two steps away from Montreal,” Parc Safari in Hemmingford, Quebec serves as the mise en scene for Denis Cote’s elegant, wordless contemplation of man’s fascination with—and indirect dependence on—animals. There’s also something trippy going on in Bestiaire (from the Medieval Latin word bestiary, a collection of moralized fables about actual or mythical animals), something about the observer and the observed, but if you don’t want to play that particular head game you can appreciate instead the director’s intimate visual sensibility—almost every shot is exquisitely framed. Caged and semi-free-range animals pace, lounge, and stand around looking beastly, whether it’s the frenetic stripes of penned zebras clamoring for freedom or the nonchalant scrutiny of a bull staring us down. An all-too-brief taxidermy sequence early in the film’s second half shifts the focus somewhat, but is equally fascinating. Neither documentary nor video essay, Bestiaire is more like a coffee table book thumbed through on film. Cote simply sets up his static camera, quietly backs away, and lets his subjects do the talking as the seasons come and go. The inherent power of this artful screen exercise, however, is that it forces us regard these creatures as much more than dumb beasts. If you’re truly curious about where to find fantastic beasts, try Bestiaire.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com