Sex, Leins & Videotape

Sex, Leins & Videotape #147. Tom Leins reviews Sinister, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Pusher

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Thrills, chills and (Bathtub) spills are all on the agenda in this week’s DVD round-up.

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At the outset of Sinister (Momentum) struggling true crime writer Ellison (Ethan Hawke, Training Day) attempts to revive his waning career by moving his unwitting family to the scene of his latest story, more specifically the suburban home of a family of murder victims. Shunned by the local community and struggling with his obligations as a family man, Ellison finds his interest in the unsolved murder piqued even further when he discovers a batch of home movies in the attic that seem to offer disturbing new evidence into the crime. His investigation slides into even stranger territory when Ellison notices the same unidentified figure lurking in the background of each one of the 8mm films, each of which seemingly occurred in a different US town. However, in his bid to untangle the mystery, Ellison only succeeds in placing his own family in harm’s way…

Writer/director Scott Derrickson hasn’t exactly distinguished himself in recent years, helming dubious material such as the Keanu Reeves version of The Day The Earth Stood Still, but he definitely raises the stakes with Sinister, which lives up to its name repeatedly, as the snuff-movie-fuelled plot unfolds. Ethan Hawke delivers one of his best performances in years as the inquisitive Ellison and the creepy ‘Bughuul’ figure at the heart of the drama proves a worthy nemesis. Oddly enough, although Sinister recalls everything from Insidious to The Shining and 8mm, co-writer C. Robert Cargill was inspired to write the script as a direct result of a nightmare he experienced after watching The Ring! While it may not re-write the horror rulebook, Sinister does almost everything right and shows exactly how dark and ambiguous a mainstream horror movie can afford to be without collapsing into nastiness for nastiness’ sake. Gruesomely effective stuff.

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Hailed as ‘spectacular’ by none other than Barack Obama, Beasts of the Southern Wild (StudioCanal) made a big splash on the festival circuit, and continues to earn plaudits thanks to a phenomenal debut performance from nine-year-old leading lady (Quvenzhane Wallis) – who recently became the youngest ever nominee for a Best Actress Oscar. Directed by first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin – and adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from the latter’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious – Beasts of the Southern Wild unfolds in ‘the Bathtub’, a forgotten but defiant bayou community cut off from the rest of New Orleans, and indeed the rest of the world, by a sprawling levee. With her mother long gone and her half-crazed father Wink (Dwight Henry) pursuing a life as a boozy itinerant misfit, Hushpuppy (Wallis) is more or less left to her own devices, and has to dig deep to survive when a hundred year storm raises the waters around her town.

Part slice-of-life drama, part magical realist fable, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a spectacularly vivid film, brought to life by a pair of inspired performances from non-professional locals Wallis and Henry. The ravaged landscape of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans has provided dozens of filmmakers with a suitably colourful backdrop in recent years – with David Simon’s ongoing TV drama Treme arguably one of the most prominent examples. Beasts of the Southern Wild offers a similarly atmospheric depiction of a community on the brink of catastrophe, and its heady brew of alcoholic squalor and dreamy swampland life is an undeniably potent cocktail. However, for all its aesthetic idiosyncrasies, Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t exactly an unmitigated success… director Zeitlin loses his footing several times and the hazy narrative sacrifices storyline for atmosphere too often for comfort. That said, despite some unconvincing moments, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a memorable art-house drama with much to recommend it.

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Directed by little known Spaniard Luis Prieto, Pusher (Momentum) is an English-language remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 Danish film of the same name. Frank (Richard Coyle, Prince of Persia) is a mid-level drug pusher who enjoys the freedom of the London underworld, and all of the perks that come along with it. However, when an ill-advised deal with shifty ex-con Marlon (Neil Maskell, Kill List) backfires and attracts the attention of the police, Frank is forced to jettison his stash in a lake – putting him instantly in debt to Serbian drug lord Milo (Zlatko Buric, 2012), a man with very little patience. Despite their colourful shared history, Milo is unwilling to indulge Frank’s pleas for leniency, and the once-unflappable pusher is obliged to come up with the loot within a week – or risk incurring the wrath of the fearsome Serbian.

Produced and overseen by Refn himself, Pusher is an undeniably odd choice of movie to remake. Richard Coyle offers a solid lead performance as Frank, while Northern supermodel Agyness Deyn adds a touch of glamour as his girlfriend, Flo. Even so, it is likely to be an awkward sell – not obvious enough for fans of identikit Brit gangster movies, and despite Orbital’s slinky, retro-electro soundtrack (which seems to intentionally recall the Drive score), Pusher feels too one-dimensional to appeal to fans of Refn’s more recent work. Oddly enough, this is not even the first remake of Pusher – a Hindi remake of the film, directed by Assad Raja – was released in 2010. Even stranger, Refn has already admitted that he hopes to oversee a whole series of franchise-like spin-offs – seizing different aspects of the film and resituating them in different cities like Tokyo and Las Vegas. A novel idea, for sure, but if the end product is as underwhelming as this, then the concept might get pretty tired, pretty quick…

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