Nathan Rabin @ Sundance: Day Six

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance: Day Six

Hobo With a Shotgun: Never underestimate the power of a good title, especially one that renders plot summaries redundant. No one needs to guess what Baby Geniuses or Snakes On A Plane or Hobo With A Shotgun are about (baby geniuses, snakes on a plane, and a hobo with a shotgun, respectively). In a nifty bit of economy, Hobo With A Shotgun does triple duty as the film’s title, premise, and lead character. Hobo With A Shotgun’s kick-ass title helped it win infamy a few years back when a homemade trailer for the then-non-existent film won a contest and ran alongside other fake trailers in selected screenings of Grindhouse.

Now Hobo With A Shotgun has gone all Machete and turned into a real B movie after being expanded to feature length with the additional star power of Rutger Hauer, who plays a half-mad hobo who rolls into a bleak urban hellscape that apparently holds the world record for most blood-splattered public felonies committed per square foot. The streets run red with the blood of innocents as crime kingpins, pedophiles, drug dealers, Delorean-driving preppies, and various other miscreants indulge in an open-ended all-the-crime-you-can-commit buffet. It’s the kind of place where it takes a lunatic taking a blowtorch to an entire bus full of school children to engender anything more than a jaded sigh from the populace.

Of course, you can only push a hobo so far, and eventually Hauer snaps and begins enacting his own special brand of street justice with a magical shotgun that never runs out of shells or needs to be reloaded. After joining forces with a hooker with a heart of gold, Hauer takes on the city’s evil overlord and his equally malignant minions.

Director-editor Jason Eisener and screenwriter John Davies deserve credit for having a clear, precise vision for their loving homage to ’80s grindhouse dreck. They also deserve props for very crisply realizing that vision. Hobo With A Shotgun gets all the details right, from the cheesy synthesizer score to incongruous moments of sentimentality revolving around bears, babies, dandelions, and a poignantly pathetic pipe dream of running a lawn-mowing service. The film nails the over-saturated, kinetic look, sound, and feel of a lesser entry in the Cannon canon. The filmmakers have clearly devoted a lot of time and energy to thinking up new and novel ways for the human body to be butchered, dismembered, and generally abused.

So why isn’t Hobo With A Shotgun anywhere near as much fun as it should be? Complaining about violence in a movie called Hobo With A Shotgun is like complaining that blues standards are insufficiently chipper, but the gleefully, brutally, and deliberately excessive violence—especially when directed towards women and children and overtly sexual in nature—becomes exhausting and dispiriting instead of goofy and fun. The ratio between violence and fun is off; the film is awash in bloodshed, gore, and bodies snapping in half, but only moderately fun. It doesn’t help that it takes a half hour for Hauer to finally pick up the damn shotgun or that, like Machete, the film only has about five minutes’ worth of plot. Equal parts oppressive and exciting, Hobo With A Shotgun is the kind of wildly polarizing film you either love or hate. It’s either the ultimate in guilty-pleasure trash giddiness or a repulsive and amoral abomination. So I, naturally, fall somewhere in the middle. I really wanted to like Hobo With A Shotgun more than I did, though I respect how perfectly it fulfilled its filmmakers’ vision, no matter how questionable. As a feature-length film, Hobo With A Shotgun would make for a nifty trailer. (C+)

Take Shelter: Michael Shannon’s singular combination of spooky, mad-prophet intensity and rugged All-American stoicism finds an ideal vehicle in Take Shelter, the towering thespian’s second collaboration with writer-director Jeff Nichols following 2007’s rightfully revered Shotgun Stories. In a tour de force performance, Shannon plays a well-liked blue-collar worker and devoted husband and father to a deaf girl.

Shannon’s solid existence begins to unravel, however, when he becomes plagued by terrifyingly vivid nightmares that linger and haunt him long after he’s awoken. He’s inundated with gothic images of birds flying in strange patterns, furniture levitating, and an impending ecological apocalypse that only exacerbate his fear that he’ll fall prey to paranoid schizophrenia like his mother Kathy Baker.

Shannon tries to hide his internal anguish from his wife, but as he spirals out of control and becomes obsessed with building an elaborate storm shelter, he risks losing everything. Nichols cultivates an air of ambiguity throughout Take Shelter’s early scenes as to whether the visions that torment Shannon are prophecies or the delusions of a man lurching into schizophrenia. Is Shannon a modern-day Noah, or at the very least Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, or just a man whose brain chemistry has turned? Shannon’s powerful performance only heightens this ambiguity; he has the perpetually pained, choked expression of someone not sure if he can trust himself or his mind.

Methodical and deliberate, Take Shelter rests comfortably on Shannon’s sturdy shoulders; for an actor famous for his Revolutionary Road freak-out, Shannon delivers a remarkably subtle, nuanced performance, though he does get to let his freak flag fly for one remarkable scene. In some respects, Take Shelter plays like a quasi-sequel to Bug, another sometimes punishingly intense psychodrama that cast Shannon as a man teetering on the brink of madness. Take Shelter benefits from a powerful alchemy between actor, character, and director, particularly Shannon’s ability to simultaneously seem in touch with another, sinister spiritual realm while steadfastly facing his responsibilities as a provider and family man. Take Shelter has the haunting visceral power of a waking nightmare, a spooky mood piece that stubbornly and nobly refuses to explain away its central mysteries. (A-)

The Catechism Cataclysm: The Judd Apatow gang helped democratize the field of leading men. Once primarily the domain of the impeccably chiseled and inhumanly pretty, it’s now safe for slackers, stoners, and awkward, overweight Jewish man-children. David Gordon Green and his pals have taken this tendency even further, elevating mulleted goofball Danny McBride to cult-hero status on Eastbound & Down and now producing The Catechism Cataclysm, a cinematic vehicle for Steve Little, a Groundlings alum and character actor best known for his tragicomic portrayal of McBride’s baby-faced, exuberant, and unselfconsciously dorky sidekick/partner in Eastbound & Down.

Eastbound & Down fans will recognize an awful lot of Little’s ingratiatingly dopey Kenny Powers acolyte in his character here, a man-child of a priest who never seems to have evolved emotionally beyond middle school and whose inane natterings and obsession with YouTube and rock ’n’ roll are at best grudgingly tolerated by his superiors. Also like his character in Eastbound & Down, Little’s kooky cleric directs an ambiguously homoerotic case of hero worship toward a figure many would find more than a little pathetic. In this case it’s Robert Longstreet, a legendary figure in Little’s eyes for having dated his sister and played in a rock band in high school, even if the rest of the world dismisses Longstreet as a boozing loser reduced to manning the spotlight at the Ice Capades.

Longstreet agrees to Little’s invitation to go on a canoe trip with him largely out of boredom, but as the trip goes awry and the men end up stranded on an island, the frustrations and tensions of their lives rise to the surface and their trip takes a surreal turn. Like Take Shelter, The Catechism Cataclysm is refreshingly hard to pin down as it shifts tones and genres while consistently fucking with audience expectations. Ominous music seems to portend sinister goings-on before the film takes a turn for the gothic and surreal and there are moments throughout when Little’s façade of happy-go-lucky idiocy drops and we get a glimpse of the lonely man behind all the tomfoolery. The Catechism Cataclysm is an inspired lark, an unclassifiable 75-minute oddity that wanders far off the beaten path into trippy realms, but retains a squirmy sense of humanity thanks to Little and Longstreet’s fine, very lived-in performances. (B)

Elite Squad 2: Elite Squad 2, the top-grossing Brazilian film of all time,defies the conventional wisdom that narration should only be used when absolutely necessary, and then only sparingly. The blockbuster sequel to one of the most successful Brazilian films ever uses wall-to-wall narration to tell not only the story of a dedicated cop (Wagner Moura) intent on bringing down drug lords and cleaning up the slums but also of an entire city poisoned from the inside out by rampant political, press, and police corruption. Elite Squad 2’s broad focus ranges from the highest corridors of power to alleyways where small-time dealers meet undignified deaths at the hands of rival peddlers.

Elite Squad 2 focuses on Moura, a rare honest cop in a Rio De Janero plagued by bloodshed and crime. After a prison riot, Moura finds himself warring on all fronts, battling militias, lefty activists (one of whom married Moura’s ex-wife and serves as a stepfather to his teenage son), and corruption within the force and politicians. Elite Squad 2 boasts a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy and a documentary-style verisimilitude attributable at least partially to the direction of Jose Padilha, who is known on these shores for his acclaimed political documentary Bus 174. As the opening titles allude, Elite Squad 2 offers a thinly fictionalized take on various strains in contemporary Brazilian society, but it never sacrifices entertainment value for social commentary; it’s equal parts electric cop thriller and indignant social commentary, a slick, satisfying combination of style and substance. (B) 

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