Shotgun Stories

Channeling David Gordon Green and using his cinematographer, Shotgun Stories is an excellent breakout film by Jeff Nichols about two sets of sons of a now-reformed alcoholic bastard of a father, who finally meet. At first it sounds like a redneck joke, but give it a chance. Michael Shannon plays Son- wearing scars from a shotgun blast on his back and simmering with unrequited rage. His brothers are Boy- a likeable basketball coach who lives, as they say, in a van down by the river- and Kid, the youngest and most lost of the three. He lives in a tent on Son’s lawn. But he’s got a girl he wants to marry someday. Their names make evident how little they were cared about by their runaway father and their “hateful woman” of a mother. We meet them through quiet, muted vignettes of their poor, common lives- working at fish farms, trying to run an air conditioner off a car battery, holding court on the front porch. It could be a joke on Arkansas if it wasn’t handled by someone who grew up there.
One day mom shows up to tell them their Dad has died. In a brief scene we learn all there is to know about their past. “When’s the funeral?” “You can find out in the paper.” “You going?” “No.” Well, Son and his bothers do go, and find their father’s new family grieving over his coffin. Son says that whatever good he did after he left them will never erase all the wrongs he committed, and spits on the corpse, sparking a blood feud. The “new family” only knew a loving father, and is outraged; the first set of boys only knows an abusive monster.
It does not spiral into a revenge or rednexploitation film from here, even though it easily could. If anything, it resembles the excellent Dead Man’s Shoes, but is much more reserved. Amazingly, first time actors- especially “Boy,” and “Shampoo,” a local instigator who seems to treat the two sets of sons like ants to make fight- hold up to Michael Shannon’s organic ability and piercing eyes. If you thought he stole the show in Revolutionary Road you owe it to yourself to rent this.
Like Green’s All the Real Girls and George Washington, Nichols’ Shotgun Stories deftly captures the feeling of small town rural life, and makes us pay fierce attention to its subtle maneuverings. This is one of the best overlooked films of last year and encapsulates the pain of being wronged, and the difficulty of coming to peace with it. The film does not end as you might expect, and even when no one’s inner rage is bursting forth, it’s a good time sitting with these boys. And if you pay close attention, you’ll learn the shotgun story.

Pineapple Express

What if Terence Malick decided to make a stoner action comedy? Well, that didn’t happen. But David Gordon Green, a director heavily influenced by him, who made the excellent and acclaimed George Washington, has done so. Under the auspices of producer Judd Apatow, the film still has the frenetic buddy comedy framework of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but has the unique look of David Gordon Green’s movies, and the loving setting of depressed urban backdrops behind the hilarious character-based comedy dealt out by Seth Rogan, James Franco, and Danny McBride.

The plot is simple- Seth Rogan plays Dale, a process server who’s also a hardcore pothead, who drives around down serving subpoenas and toking all day (And thankfully, this Judd Apatow movie has subpoenas and no gratuitous “poenas”). After he picks up some new Hawaiian weed from his dealer Saul, he goes to serve a subpoena on someone and sees a murder, and ends up running from the killers for the rest of the movie. It’s that simple. Of course he heads back to Saul’s place to hide and the buddy movie begins, with Rogan playing a slightly more jumpy version of his usual film persona and James Franco giving the best slurring stoner with hilarious epiphanies since Brad Pitt sat on the couch with a honey bear bong in True Romance. He manages to craft a character I hadn’t seen him play before, but I’m told is not a far cry from work he did with Rogan in “Freaks & Geeks.” They have great chemistry together and that is what makes the film- against the backdrop of cinematographer Tim Orr’s visuals- rise above the pack.

The rest of the cast include familiar faces like the creepy guy and the violent guy from the party in Superbad, the doorman from Knocked Up, and Danny McBride in one of his funniest roles as a middleman dealer named Red. McBride has been in both Apatow flicks (Drillbit Taylor) and David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls), and his own film which didn’t get great distribution, The Foot Fist Way (it comes to DVD at the end of September). Plus we have Lumberg from Office Space as the bad guy, Rosie Perez as a crooked cop, and Ed Begley Jr. in his best role in years as Dale’s girlfriend’s Dad.

Drug movies can be hit or miss; while Saul and Dale are high out of their minds for much of the film, their bumbling stupidity while sober keeps the comic energy flowing. The infamous car chase, definitely funnier than Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny‘s, rivals those of the Arkin-Falk classic The In-laws. Once again, Seth Rogan crafts a hilarious screenplay that feels like a late-’70s/early ’80s romp updated. The third act, which follows the buddy cop formula so closely that it reminded me of the first Lethal Weapon, and definitely knows it- there’s a shot where someone gets caught in a ju-jitsu triangle choke just like how Riggs kills the torturer.
Pineapple Express keeps the humor full on even as people get shot left and right while dodging through hydroponic pot gardens, and never gets serious even when we think it will. I enjoyed that more than the typical comedy script that turns dramatic to pull heartstrings; we have emotion invested in Dale, Red and Saul by the end of the movie and we don’t need a tearful interlude to force it. Rogan’s script and Green’s direction are smart enough to know this and veer away from formula in this regard. For a film geek, it was great seeing Green’s Malick-esque shots of the boys cavorting in the woods, or seeing iconic neighborhood people in the corners as they talk on grimy payphones. I didn’t think it was as funny as Superbad or as thrilling as Lethal Weapon, but it was engaging as hell to see the stoner buddy comedy get tossed with the buddy action film plot in a way we haven’t seen since the Cheech & Chong movies, and done so much better.

3.5 tokes out of 4, and don’t Bogart it, dude.