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.

29. Hatchet

Schlocktoberfest #29: Hatchet

Decent slasher set in the Louisiana swamp, paying homage to its predecessors but unfortunately not improving on them with its ending. But at least until then, it’s some good bloody fun! Some Mardi Gras-goers want to go on a haunted swamp tour- while I’ve seen ghost tours and swamp tours, I’ve never heard of combining them. But who cares, it’s a great reason to get nerdy Ben, his funny black buddy, and the mysterious girl into the swamp for some killin’. And not just with a Hatchet, neither.

The low-rent tour guide, an Asian fella in vampire gear, and his customers end up in a “forbidden” part of the swamp home to Victor Crowley, a deformed behemoth who was tormented as a child, and whose own father accidentally chopped him in the face with a hatchet while trying to rescue him from their burning home. Vic sorta got a chip on his shoulder after that, and now he kills everyone who enters his swamp. But he’s the origin of the term hatchet face, apparently.

He’s a huge musclebound hunchback with a face like Arseface from the Preacher comics, and he hacks, chainsaws, and neck-snaps his way through the tourists as they flee piggledy wiggledy through the swamp. It’s cheese with blood intermingled, sort of like port wine cheddar spread, and pretty entertaining for gore fans. Vic hacks up the “Jump to Conclusions” guy from Office Space, he rips a gal’s jaw off, he saws another woman’s jaw off with a chainsaw. He has something against jawbones. He kills Joel Murray (One Crazy Summer) too, but I think his jaw gets a pass.

Our plucky heroes fight back with guns, fire, spears and one-liners, but like Jason before him, he doesn’t like staying dead. Kane Hodder, the guy under Jason’s mask, plays Victor in make-up; Victor’s Dad without- Robert “Freddy” Englund is an early victim; and Tony “Candyman” Todd plays a voodoo huckster, so the movie is more of a jokey homage than real horror. But it’s good fun, and while the ending was predictable and nothing new, it’s a decent watch. Good fun for slasher fans but probably a bit bloody for anyone else. And don’t piss on gators. They’ll try to bite your sack.

In Honor of Bigfoot: The Legend of Boggy Creek

I dunno if you heard, but they found Bigfoot. (He was cruising in Elvis’s UFO). Apparently some dudes down in Georgia found a body of a large hairy beast in the swamps known to harbor Skunk Ape, the stinky sasquatch of the South. Unfortunately when they thawed out the freezer with the body, it turned out to be a rubber suit. Big surprise there. Despite finding possum and human DNA in the samples they gave for testing. It looks like someone decided to stuff roadkill in a suit and pull a hoax, but they made a big splash, and who doesn’t love a good hoax? I sure do.

Frozen rubber suit and some roadkill = media bonanza

Growing up in the ’70s, there was a huge Sasquatch vibe. Bigfoot captured the perfect combination of budding environmentalism and mystery needed to soothe the malaise borne of enormous collars and paisley prints, and the creeping realization that our country was becoming a garbage-covered shithole. The idea of an angry ape in the woods, pissed off at us throwing Chunky bar wrappers and empty cans of Tab on his turf, was a tempting one. Maybe he would beat up Richard Nixon, stomp a Japanese car, and throttle an oil sheik, and we’d be number one again.

Six Million Dollar Man and his lover

There were a lot of Pissed Off Nature movies in the ’70s- grizzlies, piranhas, sharks, ants, spiders, whales, frogs, worms, snakes, alligators, and even killer bunny rabbits were all out to get us. Why not sasquatch? In 1973 a quasi-documentary called The Legend of Boggy Creek was made as a low-budget labor of love by Charles Pierce and Earle Smith, who also gave us the eerie docudrama The Town That Dreaded Sundown, about a Zodiac-esque killer who haunted Texarkana in the ’40s. This came first, and was perfect drive-in fare; it became a huge hit, making $20 million when movies cost 50 cents. The Godfather only made $134 million! It even inspired The Blair Witch Project with its shaky camera style.
The story told by the narrator is of when he was a child in the ’40s, of the Fouke Monster– an apelike creature sighted in “the Bottoms” swampland where Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas meet. It’s a haunting area, memorably depicted in Joe R. Lansdale’s novel The Bottoms, which isn’t about Skunk Ape but you can imagine the beast of Boggy Creek lurking in this area. The movie is more of a nostalgic documentary on rural swamp town life with occasional appearances by a huge hairy beast in the woods that’s probably a bear. While it never approaches the documentarian mastery of Louisiana Story or the like, it has a down home charm to it, because many of the people who claim to have seen the creature play themselves re-enacting the sighting, or daily life.

A simpler time, when Indians didn’t cry by the river.

Folk songs written for the film, such as “The Ballad of Travis Crabtree,” about a young swamp hunter who’ll remind you of Huckleberry Finn, give it a “Grizzly Adams” vibe. My favorite is “Where the Creature Goes,” where we hear the singer pine for the creature’s “lonely cries ringing out over his watery domain.”

How I miss his lonesome cry.

The Boss-Man and I watched it one night, and it is definitely a window back to the early ’70s. Nowadays the closest you’ll get to this is stuff like “Ghost Hunters” on television, where someone recounts a spooky tale while the camera creeps around with night-vision on, and some low-budget effect recreates what they claim they saw right before they pooped their pants. The beast may be a guy in a suit, but they keep him shrouded in the dark woods where only his silhouette can be seen, and the first-time actors do a fine job of being themselves and then shitting bricks. One fellow says he took aim but wasn’t sure if it was an animal or a man, and didn’t want it on his conscience.

I don’t have any beef jerky, dude!

So why are there still bigfoot hunters out there, even though the hoaxer who created the famous “walking ape” footage admitted it on his deathbed? It’s something we’d like to believe in. I know I wish we had wild man-apes cavorting in the woods. Or something undiscovered. Cryptozoologists like to remind us that the okapi was “undiscovered” until 1902, despite natives insisting that it was out there, but that was in Africa, a much wilder place.

The sequels to The Legend of Boggy Creek were Mystery Science Theatre 3000 material, but the original has a sort of hokey, low-budget charm to it. Can you imagine an era when something like this would gross 25% as much as something like The Godfather? Well, I guess it still works; The Blair Witch Project made a bundle, was shot on a shoestring and based on vague folktales. I only saw it years later because the Discovery channel ad campaign rubbed me the wrong way. But nowadays when you hike in the woods, you’ll joke more about the witch than the sasquatch. Or maybe manbearpig.

Unseen DVD Blogathon: Steel Magnolias

I hate family comedy-dramas. I’d rather put my balls in a waffle iron than watch stuff like Dan in Real Life and The Family Stone again. So when I was invited to partake in this blogathon where I would have to watch something I’d normally pass on, I went to Firecracker for advice. We’d already conquered the Romantic Comedy; there are plenty of good rom-coms out there. I’ll even admit to liking Bridget Jones’ Diary enough to watch it twice. (Maybe I’m a little gay for Hugh Grant; note to self: never dress like a transvestite prostitute around Hugh Grant) So that left the family comedy-drama, where laughter and tears meld into a melange of happy misery.

Where women go to curl up and dye.

I like me a good sad film. Like any boy raised in the 70’s, one of the first times I cried was at the end of Brian’s Song; but show me a Hollywood family, who all seem to be Kennedy-fetish New Englanders in big sweaters with huge summer houses on lakes, and so much money that they need to invent their own misery by falling in love with married people, or boating in bad weather, or playing Krokeno, and I just can’t be bothered to care about them. I thought Steel Magnolias was the same sort of story transplanted to the South; boy was I wrong. It is certainly tailored to be a laugh-a-minute, down-home comedy tempered with tragedy, but it fits so comfily you don’t seem to mind.

Gen-u-ine Cajun Dancing

The story centers on ladies who meet at through Truvy, the town beautician. You’ve got insanely crabby ‘Ouise (Shirley MacLaine); gossipy and demure Clairee (Olympia Dukakis); straitlaced mom M’Lynn (Sally Field) and her soon-to-be-wed daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts); Dolly Parton as Truvy, and Daryl Hannah as Anelle, her jittery new employee. The movie begins on Shelby’s wedding day and traverses the seasons as we slowly learn that she has a dangerous form of diabetes; Daryl Hannah’s husband is on the lam and has left her penniless; and Dolly’s hubbie Spud (Sam Shepherd) is a depressed lump who barely talks when he’s not away on the oil rigs. Sally Field’s husband, Tom Skerrit, is a bit wacky- shooting fireworks into the trees to rid the yard of pigeons, for a birdshit-free wedding day- but he’s an okay guy, when he’s not tormenting Ouise’s dog. The men aren’t bad, just… slight. You know, like the women in most male-centric movies. Shelby’s new husband Jackson (Dylan McDermott) is a smart-ass, but decent enough; he wants kids, and marries her pledging they’ll adopt- since the docs say it’s too dangerous for her to have kids; but of course, she decides to anyway.

The gals

So you can see where this is going; the movie picks up a year later when little Jackson Jr. turns one, and the fiery and funny ladies’ personalities collide like pinballs, with witty lines aflutter. It’s based on a stage play but only the device of measuring time by the seasons in the set decoration really carries over, and perhaps the preponderance of sharp dialogue, which can hardly be held against it. If the film has one flaw, it’s that when the inevitable tragedy finally occurs, and M’Lynn gives a heartfelt and painful speech, asking God the always unanswered, single-word question, “Why?,” we are given too little time for the ache to sink in before the laughs resume. The characters are eternal, well-written and well-played; we see each woman’s life move on; a grandson here, a crabby lady finding that her dog isn’t company enough, there; Truvy coming to terms with her husband, and Anelle finding someone who’s not perfect, but will at least be there for her. In the end, it’s a satisfying movie, and the predictably painful ending is deftly shrouded so we forget that we know it must occur.

M’Lynn’s speech

There’s plenty of humor throughout the film- we get to see Shirley MacLaine bluster through scenes like a force of nature, and insert herself into a football locker room scene so she can peer in her compact; watching her spar with M’Lynn’s husband Drum (Tom Skerritt) never gets dull. What they lack in wit they make up for with sharp tongues. The witticisms fly plenty, and we know Anelle is fully inducted into the group when she finally makes a smart-ass comment.

Shirl eyeing the boudin

The film was based on the playwright’s sister’s life, and set in the small town of Natchitoches in Louisiana. They try to keep things authentic, and include a local Christmas festival, Cajun dancing at the wedding, without overdoing the accents or heaping on too much lagniappe as is Hollywood tradition. I’ve heard it compared to Fried Green Tomatoes, and while it doesn’t have the same story structure, it does have the same homespun feel, like The Shawshank Redemption; we know what will happen, we know it will be satisfying, but the storytelling and characters are good enough to distract us along the way. There’s not a lot for guys to relate to her, but it’s a good story; and it had me wanting to scare birds out of trees by shooting fireworks into them with a crossbow, which is a definite plus.

Something I must try.

P.S. I cried, and only found my balls later, under the couch, where the cat had been playing with them. I had to watch Scent of a Woman and a few 70’s crime films to reattach them.