PICKINGS— 4 STARS
The title of Usher Morgan’s raving romp Pickings might be name of its town setting, but it calls to mind its dictionary definition of “something, especially money, that can be obtained from a particular situation in an easy or a dishonest way.” Watching the death-dealing retribution and grudge-settling on display definitely shows the dishonesty part, but you will find nothing easy enough to be called “pickings.” Oozing all kinds of artistic flamboyance and crimson damage, this film is a straight punch to the face that has to swing hard to to knock you out. Like any punch, the hand delivering it stings as much as the cheek that receiving it. Sure enough, Pickings is a punch you’ll take and ask for another. It lands on VOD platforms on August 10th.
Springboarding from a introduction card displaying Isoroku Yamamoto’s famous post-Pearl Harbor quote of “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” the determination here is smaller than wartime stakes, yet hotter and seedier in terror. Trade the “him” in that quote for a her because the individual meting out the punishment is flaxen-haired beauty Joe Lee-Haywood, played by Elyse Price in her feature debut. The fact that she wears spurred boots below the drape of her red dresses ought to tell you something about this tougher-than-tough cookie.
LESSON #1: DON’T F — K WITH A PERSON’S PLACE OF BUSINESS — Even the worst seemingly hard-luck depressed or devil-may-care surly tavern owner will fight tooth and nail to keep their s — thole theirs. It’s their livelihood, no matter how unkempt or non-glamorous the establishment appears to be.
Joe is no different as she berates a bloodied mobster Jimmy Marcone (Joe Trombino) she has tied up after he and his greasy “do-you-know-who-I-am” superior Momo (Michael Gentile) tried to usurp control of her watering hole. Shot in noirish shadows by director of photography Louis Obioha, her sermonizing to grill this prisoner on pain and pleasure succeeds in proving her mettle and rattling our cages. Meet the woman you don’t mess with, backed by her cowboy brother-in-law Boone Pickens (Joel Bernard, channeling a little Timothy Olyphant in good measure). The mobsters above this lieutenant, namely the black-and-white tinted #2 Sam “Hollywood” Barone (Yaron Urbas) and the cigar-chomping top-of-the-heap “Big Don” Leo DeVitto (Emil Ferzola), have the gaul to keep on pressing.
LESSON #2: DON’T F — K WITH A WOMAN’S FAMILY — Boy, did those crooks ever cross the line. Joe Lee-Haywood has been scarred by loss in the past. Rather than fold, she fought back with womanly rage, pulling triggers and piling bodies until the revenge was satiated. She has since tried to raise a family and groom her oldest daughter Scarlett (Katie Vincent) to take over the bar, making this bar and instilling responsible strength pieces of legacy more than just wage-earning activities. Joe sees herself as a proverbial demon queen and is ready to call on that violent level of vengeance again.
LESSON #3: INTOLERABLE PAIN THRESHOLDS — Calling back to that first interrogation, Joe’s constant threats when pushed and cornered center on the limits people have matching his lesson. She is fascinated on why people do what they do for gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. Everyone has a breaking point for physical, mental, and spiritual agony before insanity poisons the willpower. Joe has learned to target that and demonstrates how her own is tremendously higher than that of her opposition.
Equal to the family affair in the film, all hands are on deck in front of and behind the camera as the creative cinematic bartenders collaborating on this choice cocktail. It all starts with Usher Morgan, working as writer, director, editor, and visual effects supervisor. Hooked arm-to-arm with him are multi-talented people and short film specialists showing off their esteemed efforts on a bigger challenge. Price doubles as the costume supervisor, Bernard is a musician and coordinates the stunts, and Vincent does the rotoscoping, the musical score of taut suspense, and contributes several strong vocal numbers to the soundtrack. Add in the stellar makeup work from Tiffanylee Adorno and Catrina Grieco, and you can’t help but appreciated DIY commitment and grassroots collaboration this rich and rewarding.
For a microbudget film, the heightened sense of style of Pickings is off the charts. The palette of this little flick is like a Sunday morning special bloody mary topped with endless spears of gaudy garnishments, all of which step up the basic drink into something tantalizingly irresistible. The exciting and energetic use and whip-crack editing of coloration highlights, black-and-white effects, blurs, burns, freeze frames, and dissolves all blend noir, western, and crime motifs in a very defined way. One of the most bracing elements are the animated layovers illustrated by the team of Justin Johnson, Elaina Crockett, and David Cole that provide both spark and illusion. Film fans may see a heaping spoonful of Tarantino, a dash of Rodriguez, and a pinch of Roth in homage portions, but Pickings stands for itself just fine, without overplaying a single trope, even with a soft middle third of family dynamics between the fiery bookends. No matter how it spins, this is delicious and glorious pulp on pulp all for meaty menace.
The substance backs up the style. Like his heroine, Pickings relishes its “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” choices. This do-it-all filmmaker went for it and won’t be caught in damnation. Hit me again, Usher Morgan. Hit me again!
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#719)