Ruthless mobsters crack down hard on barkeeps, strong arming their way into seizing every bar in town. When they mess with Jo Lee-Haywood, the too cocky gangsters messed with the wrong Southern gal as Jo turns out to be Jo Pickings, one of three dames of the notorious Pickings gang. Jo tries to abide by a straighten arrow inspired by her deceased husband and four kids, but crime tugs at her violent past, scraping the good from her clean off. With the help of her brother, Boone, and her sisters, Doris and May, Jo and her family of heavily armed outlaws aim to fight back against thugs and thieves in this modern day western.
“Pickings” is the freshman film of first time feature film producer, writer, and director Usher Morgan. The contemporary gritty western is a maelstrom of goliath turf wars that’s stylized with rotoscoping and other comic book fatigues to dress Morgan’s film as an aesthetically popping story with illustrative visuals, anomalies, and raw tooth violence. The clear cut message, a fairly popular thematic motif among westerns, is don’t mess with family, even if family has been through an estranged time, and though Morgan’s theme runs a fairly conventional line, the “Sin City”-esque overlay gives “Pickings” a strong double take. What’s an especially fun and unique concept is having one of the characters, Sam “Hollywood” Barone, be exhibited in black and white while everyone else is in color as if the character was pulled straight from a Humphrey Bogart classic.
Elyse Price headlines as Jo-Lee Haywood, a wife-mother scorned by notorious gangsters, but the tough as nails mother of four runs a tight-ship when it comes to her bar and to her family. Price doesn’t hold back, taking the gut-checking hits and delivering a twice as big response with a performance of contempt and revenge. Price is joined by Joel Bernard, the sole brother of the Pickens gang whose as tough as they come, especially when you’re the only boy with three sisters. Bernard does the job matching Price’s hard nose character with his own more subtle version. The two other sisters, Doris and May played by Michelle Holland and Lynne Jordan, barely scratch the surface in an appearance that makes their characters difficult to absorb. Aside from Jo Lee-Haywood, the only other character with a significant character arc is her daughter Scarlet Lee-Haywood filled in by Katie Vincent. Vincent’s softens up against her mother’s violence despite being a passive witness to her cornered brutality, but can adhere to the akin familiarities of her family’s long and violent history. The cast rounds out with Yaron Urbas, who in my opinion is a decent mobster, Michael Gentile, and Emil Ferzola.
“Pickings” doesn’t come without problems and one of the problems is is the story concludes on a really too clean note. The inner monologuing exposition of Jo Lee-Haywood conveying her start-to-finish tale of her involvement with the three dames, Doris, May, and Jo, is a good visual like the rest of the Morgan’s film, but is just that, a good visual, and doesn’t carry the weight of suspense and becomes even more diluted when Doris and May have little interaction with Jo and barely any screen time at all to put the oomph into conveying their badassness. Aside from being obvious and telling, the gun blazing finale is also a bit underwhelming and disappointing, chocking everything to a one sided victory without any, or the hope of any, dire loss to compensate just feels empty and, again, too clean for comfort.
Courtesy of Dark Passage Films comes “Pickings” onto DVD and Blu-ray home video. The DVD is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio that capture the neo-noir facets of shadowing figures and haunting mysteries. Morgan’s film doesn’t necessary pop with color, but that’s particularly the nature of the genre. Aside from that, no real issue with the DVD transfer. The audio is a stereo option that has an ample dialogue track and a stocky ambient accompaniment. Katie Vincent’s bootlickin’ acoustical score never wavers, cracks, or looses range. Extras include deleted scenes, filmmakers’ commentary, “The Mop” a Pickings short, a behind the scenes featurette, and a spoof reel during the end credits. Loaded with female empowerment, “Pickings” is a violent crime drama with neo-noir battle garments of two warring clans ready to get along like the Hatfields and McCoys, but the undercutting finale puts a sharp spur in one’s couch melding backside, leaving much to be desired from a women scorned vendetta.
Brothers Todd and Vernon Dopple are a pair of homeless drifters in New York City. To beat the cold city weather, they take shelter in an abandoned run-down building only to stumble into a dark and dank Devil worshipping den where vicious demons, tortuous succubi, and a psychological terror have chosen the brothers in order to re-awaken the Devil.
“Awaken the Devil” is not a fast-paced, on-the-edge of your seat demonic thriller and, you know what, that’s okay. Director Daniel Falicki’s combination of live-action and overlapping animation marks some spectacular rotoscope-esque filmmaking, think “A Scanner Darkly” or “Waking Life”, that looks really cinematically neat on screen with unique visual effects especially of the hovering demonic succubi. Without the animation, I fear that “Awaken the Devil” would suffer greatly from the film’s slow, but not too terribly slow, pace as the characters do a lot of wandering around the city without any direction until the day ends and the night begins. Luckily, we’re stuck with entertaining and passionate actors.
The two main actors, Jason Roth as the wheel-chair bound mute Vernon and Matt Simpson Siegel as his drug addicted and cynical brother Todd, sold us hard on their performances. Roth delivers a powerful silent performance and uses remarkable versatile facial expressions that goes above and beyond the budget of this film. Siegel is given loads of dialogue (nature of the beast when you’re character’s brother lacks a voice box) and sometimes resembles more of a rambling rant about his historical envious and predominantly jealousness, sometimes melancholic, of his brother. However, the dialogue is much more than just words on paper and the film revolves around this dialogue between the two brothers creating an underlying layer that is deeply involved than just some mindless succubi leaching the life of two homeless souls.
Overall, I would recommend at least one viewing of this Sector 5 and Rotomation Studios film. Just beware than after the first five minutes of great introductions and musical track from The March Violets, you might want to be doing something else between then and when run-down building. Don’t be discouraged; “Awaken the Devil” is a well edited, well directed, and well animated film that is unique and certainly haunting.
Audria Larsen – See-through breasts – Audria Larsen is the first succubus that enters the scene and latches itself on to Todd. Audria’s scene is brief, but as she’s floating above Todd, there is a quick glimpses of her chest through a see-thru top. She’s also involved a “ghost” sex scene with Todd where she cowboy rides him until she reveals her true self. Audria Larsen is a burlesque/circus art model for Model Mayhem under the moniker Vivacious Miss Audacious and Larsen is also fairly good at hula-hooping and suspension which she tackles on a little bit in the film. It’s a sexy scene, but there rotoscope animation makes it a bit murky to full grasp Larsen’s assets. Grade: D