Beasts of the Southern Wild(7/14/2012)

Something about loss and tragedy renews the respect people have for the people places and things in our culture that had gone overlooked since their heydays.  Just look at the sales surge that the catalogs of Michael Jackson and Whitney Huston experienced in the wake of their respective deaths.  These two former stars, who the public had dismissed as a pedophile and a crackhead respectively, were suddenly seen as musical treasures once again by a public that was almost embarrassed to have spent so much time focusing solely on the negative aspects of these stars’ lives rather than their talents.  This phenomenon was seen perhaps at its largest scale after the tragedy that befell the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Hundreds of thousands of people who formerly saw New Orleans as little more than the setting for “Girls Gone Wild” videos, were now suddenly aficionados of brass bands and Cajun cuisine.  The gulf coast was now rather sheik, and to some extent that’s a good thing; New Orleans has a tourist economy and they could certainly use the attention.  The thing is, there’s a feeling that things are only going to get worse for that region.  They just got done dealing with the oil spill, the New Orleans crime rate and poverty levels are shameful, and no matter what they’re still going to be living in an area that is at the mercy of the river levels.

The new independent sensation, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a look at a sort of worst case scenario for a group of people living in this region in the not too distant future.  In the world of the film, the polar icecaps have been melting and the Gulf coast has been slowly sinking beneath the water.  The bulk of the story takes place in a section called “The Bathtub,” an elevated section of land that has become an island of sorts surrounded by water.  The audience is not privy to the broader details of all this however, because the bulk of the story is told from the perspective of a six year old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a shack with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and appears to live off of food that’s hunted in the wild.  Though the water is rising and it’s looking increasingly impossible to continue living in “The Bathtub,” but Wink and a handful of other residents in the tight knit community insist that they will never leave their homes.  All of this is made all the more whimsical by Hushpuppy’s vision of her surroundings, which involves other fantasy elements like literal beasts called “aurochs” which are roaming the land and becoming a threat as surroundings become more and more inhospitable.

There’s a certain breed of movie that often comes out of Sundance that I’ve come to call “anthropology movies.”  These are films that get so wrapped up in documenting the lifestyle of some group of poor people in some squalid corner of America that they forget to actually tell a story.  I thought that the good but generally over-rated 2010 drama Winter’s Bone suffered from this to some extent, and I also definitely saw aspects of it in this movie, especially during its first half.  What differentiates the film is that instead of going to rigid authenticity, director Benh Zeitlin has ratcheted up the squalor to almost Harmony Korine levels of depravity.  We see Hushpuppy live in a meager shack with minimal supervision and at one point she even eats dog food in order to live.  It’s pretty rough stuff, though often undercut by Hushpuppy’s general innocence and an odd undercurrent of macabre humor.

I found almost all of the adult characters in the film to be roundly unlikable dickheads, especially Hushpuppy’s father Wink, who insists on staying in “The Bathtub” beyond all reason.  Why these people are so insistent that they remain living in a hellish and poverty stricken area that’s about to be underwater is beyond me, these aren’t New Orleanians creating unique forms of music and culture out of their surroundings, they’re Bayou rednecks living in what most people would call misery.  Zeitlin seems to see a lot more nobility in these people’s lifestyle than I do and beyond a party scene early in the film I don’t think he shows enough of the upside of living in “The Bathtub” in order for the audience to fully understand their motivation to stay.  To his credit Zeitlin does choose to tell the story from the perspective of the one character in this situation who can’t be expected to know better, a six year old, but that decision can be a double edged sword: had the perspective opened up a bit we might have gotten more of the context of the situation and had a better idea of what’s going on in this world and why Wink seems to think it’s such an injustice that he can’t live in a horrible place that’s soon to die.  As it is the film can get really frustrating as we watch Wink and the other adults make horrible decision after horrible decision for reasons that just aren’t clear.

While I never really latched onto the story that’s being told by Beasts of the Southern Wild, I could certainly appreciate some of the filmmaking on display.  Zeitlin does a lot with a small budget and was clearly influenced by Terrence Malick, employing that director’s lyrical camerawork and use of voice-over quite nicely.  He also seamlessly incorporates more fantastical elements like “aurochs,” which are sort of walking symbols for the challenges that Hushpuppy faces in life.  The film also features an excellent score by music producer Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin himself which manages to reflect the bayou setting while also being both intense and whimsical, it’s a score that improves the film immeasurably and many of the film’s images wouldn’t have worked if they were accompanied by lesser musical accompaniment.  There’s also some pretty strong acting to be found from the film’s largely unknown cast.  While I didn’t connect much with his character, Dwight Henry does do a good job portraying Hushpuppy’s father, and while I’m not sure how much credit I want to lay on a six year old for what’s on screen, Quvenzhané Wallis is an interesting presence on screen who manages to function as a main character on screen without seeming “wise beyond her years” in the slightest.

It’s not particularly easy to reach a final judgment on a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild because I can certainly see why a lot of people are going to like it a lot and for good reasons.   It’s a well made film and Benh Zeitlin certainly establishes himself as a talent to watch, but the fact still remains that I never really connected with the movie.  Maybe it’s because I have trouble connecting with films told from the perspective of small children or maybe my city clicker biases led me to be unfairly judgmental towards the film’s characters.  I may need to see the film again before delivering a final personal verdict, but I’m still going to recommend the film to any film-literate audience.  There are moments of excellence to be found in the film that shouldn’t be missed, and as this is sure to be a major point of discussion this year I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from seeing it and coming up with an opinion of their own.

*** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Grey(7/3/2012)

Film lovers follow a different calendar than most people.  Most people think the year begins on January first and ends 365 days later on the next December 31st.  For film fans though (especially the ones who live outside of New York and L.A.) the year doesn’t really end until sometime in late-February/early-March, usually on Oscar Night.  In the time between the end of the calendar-year and the end of the film-year we catch up on all the late year releases that got Academy qualifier runs on the coasts in December before slowly disseminating themselves out to the rubes that live else-where in the country.  It’s usually pretty easy to go along with this skewed schedule given that most January/February releases are pure shit, but every once in a while the studios throw a wrench in the plan by releasing something decent right at the beginning of the year and I end up missing it just because I haven’t transitioned into a mode where I’m ready to think about a new year’s worth of cinema.  Such was the case with The Grey a respectable looking thriller that was put into wide release on January 27th 2012.  Had it come out in late March or April I probably would have been there day one, but instead I was too busy catching up with 2011’s art house releases to even think about doing something like that.  Fortunately we have Home video to catch up with these things in relatively decent time.

The Grey depicts the struggles of a group of oil drillers who are left stranded in the Alaskan wilderness in the wake of a plane crash.  These men, led by a grizzled hunter named John Ottway (Liam Neeson), need to contend with not only the elements but with a pack of wolves whose territory they’ve inadvertently encroached upon.  These wolves begin to attack the survivors, picking them off one by one.  Concluding that these wolves are not hunting so much as protecting their territory, John decides that the men’s best shot at survival is to leave the crash site behind and travel into the nearby woods.  What follows is a wilderness adventure that will have these characters on the brink of life and death for the rest of the film.

If nothing else, The Grey is the salvation of Joe Carnahan, a director who showed a lot of promise with his Hollywood debut Narc, but who proceeded to make a bunch of over-caffeinated Hollywood dreck like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team.  Here Carnahan uses his talents for good rather than evil, he hasn’t discarded any of his energy or his eye for action, but here they’re in service of an actual story with actual weight rather than a mindless (and soulless) product meant for thirteen year old kids.  That’s not to say that this is some kind of intellectual arthouse movie, just that it takes itself seriously and has some ambitions beyond mindless action scenes and endless effects sequences interrupted by the occasional one-liner.  Specifically the movie has this aura of doom and impending mortality running throughout it.  John begins the film borderline suicidal and it begins to feel like his adventure is some sort of metaphorical purgatory, which is a big part of why the behavior of the wolves is kind of ridiculous; these aren’t animals, they’re demons which haunt John and the other men.  Of course I don’t think that the movie is any kind of literal afterlife or dream sequence, just that the adventure acts as a psychological as well as physical journey and that not everything in the movie should necessarily be taken literally.

Often I’m confronted by people who tell me I shouldn’t be so hard on underachieving action movies because “they’re not trying to win Oscars.”  Usually I tell them to look at the movie Jaws, a film about a silly concept like shark attacks, but which was elevated to the level of a classic because it was made by a director who did everything in his power to make it the best damn shark movie it could possibly be.  The Grey certainly doesn’t approach the lofty heights of that seminal film, but it comes a hell of a lot closer than most wilderness survival/animal attack movies.

***1/2 out of Four

Moonrise Kingdom(6/17/2012)

Maybe I just needed to take a break from Wes Anderson, or maybe he just needed a break from us.  His style seemed so remarkably fresh and delightful when I first watched Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums back in high school, and I’ll stand by both of those movies until the end of time.  After that though, my love of Anderson hit a serious drought.  I thought The Life Aquatic was an over indulgent mess, a film whose visual style was intricately designed but whose human story seemed shallow and distant from any real human experience.  I didn’t like The Darjeeling Limited any better, largely because I found its characters completely unlikable and that their journey went absolutely nowhere (though admittedly, I might have to give that one a second chance).  I skipped his 2009 stop-motion effort The Fantastic Mr. Fox out of my usual biases against family films (yes, I’ll catch up with it someday), so I hadn’t seen a new Anderson film since 2007.  I don’t know if it’s because that five year wait has made me more receptive to his work or if he just needed five years between live action efforts, but I’ve got to say, I’m charmed all over again and I’m not exactly sure why.

Many of Wes Anderson’s films have drawn upon the music and aesthetic of the 1960s, but this is the first of his films to actually be set in that decade.  It is not, however, set in a swinging “hippie” city; rather, it’s set on a New England Island with a distinctly small-town/rural feel to it.  Our protagonists are Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a pair of precocious twelve year olds who’ve bonded because both feel misunderstood within their respective households.  Suzy is the daughter of a pair of bickering lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who don’t respond well to her moody and detached behavior, while Sam is an orphan living in a foster home, and in spite of his meek and somewhat nerdy looks he still finds himself in the middle of a whole lot of mischief.  Early in the film Sam runs away from his tent in a “Khaki Scout” camp, to the distress of his troop leader, an enthusiastic math teacher named Randy Ward (Edward Norton).  It becomes apparent that Suzy has also fled home and that the two plan to rendezvous in the woods and flee further (their endgame isn’t entirely clear).  Suzy’s parents and scoutmaster Ward contact the island police chief Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Ward sends the rest of the scouts out into the woods to track the two children, who head deeper and deeper into the woods to some unknown destination.

The notion of running away from home as a sort of character-building adventure seems like a sort of relic of a bygone era, which is probably a big part of why Anderson chose to overtly set his film forty-some years ago.  It’s a story-arc that harkens back to the days when young protagonists like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn could spend days on end independently going on river-rafting adventures and the concerns of their parents could be sort of an afterthought.  To Anderson’s credit, these character’s somewhat unusual travel plans make perfect sense within the context of the film.  Anderson perfectly expresses why these character’s would feel alienated in their homes and how they’d bond in spite of their somewhat divergent personalities.  The story is somewhat reminiscent of the relationship between Margot and Richie Tenenbaum in the flashback sequences of The Royal Tenenbaums; and while that film would go on to show how such a relationship would not necessarily benefit these characters in the long term, this film focuses more on the feelings of his characters in the moment.

Anderson tells the story of these children from a distinctly childlike perspective in which seemingly small things feel more important than they really are.  For instance, Sam prepares for his adventure meticulously and comes equipped with all sorts of survival techniques that he learned from the Khaki Scouts.  Does he need all this stuff for a two day trip through the woods in temperate weather?  No, but to him this is the adventure of a lifetime and he feels like it’s a matter of life and death.  Similarly, both Suzy and Sam take their puppy love relationship way too seriously and seem to think that they’re going to be together forever.  As an audience we know this is ridiculous, but the kids don’t know that and Anderson doesn’t depict their feelings in a condescending way.  In fact much of the audience’s enjoyment of the film likely depends on their ability to sympathize with these characters rather than judge them.  Make no mistake, this movie is earnest in a way that only a Wes Anderson movie can be, and if you go into it ready to accept a certain amount of sincerity, the movie is not going to reward you.

Those expecting some new stylistic ground to be broken by Anderson will probably be disappointed with what they see here, but that presupposes that anything was necessarily broken in the first place.  Anderson’s camera angles are as meticulously planned out as ever, and the New England island the film is set on is every bit as whimsical as any other location you’re likely to see in one of Anderson’s films.  The sets are a bit less meticulous than they have been in films like The Life Aquatic, but that’s largely a function of the film’s rural locations.  One clear divergence is that the film is much less reliant on popular music than some of Anderson’s previous films.  There are a couple of old Hank Williams tracks used to emphasize the outdoors adventure elements and some odd “classical music for children” records are featured, but most of the music in the film comes from an original score by Alexandre Desplat.  This score largely plays into the whimsy of the film, giving it a sort of ethereal fairy tale feel.

This fairy tale feeling becomes especially apparent late in the film when the story increasingly diverges from reality and into some rather absurd territory.  If I have any complaints about the film it’s this material as well as some of the sections earlier in the film when it cuts to the adult characters.  These adult characters at times act every bit a childish as the children and these sections in many ways felt increasingly like some of the lesser material in Wes Anderson’s last couple of films.  Still, I can’t help but feel like this was a return to form for Anderson, even if it never quite reaches the heights of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Truth be told, I don’t know that it’s ever going to be possible for Anderson to recapture the magic he was able to find when making those two movies, but I’ve come to the point where I’m ready to accept the next best thing.  This movie will not impress those who’ve never been in Anderson’s camp to begin with, but for people like me who’ve liked his style in the past but become disillusioned, this is worth checking out.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Woman in Black(6/27/2012)

For those who’ve only heard the name in passing, Hammer Films was a British production that rose to a certain level of prominence in the late fifties and sixties, largely on the back a series of horror films based around characters popularized by Hollywood in the thirties like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy.  These films, which made semi-stars out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, were not what you’d call fine cinema even by the often low standards of the horror movie.  In short they were B-movies, and most of their appeal lied in the fact that they were slightly bloodier than their 1930s ancestors and that they were in “living color.”  That’s not to say that they didn’t have a certain charm all their own and they have a fan-base to this day because of it.  The studio closed sometime in the seventies but the “Hammer” name still has nostalgia value to many, and so it’s been revived to extend its trademarked charming mediocrity into the 21st century and their latest film is a low-key chiller called The Woman in Black.

The classic horror story that The Woman in Black most closely resembles is probably Dracula in that both stories begin with young English lawyers traveling to remote houses in remote villages in order to conduct business.  The protagonist in the movie, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), does not need to go all the way to Transylvania; he just needs to go to Northeast England to oversee the sale of a reclusive widow’s house.  He’s doing this with a heavy heart, however, because he’s only a few years out from his wife having died in child birth and this is seen as a make or break assignment from his law firm, which is losing patience with his grief.  When he arrives in the village he finds that something is amiss, the villagers seem to be trying to shoo him away as fast as possible, which only makes him more anxious to see what they’re trying to hide.  Once he finds his way to the house he gets the sense that he’s not alone, and in the distance he sees the figure of a woman in full grief regalia staring back at him.  He dismisses this sight at first, but soon he’ll come to regret having laid eyes upon it.

I’m probably not giving away too much when I say that this ghostly woman in black is the widow who lived in that haunted house and that she’s been haunting the village as revenge for some sort of past wrong.  Truth be told, this is a film that will feel extremely familiar to anyone who’s been seeing like-minded horror films recently.  The basic story structure adds almost nothing to what we saw to varying degrees of success in films like The Orphanage and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: we’ve got the emotionally haunted hero, the ghost who’s miffed about some mysterious slight in their past, all leading up to a climax where the hero tries to satiate the ghost’s thirst for revenge.  Most of the actual scares take either the form of the “creepy thing that emerges in front of (or behind) the hero” or the “sudden jump scare that emerges right when you’re most on edge.”  Neither of these scene constructions are necessarily bad things, but you can only go to that well so many times and they aren’t nearly as effective at the film’s end as they are early in the film.  This makes me better appreciate a film like The Innkeepers which was much more efficient at keeping its cards close to the table and only playing them at the most opportune moments.

Flawed though it may be, you probably can do much worse than The Woman in Black if you’re looking for a horror film.  It’s many of its beats are clichéd, but they aren’t nearly as clichéd as something like a slasher movie full of horny doomed teenagers.  The titular woman is a pretty good villain for the whole piece and Daniel Radcliffe proves to be a fairly workable lead.  As such this is a pretty good bet for an evening rental, just don’t expect it to re-invent anything or really frighten you in any kind of deep or primal way, it’s just a fun little diversion.

*** out of Four