Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Of Buddies and Beasts

My original buddy, Brian, is back for this one and hopefully many more. We knew pretty little about Beasts of the Southern Wild going in, which meant for that much more to delightfully stumble upon. Enjoy!

Brian's Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern wild is wonderfully strange and ambitious.

It's odd then to write about the film's influences. It can even look like avoiding a difficult film. Yet, watching it, I couldn't shake the sense that this movie was consciously setting itself in relation with two of contemporary cinema's most idiosyncratic and philosophical filmmakers: Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog. What's more, the film's final act seemed to offer an alternative vision of the world. So in a clumsy way, here is what I'm thinking about (still) in response to this movie.

First Malick, the more overt influence. In Beasts as in Days of Heaven, a young girl with a nearly incomprehensible accent narrates in voice-over a tale of adult relationships. Her voice is naive but philosophical. By narrating a story that is beyond her, she makes the relationships less familiar, more visible, and she comes of age. Stylistically, Malick's influence is strong: the subjective camera that parallels the child's point-of-view while maintaining one of its own; the lyricism of the imagery; the interest in natural landscapes; all of these are emblematic of Malick's recent films. The allegorical side-story of the prehistoric animals and the numerous handheld, shallow-focus close-ups could have come directly The Tree of Life. However, Beasts is very different from Malick's films in that it is less abstract, less sure that things will work out, less certain that God (of some sort) is in his heaven and all is well.

Second Herzog, a set of references that are more specific and less overt. In fact, I've wondered if they are there at all. But the more I think about them, the more I'm convinced that the final scenes of Aguirre: The Wrath of God are the proper context for thinking about the muddy, boat-centered lives of the people of the Bathtub. The only thing missing is monkeys. If you aren't sure what I'm referring to (or know and think I've lost it) watch this clip and this one.

I take the visual references to be plain. So the question becomes how Beasts' ideas about human life in a savage environment compare to those of Herzog's. It seems to me that Beasts flips the moral and ethical terms of Herzog's film on its head. Aguirre is mad, powerhungry and, despite all evidence to the contrary, confident of his superiority to the natural world. His death reveals his folly. In Beasts, the people on the boat are humble, generous and aim to live happily within the natural world. Their lives reveal an odd wisdom. The modern Aguirres (and they have become legion) live behind the levee, a concrete wall that pins nature in and drowns it. If Aguirre speaks to the danger of reaching impossibly high, Beast tells of the danger of sitting quietly in the world (but outside the system).

In the final act, I think the film leaves these sources behind and offers a very different and very old vision of the human condition. Here the concrete, unabstracted poor (who we see so little in contemporary film) live in a different world. Their lives are confusing because they are not presented as failed immitations of our own lives or as interestingly different lives that enrich our experience. They live lives that respond to, reject and denounce the sterile and, yes, lifeless choices we make every day. They are kings of their own kingdom, live their own lives. And life is a holiday. In short, they are carnival figures celebrating the return of physical life, nature, eating, drinking, sex, community, all the things we pretend we can buy at a market but can't. This vision is neither as complacent as Malick's nor as bleak as Herzog's, but it is no less philosophical and no less challenging. What it shares with these other films, however--and this is troubling, really troubling--is an oddly medieval anti-modernism.

As I left the cinema, these were the pieces of thoughts I had floating around in my head. They don't cohere much more now than they did then. But they interest me and hint at what makes this move one of the most exciting and smartest American movie I've seen in quite awhile.

Caitlin's Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild

by Caitlin Murphy
Walking into Beasts of the Southern Wild, I knew about as little as one can know about a film before seeing it.  I had glimpsed the poster image.  And what I thought I saw was the back-lit silhouette of a long-armed alien.  The alien turned out to be Hushpuppy, a 6-year old black girl, running through the woods, holding fire-crackers, and trailing sparks behind her.  And from the film’s opening images – Hushpuppy alone, wearing boy’s briefs and rubber boots, playing in the mud and pressing little animals to her ear in attempt to hear their thoughts – I knew I was a stranger in an endearingly strange land.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Behn Zeitlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with his friend Lucy Alibar (based on her play Juicy and Delicious), is a sort of dark fantasy set off the shores of Louisiana in an area known to its residents, as “The Bathtub”.  Hushpuppy and her hardened father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in separate raised trailers, surrounded by their animals (some pets, some dinner).  When a massive storm descends on them, “The Bathtub” is flooded; the few who remain alive join together, as survival become an even more brutal game. This impromptu family is also filled with caring and kindness though, and lessons abound about always watching out for the littlest ones among us.  As Hushpuppy intuitively knows with her animals – we must listen hardest for the voices we can’t hear.

The mise-en-scene in Beasts of the Southern Wild is itself a filmmaking feat.  With so many locations, so much water(!), and such crazily cramped and dilapidated spaces, the attention to detail is remarkably evocative.  One couldn’t help but wonder how much of the rich environments was already in situ and how much was staged.  And with half the cast hailing from Louisiana bayou country, the sense of place  in the film is intimately drawn and acutely felt.  The real-life images of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, as well as those of other recent disasters, of course, hang awkwardly in the air. 

The levee that separates ‘civilized society’ from “The Bathtub”, protecting it from the flood, serves in the film as a metaphorical divide between those aware of nature’s dominance, and those who naively seek to obliterate it.  And through Hushpuppy’s imaginings of massive icebergs crumbling, and pre-historic beasts grunting back to life, we are reminded that our sense of control over nature is illusory, and that we are heading for a painful wake-up call to that effect.  In this sense, a central tenet of the film seems to be, very broadly, that a reckoning is coming.

As the young Hushpuppy, the even younger Quvenzhane Wallis (her mother brought her to audition for the film at 5 years old, even though the call for actors said they had to be 6) is fiery, vulnerable, and eerily present.  Her father calls her ‘man’ and fervently drills into her his most treasured life-lessons– how to rip a crab apart (‘beast it!’), flex one’s muscles, and not ever ever cry – and Hushpuppy goes toe-to-toe with him just as he implores her to.   She doesn’t so much try to match others though, as she does to meet them.

In one of the film’s most striking moments, Hushpuppy scribbles images of her life on a cardboard box that she hides under, as a self-set fire threatens to engulf her in her trailer.  Having learnt about cave drawings at school, she wonders how she will be remembered, deciding that if her life can’t be saved, then at least her story can be.  She asks how her existence, her father’s, and their time in “The Bathtub” will be made known to outsiders and descendants.  And in this sense, Beasts of the Southern Wildis overtly political:  Hushpuppy marches against the tendencies of history and dominant culture to shore up some stories and let others wash away.  The film is an indictment of our strange ability to ignore so many real lives lived. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild is Court 13’s first feature-length film.  Clearly, like its heroine, the company is young, small and mighty.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

New (England) Found Passion

Joel is someone I've known peripherally through arts circles for some time, which I guess properly lands him in the category of a contemporary.  How rich!  Knowing he's a writer, a blogger, and a guy who generally likes to throw his opinions around, I sought him out as a buddy.  Though we meant to hit up Woody Allen's latest offering, due to scheduling we wandered into Wes Anderson's instead.   Enjoy!

Joel's Review of Moonrise Kingdom


joel fishbane

One day, some film class will study Moonrise Kingdom as the perfect representative of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre. Stylish and full of quirk, Anderson’s films feature wildly eccentric worlds that use absurdity as the window into the human condition. The results are usually varied. Style sometimes triumphs story in Anderson’s work and while the worlds are fun to visit, one doesn’t always want to stay for an extended period of time.

Caitlin's Review of Moonrise Kingdom

Ride on into Sunset
by Caitlin Murphy

It’s a testament to the iconic quality of Wes Anderson’s work that any filmmaker who even touches dysfunctional families, precocious children, or pasty, ineffectual adults, risks courting comparison.  Anderson’s got a patent on a particular brand of quirk, and he never strays too far from his bread and butter.  Though Moonrise Kingdom fits snugly in his library, it doesn’t quite earn its keep.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Absence and Hunger

After a horribly long hiatus from review-writing, I had actually secured myself a blogging-buddy; we planned to check out Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, but due to a scheduling mishap, ended up seeing The Hunger Games instead.  All good; surprisingly so.  But then my buddy and his review mysteriously went M.I.A.  So... as time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future, I figure I should get my own review up at least before The Hunger Games sequel comes out.  Relevance is so fleeting these days.  If he shows up, I'll certainly add his voice in.  For now, hope you enjoy my solo flight into Penam.

Caitlin's Review of Hunger Games

Surprised and Sated
by Caitlin Murphy

I had made a vague, but deeply felt decision about The Hunger Games before I even walked into thetheatre.  Something about hating it.  My conclusion was based on a few previews, but also my sad suspicion that Jennifer Lawrence – who I’d adored in last year’s stirring film Winter’s Bone – was about to cash in her chips in yet another hyped-up book-to-blockbuster orgy. 

Sometimes it’s so lovely to be wrong.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Down, Down, Down

I'd been hoping for a long while to get my mentor-cum-friend, Sarah Stanley, to blog-buddy with me, but always felt badly adding more static to her already very busy brain.  Thrilled that she was able to join me for The Descendants.  Enjoy. 

Sarah's Review of The Descendants

A woman is water-skiing. The screen cuts to black and the credits and music that will dog us through The Descendants starts up. The opening shot is both stark and nostalgic: the face of a woman expressing an irrepressible joy from living a reckless moment perfectly. It feels like it is being shot by a loved one, the lighting is not quite right, the white balance seems off, the angle odd, a little too intimate somehow.

Caitlins Review of The Descendants

Ice Cream Headache
a review by Caitlin Murphy

If ever you are watching a film, and a character gazes out his airplane window and claims, in voice over narration, that it makes sense he lives in Hawaii because his family is like an archipelago – you are probably not in very good cinematic hands.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A 20th Review

From the moment I saw the preview for this next flick, I knew who I had to ask to buddy-blog it.  Ken is a family friend who has known me since birth, and he's a psycho-therapist, which always means for awesome dinner conversation, at least on my end, as I inundate him with questions:  "Okay, what really makes someone a psychopath?  And are psychopaths the serial killers or are those sociopaths?  Can you be a psychopath AND a sociopath?  What's transference again?"  It goes on.  He's great. 

Enjoy our takes on David Cronenberg's latest offering...

(Oh yes, and as per the heading, this is also the 20th film reviewed on this blog, which launched last February 6th.)

Ken's Review of A Dangerous Method

by Ken Ludlow

Early on during my first psychotherapy, which was psychodynamic but neither Freudian nor Jungian in the strict sense of those terms, I asked my seasoned therapist what the main difference was between undergoing a Freudian and a Jungian analysis. After a brief pause he replied, “Well, if a guy were to undergo a successful Freudian analysis he would probably still feel a bit nuts but he’d actually be doing quite well. If he were to complete a Jungian analysis he’d think he was one of the sanest men on the planet but he’d still be really nuts.”

Caitlin's Review of A Dangerous Method

A Sure-Fire Plan
by Caitlin Murphy

From the opening images of A Dangerous Method – the usually sedate Keira Knightley thrashing against the confines of a horse-drawn carriage, destined for an asylum – we are thrown into a world preoccupied with the tension between chaos and control; a world blinking its eyes open to the big, new ideas of psychoanalysis.  Directed by David Cronenberg, a man typically drawn to the dark, deep and disturbed, the film, though eminently watchable, is quite a lot subtler and safer than its title or director’s name might imply.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Walk the Talk

What fun to review a silent film with a very vocal guy, my old theatre crony, Jason Rip.  I remember Jason was one of the first people that I ever noticed creating their own art.  It was a pretty huge discovery.   He still has a letter I wrote to prove I was awed. 
Enjoy our very different takes on The Artist...

Rip's Review of The Artist

The Silence Of The Hams
a review by Jason Rip

I cannot jump on The Artist bandwagon but perhaps I can respectfully watch it roll by from the sidewalk.

This French billet-doux  to early Hollywood is a real curiousity: it is a mostly silent, black-and-white film featuring a blend of French and Hollywood actors ( in mostly thankless roles, I might add ) and seems to be a reversal of the normal Tinsel-Town dynamic in the sense that critics adore it whereas the general public are either not attending ( there were about ten people in the Cineplex Odeon theatre when I saw it on its opening night ) or actually demanding their money back ( “What the hell!  Nobody’s talking in this movie!” )  The cynical side of me feels that, gorgeous technique aside, this is all an attempt to get the thickly accented and perpetually smiling star Jean Dujardin ( France’s answer to George Clooney ) over in America.  Why he is up for so many acting awards, besides his ability to tap dance and interact with Uggie, his canine co-star, is beyond me.  He can play a cheesy smiley guy, so what?  He only delivered two words in the entire film ( “With pleasure” ) which came out as French as brie.  As for the lead actress, while I acknowledge a certain Betty Boop charm and the ability to step lightly, well, she’s the director’s wife.

Caitlin's Review of The Artist

“A Boy Falling out of the Sky”
a review by Caitlin Murphy

In Neil Postman’s brilliant book Technopoly, he argues that throughout history societies have had very different kinds of relationships to their technologies.  To conveniently reduce it all:  once upon a time we just used our tools, and at some point they started using us.  Transforming us.  Defining us.  America, Postman offers, after the introduction of television, was not simply America plus television; it was a wholly different America.  Similarly, we are not living in a world that offers the capability of tweeting, we are living in a tweeting world.  None of this is really news, of course, but that’s perhaps exactly why it bears repeating.  The Artist, written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius, elegantly, compellingly, heart-breakingly does just that.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Me, You and Marilyn

I had been trying to convince my old pal Patsy to write a review for some time, so I'm so pleased she ponied up for this award season contender.   Michelle Williams just won the Golden Globe for best female performance in a comedy or musical.  Right.  Nothing says comedy like the tragic life of Marilyn Monroe.   Enjoy!

Patsy's Review of My Week with Marilyn

by Patsy Morgan

As Cait mentions in her previous review, biography films are difficult to pull off. My Week With Marilyn, however, seems to rise to the challenge. Perhaps the difference is that it is an autobiographical story, which allows the audience to make more than a few concessions. The origins of this film had me pondering for many hours as to how the story, in its final presentation, came to be. On the surface, it's based on the experience of Colin Clark when he worked on the film, The Prince and the Showgirl, with Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. One can forgive any biases presented; any aspects of the characters that seem to be skewed, when taking into account the story is being told as seen through the eyes of a 23 year old film school graduate, working on his first major motion picture. But then, I pondered further. This story is more than just that as seen through the eyes of a 23 year old male at his first job. How much do you remember about your first job? Of course, you'd remember much more if it was working with Marilyn Monroe! And you kept a diary. I was cynical about the diary a little bit. I would imagine that in the years between his journaling and the publishing of the two journals this film is based on, Mr. Clark did a bit of polishing and editing. So, it's safe to assume that this story, in final presentation, is told through the eyes of a 23 year old film school graduate, as he recollected from his journals, published much later. Are you still with me? All that to explain why I find this film to be believable, more so than other films about real people. I was able to buy into it. It must also be much easier to account for a week of someone's life, rather than their entire life. The audience was allowed to bring their own preconceived ideas about the characters into the story. And there are a lot of preconceived notions about Marilyn Monroe.

Caitlin's Review of My Week with Marilyn

My 99 Minutes with Michelle Williams
by Caitlin Murphy

For people who love movies, it doesn’t get much better than movies about making movies; they feel like double dipping.  And this has been a good year for just that, with critically-lauded films like The Artist and Hugo tipping their hats to the medium through the medium.