Tag Archives: Fantasy

Beasts of the Southern Wild (***)

(Quvenzhané Wallis), (Dwight Henry), (Gina Montana), (Levy Easterly)

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in what is either a somewhat removed from reality version of hardscrabble life on the Gulf Coast or a subjective version of that life as seen through the eyes of a child. The film and perspective belong to Hushpuppy (Oscar-nominated 9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives in a liminal wetland called “The Bathtub” with her frustrated and often-angry father. In the vein of classic Terrence Malick, the humans of the film are part and parcel of the ecosystem surrounding them and as put upon by nature as their animal counterparts. As one character says, “All animals are meat. And we’re meat too.” Hence “beasts”.

The film hinges on the question of survival. When Hushpuppy’s daddy is gone, will she have what it takes to get by? He calls her “man” and conditions her to believe that she is strong and can take on the world. He teaches her to fish with just an arm and to break a crab without using tools. This process has the sentimentality sucked out of it by the dehumanizing reduction forced on them by their hardscrabble circumstances: “My job is to keep you alive”, he says. It’s not clear he understands being a father in any terms more complicated than that.

Like The Tree of Life, the “so what” of the film is somewhat obscured. The subjectivity of Hushpuppy’s perspective makes it unclear, for example, as to whether the demonization of the government’s intervention is meant to be taken at face value or merely as a threat to the characters’ highly guarded way of life. I liked it better than Tree, even with its lack of dinosaurs, but it still has the feel of a film reaching for some kind of higher or mythical truth yet lost in its stylistic affectations. If nothing else, the film is worth the price of admission for its curious flattening out of gender roles at the edge of survival. By the end of the film, Hushpuppy has become a “man”–not a role dictating proper behavior in society, but a survivor–a beast.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (***)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If you’re not familiar with the fantasy epics of J.R.R. Tolkien–sprawling tomes of adventure and apocalypse and even more sprawling tomes of ancient mythos–Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie might be just right for you. It’s been called by some a dreary slog that will only really appeal to hardcore fans, but Jackson’s latest three hour carnival plays out as if Tolkien’s work were being retold by a hyperactive ten year old with a love for swashbuckling fantasy epicness but only a partial memory of the book read to him as a younger child. It’s really fun. It’s an abomination as a work of adapted fiction.

Ostensibly about a fussy bourgeois midget unwittingly caught up in a dragon-slaying adventure, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes every opportunity it can to digress, to add on, to re-invent Tolkien’s wheel. Early on Gandalf remarks that “all the best stories deserve to be embellished”–Jackson clearly believes this. A lot of the extra material has the feeling of that hyperactive ten year old approaching a scene and saying, “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be great if…” As in Bilbo’s (the fussy bourgeois midget, or hobbit) encounter with three trolls, where a relatively quiet battle of wits from the book is stuffed with battling dwarves and a flashbang appearance from a wizard. The overall effect recalls the visual maximalism of Jackson’s King Kong. It’s a fitting style for the story of an oversized ape, an uncomfortable one for that of an undersized human.


Martin Freeman, who plays the Hobbit, seems to be the only one who remembers that he’s in an undersized human movie. His performance is as naturalistic as one could hope for–probably the best performance in all of the Tolkien adaptations to date, and at least side-by-side with Viggo Mortensen and Andy Serkis. And he provides the heart of the movie, taking us back to the strong emotional throughline of the series where small and weak creatures do incredibly brave things for virtuous reasons. His explanation to the dwarves as to why he’s continuing on their quest towards the film’s end is particularly moving.

The thing about this movie is that despite its shortcomings in being The Hobbit, it excels at being a rollicking adventure movie in a way that most such releases can only half-heartedly strive for. If overstuffed, it allows itself moments of batshit insanity, such as the expansion of the birdshit-stained forest wizard Radagast the Brown, a mentally unstable Ace Ventura magician with the most absurd means of conveyance in film history (trumping even Neverending Story‘s racing snail). Also see the entire sequence involving the goblin kingdom and their testicle-chinned king (it’s that intentionally revolting).

I saw the film in 3D at 48fps, which is almost as bad as people have been saying. When the visual information becomes sufficiently overloaded the effect works though at the expense of anything recognizable as classical cinematography. On a smaller scale, however, things take on the televisual quality of most BBC productions. Combined with the film’s leisurely pacing, it makes Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey seem at times like the first part in the most lavish BBC miniseries ever produced. Also, the shuffling between large and small scale sequences gives the film a jarring visual effect, switching up unexpectedly between the best you’ve ever seen and the worst. It’s ultimately a distraction.

If you love high adventure, wild fantasy and frenzied set pieces then The Hobbit is for you. If you love Tolkien, expect less of him than even Jackson’s other movies provided and consider yourself warned.

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Who Should Direct Star Wars 7?

I’m cautiously optimistic about the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm. Apparently there’s plenty of nerd rage circulating the interwebs about it right now, with cries of, “NO! That’s not true! That’s impossible!!” and whatnot.

But, as with most Jedi devotees, the purity of my love for the series was forever ruined by The Phantom Menace and its follow ups. I’ll never forget the series of disappointments that film piled on, the slow realization as it went on that it wasn’t going to fundamentally redeem itself. Lucas et al did not seem to have considered what made the original trilogy work, but rather treated the material as an intellectual property that could be strip mined for flimsy stories sold on their special effects.

Lucas knew that people would go see the movie, and did not waste time with things like mystery or working to get us invested in the characters. Lucas, legal and creative despot of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties*, had free reign to make whatever the heck he wanted. The prequels have the feeling of half-baked ideas run amok, ultimately flashy, hollow products lacking any compelling aesthetic or narrative sensibilities. I’m overstating my case somewhat, but it fuels how I feel about the Disney takeover of the intellectual property (from here on, IP).

Because Lucasfilm has already reduced the Star Wars brand to an IP to be mined for corporate entertainment, it makes sense for it to be taken over by a company who often succeeds at doing that to great effect. Not that Disney hasn’t churned out its fair share of crappy movies, but, like many others this past week, I would point to the Disney takeover of the Marvel and Pixar brands of positive examples of what the Mouse House can do with pre-existing IPs or studios. This is the framework (effective corporate takeover of an entertainment IP) that should shape how think about which directors are best suited to the task of helming Star Wars 7.

First off, there are some big name directors who are just not viable options. Industry moguls like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are invested in their own projects and studios and would surely never deign to be squeezed into the Disney’s re-energizing of the Star Wars franchise. Two other fan favorites, Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon, are less impossibly unlikely yet ill-fitting for various other reasons. God spare us gritty or post-modern turns in the Star Wars film canon.

There are other highly talented directors who haven’t been as widely proposed but might at first seem like good fits. Guillermo del Toro, master of the truly alien, is too infested in his brand of subversive fantasy-horror to come to a gee-whiz IP like Star Wars. Brad Bird, who gave us The Incredibles and Mission Impossible 4, is too witty and kinetic–I don’t see him thriving in broadly epic adventure mode. Insanely talented stylists like Alfonso Cuaron and Ridley Scott don’t fit, precisely because Star Wars has never really been about style.

The worst case scenario is that we get some awfully pedantic director hired for bringing effects heavy tent-pole films to the screen on time and under budget. Chris Columbus, of the first two Harry Potter‘s, would be one, Jon Turteltaub of the National Treasure films would be another. Stephen Sommers helmed the first two Mummy films and was entrusted with the second installment of G.I. Joe. Shawn Levy gave us the Night at the Museums, the three-letter nick-named McG both Charlie’s Angels as well as Terminator 4. And then there’s Brett Ratner–*shudder*. Anyone who fits this bill would count as a loss to me.

Here are some guys I think could make it work–and seem like realistic possibilities given that it’s Disney doing the hiring.

Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoJohn Carter)

Despite the colossal mess that was John Carter, a lot of its problems seem inherent to the unlimited freedom the studio gave to Stanton to make a convoluted fanboy indulgence rather than a streamlined and effective pop thrill ride. Stanton is a talented director, and Carter shows the promise of a large-scale, effects-driven adventure that could have been.

Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the CaribbeanRango)

Verbinski oversaw Disney’s most lucrative franchise of the past decade, and while the Pirates sequels weren’t as fun as the first, they remain agreeable effects-driven tentpole films. Additionally, Verbinski’s penchant for weirdness and art design could really serve the Star Wars universe well. He could bring back some of the strange textures that the Jim Henson workshop imbued Empire and Jedi with.

Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureThe Polar Express)

Zemeckis has finally broken his decade long absence from live action film with the highly acclaimed Flight, and could follow that up by taking over SW7 for Disney. He made Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with them in the late 80’s, and has been obsessed with effects-driven films for virtually his entire career. He’s made some highly popular classics like Spielberg and Cameron, but he doesn’t seem to be tied up in future projects in the same way that they are.

Joe Johnston (The RocketeerJurassic Park 3Captain America)

Johnston is a serviceable director who tends to work with effects, and his pop-classicism would be a great fit for the Star Wars universe. Captain America was an especially great showing for him, and the Marvel-Disney connection might get him on the list.

Jon Favreau (ElfIron ManCowboys & Aliens)

The same goes for Favreau. He has a both a great eye for action and snappy dialogue timing. If the next Star Wars has any of the verve of the Iron Man films it will be better for it.

Pete Docter, Andrew Adamson, John Lasseter (various)

These guys, like Andrew Stanton, are all talented directors working in animation. Adamson has already made the transition to live action (from Shrek to The Chronicles of Narnia) but Docter (Up) and Lasseter (Toy StoryCars) could both reasonably break out of Pixar and make a fantastic Star Wars film. Although Lasseter certainly knows how to make an entertaining film, as current head of Disney Animation Studios he is the least likely of the three to take or be offered the job.

In My Dreams: Hayao Miyazaki

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Chronicle (*** 1/2)


Chronicle, the most recent entry into the “found footage” canon, slickly updates the superpowers-plus-adolescence-equals-chaos template of Carrie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Three teenage boys discover a strange glowing rock which endues them with telekinetic powers that grow stronger with use. What could easily be the fodder for any generic cash-in on the supernatural teen genre wildly popular with Potter and Twilight fans has been cleverly reshaped as a quasi-naturalistic what-if-this-actually-happened story. That is, when teenagers are given superpowers, they’re much more likely to treat them with the childish fascination usually reserved for the latest Apple product than use them to stop armed robberies. Like last year’s excellent Attack the BlockChronicle expertly delivers an otherwise ho-hum premise through a wealth of character-driven and true to life details.

The story focuses primarily on Andrew, a troubled young teen with a difficult home life. The movie begins with scenes that primarily exist to root the story’s final events in the everyday tragedies of his life, both large and small. Actor Dane DeHaan does an excellent job of fleshing out the wounded boy torn between the fear of further wounding and the irrepressible desire for community. His cousin Matt tries to be helpful, but the prickly Andrew does not readily yield to his friendly overtures. He does, however, follow Matt and his friend Steve down a strange hole at the edge of the woods where the mysterious empowerment occurs.

As in other super-powers and hormones stories, the new-found abilities amplify the characters’ pre-existing traits. While Matt and Steve are relatively normal and approach their powers with a measure of respect, Andrew is slowly discovering a new weapon with which to lash out at the world. It begs the question of Hollow Man: if society’s constraints no longer bind you, what motivation do you have to be a moral being? What if you didn’t like society in the first place?

To the film’s credit, this inevitable march towards madness occurs with a sense of pace and purpose punctuated by emotionally explosive moments (sexual humiliation, paternal abuse) that serve as catalysts to his simmering rage and confusion. He remains a tragic figure throughout, giving the film a soul that another like it might lack; giving its wildly entertaining conclusion just the right amount of emotional freight.


My only real problem with the film was its slavish commitment to the found-footage format, occasionally requiring it to awkwardly invent reasons for people to be holding cameras at different times. For the most part, it works as part of Andrew’s deeply disturbed detachment from others. Also, the introduction of a free-floating camcorder via telekinesis means the sickly shaky-cam of Cloverfield is nowhere to be found in the film’s busiest scenes. Still I think the mixed media format of District 9 might have served it better, switching between camera formats as it served the story while retaining the emphasis on casual naturalism. In the end, it’s that down-to-earth sensibility that makes the film work irrespective of its primary cinematic conceit. The recognizable pieces of normal life provide the needed contrast to let its flights of fancy really soar.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (****, 1992)


I have been saying on this blog that the value and excellence of a film is a relative quality. There exists no objective, external standard by which all films are measured; they must be understood in relation to themselves (what are they about?) and to the audience (who cares?). In essence, film criticism means attempting to talk about whether or not films effectively show and tell what they’re about in such a way that the audience might care. It is on these terms that Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) excels as a virtually perfect vampire movie.

It closely hews to the plot of Bram Stoker’s nineteenth century novel, which begins with Jonathan Harker’s (Keanu Reeves, easily the weakest part of the whole film) trip to Dracula’s home in the Balkans on a matter of London real estate business. The big bad means to set up shop in the English capital, where he could surely feed on lots of grubby Dickensians. Coppola’s approach, however, is not a linear story of halting an evil plan, but a visually sumptuous evocation of evil as a mysteriously seductive force which strangely and surprisingly wreaks havoc on Harker, his fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder), and their upper crust-y friends (who include a lamentably underused Cary Elwes). Coppola’s films are always dense with rich imagery, luscious sounds and big emotions–in a way, the wedding feast that opens The Godfather is paradigmatic for all his “big” films. It’s the ideal sensibility for translating a gothic melodrama to the movie screen.

Gary Oldman stars as Dracula, introduced in what I’m pretty sure is a mytho-historical elaboration on the source material involving the fifteenth century Vlad the Impaler, the fall of Constantinople, a dead wife and resulting rage at Christ and his church. Hundreds of years later he looks really old, but is still alive and creepily rendered by Oldman as a barely human creature with a rasping voice. With Jonathan Harker entrapped, the demon journeys to England where he focuses his energies on young Mina (who looks exactly like his dead wife) and her sexually curious friend Lucy. As the latter slips into vampirism after her seduction by Dracula, her concerned suitors send off for Van Helsing (a fantastic Anthony Hopkins) who then leads them all in the fight against dark forces which concerns the second half of the movie.


Dracula’s obsession with and undying love for Mina/his wife leads to the most interesting scene in the film (this is spoiler-ish), where, finally with his object of affection, the evil creature can’t bring himself to subject her to the same evil which has enslaved him for centuries. Her mind clouded by evil and seduced by passion, Mina willfully begins to drink his blood anyway before the boys with guns and swords intervene. It is, character-wise, the most complex moment in the film, and a brilliantly realized examination of the simultaneous repulsiveness and seduction of evil. Both predator and prey are, for that moment, painted as victims of dark forces beyond their comprehension and control.

Vampires in pop culture today are legion, but a lack of mythological grandeur has devalued them artistically. Tim Burton’s vamps are cutesy weirdos, Twilight‘s no more than Tiger Beat heart-throbs. Those of Blade & Buffy are closer to Fright Night‘s clever connotation of vampire as “the f***ing shark from Jaws“, but there remains in all three a reductive view of evil (where repulsion far outweighs seduction) and a lack of real mystery and spirituality. Like Guillermo del Torodirector Coppola’s (latent? lapsed?) Catholicism infuses his horror with a sense of the mythic sacred lacking from so many pop cultural treatments of evil. Unlike its many peers, Dracula shows the Devil for who he really is.

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