Tag Archives: Female Lead

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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Ghost World (****, 2001)

At first, Ghost World seems to be an “edgy” comedy about two immaturely misanthropic teenagers and their middle-finger-to-the-world snarkiness. A very young Scarlett Johansson and American Beauty’s Thora Birch play besties Rebecca and Enid, girls just finishing high school and always ready with a withering remark for everyone. Classmates, teachers, parents, business owners, passerby–no one is spared their biting disdain. It gradually becomes clear, however, that the film will not be about indulging the girls’ hip bitch camaraderie but instead exploring their needs for identity and intimacy–especially Enid’s (Birch)–that percolate beneath their prickly surfaces.

Their aggressive detachment takes on humanizing consequences when they play a prank on a lonely man (Steve Buscemi) by responding to his personal ad in the paper and standing him up on the blind date they arrange. Enid offends her own conscience, and her sympathy for the sad sack Seymour is the beginning of an unusual friendship which gradually takes on a Harold and Maude quality. It is clear they are kindred spirits from early on, and their shared off-kilter tastes in music and pop art irony quickly forms a natural bond bridging their generational and gender gaps… almost. Buscemi’s Seymour is clearly torn between his need for connection and his awareness of the inappropriateness of their relationship, while young Enid is blissfully ignorant of their friendship’s strangeness. Together they are tragic and sweet, pulled together and pushed apart by their mutual brokenness.

Ghost World captures something important about the way kitschy weirdos get lost in obsessions because of feeling alienated and in turn how their alienation pushes them deeper into cultural obsessions and away from meaningful relationships. It strikes the perfect tone by neither romanticizing nor ridiculing such obsessions, but instead sympathetically mining the characters’ alienations and longing for relational intimacy.

The “ghost world” in question is the arch-world of pulp magazine covers and antiquated mid-century pop art that evokes a certain time and place in our cultural imagination–very much like the Jack Rabbit Slim’s restaurant in Pulp Fiction–but that never really existed as anything more than a confluence of graphic art sensibilities. Director Zwigoff finely evokes the way in which writer (of both screenplay and the original graphic novel) Daniel Clowes’ characters live at a kind of threshold between the “real” and the “ghost” worlds, forever at the mercy of their tortured souls and on the edge of retreat from psychological and emotional health.

It’s ultimately a sad film, because it’s characters cannot hope to be cured of their pain and social dislocation. Zwigoff does reserve a special dignity for them, a sure affection for their offbeat sensibilities, and the conviction that embracing your identity is better than trudging along with the blind seismic waves of culture en masse. It’s not much, but it’s something. Better people probing for meaning in life than comfortably numb. Still, it left me wishing for a sequel where Enid and Seymour both come to know a saving power bigger than their wounded hearts.

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Prometheus (***1/2)

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Oh, it’s that alien from that one movie.

“And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” ~ Genesis 6:6-7

Primordial terror. That’s what Ridley Scott’s Alien did for space travel in 1979, just as Jaws had done for the beach four years before. The idea of implacable, efficacious, and simple death embodied in a creature put in a room (or a boat) with human beings. Scott brought in Swiss painter H.R. Giger’s haunted Freudian imagery for the alien’s design, sadomasochistic fusions of flesh and metal imbuing the film with a palpable sense of disconcerting otherness (i.e., alien). This move, along with Scott’s laconic evocation of dread, elevated a boilerplate slasher flick set in space into something more aesthetically substantial. Much has been written about the themes at work in the film, but I trust Scott when he says (as I have read) that it was simply about scaring the crap out of people. He simply found some ideas (male impregnation, evolved biological killers, chest-bursting, all that unctuous seminal slime) that would set people’s nerves on edge so that their defenses were worn down by the time the beast started killing off those helpless crew members in the dark.

Prometheus, functionally Alien‘s prequel, reads like a somewhat bookish attempt to identify the original film’s distilled essence (primordial terror) and plumb that thematic well for its roots. If senseless, implacable death freaks us out like nothing else–what’s going on there? What’s the reductio ad absurdum of our deepest fears?

You have to admire the film for its ambition: if Alien skewed towards the slasher end of the Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-meets-2001 spectrum, Prometheus skews towards the grand cosmic mystery end. Eighty years from now the Weyland Corporation sends a manned spacecraft somewhere far away to investigate clues about the origins of life on earth. On board are scientists, engineers, flight crew, corporate reps and an android. The planet they land on contains some answers, more questions and a primordial soup’s worth of squirmy dangers. How they got there, who they were intended for and who they might yet harm are points of interest in the film. Scott twists thrills and ideas together unapologetically, aware of the need to entertain enough audience members to justify the budget needed to craft visually bold science fiction in a post-Avatar world.

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Come on science: keep on mapping the unknown until there’s nothing left to discover. Floaty-y scanner device (c) Google, 2014.

As befitting the best Ridley Scott films, it’s visually marvelous. I usually feel as though CG somewhat cheapens a film’s visual effect, but it would seem that technology has caught up with the director’s vivid imagination. We’re caught up with the explorers within this intricate biological desolation, one alive with texture, dust and rough edges. And rather than the kitschy synthetics of so much effects work, there’s plenty of viscous bodily fluids (and other bodily things) sloshing around to remind us that human flesh is on the line. I know I’ll never think of a Cesarean section the same way again.

I am sad the same can’t be said for the music. Scott’s other science fiction works established their emotional tones early on, both Alien‘s scraping industrial strings and Blade Runner‘s moody synth laments contributing to senses of screamy portentousness and angsty android dread, respectively. But Prometheus doesn’t begin to find its aural tone until well into the first act, and throughout the score is a so-so generic pastiche of epic spaciness. That the film remains strong despite such a huge oversight speaks to its finely crafted nature, its near-masterpiece degree of genre proficiency.

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Snow White and the Huntsman (** 1/2)

Yes, she's a mouth-breather.

This year’s second Snow White flick offers a grimly epic, rather than goofy, take on the fairy tale source material. Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart stars as the titular heroine, Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers, Thor) as her ax-wielding counterpart. An evil, youth-stealing queen (Charlize Theron) has usurped the throne of Snow White’s father and imprisoned her for, let’s say, ten years. She will become an immortal tyrant if Snow and her crew can’t put the screws to the she-devil and restore peace and freedom and the like to her kingdom.

It is a maxim of storytelling that the kind of story you tell matters less than how you go about telling it. That Snow White has a thin premise does not automatically condemn it, but its lackluster script and and half-committed acting do. It trades on mythological overtones about destiny and purity like they’re calling cards for something we should care about, yet seems to understand nothing about how to invest a film with mythological gravitas. The result is something that’s cheaply fanciful, a boring joke at the expense of true fascination with the mysterious and unknown.

Unfortunately, we never get to see him turn into the Nightwalker.

The film’s saving grace is the art direction. Everything looks really good. And we’re even given a relief from the incessantly oppressive mud and blackness of the decrepit kingdom during an interlude in a place where fairies and powerful spirits seem at home. This sequence has some of the most fun creature and environmental design of any fantasy film I can think of; it’s literally like a children’s picture book come to life. The whimsical weirdness of this section provides a visceral sense of wonderful otherness lacking in so many fantasy films, including some of the very best. It looks like the movie I dreamed of when Guillermo del Toro was attached to direct The Hobbit, a dream which has since been swallowed by grim reality–much like the swallowing up of the true fairy tale section by the rest of this relentlessly drab film.

It’s not unreasonable to think of the movie as a kind of anti-Twilight for Stewart: the passive damsel metamorphed into the warrior princess. But she unfortunately remains more Bella, more classically “Snow White” than she is Xena, Buffy or Mononoke. Even when she’s mustering the troops for war the girl has no spark, no presence–she’s a blank face when the movie demands a fierce one. Emma Watson could upstage her with a single glare. If Jennifer Lawrence carried The Hunger Games virtually in spite of itself, Snow White and the Huntsman ekes by as an inoffensive fantasy diversion in spite of Kristen Stewart.

 
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Alien Resurrection (***, 1997)

Brad Dourif is one creepy mofo.

I watched you. While you were sleeping.

I’ve decided this movie gets a bad rap. It is by no means a great film, but its reputation suffers since it has the legacy of its predecessors (forgetting for a moment Alien3) to live up to. Taken by itself, however, Alien Resurrection is a rollicking and goofy sci-fi flick with hints of screenwriter Joss Whedon’s eventual excellence.

After having fought the shark-like brutes on an interstellar cargo ship, a terraforming colony and a prison planet, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) must again tussle with the titular aliens on a military science vessel seeking to weaponize the xenomorphs. Having tossed herself and an alien in a pit of molten lead at the end of the previous film, Ripley finds herself alive and well after a two-hundred year hiatus via a cloning process which has mixed her DNA with an alien’s. She’s stronger, faster and has corrosive blood. Win.

It knows why the caged bird sings.

What the film sets up is an opportunity for a ragtag space freighter crew to team up with mutant Ripley in yet another gruesome survival match versus the skeletal demons with whip tails and eggplant heads. Special guest stars include Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Winona Ryder and Brad Dourif (LOTR: The Two Towers, the Chucky movies). People are of course killed off in various ways and it wouldn’t be a Whedon production if some arrogant authority figures (here the military and their scientist cronies) didn’t get their comeuppance. The cinematography is often blackish and muddy, but the production design and creature effects gel nicely. It doesn’t have the snap, crackle and pop of a great genre film, but I wouldn’t call it boring. There’s enough carnage to keep things interesting.

Its better predecessors were great accomplishments, A+ films in their respective genres and exemplary icons of movie-making. Resurrection, however, is a B movie through and through–but it gets an A for effort.

 
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