Tag Archives: Independent

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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Moonrise Kingdom (*** 1/2)

In Moonrise Kingdom, writer-director Wes Anderson brings his mannered quirk sensibility to bear on yet another storybook for adults. After meeting at church musical production of the story of Noah’s Ark, emotionally wounded preteens Sam and Suzy begin a romantic correspondence by mail. He, a precocious orphan and accomplished boy scout, and she, a brooding daughter of two lawyers who especially likes fantasy novels, agree to abscond from their respective communities to meet secretly and go on an adventure together. The rest of the film splits its time between their journey and the adults leading the search for the missing children.

The year is 1965, and Suzy and Sam’s homes and adventure are confined to the New England island of New Penzance. Along with the children’s self-initiated liberation from their homes comes the liberation of Anderson’s camera from the angular interior spaces he so often favors. He still clearly takes formalist delight in the organization of the scout camp and the layout of Suzy’s home, but in Moonrise more than ever before does he reveal himself to be an inspired filmographer of land and seascapes. The images have less the dainty dollhouse feel of some of his earlier compositions (see, especially, The Royal Tenenbaums) and more the shape and color of naturalist paintings one might expect to find in the living rooms and foyers of seaside New England homes.

As a result the children’s adventure feels ever more an escape into something wild and beautiful, even as their evident personal wounds and naivete complicate the situation. The film wrings great joys through its romantic celebration of the individual and the need to be deeply understood by another person. Perhaps more interestingly, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola display authorial maturity by thematically balancing that celebration via the reconciliation of individual and community which concerns the latter half of the film. During the church-roof-set climax, law enforcement (Bruce Willis), legal professionals (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and community leaders (Ed Norton) are all working together to save Sam not only from his destructive impulses but also from the bureaucratically inhumane processing threatened by the interest of Social Services (Tilda Swinton). It’s Noah’s Ark full circle, children and adults jumbled together for mutual security in the midst of a storm.

As romantically poignant as the film may be, something was lost for me in its stylized jokiness. Anderon’s visual formalism and deadpan humor have before worked well to heighten the poignancy of his stories. The pacing of Moonrise Kingdom, however, clips by at such an efficient speed that many of the visual cues and one-liners feel like the overstuffed punch-lines of a zany comedy. The material, cleverly and sensitively conceived as it may be, needs more room to breathe than the running time (a flat ninety minutes before the credits roll) really allows. Moonrise, romantic and visually rapturous, feels edited within an inch of its life. It needs more of the dull moments, more of the quiet and mysterious times that make up life and good stories in order to be the romantic adventure it aspires to. Unfortunately those much-need pauses in the film’s momentum seem to have been left on the cutting room floor. In the end, the film left me in awe of its story but emotionally distant from its telling.

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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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Synecdoche, New York (***, 2008)


Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has given us the brain-bending treasures Being John MalkovichAdaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, each a loopy journey through the minds of its main characters. Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut, is most like Adaptation in terms of its solipsism and layers of meta storytelling.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, an archetypal brilliant-yet-self-obsessed playwright and theater director who receives a MacArthur Genius Grant after his production of Death of a Salesman becomes a runaway success. He uses the grant money to stage a theater production of his life in an attempt to be “brutally honest”. The ensuing conflation of Cotard’s “play” and his real life eventually takes over the whole film, which exists in some kind of alternate reality where such things are possible.

Because of the scope and complexity of Cotard’s magnum opus (he recreates Manhattan inside a vast warehouse in order to try to tell his own story) we understand that what we see on screen can’t be exactly what’s really going on, but rather some kind of illustration of Cotard’s tortured creative self. His inability to function in the real world of romantic, family and platonic relationships becomes the material for his “honest” creative production, which in turn has a character “Caden Cotard” putting on a production of his tortured life in an attempt to find himself and tell the truth.

Kaufman’s script is intricate and fully realized, a knotty web of authentic (and very broken) human relationships filtered through the creative madness of the main character. It’s a brilliant film, but it’s painful to watch. It essentially punishes us for choosing to enter the chaotic self loathing of Cotard’s inner world, daring us to parse the rabbit hole of characters playing people playing characters playing people. It’s ambitious, a logical distillation of Kaufman’s interest in the relationship between life and fiction and the minds situated between the two. But it fails to add anything to Kaufman’s observations in Adaptation about self-loathing and solipsism, and reads like an unpleasant indulgence of his own obsessions. It’s a film about death, about life as chaos, and a conflation between creative fiction and the way we make meaning for ourselves in a meaningless world. Once you’ve made one movie on that subject, haven’t you made them all? Community‘s Shirley said it best:

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Winter’s Bone (****, 2010)

Ree on the Homestead

Dirty South

I tend to think of the culture of the American Southeast existing on a fluid polarity between Colonel Sanders and Fred Durst.  Well, it’s fluid in at least one direction:  some antebellum gentility can be shown to have blind idiotic rage lurking underneath its surface.  There’s not really anything genteel about the rest.

Winter’s Bone (2010) takes place in an unspecified part of the Ozarks, a poor hill-country region spanning southern Missouri and northern Arkansas which no doubt goes to church but seems forgotten by God anyway.  One wouldn’t know God was around given the people and events encountered by Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) in this film, a 17 year-old surrogate parent-cum-gumshoe who must seek out her breaking bad dad or lose the property she lives on with her siblings and helpless mother.  She has to wade through the undesirables of the “community” in order to ferret out information, knowingly placing herself in harm’s way for the sake of her family.  These are some right nasty hillbillies, and their intransigent wickedness has even the law on edge.


Garrett Dillahunt, who played the Deputy Sherriff in No Country for Old Men, receives a promotion to #1 hick enforcer for this film.

The film is a formal successor to Brick, which transplanted the speech patterns and plot of 1940’s noir film to a contemporary high school, and the spiritual successor to No Country for Old Men, which channeled the hard-bitten culture and landscape of its setting into laconic fodder for its crime-and-consequences myth-making.  Winter’s Bone, however, has a fiercely independent character to it even beyond these films in its refusal to stylize its subject material.  At first I was reluctant to rate the film so highly, then I realized my only qualm was the emotional distance that aesthetic formalism could have provided.  The film is in your face, putting you right alongside the strong-willed but always vulnerable Ree.  There’s nothing pretty to gaze at here, no Burton-esque gothic cuteness or mesmerizing imagery to gussy up the content.  I can almost hear the film saying:  “World’s ugly, yall.”

Whereas as a film watcher I usually favor and am entranced by the clean lines and compositions of film imagery–whether a carefully-controlled mood palette such as in Brick or sharply-realized moments like a pointed flash of lightning on the horizon during one of No Country‘s chases–this film is ugly and is almost aesthetically dull.  It doesn’t have the faux-graininess (or narrative pretension) of “found footage” films, but the film almost feels like cameras were simply set up in these rusted-out locales and left to capture what happened.  It is a hard-boiled detective story of the ethnographic variety, with no artistic formalisms to distance us from the subject material.


It’s no wonder that Jennifer Lawrence, whose character is in every scene I can recall, was chosen to star in The Hunger Games after headlining this film.  Her Ree is tough, vulnerable, smart, and tender towards her siblings–almost as if the role was written with Katniss Everdeen in mind.  Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, her quest to find her father (ever the elusive embodiment of a secret, a la Harry Lime or Terry Lennox)* puts her in conflict with a number of people who know something but don’t want to tell anything, a menagerie of surly hill people suggesting at times a broke, illiterate and toothless counterpart to the Corleones.  She’s wandering her own smoky Chinatown, Los Angeles seedy types replaced with Durst-ian hayseeds.

You may have guessed at the overall bleakness of the film and, while I wouldn’t dare give away the ending, I do want to say that this is not a nihilistic film which cosmically whimpers into the darkness like No Country or wallows in existential horror like Chinatown.  The journey, nee the location, is the destination here, with plenty horrors along the way to chill the bones.

*These are characters from The Third Man and The Long Goodbye, respectively, whose disappearances drive much of the conflict and action for their films’ mystery-unraveling protagonists.

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