Tag Archives: Movie Review

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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Lockout (***, 2012)

lockout

The finally got around to making Escape from Outer Space, except that Kurt Russell is nowhere to be found and they decided to call it Lockout. Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential) stars as the retro-styled wiseass action hero surnamed Snow, a tough guy with no easy respect for authority. It’s the future, and now Earth’s best maximum security prison is MS One, a high tech facility in orbit above the planet. The inmates are now loose and have taken the president’s daughter hostage. The government gives Snow an ultimatum: go up there and bring her back, or forfeit your freedom and your life. Of course, the tough guy takes the mission.

Lockout has every opportunity to be horrible, and it kind of is. Everything in the film is borrowed, from its absurd premise to its aggressively mundane cinematography (EVERYTHING is teal and orange). In spite of these drawbacks, however, it manages to be stupidly entertaining. The key is that none of the actors seem to know they’re in a bad movie. For a space prison rescue movie the performances are really strong and mostly believable. Pearce really seems to be enjoying himself in the lead, inflecting his voice with gravel and cracking wise, and Maggie Grace (the blonde from Lost’s early seasons) holds her own next to him.

The most surprising thing about this film is how it manages to capture, however imperfectly, the retro-action vibe it so clearly tries to borrow on. So many remakes and reboots and comebacks these days draw on their source material in name only, lacking whatever wit and verve energized the better action flicks of twenty years ago. I don’t want to overpraise Lockout, as though it’s a fantastic return to form that reinvigorates a tired genre, but it’s a lot better than anyone should expect it to be.

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Once Upon A Time In The West (****, 1968)

once

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is a masterful work of storytelling. First and foremost, it runs on patience. The plot does not unfurl with the directness of most films, but through a series of extended scenes which at first seem disconnected. Dark-purposed men waiting for a train. A homestead family murdered in cold blood. Two testy cowboys pushing each others’ buttons in a combination bar and general store. The film takes these sequences as an opportunity for mood-setting and the accumulation of details that give everything a lived-in quality. The set dressing in the bar, for example, is wonderfully ramshackle and cluttered to overflowing; the longer the film lingers there the more it seems like lived-in space rather than a movie set.

The best part about these scenes is the urgency they carry in spite of their languidness. At nearly three hours, the film had plenty of chances to drop its hold on my Twitter-addled attention span. I originally intended to watch it in parts, gradually taking it all in over several viewings. But Once kept making me wonder, “Well, now what is she going to do?” or “How is this going to fit in?” and so on. It patiently lays out a set of narrative stakes that incite these questions. We know Charles Bronson is going to be important, but just why is he hanging out here? What’s up with the criminal Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and why doesn’t he seem all that bad? And what kind of woman is this gorgeous widow (Claudia Cardinale)?

The sharp acting gives the urgency much of its punch. Even the most laconic characters have a sharp intensity imbuing their words and actions with palatable gravitas. The young widow, vulnerable and protected as she is, has clear agency and a kind of fiery self-reliance. The film wisely chooses to keep this under the surface in the early parts of the film rather than knowingly nudging us that she is no pushover right up front.

I am loathe to say too much about the plot, as one great pleasure of the film is how carefully it is told. There is money at stake and there is a rich man looking to protect his interests. Questionably lawful men end up protecting the woman caught in the crosshairs of the decidedly unlawful Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gun looking to swing things in favor of the rich man. I am under-schooled in the Western genre, but as I understand it the “Spaghetti westerns”–made by Italians like Leone and Sergio Corbucci–marked not just a stylistic turn in the genre but also a philosophical one. Instead of America-minded romanticism of the frontier, the Europeans played up the nihilism and violence of a world at the edge of the rule of law. The film is not quite anti-romantic, yet none of its characters are heroes or virtuous exemplars–just hardscrabble people trying to get by on the frontier and do the right thing if they can manage. They’re distinguished from the villains less by their impeccable righteousness than by their lack of cruelty and exploitation, though the story does eventually extend a measure of nobility to each of the principal characters by the last act.

Genre-wise, I also have little to compare the cinematography to. I don’t know how it compares to, say, a John Ford staple–it’s sumptuous nonetheless. The vistas are wide and a vibrant clay red. The staging is clear and concise, action and acting alike never confusing in terms of spatial relations. Plenty of high and wide shots showcase the immense and detailed sets made for the film, most impressive of which is a train track site that is a work-in-progress and milled about by hundreds of extras. There are times I noticed that technically, with current effects, the director could show more and more of these things, but nothing replaces the tactile specificity of the real and Once has it on display everywhere.

I am always surprised when I stumble across an older movie that I love deep in my bones, as many of the ones I saw growing up were perfunctory and boring. That goes doubly so for Westerns. I started watching Once Upon a Time in the West on a whim and was drawn in by it for the next two and three quarter hours. It is epic and gripping yet full of small moments of and subtle performances. If only I could say that about more movies.

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Grade Inflation

If you read me on a regular basis, you may notice that I hand out mostly three and three and a half star reviews. I worry sometimes about not having enough negative reviews on this blog to serve as a control for all the nice stuff that I write. I don’t get paid for doing this, and as a graduate student I have little extra cash. As a result I usually only go to movies I want to see and at a reduced price. So, that’s why there’s a lot of “I basically liked this” reviews and fewer “this is worthless trash” ones.

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Django Unchained (*** 1/2)

You've got red on you.

If you heard a movie pitch best summed up by saying, “It’s Shaft in a Peckinpah western set in the slavery years of the South”, you’d be forgiven for laughing it to scorn or deciding to be offended. “Who would want to make such a film?” would be one natural response. “Who could make such a film without horribly trivializing the suffering and injustice of that time?” might be another. The answer to both questions, in my judgment, is Quentin Tarantino.

The latter end of 2012 has already given us one nigh-impeccable slavery-era picture in Lincoln, an unquestionably great film perhaps weakened only by its near exclusive (and by most accounts necessary) focus on the agency of white males. It is a “prestige picture”–restrained, beautiful, moving and noble. Quentin Tarantino’s historical revenge follow-up to Inglorious Basterds is at times beautiful and, yes, moving in its own way (and emotionally wrenching in a way Lincoln was not). Restrained and noble, however–those are for the white boys. Django Unchained is excessively bloody, ridiculous, cocksure and self-consciously witty. And it celebrates from beginning to end a black male agency that leaves no white oppressor unavenged.

The story begins with Django (Jamie Foxx), chained, trudging for miles with other slaves towards an eventual sale at market. This is interrupted by the return to Tarantino World of Christoph Waltz in the role of a German (Dr. King Schultz) working in America as a bounty hunter. That Django can help him with a bounty inspires him to secure his freedom, setting the plot in motion. They ease into a mentor/protege relationship, with Schultz training Django in reading and sharpshooting and the two of them earning several large bounties over a long winter (via montage, of course). Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Brunhilde (a gorgeous Kerry Washington), who was sold off to different owners after a joint escape attempt. Why help this black stranger? “I’ve never freed anyone before. I suppose I feel somewhat responsible for what happens to you.”

Brunhilde now lives and works on the vast Candie plantation, or “Candie Land”, which is overseen by an unctuously cruel Leonardo DiCaprio and his old Uncle Tom house servant played with refreshing nuance and intelligence by Samuel L. Jackson. The majority of the film depicts the protagonists’ efforts to rescue her, which they must accomplish by legal means (purchasing and manumission) for Django and Brunhilde to have a hope of a peaceful future. Framed by a German fable related by the benevolent Schultz, the plot is a self-conscious fusion of mythology and history that seeks to provide a romantic and victorious hero for an oppressed people who had too few.

This is all problematized by Tarantino’s love for the violent vengeance flicks of the 1970’s and our heroes’ occupation as bounty hunters. For the white viewer, Schultz is the closest one has to audience surrogate and moral compass, and by admission his bounty hunting job, like slavery, trades in cash for human bodies. Tarantino is egging us on. His depiction of the worst of slavery (we must assume Django’s horrors only scratch the surface) is edited so as to both spare us and revolt us. It begs the question of whether good men (in the classic Western tradition the film has little use for women except as prizes) can get along in such a world. His most virtuous characters are yet enraged and energized by the violence around them, resulting in a climax of orgiastic arterial geysers intended as cathartic comeuppance for the worst the white man had to offer the black.

I have thought much about my response to this film. I am uncomfortable with eagerly getting in on the vengeance thrill ride, something I more readily participated in when Taratino’s targets were Nazis. I am uncomfortable with implicitly saying, “I feel all the righteous anger of this oppressed people as if I know what it means to be personally affected by their oppression.” In other words, as one never having been the victim of American racism I am hesitant to pretend like I “get it” the way a Black American might. Also, the systemic mass murder of Jews had an end put to it with the force of a World War, whereas despite the Civil War and all the events of Lincoln white-on-black racism is still very much alive in this country and the socioeconomic fallout of slavery continues to affect the black experience in this country in countless toxic ways. It’s a living issue for me in the way that murderous anti-Semitism is not, and that complicated the film for me.

I also found myself, during Django more than any other film by Tarantino, questioning the morality of the director’s viewpoint. Does he wholeheartedly endorse everything Django does? Does he have a healthy dose of humanism (a thin line he danced nimbly in Basterds) in the way he treats his racist villains? Or, as it is for me and no doubt many others, is race still too potent of an issue? Does Tarantino find himself, like his characters, ignoring what seems reasonable in favor of what satisfies his righteous anger?

I am reminded of something the frequent Tarantino-critic Spike Lee said about his incendiary Do the Right Thing, which ends with a violent act of vandalism against whites. Asked whether the vandal–the main character of the film played by himself–had in fact Done the Right Thing, Lee responded, “No person of color has ever asked me that question.” Does Django do the right thing? Tarantino doesn’t seem to care.

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