Archive for January, 2013

Sleepwalk with Me (2012)

Starring- Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane, Cristin Milioti

Directors- Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish

PG-13- some sexual content and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9tRN7bok4o

“I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s true. I always have to tell people that because, inevitably, someone will come up to me and be like, ‘Was that true?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Was it?’ I don’t know how to respond to that. Like, I guess I could say it louder, you know. I could be like, ‘YEAH!’ and they’d be like, ‘It’s probably true. He said it louder.’”

We seem to take it as a given that most comedy is exaggerated or even falsified. We no longer really require our standup comedians to be telling us the truth so long as they’re being funny about it. For the ones who are telling the truth, though, it’s got to feel a bit like you’re the only person not crying wolf, but that doesn’t mean anybody believes you.

Sleepwalk with Me is the film equivalent of Mike Birbiglia saying it louder — a lot louder. It’s Exhibit A in the Mike Birbiglia Knows This Subject Too Intimately to Be Making It Up trial. And everything we know about Birbiglia outside of this film and his standup suggests that most of it is indeed true.

And while Birbiglia isn’t a born filmmaker, he is so honest and observant that Sleepwalk with Me becomes fascinating almost on a meta-level — as a cultural artifact, as a thing that really shouldn’t exist but does somehow.

Semiautobiographical, Sleepwalk with Me tells the story of struggling standup comedian Matt Pandamiglio (Matt Birbiglia, who luckily isn’t trying to fool anybody). He tends a bar while trying to get big performing the same fifteen-minute routine over and over again — it’s all the material he has, and he isn’t sure where to get more. He’s been dating the same girl for eight years and hasn’t proposed to her; in fact, he barely managed to move in with her. And perhaps worst of all, he has a terrible and potentially dangerous sleepwalking problem.

Watching his sister get married is one of the final straws into realizing that, somehow, his life is playing out with an entirely different tone than the one he sees in the people around him.

Sleepwalk with Me is the story of his journey outward from that point.

They say, “Write what you know,” and Sleepwalk with Me is at its best when Birbiglia is doing exactly that — which is most of its runtime.

Naturally, that’s especially true where its commentary on the craft of standup comedy is concerned. I wasn’t familiar with Birbiglia’s work prior to this movie. If the ideal purpose of a movie based on a book is to get you to read the original, then Sleepwalk with Me succeeds in its own version of that goal: it got me to look him up.

My relationship with comedy tends to be pretty similar to my relationship with music; I don’t have highly developed critical faculties were either are concerned. It’s simply luck of the draw that the things I tend to enjoy in both categories also tend to be acclaimed by the critical elite. I really only know what I find funny and what I don’t.

So, for me, Sleepwalk with Me was an enlightening film as much as an enjoyable one. It delineates the differences between a routine that really works and one that really doesn’t and, for a lot of people, may serve to illustrate why they like what they like even if they don’t particularly know why they like it.

From the beginning of the film, Birbiglia’s fictional self is funny in real-life — awkward and self-conscious, but self-aware and witty enough to use it as a weapon. When he gets on stage, though, he collapses. A booking agent tells him, “You’re not very funny.” She’s right.

It takes the advice of another comedian to set him on the right track. In the first act, Birbiglia tries to write comedy around the notion of “witty observations”; he looks for things about which he can have “clever insights” and tries to structure his routine around those things, around essentially making fun of him.

When he and the other comedian are talking, the other one finds him funny, simply while he’s talking about his life. Good comedy is as much about the story and the character as it is about simply being clever. To be truly observant, you have to some extent to have lived it. It has to be close to you; in a weird way, you have to love your subject matter. When Birbiglia drops the script and starts talking about his life off-the-cuff while he’s performing at a bar one night, that’s when it all comes together and becomes funny.

It’s also when he becomes successful. The film really gets beneath the skin of what it means to have a job like this in the modern world — the travel, the loneliness, the complete lack of free time, the late nights, the empty hotel rooms. Birbiglia has an undeniable talent for juxtaposing the tragedy and awfulness of something with a twisted sense of humor that simultaneously stirs the audience’s sympathies and also makes them laugh at the same time. The climax of the film is ripe with this; the imagery is grotesque, but it’s so bizarre, and everyone is so unsure what to do with it that it takes on the tone of really effective black comedy.

But what makes Sleepwalk with Me so effective not just as a comedy but as a semiautobiographical story of its directors’ life is that Birbiglia is uncommonly self-aware, which, combined with his honesty and bravery, makes it a remarkably self-critical film. It never becomes self-loathing, but it shows that Birbiglia has a full understanding of everything that’s wrong with him and is trying to repair it instead of blaming everyone around him for his problems.

He understands that he is — or was, anyway — trapped by comfort over risk, that he doesn’t fear commitment so much as the loss of passion, that left to his own devices he will allow his life to stay exactly where it is. On a philosophical level, he seems to understand very well the why and how of everything about his life, and he’s able to convey it in a way that resonates even as he’s sleep-chasing jackals in his bedroom.

What maybe holds the movie back from being anything more than just “nice” is that, while Birbiglia himself comes across as a “character” who is well rounded and intimately understood, the supporting cast is mostly sketched a touch on the broad side — whether that’s because he wanted to avoid stepping on the toes of the real-life versions of these people or because they’re simply not well written is anyone’s guess.

The other characters in Sleepwalk with Me aren’t terrible, but they mostly land with a resounding thud that leaves little sense of them beyond their surface emotions or their individual quirks and oddities.

Moreover, it’s clear that Birbiglia is a comedian rather than a director or an actor. At acting, he is not terrible, but he sometimes feels like he’s not quite enough of a screen presence on which one can successfully anchor an entire film. He’s best when he’s being funny and passable when he’s shooting for the deeper emotions. He could be a supporting character in just about any movie he wants, but he doesn’t come across as leading man material.

As a director, he also achieves something near competence and doesn’t advance far beyond that. The look and style of the film is mostly pretty pedestrian, coming across more as a TV movie than a theatrical release or even an obscure art film. It becomes difficult to remember you’re not watching a television sit-com now and then; the presentation and even, occasionally, scripting simply feel too straightforward and unimaginative.

But in a weird way, this also somewhat adds to the film’s charms. The great thing about Sleepwalk with Me is that it’s wholly unpretentious. The amateurish quality of it doesn’t improve it, per se, but it does keep it from getting lost in its own intellectualism. When I say that Birbiglia is not a great actor or a great director, I get the sense that he’d probably agree with me. He’d probably say he’s just a guy who wanted to make a movie about what he went through and, through some alchemy, actually managed to do it. And thus, it’s the most personal and honest version of the story we could get.

Birbiglia’s honest, funny, self-critical without being self-loathing, and sporadically observant and insightful. I might not watch Sleepwalk with Me again, but I’m glad I did once, and I’m sure to have a long future with his standup. All in all: mission accomplished.

-Matt T.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Starring- Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Michael Chernus, Corey Stoll, Zeljko Ivanek, Neil Brooks Cunningham, Albert Finney, Dennis Boutsikaris, David Straitharn, Ray Wills, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Joan Allen

Director- Tony Gilroy

PG-13- violence and action sequences

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4McdaMBK1Tk

The Bourne Legacy is bad in ways that make its predecessors look even better by comparison, which has to come as good news to Matt Damon and bad news to, well, pretty much everyone else.

As a sequel, it’s the rough equivalent of making a Star Wars sequel wherein the guy who got his arm chopped off in the cantina in A New Hope briefly decides to get revenge and then gets wrapped up in some unrelated conflict somewhere else — except that at least that would still be working exclusively with established elements within the universe of the series. Maybe a more apt comparison would be if that guy did all that, but was also an X-Man for no reason.

The Bourne Legacy basically borrows a few previously forgotten side characters from the other movies and then applies them to a plot that only tangentially has anything to do with them. It’s lazy, wholly unnecessary, and doesn’t even manage to nail down what the original trilogy did right, even as it blunders through pretty much everything else.

So, the actions of Jason Bourne in the previous films have essentially exposed the secret agent program Treadstone and whatever Blackbriar was (I forget). They now threaten to expose the government’s other other secret agent program, Option, which is basically the same thing as Treadstone except with superhumans, which makes one wonder how Treadstone wasn’t obsolete anyway.

Agents in Option are treated with pills that enhance all of their human abilities. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is one of them. He’s on a training mission in Alaska when the government decides that covering up Option involves leaving a trail of dead bodies across the entire globe and tries to kill him. He survives, naturally.

And with his pills having run out, he only has one place to run — right toward his former employers.

You can probably see one of the key problems here. A sci-fi element like magic superpower pills is one that’s pretty easily abused when it’s the centerpiece of a completely original, non-sequel film. But when it’s introduced into a franchise in which its existence had not been previously established — not to mention a franchise that formerly took pride in having some semblance of realism — then frankly, it’s entire purpose is almost certainly abuse.

The pills — chems, as everyone in the film calls them — are only there because there’s no plot without them. If Aaron Cross is a regular agent, then, after surviving the attempt on his life, he simply fakes his death, hides somewhere, and watches the credits roll. The chems were added to the plot because they’re really his only motivation for doing anything.

We know this because the chems result in demonstrable superpowers for about the first fifteen minutes of the film, which show us one wild trick after another. And then, said superpowers are forgotten. The rest of the movie plays out pretty much the way any action movie about a secret agent would. That the chems do anything at all could easily be forgotten if not for the fact that the movie reminds the audience constantly through some of the most incomprehensible and overlong science exposition ever committed to film.

The chems are the movie’s excuse for existing. The plot can have them do anything it wishes in order to continue moving forward. Halfway through, the concept of “viralling off” the pills is introduced for the sole purpose of giving Cross somewhere else to go and something else to do. They also give his sole ally, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), an excuse to continue to exist.

And when the plot runs out of chem-based contrivance, it invents an entirely new and even more ridiculous antagonistic force directly out of nowhere for the sole purpose of having an action climax. The film is pretty much full sci-fi at this point. It quits being a Bourne movie after about ten minutes. The rest of the film only sporadically mentions Bourne’s name to remind us that, indeed, he did exist and is still the supposed cause for all of this. Not the exact definition of the word “legacy,” I wouldn’t think.

Honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of the other three Bourne films. I don’t dislike them; neither do I think they’re among the greatest action movies ever made. But at least they had something resembling a plot, even if it wasn’t always a great one. They had twists and turns, and even if the big revelations were generally pretty predictable, at least there was a sense of mystery about it that kept you turning the pages. The Bourne Legacy is a fetch quest bereft of any driving force. It merely invents new reasons to get Cross from place to place. It is the first film in which every page of the script is hung solely on the action sequences.

Speaking of those… One major gripe I’ve always had about this series is that it drags its feet through the muck of the darkest parts of human nature and society and has nothing much to say about it. The Bourne Legacy has really given me cause to appreciate its predecessors more in this regard, because it is simultaneously more brutal and less burdened by conscience than they were.

The other three may have distracted themselves with action scenes and general cool factor. But at least their protagonist was really looking in the mirror and confronting the things that he had done. He was realizing that one can go too far in the pursuit of national security or some abstract notion of “the greater good.” He was facing the fact that he was once a monster, and his whole goal is to get off the map, away from the people who helped make him that way, and start anew.

Aaron Cross… Let’s just get this out of the way. He is a terrible, terrible person. Sure, there’s one flashback that exists solely for the purpose of establishing that he has doubts about what he does — not by actually showing compassion, mind you, but simply by looking sad for about two seconds after some undefined thing went wrong. But that he once doubted his actions in the past is not as pertinent as the fact that he clearly did not act upon them and is continuing to live and work as an assassin for a government organization that is clearly willing to kill in the name of convenience as often as necessity.

He is a bad man fighting against other bad men. Our only justification in rooting for him is that the other guys fired the first shot. And if that’s all it takes, then screw it, everybody’s a hero.

It is, in some ways, a retread of part of what doesn’t work for me about the other Bourne movies — a guy who contributes nothing to society outside of his skill for violence fleeing from a murderous government. They wreak general havoc until one of them emerges more unscathed than the other — rinse, repeat. To quote The Thin Red Line: does their ruin benefit the earth?

They go to some of the darkest places of human existence and don’t shy away from it, but then they maintain this notion that they can still somehow exist first and foremost for the entertainment of an undemanding public. The Bourne Legacy features one of the most brutal, realistic, and emotionally draining portrayals of workplace violence I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. There ought not to be any going back from that. It seems that you shouldn’t be able to revert to just being some dumb fun action movie. But The Bourne Legacy goes for it, and it doesn’t look back.

One gets the impression none of the characters in it really learn much. As previously stated, it isn’t overly burdened with conscience. It’s a clash of the titans; it ends when one of them fails to stand back up. When it gets moral, it looks ridiculous. Cross never much questions what he does, but when he learns that scientists are doing shady things for the government — the wretches!

It is the sort of movie that’s well made enough on a scene-to-scene basis that it could easily trick you into thinking it’s good. The dialogue, the cinematography, the editing, the directing… It’s all designed to look very professional, and to exude some facsimile of intelligence. And it might be intelligent, depending on how much of the science is nonsense (and my bet is all of it), but it lacks wisdom.

If it’s got any point of strength, it’s probably its cast, which goes without saying, given that most of its supporting characters are veterans in bit parts who are only here out of obligation to the franchise. Jeremy Renner is given absolutely nothing whatsoever to work with as far as the script, but he does the best with what he has. He needs more to craft a character, but at least he finds mannerisms and quirks and a general demeanor. That he and Rachel Weisz’s character do warm to one another believably also has far more to do with the two of them than it does with the script.

But on the whole, The Bourne Legacy has all the weaknesses of a Bourne film, but without the plot or the sporadic hints of conscience between scenes of brutal violence. And also without Bourne, which wouldn’t have to be a problem if the rest of the movie was at least tangentially related to the plot of the series and didn’t introduce unbelievable and unprecedented sci-fi elements. It’s the type of sequel that claims to explore the implications of its predecessors, but really only makes them more confusing, kind of like how Return of the Jedi makes perfect sense if the prequels don’t exist.

The Bourne Legacy never even begins to make a convincing case for its own existence.

 

-Matt T.

Arbitrage (2012)

Starring- Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker, Stuart Margolin, Chris Eigeman, Graydon Carter, Bruce Altman, Larry Pine, Curtiss Cook, Reg E. Cathey

Director- Nicholas Jarecki

R- language, brief violent images and drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmJSV9ePx7c

It’s my philosophy — and it’s held true in my life thus far — that it’s impossible to truly hate someone if you understand them. It becomes, therefore, one of art’s most useful purposes not only to explore the lives of the downtrodden, hurting, and misunderstood, but also to shine a light into the people who are, in a lot of ways, responsible for that.

It’s a way of looking into the abyss and finding how closely we stand to it in our own dealings — and Arbitrage, rare among American films, is liable to make you glad you don’t have money, that you aren’t “too big to fail.” But moreover, it’s a way of looking at the world that’s redemptive and human. It’s been said that, even in the best among us, there is a hidden bit of darkness that could emerge given the right provocation and that, even in the worst of us, there is a sliver of humanity and goodness. That Arbitrage sees the line and walks it carefully, in a measured and even-handed way, is why it stands tall, thus far, among the unfairly overlooked great films of the year.

Films like Margin Call have already explored some of the “how” of the financial collapse; Arbitrage is one of the first fictional works to really explore the why. It’s not about the collapse, technically speaking, but the mindset here is precisely the same one that could’ve caused it. Not all sociopaths are murderers, after all.

Not that Robert Miller (Richard Gere) would consider himself a sociopath. After all, he is a family man, and he’s only got the best interests of his employees and investors at heart. Right?

He manages a hedge fund with his daughter (Brit Marling) and is preparing to sell it for a considerable profit. However, he’s keeping a secret — he’s committed a little fraud in order to cover an investment loss. His daughter and his employees are all in the dark about this.

He’s got another secret, too — an extramarital affair with a young artist (Laetitia Casta). He’s giving her a ride one night when he falls asleep at the wheel, hits a guardrail and flips the vehicle — killing her.

He knows that being exposed as the driver will end the sale of his hedge fund. Ending the sale of his hedge fund would, in turn, inevitably expose his fraud.

And that would just be bad for everyone, wouldn’t it?

The brilliance of Arbitrage is that it manages to endear a character to the audience and make its members sympathize with him without condoning his actions — and without portraying him as anything other than an awful human being.

The way it does this is by emphasizing the human being, and letting the awful speak mainly for itself.

It’s less about presenting his actions as morally correct and more about giving the audience a clear window into the way his mind works. His worldview is a twisted one, carefully adjusted with years of practice and tweaking to best allow him to sleep at night.

He’s the type of individual who might well be a great superhero antagonist, one who rants about the common good while gunning down everyone he sees as standing in the way of it. He truly is too big to fail — he believes his position in the world must be maintained. If he falls, too many other people will fall with him, or so he says. Because of this, he must be above the law, he must be above fair play, he must have every advantage. If he doesn’t, people lose money. It’s his job to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is the lie he tells himself.

He comes off as a complete sociopath early on, seemingly apathetic to the feelings of others except where those feelings prevent him from getting what he wants out of other people. Everything he does feels like a calculated manipulation. Sometimes, he’s warm and caring, but it’s always because he wants something. He knows exactly what to do and say. He comes out atop every situation in which he finds himself. When his lover dies, he seems concerned with her only for a moment — after that, it’s about him, about preserving his own reputation and status.

But perhaps it’s truer that it’s easier for him to view people as the statistics on his annual financial reports: this much money was lost by x percent, this much money was gained by the other x percent. Confronted with genuine human suffering, in his face, where he can’t deny it, it seems to provoke some feeling, however briefly. There are people for whom he seems to feel love, or something like it. But he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it; it’s not something he can quantify or turn to his own favor. He reverts to the selfish option.

He wants to think of himself as a good man, steadfastly preserving himself for the betterment of society, simply because he knows this is what he has a social responsibility to be. He is a man trying to figure out how to serve two masters — himself and everybody else. When those interests collide, he seeks the former and tries to find some way to twist it to being about the latter.

But ultimately, his worldview benefits those around him only in the short term at best — at length, and shared by everyone of his status, the end result is anarchy only. And we see that.

Miller is warned right at the beginning of his journey that the best path for him personally is this: turn himself in. Do it now. Things will get worse.

The confidant doesn’t seem to imply that Miller will get caught. He might. But in a lot of ways, it’s worse if he doesn’t.

Sometimes, my environment corresponds very nicely — usually by pure coincidence — with what I happen to be writing at the moment. As I was forging through this review, I happened to be listening to “City with No Children” by Arcade Fire, and the following lyric jumped out at me:

 

I feel like I’ve been living in

A city with no children in it
A garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside
Of a private prison

 

   That the film makes the audience, in a strange way, like Miller only compounds the fact that we’re rooting for him not to get what he wants — not just because what he wants is wrong morally, but because it’s wrong for him.

Inevitably, his lies and misdirects pile up. He creates more and more and must maintain them. They start to break him down, gradually shaking his previously impenetrable composure.

Worse still is the fact that they drag down everyone around him and make criminals of nearly all of them. He’s perfectly willing to sacrifice a young friend who owes him a favor for “the greater good,” even as that friend was just beginning to get his life back on track. Of course, he can find a way out — he always does. And everyone emerges richer, but both have paid for their new status with the blood of a young woman whose mother will never have justice.

He’s willing to sacrifice his daughter, too. He knows — and she knows — that regardless of how complicit she was in the actual fraud, if he goes down, she goes down with him. She’s either a criminal or the airhead who let the person closest to her at her own company slip undetected beneath her gaze. She will have to keep his lie.

By the end of the film, it doesn’t matter if Miller is caught — and it’d be better for him if he was. The most tragic version of the film, ultimately, is the one in which he gets away with it, the one in which he’s fated to live in a prison of his own creation, one that he’s convinced himself he inhabits as a martyr bearing the burden of mankind’s sins.

It would’ve been easy enough for Richard Gere’s performance here to change the nature of the script. Miller’s words and actions, taken by themselves, could make him a villain only and nothing more; fortunately, Gere approaches the character in as measured and realistic a way as the film. His personality is in the details. His morality might be built on a lie, but it’s a lie he believes, and he only occasionally starts to doubt it. Gere makes him warm and human, the kind of person charismatic enough that you understand why people will follow him unknowingly into disaster. He could’ve easily been a one-note villain.

Much the same, his opposition could’ve been composed solely of one-note heroes. It would be easy enough to portray the investigating officer, Detective Bryer (Tim Roth), as the heroic voice of the common people fighting to bring to justice a bad man who uses his unfair monetary advantage to cover his tracks.

But really, Bryer, while not a bad man himself, is more the uprising of the proletariat than the strong but even hand of justice. He’ll do whatever it takes to bring Miller down, simply because he doesn’t want to see another fat cat get away with murder because he has money. It doesn’t seem to matter much to him whether or not Miller actually did it.

At the same time, Arbitrage is truly at its best when it’s acting more as a character study than a story that branches out into a number of subplots. Bryer’s inclusion represents a nice, even-handed touch, but it distracts from the film’s true purpose — or, at least, its true strength: shedding light into the mindset of the type of person who could screw over thousands of innocent people to preserve his bottom line, and doing so without making him a complete monster bereft of humanity.

It’s also got a small touch of the Christopher Nolan Problem, as I’ve taken to calling it, in that it shoots for apocalyptic right off the bat and mostly stays there, sitting right in Serious Dramatic Stuff Happening Mode and rarely breaking character. Even when the film is in the midst of a quiet or human moment, it shoots everything in darkness or, at best, dim orange light, and it frequently maintains the ominous, sometimes atonal scoring, sometimes to the film’s detriment. Arbitrage is a stronger script and piece of acting than of presentation overall

But those strengths reign supreme in the end. Arbitrage is a film of profound tragedy and sadness, of the way we build inescapable prisons for ourselves in the interest of mere survival or the perpetual chasing of something more than what we have. More importantly, it puts a face on the nameless rich who have been the subject of so much political dialogue of late. Like all the best art, it facilitates understanding, and it makes hatred impossible. And then… Then, we can truly talk. Then, we can truly solve this problem.

 

-Matt T.

To Rome with Love (2012)

Starring- Judy Davis, Flavio Parenti, Roberto Beningni, Alison Pill, Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi, Alec Baldwin, Carol Alt, David Pasquesi, Antonio Albanese, Lynn Swanson, Fabio Armiliato, Monica Nappo, Ornella Muti, Woody Allen, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page

Director- Woody Allen

R- some sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIbYqxqtP38

In the end, I’ve decided that I think the fact that I have nothing particularly interesting to say about To Rome with Love is more its fault than it is mine. The more I consider it, put it under a microscope and examine it, the more I think that it’s not that I didn’t “get” it; it’s that there really isn’t much to “get” to begin with.

Usually, given time to reflect, my opinion about a film will change; it’s why I ordinarily hold off a few days to write a review.

Here, it was a bad idea. I remembered almost nothing about To Rome with Love an hour after I’d finished watching it. Three days later, it’s basically a two-hour blank space in my memory. What little I recall is this: as much as I liked Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love is borderline insufferable.

A vignette-style look at the titular city, which an opening monologue informs us is full of stories, To Rome with Love tells the separate tales of four different groups of people on varying adventures through Rome.

In one, a tourist meets and falls in love with a local, eventually deciding to marry him and bringing her family over to meet him. Of course, her father is more interested in restarting his opera career when he realizes that the young man’s father is a gifted singer — but only in the shower.

In another, a vacationing architect falls in with students at his old alma mater, and watches as one young student begins to fall away from the girl of his dreams and toward the girl of his passions.

Still another follows an ordinary local man who abruptly becomes a celebrity one day, for no apparent reason. And the last details a farcical case of mistaken identity in which a young man on his honeymoon has a prostitute mistaken for his wife and must maintain the illusion in order to avoid the appearance of infidelity — while his real wife, meanwhile, gets mixed up with a movie star.

These plots never intersect and don’t, that I noticed, have a shared thematic through-line. I’m pretty sure infidelity becomes a part of all of them at some point, but in one only tangentially. The film plays more like Ideas Woody Allen Had for Movies That He Couldn’t Develop into Full-Length Features.

And even that would be passable, were all of these stories interesting, but they just…aren’t. Each of these stories sounds like the premise for an episode of a middling TV sitcom. And they all play out like it, too. There really aren’t any new characters here or new concepts. The movie doesn’t play any of these little stories from any new angle. It doesn’t find new humor out of it, and it doesn’t construct the greatest message either.

Even when it’s clearly trying to say something — such as in the second of the previously described stories — it flounders. Yeah, sure, I can get behind you when you say, “Don’t go after someone flighty, insincere, and unstable simply because he or she incites your passions and gives you, superficially, what you want.”

But the movie also says, “Stay with the person who is right for you.” And it has to tell the audience this, because the person who is “right” for the protagonist has no chemistry with him whatsoever. Frankly, the two seem bored with each other. And she’s insecure and clingy and nowhere near as complete a person as he is.

And each of the stories is played with that distinct Woody Allen personality. There’s a layer of comedic unreality to it all, but beneath it, there’s a grounded and human quality that begs to be taken seriously. When it strikes the wrong balance — and it frequently does — it can leave the audience really confused as to how it’s supposed to feel about certain developments.

The story I mentioned just now is probably the best one. Its tone works the best, and it mostly involves the best actors. The one with the honeymooning couple and the prostitute is decent, too; it gets the most laughs, anyway. The subplot with the opera singer varies. It has problems striking the right tone, and its serious moments fall flat, but it has a scattered handful of laughs, too — it’s nice to see Allen in front of the camera again. The subplot about the man who becomes a sudden celebrity, though, is hands-down the worst; it’s dull, dry, and generic, only sporadically funny and populated by characters who simply are not remotely interesting. And it has nothing much to say beyond “fame kind of sucks sometimes,” which, yeah, we know. It’s been done a thousand times and would’ve improved the movie significantly by having been left on the cutting room floor.

But mostly, To Rome with Love seems to exist largely to make Midnight in Paris look even better by comparison. It’s only now that I realized how strong that movie’s script was to have managed to distract me from how much I really do not like Woody Allen at all as a director — granted that I have seen few of his films. In To Rome with Love, though… I realized that, honestly, I find his work kind of tough to watch.

There’s a veneer of cutesiness and insincerity to the whole thing. Everything feels very stagy. I don’t like the way Allen films his actors. He always likes to keep things at a distance, leaving tons of space in the shot, but still cutting his actors off at some weird and ill-advised place near the knees, making things feel cramped and empty at the same time. Half the time, it seems like there are only enough extras in the background to populate the scenes until they end; there isn’t much sense that the world continues beyond the characters’ stories. He romanticizes the heck out of his locations. Rome here, like Paris in his last film, is so bright and sunny and clean, full of well-dressed, polite, and cheerily cultural people, that it starts to feel like a place that doesn’t exist.

And his dialogue… Tell me, ladies, have you ever, in casual conversation, described a friend who’s coming over as “smart, funny, exudes sexuality?” I’m mainly focusing on that last one. That seems like a weird thing to say about someone. But Woody Allen’s characters say stuff like that all the time.

And what is Alec Baldwin’s character in this? He talks and behaves like he ought to be a figment of Jesse Eisenberg’s imagination; yet, he has a subplot of his own that starts prior to the two of them meeting, and he also openly interacts with other characters in every scene he’s in. What is he supposed to be? Why does everyone let him hang out? Why is he always sitting there, three feet away, when people are having an intimate and private moment? Why does he openly criticize characters who are visibly within earshot of him? In the end, one simply has to take it as part of the bizarre world this film inhabits, one that sits on the precipice of absurdity and reality and never really finds either one.

It amounts to a forgettable and confusing experience. It’s not a movie that levels any particular offense; it simply evaporates even as you’re watching it. Any movie that has four main plots that subdivide into probably eight main plots is going to have this problem, but more so with To Rome with Love. It’s a series of four-to-eight stories that have all been done before, and in the exact same way. Allen applies as much of his own personality as possible, at least, but to some extent, that almost makes it worse.

To Rome with Love is not a terrible film — at least, not in the sense that I’d define it — but it’s alternatively boring and just too adorable. It has the feel of a TV movie, and not a very good one. It has little to say and not much to do. It meanders, then ends. There are a few laughs here and there, if only drawn from the absurdity of it all. But beyond that, it’s a long two hours, and there’s nothing in it that isn’t done better in Midnight in Paris, so, for me — I’ll just stick with that one.

-Matt T.

Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)

Starring- Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifah, Josh Peck, Seann William Scott, Chris Wedge, Keke Palmer, Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lopez, Josh Gad, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Wanda Sykes, Aziz Ansari, Alain Chabat, Nick Frost, Kunal Nayyar, Rebel Wilson, Joy Behar, Ben Gleib, Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo, Alan Tudyk

Directors- Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier

PG- mild rude humor and action/peril

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yFM32FwrDk

You may be wondering, if you are a new reader, why I am interrupting my reviews of Academy Award-nominated films and movies one might reasonably expect not to be terrible with a review of, well…Ice Age: Continental Drift.

The answer, dear readers, is simple: I do not know.

For some reason, my brain forces me never to do anything halfway, including writing reviews for a WordPress blog whose domain name I don’t even own. As such, I make a conscious effort to see everything even when there’s no chance of it being anything approaching watchable. And, well, let’s face it, Nicki Minaj’s name is ever going to appear in the credits of something that isn’t awful.

I think my positive review of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is going to go down as a great personal regret of mine. That was my first year doing this, which for all intents and purposes might as well have been my first year watching movies. I haven’t marked it down yet, because I haven’t seen it since my original review — aside from the five minutes or so I watched on FX a few weeks ago, during which the entirety of my thought process amounted to, “Aw, man, this movie sucks, doesn’t it?”

But yeah, Ice Age: Continental Drift: the horse is very, very dead.

And was there ever any life in it to begin with? Dawn of the Dinosaurs is probably terrible, even if I can’t confirm that for certain; then again, I didn’t even like it all that much back when I was stupid. I haven’t seen the second one in a while, so I’ll have to refrain from commentating on it.

And the first one… Yeah, it’s all right, but was it great? Like, did it demand sequels? Not that most things do, but still.

Anyway. In Ice Age: Continental Drift, Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), and Diego the Saber-Toothed Tiger (Denis Leary, and also they totally broke the alliteration on that one) are goofing off in all the usual family movie ways until the continents start moving in a totally impossible way, separating them from family and friends and stranding them at sea. (In addition to Sid’s Granny, played by Wanda Sykes, who has nothing to do with anything ever and yet is still somehow the most entertaining character.)

And then there’s adventures and mayhem and whatever. And there’s a subplot with the family back home trying to get to a land bridge, which involves teenage romance as performed totally non-awkwardly by wooly mammoths. And also implied inter-species romance, which is a thing that, seriously, guys, is way too common in kids’ movies like this.

I really don’t like talking about the problems with movies like Ice Age: Continental Drift, because, 1) it is the fourth installment in a franchise without a continuous storyline, and that has pretty much never gone well, and 2) it’d be like pointing out the flaws in someone’s murder scheme.

But alas, here we are.

The main problems are twofold and readily apparent without having seen the movie. Just…seriously, guys, look at that cast list. That is not a cast; that is a freaking competition. Reading the IMDB page for this bad boy was a revelation; there are recognizable names going all the way down into the Additional Voices section. Everybody who has so much as a line in this thing is played by a recognizable celebrity. For heaven’s sake, they got Patrick Stewart for a part that could not possibly have been longer than two minutes long and was not, for the record, a part that required him, like a Star Trek parody or something.

At any rate, this movie is not nearly interesting enough to overpower the constant mental race the viewer is running, thinking, “Okay, I have heard that guy before, and it’s going to drive me nuts until I figure out who it is.”

Nicki Minaj, you guys. Nicki Minaj. What is this I don’t even…

And at the beginning of this whole franchise… Like, in the first Ice Age, I seem to recall there only being, like, three characters in the main cast. Now, we have — and this is just a rough estimate, as I haven’t had time to properly calculate the results just yet — something like three million. And everybody’s got some kind of character arc to go through. With that many players, even the main cast pretty much has to wrap it up in fifteen minutes, all told. The writers forget that half of them even exist by the last third. I’d like to go the cynicism-free route and chalk it up to the directors’ imaginations running away with them, and not the amount of new toys they’d be able to sell with a thousand new characters, but honestly… Even if it was a good movie, Ice Age: Continental Drift was never going to be anything other than corporate filmmaking.

And then he complained about the plot, and the characters, and the pacing, and the obvious morals, and the insufferable clichés, and the corny and ineffective relational drama, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And then the humor… The trailers have about two funny lines in them; I was unsurprised to find they’re the only ones. I quoted along with some of the punchlines; they come from miles away. This franchise has always been accused of being a series of amusing shorts related to Scrat (Chris Wedge), the weird squirrel thing that’s always chasing after acorns and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, smashed between an otherwise mediocre movie. But even those bits, one or two moments aside, fall flat in this. They’ve just run the slapstick well dry; there’s no imagination or timing in it anymore.

I haven’t seen the first movie in a while, admittedly. But correct me if I’m wrong — it was a touch solemn, right? It really tried to have an interesting story. It tried to develop its characters meaningfully. It had humor, but the overarching film was somewhat more serious in tone. It tried to be set in the actual Ice Age and was therefore lacking in all this bizarre and confusing modernity, complete with pop culture references and slang. (Seriously, there should be laws against adults attempting to write “how teenagers talk.”) It might have landed a touch on the average side due to framing some of those elements in rather generic and uninspired terms, but still… It was trying to be something. Right?

Ice Age: Continental Drift, on the other hand… Well, it’s just a dumb kids’ movie. It offers almost nothing for adults, and only appeals to children through the most obvious, heavy-handed elements. If it’s got anything going for it, it’s the fact that it’s so lightweight that it mostly loses its ability to level serious offense. But it really isn’t even Ice Age anymore, so, even if you are a fan — why continue to drag it out?

It’s dead, guys. It’s time to hang up the whip.

 

-Matt T.

Frankenweenie (2012)

Starring- Charlie Tahan, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, James Hiroyuki Liao, Dee Bradley Baker

Director- Tim Burton

PG- thematic elements, scary images and action

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBfcGLBJ2Uc

Apparently, all we needed was for Tim Burton to go back to making animated movies.

Now, Frankenweenie, it’s not great or anything. But it represents trademark Tim Burton at his best, in a medium where he can get away with it. It’s the most consistent film he’s made in a while, and yeah — the whole Tim Burton shtick might be getting old, but it’s still entirely distinct from the rest of the industry. The guy has an imagination, and here, it shines.

He might not be growing as an artist, but at least he’s got a solid foundation.

Based on the live action short film by — who else? — Tim Burton, Frankenweenie is a stop-motion animated movie that could essentially be construed as a deeply bizarre prequel to Frankenstein.

It’s about a boy, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) and his dog, Sparky. Victor — a quiet genius — doesn’t really have any friends, but Sparky is all he really needs. The two are inseparable.

So, when Sparky gets hit by a car, Victor isn’t content simply to let go.

He rigs up a machine, and on one stormy night, he lifts Sparky up above the house and lets the lightning do its work.

Sparky returns, and he’s (mostly) none the worse for the wear.

But when some of the neighborhood kids find out and become convinced that Victor’s simply trying to one-up them at the upcoming science fair, Victor’s newfound happiness turns into a twisted web of blackmail and secrets.

Animation, so far, seems to contain Tim Burton’s excesses — or rather, it might be more accurate to say that it provides a proper palate for them.

Live action movies have always seemed to inhibit his creativity. Frequently, he either overcompensates (Alice in Wonderland) or can’t figure out how far divorced from reality he wants to be (Dark Shadows).

With Frankenweenie, Burton seems to have settled on exactly what he wanted, and the end result is a film that, even if it’s not great, reflects a sense of effortlessness and professionalism. It gives Burton a more limitless world than that of human actors and physical sets and allows him to unleash. Because of it, not only does he create a memorably bizarre world, he also manages to find a specific — but unique — tone and personality that mostly doesn’t feel forced or indulgent.

Frankenweenie is lovably…unusual. Victor’s parents at one point speculate about his lack of friends, fearing he’ll turn out “weird.” This is an odd thing to suggest, because Victor is outright normal compared to the standards of everyone else. There appear to be exactly five normal humans in this world — Victor, his parents, neighbor girl Elsa (Winona Ryder), and the corrupt and abrasive mayor (Martin Short).

Of Victor’s peers… Persephone (Dee Bradley Baker) talks to her cat and believes his litter tells the future. ‘E’ Gore (Atticus Shaffer) is, well, Igor. If Victor is the young version of Dr. Frankenstein, then classmate Nassor (also Martin Short) is almost certainly fated to become Dracula (or at least a Creepy Old Guy at a Gas Station in the Middle of Nowhere). And his science teacher (Martin Landau) probably already is Dracula.

That all these characters can inhabit the same universe and have it feel somehow…not grounded, but at least involving and consistent is some kind of feat, particularly considering that Burton has not managed such disparate elements well of late.

ParaNorman’s characters were more types than people, and it suffered for it. Frankenweenie has the same problem, but at least its types are new ones. It is unabashedly weird. But what works about it is that it treats that weirdness with a shrug of its shoulders — “this is just how it is.” It doesn’t seem like it’s trying to draw attention to itself with weird tricks, and that helps make it believable. And at the same time, unlike with Dark Shadows, it draws some humanity out of the weirdness. You don’t feel like you’re supposed to gawk but rather become involved in the story.

It allows Burton to infuse it with a lot of personality and originality — originality by everyone else’s standards, of course, because this is another movie that will win Tim Burton Bingo very quickly. At least there’s no Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter in sight.

Shy, awkward, loner protagonist who’s misunderstood by everyone but is actually happy, content, and kind? Check. You don’t have to know Tim Burton very well in real life to feel like you know him thoroughly by his movies; he is clearly the protagonist of all of them. And it’s got a Danny Elfman score that’s half Batman and half Edward Scissorhands.

But there remain plenty of sights to be seen; Tim Burton is not a well run dry just yet. He’s still capturing this seemingly impossible but surprisingly effective combination of the dark and the whimsical. His films are all macabre imagery combined with a sweet and heartfelt center. I still remember the opening of Edward Scissorhands, with the shot of the exaggerated, ebony-black, gothic castle on a mountain overlooking a colorful, kitschy, and obnoxious picture of 70s suburbia. His films are contradictions, but they blend in really inexplicable ways.

Frankenweenie is, as ever, a visual masterwork — perhaps not the trailblazing stunner that ParaNorman was, but possessed of craftsmanship and attentiveness to spare.

Where it goes wrong… Well, Burton has never been a storyteller so much as a visual artist and an imaginative world-creator. He does manage to craft an unpretentious simplicity in his stories that mostly makes them effective and draws attention away from their weak spots; that’s true of Frankenweenie.

But at the same time, Frankenweenie is the type of film that one is forced to take at face value — a good story, nothing more, the sort of tale you tell because it represents an interesting sequence of events but otherwise lacks any kind of deeper meaning.

Frankenweenie tries to shoot for depth, but it has neither the intelligence or the courage.

In the third act, you can practically hear Tim Burton arguing with himself: “Do we have a happy ending, or do the characters learn a lesson? Happy ending, or lesson? Happy ending, or… LESSON! LESSON! We’re going to have a lesson. We’re making a brave movie; we’re going to learn about the importance of moving on! Hey, how many kids’ movies deal with death in such a frank way? Well, okay, Up, but nothing wrong with second place. Actually… Oh, man, it’s so sad. Seriously, I’m going to cry. Aw, man… NEVER MIND! HAPPY ENDING, HAPPY ENDING! We, like, can’t upset the kids, we just can’t, but… We really had an opportunity to teach them something, you know? Treat ‘em like adults. OKAY, OKAY, CAN WE DO BOTH AT THE SAME TIME? LET’S DO BOTH AT THE SAME TIME! OKAY, WE’RE DOING BOTH AT THE SAME TIME, AND NO TAKE-BACKS!”

It’s a touch braver and more intelligent when it comes to its discussions on science midway through the film. At the same time, that theme comes right out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly, and it’s handled in the least subtle, most speechifying way possible.

The more you try to dissect Frankenweenie, the harder it gets to view it in the same light as something with the intelligence and sheer gutsiness of ParaNorman. There are elements of interest to its message, but at the same time, it doesn’t want to get too uncomfortable, so it just kind of sits there and fights with itself.

And so, in the end, it’s perhaps better to take it simply as a good story and not something you can expect to be thinking about. Which isn’t a bad thing, not at all, but it could certainly be better.

That sentence, come to think of it, really describes Frankenweenie as a whole — not bad at all, but it could’ve been better. It’s a step in the right direction for Burton, capturing quite well his personality and his imagination and getting him back to where his talent lies. At the same time, he’s spent about ten years now not really growing as a filmmaker, so even Good Burton starts to get a bit old. Frankenweenie is good; it’s just nothing that he hasn’t done before. The same strengths, the same weaknesses.

And yet, it’s good viewing.

 

-Matt T.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Starring- Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Amber Henry, Jonshel Alexander

Director- Benh Zeitlin

PG-13- thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZF7i2n5NXLo

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a thorough contradiction. At once beautiful and ugly, professional and rough around the edges, sure-footed and yet clumsy, imitative but unique in its own right…

Distinctly memorable in part, and yet, for me, surprisingly unmemorable on the whole.

It is one of the year’s most outstanding — but undeniably interesting — mixed bags.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, which has drawn widespread and perhaps warranted comparisons to The Tree of Life, is not as much a narrative film as it is an atmospheric one, more invested in mood and emotion than story and character — a noble enough end in itself. It is situated in a time, place, and general progression of events, but mostly only to give it context.

The setting is the Bathtub, a community in the Louisiana wetlands outside of New Orleans. It is a doomed one, too, or so everyone who lives outside of it says. The waters are rising, and the Bathtub is too far below sea level.

The protagonist is a little girl everyone calls Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) — few people in the Bathtub seem to go by their real names. She lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), whose attachment to the Bathtub runs deep and whose health appears to be declining.

Then, the storm comes. It doesn’t matter much which storm it is — possibly Hurricane Katrina, possibly something else. Whatever it is, it submerges most of the Bathtub, leaving behind a steadfast few, including Hushpuppy and her father, to find a place in the world and a way to survive in its wake.

The comparisons to The Tree of Life are pretty on-the-nose overall. It’s not a complete facsimile; one might call it more narrative, for starters, however much meaning that has in this context. One might also call it more symbolic in the sense that its imagery frequently begs for interpretation, despite everything surrounding it being more “concrete” — again, whatever that actually means in this context.

But it finds its roots more in emotion and mood, in scenes rather than wholes, not that things fail to add up — Beasts of the Southern Wild is a puzzle, albeit one that may or may not have a map. It utilizes much of the same types of imagery as The Tree of Life, and also features more philosophical voiceovers than real dialogue.

I may have found more problems with The Tree of Life than did many others who viewed it. Nevertheless, it stands out as possibly the single most memorable film experience I’ve had in the last several years. It might not always have been within my intellectual grasp — or anyone’s, really — but as a work of pure feeling and humanity, of powerful imagery and exceptional filmmaking, even the parts of it that I found didn’t quite coalesce for me remain a distinct entity in my mind. I’m still not entirely sure what to think of the film, and yet, I’d see it again.

I’m not sure that this is true of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

I should preface this by saying that, obviously, this is cracking the Top 10 lists of a lot of people much wiser than me this year. This is, as always, only my opinion. And for me, at the end of the day, Benh Zeitlin is a director who has certainly set himself on the path of greatness with this film, but he hasn’t achieved it yet. At the moment, it feels too much like Imitation Malick without the sure hand and without throwing its own personality into the mix.

Visually, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a frequently beautiful and mesmerizing film, just as frequently as it is wallowing in filth or, alternately, overbearing sterility. There is some marvelous cinematography on display here. The direction, however, is less certain. The camera shakes about far too much, frequently in detriment to the slow and methodical approach the film takes to its story. And the scenes themselves contain less visual power and wonderment than the films to which it seems to aspire. It is not bad visually, mind you, merely a bit less than what it could have been, what it wanted to be. And that becomes noticeable, past a certain point.

Moreover, whereas The Tree of Life seemed able to communicate a concrete and interesting philosophical idea in bits and pieces while still centering itself around the pure emotional component of the life experience, Beasts of the Southern Wild seems more confused, not only about what it’s saying but how it’s saying it.

One could make the argument that its central worldview is one of two things: a celebration of folksy, down-home wisdom and culture and the protection thereof; or a sneaky criticism of that thing exactly. Oddly, though one could argue both ways, both are conveyed with a heavy hand, somewhat inattentive to the complicating details of both situations.

Assuming it is a sneaky criticism: why, then, should the message come across more as “conform” than “adapt, and love?” Why should the film be so inattentive to the real positives of such a lifestyle — not just the simplicity and the (superficial) togetherness, but the true benefits of a quiet life lived with love and attention to culture and loyalty to a group or place? It would seem to encourage togetherness, but it almost leans toward homogeneity — how do we preserve old cultures and simple living while still intertwining and uniting and living together, learning from one another? It would appear to dwell only on the foolishness of it.

If it is not (and I suspect this is the case): why is the film so unaware of the destructiveness of these peoples’ lifestyles? Clearly the Bathtub is indeed fated for destruction, however long the characters manage to postpone it. And clearly these people live day in and day out fighting tooth and nail to survive — inherent to any lifestyle where one is more or less required to have killed something in order to have eaten that day. Why does it not dwell upon the fact that the children of this community are not here by choice but are essentially fated to a life of mere and basic survival? Why does it say nothing about the fact that these people, while their bond is doubtless strong and they are certainly loyal to one another, more often than not express themselves through naked aggression? They do not fully understand themselves, and they do not fully understand the world beyond. They make some terrible decisions before the movie is over in the interest of saving themselves and their community. Might that might not be a problem inherent in the culture? And why are the people of the world beyond, when the appear, portrayed as cold and mechanical when, in truth, they are really there to help? Perhaps they are in the wrong, but they cannot be faulted for their motives.

I suppose, in the end, what I’m saying is this: whatever the film’s message, where is the complexity? Protecting one’s culture, protecting one’s home, protecting one’s family — these are admirable pursuits, but Beasts of the Southern Wild seems almost to place them on a pedestal above everyone else. It becomes a film that, in a lot of ways, is not about the interaction of cultures and peoples; rather, it draws lines between the different groups.

Alas, perhaps I am misreading. I have never been great with films such as this; it’s a flaw on which I am actively working. Beasts of the Southern Wild is also clearly a coming-of-age story, and this aspect is much better. The voiceover is used to show Hushpuppy slowly forming a philosophy about life and her place in the universe, each piece connecting to the other and responding directly to its environment. By the end, she seems ready to assume her place in the world — whatever the film actually believes that place is. I’ve spent a great deal of time attempting to determine what the aurochs — prehistoric creatures who seem to be revived by the melting of the arctic ice but more likely are products of Hushpuppy’s imagination — symbolize, and I’ve decided that I think it’s change. They are at once majestic and brutal. They are violent and unpredictable, turning on one another on a whim. But at the end of the day, they are also necessary. They are, as Hushpuppy says, “friends, kind of.” As much destruction as they leave in their wake, they also leave growth and new life. They inspire heroes to rise to the challenge.

Quvenzhane Wallis is a marvel, which is no news to anyone who’s been reading about this film at length. I’ve often wondered where casting directors dig up undiscovered talents such as these, how they have that instinct to know when someone they’ve encountered is perfect. Wallis is a rarity among child actors, one who seems entirely unaware of the camera’s presence and doesn’t perform to it. One can argue at length about how much depth she brings to the character, but what stands above all else is her ability, surpassing even that of many adults, to seem compelled by the environment in which she finds herself and convinced of the events transpiring around her.

As much praise should be reserved for Dwight Henry. The question of a casting director’s gifts is even more pertinent in this case; the man didn’t even audition. Ostensibly, he was found in a bakery he owned in the area and pressured into auditioning because, for some reason I can’t even begin to fathom, the filmmakers saw something in him. And he’s every bit as natural as Wallis. The relationship the characters have is a confusing but compelling one. One could almost call it abusive. It sometimes seems that Hushpuppy fears Wink as much as she loves him; there is a persistent subtext of affection and hesitance that characterizes their every interaction. He would do anything to protect her and raise her right, and she knows that, but she also knows that he’s a time bomb — the wrong statement at the wrong time can provoke him, sometimes to physical violence. So many of their scenes together are equal parts touching and disturbing; it’s sometimes unclear if Wink is creating a teachable moment or trying to relate to his daughter, or if his anger and fear are beginning to simmer and are emerging through manipulation and control. It is, in other words, a strikingly realistic portrayal of this type of relationship. He’s not a bad man; he means well. We need more films that understand this dynamic.

Outside of that, it’s a film of ugliness and beauty, sometimes at the same time, each drawing out the other. It has such a firm sense of time and place; it took me back to Winter’s Bone, making me wonder: does such a place as this actually exist within the borders of my own nation? Are there truly people in my own country living like this? If it is fictional, then, at the very least, it is a fully constructed world, one that makes sense on its own terms. And regardless of the message it’s trying to get across — and perhaps it simply eluded me — at the very least, it investigated and humanized a group of people without passing any particular judgment on them. Beasts of the Southern Wild is an observer to its subject matter, more often than not.

It’s not a bad film, and I would hate to give that impression. There is certainly very much good about it, possibly even great. It simply warrants more detailed criticisms, because it aspires to so much. At the end of the day — and perhaps this is simply a personal matter that reflects upon me only — I find that it added surprisingly little value to my life and left only a small imprint in my memory and only a few things to really discuss or think about. It’s halfway there, but it’s short of the wisdom for which it’s grasping. At least, it seems that way.

As an early step in a filmmaker’s journey, it is laudable. I do not regret seeing it and would encourage others to do the same. But I doubt that, short of uncovering an alternate analysis that sheds new and compelling light upon it, I will find myself revisiting it again and again.

 

-Matt T.