Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Beasts of the Southern Wild"

 4 / 5 

Hushpuppy's world is about to change, but right now, it's perfect.  On the Louisiana bayou, behind the levee that keeps her home separated from the world everyone else calls civilized, Hushpuppy lives in a community filled with fireworks and sparklers, with babies and old men who are left to roam about on their own and with neighbors, family and friends who don't worry too much about anything.

Except for that storm that's coming, literally and figuratively. In the lovely, rambling, poetic, curious, unexpected Beasts of the Southern Wild, it's going to bring more than rain.  Hushpuppy may only be six, but she knows she had better savor these last moments.

In every scene, in every emotion (and there are many, many emotions), the beating heart of these Beasts that matters the most belongs to Quvenzhane' Wallis.  The life she leads is filled with everyone and no one.

There is a drunk, mostly missing, father.  There are the tavern owners and the daughters of those erstwhile business proprietors.

And in The Bathtub, this town that grew up to be what it wanted and didn't listen to anyone else, has become what its handful of residents want it to be: black, white, old, young, Creole, American, living together.

At their core is Hushpupy.  Her father, Wink, can barely fend for himself.  Her Momma just swam away one day.  These are the truths Hushpuppy has learned, as casually as she explores her big world without restrictions.  She even has her own house, even though she's only six.  That's how unconcerned Wink is with being a father.  But he does love this child, everyone does, and she loves them, even if they leave her to fend for herself and make her own food in the most unlikely and dangerous ways.

So, yes, the storm comes, and it's a disaster.  You have seen on the news the fruitless helicopter searches of swamp and bayou looking for disaster victims.  They don't want to leave.  They are not victims.  They will make do -- "Leave us alone!" you hear, but of course, we can't.

Hushpuppy knows for herself who is bad, who is good; this view is fixed and resolute in her mind.  But with that awful, life-altering, unstoppable rain and wind come death and madness, and she sees it all.  Her small, enclosed world cannot continue, she knows, it is threatened by strange beasts, but she senses her tiny place in a universe that thrives on interconnectedness and precision, and she might have a chance to set things right and keep these monsters at bay: both the real ones that take the form of men, and the possibly imaginary ones she has heard about in her unconventional school lessons and who now seem to have sprung to life.

So far, I've only described feeling and moments in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and that's what the movie is, a worthy cinematic poem that is like a small, quiet version of Terence Malick's Tree of Life, without the pomposity and obliqueness.  There is very little forward narrative in Beasts -- Hushpuppy goes to "school," celebrates one of The Bathtub's endless holidays, loses then finds her father, survives the storm, considers what it would mean to get help, watches her world begin to drown under the relentless water, then does what she can to try to save it, along the way meeting a woman who may be her mother, and trying to fend off these attacking monsters.

There are many riveting moments, none as languid and lovely as this: Away from The Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her silent friends make a strange and perilous journey to a floating brothel, where they meet prostitutes who could be their lost mothers and share a moment of intimate peace and human connection so quiet and haunting you want to cry.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is neither a documentary nor a linear narrative film, it's neither a magical-realism fantasy nor a heart-tugging drama.  It's a memorable, visually magnificent love letter to America, one that looks way past politics, celebrity and economics to open a wide, curious window into the way some Americans live, what they believe, and how their indomitable spirit defines them.

Beasts of the Southern Wild works its magic not through storytelling, not through acting, not through cinematography or music -- but by combining them all, like a multi-media art installation, to work up complex emotions that most people won't be quite sure what to do with.  It needs to work on you for a few days.  Afterward, when you think about it, you'll remember particular moments and feelings, and you'll remember that stunning, one-of-a-kind central performance by Quvenzhane' Wallis, whose Hushpuppy is unlike anyone you've ever met.

Viewed at ArcLight Hollywood - June 29, 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

Catching Up: "Shame"

 3 / 5 

Director Steve McQueen gets the easy stuff out of the way first -- the shots of Michael Fassbender's fully nude body, yes, from the front, in close up.  This is what will distract, so there's a full 10 minutes of gratuitous male nudity at the start of Shame, followed by a spare, bleak, unblinking look at the man's life. (Will I belie my serious cinematic intent by saying that Michael Fassbender has a lot to work with there, and even covered its visible much of the time it's on screen - a bit like a male Dolly Parton.  That's important for an audience, because once you know what's there, how can you not keep wondering about it?)

His name is Brandon, he lives in a sparse Manhattan apartment, he eats food from Chinese take-out boxes, he watches porn on the computer, he masturbates by himself, way from those images, then he goes to work, where he knows one day, sooner or later, someone will find out who he is.

Or, rather, who he isn't.  Fassbender's Brandon is no one.  He has had ever opportunity to engage in the world, to bond with his colleagues, to find something that might interest him.  But sex is easy.  Sex, when done right, takes just long enough to push the rest of it out of your head, at least the way Brandon does it.

Shame has been described as a portrait of a man addicted to sex.  This isn't quite true; a substance hides the addiction, but the addiction is fueled by something more, something deeper, buried so long that it yearns to come out.  Pardon the expression, but it doesn't appear there's anything to come out in Brandon's case, or if there is, the wild gyrations and rough acrobatics of intimacy-free sex have pushed it down deeper, deeper and deeper, where maybe it might not matter anymore. 

Michael has no use for anything but sex, really, whether that's cyber-sex or solo-sex. He knows this is how he defines himself, and as long as it is his life and no other's, does he owe an explanation?

He finds out soon enough when his estranged sister Sissy pushes his way into his ascetic life.  He goal is sincere -- she doesn't want to undo him, she just wants to live with him. But for Michael, every change, every deviation, goes too far.  It pulls away, gently at first, at the reserve he has so perfectly cultivated.

This next sentence is not dismissive: In the 1990s Disney animated version of "Shame" there would be a moment -- a cry, a song, a plaintive wail in which Brandon finally admits what he wants -- is it just to be left alone?  Is it to find one like him?  To escape the pain of what must have been evil parents?  There's no way to know.  Brandon reveals nothing.  Ever.  His one big moment with Sissy is just posturing.

Parents factor in to "Shame" in a roundabout way, because at the film's heart are Brandon and his unexpected sister, living together momentarily because a brother takes in her sister.  There apparently is a history here.  One we don't want to know about.  One that has made them who they are.  They certainly aren't going to sing about it, so get that thought out of your mind.  (Singing plays a role here, in a long, long, long rendition of New York, New York, and the way McQueen stages and plays it, there's got to be some significance -- but what, exactly?  It's just another mysterious long take.)

That's the biggest problem with Shame -- it's slow, yes, but the pace isn't the problem.  As Brandon himself says, "Actions speak, not words," but they neither do nor say a lot.  Brandon jacks off or watches porn or wander through the streets of New York trying to pick up women.  The visual composition is beautiful.

In that regard, Shame is a film for people who thought  Lost In Translation moved too fast.  Virtually every shot, every composition, is static. It's off-putting at first, but you find yourself watching the actors, waiting for them to respond, wondering if they understand whatever human interaction that has been placed before them or if, like the characters themselves, they have to take a moment to figure out what countenance to apply.

Brandon is smart enough to know the world will catch up with him.  He even tries to seduce a beautiful co-worker, and over dinner they talk about the banality of dinner talk, they play some flirty games on the walk back to the subway -- but there will be no sex.  She knows its place; Brandon never thought that it might have just one place.  And now, if he can't do that -- sex -- what does that leave him?

His emotionally wrecked sister is going to change it, too.  She knows more than she lets on in their odd physical interactions. In one of the film's most tantalizing lines, "We're not bad people, we just come from bad places." Where and why?  This is a case where characters knowing more than the audience is intensely unhelpful, though they finally deliver the scene the movie desperately needs, though it comes a little too late: Fassbender and Mulligan, their backs to the camera, viciously taunting and challenging each other.

McQueen's static, locked-down style galvanizes us to the actors.  We're left on our own where to look, what to feel.  If we're embarrassed, if we're shocked, if we're angry, there's no place for us to escape.

But Shame has difficulty reconciling the cold, calculated assurance of Brandon's early moments nude and assured with his final moments, clothed in layers and panicked.  Whether the film has any perspective on if he is changed, or even can change, it doesn't say.  Maybe Brandon and Sissy will just be the same as they were before.

No judgments, no decision, no commentary, nothing but observation and the fierce, full performances by Fassbender and Mulligan.

Watching Shame for an hour and 40 minutes is likely to feel a lot longer -- but it's an hour and 40 minutes of some times stunning, sometimes boring, sometimes revelatory, sometimes infuriatingly static moments of how certain people live today.  Maybe, if there is a point to all of this, it's that no one really cares, in the end, if they do anything different.

 Viewed 6/19/12 - Blu-ray

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Safety Not Guaranteed"

 4.5 / 5 

Here's a high-concept pitch that could go horribly wrong: Back to the Future meets Juno, from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine.  It's a little bit of a wonder that everything about Safety Not Guaranteed is so right.

It's a quirkily independent romantic-comedy-science-fiction movie that manages to do what most mega-budgeted, visual effects heavy, star-laden studio films can only dream of doing -- it surprises.  It only runs about 90 minutes, but if, at the 80-minute mark, you're think you're sure where it's all going, you're probably wrong.

The setup, which is right there on the movie's odd poster, is that a hipster Seattle magazine writer decides to look into the story behind an ad he found in the personals section.  It reads, "WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED."

The person who wrote it must be the crackpot of the century, and he'd make a great feature article.  With no other palatable pitches on the plate ("Seattle's Top 10 Dog Parks" has been done to death), the story gets the go-ahead, and the writer, Jeff (Jake Johnson). picks two interns to help him out: sullen-for-a-reason Darius (Aubrey Plaza, in a pitch-perfect performance) and awkward, reticent Arnau (Karan Soni).  They head to the coastal Seattle town listed on the ad's P.O. Box.

Sure enough, they easily find seemingly hapless Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who pulls up in his rusting Datsun 280Z only to find an empty mailbox.  Less easy is convincing him to let one of them be part of his "experiment," but Darius does, assuring him that he does not sound like a man who wears tinfoil on his head, at least not too much.  Maybe he's not so hapless, after all.

Safety Not Guaranteed is intensely character-driven, but has a plot that speeds along beautifully and mysteriously.  It seems someone actually is following Kenneth, and as she gets to know him, Darius realizes that even if he is crazy, the reason he wants to travel back to 2001 is a disarmingly honest and worthy one.

It turns out, Safety Not Guaranteed is a story about love (although it may not strictly be right to call it a love story) about the way time changes love, how love changes our perception of time, and how the tendency to fix ourselves in a particular moment may seem romantic, but also means we can't move on with our lives.  The script offers quiet moments of real beauty and insight, but manages to stay true to its characters and its central conceit, wittily, happily, often even joyfully.

Safety Not Guaranteed begins by showing us people in pain, then works like an emotional Goldberg contraption to get them as far away from that pain as possible ... in merry, entertaining ways.  It takes unhappiness and flips it on its head unexpectedly.  It's one of the best films so far this year, and without doubt the most ingratiating.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


 2 / 5 

I'm beginning to harbor a grudge toward Damon Lindelof, one of the screenwriters of Prometheus and one of the people behind the TV series Lost.  The two projects have a lot in common, from ancient mythologies and giant stone statues to a cast of characters who act in stupid ways because the script requires it.

Lost took one of the best setups in TV history, five seasons of astonishingly good action and drama, and squandered them for the sake of being clever.  Prometheus takes two seminal science-fiction films, Alien and Aliens, and uses them as a backward setup for a big, intergalactic shaggy dog story.

Here's how Wikipedia defines a "shaggy dog" story: "an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline."  That's pretty much how I felt about Prometheus (and Lost), though in the hands of director Ridley Scott, it at least looks absolutely spectacular and moves like wildfire. But on balance it's more infuriating than entertaining.

Prometheus wasn't made by fans for fans, it was made by obsessive completists for obsessive completists.  Around its mid-point, I was reminded of a moment in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and the Scarecrow find the Tin Man, and behind them a strange bird moves behind a cabin.  Prometheus is like watching a prequel to The Wizard of Oz that isn't about Dorothy, the wizard or Munchkinland, but about that cabin, who might have built it and why it was in that particular spot.  Frankly, it doesn't matter.

The cabin in this case is a set from the 1979 Alien, designed by H.R. Giger.  It was only seen for a few minutes, but was so nightmarish and exotic that it developed its own mythology among science-fiction fans.  What was that creature, why did it look so strange, and was it looking out a telescope or sitting at a massive cannon?  There must be a fascinating story behind it.

Maybe so, but Prometheus doesn't tell it; instead, Lindelof's script (co-written with Jon Spaihts), raises more questions than it can begin to answer, and just as he did with Lost, Lindelof seems to delight in promising resolution, then denying it.

Prometheus begins with an inscrutable prologue that doesn't make sense even in hindsight, hinting at a "mythology" that the writers are too timid ever to examine again, but is undeniably stunning visually.  (The movie was shot in 3-D, which is as superfluous as ever and distracts from the gorgeous visuals by dimming them sometimes beyond recognition.) 

Meanwhile, back on Earth ...

Two archaeologists find cave drawings that, for no apparent reason, they think serve as a map to another solar system where our "engineers" (that is, God) lives.  Why do they think that?  Who knows. But they're soon on their way a trillion miles from Earth.  The spaceship they're traveling on is called the Prometheus, and on board is an android named David.  It's filled with scientists who barge in first and ask questions later, which is good for action stars, not good for space travelers setting foot on an unknown planet that appears to have life on it.

Michael Fassbender is nominally the film's star, mostly because his careful, sly performance as David is so riveting.  A cross between HAL-9000 and the little boy robot from A.I. (curiously named David, as well), he's the only fully drawn character in Prometheus, and he's not human.  There are other people on the Prometheus -- too many of them, actually, and as the film spirals into loud, intense action, perhaps it hopes we won't notice that none of them are particularly interesting.

The filmmakers have made two specious claims about Prometheus: First, that it's not a prequel to Alien; and second, that it asks some profound questions about who we are and why we're here.  What nonsense.  The story is directly tied to the Alien movies, and the spiritual drama is just a smokescreen for the fact that the screenplay has absolutely no idea where to go.

Prometheus is a series of scenes that all have some kind of subtle wink or elbow jab at hardcore Alien and Comic-Con fans who will appreciate its references to obscure moments from previous movies.  It is not, however, a comprehensible or interesting linear narrative.

That leaves it with some great moments, terrific visuals and crisp editing.  The central performances by Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and especially Michael Fassbender are captivating, and help distract from the suspicion that the actors may often not even have been in the same room with each other during filming; there seems no connection, particularly between the Theron and Rapace characters.

And it has, in the end, got the alien himself, as well as some interesting precursors to his other variations -- the egg, the "face hugger," the slithering little beastie that pops out of John Hurt.  Those creatures are monsters, and Scott directed a brilliant, brooding, scary, unforgettable haunted-house movie, which James Cameron later turned into a relentless war adventure in which the monsters invaded both bodies and dreams.

Prometheus is more of a plodding (but beautiful) Comic-Con presentation: "The Art & Mythology of Ridley Scott's Alien," moderated by Damon Lindelof.  Yes, we're impressed by how much you know, sir. Now can you tell us a story?

Prometheus just keeps relentlessly hitting us over the head with beautifully choreographed action as it goes nowhere.  By the end, it's almost as if the movie itself is surprised by the body count and doesn't know what to do next, so it throws in one last visual goof designed to make fanboys squeal.

It may.  I just really wanted to get out of the theater and go watch either of the first two far superior, lithe and relentlessly suspenseful Alien movies, to enjoy them -- not deconstruct them.

Viewed June 9, 2012 -- Arclight Hollywood