Don’t Count Out the Kids

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Behn Zeitlin – 2012

★★★.5/★★★★

Being an Oscar aficionado, this was one of the films that you kept hearing about all year. From Sundance to its summer release and all through the awards season, people kept bringing up this little indie film from first time director Behn Zeitlin and how it was going to be this year’s Winter’s Bone. The big talk about this film though, was that its 9 year old (Quvenzhané Wallis) star was heading towards an Oscar nod for Best Actress. Now that we know that she not only got the nod, but that Zeitlin picked up nods for Picture, Director, and Screenplay, I couldn’t resist finding a copy to see what all the fuss is about. And while this is not a great film, it is a very good film with one of the best performances to ever come from a child actor.

The story is an unusual one. Set in a rural Louisiana borough called the Bathtub, Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father live in a pair of trailers (each inhabiting their own interestingly) and along with the rest of the community, await a coming storm. With heavy overtones of global warming, the film gives us how Hushpuppy and the other residents of the Bathtub survive the apocalyptic storm. Herein lies the film’s fbiggest weakness, the straightforward plot seems dreadfully outmatched by the brilliant performance by Wallis. Zeitlin tries to enrich the story with tales of fantastic and terrible beasts being unfrozen in the North Pole, but all we want to see is Hushpuppy. 

On a positive note; this film has to be seen purely for Wallis’s performance. On the strength of her shriek this film is carried. Where most performances from child actors have a sense of realism or authenticity, Wallis gives her performance a touch of craft. And whether or not this was just excellent direction from Zeitlin is not a very interesting question. The best of actors give bad performances under a crappy director. Wallis gives passion and intensity to her performance, the likes of which surpass all child performers of recent memory.

The other performances are all good, although none stand out against Wallis. The cinematography should also be singled out for praise; Zeitlin’s use of framing and composition creates an atmosphere that adds gravitas to an already meaty performance from Wallis. Unfortunately, that’s about it. It’s difficult to tell if it’s just the strength of Wallis that overpowers an otherwise excellent film or if the film its self is weak and Wallis brings it out of the trash heap. Either way, the film is worth a watch. Zeitlin is an interesting mind for sure, and although the film has many imperfections it is deserving of much of the praise heaped upon it.

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Update

I know my posting has been scarce as of late, but its because I’ve been watching so many movies! Aside from Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Sherlock Jr which I’ve watched for class, I’ve seen a number of Oscar nominees. Reviews should be coming out in the next two weeks for

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Arbitrage
  • Amour
  • Lincoln
  • Zero Dark Thirty
  • The Impossible
  • The Sessions
  • Flight

I am trying to find a local screening of The Master so I can see all of the top bill Oscar nods (Picture, Director, Writing, and Acting) but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to find one. My next top 100 review is going to come a few weeks from now so I can sync up with watching the next film in class. I will also have my next article for Sound on Sight up this week.

Busy times my friends. Busy times.

soundonsight:

A Fistful of Ronin

Aside from the similarities of plot between these two films, the productions themselves bear a similarity with an iconic actor/director team. Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood and Akira Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune are names that are inescapably linked in the history of film. Leone and Eastwood brought a reinvigoration to the western through their Man With No Name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars 1964, For a Few Dollars More 1965, and The Good The Bad and the Ugly 1966. Kurosawa and Mifune are known for having forged the golden age of Samurai films with films like Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961). To complete the chain of influence, it’s interesting to note that Kurosawa’s films were heavily influenced by early American westerns, and that Leone’s films were heavily influenced by Kurosawa’s samurai films. This leaves us with Leone ripping off Kurosawa in 1964 by (unofficially) remaking Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars.

There are many interesting cultural distinctions between the two films. Yojimbo features one of the gang leaders as having a wife who influences some of his decisions. This female presence is erased in Fistful with the same suggestions coming from a different, male, advisor.  In Yojimbo, the gang leaders run the Sake and Silk industries while in Fistful its Liquor and Guns. This leads to another major plot change. In both films the two sides agree to cooperate due to government investigation, but in Yojimbo it’s because they want to ensure a soon coming silk fair rather than Fistful’s fear of being caught for a massacre.

The Shakespearen Art of Parable

#96 – Kingdom of Heaven – Ridley Scott – 2005

A Foreward: One of the reasons I think historians and experts shouldn’t by permitted to analyze (non-documentary) films is that they are incredibly picky about which films they analyze: they only go after the biggest and brightest and the ones that might win awards so as to discredit them with claims of historical inaccuracy. Now of course I’m being slightly facetious here; there is a place for historical analysis of film. The thing is, the majority of these claims of historical inaccuracy have absolutely no impact on the quality of the film. Historians don’t dispute the quality of King Lear and Macbeth when comparing their dramatizations to the legends and histories of the “real” Leir and Macbeth. They were parables. They were dramatizations using historical figures to tell tales of morality and character in a time of dramatic censorship. And while Ridley Scott probably could have told an epic tale about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as Shakespeare couldn’t have criticized British royalty, he would have been hung from a yardarm for suggesting that the Muslims were righteous for not wanting us there and we were arrogant for trying to “liberate” them.

Note: This is a review for the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven

                The Crusades are possibly the most oft cited case of religious fueled war and they were brutal and cruel and wholly unnecessary. In the time just before the third crusade (the famous one with Richard Lionheart of Britain) there was a period of relative peace between the Europeans and the Muslims when Baldwin IV was King in Jerusalem. This is when Kingdom of Heaven is set and our hero is Balian of Ibelin portrayed by Orlando Bloom. Found in France by his father Godfrey (Liam Neeson), he joins in on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem after his wife commits suicide. In the Holy Land, there are two rivaling factions of Europeans: One led by the King’s Brother-in-law Guy of Lusignan and the other by Raymond Count of Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). Guy’s faction wants to take war to the approaching Muslims led by Saladin, while Raymond (and the king) wants peace to continue and Jerusalem to be a place for Muslims, Jews, and Christians to live harmoniously. Balian here acts as a friend to the King and another advocate for peace as Guy and his people do all they can to provoke war.

                  This film’s greatest strength is how easily we can relate it to modern East-West relationships. As the end of the film so deftly puts it, “Nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Kingdom of Heaven remains elusive.” Whether you look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or any form of European expansion into the Middle East, there are entitled Westerners moving in as though they own the place with the native citizens just wanting to be able to live on their land in peace. Westerners impose their standards and their lives and their violence on everyone and, well, people get angry. Kingdom of Heaven examines how though cooler heads can prevail, it just takes one idiot to start a war.

The supporting actors in this film cement these themes. Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and Edward Norton were all deserving of awards recognition for their roles. Neeson and Irons are the hardened faithful who question whether European presence in the Levant is a good thing, Gleeson is drunken, proud, and a vehemently racist lord that almost starts a war twice, and Norton is King Baldwin the Leper. As happened to Hugo Weaving for V for Vendetta, Norton will never get the recognition for this masked role. King Baldwin suffered from leprosy (so his face was severely deformed) and he had to wear a mask at all times. Despite this obvious acting challenge, Edward Norton gives a subtle and emotional performance while lending incredible gravitas to his character.

The film is such a blend of excellent elements that the smaller ones fade into the background. The action (it is a war film after all) is arguably better than that of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down thanks to the emotional and passionate weight it is given in the plot. Eva Green’s performance as the King’s sister provides a morally questionable romantic interest for Balian. The film’s writing is wholly believable and obviously from the same pen as he who wrote The Departed (with much less swearing mind you).  This film was passed over because the studio released a pared down theatrical cut instead of the epic parable that Scott had envisioned. Luckily people are starting to see the director’s cut and see just how relevant this film is today.

People are more Interesting than Hollywood Likes to Admit

#97 – Love and Other Drugs – Edward Zwick – 2010

★★★★/★★★★

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There was a reason I knew Anne Hathaway was the right choice to play both Fantine in Les Miserables and Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises as soon as they were announced. It wasn’t the fact that I’ve loved her as an actress since I saw her in The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. It wasn’t her excellent performances in The Devil Wears Prada or Rachel Getting Married. It was a small, and incredibly underrated comedy from 2010 with what I would still argue is her best performance yet. Love and Other Drugs is a film from the inconsistent writer director Edward Zwick and a simplistic analysis (also known as the main critical analysis) would say that it’s a satirical look at the Pharmaceutical industry in the United States. While there is most definitely a satire written into this film, what makes it a great film is two career high performances and the one of the first honest attempts at telling an adult romance in decades.

                The story is that of a pharmaceutical rep played by Jake Gyllenhaal. While trying to make a lot of money selling drugs that a lot of people don’t really need, he meets a woman (Anne Hathaway) with early onset Parkinson’s disease. While she starts off hating him (and considering the circumstances, you can’t blame her), the two eventually realize they really, really, like each other. Not love mind you. They go through a mile and a half of troubles and struggles and even once they’ve both said those three fatal words, they still can’t say that they love each other to each other at the same time. Their struggle with her illness ranges from her lack of self-love to his attempt to get her better to their realization that while neither of them is perfect, they make each other feel better about their imperfections. It’s a comedy that draws its humour from reality rather than happenstance. It’s a drama the draws its emotional resonance from human concerns about life and relationships that transcend the trivial.

                The two performances at the heart of this film are remarkable for their naturalism. Gyllenhaal is an asshole plain and simple. He goes into his work for the money and tries to make money by flirting and getting into bed with the women he meets at the offices of the doctors he’s selling drugs to. He meets the woman that he eventually falls in love with while she is getting a breast exam in a doctor’s office he has no business being in. He gets her phone number by tricking the woman he’s currently sleeping with into giving it to him (quite illegally).  He is doing all of this to impress the parents that he has always disappointed, and has no trouble stretching the truth to make his accomplishments all the greater.

                On the other hand we have Hathaway who provides the less obviously relatable character, and yet ends up as the emotional anchor of the film. While Gyllenhaal is going through his first world problems of being a giant douche, Hathaway is dealing with the inescapability of having a degenerative disease. She can’t express herself the way she wants to, she can’t take her pills, she can’t pour herself a drink without something screwing up. But what’s so brilliant about her performance is her overwhelming sense of self-hatred masquerading as confidence. She blames herself for everything that her illness causes; eventually ending things with the man she loves. And all of her insecurities and vulnerabilities lay in front of you on screen. It’s a visceral performance that was terribly ignored.

                Love and Other Drugs is a wildly underrated film and one that relies heavily on two performances to carry the entire message of the film. In relation to the other films on the list so far, like Highlander is far removed from its typical critical reaction due to my perception of a few elements of the film. In Highlander, the mood, cinematography, and lighting make the film a visual spectacle for me to watch, and gives it incredibly high re-watch value. Similarly, Love and Other Drugs, had two stellar performances (supplemented by a few great supporting roles) along with an incredibly funny and human script give it a high re-watch value. There are many films on this list that fit this description and it is important for my philosophy on film that a single aspect of a film, if important enough, can give it the gravitas to compete with the classics.

“I get older, but they stay the same age.”

#98 – Dazed and Confused – Richard Linklater – 1993

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One of the most interesting types of films around is the ensemble film. There are certain stories that masquerade as ensembles (I’m looking at you Lord of the Rings) but still have a standard protagonist and antagonist. A real ensemble film has none of that. Usually it doesn’t even have character arcs and never offers real conclusions to man of the problems presented within. These films tread on the balance of realism and formalism by giving an “honest view” of the world. Some of the most well-renowned of this style are George Lucas’s American Grafiti, Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. My personal favourite though is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a film that walks the line between realism and extravagance, comedy and drama, and offers an objective view of the high school experience.

The premise of this film is simple. It’s the last day of school in the summer of 1976 and all of the High School kids are celebrating. Well, not all of them, the incoming group of freshman students are going to be hazed to hell and back by the incoming seniors and some of the football players are not too happy about a pledge their coach is making them sign concerning drug use. Those are the two major plots of the film and they reveal our large cast of “main characters.” Randall “Pink” Floyd is the football captain who is conflicted about signing the pledge, Mitch Kramer is one of the freshman boys being hunted by the seniors, and Fred O’Bannon is the cruelest of the seniors on the hazing spree. The best part about this film though is that Linklater doesn’t weight it down with their stories. They may get the most screen time, but the film is all about the secondary characters who reveal, either subtly or explicitly, the truth about highschool.

“I’ll be damned if I ever start calling this the best time of my life,” is a line spoken by Randall at one point. Remembering that he is the star quarterback of the football team and seeing his character being a wholly likeable guy, this line opens up the idea that a person’s circumstance in life is not an accurate way to discern neither their feelings nor their personality. Mitch Kramer and his sister Jodi give us the sibling relationship with no hint of cliché. Rory Chochrane, Milla Jovovich, and Shawn Andrews show how stoners can be standing on the edge of letting their life slip away from them while still holding a wholly optimistic outlook. Sasha Jenson gives us the best transformative character in that he seems to be a class clown crossed with a jock, but reveals a truly wise and introspective perspective on his own situation. We have characters played by Marissa Ribisi, Anthony Rapp and Adam Goldberg who reflect on the hazing, the drinking and drugs, and the generational mindset (of hating your place in life) that plagues every generation it passes.

The scene stealer of this film though is Matthew McConaughey. One of the reasons I prefer this film to Fast Times is that this performance is a) a far better one b) deeply rooted in the themes of the film and c) doesn’t call attention away from other stories (instead he enhances them). He is a not-so-recently graduated resident of the town and is still very associated with the highschoolers years younger than him. He may be best remembered for the line “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age,” but the true resonance of that line is his symbolic position in the film. He gets older, but he stays with those same people, he flirts with the same girls year after years. He gets older but he stays in exactly the same place.

There are plenty of other things to be said about Dazed and Confused, particularly about the music it uses and the strategic placement of violence, but those aren’t the reason that this film places at number 98 on my top 100. It’s that, like The Virgin Suicides, it takes a worldly view of teenagedom. Not a universal one; it can’t be stressed enough that this is a very white-centric film and that it could be portrays as just being “rich white people problems.” But a worldly view: one that encompasses the feeling of loneliness that most people will feel at one point or another in their life.  It’s a film that portrays the world it sees honestly, and that is enough to make me love it.