BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Mesmerizing. This might very well be my favorite film of Sundance. I went into the movie knowing virtually nothing about it, other than it was already building a very strong buzz from earlier screenings.
It’s a simple story surrounding a very complex character study about a single father and young daughter living without any sort of practical, modern day amenities out in the wilderness of a place in Louisiana called The Bathtub.
Typically, for me, these kinds of strict character movies can wear out their welcome in pretty short order without any clear story to latch onto; I can start to feel a little lost, and perhaps even a bit bored. That’s not the case with BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Every aspect of this movie is a masterful treat that keeps you entertained moment to moment with its intense imagery, inspiring score, or its master level performances. The astonishing cinematography by Ben Richardson pulls you into a universe that feels surreal and yet very grounded at the same time. There is a moment early on during a celebration with fireworks that had me in an almost trance like state it was so visually stunning. That moment was where I started to understand where all the excitement for this film was coming from.
The real gem of this play is the phenom actress Quvenzhane Wallis. Her performance is effortless. It was almost as if you were watching the subject of a documentary - her acting was so natural and engaging. If it were a doc, you’d understand why a filmmaker would choose her as a subject. She plays Hushpuppy, the daughter of a manic single father doing his best to raise her in an environment I can only describe as alien to what most people consider housing or a community. They live in the woods amongst salvaged junk that they’ve cobbled together to make a real home for themselves. Where most would see a tin shack filled with grime, they see comfort and happiness. The whole movie is about putting us into Hushpuppy’s shoes, and perceiving this world the way she does: a magical environment filled with wonder and a strong sense of community.
What blows my mind about this film is how young and inexperienced everyone is - both behind and in front of the camera. This is the kind of film you’d expect from master veteran filmmakers in every department. This is director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film! That kind of talent right out of the gate is mind-blowing. He also had a hand in composing the magnificent score along with Dan Romer who has also had very little scoring experience. It’s sickening really.
During the Q&A the director also let us know that none of the actors we see in the movie had ever acted a day in their life before this film. Truly unbelievable! I’ve seen a lot of movies like Gran Torino where that claim has been made, and it made total sense that the actors in that film had never acted before or had any formal training because they were brain stabblingly awful. The performances in BEASTS however are going to be talked about for a very long time. Even the cinematographer spoke of not having any formal training or extensive experience during the Q&A. Yet, the level of skill this movie has on display makes you question their claim as some kind of hoax. It’s that good.
Make sure to seek this movie out when it hits theaters. It should be experienced as big and as loud as you can find it. Hushpuppy’s universe is like nothing you’ve seen before, and you’ll want to have it wrap around you like a dream inside that dark theater.
I dig the No Reason Universe that Quentin Dupieux’s story worlds and characters firmly reside in. His first feature film RUBBER quickly struck me as something bizarrely unique, but still accessible to those willing to go with the flow of a little absurdity. I know some see his style and humor as arbitrary and weird for the sake of being weird, but I go to movies to hopefully be entertained by something I haven’t seen a thousand times before, but still has a genuine heart beating smack dab in the middle of the storytelling.
The story is a fairly simple one of a man that wakes up one morning to find his beloved dog missing. He goes on a strange journey to discover the mystery surrounding his dog’s disappearance and the shadowy organization behind the kidnapping that is led by the omnipresent Master Chang.
The characters that Quentin is able to build through his direction, and the masterful performances of his actors (especially the brilliant creation of Master Chang brought to life by William Fichtner) is the sole reason I’m now convinced that Dupieux might be the next generation’s Coen brothers, Charlie Kaufman, or Terry Gilliam.
I remember when the Coen’s first started out, quite a few people didn’t get their style of storytelling at all. It wasn’t until they put out a handful of films that people started to understand the lexicon of their characters and scenarios. Once that translation was firmly in place, their films started crossing over from what general audiences thought of as “weird” into accessible, brilliant fun; in some cases retroactively. The same goes for when Gilliam brought out Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas; no one liked it or even understood it except for a very small fan base, and now it’s a beloved cult classic. Sometimes I think certain styles need time to sink in with larger groups of people. It’s like the first time I ever had an In-N-Out burger; at first I didn’t get it, but then a week later I was dying to have more. What? You don’t like In-N-Out burger? Dear God.
WRONG had me laughing consistently throughout the movie, and even invoked a genuine watering of my eyes during the climax (but I did not cry, damn you).
All I ask is that you give RUBBER and WRONG a chance. Try to see past the veil of the strange. See that at the core, these films have compelling stories, and fascinating character portraits. At the very least you can say you dug Dupieux before he was popular and sold out, right? Although I still think the best reason to watch his films is no reason at all.
Full disclosure, I’ve known one of the producers (Brad Miska) of this film for quite some time. So when he told me he had a found footage film showing at Sundance, I was excited for him and dreading it in equal measure. I trust in Brad Miska’s taste in horror fare, and I liked all the filmmakers involved in this horror anthology, but I’m a hard line stiff neck when it comes to “most” found footage movies. Some of them have won me over in the past. [Rec] and [Rec 2] are amazing, I somewhat enjoyed the first and third Paranormal Activity movies, and I fell pretty hard for the original phenomena of the Blair Witch Project; although I still think the Sci-Fi channel’s documentary on the Blair Witch movie was the scariest thing about that whole endeavor. That said, I think “found footage” is in a lot of cases abused and used in a lazy way to cover up an inability to tell a compelling story with any kind of energy other than shaking a camera around like you just slammed a 5 Hour Energy with a Jolt Cola chaser. I’m self-aware of my snobby attitude when it comes to my compartmentalized personal definition of what a “movie” should feel like when it comes to the camera work and cinematography, but I went into the movie trying to give it as fair of a shot as I could (how I attempt to go into every movie I see) because at the end of the day, story and characters trump all.
The first few minutes gave me a sinking feeling that I was going to have to put on a brave face and tell my friend that I couldn’t dig into his movie. It starts out with an overly long montage of a bunch of generic cretins breaking glass, generally being destructive, and whipping the camera around so fast that I felt like I was going to lose one of my eyes from it flying out as it had to spin so frantically to catch up with what I was seeing. I was dreading the idea that this movie was going to be a tornado of “shocking” imagery put in a blender on high, and that was going to be its only offering of “horror”.
Thankfully, after that rough patch, it tossed its hooks out and snagged me right in the chest. It didn’t take long to pull me into its world of supernatural scares, and genuinely funny characters. The first time I heard the line in the movie “I like you” I knew it wasn’t the movie I was dreading it was going to be from the opening scenes. I’m not going to ruin anything for you, because discovering the tone and surprises of this film is half the fun of this portable haunted house. This isn’t just long shots of doors and objects that move on their own. This movie shows you things, whether you want to see them or not.
It won this anti-found footage man over, a feat that only a handful of these kinds of movies have been able to do in the past. I’m still not a fan of how much the camera shakes around at times in V/H/S, but when it does find steady purchase, it shows you some of the scariest, funniest, and uniquely creative things I’ve seen come from any horror film in a very long time. All the filmmakers in this anthology deliver in each segment. There is also a cohesive feel to the whole movie, and that in itself is a small miracle because of all the diverse talents working independently from each other.
I really hope Magnolia Pictures puts the film out around Halloween this year, and isn’t scared off by Paranormal Activity 4. This is the perfect movie to go see with your friends in the crisp and creepy nights of October.
An artist’s worst anxieties and fears projected onto a screen. If you’ve ever had any thought of endeavoring in a career in something where you have to be creative, put yourself out into the world to be judged, only to then judge yourself as lacking, then this movie will be a little personal nightmare for you.
The film starts off with Dennis Quaid reading passages from his new novel THE WORDS to a group of socialites in a large auditorium setting. I had no idea Quaid was in the film as it was touted as a Bradley Cooper movie to me beforehand with no real mention of anyone else in the movie. I was happy to see him though, even in this small capacity, because I had just finished re-watching Enemy Mine (so good) and lamenting the fact that Quaid isn’t in more movies these days. He’s great in it, too. He definitely has that Davidge/Tucker Pendleton swagger going on that makes Quaid so fun to watch, but has been missing from a lot of his more recent movies.
The film is an adult version of the Princess Bride (a description I’ve only ever used once before to describe Darren Aronofsky’s FOUNTAIN) as we see Quaid’s book world unfold for us and show us the story of a young writer (Bradley Cooper) and his supportive and free spirited wife (Zoe Saldana) trying to start his career as a talented, but completely unknown novelist. It doesn’t take long for you to understand that the book is about a younger version of Quaid’s character, and is somewhat a confession of how he became the famous author he is now.
There are a lot of twists and turns that I don’t want to ruin for you here, but I will say that there are moments in this film that made me cringe repeatedly. Choices that characters make that have you pondering if you would do the same, knowing full well that they are sympathetically deceitful at best, and soul crushingly dishonest at worst.
Now, you may not want to read any further because my only problems with the movie lay in the third act where nothing really comes to any sort of head. It didn’t ruin the movie for me, but instead of having any sort of emotional purge or consequence, it just gently lands on a very melancholy note. I thought the ending was subtle and perhaps even sweet. Others I spoke to thought it firmly knocked the whole movie into a mediocre plane. To me it was a contemplative ending to a very self-reflective tale, so it worked.
Overall I think the effectiveness of THE WORDS depends heavily on what you bring into the theater with you. It very much plays on the frustrations and fears of someone who so desperately wants to be a grand storyteller - or any kind of artist really - but is eaten alive by self doubt and a world that is champing at the bit to devour anyone who they find lacking. Others might find enjoyment in the dual-layered love story at the center of the movie that is also well played. At the end of the day, THE WORDS isn’t world shattering, but it’s a movie I enjoyed and had some top notch performances rooted deeply in its multi-verse layers.