Skip to main content

When you’re small, you got to fix what you can.


Beasts of the Southern Wild
(2012)

It’s usually a clear warning sign when the Oscars embrace a heart-warming or uplifting tale of triumph over adversity. The results often tend to simplify issues, reduce themes to their most facile, and bang out notes that just don’t ring true. While it is always welcome to see independent movies get nominated, it can’t escape notice that when they do (Little Miss Sunshine), their trajectory is invariably one of punch-the-air uplifting overpowering sadness or misery. Which is no bad thing in theory; life-affirmatory sentiments are grand things. The downside is that, if these messages are not put together with a nuance, skill and craftsmanship that belies their apparent straightforwardness, they comes across as cheap or manipulative. In Beast of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin creates an environment that is arresting and immersive, but as co-writer he fails to fully evoke the child’s eye viewpoint that is central to the premise.


Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s screenplay (based on her one-act play Juicy and Delicious) is narrated by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a six-year old girl living with her alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry) in an isolated community called the Bathtub. They are situated in a Louisiana bayou cut off by a levee; this is an edge-of-the-world existence to Hushpuppy, and the idiosyncratic schooling she and other children receive gives rise to a rich fantasy world filled with an imminent threat of melting ice caps and the encroaching presence of prehistoric boar-like animals called Aurochs (the actual name of an extinct bovine species). As her father’s physical condition worsens, so the Bathtub is flooded during a storm and the community’s tentative existence becomes even less certain.


If Hushpuppy’s narration and fantasy world feels like a highly calculated device, it’s because the writers are unable to successfully integrate it with the main narrative. Hushpuppy’s internal monologue never feels less than over-writing by adult(s) attempting to imbue her with the kind of innocent cutesy-wisdom that sends grown-ups all misty-eyed. And then it goes further, making the mistake of thinking this untutored innocence can teach us something. Because its artificiality is so clear (i.e. adults are the writers) it comes across as patronising rather than inspiring. We end up with a rambling gabble of homespun homilies, bearing more resemblance to Forrest Gump’s (another Academy darling) pearls of wisdom than anything that borders on essential truths.


There are doubtless a number of debates to be had over the film’s depiction of race and class (as plundering of stereotypes as the film may appear, it is worth noting that the play on which it is based feature white leads; nevertheless, the affected vernacular the writers have come up with is at times slightly too much, as if this is extant dialogue from Tom Hanks’ character in Cloud Atlas), and the pervading push-pull of what we are shown versus what we hear. The writers might have done something provocative with this material, but what their approach is relatively straightforward.


The Bathtub folk extol the virtues of their freedom from the system, which as an idea is an attractive one (although some have interpreted this in libertarian terms). But the “truth” we are shown is that the adults subsist on alcohol, while the father’s physical deterioration is a direct result of the surrounding squalor. Indeed, the refrain to the children is to toughen up and don’t be a pussy (these are kids who, like Max Rockatansky, think nothing of eating cat food; it’s near-as a post-apocalyptic world); this is an environment where the kids show reluctance to learn necessary survival skills (catching fish, eating crabs), and in the mind’s eye (of Hushpuppy) are starved of true parental affection.


To an extent, the movie succeeds in conveying the state of mind of child who accepts the only world she knows for what it is and imagines a further one, but this is almost entirely by means of Ben Richardson’s evocative cinematography and a charging music (by the director and Dan Romer), rather than the achievements of the writers.  The fall back mode of “life is beautiful despite it all” is not redundant because it is naïve or simplistic, but because the only means the Zeitlin and Alibar have of expressing it is through overstatement. This is perhaps best exemplified by the triumphant, heart-swelling score (cynical as I am of Academy motives, I feel sure this was a major selling point), which rouses the audience with the finesse of a master manipulator whenever Hushpuppy’s has a some glib self-actualisation to impart. So too, the means by which she pieces together her understanding of the world are clumsily rendered; this is magical realism romanticised to the point where the subjective world of the child becomes overt commentary, rather than one we empathically experience.


As a result, certain aspects work better than others; when Hushpuppy punches her ailing father, and he succumbs to a seizure, we engage fully with how her reaction; moments, before she told him she wished he were dead. Later, the odyssey on which she and her friends embark treads the line between fantasy and reality perfectly; up until the point where her yearnings for a mother are verbally expressed to a mother figure (a prostitute who feeds her alligator; her actual mother shot an alligator on the day she was conceived, we are told). The preceding scene, where the surrogate mothers/prostitutes dance with the children at a whorehouse called Elysian Fields (geddit?), has a wordless beauty to it. It is in this he sequence, with its fragmented, non-linear pose (beginning with the kids swimming out to a boat, which takes them to an underworld/heaven, the captain of which informs Hushpuppy that he likes retains all his chicken biscuit wrappers because “The smell makes me feel cohesive”) that the film nears the sense of transcendence it seeks. Then, when Hushpuppy announces, “I have to go back” and is transported to the vicinity of the Bathtub, it is the author’s voice not the child’s that intrudes.


As is usual in a tale of this ilk, the fantasy elements reflect the dramas of the real world and eventually converge at a climactic moment. We are introduced to fantasy imagery of melting ice flows and thawing creatures, but somehow this never really ignites the way it should. Perhaps the world Hushpuppy inhabits is so palpably different, and key moments such as the visualisation of her running through a trail of sparklers, are so arresting and heightened that the “actual” flights end up curiously flat. The poetry of her imaginings is forced. The advancing boars always feel surplus to the text, rather than integral. And worse they seem obvious inventions, rote mythmaking, just as Hushpuppy’s conversations with her absent mother are too common a touchstone. Compare Hushpuppy’s journey to the much less accessible path trodden by Eliza-Rose in Terry Gilliam’s Tide Land, and it feels as if Zeitlin goes for easy elation every time.


Wallis received an Oscar nomination of course, on account of her being a stoically cute little moppet, with hair outcrop of hair loving framed against the Sun. It’s hard to say how good this performance actually is; Wallis has a wonderfully expressive eyes but Hushpuppy’s character is so informed by the over-egged narration, I suspect it will take a few more roles to assess whether this is a one-off. Annie will likely either bag her an Oscar or have her re-assessed as a one hit child wonder. It’s Henry who really impresses, from his drunken delirium and aggression, to the chinks in his armour when he shows how much he cares for his daughter, to his more convivial side. He’s strong enough that, even when the film drifts into sentiment during the final stages, Wink remains a fully inhabited character.


Beast is enjoyable enough on its own terms, but the hype has overwhelmed its content. Independent cinema that leaves you in mind of Hollywood cinema but without the budget is not necessarily a strike, but it becomes one when, instead of resonance and depth, there is emotional rhetoric and slickness. Beasts is well-performed, possessed of a striking visual palate, and blessed with a stirring score, but it is also very far from profound.  

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.