Beasts of the Southern Wild

The part of me that wanted to believe in Beasts of the Southern Wild was the same part that wants to believe in Santa Claus. I think it’s marvelous to see movies that bring their cameras to subsets of the population that don’t even have movies; and it’s more inspiriting still to see them get the recognition that this one has. That said, I’m disappointed to see such a subject underserved by a lack of imagination. The film is “mythic” by fiat–a sacrifice offered up by way of bashed fish, beating hearts, and bad poetry. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) screams her nine-year-old head off frequently enough to be fodder for a supercut, and I take that to be emblematic. It isn’t a howl; it’s the equivalent of a dog tagging a fire hydrant. But it’s also a sign of life–a declaration of it.

The film is set in the “Bathtub,” a little island floating tenuously beneath Louisiana. We learn just how tenuously, early on, when Hushpuppy’s teacher works climate change into her lesson plan, using tattoos of cave paintings as visual aides. (It’s the only sensible alternative to PowerPoint.) It’s a stretch to say that Hushpuppy lives with her widowed father Wink (Dwight Henry); they’re split between two dilapidated trailers on a stretch of swampland. The film is about their hot-cold relationship. Though he won’t tell her outright, Wink is dying of what appears to be sickle-cell anemia, which is meant to excuse his abuse and neglect of Hushpuppy because he’s toughening her up to face the world alone. The problem is that it’s impossible to separate his worldview from that of the director, Benh Zeitlin (who wrote the screenplay with Lucy Ailbar, on whose play Beasts is based). After a hurricane, FEMA comes to the Bathtub’s rescue, and Wink stages a prison break from the white walls of their hospital; he puts his daughter on a bus and closes the door behind her. It doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind that she could have a good life among those who I’d hesitate to call “more civilized,” but who, at the very least, accept modernity. We’re meant, it seems, to venerate him for wresting her from modernity’s clutches; and yet we’re constantly reminded that after one raindrop too many, the Bathtub will go down the drain. Her survival is secondary to his pride.

This is one of those movies that makes a critic like myself, whose skin is the color of a celebrity’s tooth, feel like a dick when justifying his opinions to friends better endowed with melanin. Beasts is not duplicitous like Django Unchained is, Tarantino being a demonstration of the kind of huckster Billy Wilder decried in Ace in the Hole; but this is “magical realism” in the sense that Slumdog Millionaire was a “fairy tale.” Meaning: People group it in with magical realism despite the scarcity of realism or even any magic (the aurochs fantasy being the only exception I can think of) because it’s the polite way of engaging with an eccentric work about a black family that was made by white artists. Zeitlin’s the son of folklorists, and I can see that lineage in the film–including where it breaks down. Beasts skims off the top of folktales, netting archetypes at the expense of local color or detail. Screenwriters have applied the same hero’s-journey template to their mediocre blockbusters for years. What’s intended as a blueprint ends up a shortcut: Their themes are “primal,” so they’re taken for granted. Subtext floats to the surface like creativity’s corpse. Add a setting to match your themes, and you’ve fished yourself up the “world soul.”

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Life of Pi

Even before I knew for sure, I had an inkling that Yann Martel had started with a tiger on a lifeboat, and crafted a story–which became the novel Life of Pi–around that. It’s the supreme F.M.L., yes, but it’s also a lesson: There’s no survival without risk. As the person pitted between this unique set of variables says in Ang Lee’s film version, “If we’re going to be stuck together, we might as well learn how to communicate.” And if your goal is to get “deep” without getting your head wet, there’s no better inspirational-motivational-pop-psych advice than that. You can’t argue with it, you can’t get angry at it; all that’s left to do is admire the elegance of the parable. And if the movie had stayed on that path for the long game, maybe I wouldn’t have come out of it wanting to punch a hippie.

After a title sequence that looks (in 2-D) cribbed from a “Field Trip to the Zoo!” home video, cut together using iMovie, we’re introduced to the zookeeper’s son, Pi, played as an adult by Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan. The film is structured around him telling his story to a fuzzy Caucasian cipher (Rafe Spall). We see Pi growing up in recently liberated India, collecting religious practices like Pokémon cards to the consternation of his atheist father. At first, the scene is set for magical realism. Pi got his name from an avid-swimmer uncle whose torso seems to have been molded in an hourglass; “Pi,” then, is short for piscine, the French word for pool, but sounds like “pissing” to the callow boy’s classmates. He eventually owns up to the name, filling up blackboards at his school with 3.14 to the nth decimal place. But that’s not foremost among this searcher’s peculiarities: He sneaks up to the zoo’s tiger cage to feed Richard Parker, who’s similarly misnamed, a hunk of raw meat. By the time Pi is played by teenage Suraj Sharma, his family’s sailing with the animals to a new life in Canada; when the boat hits rough waters, he goes on deck to do a sickeningly whimsical Singin’ in the Rain number. But all hands, except him, perish when the ship goes down, and he gets stranded in the South Pacific with some soon-to-be carrion–and Richard Parker.

There’s a simplicity to all this, including a plainness to the acting, that didn’t make me giddy, but put me in the proper children’s-book frame of mind. Richard Parker becomes a scary, Japanese-game show version of Wilson the Volleyball: emotional compensation for the loss of his family that must be paid for with struggle. It’s the story of Job at sea. But, despite the surreality of the situation, it isn’t played as fantasy (except, maybe, when they land on a man-eating island); and this counts when the adult Pi says this story will make its listener believe in God. It is grounded in reality just enough to make that claim stick as more than a literary bluff. But there’s a lot to like in this story of a boy learning to live with his Orange-and-Black Beauty; they’re both out of their element when flying fish slap against them like a plague of locusts, and one’s heart goes out (with no small amount of shock) when one sees safari animals struggling against the current in Asian waters. The C.G. is often vibrant, witty, and pretty.

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Les Misérables

The King’s Speech was begging to be a musical. (You can quote me on that; some craven producer will make it happen some day, with King George as Eliza Doolittle.) But Les Misérables was not begging for Tom Hooper to direct it. He cut his teeth on the sprawling John Adams miniseries, which brought the 18th century to life in the style of documentary realism. But his American Revolution wasn’t a windup to his French one. This theatrical form demands suspension of one’s disbelief; and this particular musical, enduring after four decades, has made millions upon millions downright revoke theirs. In the movie version, at least, everyone seems to be singing what they’re thinking; in real life, they’d be talking at one another. They are stating the obvious in ways that one can only really accept when stated musically, because that adds another layer of expression. (I think that’s especially crucial to keep in mind here in the jaded 21st century; how’s one to process long soliloquies when one is used to 20-character texts?) On the stage, everybody’s solipsism can be seen all at once; and the right kind of blocking can express the characters’ relation to one another. But Hooper is a full-blown closeup fiend, and when the lyrics are blatant, it’s as if the movie’s shouting at us. Add editing, and it’s like everyone’s taking turns with the conch.

Granted, it does work from time to time. I’ve heard tell that, if you listen to what she’s saying, Anne Hathaway’s big number (“Dreamed a Dream”) is to pity parties what “Gagnam Style” is to real ones. But, with those big eyes glistening like the specks of dirt on her face that complement its sweat like sparkles, the actress really sells it. Her hair’s been chiseled off, but she owns it; I began to picture her as Joan of Arc–and the shoe fit, given the Parisian setting. And certainly some of that sense of intimacy comes from the fact that her head is essentially floating in front of a black scrim that evokes a very different sort of theater: the emptied-out stage of minimalism. There are a few wide shots of the revolutionaries in their urban trenches that reminded me of the best of The Dark Knight Rises, which appropriated from this historical period (or at least its prelude); but all but the best C.G. landscaping underwhelms me, and there’s none of the pananche that drew me into the 1930s-Paris digiscape of Hugo.

Having never seen Les Mis on stage, or any musical on screen in years–since Sweeney Todd (from which this movie borrows more than Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, its two increasingly familiar comic reliefs)–watching this is rather like listening to a foreign language that I once learned but am now rusty at. It’s not just that the actors are talking at each other; there’s a frantic sense of momentum to this musically driven plot, in which very little happens that isn’t sung about first (or, frankly, sung about at all; it’s one bar short of an opera). I wouldn’t say it bothers me so much as it makes me feel less qualified to review it. (Though I would venture that if Victor Hugo were alive to see his sumo-wrestler-sized novel so manically condensed, he’d likely have a hissy fit; there is something discomfiting about a whiplashed muti-generational saga.) Russell Crowe, so gracefully like a Daguerreotype on the film’s posters, has the misfortune of living up to all the negative buzz. Fortunately, Hugh Jackman is a surprisingly robust Valjean, though a combination of the form and the role’s Christian conception take the edge off any personal complexity that isn’t writ in cosmic terms. (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.) The younger generation (represented by Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne) have kept as weak a grip on my memory, however, as their characters ultimately keep on the republican cause. (After one very moving song about being the sole survivor of his cadre after the army had blown it apart–“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” an anthem befitting any veteran–the insurgent Marius jumps back into the arms of the aristocracy he was born into.)

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Django Unchained

Django Unchained begins with an “N,” ends with an “R,” and is empty in between. Quentin Tarantino and his ilk have won the so-called culture war, albeit with dubious rhetoric. He talks a good talk in interviews, the one forum in which he may actually be inheritor to Orson Welles; but unlike Welles, the once regnant martyr and meatloaf, Tarantino has no problem getting his projects financed–and they’ve devolved into edges without razor blades. By making criticism on moral and formal grounds passé, he’s actually narrowed cinema as an art form and coarsened audience expectations. And what for? An antebellum Western that kicks a little dirt in old farts’ eyes.

I don’t mean to say that Django should’ve never been made, only that it’s neither as bold nor as important as the press declares. It’s a buddy comedy sold in a big-event-sized package. Some of it is actually quite funny, though its sense of humor wouldn’t shock anyone who’s seen Blazing Saddles–which came out when Tarantino was all of 11. The key difference between that movie and this one–apart from the ultraviolence–is that the Mel Brooks classic (he’s an unlikely institution these days) had a racially progressive point. Django is just a game of chicken: Who’s gonna cry foul first? And nobody loses who isn’t already made of straw. We’ve been trained not to care, and my apathy extended to what took place onscreen; there isn’t a single emotion that hasn’t been wrought from blatant exploitation. Slavery is a pretext to justify bloodlust, just as Nazism was in Inglourious Basterds. It’s a weasely way to be “provocative,” not to mention self-defeating: Its shiftiness undercuts any catharsis. I’m sure Tarantino believed he was empowering the Other; but, in effect, is he doing anything more than trolling?

I could make the good-liberal points that the freedman, Jamie Foxx (who’s never interested me as an actor), and the lover he rescues, Kerry Washington (who has), are used as props till the very end; their enhancement in status is plot-driven rather than organic. I could even say that Django is Basterds in blackface, but then I’d be sinking to the movie’s level of incendiary fluff. In all honesty, though, it seems alarming that the jolly bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz is essentially a clone of his S.S. officer in Basterds–except, this time around, he’s supposed to be a good guy. (It’s a given that the film’s morally bankrupt; but it points to how fungible these asinine revenge fantasies have become.) There are nice touches. Training a stable of Mandingo fighters, Leonardo DiCaprio plays against type by inflicting suffering for sport; and the director, slump-shouldered like the aging John Wayne, gives himself a cameo that ends in an explosive finale. But what is one to make of the masked female bandit who never emerges as anyone important? And even if one credits Samuel L. Jackson for his galling portrait of a house-slave Uncle Tom–who reveals himself to be more self-aware than the white folks were led to believe and thus emerges as Django’s major enemy–does the twist have anything more to say than: hypocritical black people are worse than abusive whites? Is the auteur using this specious distinction for any reason other than that it makes the old goat’s climactic mutilation all the more “rewarding”? It’s become hard to tell whether some things are tepid because Tarantino is making fun of tepid plot devices or if he’s simply artistically spent. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

Skyfall

Is it a cultural difference that British civil servants dress better than ours do? In Skyfall, 007 is dressed to the nines; but what can you get a guy for his gold anniversary when he’s literally seen and done it all? Neither a gay villain (Diamonds Are Forever) nor a subtext about aging (Never Say Never Again) are new to this 50-year-old franchise; and these fears of being past one’s prime seem premature given that the “game-changing” Casino Royale was only two movies ago. However, there’s a definite shift here from the see-Bond-suffer taint of Royale and its 2008 successor, Quantum of Solace. Directed by Sam (American Beauty) Mendes, Skyfall trades “realism” for Oedipal psychodrama. This time the bad guy–M’s former golden boy at Mi6–is messing with James Bond’s mum. He literally hits home.

With soap opera foaming in the background, the old plot devices come off refreshed. Daniel Craig’s noble-savage spy was always a reaction against the fact that Q’s R&D division now lags behind that of most startups. But when the rugged BAMF is paired against a truly modern boogeyman–a hacker (Javier Bardem) who exposes our shared vulnerability in the face of Big Data–Paul Haggis’s rootsy take on secret agentry really pays off. (One might call this contrast between new ways and old YOLO vs. You Only Live Twice.) Silva uses Bond’s confidential files as fodder for psychological torture; the spy is suddenly in a position analogous to one that we’ve all come to dread. And with that, plus kitchen-sink dramaturgy, to hold on to, Craig and Judi Dench finally have something tangible to inform their performances and deepen their deadpan. There’s no doubt that Craig has always brought self-deprecating humor to the role, but he already signaled his farewell to this franchise in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, in which he functioned as a bridge to the millenial vigilante. (He reveled in playing second banana, and was happy to slip on the peels.) And this is the first time–that I can remember–that Dench’s gender has made a substantive impact on the plot. Now that 007 is officially an orphan, and that his vulnerability has been demonstrated in Craig prequels past, M is not just a cold-bitch boss but a distant mother–stubbornly remote in a measured, Anglo-Saxon way. Touches like these don’t make Skyfall realistic–simply relatable. There’s just enough distance from “reality.” For example, I don’t believe that a person with Silva’s motives would pose an existential threat to our way of life; but someone (or some group) with his means potentially could. When he moves from a conventionally exotic base of operations in the Far East to Mi6’s home front–the London Underground–the thematic import of Silva’s offensive defuses what might’ve left an exploitive, terror-baiting sting. He’s in Bond’s house. He has to be stopped.

The ambitions of the writers–veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with the booster shot of John Logan–are executed by the sort of A-team that would hardly call the action-film world home: Mendes, the D.P. Roger Deakins, and Thomas Newman, who provides an unusually lush score. (Having Adele belt out the theme song also adjusts the mood: She’s rare among contemporary pop singers in making heartsickness both slick and powerful.) One action scene turns the top story of a Shanghai high rise into a Chinese lantern spinning at a rave. L.E.D. billboards reflect off the glass and project on the combatants like a variegated redux of the Goldfinger opening credits. (And where better to make a Western spy feel obsolete than in Shanghai?) These cats know that a Freudianized Bond is, by definition, a funny Bond; but they also know why old interpretations, like old heroes, hold sway over our imaginations, and so they refuse to reject Silva like M did. I think Bardem will go down as the finest Bond villain of all time. Silva would’ve never withstood the degradation of the actor’s page-boy bowl-cut in No Country for Old Men, but this blond Bardem is uncanny in another way: a fantasy clung to like a comb-over, a failed propinquity to brother Bond. Silva, the misogynist and sex trafficker, is a tragic figure. In the mere flutter of his fake eyelashes it’s painfully clear that M isn’t the first mother figure to have betrayed him.