Movie Review: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Benh Zeitlin, USA 2012)

For a small-budget film with a first-time director in director/co-screenwriter Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild received immense attention and acclaim. However, much of it was centered on child star Quvenzhané Wallis and the film’s depiction of a particular small, impoverished sect of society. That made me question whether the film actually deserved praise, and Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement made me feel even more uneasy. I was still willing to give it a try. Nonetheless, it turns out that my unease was well-founded. This is a poor film that’s receiving a lot of praise for unimportant, surface-level details.

The film isn’t quite sure what it’s about. It begins as a somewhat interesting metaphorical commentary about global warming, chastising adults for their selfish use of nature with no concern about it while the child listens to it and gazes on it in wonder. For about the first half-hour, it even stays relatively well-focused on that point. However, it then loses its way, becoming enraptured first with depicting the “tough love” (In real-world terms, I believe we call that “abusive,” but for some reason people insist on phrases like “tough love” for this film.) relationship between the six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father and then with depicting the culture of this group of poor people living outside of society. Neither of those depictions can work as the point of a film, but the film is too busy with them to continue with its environmental commentary, leaving behind a film so confused about its own direction that it really has no point.

Visually, director Benh Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson don’t do much that stands out, and the things that do stand out aren’t necessarily positive. The film is shot almost if not entirely with hand-held cameras, and they are particularly shaky throughout the film. Zeitlin and Richardson may have intended this shakiness to emphasize the “reality” of the film, but it’s difficult to say whether this effect worked. While hand-held cameras often humanize situations, the extremely shaky camerawork in this film served as a constant reminder that we are watching a fictional film. Otherwise, they essentially played by the numbers save for some fairly interesting shots early in the film where they allowed bright the bright lights of fireworks and other celebratory materials to overexpose the film, emphasizing the delight that Hushpuppy feels in the situation.

The acting is generally fine but with relatively easy roles. Wallis deserves credit for being able to perform adequately even in a static role given her age, but it just wasn’t a role that required much of her. Her house-burning tantrum is a perfect example—while she does everything the part needs, it’s a much flatter tantrum than, for example, Freddie Highmore’s destruction of the playhouse in Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, USA/UK 2004). Meanwhile, the only other substantial role was Dwight Henry’s role as her father. He performed adequately, but his role was also rather two-dimensional, simply switching between drunken anger and drunken elation. No one else has a role to speak of, really.

Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin’s score deserves a note, because it was excellent. It never got in the way of the film and heightened the emotional impact of every scene. In some cases, it even created an impact that the film was otherwise missing.

Overall, it’s an unfocused film that doesn’t know what it wants to say or how to say it, which is a shame because it wastes a rare adequate child performance. It’s not really worth seeing, which probably explains why the best awards of awards season (The National Society of Film Critics Awards, the Online Film Critics Society Awards, and the San Diego Film Critics Society Awards) did not show it the attention that the Academy Awards did.

Movie Review: “Argo” (Ben Affleck, USA 2012)

Let’s start with something that everyone should understand before going in: This film is a political film. It is 100% intended to help Barack Obama win re-election. It’s a jingoistic film meant to say, “Oh, look how awesome the USA is! And how peaceful solutions work! And how Muslims are capable of self-sacrifice and bravery too!” (Yes, sadly enough, it has to make that last point.) It’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney’s (also credited as a producer) contribution to Obama’s re-election fund, just as running the trailers for Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2012) since about June is Kathryn Bigelow’s and doing the same for Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA/India 2012) is Steven Spielberg’s. This type of politically-motivated filmmaking and releasing around election dates is not the slightest bit unusual. The only thing that’s unusual is that a couple of big-budget big studio films (Argo and Lincoln) are openly on the Democratic side (Even Spielberg, who made the most obvious piece of pro-Bush propaganda ever in The War of the Worlds [USA 2005], seemingly confirming that his foray into the business side of Hollywood had converted him politically!) where Hollywood’s heavy money is typically entirely on the Republican side (and those are around–Red Dawn [Dan Bradley, USA 2012] is the obvious typical piece of right wing action propaganda).

Unlike Clooney’s own political entry for this election, The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA 2011) (“You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns!” It’s great when a movie tells you everything you need to know about it in one line.), Affleck makes his political point with a bit of subtlety and care. One thing that has appeared clear throughout Affleck’s directing career so far is that he’s interested in taking a tight narrative within a typical genre and adding a confounding element, exploring what that confounding variable does to adjust the meaning and shape of that narrative. He’s also shown that he completely lacks visual imagination (which may be a side effect of going into directing immediately able to do whatever he wants, though the aforementioned Clooney has actually shown an impressive visual imagination in spite of the same circumstances), and a disturbing willingness to cast himself in spite of his own extreme limitations as an actor.

Considering Affleck’s career in those terms, Argo is exactly what one would expect. He begins with a fairly typical spy-thriller concept about a covert operation to pull a few hidden American embassy employees out of a riotous Iran filled with anti-American sentiment but adds the twist that the cover for the operation is . . . making a movie! So, we get a little comic relief foray into Hollywood making fun of itself. However, that foray is really nothing more than a short bit of comic relief–the film does not become a self-referential comedic genre exercise along the lines of The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, USA 1997), The Player (Robert Altman, USA 1992), and The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2011). For me, that was a disappointing non-development, because I love that sort of self-referential comedy. However, I understand the decision on Affleck’s part (and it turns out that doing anything comedic would be problematic, after recent events that Affleck could not have anticipated), because it would have been easy for the levity to take over the film, and he keeps things very serious by putting the relief in its own box separated from everything else. It was almost like Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, USA 1986), which keeps Allen’s comedic plot separated from the more serious moments. The comedy gets enough breath that it does relieve what could have been an oppressively serious film, and keeping it separated from the serious plot was sensible, if not what I would choose.

Also, while it was a shame to see Affleck cast himself in ostensibly the starring role again, it turns out not to have been a problem in several ways. First, the character doesn’t show much of any emotion, allowing Affleck’s limitations to hide under his bizarre ’70s beard. Second, the few times when the character should show emotions, Affleck smartly doesn’t show his own face, relying on Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score and the situation to fill in what he himself cannot do. It’s a too-little-used but often effective trick (Watch The Omen [Richard Donner, UK/USA 1976] and pay attention to Gregory Peck’s emotional breakdown. It happens off-screen. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, one of the best in film history, gives that film a bit of an unfair advantage here, but why are people so rarely willing to admit to their actors’ limitations?), and Affleck definitely deserves credit for being willing to use it on himself. Overall, it turns out that his performance simply does not matter to the film.

However, Affleck once again lets himself down with a complete lack of visual imagination. The film just doesn’t have anything interesting to it visually. It’s competent, sure, but it’s absolutely nothing special, which is a shame for a film that had some potential otherwise. I would love to see him work with a more interesting cinematographer and see what would happen, but Rodrigo Prieto is frankly uninteresting. The genius of Conrad Hall made Sam Mendes look like an interesting director for nearly a decade. I’m not sure there is another genius like him around, but what about Peter Deming or Robert Richardson? Just somebody who’s done something interesting before might be enough to take him from “passable” to “good.”

There isn’t much anyone could do acting-wise throughout the film, so no one stood out in a good or bad way.

Overall, it’s an okay film. It’s nothing special, but it’s certainly decent.

Originally Written and Posted on Facebook October 12, 2012. Slightly edited.

A small update since this film has now won three Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture prize. That award doesn’t mean this film is any better than I thought it was from the beginning, but its win brings up the question of why such an average film would win the prestigious award. The answer is that, while this is a clearly political film, it’s also a film that praises the film industry. The entire movie-within-a-movie subplot, which pulls back from skewering Hollywood in any meaningful way, conveys the message that films have a power to help solve the world’s political problems (a message that could easily be seen as self-congratulatory, given the film’s obvious political goals). It’s not exactly the same message as The Artist (Michael Hazanavicious, France/Belgium/USA 2011) used to take home the award last year, but the spirit is very much the same, and it’s a spirit that wins this award with some regularity.