February 2013 Home Cinema

by Leonard G. Heldreth

Our films this month include an independent film by a new director that received four Oscar nominations, two Oscar-nominated animation features, and the best science fiction film in quite some time.

Beasts of the Southern Wilds

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the most original film I’ve seen in quite some time.  Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin from her play, “Juicy and Delicious,” and directed by first-time director Zeitlin, Beasts is striking in its story, its location, its themes, and its acting.  Set in “The Bathtub,” a fictional swamp area off the coast of New Orleans whose fresh water is protected from the sea by a levee, Beasts explores the relationship between six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry).  Hushpuppy and her father live in adjoining ramshackle huts deep in the swamp until Hushpuppy accidentally sets her hut on fire while trying to cook some food. Her father has been away for a few days for medical testing, and the diagnosis, never shared with his daughter, is a fatal blood disease. Their friends, all equally poor and often alcoholic, live in other shacks made from old wood, pieces of metal, and cardboard–they give a new meaning to the term “recycled.”.  The people help each other as much as possible, live mostly on what they can catch, and try to avoid the government, which wants them to move.  The government’s attempts intensify when a major hurricane approaches (probably Katrina, although never named), but Wink and Hushpuppy, along with some other residents, decide to ride the storm out, and they do.  After the hurricane, the government “evacuates” them, but they escape the evacuation center and return to the Bathtub where the last scenes of the film play out.

Hushpuppy’s mother left several years before, although the girl can still somewhat remember her, and sometimes stands at the end of the ocean calling her name.  Once, she and some other children swim out to a light that turns out to be a small fishing boat.  The captain takes them to a floating dancehall, where a woman feeds Hushpuppy some fried catfish and carries her around in her arms (is this her mother?) before the children are returned to the shore.  Hushpuppy sometimes tells her story in voice-over narration, like the young girls narrating Terrence Mallick’s Days of Heaven and Badlands, but at other times the viewer has to figure out what is going on.

One of the film’s themes is the effect of change on Hushpuppy and her community.  Not only is her father dying, but climate changes are increasing the big storms that threaten their way of life as saltwater spills into the freshwater of the Bathtub.  Hushpuppy is told in school about the melting of the polar icecaps, and her teacher says this melt will defrost the aurochs, which the young girl imagines as ancient tusked hogs that look about eight feet tall.  Hushpuppy thinks they are coming to the swamp to seek her out as inevitably as the blood disease is killing her father.  Since the film is from Hushpuppy’s point of view, it contains many shots of the great beasts coming closer until they stand in front of her, and she must face them. The last shot of the film, as uncertain as the lives these people lead, shows Hushpuppy and her friends confidently walking along a sea-level causeway, but dark clouds are on the horizon, another storm approaches, and water is already blowing across the causeway.

In addition to its other virtues, Beasts has some of the best acting on the screen this year, although the two leads are non-professionals making their acting debuts.  Dwight Henry runs his own pastry shop and has no desire for a further acting career;  Quvenzhané Wallis, who is now eight years old, has been nominated for an Oscar.  See Beasts of the Southern Wild; it will stay in your mind long after the screen goes dark.  (Beasts of the Southern Wild has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director–Benh Zeitlin, Best Actress–Quvenzhané Wallis, and Best Adapted Screenplay–Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin.)

Brave

In recent years Pixar has ruled the roost in animation with works such as UP, Ratatouille, Wall·E, and Finding Nemo–original, well-written, sharply-drawn films that pushed the envelope on what animation could do.  For its 13th film, Pixar offers a story of a red-haired, rebellous princess in medieval times in the Scottish highlands.  While the art work, animation, and over-all characters are excellent, the story is thin and fairly predictable; at the end, although Princess Merida is reconciled with her mother, Queen Eleanor, the causes of the original conflict are still in place, and Merida’s future role as a traditional queen still lies before her, as clearly as the path where the wisps led her through the forest.

Merida is the only daughter of King Fergus and Queen Eleanor; her flaming red hair, a mass of curls, is a visual sign of her headstrong nature.  She’s much happier riding her huge horse, Angus, through the forest and shooting her bow than doing needlework with her mother.  But Merida is growing up, and many years ago, her father had pledged that she would marry a son from one of the surrounding clans, in order to better unite the tribes.  Now her father holds a tournament to see which young man will marry his daughter.  The problem is, the three eligible candidates are about as far from Prince Charming as they can get; worse, at the tournament, Merida beats them all in archery.

Hoping to postpone the inevitable, she jumps on Angus and rides into the forest where flickering lights guide her to the hut of a witch, a bulging-eyed crone with a pet crow.  Marida asks for a spell to change her mother’s mind, and the witch obliges, but the spell also changes her mother into a huge bear.  The rest of the film follows Merida’s attempts to undo the spell and rescue her mother.

While the plot itself is fairly predictable, it introduces some interesting elements.  Mirada has three young brothers who try to help her but who are caught in the fallout from the spell and turned into bear cubs.  Roaming the woods and threatening everyone who ventures into it is a huge demon-bear from mythical times, and the fight between him and Queen Eleanor in bear form is what earned the film a PG rating instead of Pixar’s usual G.  The huge Clydesdale horse, Angus, is beautifully drawn and almost a character on his own.  The witch (Julie Walters) is both scary and funny.  It’s unfortunate that all of these various, quite successful pieces don’t come together into a knock-out movie, but they don’t.  Part of the problem is that Pixar has set such high standards for animation that we expect every film to be as great as UP or  Ratatouille, and Brave just isn’t that original or impressive.  Fortunately, the thin plot probably won’t bother most children, although their parents may fidget a bit.  Good Pixar is still better than most other animation films, so by all means, see it.  The highlands have never looked more beautiful. (Brave was noiminated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.)

ParaNorman

The animation style of Brave, with its sweeping panoramas and nearly photographic detail, couldn’t be more different from that of ParaNorman, whose characters are animated puppets in the style of the “Wallace and Gromit” films or December’s Arthur Christmas.  The previous film from LAIKA, also puppet animation, was the excellent Coraline (2009), which was directed by Henry Selick, a co-director of ParaNorman.

Instead of an Irish princess as hero, ParaNorman has a scrawny eleven-year-old boy with an equally unruly mop of hair, but Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the boy from Let the Right One In and The Road)  is definitely an outsider.  He dotes on horror movies and has other quirky habits that alienate his mother and father (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin), irritate his older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and invite the unwelcome attention of the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  He makes zombie faces at himself in the mirror and has only one friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), whose weight and other odd habits, make him an outsider also  (sound like anyone we may have known–or been?).  Actually, Norman has a lot of friends, but they are all ghosts, and only he sees them, so when he walks down the street saying “Good morning,” to what seems like empty air, he adds to his reputation as a weirdo or  “Freak!” as classmates keep scrawling on his locker.

Norman lives in Blithe Hollow, a stuffy New England town whose only claim to distinction was that it tried and executed a young witch two hundred years ago. Exploiting that event in every possible way has enabled the little burg to become a successful tourist trap, and seeing the crass levels to which the townspeople will sink to grab a tourist dollar  (“Buy witch taffy!”) is one of the pleasures of the film.  What the townspeople aren’t aware of is that every year, on the anniversary of the witch’s death, she tries to destroy the town, and it’s only Norman’s uncle, Mr. Pendergast (John Goodman), who subverts the witch’s anger.  But this is the 200th anniversary of her death, and, worse, Mr. Pendergast dies just before the anniversary after alerting Norman that he now has the responsibility of dealing with this very angry witch.  The rest of the film follows Norman as he visits the graveyard, encounters the zombies from the witch’s trial, and finally encounters Aggie (Jodelle Ferland), the witch herself, who was only a teenager when she was executed and cursed the town.

How all this works out is scary fun as Norman enlists the help of his sister and Neil’s pumped-up older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to cope with all the supernatural intrusions.  One of the best ghosts in the film is Norman’s grandmother, played by Broadway’s incomparable Elaine Stritch, who has “crossed over” but who keeps showing up on the couch in Norma’s livingroom, knitting a ghostly sweater, because she needs to make sure he’s all right. As in Brave, the plot here is a little thin at times and fairly predictable, but the parts and animation of ParaNorman are so good that it hardly matters.  (ParaNorman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.)

Looper

Looper, as its publicity has repeatedly stated, is about time travel.  During the next sixty years, before 2074, time travel has been invented but has been outlawed by the government because of its potential damage to the future.  Criminal syndicates, however, have gained access to the devices and use them to dispose of unwanted individuals, who are nearly impossible to dispose of in 2074 because everyone has electronic markers.  A Looper is a man who has been sent to the past (2044 in this case) where he waits for his hooded and bound victim to appear at a designated site, shoots him, and disposes of the body. As payment, he takes the bars of silver that are strapped to the victim’s body and waits for the next arrival.  The only catch is that in thirty years he will be sent back as a victim to be killed by his younger self, thus “closing the loop” and protecting the syndicate.

Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a good looper, a professional assasin who carries out his tasks and enjoys the fruits of his labor–fast cars, beautiful women, and drugs taken via eye drops–while stockpiling a hoard of silver.  Then one day, a bound man appears without a hood, and Joe, recognizing his future self, hesitates just long enough to allow Old Joe (Bruce Willis) to escape.  If a looper fails to kill his older self, for whatever reason, then the syndicate sends in other assassins that it keeps in that time period to remedy the error.

Young Joe is determined to remedy his error himself and goes to a diner where he knows Old Joe will find him, resulting in one of the centerpieces of the film: two men who are the same  man talking to each other separated by thirty years of life experience and realizing that neither can convince his other self that he is wrong.  Old Joe has come back on a mission to kill someone who, in the future, has killed his wife; Young Joe wants Old Joe killed so he can enjoy the next thirty years.  Deadlock!

Through various devices, Young Joe learns that Old Joe will go to a farmhouse in a cane field outside New Orleans, and Young Joe goes there to wait for him. The farmhouse is owned by Sara (Emily Blount), who lives there with her five-year-old son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).  Sara carries a shotgun and threatens Young Joe with it until she is certain he has no designs on her or Cid, and then the two form a temporary truce.   The on-site assassins, presided over by Abe (Jeff Daniels), head for the farm, looking for both Joes, and a big shoot-out is expected.  But it doesn’t happen in the anticipated fashion, for the director foregrounds some information that was clearly obvious all the way through but was not emphasized.  The final scene, although unexpected, is a logical and emotional choice that says the future isn’t as fixed as it might seem to be, and that people’s decisions can affect it dramatically.

For a time-travel film, Loopers has remarkably few obvious paradoxes or logical errors, and the plot combines its science fiction aspects with strong emotional interactions.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fine as a young Bruce Willis, despite his prosthetic nose and touched-up eyebrows; he has mastered Willis’s voice inflections and gestures (he smirks and tentatively strokes his receding hairline), and his character evolution from callow killer to someone thinking about the bigger implications of his actions is believable.  Bruce Willis is, well, Bruce Willis, and he even gets to do his Die Hard tough-guy in the latter part of the film as he eliminates the people who may have been responsible for his wife’s death.  Emily Blunt may have stolen the show, however, for she is not just the romance interest but a strong figure in the plot’s development.  That she is named “Sara” indicates that a major theme from the Terminator series is not accidental.  Jeff Bridges is both fun and menacing as head of the 2044 clean-up operation, and young Pierce Gagnon is truly extraordinary as Cid.

Anyone interested in science fiction or thrillers will want to see Looper for the action, but it has many more themes, e. g., the effect of parents on children and the need to think about the future implications of any prese  nt actions.  At one point it asks the same question raised by Steven King’s The Dead Zone: if you had the knowledge and opportunity to kill Hitler when he was a baby, would you do it?  King provides one answer, Looper provides another in one of the best science fiction films of the year.  (All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores.  Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found in the archives at mmnow.com.)

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