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In last year’s Tree of Life, Terence Malick mesmerized audiences with his meditation on the nature of the universe and our passage through it. He encompassed the entirety of time from creation to the rapture, throwing in a bunch of dinosaurs for good measure, in order to weave a tapestry that shows the interconnectedness of life in all its infinite variations. Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature film touches on a lot of similar themes — nature, family, the harmony of life — and also uses a mixture of surrealist imagery, compressing memories, fables, dreams, folklore and imagination in order to achieve an acute, unique visual style. Instead of dinosaurs, he has “aurochs”, mythical beasts that once roamed the earth as a metaphor for our struggle to maintain our precarious control over the earth. But unlike the sprawling Malick film, Zeitlin tells a narrative with such amazing focus and precision of emotion. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a reminder of the power of cinema to transport its audiences physically and emotionally, it is escapism imbued with the highest form of artistry.

Set in the Bayou, the movie centers on a young girl named Hushpuppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis. Much like her small community affectionately called The Bathtub because of its location outside the levee, she is a scrappy, resourceful six-year old who has a precocious self-understanding of her place in the universe. Echoing the mechanical worldview of Hugo Cabret in Hugo, she sees herself as a tiny yet essential piece of a gigantic puzzle. According to her, “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right”. So she spends her idle time catching birds and other creatures and putting them close to her ear, hoping that she would catch traces of the ethereal life force that flows across all beings speak back to her. One consequence of this philosophy is perceiving the world as a chain of cause and effect, so when a Katrina-like hurricane ravages her home after she throws a tantrum, she blames herself for ruining the balance and sets out to restore the order that was lost. “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.”

It is hard to imagine what caused Hushpuppy to be so possessed with the awareness of the mystical forces that govern our world, but it is easy to claim that it is Wallis’s raw performance that serves as the lifeblood of this film. She has such a commanding presence contained in her tiny frame, all the more made realistic by the fact that she was just a local schoolgirl whom Zeitlin chose her to play the part. Her pout, her energy, her determination — her entire constitution, really – is nothing short of enchanting, and also profoundly moving. Her troublesome relationship with her father Wink, played by another amateur actor named Dwight Henry, rises and falls like the tumultuous weather. There are storms, and there are peaceful, serene calms, and Zeitlin builds it up to an emotional crescendo that is as shattering, and heartbreaking, as the deluge itself.

The Bathtub represents a sort of premodern way of living. It is a racially mixed group of what at first seems like society’s dregs, but there is a charm in their unhurried lifestyles. Everything is built from found materials and wreckage, but life abounds in their makeshift abodes. They have their own set of norms, which include no crying when somebody dies and helping out whoever is in need. Their attachment to their less than idyllic way of life is understandable because of the civic spirit that reside within these people, and without. Again, the interconnectedness of the universe is rendered even more urgent and perceptible when confined to such a narrow space, and it is much a journey of the destruction and rehabilitation of a community than it is of Hushpuppy.

This movie is a constant tug-of-war. It is about the people of the Bathtub fending off modern, bureaucratic institutions intending to “save” them. It is about Hushpuppy trying to tame the beasts that live within her and gain control of herself and the world around her. It is a contest between Hushpuppy and Wink, two people who have the capacity to hurt and love each other the most. It is a movie filled with the most heartwrenching tensions, not least because it tries to mirror life itself in a most piercing way. 

There really is nothing innovative about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, not least because the book by Stephen Chbosky, who also penned the movie’s screenplay, has been a major influence on teen culture over the past decade. The film is filled with a lot of the sensibilities that have come to define the contemporary indie movie — the well-curated soundtrack, the pop culture references, the quirky, off-beat characters who are too cool for their own good. But I guess that its precisely the tonal perfection that makes this movie a precious, endearing thing to behold, even if it might attract some derision from people who would find it too cloying and “white”.

Enter Charlie (Logan Lerman), a loner freshman with a tormented past who has a hard time fitting into the social hierarchies of high school. He belongs in the same league as Cady from Mean Girls and Oliver from Submarine, the type of kids for whom finding a lunch table in the cafeteria is a Herculean task and whose curiously insightful thoughts are transmitted to us by way of overhead narration. He’s the titular wallflower — always observant but hesitant in what he calls “participating” in the real world. That is until he befriends Patrick (Ezra Miller), an excitable queer senior who takes Charlie under his wing, and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), a pretty girl-next-door whom Charlie gets immediately attracted to. We follow him as he navigates a complex terrain of emotions that come with adolescence, except that for the most part he’s directionless and lets his two newfound friends, along with his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), lead the way. Together, they go through the teenage experience — they exchange The Smiths songs, party, do drugs, reenact The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But the movie also takes some dark, melodramatic turns as it deals with the repercussions of, among other things, teen suicide and homophobia.

The movie’s main cast is, to my surprise, brilliant. Lerman in particular showed an astute restraint in his performance, a far cry from his kiddy turn in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Playing Charlie demanded a believable mix of vulnerability and likability to serve as our conduit to the nostalgia of our youths, and at his best, his portrayal can get under your skin and evoke emotions and memories that you thought you’ve left behind. Miller is equally impressive. He doesn’t fall into the trap of simply being the gay best friend but instead infuses his character with a charming dose of pizzazz and vigorous spirit. And finally, weird American accent aside, Watson is acceptable enough as Sam, perhaps the weakest of the three lead performances. It is easy enough to project whatever ideal we had of the perfect high school girlfriend because of a certain blankness in her delivery of that character, although whether or not it was intentional from her part is unknown.

As far as fantasized depictions of teenage life goes, this is a pretty good movie that will find its following. If I have one main reservation, its with the movie’s bumper-sticker mantra derived from one of the oft-quoted lines from the book: We accept the love we think we deserve. It’s catchy enough to seem reasonable, but I don’t agree with the sentiment of conveniently blaming someone’s low self-worth if they find themselves in an abusive or otherwise crappy relationship. Love is much more complicated than that. But hey, what do I know. I’m also just a wallflower.

 

The Academy recently announced that this guy would be hosting the next Oscars.

His name is Seth MacFarlane.

You may be familiar with some of his works, which include Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, American Dad and the recent movie, Ted.

 

Here are some reasons why this might be a brilliant idea:

Here are some reasons why this might be the worst idea ever:

‘Tis October, three more months before we bid 2012 goodbye. Being the last quarter of the season, it’s the time of the year when we start getting flooded by the heavy-hitters aiming for Oscar glory. Better get ready to be pounded with “prestige” biopics (Lincoln, Hyde Park on Hudson, Hitchcock), sweeping “epics” (Les Miserables, Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi) and other “serious” dramas (Zero Dark Thirty, The Sessions). Oy vey.

Some new things this month:

1.) Why don’t we have a bit of genre-specific fun and have a …

Horror Movie Marathon: Scary Asian Shit Edition

A Tale of Two Sisters (Korea – 2003)

Audition (Japan – 1999)

4bia (Thailand – 2008)

2.) New Poll: To celebrate the start of the Oscar season, I ask the question: which of the past five best pictures winners was your favorite? Answer the poll at the sidebar, and if you say The Artist or The King’s Speech, be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

3.) Got some tickets to the London Film Festival, and hoping to write some of the films I get to see there (Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions, etc.). Going to be a busy month because school just started, so will write whenever I can, which will hopefully be a lot.

That’s it, have a rockin’ month everyone.

Vinny

I went to the last event of the MoreLondon Free Festival at The Scoop, which was an outdoor screening of the 1961 Oscar winner for Best Picture, West Side Story. I saw it mostly to see how well it stood the test of time, and for the most part it still manages to entertain in the way that movie musicals from that era usually do (read: Funny Face, The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain). The music was laid on too thick, the choreography overdone and the dialogue hokey. But I don’t say this to disparage the movie because I think that that’s where you actually derive most of the pleasure in re-watching it. Instead, I’m suggesting that if there ever is a Platonic ideal for 60’s musicals, West Side Story comes pretty damn close.

Part of what makes it really entertaining now is that it is, of course, extremely campy. As if the cheese factor of the Romeo and Juliet story wasn’t enough, the gang rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks that manifested in pirouettes and pliés was pure, unadulterated theatricality, the kind of which can’t be performed anymore without someone batting an eyelash at the smarminess of it all. And what makes it authentically campy is its unintentionality. As Susan Sontag said in her classic piece “Notes on Camp”, camp which knows itself to be campy is usually less satisfying. So when Maria’s says “Tony, when you come, make sure you enter the back door,” you can’t help but be amused by its naïveté.

Watching it in the outdoor amphitheater amplified some of the emotions that still manages to resonate fifty-one years after the movie was first released. It lent Maria and Tony’s duet Tonight an extra poignancy, for example. And the fantasy wedding scene between the two while a tad mawkish still managed to convey sincere emotion. And I guess what makes West Side Story refreshing when it came out is the way it treated serious national issues — gang violence, immigration, racial tension — with an air of frivolity that trivialized it in the way that made it seem like they really should be trivial. It sought to redeem the American dream, that people should’t be fighting and killing each other over their places of birth because in America, everyone gets a new start and gets to leave their baggage behind. Of course now, that myth has been shattered and when Anita sings “Buying on credit is so nice” you want to give her a pat on the shoulder and say, “No, dear. It really isn’t.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems that people tend to ignore West Side Story when the topic of movie musicals come up. The last time I remember it penetrate the cultural conversation was when Glee ran a subplot about the kids staging the musical for their school, but that really isn’t saying much. Like its other more-loved contemporaries, there are a lot of gems that shouldn’t be forgotten here, like Rita Morena’s scene-stealing performance as Anita, or yes, even Jerome Robbins’ choreography that predates Grease in the way it brilliantly combines the tough-guy, street gang culture with the femininity of ballet and dance. There are a lot of things that didn’t age well, and Natalie Wood’s tragic demise probably altered the way people have appreciated this movie, but it is one that on occasion, should be revisited, if only to revel in Maria’s ode to feeling pretty or in Tony’s anticipation that something great might be coming tonight. Because really, who knows?

Bruce Willis seems to have a thing for meeting up with younger versions of himself. In 2000’s The Kid, his looming mid-life crisis gets postponed, or perhaps resolved, when he meets a kid who turns out to be himself as a 9-year old. In that saccharine Disney movie, the kid looks at his future and gets disappointed by what he sees — he grows up to be cranky, lonely and lost. Things are pretty much the same in Looper. When a time-travelling assassination attempt gets horribly awry, he meets himself as a twentysomething and the person looking back is terribly confounded at who he has become. As it turns out, no one really wants to grow up to become Bruce Willis.

Looper is a sci-fi thriller set in 2044 about killers called “loopers” who execute people sent to them from the future by a criminal organization with access to illegal time travel technology. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the young Willis, a looper named Joe who goes through the motions of dispatching whomever the future zaps back to him. He whiles the time away by doing drugs, which in this dystopic universe come in the form of eye drops, and going to clubs with other loopers as a sort of fraternity of mercenaries. But he also dreams of escape: he studies French and saves half of the silver paid to him to prepare for a life beyond being just an assassin.

But breaking free from this job comes at a cost. They will never know when the exact day is, but inevitably a looper would kill a victim and open the sack containing their payment to find that instead of silver, they were rewarded with bars of gold. This means that the loop has been closed: the lifeless corpse in front of them is themselves, three decades older. They are free to retire comfortably and live out the remainder of their life in relative peace, until the time comes when they get abducted and sent back to the past to get killed by their younger selves. This first happens to Joe’s best buddy Seth (Paul Dano), and it soon happens to him as well, but the Joe from the 2070s has something different in mind. He evades Young Joe and warns him of a future ran by a terrorist named The Rainmaker who causes universal havoc, and he is hell-bent to do whatever he can to stop his rise to power even if it means killing the tyrant as a child.

While the main plot may remind you of The Terminator 2, writer and director Rian Johnson has done just enough to make it a distinct, memorable sci-fi movie, the kind that basks in its own cleverness and asks it audience to join in its self-worship, no questions asked. It dabbles in moral philosophy 101 and the never-ending nature versus nurture debate, but Johnson eschews exposition: when Joe asks his future self to explain how time travel works, all he says is “Time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.” There is no need to explain the logic that guides how this alternate universe operates, Johnson just expects you to accept it and enjoy the ride. On one hand, this has led the film to be unburdened by what could have been a cumbersome explanation of the nitty gritties of time travel, which despite his best efforts could still have produced holes that will be nitpicked by legions of sci-fi geeks. But on the other hand, some unanswered questions that linger throughout your head can get distracting, such as “Why does it have to be the looper who has to kill his future self?” or “Why exactly was time travel declared illegal?” or “Why does Joseph Gordon Levitt look like a wax figure?” Alas, only the latter question has a definite but unsatisfying answer. The decision to apply make-up on Levitt to make him look more like Willis was an unnecessary, laughable device that was put in to make the movie seem more realistic, but really Johnson should’ve trusted his audience’s ability to tell that they are both playing the same character.

Clumsy prosthetics aside, both Levitt and Willis turn in a pair of commendable performances made fascinating by the way they incorporated qualities of each other into their acting. Despite the high stakes for each of their characters, Johnson was able to insert slices of clever humor into the script’s crisp dialogue, and their relationship that is both strangely paternal and often times adversarial plays out with a sophistication that escapes most modern sci-fi movies (In Time, anyone?). The entire movie is a testament to Johnson’s skill of crafting together a refined narrative with satisfying twists, something he displayed to a lesser extent in his earlier feature Brick. But what’s most impressive about his latest feature is how cathartic the ending is and how beautifully pieced together the final product was, like an elegant jigsaw puzzle with every part in its right place. You might not be satisfied with the science but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Looper is a wonderfully imagined movie.

The spectre of the 2008 financial meltdown is haunting us once again, this time cinematically with this year’s Arbitrage and Cosmopolis and 2011’s Margin Call and Wall Street 2 ushering in the post-American age by way of well-tailored, greedy bankers getting their comeuppance, in one way or another. But the way we projected them onto the screen reflects a sort of ambivalence in the way we think of them. They have been vilified in mainstream media and have been the collective scapegoat for all our economic woes, but we used to fall at the feet of these people whom we used to worship as the very embodiment of the American Dream. As such, Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko or Richard Gere’s Robert Miller were portrayed not as magnates who were inherently, purely evil, but as once great men who fell from grace. The investment banker has become such a layered, enigmatic character in light of the financial brouhaha that it is hard to pin down his (he has always been a masculine character) place in our cultural consciousness. They have, in turns, been portrayed as heroes, villains, anti-heroes, anti-villains.

In Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, he teams up once again with Brad Pitt and transplants George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade onto 2008, right at the peak of America’s denouement, using the shady underground world of mobsters as a cruel metaphor to American capitalism. And this is in some ways an appropriate analogy: gangsters, just like the hacks from Wall Street of today, were also treated with a mixture, in equal parts, of admiration and fear in 50’s style noir films. Pitt’s James Cogan walks down the streets of Boston with his slick-back and his shotgun, treating every hit as a financial transaction. This is America, after all, where everything is a business and what matters most is that he gets paid.

This isn’t a completely perfect metaphor, but this movie is able to rise above it because of the elegantly constructed crime story that Dominik delivers. It harkens back to classic American gangster movies, such as Goodfellas or Mean Streets, and the visual panache extends to the dry, dusty atmosphere that envelopes these movies, a pervading gloom and weariness that weighs down on the shoulders of these men as they constantly look behind them to see if they have a tail or if their cover has been blownIt also helps that Dominik cast Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini in pivotal roles, achieving a sort of intertextual unity as they brought with them traces of Henry Hill and Tony Soprano. Gandolfini, in particular, brings with him a compelling humanness as he plays a mobster in the middle of a divorce and his monologues provide some of the most tender scenes in the entire movie.

Cogan gets called onto the scene because of a burglary of a poker game. Mobster Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires two hapless guns-for-hire Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob an underground card joint ran by a rival mobster, Markie Trattman (Liotta). The shadowy, faceless “mob” hires hitman Cogan to dispense of these folks who threw a wrench in their operations. He acts like the mob’s very own law enforcement agent, except that their laws make sure that crime does pay by establishing honor among this motley cabal of ex-convicts and gangsters. Dominik then teases out the movie’s plot through a series of fast-paced dialogue, where names get tossed around like a hot potato that at times, it’s hard to catch up with who’s supposed to be killing who. But the script is undeniably clever and absorbing, and all you have to do is go along with it.

A lot of what makes this film captivating rests on Dominik’s crisp editing and direction, which were also the elements that made his other feature The Assassination of Jesse James work. While the violent scenes are quite few and far between, each of them is given a raw, emotive power through the stylish camerawork that he does. In one particular scene, he uses slow motion to make an assassination seem like a well-choreographed, fluid dance, and in another, he shows a character getting beat up mercilessly without any frills, the minimalist direction giving it an almost unbearable brutality. This movie rises and falls with every gunshot and executed body; the pacing is almost immaculate.

Killing Them Softly, like its characters, is a bit disheveled but completely robust. Barack Obama’s presence lingers in the background, whether through a billboard or a televised speech, as his promise of change is juxtaposed with the breaking down of the American spirit. It is up to one’s political inclination how to read this movie, either as a reminder of a president’s failure or a potent future. But for James Cogan and the rest of the movie’s hitmen, all that matters is the here and the now, and that is a chillingly terrifying place.