Rough Cut Film Review – Beasts of the Southern Wild

It’s been a long time coming, but I’m finally dipping my little toe in the world of the web series. Myself, along with two other film critics, Austin and Hodge Hermann, are starting a film review and discussion web series called Rough Cut.

The purpose for Rough Cut really sprung from the need we saw for more critical, thoughtful and analytical film discussion than most entertainment web series’ currently offer. So, while many of them will continue to be interested in, for the most part, superficialities of the cinema, the three of us are committed to discussing movies critically and on a much deeper level.

I should mention, we’ve only just begun this endeavor and so while our discussion may not be very flashy with slick animations and unnecessary movie clips, I assure you, we care way more about the art of criticizing, analyzing and discussing the movies you’re paying to see.

In our first episode of the series, we discuss the film Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin, it’s worthiness in the Oscar race, and whether the claims of it being a “Republican fantasy” are founded. I hope you enjoy!

Warm Bodies Leaves You Cold

Warm Bodies the number one movie in America last week? Am I dreaming?

First of all, with the ridiculous amount of Oscar Best Picture nominees again this year, you’d think the Academy’s plan to generate more interest in the movies would be working – at least in their favor – but instead, the top grossing movie is a pre-teen snoozer cashing in on both the lucrative zombie genre and the beastly, psuedo-horror/romance fad 13-year olds all seem to identify with these days. It’s so much cooler to be hot for vampires, werewolves, zombies and other one-off horror show freaks, than it is to fall for just a normal, run-of-the-mill kind of guy, isn’t it? Why don’t they ever make movies where the male characters are the ones falling in love with a physically flawed female character, by the way? I’ll tell you why, because Hollywood knows that in their already dwindling audience of males age 18- 35, none of that demographic wants to lust after a girl who looks like a zombie or the guy from Beastly. Not even if it was Bar Refaeli playing the part.

Lucio Fulci will likely rise from the dead as soon as he finds out about this comparison.

Lucio Fulci will likely rise from the dead to eat someone’s brains as soon as he finds out about this horrendous “inside joke” comparison.

Warm Bodies is a pathetic excuse for a zombie flick to begin with, falling way short of ever providing any sort of truly cinematic zombie movie goodness. Instead it just recycles the old zombie apocalypse theme with the people who haven’t yet been bitten hiding behind a makeshift wall somewhere in a city that looks vaguely like London or New York City and with zombies milling around outside. Warm Bodies even appears to borrow a little bit of the I Am Legend look with its laughably CGI “Boney’s.” What’s worse though is how the film expects its audience to reject every perfectly plausible zombie movie guideline they know and just blindly go with this stupid story which at one point even turns into Romeo and Juliet.

The film is void of any sincere laughs, and gets by – if on anything – on its ability to make the lead zombie boy look and act cute because he’s fallen in love with a un-zombified girl. There are too many plot holes and inconsistencies to even bother referencing them here, but suffice it to say, no one seemed to notice (or care) except me. Something about this movie spoke to people. I am baffled. Look, I’m a sucker for a good romance and I love horror films from all sub-genres, so the unique plot concept about zombies painfully being alive inside their bludgeoned heads even when their bodies are dead, and the idea that they can gradually come back to life when embraced with the feeling of love, was a huge selling point for me – but this movie completely missed both marks and gave up all its opportunities to exploit its unique storyline to the fullest.

Then there are the actors – they’re terrible. Yeah, the lead girl is cute in a rip-off Kristen Stewart kind of way, but she is ultimately and instantaneously forgettable. The boy is similarly bad – the worse zombie ever in fact – I’ve seen zombie extras play more believable and horrifying than him. The boy’s movements inconsistent, unrealistic and his moaning and groaning ability to communicate short sentences to the girl and other zombies is a real chore to sit through. Even the director Jonathan Levine clearly felt that way after he saw the footage edited together, because the amount of songs which they conveniently edit into the film to absolutely no added effect, is equally boring to sit through. I find better zombie music videos online at least once a week.

The director Jonathan Levine should be ashamed of himself. This is utterly and obviously a job he took for the money, as I can see no effort, interest or talent that was put into this – especially comparing it to previous stellar work he’s done when he’s motivated and inspired, such as the hilarious and poignant 50/50. Even The Wackness was better than this.

…As I think about it more now, maybe this is the best movie to see in theaters at this moment. At least half of the Best Picture noms are unjustified and obvious promotional tactics / pats-on-the-back, but at least filmmakers like Spielberg and David O. Russell care about their craft and what they bring to the screen and if they’re making a film for the paycheck, they put a little effort into it still. The writer, filmmakers and actors (including Malkovich) of Warm Bodies, should all be ashamed of themselves for letting such drivel cost $12.50 in pointless Cinema XD since there’s about as much XD worthy action in the movie as there is in Lincoln, and as little tangible romance as there is in Silver Linings Playbook. Go see something else.

What You Get When Harmony Korine Tackles a Topic Like Spring Break

I can’t help but be reminded of the film Havoc when I watch this trailer. Not sure why, but I also keep thinking Larry Clark must be involved somehow… must remember to look that up… Anyway, here’s a trailer for Harmony Korine’s latest anomaly, Spring Breakers. Conveniently hitting theaters (somewhere) right around, um, spring break.

Girls

The writing and producing team of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow is brilliant. Dunham can provide for the real world dramatic back-and-forth of the characters and Apatow can provide for the off-the-wall hilarity which brings a typical dramatic scene to a whole other unexpected level. Season One of the HBO TV series “Girls” is basically like a new Lena Dunham film. I watched the episodes as they premiered on Sunday evenings last year, and then I watched them all over again in one long 10-hour marathon. Either way they’re bound to stay with you, affect you and peak your interest into what a second season would bring. And Season Two premieres this Sunday, January 13.

Girls TV Series

The set up for the series is simple and brilliant. It’s like a much more intelligent Sex and the City and for a much less Princess-syndrome-plagued audience. An audience not any less self-important and self-aware, but one whose just may be a little hipper, listens to Sleigh Bells, The Echo Friendly and prefers writing and art over college football and keg stands.

There’s even an ingenious referencing to Sex and the City by the most appropriate character for enjoying that kind of show on the series. She’s also the one who enjoys game shows, reality TV and is hyper-obsessed with perfection and losing her virginity. Let’s start with her – the least obvious of the cast of characters – and with the most befittingly bohemian uptight name: Soshanna. Soshanna’s still in college, lives with doll house decorations in her apartment and needs a serious wake-up call to life. She’s also the cousin of Jessa.

Jessa is your typical Urban Outfitters / Free People adorned Williamsburg hipster, although she has a little edge to her with the aloof-albeit-endearing foreign accent (which you have to even wonder if not unlike a Madonna-like play for attention, she puts on). She’s working in the most inappropriate job ever for someone as uninterested in personal responsibility as she is – an au pair for a well-off family with a too-busy-for-the-kids glamour industry mom and a shlubby, out of work musician dad who becomes more enamored with Jessa then his own children.

Then we get to the stars of show, Dunham herself (playing as Hannah) and her “best” friend and roommate Marnie. Marnie starts the whole series off on a downward trajectory which destroys the heart of a perfectly good boyfriend and finds her literally seething with hatred for her relationship with him because he’s “too nice” to her, and clearly because he sees beauty and perfection in her which she could never see in herself due to a plethora of hidden self-esteem issues which she’s dutifully masked throughout most of her life from everyone she knows – including the lowest self-esteemed of all – Hannah.

Marnie in GirlsMarnie’s the kind of girl I literally find myself hating now, because I’ve seen what someone as damaged as she is can do to a relationship, and I don’t think they can ever really change. She’s too pretty to realize she’s pretty and she’s too uptight and self-obsessed to ever want a man who doesn’t beat her down with his disinterest in her any waking hour except those in which he’s horny.

Hannah is the most well-developed character (and interestingly the only one whose parents we’re introduced to), and best of all she’s got the perfect boyfriend. On the outset, her boyfriend Adam is a perverted loser, but the beauty of the way this series unfolds is that you learn to not judge any characters by their initial affectations, and instead (like real people) give them a chance to get to know you. Adam is a unique, artistic guy who’s not afraid to stand up for himself and not afraid to tell Hannah what he wants, even if it frightens her. What’s cool about the series Girls is that Dunham is pleading to women her age out there to give guys like this a solid chance, because honestly you could write him off over the first few episodes, but by the middle of the season you’re kind of hooked. He keeps Hannah honest, doesn’t necessarily tell her what she wants to hear, but always tells her what he’s feeling (when she takes the time to become un-self-absorbed and actually ask him). They’re a good combination of emotional intelligence and creativity for each other and really, Dunham puts all the pressure on the character she’s playing to keep it together with Adam, because (like most self-absorbed and low-esteemed girls) she’s unsure about a good thing.

girls-hbo-adam-hannahSeason Two has some changes in store for Hannah and Adam though, as Hannah will obviously be freaked out by the realization that Adam is actually in love and committing to her. Dunham actually sums up the feelings her character has for Adam in an honest and perfect real life example from her past (via Vulture), depicting just how some girls can be when they’re not emotionally mature at all:

The thing is, I’ve been in so many situations where, like, the power balance just shifts and shifts and shifts — like, I remember when I was 16 and I had this boyfriend from camp and I liked him so much, and he did not like me that much. He was really cool; he was a rapper, but he was not that into me. But then I went back home, he went back home, I started calling him a little less, and he turned into this mixtape-sending, flower-wielding person. I went to Boston to visit my friend and saw him, and we all went to a thrift store together, and it was like his passion for me was so unbridled he shoved me into a coat rack and tried to kiss me. And I was like, “Get off of me!” I just had this feeling like, “Where were you before?” I felt revulsion, because when you’re not mature enough to handle being responsible for somebody else’s feelings, their need is disgusting. When you really love someone, and you’re adult enough to understand that life is a back-and-forth of sometimes you need and sometimes they need, then you find somebody else’s vulnerability beautiful, and you want to nurture it, and you want to keep it safe. But I feel like, until pretty recently in my life, somebody expressing any kind of desperation or any kind of vulnerability — it was like your parents showing you they have real feelings, it was like running into your teacher on the subway. It was awful, and so I think that for Hannah this switch with Adam, even though it’s everything she had dreamed of, was overwhelming, and suddenly he’s a real person and she’s scared, and there’s this feeling of somebody else is wanting her time and her energy, and she’s not about that.

All the characters in this series are perfectly crafted out of real-life, they’re perfectly flawed and ingeniously paired. It’s a risky series for someone like Dunham to reveal because of its level of personal reflection and commitment as both filmmaker and star playing a role in which she must reflect many of her own personal demons. It’s also a challenging series because initially it was hard for me to become so invested in it; the girls are just so utterly off-putting to begin with that I found it to be more socially un-redeeming than socially revealing, but it’s an important and intelligent (and funny!) examination on young women and men and their ability to process and maintain meaningful relationships in today’s technocratic and constantly evolving world. Stick with it through the first few episodes and I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised and glad you met these characters.

Only the Young

A coming of age film about Christian youth trying to rebel? I’ll admit, this is one indie film concept I didn’t see coming. I’m intrigued, but really, how original is a story about little hipster Christian kids trying to find themselves while realizing there’s more out there than just God’s word (which will no doubt keep being rammed down their throat until they fall in line)? Even if they don’t rebel in their youth (or ever), they’re going to become hypocrites one day regardless. All brainwashed, non-thinkers do.

Life of Pi

Watching Life of Pi is like sitting through a pretty engaging seminar on religion, coupled with other existential matters, in a large auditorium. You just paid to have someone tell you a story that you’ll either want to believe or want to dismiss as good fiction. You’ll laugh at all the right humorous moments, feel sad when the bad things happen, and maybe be on the edge of your seat when the action gets intense. But you’ll ultimately walk out of the venue looking at life the exact same way as you did when you walked in…

LOP-068    Pi Patel takes in the bioluminescent wonders of the sea.

Or maybe I’m wrong. In one way I feel like maybe I gained something from the experience of viewing this movie, but there’s no changing my mind about the way I choose to believe. The whole premise which director Ang Lee is trying to exploit here is the idea that if I tell you a story and embellish it to the point of near non-belief, you’ll listen more intently, and ultimately gain more from it when it’s over. However, if I tell you the same story, as it actually happened, you’re likely to be far less interested and possibly even dismiss it. A good, possible argument you might make for the purpose/power/impact of the Bible.

Lee works outside the bounds of Yann Martel’s simple story, and uses his artistic license to basically create expositional scenes that help steer the viewer into the right frame of rational, questioning mind. That, in and of itself bothers me, because whether or not the story is made up, has little effect on how I will perceive the point it’s trying to make (or whether I will believe it). In fact, I walked out of the theater angry because the version of the story I wanted to believe, was indeed deemed to be false by the close of the film.

The film uses the cinematic formula of story-within-a-story, by literally having someone (in this case Pi, himself) tell the story. While Lee provides some much needed background, the bulk of the film takes place on the water after Pi’s family (and the rest of an entire Japanese cargo liner die when it sinks to the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean). Pi, who had up to many years before as an adolescent found himself to be very in touch with nature and the world, finds that he is literally trapped and threatened by the world after the horrible event. As a young boy, he felt as close as counterparts, and so deeply trusting of the world that he would attempt to feed a tiger with his small bare hands. His father quickly excised this beautiful, innocent quality which Pi had, and cut-to many years later, Pi’s 16 and sharing a lifeboat with the same tiger, but now intensely afraid of him instead of able to coexist.

Now, you could look at this from the perspective that Pi should never have been trusting of a wild animal to begin with (coexistence with animals and nature for many humans simply means keeping them at bay so as not to disrupt their lives), and fortunately as a child Pi’s father taught him there is not only love and happiness in the world, there is also suffering and cruelty; but I think you’d be looking at it wrong. I think, if Pi hadn’t been taught to fear everything, he would have been able to coexist much sooner once he was trapped on the boat. The lifeboat in which Pi becomes (literally) tethered to, contains an interesting little circle of life. In hierarchical order, there’s the tiger, Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a rat. Coexistence and harmony are not possible on the boat, because fear, hunger and self-preservation are all that either man or animal can possibly think of when faced with such an ordeal, but coexistence is still ultimately achieved as a simple method to staying alive.

life_of_pi_8Instead of happiness (or even mutual respect, really), the boy and the tiger end up in a sort of symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other for existence. They are literally yin and yang. It’s only for the shift of power, that Pi finds himself interacting with the tiger and eventually doing what he considers to be training him. I’d argue that it’s much less an achievement in training the tiger, than it is the tiger actually resolving to his fate: which is the boy has a better ability to aid in the tiger’s self-preservation. The boy can (and does) catch fish for him. The boy can (and does) save him when he leaps overboard and cannot get back onto the boat. The boy can (and does) provide shelter for him and early warning of emanate danger. In reality, the tiger is using Pi.

This is further exemplified by what turns out to be my favorite scene in the whole film: at the moment when they’re at their most vulnerable, the moment when they finally get what they’ve wanted for the entirety of the movie, the moment when they finally reach land; you’re waiting for the heartfelt goodbye, the overblown instant in time when the tiger shows that the relationship he formed with Pi was indeed meaningful to him, and not just a necessity; you’re waiting for the sign, but you get nothing. The tiger never even looks back at the boy as he wanders off onto the solid ground and into the forest. The tiger didn’t care. He just survived, and that was his only use and intent from the relationship to begin with.

I find that I can identify with this moment on so many levels, that it changes the whole meaning of the movie for me. Life is all about conditioning. Love and hate are merely emotions we decide to project based on the way we’ve been conditioned to handle the interaction we’re experiencing at that moment in time. This is exactly what’s exemplified in Life of Pi.

From a filmmaking standpoint, there are a lot of things about Life of Pi that I don’t like. First off, the handling of the passage of time is relatively unclear. If this is on purpose, it fails to add anything to the viewing experience. It’s actually frustrating to see a 16-year old boy at sea for months, only to see his hair grow a tad unruly and nothing else really ever change. The tiger gets thinner, but that’s easy, the tiger’s CGI.

The beauty of the film is that, even for a cynic/skeptic like myself, I wanted to believe the story so badly, that everything needed to be rationally explicable. There are a lot of seemingly inexplicable scenes in the film though, and the last quarter of the movie can actually be rather frustrating if you’re taking everything seriously up until that point. If you tell me something’s true, I’ll find ways to think about how to question or disprove it, but if you tell me something’s fiction, I’ll listen intently and let myself fall into the story.

Life-of-Pi-ShipwreckBasically, when Pi is finally rescued some investigators from the shipping company come to interview him in his hospital room and ask him for the story of how he survived. They don’t seem to believe (nor like) the story that he tells them (the one which we are told), and so they ask for another as plainly as that. In the space of a really long take, slowly closing in on the face of the disheveled Pi, Lee forces us to watch as he retells a concise version of his survival beginning from that fateful night on the ship. In his retelling, there are indeed no animals, and instead people which he’s substituted for the animals. His mother is one of them. I immediately lost interest during this scene of the film, and having only seen it the one time, I couldn’t tell you much of what this version of his story is like, but I promise you this: it doesn’t matter at all. Even if it’s the true story, no one will care.

I won’t say that I didn’t like Life of Pi, it certainly has a very Forest Gump-y quality to it which will no doubt endear some viewers, but I wasn’t appreciative of the way the discussion and depiction of evaluating religion, spirituality and the meaning of life was addressed. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life had more to offer in this respect than many films on the topic which I’ve seen in a long time. Instead, I found Ang Lee’s Life of Pi to be more of discussion on why religion is embellished, presented and taught the way it is, and how that only serves to further help with the mass brainwashing of our individual cultures.

As Pi himself says at the end of the film, “If I told you two of the same stories, one as it happened, and one like this – which one would you believe?” Well, we all know the answer to that.

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson is like a Lars Von Trier for the recreational filmgoer: he knows how to make artsy edginess palatable for the masses. Moonrise Kingdom follows Anderson’s usual storybook directing style. An Anderson film is always, colorful, character-ful, graphic and socially hip. That said, an Anderson film is also usually rich with story; the one place where Moonrise Kingdom is lacking.

The film is actually (I’d argue) the darkest of all Anderson’s work, and maybe that’s partly what continues to hold me through it even though it ultimately leaves me wanting more. Characters come and go like plastic chess pieces, only used to propel the narrative forward in most cases. While Anderson’s previous work only had this pretentious two-dimensional character problem in small doses, it should be noted that Moonrise Kingdom has this problem throughout – even the main characters are in many ways dimly lit.

Similarly, but in direction opposition to Von Trier, Anderson leaves a lot up to the viewer in this film, with cardboard-like performances from the actors against detail-saturated set designs that make you feel like you’re watching a school play gone awry. Again, this is standard stuff for an Anderson film, but all of his previous work through in many ways nauseatingly flat, always also held deeply introspective stories that made it seem sort of like you were reading a book that came to life in front of you. Comparing Kingdom to, say, Von Trier’s Dogville, where the viewer is tasked with filling in the blanks of the chalk-outline set design yet given more character detail than they may want to handle, both of these directors seem to like working against their audiences, only in direct opposition of one another.

The beauty of an Anderson film is that his style is so utterly easily digestible by mainstream moviegoers, it’s going to be virtually impossible, I fear, to ever see him get a terrible review from someone. Von Trier, however, many times uses imagery and forthrightness in his cinema that the mainstream will more than likely be repelled by, despite how much the critical masses will tout his genius.

If we look behind the curtain, there’s two things really going on here: First of all, Kingdom is endearing because of its two main characters which are brainy, quirky, adolescents. They’re also oddly easy to misconstrue as fledgling hipsters. In fact, there’s no way you can watch this film and not think if these two kids hit 18 today they’d be dressed in skinny jeans with black framed boxy glasses and unkempt hair.

Second, it’s a love story between these two kids. One of those love stories that you stick with because it’s precious, simplistic, virtuous and yet there’s an element of danger to it.

That’s it – that’s where the film excels – on these two areas alone. It’s in its artsy vapidness that the audience can easily get lost and fall in line with the narrative, willing to follow it to the end, but I worry there’s nothing tangible to Anderson’s kind of cinema except the fleeting moments when a new character (played by a usually stellar character actor) pops up in a scene and you get to whisper to your viewing patron in the seat next to you, “Hey, isn’t that so-and-so?”