Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life Without Principle, On the Road

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, uses memories of Katrina as fodder for a sub-magical-realist burst of half-stylized poverty porn. Zeitlin aims for inoffensiveness by casting the severe limitations the poor face—no access to healthcare, poor education, the laughably weak safety net—as fantastical positives. This is a film where witch doctors brew medicine in jars, where everyone looks freshly rubbed down in dirt to achieve just the right look of want, and where only the truly worthy both refuse to evacuate from a coming storm and violently reject any attempts by outside bodies to help them. Young Quevenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry give performances entirely too good and revelatory for such heinous rot, but even their raw and honest work is undone by the falsity of what they are meant to invoke. Like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the film approaches a serious, national trauma and filters it through the eyes of a child. And like that other disaster, it does not use this perspective to grapple with the scope of tragedy but to infantilize it. Grade: D-

Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, 2012)

Life Without Principle cuts against the grain of financial crisis movies that take place behind solid, wooden doors, instead curving around the public floor of the bank, where employees are watched through their transparent barriers to provoke them into selling more, always more. It also moves among those unconnected to the financial industry save the shackles they place on themselves to pay for their lifestyles, linking not only the benign social climbers reaching beyond their grasp but the criminal element who come off as farcically sloppy compared to the machinations of the banks. By keeping his camera street-level, To can approach the tangled web of culpability with empathy and admonishment without the saccharine crucifixion of the fatcats who set the collapse into motion. We do not even have to sit through yet another portentous realization that the market will crash; it simply does one day, and we know about it because the financial analyst struggling to make her quota suddenly fields dozens of frantic, furious calls from people watching their life savings disappear. Movies like Arbitrage spare false sympathies for those who had every indication of what was coming but kept ignoring it, but Life Without Principle truly captures the sudden upheaval experienced by those who subconsciously put their faith in the system, and the coldness of that faceless, inhuman greed hangs over the proceedings. Even its resolution, a triumph on material grounds, reflects the amoral, arbitrary meaninglessness of a world in which the vagaries of monetary value hold sway. Grade: A-

On the Road (Walter Salles, 2012)

Shot as if making a teen film set in the present, On the Road divorces the Beats first of aesthetic, then social context. Salles’ film portrays the characters as the sort of listless creatures who populate our current movies, youth in medicated, dead-eyed search for a cause, rather than having a plethora of choices at their disposal. Drug use, sexual experimentation and jazz run through the film as they did the book, but there is no element of transgression to the behavior, no feeling that they are doing something wild. So interminably dull, even repellent, are the characters and their journey to nowhere that, for a brief spell, I began to hope the film would undermine and critique the solipsistic Beat escapism on display, with privileged white youth rebelling against a society that affords them such comfort that they can do as they please while others must toil. But no, there is a terrible earnestness to the self-evidently awful lives inflicted on an entire nation as the road carries the characters back and forth. So maybe it’s a faithful adaptation, after all. Grade: D

1 comment:

  1. There is no doubt that this film was spurred by Katrina, but not so much the storm as the events which ensued. As it turns out, the film was almost prescient inasmuch as Hurricane Isaac sure made it seem on the face of it that storm-surge appeared where it had not previously been a problem (for instance, in LaPlace) precisely because of the storm protection provided for the immediate New Orleans metropolitan area.

    All that aside, I did not see that the movie was at all concerned with distinguishing any of the poor as "truly worthy". The residents of the Bathtub were outsiders, and they were proud of their being different; they were proud of being outsiders. Why shouldn't they celebrate their relatively extreme otherness?

    It might seem irrational for these people to forgo or even combat the government's attempt to deliver assistance, but that is a merely apparent irrationality which itself depends upon unfounded and overblown assumptions regarding the intentions and the manner in which the help is being provided. Was it truly irrational for the people of the Bathtub to fear that their community and maybe even their families would be broken up by the assistance being provided? The response to Katrina certainly made such fears appear more rational than not, and those sorts of concerns were made all the more rational by the help provided in response to Isaac when evacuation even on a scale much smaller than associated with Katrina was conducted often without adequate concern about ensuring that families were transported together or to the same destination.

    These points are made primarily to undercut the criticism cast essentially entirely in terms of "poverty porn". Without going into the worthwhile and artistic aspects of the film, let me just note that I for one highly recommend this movie.