Beasts of the Southern Wild
Roxy Theatre (opens Friday 17)
Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath has inspired some superb work, from the exquisite weirdness of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans to the scathing Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke. But Beasts of the Southern Wild must be the first film to use magic realism to tell a story triggered by perhaps the most noteworthy natural disaster in American history.
Made for less than two million dollars, Beasts is a singularly beautiful film in which garbage and waste are used as awe-inspiring visual compositions. Set in an impoverished community on the Mississippi River, Beasts’ focal point is a spirited six-year-old known as Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) and her sickly, stubborn father, Wink.
Even before the arrival of the hurricane, Hushpuppy’s life is filled with challenges: following her mother’s departure, the girl is forced to live basically on her own, in a poorly built treehouse. Her dad feeds her now and then, and provides her with drunken tall tales about The Bathtub, the slum they live in.
Regardless, Hushpuppy’s existence is a fairly happy one, as The Bathtub’s community is tight enough for the girl to feel safe and loved. Her childhood comes to an abrupt end, however, when her father is diagnosed with a heart disease, but refuses further care. Soon after, Katrina submerges the makeshift town and scares away most of the population. Hushpuppy is forced to look for new adult references and make sense of a world that has changed overnight.
Considering the plot, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a surprisingly unsentimental affair. The relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink, for example, is based on tough love: hugs are rare, as is encouragement, but they keep tabs on each other’s wellbeing. It’s not a quality upbringing, but given the circumstances, thingscould be a lot worse. This matter-of-fact approach pays off during the heart-wrenching final third of the film, when Hushpuppy goes searching for her missing parent.
The movie is narrated entirely from Hushpuppy’s perspective. This means that reality adapts to her worldview, as opposed to the other way around. All her life, Hushpuppy has been listening to stories about “aurochs” (the “beasts”of the title) running amok whenever catastrophe strikes, and as a result she’s certain her life will be a matter of interest to scientists in the future. Beasts’ portrayal of the wishful thinking and self-centeredness of children is far more accurate than your average kids’ movie (although Where the Wild Things Are comes close): there’s a complexity and gravity to it here that’s all too often diminished for comedy’s sake.
Beasts of the Southern Wildalso thrives thanks to its depiction of extreme poverty in America. Director Benh Zeitlin employs it as context and to achieve a look, rather than reveling in it. Zeitlin also clearly holds little regard for the “saviours” that forced the people of the Bayou out of their homes: their assumption victims would be better cared-for in congested hospitals is challenged by the film. To live in destitution doesn’t mean you can’t call the shots of your own life.
Definitely a must see.
How Meryl Got Her Groove Back
As strong an actress as Meryl Streep is, her recent movies have more often than not failed to rise to the occasion: take Streep out of The Iron Lady and it would be an embarrassment, while Julie and Julia was a mess and Mamma Mia can only be appreciated for its camp value.
The Devil Wears Prada, however,stands tall. A fun, well-crafted movie with wonderful acting, the film gave Streep her best role since The Bridges of Madison County. Hope Springs reunites Meryl with her Prada director, David Frankel (Marley & Me).
Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are Kay and Arnold, a long-married couple whose romantic spark died long ago. When Kay’s attempts to reignite it fall short, she signs up for a week of counseling under the guidance of a self-help guru (Steve Carell). Like so many men of his generation, Arnold sees therapy as far less than manly, causing the mousy Kay to grow increasingly frustrated. Arnold’s unwillingness to communicate hides a far more serious rift, and soon divorce looms as a very real possibility.
Many of the problems Kay and Arnold face are more than a little cliché (boredom, non-existent sexual drive), but Hope Springs digs deeper. It’s not Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, but there are some digs at the absurdity of entrusting yourself to a lifelong commitment. Sure, there’s also a fair bit of oversimplification, but the movie mostly succeeds in hiding it.
Even though it’s been promoted as a comedy, Hope Springs barely qualifies as such. (The vast majority of the laughs are condensed into the trailer.) Jones’ dry delivery is the closest the movie gets to comic relief. After years of clearly not trying, Jones shows a surprising amount of range here — and even some soulfulness, as he and Streep go to places actors this accomplished normally wouldn’t.
The one element that doesn’t work in the film is Carell’s character. His performance is correct and self-contained, but his presence is too gimmicky to the point of distraction. He’s still a few notches short of becoming the next Tom Hanks-style everyman.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Broadway Theatre (Opens Sunday 12)
The most illuminating moment in Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present isn’t directly related to the avant-garde pioneer: instead, it features Fox News talking head Megyn Kelly, who grouses that there’s no place for nude shenanigans in a museum. Kelly shows zero interest in what’s behind the installation, and is all too proud of her willful ignorance.
The matter of whether Marina Abramovic’s installations qualify as art or not is settled early on: performance art pieces usually trigger strong reactions from the audience and offer a peek under the veneer of civilization. Abramovic’s work often puts her in harm’s way: on one occasion, she allowed the audience to use assorted objects against her, in order to prove how easily mankind can slip into violence.
The event that frames The Artist is Present is a retrospective of Abramovic’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exposition includes the artist’s five most famous installations and a brand new one — a tour de forcein which 65-year-old Abramovic sits in front of MoMA patrons six days a week, eight hours a day, looking directly into their eyes without saying a word. For three months.
The documentary is divided in two sections: preparation, which serves as an excuse to revisit Abramovic’s colorful career, and the actual show. The central piece is deceptively simple: people are often undone by the artist’s inquisitive look. The installation receives a fair share of onlookers and crazies, but for the most part it’s an intimate experience between Abramovic and her captive audience (some of them recognizable A-listers).
A singularly enlightening film, The Artist is Present is neither very critical of Marina nor too concerned about the cinematic quality of the outcome, but the subject is strong enough to rise above the shortcomings. When asked about the difference between theatre and performance art, Abramovic likens it to the difference between ketchup and blood. Her work may be controversial, but she certainly lives by it.