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There I Was, Changed

Here’s my latest DJ mixtape/podcast for you to download, share and enjoy – a little sunshine from the southern summer to light up your holy days (though not exactly Christmas-themed, unless Christmas is about peace, love, music and having fun).

I’m psyched about this one – it’s a mix of newer sounds on abstract, funky tangents beyond the usual house, with elements including indie, disco, electronica, pop and weirder stuff. Call it post-house, except it still has a raw classic-house feel, reminiscent of the adventurous days before modern subgenres and formats. It’s definitely a party-time sound, but also moody and dramatic. About the only way to categorize these tracks as a group is they’re hard to categorize, and they make me happy.

“You changed my way to something new…”

Track list:
1. Nico Purman – “Melina” [Crosstown Rebels]
2. Robag Wruhme – “Pnom Gobal” [Pampa]
3. WhoMadeWho – “Keep Me in My Plane” (DJ Koze Hudson River Dub) [Gomma]
4. Fresh Tee – “Nordic Waves” (Andreas Saag Remix) [EleFlight]
5. Mario & Vidis featuring Ernesto – “Changed” (André Lodemann Remix) [Future Classic]
6. Chris Malinchak – “Kuzari” [French Express]
7. Hot Chip – “How Do You Do?” (Todd Terje Remix) [Domino]
8. Chris Malinchak – “There I Was” [French Express]
9. Flight Facilities featuring Grosvenor – “With You“ (David August Remix) [Future Classic]
10. Joe – “MB” [Hemlock]
11. Blagger – “Strange Behaviour” (DJ Koze aka Swahaimi Remix) [Perspective]
12. Edward – “Naxa” [Merc]
13. Diles Mavis – “Be Somebody” [French Express]
14. Alex Gopher – “Super Disco” [Different]

“There’s not a problem…
’Cause I can do it in the mix…”

Pocahontas

The other day, fresh off reading 1491, Charles C. Mann’s brilliant meditation on American Indian history, I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) for the first time in years. I had the flu, which is maybe the best way to watch this feverishly grand re-imagination of American mythology. It goes without saying it’s one of my favorite films, but I was particularly keen on analyzing it as a precursor to The Tree of Life, which I consider the Great American Movie. I believe Malick’s five features (released over a period of 38 years) form a kind of epic story cycle with American history as its subject.

My lingering impression after this viewing was being enchanted all over again with the film’s interpretation of the character of Pocahontas. The Powhatan “princess” as written by Malick and played by the stunning Q’orianka Kilcher (a force of nature in her feature debut at age 14) is a beautifully realized vision, a delicate combination of ethereal spirit child and mythological earth mother, incorporating innocence and wisdom, strength and vulnerability, effervescent joy and tragedy in shifting layers as complex as the film’s hyperkinetic editing.

The movement of her body, the way she makes all of her interactions into capricious play or interpretive dance, display a level of unselfconscious freedom and grace that few in our society attain; while her manner of constantly talking to Spirit via the monologues laid over the film’s montage-like narrative indicates profound, prayerful reverence and gratitude. She seems to dwell comfortably in the space between earth and sky, just as she dwells on the chaotic and dangerous boundary between English and American culture, beholden to both, but contained by neither. On this viewing, the significance of these monologues jumped out at me; it now seems obvious that they’re precursors of, or even part of a continuum with the conversations with God that are such an important part of The Tree of Life.

To me it’s not merely a fascinating performance; there’s something instructive about her character and the virtues it represents that distills Malick’s holistic views of philosophy and spirituality. Pocahontas represents a tragically lost possibility, a peaceful blending of cultures that might have changed the course of world history. But on a simpler level, she just shows us a better way of being. Put it this way – if you’re not making this gesture from time to time, you’re probably not living right:

Here’s a collection of some great writing about this masterpiece:

Terrence Malick’s New World, an in-depth analysis of the film’s philosophical and cinematic language by Richard Neer of the Universty of Chicago at nonsite.org

Best of the Decade #2: The Myth Maker, an appreciation by Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot

Also at Reverse Shot: A Stitch in Time, by Chris Wisniewski, analyzes the unorthodox editing in both The New World and Malick’s Days of Heaven (1979)

Beautiful Stills from Beautiful Films is where I found most of these images

Başlangıç

In case you were wondering what Christopher Nolan’s Inception would look like as an Ottoman miniature, the internet has come through yet again:

There are more here, including the likes of Kill Bill, Star Wars and GoodFellas:

Classic Movies in Miniature Style

They were done by a Turkish art student named Murat Palta. They’re all pretty clever; some are better than others. I like the Inception one because of the way it depicts the different levels of the film’s dreamworld on different panels. I also dig the Kill Bill one – love his interpretation of Uma’s signature costume. I do wonder about some of the choices he made – for instance, why is the van in this one a horse and carriage, but the snowmobile is just a boxy-looking snowmobile? Either way it’s fun to study the details in all of them. (Though I skipped over the Scarface one – I really hate that movie and wish people would stop treating it like a classic.)

For great insight into the history of this kind of art (and some brilliant storytelling), read Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s 1998 novel My Name Is Red.

Small-Screen Nostalghia

Last night I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia on MUBI. Released in 1983, toward the end of the great Russian director’s life, it’s the next-to-last of his seven features, and the first one shot outside of the Soviet Union. The plot, such as it is, concerns a Russian writer on a sojourn in Italy searching for… actually, it’s not clear what he’s searching for, not even to him, but he begins to think he might discover some kind of truth from a so-called lunatic he meets in an old Roman bath in the country who has visions of a local saint.

I’m not going to attempt to analyze it in depth it at this point. Suffice it to say there’s a lot going on in this profoundly dreamlike work. My lingering impression this morning is that I’ve never seen a film incorporate surrealism so organically into its narrative – the very strange things that happen, the mind-boggling things we see, seep into the story like water seeps into the Roman bath, and seem to grow out of it as naturally as the moss and lichens that grow on its walls. In the light of day it feels as if I myself was dreaming while watching it.

The question on my mind right now is whether it was a bad idea to watch it on my 11-inch Macbook Pro. Nostalghia is characterized by compositions that are as densely packed with (weird) images and ideas as they are vast in scope. It’s a HUGE film in all ways. It’s common to say, “This film must be seen on a big screen.” OK – but that’s true of most films. But say there’s not a Tarkovsky retrospective happening in your town anytime soon and you just want to check his stuff out. Is it some kind of betrayal of his work to watch it on your laptop? Is it an artistic crime?

Last night after watching the film, I was thinking about Roger Ebert’s vow: “I will never, ever watch a movie on my iPhone. Nor will I read a book on my thumbnail.” I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. But when I looked it up this morning, I found this answer to a reader’s question, with a much softer and more pragmatical stance, and one that would make anyone who grew up loving movies in humble circumstances proud:

From Rodney Welch (Elgin, South Carolina):

Is watching a movie on a cellphone an artistic crime? 

Probably, and I’ve never done it – but then I remember that as a budding movie lover I grew up watching classic cinema on a small portable black-and-white TV. That’s where I fell in love with Citizen Kane, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca and all the other Hollywood classics. I was 10 or 11, and I couldn’t have cared less about aspect ratio or poor lighting. All I cared about was decent reception and sound – and if I had that, then I have to say that at that time and that age I had as fine an artistic experience as I could have hoped for. The story, the performances, the script, the allure – all those most important elements can very definitely come through a tiny screen if you’re an alert and interested viewer who yearns for a good story. Didn’t Scorsese grow up the same way – watching afternoon movies on the tube? Didn’t we all?

Watching a movie on your cellphone, with stereophonic sound (if you use headphones) is actually probably a step up from what I had then. If you handed me an iPhone and a Netflix or Hulu Plus subscription in 1974 – I would have thought I had died and done to heaven! (Especially if you grew up in the rural South, and you knew that you would be forever denied any chance at all of seeing a movie by this guy Buñuel that Pauline Kael raved about unless you moved to a big city.)

By all means I think you should see a movie on a big screen with a fantastic print and superior sound – that’s the ultimate experience – but if a cellphone is all you have to work with, go for it.

The other night I watched Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are for the first time. It was a random pick on broadcast TV, and I had no expectations at all. It turns out I thought it was actually pretty great. I was working on something else when my wife put it on, but I eventually set my work aside and become lost in this uniquely lovely and engrossing film.

(Andrea from Galway and Jason from Denver like this.)

CHERYL (Toronto): Agreed!

MY DAD (Fairmont, West Virginia): I agree – I enjoyed it.

CARLOS (New York): My reaction exactly

WADE (New Orleans): It was the unrealistic expectations that caused the backlash.

Backlash? I vaguely recall something about this loose adaptation of everyone’s favorite book from childhood being poorly received, but I wasn’t paying attention. Was there a backlash? I try not to pay much attention to the ongoing glut of adaptations and remakes. Occasionally there’s a really good one (Tron Legacy comes to mind.) But Where the Wild Things Are really caught me off guard with how different it was willing to be not only from the book but from other films of its ilk, and the way it was written, acted and shot like an indie drama. The cinematography is brilliant. I just love the shots of those expensive animatronic puppets with their faces obscured by shadow. It seems bold and kind of pretentious, but also perfectly natural – an idea whose time has come, especially if special-effects and color-correcting technologies make it more and more feasible. About the special effects: at many points I could not tell what was a puppet and what was enhanced by CGI. So either the effects in this film are amazing, or I’m getting old and I’ve lost touch.

The mumblecorish-ness of the dialogue really worked for me too, with the rambling, chaotic interactions between the affectionate but bitchy monsters (played by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker among others) coming across like a documentary of a struggling indie band depicted with puppets. Bottom line is these puppets talk to each other in very serious, adult tones about ridiculous things, and it works. The ingenious screenplay was co-written by Jonze with Dave Eggers. I would like to point out that both of these gentlemen were born within about a year of me.

The whole package is sort of like a cross between Peter Jackson and Wes Anderson. And I mean not only the Jackson of The Lord of the Rings, but of the much more disturbing Heavenly Creatures; Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, released at about the same time, is one of the more obvious recent touchstones with which to compare this film. Wild Things is not a masterpiece on the same level, but good enough to be in the conversation. In the “indie fantasy” scheme of things, I think it would make a great companion film to this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Karen O’s orchestral-indie soundtrack (somehow rough-hewn but shimmery at the same time) ices the cake – say as if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were covering Sufjan Stevens for kids.

I do have one complaint though (and maybe this was part of the backlash which I missed): why, why, WHY did Jonze choose not to depict the transformation of Max’s bedroom? Considering that’s the best thing about the book, and considering he had such a great design team, including KK Barrett, who did Being John Malkovich, they kind of dropped the ball there. (By the way, I recently saw Karen O’s “psycho opera” Stop the Virgens at the Sydney Opera House, which was also designed by Barrett. My review is here; you have to scroll down a bit.) That said, it’s a very beautiful film, with the wonderfully realized puppets, the jaw-dropping art and architecture created by Max and the monsters, and the many gorgeous compositions in the gloaming of sunset or sunrise, like some fantasy version of a Terrence Malick film. And my momentary disappointment was soon forgotten – at a certain point I forgot I was watching a Maurice Sendak adaptation and was just into the story that Jonze and Eggers were telling.

JOHNNY (Wiesbaden, Germany): I saw it at a movie theater and was actually bawling. The film exposes the nature of human relationships in a brutally honest way, but in such a beautiful and childlike way that you can’t withdraw from it.

WADE: People got bent out of shape because they thought there was little-to-no joy in the film. Grown-ups got upset that it was too honest about grown-up relationships and how our grown-up disfunctions and problems weigh on kids – which was often distilled in the criticism that it was too heavy or dark for kids. And it is a heavy movie for kids. Heavy, but not too grown-up, because, as Johnny pointed out, the film is about how a kid sees and internalizes grown-up relationship problems.

As for the transformation of the room, I would guess having Max run away instead was to create a real sense of separation or danger for Max’s voyage. It would have been easier for the viewer to withdraw if he could simply say “This is all in his imagination. Remember when we saw his room turn into a forest? It’s just a dream, and he’ll wake up when he smells his dinner waiting for him.”

Oh, and as to the “no joy” argument, where is the joy in the book? Maybe for three pages of Wild Rumpus. Other than that, it’s about an out-of-control kid getting punished, imagining a life away from his family and problems, and then longing for his home and family, even though that was what he wanted to escape.

Wade and Johnny are exactly right. I thought we already had this settled, but maybe it’s worth pointing out again: the best children’s literature is pretty dark. I’m not only talking about the gruesomeness of Grimm’s Fairy Tales – though here, in true fairy-tale fashion, the threat of violence constantly hangs over Max’s relationships with the monsters, who often wonder aloud whether they should continue hanging out with him or eat him. But I’m also talking about the loneliness, alienation and trauma inherent in childhood classics from The Wizard of Oz to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to E.T. Let’s face it, kids like their fiction weird and disturbing. And if there’s a distrust of authority in there, that’s only natural, and it doesn’t even have to be subversive. These kinds of stories are how kids work out their feelings. Remember how hilariously ambivalent Time Bandits was about parents? Remember how melancholy and weird the The Last Unicorn was? These are the films that speak right to us when we’re young, that we can’t pull away from, that seep their way into our consciousness and stay there as classics for the rest of our lives. Where the Wild Things Are is no doubt having that effect on a generation of youngsters even as I type. (Actually, I think it had that effect on me, too.)

I’ve never read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; so if you were hoping for an informed perspective, you should click on to the next thing. (I refuse to feel bad – I’m watching At the Movies right now and Margaret is admitting she’s not qualified to review Ted because she’s never seen Family Guy.) But in assessing Emily Arnold’s feature-film adaptation, I’m not sure it matters whether I’ve read it or not. I’m not even sure  it would matter whether Arnold had ever read it. Her film approaches adaptation as an extreme sport. The story’s themes, characters and plot are present in what is presumably a recognizable shape, like points on a constellation, but otherwise complete liberty is taken. Perhaps this is expected these days; Shakespeare is adapted so freely on both stage and screen in contemporary times that we’re actually surprised by more traditional interpretations. But Hollywood and BBC costume dramas based on classic novels follow such a standard form that I guess there’s still a bit of shock left to mine from re-interpretation with contemporary aesthetics and values. Either that, or Arnold is particularly good at ruffling middlebrow feathers, because her version of Wuthering Heights has been called controversial, difficult and dark. It’s certainly dark, I’ll give you that. I liked it quite a lot.

Brontë’s 1847 novel is known for its bleakness and strangeness anyway, and was already controversial upon publication. Clearly Arnold felt she had to get even weirder in order to register the same impact. In her hands, the tale has become something beyond Gothic – primal, elemental, brutal. Whether life on the Yorkshire moors of the 19th century was as grim and downright Medieval as it’s depicted here is up for discussion. But there’s almost no doubt we’ve been kidding ourselves with our sanitized versions of Dickens and Austen; life in northern Europe at any time, and for any class of people, before the inventions of indoor plumbing and electric light would have probably seemed pretty grimy and, well, dark to us. So this film exaggerates (maybe) to make a point. Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (which I love) leans a bit in this direction, with dark interiors, a tomboyish and messy-haired Elizabeth, and gaggles of farm animals running around the periphery of the rather scruffy Mr Bennett’s country house. Arnold’s film makes that one look very tame.

I saw Wuthering Heights late one rainy Friday night towards the end of Sydney Film Festival. I was alone, tired and in a bad mood. I sat in the front row of the State Theatre, which never seemed so cavernous and absurdly ornate. It was the perfect way to absorb, or rather to be absorbed in, the film’s chilly, haunted atmosphere. It’s not only the way Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan create such an evocative world onscreen – an unearthly place where the wind always blows, where the distant sunlight glints off the raindrops and pale purple heather and hardly warms the wood and brick dwellings. It’s the way they make that world seem so real and tangible (and achingly beautiful) – with softly focused closeups of rough-hewn wood, rough fabric, dirty hands, flowers, birds and animals, warped glass refracting external forms like ghosts.

The characters seem like ghosts inhabiting this place. They’re not always in focus; we don’t always understand what they’re saying. They nearly always seem to be cold and wet (even indoors) and unhappy. Two of the young ones, a young lady named Catherine and Heathcliff, a foster child who is treated like a servant, develop an animal affection for one another that blossoms into love. They steal a little time in between harsh, gutteral reprimands from Catherine’s stern male relatives to explore the delicate, primordial miracle of their feelings, before everything falls apart and everyone dies or goes home miserable.

Sure, Heathcliff’s black. Sure, the young Catherine dresses like a neurotic art student, with trousers under her skirts and a beat-up cardigan. Sure, her brother has a shaved head, and he and Heathcliff talk to each other like yobs from contemporary Liverpool. But it’s not that Arnold is just casually asking “Why not?” She doesn’t seem to be playing around with the iconography of the novel for a good laugh; her commitment to its creepy, doomed Romanticism is total. More than any recent literary adaptation, its anachronisms force us to ponder the set of aesthetic or cultural signs that define “history”, or what distances us from the past. Other than the odd electric cable and a few plastic microchips, what separates our world from the bleak, lonely world in which Emily Brontë lived and wrote anyway? Didn’t we simply inherit its cruelty, its racism and its messed-up notions of love? Maybe it’s time we stop kidding ourselves?

Anyway, I got pretty wrapped up in Arnold’s vision, though there are weak spots. The largely unknown leads inhabit their roles with conviction, but the acting falters in the crucial later scenes. And I admit the grottiness goes overboard – the scene in which a playful romp in the rain between Heathcliff and Catherine devolves into a mudwrestling bout is a bit too precious; the scene where she licks his wounds (after he’s beaten with a whip) too indie-grimy. But it never lost me completely; and the film’s excesses seem perfectly in line with the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism, which was pretty freaky in the first place (think Edgar Allan Poe, incest, necrophilia, premature burials, etc.) About the worst to be said of the film is that the characters are often swallowed up in the blurry, almost Expressionist atmosphere. But with atmosphere this good, I’m not sure that’s a knock. Certainly it’s destined to be a slumber-party classic among lonely Goth-minded youngsters for years to come, and I mean that as high praise.

Anyway, I’ll probably read the novel soon.

I find it impossible to neatly summarize my feelings about Beasts of the Southern Wild. After the considerable hype I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by it. I found it way too messy and all over the place, and frankly short of the mark that I could almost palpably sense it aiming for. Yet simultaneously I thought it was uniquely brilliant and loved it in a very genuine if troubled way, the way you might love a scruffy stray dog you can’t afford to take home. It’s an impossible movie not to love. I can’t remember another instance that admiration for and disappointment in a film have resided together so comfortably in my mind. It’s like I feel a sense of ownership. This is exactly my kind of film, or would be, and maybe that’s why I’m hard on it. In any case I can’t get it off my mind.

Beasts is the debut feature from writer/director Benh Zeiltin, who hails from Queens but is now based in New Orleans. It’s quickly become the most talked-about American independent film of the year, winning the Grand Jury Prize in the US Competition at Sundance before going on to win the Camera d’Or (for best new film) at Cannes. It’s even got an early Oscar buzz. The story is not easy to explain, but if you’re not already on board with the key elements you can get from a really basic blurb – little girl hero, magical realism, backwater bayous, apocalyptic storms, rampaging prehistoric beasts, post-Katrina American mythmaking, nonprofessional actors – we don’t have much in common. Little Hushpuppy and her father Wink live somewhere on the Gulf coast in an impoverished but spirited and tight-knit delta community called the Bathtub, which seems to exist in its own space and time. When a massive storm cuts the Bathtub off from the outside world, its cantakerous residents attempt to pick up the pieces in defiance of the local authorities, while all of nature seems to be turning against civilization. Meanwhile her dad’s degrading physical and mental health creates a crisis of self-reckoning for Hushpuppy at a tender age.

Beasts screened in Official Competition here at Sydney Film Festival a few weeks after Cannes with the highest possible expectations. Local fans and cinephiles went apeshit for it, and everyone assumed it would take the Sydney Film Prize in a cakewalk. Instead the jury handed the award to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, an icily cynical and absurdist black comedy that bitterly divided audiences here – a controversial choice (if a stream of resentful tweets counts as controversy). Me, I think Beasts is superior to Alps on most counts, and infinitely more likeable of course, but I had to admire the jury’s cojones and privately chuckle at the monkeywrenching of a consensus.

I saw Beasts on the first Friday of the festival at the opulent State Theatre, back to back with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Surely there won’t be a better or more interesting double feature all year. It was on the one hand a study in contrasts: Anderson’s obsessive perfectionism, his maniacal focus on design – each frame so lovingly composed the whole thing feels like an animated feature; versus Zeitlin’s rowdy, rambling, handheld, deliriously beautiful mess of a film. Yet the thematic parallels between the two are worth exploring: child protagonists, isolated rural communities, storms as key turning points. Going in my expectations were sky-high; I loved both films, but came out bearing reservations. (More on Moonrise later.)

Yeah, Beasts is a rough and messy film. Should I feel bad about pointing that out? Is that like complaining that Wu Tang Clan are too raw, or that Meg White isn’t the greatest drummer? Is it just part of the magic? Maybe the same thing would have been said about Breathless or Stranger Than Paradise when they first came out. Don’t we need a dose of, well, wild energy in cinema on a regular basis? If it was more polished would it also be more boring?

By “rough” I’m not referring to the often quite shaky hand-held camera – I’m fine with a bit of shake. To me the culprit is the editing. There are times during the film when two people are talking and it’s cut in such a way that somehow you never get a good look at either of their faces. Often you’re not sure of the shape of a room or space, or what exactly you’re looking at (however beautiful it might be), or which characters are taking part in a scene. (The fact that a lot of the dialogue is mumbled doesn’t help with the latter.) I suspect a re-edit might have solved some of those issues without selling out the film’s energy at all.

This pervasive sense of disorientation also applies in a macro way to the narrative. Within each scene the style of the film is naturalistic (and wonderfully so); but the overall story doesn’t have much organic sense. Fantasies need internal logic; here, because a lot of this made-up world goes unexplained, we’re not always sure what’s at stake, and there’s a disconnect between the crazy plot twists and the inscrutable choices made by the characters. At times we can almost hear Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar tapping away furiously on their MacBooks. “OK, now this has to happen!” Settings and locations change with little warning – we were in a hospital, but now we’re on a beach – while motivations and conflicts are taken up and set aside again like toys. It’s almost as if they wanted the story to reflect the short attention span and freeform imagination of a child. (A friend of mine compared it to Maurice Sendak; others have cited Miyazaki.) Does it work? I’m still deciding. My gut reaction is that it’s absolutely inspired at times – as zany and explosively creative as beat poetry or freestyle graffiti – but sloppy and incoherent at other times.

Some have said the film could have done without the prehistoric monsters. It’s true they don’t help the general problem of clutter in the story – it’s just one more thing that doesn’t tie together and isn’t fleshed out very well. But no way would I get rid of them. If anything I want more of them, along with more clarity about them. Likewise, curmudgeonly types said the dinosaurs didn’t belong in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life; but that film wouldn’t be as visionary without them – the flights of fancy are what make the study of the family so much more. Zeitlin has established an important signpost with the audacious fantasy elements of his film: because special effects are a lot cheaper to accomplish these days, independent filmmakers don’t need to be stuck in the ghetto of realism anymore. Movie magic has been democratized.

Eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy has been the focus of much of the film’s press. If I can risk sounding cynical here, I think some of it amounts to so many indirect or quasi-intellectual ways of saying, “That little girl is so adorable!” I’m not saying her performance isn’t remarkable. I’m saying the commentary on it lacks nuance.

Of course it’s a remarkable performance! Kids can do amazing things when given the chance; but Quvenzhané has extraordinary poise and grit. As Roger Ebert wrote recently (in his review of Glendyn Ivin’s great Last Ride), “I have run out of words to account for young actors.” Without taking too much away from Quvenzhané, I would say Zeitlin also deserves credit for trusting in her and letting her do her thing in such a natural way. This is where the rough style of the film shines, in the way the girl’s rambling and running amok and randomly destroying things is such a part of its aesthetic. It’s reminiscent of the way Steven Spielberg’s early films seemed revolutionary in the way he allowed kids to just be themselves onscreen, with their cluttered rooms and cluttered lives, their dirty faces, their heartbreaking way of shrugging off adult abuse and neglect, their casual violence.

I found her high-pitched scream annoying, but the filmmakers must have thought it was cute because we get to hear it a lot. (Remember Carrie Henn’s tea-kettle-like squeal in Aliens? It sounds like that). Some of her character’s dialogue is a bit forced, and even sappy, especially when she talks about history or the future in a grandiose way – it’s as if she’s working too hard to impress the audience or pull their heartstrings. (Again, at these moments I hear the screenwriters tap, tap, tapping away.)

Quvenzhané’s best moments – indeed, the film’s best moments – are the seemingly improvised scenes with Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. There’s so much fierce affection there, so much electricity between the two, as Wink insists on toughening up his daughter to face a harsh world alone, it seems like documentary footage. With all the attention on the little girl, Henry’s gutty, gloriously ragged performance has somehow managed to fly under the radar. (His work is all the more amazing considering he’s a baker by trade who had never acted in a film before.)

There’s much more to discuss about Beasts of the Southern Wild – just one example is the fabulous production design, with beautifully chaotic sets and crazy vehicles welded together from scrap parts like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s an unforgettable film, filled with piercing ideas and images, even if it doesn’t have very good control of them. It’s the type of thing that might have blown my mind and changed the way I look at film if I’d stumbled across it as a kid late at night on cable TV – the way, say, the very messy Repo Man did. You should see it; everyone should see it – it’s definitely one of those rare indies capable of very broad appeal with little or no compromise. And years from now, when it’s considered an American classic, you can read this review in the archives and scoff at my shortsighted crotchetiness.

OK, Good

OK, Good is a clever, funny and disturbing little burst of American angst in the form of an ultra-low-budget narrative feature that screened in Sydney Film Festival‘s Freak Me Out section (which covers much more adventurous and experimental territory than just schlock and horror, in case you hadn’t noticed). Credit programmer Richard Kuipers for once again bringing a rough-hewn gem (unclassifiable, unmarketable) to big screens here when it would never have had a chance otherwise.

OK, Good is a flawed overachiever but is, well, pretty damned good. (There’s my mandatory riff on the title.) Its best and most striking quality is its almost complete lack of conventional storytelling. There’s only one real character, a dogged but pathetically unremarkable actor named Paul Kaplan, played by co-writer and co-producer Hugo Armstrong. (Director Daniel Martinico also co-wrote and co-produced; one gets the feeling there wasn’t much more crew than the two of them.) The narrative is primarily a montage of audition tapes: we watch as Paul tries out for an endless string of inane local TV commercials for pet food, travel insurance, barbecue sauce. The tape rolls through Paul’s many awkward miscues, with variously oily or unimpressed producers prompting him offscreen. Viewed through such a lens, in this passive-aggressive world of feigned enthusiasm, Paul’s pent-up frustration becomes frighteningly apparent.

It’s obvious Paul is going nowhere. He’s a big, awkward bloke in his mid-30s; he comes across like a loner from a small town somewhere who got the acting bug late in life and just arrived in LA, only to flounder at the lowest, most degrading level of the industry. These cringe-inducing “performances” are intercut with scenes of Paul’s dreary life. He seems to do nothing but rehearse alone in his cheaply furnished apartment, drive to the next audition while listening to self-help tapes, and engage in an ongoing struggle with the local print shop after they bungle his order for headshots. The strength of the film lies in the minimalist way it sketches the grind: audition, workshop, rehearsal, audition, ramen noodles for dinner, audition, audition, workshop. After a while the repetition becomes hypnotic. We barely see the outside world, never see a human interaction that isn’t forced or artificial. Especially memorable are the glimpses of the dubious acting workshop – part improv, part primal-scream therapy. Participants are by turns obliged to scream insults at each other, act out childish fantasies of terror and pain, or roll around on the floor, pulling faces and making animalistic noises. There’s much hilarity in all of this, but it’s also undeniably creepy (especially on a big screen).

The microscopically small budget is obviously part of the aesthetic – the “narrative” scenes are shot as if they were a continuation of the audition tapes, long takes of static video, so we get the sense of seeing Paul’s life under surveillance. This verité quality belies the spooky brilliance of Armstrong’s performance (which has a queasy sense of being based on hard experience). The jarring staccato rhythm of the editing wrenches a hell of a lot of suspense out of the suffocating routine, as Paul slowly and haplessly slides towards some kind of breakdown.

Halfway through I had the feeling I was witnessing some kind of contemporary existentialist classic. Unfortunately Martinico and Armstrong can’t seem to sustain the atmosphere. The confrontation with the print shop workers, the film’s sole forays into actual dialogue, are decidedly average, coming across like a TV skit or, I hate to say it, a student film. Though the prosumer-quality cinematography is often sneakily quite good, the uneven look and texture of the film starts to wear thin. When the big meltdown finally comes, it’s loopy, destructive and very entertaining – but it’s somehow also anticlimactic, the cinematic equivalent of empty calories. The film might have been a lot more powerful if it had stuck with the monotonous pattern of the audition tapes (by far the strongest “scenes”) right through to the end.

Disappointment aside, OK, Good is not easily forgotten. Independent filmmakers should marvel at how much Martinico and Armstrong have achieved with how little. (Actors might want to seek inspiration elsewhere.)

Safety Not Guaranteed was the Closing Night film at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and a fine choice it was, something pretty much everyone could agree on: an American indie comedy with brains to spare and a geeky sci-fi twist. Financed by mumblecore impresarios Jay and Mark Duplass (Mark also co-stars) and directed by Colin Trevorrow, Safety premiered at Sundance and looks on its way to being one of this year’s bigger independent hits. Deservedly so: it’s the kind of comedy that comes around only once in a while – fresh, original, as full of heart as it is cheeky and hilarious. With only a handful of characters, a small-town setting and a simple but ingenious premise, it runs rings around the sad, stupid raunchy comedies churned out by the big studios.

Though it was meant to be a celebratory occasion, watching it on Closing Night was a bit melancholy for me. I’d been told it may be the last actual celluloid film screened at SFF. (There were only a few of them this year; it’s become too expensive to deal with them.) With this in mind I was even more impressed by the look of the film, with its nicely subdued color palette and plenty of overcast natural light from the Pacific Northwest setting – it’s quite beautiful for a low-budget comedy. And I appreciated each grain and defect, each pop before the reel change. This added something extra to what is a uniquely touching film.

I have only done this once before.

I don’t want to give away much, so I’ll stick with what you probably know from the trailer, if you watch trailers. (I don’t.) Jake Johnson plays Jeff, a lazy, sleazy, wisecracking Seattle magazine reporter who, for his own selfish reasons, concocts a scheme to research an article in the town of Ocean View based on a crackpot’s anonymous classified ad about time travel. He recruits two misfit interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) to do all the work for him and the three of them embark on a road trip in Jeff’s Escalade. From there, the narrative has many stops and starts, many sparks and discoveries and changes of heart. The crackling screenplay, written by Derek Connolly (remember that name) in his feature-film debut, balances the silly hijinks and sentiment of early Wes Anderson with some of the shambolic good fun of Judd Apatow at his best, adding a generous dash of the loopy genre-bending mindgames of Charlie Kaufman. Yes, it’s good enough to merit those comparisons. From the first scene, Safety filled me with that rare, delicious feeling, the same you got the first time you saw, say, Bottle Rocket: the feeling that here are some filmmakers who can entertain and captivate using the symbols and language of common experience, who can create fantasy out of day-to-day life, without falling back on cliché (even when maybe a couple of clichés would be forgivable). And it’s a bouyant, confident feeling of being along for a great ride, an aching certainty that dawns on you during the second reel: They aren’t going to screw this up!

There’s also a terrific economy to the story. The film is only 85 minutes long; the capers get under way in the first few minutes, with little exposition. Though there’s one important sub-plot crucial to the emotional arc of Johnson’s character, there’s no other fat, no filler, nothing wasted. Yet still there’s a lot going on, and the screenplay keeps you guessing, keeps you invested until the brilliant payoff in the very last scene.

The acting is outstanding. I understand all the key cast members are known for their work on TV. IMPORTANT NOTE: I don’t watch TV. I had little idea who these people were beforehand, but here I can tell you they’re inspired. Mark Duplass is great in the Owen Wilson-ish/Jeff Daniels-ish role of the nerdy loner with a plan. He and Johnson both portray awkward older guys driven by painful loneliness and regret – guys whom a lot of us can relate to I suspect – folding these bitter ingredients in with the laughs in a holistic way that adds resonance to both. I gotta admit I damned near cried a couple of times.

I can’t say enough about Plaza’s performance as Darius. Trevorrow joked before the screening that he’s had a lot of geeks and fanboys asking for her number. I am not going to deny it; she’s super cute, loveable even, and I wanted to join Team Aubrey after like three minutes. But it’s more than that: in her first leading role in a feature she’s a wonder, elevating the film with her perfect modulation between deadpan cynicism, incredulity and then, slowly, a gentle kind of openness. It’s a bit Ellen Page, a bit classic Brat Pack, and a lot of her own thing. Darius comes across like a young woman you might meet in real life – which is to say, something almost never seen on a big screen – and her motivations and feelings are revealed a little at a time in a lovely unstudied way. If we didn’t believe her character (and its transformation) the story would have nowhere near the depth it does. It’s a breakthrough turn for Plaza at the center of a sparkling, joyful film.

Two of the films that I was most keen on going into this year’s Sydney Film Festival hail from Senegal. New Festival Director Nashen Moodley is known for his knowledge of African cinema; he’s from Durban himself, and has been working with Africa programs at the Durban and Dubai film festivals for the past decade – a decade in which more and more African filmmakers have started to make names for themselves.

Nashen downplays the Africa thing, saying he’s just as passionate about films from Australia or Greece. Fair enough; but it’s hard to escape the fact that the guy knows his African stuff, and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to SFF. I’m getting more and more tired of the focus on Western and Central Europe that is more or less automatic in festival-land (not that I was ever that Eurocentric in the first place) but now there’s so much amazing film coming from every region of the world – East Asia, the Middle East, everywhere – and to me that’s where it’s at right now. I feel like I have even less time for [insert name of multiple award-winning European auteur here].

In an Official Competition filled with distinctive films (from a six-hour Indian crime story to a South Korean animated psychodrama about school bullying), Today stands out in my mind for its narrative minimalism and its spiritual qualities. Directed by Senegalese Frenchman Alain Gomis, this magical-realist story is about a man named Satché, played by slam poet Saül Williams, who wakes up one day somehow knowing this day will be his last. We never find out how or why; Satché’s impending demise is taken for granted by him and his loved ones from the very first shot. The film is simply concerned with how he chooses to spend his day. In that sense the day becomes a metaphor for his entire life – and for all of life. As he wanders around the Senegalese capital of Dakar saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances, he passes through fear and anger and regret, but also acceptance and even joy. It sounds a bit high-concept to read about it; what makes the film work is Gomis’ crisp screenplay and deft, restrained directorial touch. Even in moments of celebration or heated anger, there’s an ephemeral, ghostly quality to each of Satché’s encounters – his baleful stare, his long silences, the way the city keeps moving around him as he stands lost in thought, as if he must be wondering whether he’s already dead and merely haunting the place.

In the terrific opening scene, Satché’s wife and family gather with him in a kind of ritual to vocally celebrate his life, to mourn its end – and also to criticize his faults. Satché silently takes it all in, the good and the bad, reflecting on a life that has run its course. I found myself painfully relating to his shortcomings as vehemently pointed out by his wife – his indecisiveness, his inability to get things done. I’m not sure if it means I have something in common with the character, or whether the screenplay functions as a mirror.

Williams’ understated but magnetic performance carries the film – he’s onscreen almost constantly. I did wonder why an American got cast in the lead – but the story vaguely alludes to Satché’s having lived in the States, and it adds an interesting sense of detachment. As it happens, director Gomis is an outsider himself, having been raised in Europe, so maybe it fits. (I have no idea if Williams’ lines in Wolof are delivered with the right accent or not.)

The depiction of Dakar is gorgeous, with all its rhythm, variety and color set against gleaming tower blocks and corporate offices that communicate the same postmodern alienation as anywhere else. The cinematography is beautiful, finding just the right balance between the rich hues of sunny African city streets, and a darker, more desaturated palette that speaks to the morbid nature of the story. (Amazingly, the film was shot on a Canon 1D.) Here I risk sounding like a cine-tourist, but such a varied and balanced view of life in urban Africa is one of the valuable things about the film. It reminds you that Western Africa is not all poverty and desperation – it’s just another part of the world with its own problems and its own way of doing things.

Today is really elevated by its largely dialogue-free and absolutely spellbinding third act. After his ramblings, Satché arrives back home; his wife cooks him a meal (including some delicious-looking fried balls of cornmeal that look like what we Americans would call hushpuppies) and he plays with his kids. The film becomes a kind of visual poem about hearth and home and food and contentment, which is constrasted with such an aching melancholy, such a bewildering awareness of death, that watching it I almost felt a sense of personal loss. But the sequence also communicates peace, a stillness that is about being present in the moment. It’s remarkably meditative. It seems like a cliché but this is a film that makes you value life.

And that’s where I find Today significant. The flavor du jour in European arthouse fare is nihilism. It’s all too easy to imagine how grim or hopeless this film would be if it were, say, Scandanavian – and how much more seriously it might be taken. (Want to debate about it? Let’s start with Joachim von Trier’s superb Oslo August 31st, one of last year’s best films, which by the way very much resembles Today in narrative structure. Is it bleak and miserable, or actually life-affirming? Months later I’m still deciding.) I don’t know if there’s something in Senegalese culture that allows for a more holistic and accepting view of death, or if Gomis himself has a singular talent for sharing spiritual insight on film. For now, it doesn’t matter; either way it’s resulted in a lovely film, one of the best of the year so far.

La pirogue takes a more standard approach, but it has the benefit of being set largely at sea. I’ll watch just about any movie about boats. Moussa Touré’s film is about the Senegalese refugees who brave the Atlantic every year in simple fishing boats (the pirogues of the title) in order to make it to Europe. As the film informs us, many of them die along the way due to storms or shipwrecks. This would resonate with Sydney audiences: every Australian knows full well the real-life significance of such asylum seekers and their impact on society. This film sets out to give them individual stories.

La pirogue‘s narrative is lean and spare: it is simply about a group of people who have a destination. Their journey turns into a struggle for survival. That’s it. There are few subplots, few efforts to make the story about something larger than it already is, which is life and death and the yearning for a better life.

Material like this needs to be played straight; the downside to that is that it might come across like a made-for-TV film. Whether or not it will be good cinema, in addition to communicating a good message, is all about the execution. La pirogue comes close to hitting the mark. It’s well-crafted, with very good production values – even its share of special effects. You could hardly call it low-budget, at least in terms of developing-world fare. Touré’s confident, unpretentious direction suits the story perfectly. The opening scenes of exposition on dry land are nicely handled and create strong dramatic interest, as a reluctant fisherman (played by Moctar Diop) is convinced to captain the fateful voyage, and a group of desperate inland refugees who don’t even speak his language are placed under his care.

Once at sea, it seems we’re in for a corker of a tale. Back to the boat thing: Touré says he was influenced by Master and Commander, one of my favorite mainstream films. You can see it here, not only in obvious moments (such as the deadly storm), but in the way he seems to have borrowed some of Peter Weir’s tricks in very effectively dealing with the cinematic problems of filming a feature-length drama with a number of characters on a crowded vessel. Despite the limited scope of the action we never lose interest; and there are some truly affecting, even heartrending moments of doubt, conflict and suffering. In such a confined space there’s a good deal of intimacy, both between the characters and for the viewer – and this, of course, allows Touré to humanize the lives of boat refugees without being preachy at all.

Unfortunately the story flattens out a bit during the third act. The screenplay seems to take shortcuts; just when we would like to get to know the characters just a little better, get a little bit deeper, the narrative is speeding along to its resolution (which is at least admirably free of sentiment) in typical docudrama fashion. It’s not as clumsy as it might have been in lesser hands, but it’s not quite there either. The acting is fine overall, but falters during some crucial moments. This film will indeed play very well on TV – or better yet, in educational contexts; honestly, every resident of the developed world should be made to watch it) though it left me wanting more.

But in the end, you know what? There are times when I’d rather watch an honest and heartfelt film like this one, with all its shortcomings, than something by [insert name of European auteur here].

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