Tag Archive: Beasts of the Southern Wild


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.)

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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.

Decisions, decisions

It’s that time of year again. The air turns crisp, the ground is covered with pink and white cammellia petals, and it’s time to book tickets for 20 films at Sydney Film Festival with my staff Flexipass.

I’ve been the program editor at SFF for three years now. It so happens I’m one of the first to hear about the film program during the gruelling weeks of putting together the print guide. One interesting film after another appears on my radar while I’m hard at it, and I barely have time to think, much less plan what to see. Then my deadlines pass, work slows down, and there’s that delicious moment when I sit down with the guide – my handiwork – and, armed with an orange highlighter, start choosing the films I’ll be checking out in June.

OK, so I work for SFF, but this is not some kind of obnoxious insider’s rant. I’m lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective, but I’m a punter when it comes to seeing and writing about the films – most of which have only screened at overseas festivals I can’t afford to attend.

So these are the 20 films I’ve settled on, in the order I plan to see them. They are largely, but not necessarily, what I’m guessing will be the 20 best at the fest. I have to make hard choices, and some films get tragically left out because they clash with my schedule. I might hedge a bet because I know a certain film will get released or someone will get me a copy; I might be avoiding overdoing it in a certain section or genre (especially Freak Me Out, always a temptation); or it could be down to supporting Australian films over others. Screenings at the State Theatre definitely have priority. It’s a game in itself, and the end result is always a strange cat’s cradle of marked-up sessions.

The vagaries of the festival calendar mean that on some days I’ve only booked one film, while on others I have up to four to watch back to back – an ambitious but foolhardy feat which only results in delirium and confusion even in the geekiest hardcore cinephiles. But somehow things always work out – I end up skipping a screening here, hustling tickets for another there, something unexpected becomes my new favorite movie ever, and the festival always turns out to be a blast…

Always a blast

My Flexipass 20:

  1. La pirogue (Thursday, 7 June, 2:20pm, Event Cinemas) – The first full day of the festival begins for me with a film from Senegal that’s set to screen at Cannes next week and will almost certainly not get a commercial run here. To me that’s where it’s at. Not to make some hokey statement about the superiority of “real-life stories” – for starters I don’t even believe that; I like my stories to be a lot weirder than real life. But if I have to choose, I’ll take a film about African boat refugees starring unknown or nonprofessional actors over a lot of other more ballyhooed festival fare.
  2. Caesar Must Die  (Thursday 7 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, in competition here, this mix of documentary and drama is set in a Roman prison, where the inmates are staging a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Golden Bear winners have been some of my faves of recent years, and the premise just sounds cool.
  3. Killer Joe  (Thursday 7 June, 9pm, Event Cinemas) – From ace guest programmer Richard Kuipers’ Freak Me Out section, this looks to be the kind of sleazy and violent but intelligent (and even subversive) thriller I would have eaten up as a kid late at night on Cinemax. Directed by William Friedkin (!!), featuring a rumored great performance from Matthew McConaughey, this sounds like an excellent chaser for Caesar Must Die.
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild and
  5. Moonrise Kingdom (Friday 8 June, 6:30pm and 8:30pm, State Theatre) – This is the evening at the festival I’m looking forward to most: a double dose of magical Americana screening at the truly awesome State; one from a new director (Benh Zeitlin) riding a wave of acclaim at Sundance, the other from freaking Wes Anderson. Both feature child protagonists and and culminate in third-act storms; one stars Bruce Willis and the other does not (but, hey). These were my top choices from the get, and they’re screening back to back; I can’t imagine a better double feature.
  6. Lore (Saturday 9 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – An Australian competition film is almost a must-see; but Cate Shortland’s latest has a decidedly un-Aussie setting and I have to admit I’m more curious than usual: it’s a drama about German refugee children and the Jewish kid who helps them at the end of World War II.
  7. Tabu (Sunday 10 June, 7:15pm, State Theatre) – This black-and-white competition title from Portugal is a mix of drama and adventure split into two narratives, one of which is set in colonial Africa. The wife loved it and said I should not miss it, so there we are.
  8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Monday 11 June, 4:15pm, State Theatre) – I’m a sucker for Turkish cinema, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meditation on crime and punishment is one of the most talked-about Turk titles in years; cannot miss a screening of it at the State.
  9. The Warped Forest (Monday 11 June, 9 pm, Event Cinemas) – Another entry from Freak Me Out, this fantasy/horror piece is apparently one of the weirdest movies of recent years – and solely given the fact that it’s from Japan, I don’t see how there can be a ceiling on that claim. I picture something like a live version of Miyazaki, with elements of early Cronenberg. (Actually, it’s also a leading contender for “Film I’m Most Likely to Skip Because I Decided It Would Be Too Weird.”)
  10. The King of Pigs (Tuesday 12 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – This violent animated Korean thriller about class conflict in high school is actually screening in competition; it therefore has a cool dark-horse status (of course it’s not going to win! animation’s for kids!) that automatically makes me want to support it over other films.
  11. Postcards from the Zoo (Wednesday 13 June, 8:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – Indonesian weirdness from “maverick” one-named director Edwin, about a girl raised in a zoo who falls in love with a magical cowboy. What’s not to like here?
  12. Dead Europe (Thursday 14 June, 6:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Must-see Aussie competition title part 2; this one from director Tony Krawitz, about a guy from Sydney who digs into his family’s past in Greece only to discover ghosts and curses. Sounds all right to me. From a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap. Screening back-to-back with The Loneliest Planet (below), forming a promising double feature about travel and alienation.
  13. The Loneliest Planet (Thursday 14 June, 8:45pm, State Theatre) – Gael García Bernal stars in a story about a romantic hiking trip in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia that goes all wrong. Gael always chooses good screenplays, and this one dovetails with my cinematic fascination with the Near East and Asia Minor.
  14. Barbara (Friday 15 June, 2pm, Event Cinemas) – For a number of reasons, when it comes to choosing films I find myself drawn to almost any other region before Europe. But I figured I should get at least a couple of Euro titles in, and this one, a drama from director Christian Petzold about an East German woman doctor exiled to a country backwater in 1980, seems pretty promising for reasons I can’t articulate. It might be the haunting melancholy of the vintage Cold War setting; or it might be the promo stills of the rather cute Nina Hoss riding a bike.
  15. Death for Sale (Friday 15 June, 4:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This Moroccan neo-noir thriller about a band of small-time crooks has been praised to heaven since it premiered at Toronto last year. For some stupid reason I missed it at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where I also work and where part of its funding came from. Maybe it was meant to be, because now it’s the first in my planned triple feature about violence and honor on the festival’s last Friday.
  16. Retaliation (Friday 15 June, 6:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This 1968 yakuza “bullet ballet,” part of the retrospective of exploitation flicks from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio (celebrating its 100th anniversary) was one of my top picks anyway, but coming right after Death for Sale makes it even more obvious.
  17. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Friday 15 June, 9pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This one from Takashi Miike will conclude a possibly exhausting triple feature with lots of eviscerations in 3D. This was a tough choice, because I have no interest in seeing it in 3D – but I didn’t want to miss another epic samurai flick from Miike, whose 13 Assassins was one of the highlights of the last festival. (And as it happens, the one 3D title I saw last year, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was also one of the best, so here’s hoping those two trends work together.)
  18. Neighbouring Sounds (Saturday 16 June, 11:45am) – This competition film from Brazil just seems to be all about the stuff I’m into lately: naturalism, meditations on architecture and urban decay, Brazilian chicks getting high, abstract sound design, waterfalls of blood, etc. Anyway I love watching the more out-there competition films in the morning.
  19. The Angels’ Share (Saturday 16 June, 8:40pm, State Theatre) – Ken Loach, booze, dudes in kilts.
  20. Wuthering Heights (Sunday 17 June, 2:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Emily Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic has gotten very mixed reviews but it sounds like strong stuff either way. Turns out I haven’t read the book, so that’s not a factor (the way it would be with, say, Jane Austen). But I like what I hear about the bleak, primal, postmodern depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire.

Animation’s for kids

Most painful exclusions (must see about taxing the wife’s Flexipass): Safety Not Guaranteed (not by choice – turns out I’m busy on Closing Night), Marley (I’m a itinual fan, of course, but I imagine I’ll have a chance to see it again), Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (easily the best title in the festival), The Parade (might be missing a goldmine of dry Balkan humor), Dreams of a Life (doco about a woman whose corpse was found in her London apartment three years after she died)Modest Reception (Iranian situationism run amok), Livid (more Freak Me Out awesomeness), Searching for Sugar Man (Sundance audience award-winning doco about “lost” ’70s soul singer Rodriguez), Undefeated (Oscar-winning football doco), OK, Good (indie psychological thriller in Freak Me Out), A Simple Life (universally acclaimed Hong Kong drama about a retired housemaid).

Titles I’ve already seen and love, like or at least recommend: Rampart, Polisse, Policeman, Headshot, Today, Monsieur Lazhar, Goodbye, Alps, Where Do We Go Now?

Stray cat rock?