Tuesday, November 27

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