BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on September 3rd, 2012 by Jim Delaney


Directed by Benh Zeitlin, adapted by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin from Alibar’s 1-act play JUICY & DELICIOUS, starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana and Levy Easterly.

It’s always both a thrilling and disappointing experience when you see a nearly perfect movie in the first half of the year. Thrilling because you’ve experienced something transformative, but disappointing because you expect nothing else that year will measure up. I have seen BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD twice in screenings sponsored by the Independent Film Festival of Boston, first at The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, and next at The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. I saw it a third time a month into its general release. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a movie three times in a theater; it was probably over a decade ago. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have composed my thoughts and posted this article last month, or earlier. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is, however, anything but ordinary circumstances. As I walked home from the Brattle after that first viewing, my mother called. I could barely tell her the title without my voice cracking. When was the last time you saw a grown man walking down the street blithering with a quivering lip and a lump in his throat to his mother? That is what this movie can do to you.

Without getting overtly social or political about it, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD tells the story of those who will be America’s frontline casualties in the escalation of climate change. Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), in a collection of bayou islands south of New Orleans, herein known as The Bathtub. Hushpuppy and Wink live in a neighborhood where folks are born, live, and die mostly off the grid. They cook by outdoor grill, there isn’t a TV in site; the only traces of electricity are the refrigerators that keep the beer cold.

If there is a social message at play, it is obscured by the sort of layers of subtext and metaphor found in some of your better science fiction films. Hushpuppy learns in school about ancient cave paintings depicting humans hunting aurochs bulls, a lesson creatively delivered via a tattoo. She doesn’t need school to teach her about global climate change; she sees it in the water level rising against the levy that protects New Orleans, the levy that leaves the Bathtub to sink. In Hushpuppy’s imagination she sees a family of aurochs frozen in the arctic ice. She also sees the aurochs released when their berg cracks free, floats south, and melts. The Q&A sessions in the screenings I attended drew multiple interpretations of what the aurochs stood for. Far be it from me, or the film, to make the meaning of these giant beasts abundantly clear for you. Part of what makes this story so compelling is its ability to incite viewers to insert their own ideology, however accurately, into the lives of these characters.

The Bathtub’s folks are both the original 99%, and the original Tea Party. You won’t have to look too far on the IMDB message boards to find kneejerk reactions of one political extreme or another. There are liberals who feel that the Bathtub’s population needs to be rescued and given access to the suburban dream of Target and Starbucks. There are conservatives who see them as abusers of the welfare system. Both are mistaken: the Bathtub doesn’t want to be rescued, it wants to be left the hell alone, as we see the day FEMA comes knocking on their doors. This is a group that fends for itself; we never see them cashing a welfare check, we see them raising their own produce and livestock. We also see them pouring out large enough nets of seafood that it is more reasonable to assume that they make their living on a boat rather than off the dole.

Some see this is a film about African Americans, but this ignores other facets. Hushpuppy & Wink are African American, as are several supporting characters, but there are a roughly equal number of white characters living in The Bathtub. This place reminds me of stories my dad, The Fats, told me of growing up in Passaic, NJ during the Depression. He lived within the same neighborhood as Italian Catholics, Irish Protestants, African Americans, Jews, Cubans, Asians, Central Americans, and a family who ran a Halal meat market. Passaic in the 1930’s and the Bathtub now, and this film, transcend race or gender or generation. These characters and this story are sewn together by the same thread that tied my dad’s neighborhood. In the best of times and the worst of times, this is one city.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is more akin to the character driven films of 1970’s American cinema, and the sensual location experiences of the past few decades of European films, than a contemporary boardroom generated studio product. There is a story here, but it is so thoroughly seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes that the audience needs to give it the same latitude we would give any child attempting to tell a complex story. The reward for your patience is the poetry of Huspuppy’s perception, and Quvenzhané Wallis’ relentless ability to convince us that this is simply the way she sees the world. That innocent and enlightened perception is never more evident than in a flashback sequence whereHushpuppy tells us about her missing mother. The entire journey of this film is Hushpuppy confronting mortality: her mother’s, her father’s, the planet’s, and her place in all three.

Benh Zeitlin avoids most of the saccharine pitfalls that a coming of age story could have fallen into. He often shoots from Hushpuppy’s eye level, making Dwight Henry’s Wink as imposing as the imaginary aurochs. This film is also a feat of low budget sound design like we haven’t heard since THE HURT LOCKER. Movies with one hundred times Zeitlin’s budget are too often tales full of sound and fury signifying nothing. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD features a hurricane sequence as violent as any of the weather sequences in TWISTER, but here the intensity is achieved almost entirely through sound. Hushpuppy’s metaphysical quest in search of her mother is a stirring use of silence and Felliniesque exaggeration of sound and music.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD takes you to a corner of the United States that few have ever seen, and explores what is strongest in our national character, to expose our shared humanity. That is mighty ambitious for any film crew, but especially so for a cast and crew of which many were making their first feature length film. I don’t know yet if this is my favorite movie of the year, but it is the most emotionally exhausting and hauntingly expressive movie I’ve seen in a long long time.

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LIBERTY HEIGHTS (1999)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on June 8th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Wednesday, February 6, 2008.

Written & Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Adrien Brody, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Rebekah Johnson, Orlando Jones, Anthony Anderson and introducing Ben Foster (who got the gig during an open call!)

Between Rosh Hashanah of 1954 and 1955, the Kurtzman family of Baltimore is confronted with endings, beginnings and other upheavals. Nate Kurtzman (Mantegna), who runs a burlesque house and numbers racket, sees both of his businesses dying at the hands of television and a brand new state lottery. Older son Van (Brody) is off to college in the first non-Jewish school he’s ever attended. Younger son Ben not only experiences his first crush with Sylvia, an African American girl in his class, he also discovers rock-n-roll. When Nate makes a last-ditch attempt at financial solvency for his family, races and generations collide in hilarious, poignant and unexpected ways.

This is the fourth of Levinson’s semi-autobiographical “Baltimore Films” the others being DINER, TIN MEN and AVALON. LIBERTY HEIGHTS is set a notch above the others by some of the most intricate editing (by Stu Linder) to come out of a major studio in years. Without taking the focus away from the characters, the editing creates stunningly evocative layers of sound, image and music. Aside from the music (Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Elvis, Tom Waits) it helps to have Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle providing the images. Doyle, possibly the most underrated shooter alive, is largely responsible for the glowing signature look of most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Many films are described as “labors of love” — it’s rare to see this much love poured into every aspect of a movie.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 6.8.11
To this day LIBERTY HEIGHTS is the only movie that ever prompted me to write a fan letter to a filmmaker, primarily for the reasons mentioned in the above pitch to my agency coworkers: images in that playful 50’s color palette balanced with resonant music grabbed me within the first act and rewarded my attention throughout. I had witnessed a single song used well with a montage, but I had never seen montages of music paired with montages of images, with sound from one scene bleeding into the scenes that precede and follow. My actor and fellow writer pals will hate me for saying this, but certain elements of great movies can only come from the vision of a director, and must be controlled by the unsung creative forces of editors and composers.

Andrea Morricone composed the score for LIBERTY HEIGHTS. In the final 42 seconds of the trailer you can hear echoes of his father Ennio’s work, particularly the romantic sweep of CINEMA PARADISO, on which Andrea assisted the maestro. During a Halloween party scene where Van meets both Dubbie and Trey, the girl of his dreams and her boyfriend, dialog is often replaced with a soundscape swinging from “Shake Rattle & Roll” to the roar of Trey’s convertible to “Rock Island Line.” James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Morricone’s score trade partners as Ben and Sylvia attend a James Brown concert downtown, while uptown Van and Dubbie share a heart to heart at a party in the backyard of one of their classmates mausoleum like homes. Levinson’s seamless blend of sound and vision finds one scene informing another, one character speaking for another character’s dilemma, in a manner as unorthodox for a mainstream film as it is haunting and unforgettable.

I do not mean to imply that LIBERTY HEIGHTS is lacking in the engaging performances and impeccable storytelling departments. This film afforded me the unique experience of giving up on guessing where the story will go next. It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize your cliché based predictions and assumptions have been tossed out the window, that it’s best to sit back, and enjoy the company in which you have been placed. I can give you one glimpse that will not spoil any dramatic turns: before Ben takes Sylvia to see James Brown, he asks if he can borrow his father’s Cadillac. In any other movie set in the 1950’s Nate Kurtzman would be reading the newspaper, Ada Kurtzman (Bebe Neuwirth) would be darning socks or otherwise knitting, and “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” would be on TV. Here when Ben yells down from the kitchen, we see Nate and Ada practicing the cha cha in a swank finished basement, hiding just how hip Mom and Dad Kurtzman are from passersby on the street. That’s a married couple still deeply in love and smoldering for each other, even as their son is old enough to go to college; when is the last time you saw that in an American movie?

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