The Tin Drum — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Context is everything. Though often mistaken as a black comedy, Volker Schlöndorff’s bold adaptation of Günter Grass’s abstractly autobiographical 1959 novel is an exemplary model of European magical realist cinema. The first of Grass’s “Danzig Trilogy” is set from World War I through World War II in Poland’s free city of Danzig, which is invaded by Nazi Germany. The picaresque narrative is one of surreal emotional and psychological displacement as seen through the eyes of a ferocious child. The young unreliable protagonist Oskar (David Bennet) is one of the most enigmatic, if tormented, characters ever put on film.
In the face of the volatile wartime situation that surrounds him, the three-year-old Oskar — “anchored between wonder and illusion” — throws himself down a flight of stairs in his parents’ grocery store apartment in order to deliberately stunt his growth. From that moment on, Oskar’s mind and inner physiology develop but his body does not. He is an impish boy with feral eyes set in an oversized head. His mother compensates for Oskar’s bizarre condition by providing him with a lacquered red-and-white tin drum that she replaces as he repeatedly breaks them over time. The bright drum that perpetually hangs on a rope from his shoulder is an effective symbol of Oskar’s fierce individuality and of his self-appointed position as a mascot for the multicultural pressure cooker of Danzig as shared by German civilians, Jews, Kashubians, Nazi soldiers, and Poles. Oskar is a talented drummer — which is revealed when he sits under a bandstand playing syncopated counter-rhythms to those of a Nazi military band.
Still, Oskar’s greatest defense mechanism, alongside his concealed maturity, is his alarming ability to break glass with the sound of his shrill yell. However charismatic Oskar’s outward appearance, his demonic alter ego presents an effective warning to society at large that he is not to be messed with.
Oskar’s sparse narration fills in significant exposition about his disguised maturity. Of a Nazi building-burning attack on synagogues and Jewish businesses, Oskar says, “Once upon a time, there was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the gas man!” The murder of the Jewish toyshop owner (Charles Aznavour) who sold Oskar’s trademark drums arrives with a poignant sense of loss.
The casting of an 11-year-old David Bennet in an otherwise insurmountable role is the key to the film’s success. Half a boy, and half a man, Bennet’s ingeniously steely portrayal efficiently sidesteps every pigeonhole that Grass’s outré plot offers up. When Oskar makes love to his father’s teenaged housekeeper, the exchange of corporeal affection momentarily replaces the sickening mood of obsequious Nazi propaganda and familial loss that Oskar endures with detached stoicism. Oskar survives while those around him perish. However efficient the Nazi war machine, Oskar outsmarts his desperate situation. He is a refugee hero. Oskar’s will to live eclipses all else. It is something he, and only he, controls.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Infuriating, insulting, and bathed in patronizing condescension, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a magical realist movie unclear on the concept. Granted, magical realism is perhaps the most demanding film genre second only to black comedy, but director Benh Zeitlin and playwright/screenwriter Lucy Alibar screwed the royal pooch on this one.
The “beasts” of the film’s title are the ignorant and socially inept residents of a Louisiana Delta island community known as the “Bathtub” that lies outside of a hurricane-protecting seawall. The island sits barely above the water level. It contains a desperately impoverished group of illiterate people living with an unintentional death wish.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives in abject squalor alongside her wildly abusive father Wink (Dwight Henry). Single Wink is such a threat to his daughter that Hushpuppy lives alone in an elevated mobile home. The tiny girl uses a blowtorch to light the stove upon which she cooks her own meals. Social services would have a field day.
Lucy Alibar woefully attempts to channel Maurice Sendak (think “Where the Wild Things Are”) by including a group of giant deadly boars that Hushpuppy communes with in the movie’s most abstract moment. A Katrina-styled storm obliterates Hushpuppy’s Bathtub home. Survivors build a shelter amid the rubble for the few remaining residents to reside. Wink demands his daughter undergo a rite-of-passage that involves “beasting” a crab — smashing it open and sucking out its juicy white meat. You may never want the eat crab again.
Crammed with child-endangering situations and wrongheaded social logic — Hushpuppy gets more responsible child rearing from a prostitute cook than she does from her dad — the PG-13-rated movie is seemingly made for no audience. The little girl is repeatedly bullied into action lest she be regarded a “pussy.” I would posit that that precious epithet be applied to the filmmakers' lack of effort toward crafting the movie. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of the worst films to come out of 2012.
Rated PG-13. 91 mins. (F) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green
Lighthearted, but emotionally sincere, writer/director Peter Hedges’s tale of a boy created out of best intentions is yet another addition to this year’s batch of magic realist movies. Although frontloaded to a fault, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is an evocative “small” movie that entertains. Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton play an empathetic couple — Cindy and Jim Green — attempting to adopt a child. They narrate an intriguing flashback story about a nine-year-old boy named Timothy who mysteriously appeared in their garden after they planted a box containing notes about what their ideal child would be like. Unable to have their own child, the couple is heartbroken until the miracle occurs. Timothy is indeed the stuff of dreams. Leaves that grow from his ankles remove any disbelief about his status as a human creature of fantasy. In keeping with the magic realist genre, questions of believability are pushed aside. What’s at stake here is the union of a married couple who, unlike many other such couples, really should be parents. Newcomer CJ Adams is something of a revelation as the little phenomenon that gives Cindy and Jim a crash course in parenting and expectations. The purpose of the movie is to pique discussion about the reality of raising an adopted child. To that end, the movie achieves its worthy goal.
Rated PG. 95 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
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Robot and Frank
Christopher D. Ford’s magical realist movie “Robot and Frank” isn’t developed enough to withstand narrative scrutiny. However, from an actor’s showcase perspective, the film allows the redoubtable Frank Langella to cast his glowing spell over his audience.
Langella masterfully plays Frank, an aging cat burglar living in the semi-rural community of Cold Spring, New York. During his heyday, Frank was one of the best "second-story men" in the trade. Frank has served hard time for his crimes. Nowadays, Frank has a hard time remembering to take out the trash. Dementia is setting in. Langella’s delicate physicalization of his character’s deteriorating mental and emotional state is a thing of beauty.
In the movie's weakest supporting role, James Marsden plays Frank's impatient but caring son Hunter. It’s painful to watch Marsden struggle with a role he can’t get a grip on. Living too far away to provide the frequent assistance Frank needs, Hunter buys the old man a nameless robot butler (brilliantly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Crotchety old Frank fights tooth-and-nail against the electronic assistant until he discovers how his new friend could be of use in conducting a few local thefts. Robot appreciates the idea because it helps stem the tide of Frank’s fading mental and physical capacity.
Susan Sarandon is a welcome presence as Jennifer, head of the doomed local library, where books are being phased out. Frank’s romantic feelings for Jennifer provide the film with a much-needed emotional hook.
“Robot and Frank” almost has what it needs to be a truly evocative and moving film--but not quite enough. Sub-plots involving Frank’s son and daughter (Liv Tyler) feel forced and artificial. Also, the film’s third act feels rushed and slight in relation to what came before. Nonetheless, there’s much to appreciate in Frank Langella’s artful performance opposite an empathetic robot.
Rated PG-13. 90 mins. (B-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Safety Not Guaranteed
Magic realism takes hold in newbie director Colin Trevorrow’s confident romantic comedy. It doesn’t hurt that Aubrey Plaza (of television’s “Parks and Recreation”) and Mark Duplass share some cool chemistry. Darius Britt (Plaza) is a disaffected Generation Z chick who stubbles into a job as an intern for a magazine. A story idea based on a newspaper ad entitled “Safety Not Guaranteed” inspires Darius to team up with sex-obsessed staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni), a nerdy virgin without much common sense.
The promising ad boldly states: “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid when we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
For narcissistic Jeff the story means a trip to Ocean View, Washington where he had a memorable sexual experience with a girl he wants to look up for a rematch. Darius’s motivations are more genuinely based in curiosity. Upon meeting Matthew (Duplass), the ad’s grocery-clerk author, Darius senses a kinship with her subject. Like Darius, Matthew is an antisocial misfit who has spent a lot of time mulling over what makes the world tick. Duplass’s doughy charm is a natural foil for the bespectacled Darius who shares his serious minded sense of adventure. Scenes of the pair engaging in martial arts-styled training practices arrive with warm-hearted humor. Written by newcomer Derek Connolly, “Safety Not Guaranteed” makes good on its dubiously proposed fantasy elements while embracing the needs of its emotionally crippled characters. Here’s a small movie with big dreams and a lot of heart.
Rated R. 85 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Wes Anderson’s Divine Kingdom
By Cole Smithey
Wes Anderson has honed his formally composed vernacular of kitschy nostalgic magic realism cinema to a super fine point. Making his debut animated film “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) seems to have allowed the perpetually youthful filmmaker to correct for narrative missteps he was previously susceptible to in films such as “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) and “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007). “Moonrise Kingdom” is a blissful celebration of pubescent romance that relishes every detail of cherry-picked cultural influences from its nearly idyllic 1965 setting.
An understated theme of ecological preservation runs through all of Anderson’s films, yet perhaps never more so than in “Moonrise Kingdom.” A lush complexity of starry-eyed circumstance and organic atmosphere come together on the fictional island of New Penzance — off the New England coast. A storm is due to hit the sparsely populated island in just a few days. An outcast 12-year-old orphan named Sam (wonderfully played by newcomer Jared Gilman) has run away from Camp Ivanhoe, the pitched site of his Khaki Scout troop, much to the dismay of the troop’s scrupulous leader Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).
Headstrong Suzy (Kara Hayward) is also 12. She lives in a plush red house on the island with her three younger brothers and irresponsible parents (played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Secretly, Sam and Suzy have been writing letters for the past year, planning for a 10-day romantic adventure to be alone together on the “16-mile-long” island of “Chickchaw” territory. The sweet romanticism that passes between Sam and Suzy during their brief escape from the adult world presents an exquisite crucible of emotional and sensual awakening that carries the film’s distinctive tone. Kara Hayward (also a newcomer) has all the big-screen charm and natural poise of an instant movie star.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is a dynamic ensemble chamber piece of stylized comedy that exerts an adoring fascination with childhood perspective. Anderson gives generous credit to children’s capacity for maturity in the face of their own precious naiveté. His child characters possess an innate confidence of character. A captivating scene where the scantily clad Suzy and Sam dance on their private beach to the strains of Francoise Hardy singing “Le Temps de L’Amour” percolates with a heady blend of daring curiosity and avid sophistication.
Wes Anderson’s acute sense of humor is an acquired taste. His loving and meticulous attention to detail approaches an obsessive degree of precision. Visual and aural elements are presented in a simplified space to allow for maximum comic resonance. Comic background occurrences permeate the foreground action at hand. There is no question that Wes Anderson is a force of nature, and an indisputable genius. And yet, Anderson is such a passionately individualist filmmaker that some audiences will remain indifferent to his films. His movies never subscribe to any Hollywood-approved template of what a film should contain or how it should proceed. Wes Anderson’s maturing process as a filmmaker is nonetheless of enormous interest to audiences who appreciate his definitively bold style of instinctual cinema. You can savor every frame.
Rated PG-13. 93 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Being John Malkovich — Classic Film Pick
“Being John Malkovich” (1999) is the brainchild of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, one of the most prolific contributors to magic realism in cinema. The wildly imaginative story marks Kaufman’s debut foray into feature film alongside that of director Spike Jonze, who went on to claim the genre as his specialty.
As the title predicts, cultural context and a cult of personality merge as significant touchstones. John Cusack slips into a Debbie Downer comfort zone as Craig Schwartz, an unemployed puppeteer — is there any other kind? Craig works daily on his craft. An opening sequence puppet show displays Craig working through his nude miniature alter ego’s inner emotional turmoil in a puppet dance performance dubbed “The Dance of Despair.” Craig’s wooden lookalike spins around a doll’s sized bedroom breaking a tiny mirror and sending a flowerpot flying. Craig lives with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Lotte too is busy attempting to live out her own identity issues through a menagerie of animals she looks after in their apartment when she isn’t working in a New York pet store.
Inspired to get a job, Craig answers an ad for a filing clerk at LesterCorp, located on the “7½ floor” of the Mertin Flemmer Building in midtown Manhattan. The eccentric location’s low ceilings force all who work there to bend over rather than stand. An employee training video informs, “The overhead is low.”
The company’s founder Dr. Lester, aka Captain Mertin (Orson Bean), is a dirty old man. Catherine Keener plays Craig’s inscrutable new co-worker Maxine, whose name Craig either guesses or makes up, depending on your perspective. Craig soon discovers a small doorway hidden behind a file cabinet that leads into a mud-walled portal that leads directly into John Malkovich’s brain. While the Malkovich character seems at first blush to be an exact incarnation of the real-life actor, a subtle distinction in the character’s middle name proves him to be a construct of fiction. It isn’t long before Craig, Lotte, and Maxine are all entering the portal to spend 15-minute intervals experiencing life through "Malkovich"’s eyes.
Craig views consciousness as a “terrible curse.” His attempts to seduce Maxine backfire. Maxine would rather connect emotionally with Lotte, but only when Lotte inhabits Malkovich. For her part, Lotte considers sexual reassignment as an option for physical substitution.
A core construct of magical realism hinges on a character’s desire to create his or her own love object through some artificial but tangible form of emotional displacement. A fetishization of objects or aspects of one’s self are common themes.
“Being John Malkovich” works as a twisted comedy that challenges its audience to side with an unreliable protagonist in love with an equally unreliable antagonist. Corollaries of desire break through dead-end walls only to be reinvented on the other side in a supernatural spectrum of practical existence. Go figure.
Is there anything worse than half-assed magical realism? It's a question you may well ask yourself after wading through Julie Berticelli's plodding adaptation of Judy Pascoe's novel. The virtually plotless story revolves around a sprawling fig tree that sits adjacent to the Australian family home of the newly-widowed Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her three children. Dawn's husband suffers a heart attack while driving home with their precocious daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) before running their pick-up truck into the tree that Simone imagines contains her dad's spirit. Soulful white sap bleeds from the branches. The giant tree's roots threaten the home's foundation and that of their neighbors' houses too. Still, Dawn is hesitant to address the issue, especially due to her daughter's strongly held opinion which Dawn naturally defers to because, isn't that what parents do these days? (Defer to their children's wishes, that is.) Dawn seems to find hope in the eyes of George (Marton Csokas), a local plumber she goes to work for, but even that is a bridge too far in a drama that doesn't understand its characters' motivations. You won't laugh, won't cry, you won't care.
Unrated. 100 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Charlie St. Cloud
The ever-smug Zac Efron charms the birds from the trees as Charlie St. Cloud, a white bread super stud whose perfect-sporty-life is shattered by the death of his 11-year-old brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Once a champion sailboat racer, Charlie sulks around his Pacific Northwest town where he fulfills his promise to play catch at sunset every day with his brother's ghost. Sentimental wafts of magical realism-lite blow like a cloying fog over a romance that Charlie peruses with Tess (Amanda Crew), a childhood would-be sweetheart who might also be a ghost. Director Burr Steers ("Igby Goes Down") obviously wants to make a meaningful movie about recovering from the loss of a family member, but he walks head-on into every cliche trap possible. Ray Liotta's unnecessary performance as a paramedic who brings Charlie back from the dead is just such a device. "Charlie St. Cloud" will resonate with its 12-year-old female target audience. The rest of us have to pretend like we understand, or ignore the whole thing entirely.
Rated PG-13. 99 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)