(On Cable TV, November 2015) Will Gluck earned a spot on my list of interesting directors after Easy A and a good chunk of Friends with Benefits: He seems at ease with fast-paced films about young characters but doesn’t necessarily talk down to his audience. Annie isn’t in the same league as Easy A, but it’s a competent kid’s film with an appealing heroine a good narrative rhythm. Given that much of it is a straight-up musical, that’s no small achievement. The story, now decades old, should be familiar: An orphan is temporarily adopted by a billionaire, who then discovers the true meaning of affection and—aw, who cares: We’re here for “It’s the hard-knock life” and “Tomorrow”. Quvenzhané Wallis turns in a very good performance as the titular Annie –quietening those who may have thought that her breakthrough role in Beasts of the Southern Wild was a feral one-shot fluke, she sings, dances and makes for a perfectly likable protagonist. Jamie Foxx also does well as a new-economy Daddy Warbucks (he makes cell phones), while Cameron Diaz adds another unsubtle bad-girl role to her repertoire. The music numbers often fizz and pop (although some of them aren’t as energetic, and the last one can be distracting as background detail-spotters can watch the shadows on the fence-posts to figure out how long it took to shoot.), while the comedy bubbles up naturally. Some of the dramatic beats are over-played, but there’s some nice cinematography at play here, especially in presenting a glorious one-percenter fantasy view of New York. I’m not as wedded to previous versions of Annie as some may be, and I have a surprisingly high tolerance for movie characters bursting in song and dance, so your mileage will probably vary.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) One of the best things about digital filmmaking is how it lowers the barriers to moviemaking, and so allows people traditionally left voiceless by Hollywood to find a way to tell stories that are meaningful to them. The result often feels a lot like Beasts of the Southern Wild, an unpolished, grainy and loose blend of genres and influences that nonetheless feels like a welcome revelation. Don’t expect solid world-building in this fantastical tale where global warming, gigantic beasts, post-apocalyptic imagery and poor coastal communities all intersect: it may be pure fantasy, it may be magical realism, it may be science-fiction, but it’s certainly something different. The script may lurch from one thing to another, but it has something interesting to say, and honestly presents an oppressed viewpoint that’s rarely portrayed on-screen. The real revelation of the film is young Quvenzhané Wallis, a tiny force of nature able to stop huge beasts in their tracks (not to mention ordinary moviegoers) by the sole power of her stare. While the movie would have benefited from a more polished script, I fear that such an improvement would have taken away some of the film’s unusual power. It’s probably best to experience Beasts of the Southern Wild as it exists and not worry about how it could have been better.