Beasts of No Nation lives in the space between realism and allegory. Uzodinma Iweala’s original novel approaches that space but seems far less concerned with it, narrated entirely by the young central character, Agu, in his simplistic present-tense dialect. A child soldier in West Africa, Agu’s journey in the novel is one of survival. His family is killed, and to avoid being killed himself he accepts an offer to join the army of the Commandant, a rebel warlord. At first he declares “I am not wanting to fight”; eventually, though, Agu is killing with knives and guns, willfully attacking “enemies”, tearing through his war-stricken country at the whim and call of the Commandant.
Everything about the novel is heartbreaking, but nothing more so than the sense that Agu is too young to realize that his journey across his country is also a descent into hell. The first-person narration is one that nonetheless conveys the bare minimum about Agu’s own thoughts and feelings about his actions, and yet at times it conveys more than enough. “I am liking it” — this is what Agu says about the sound of his knife hitting a woman’s head, about the splashing blood. It’s brutal in how direct it all is, in its impossibility and in its plausibility. Iweala never has to name the West African country or convince us that someone like Agu really exists; Agu very definitely does.
Continue reading Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Hands down, the best movie theater experience I’ve ever had.
Sci-fi royalty Ridley Scott’s’ latest space voyage did not disappoint. The Martian — starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover (holy shit) — epitomizes the term “modern classic.” It gets its two major themes of unrelenting determination and human bravery across gracefully and without any integrity-damaging clichés, an accomplishment that continuously eludes many filmmakers who embark upon such a journey. That’s the difference between this film and Independence Day, for me (that’s not to say that the latter doesn’t hold a special place in my heart).
I left the theater with the stupidest grin on my face. The film’s humor was the beautiful element that made it exceptional, not only in the simple sense of making the film more enjoyable, but also in the sense that it unquestionably aided Damon’s performance — otherwise, I doubt his sheer optimism would have been nearly as believable. The humor lightened the mood for us and kept us believing that Mark Watney was going to do the impossible. Far from falling into the category of comedic-relief-humor, The Martian might actually get nominated for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes next year. When Watney practically blows himself up and goes I flying across the hab, I cried with laughter. When Watney intentionally goes to town with expletives in an inter-planet online chat that is being streamed worldwide, I cried with laughter.
Continue reading The Martian (2015)
Narcos has a rookie season that moves like a final season. Netflix has been in the TV game for a while now, with their flagships House of Cards and Orange is the New Black both entering fourth seasons soon, and it’s rare that a Netflix series falls wide of the mark — Bloodline, Daredevil, and Sense8 all drew in high-powered acting and directing talent and were almost immediately renewed for second seasons. Narcos, with the pacing and and urgency of a well-established series and character arcs that would normally be stretched over the course of a lesser show, might outdo them all.
A large part of what sets this story apart from the pack is the fact of this story being a true one. Pablo Escobar has been portrayed several times by all the people you might expect — there’s Benicio Del Toro just last year in Paradise Lost, Javier Bardem next year in a new biopic, and then John Leguizamo (okay, so maybe not who you’d expect) in yet another biopic the following year — but the infamous Colombian drug lord has never been viewed under a microscope like this. It’s Wagner Moura who steps into Escobar’s patterned polos here in Narcos, and he’s up to the considerable task.
Continue reading Narcos – Season 1
I wanted to love Nightingale unconditionally. We’ve written about one-man-show films here before, from Locke to Buried to Redford‘s All Is Lost to Altman‘s Secret Honor, and Nightingale certainly stands with those true one-man-shows rather than with, say, Cast Away or Gravity or 127 Hours or any other single-character flick that actually has a small supporting cast. Nightingale has no supporting cast, no strange premise wherein the hero is trapped underground or trapped on the high seas or trapped in space. Nightingale‘s Peter Snowden is trapped in his mind, and that’s scarier than any of the aforementioned scenarios.
David Oyelowo is the single actor in question here, and to say he delivers a great performance would be a pathetic understatement. Oyelowo is an absolute force of nature from the first frame of Nightingale to the last. The storyline is unsettling, sure, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but shorn of that Oyelowo’s performance is unsettling in and of itself for the sheer velocity of it all. Not only are Peter’s highs and lows very very high and very very low, but they’re backed up into each other and jumbled up in such a way that Peter switches like a lightbulb from on to off, from calm to manic, from contemplative to downright inconsolable. It’s impressive, but before that it’s incredibly disturbing.
Continue reading Nightingale (2015)
Big Eyes is about a fringe artist whose Gothic work about depressed, child-like characters becomes wildly popular, copied, and commercialized until it’s rendered a caricature of itself. And no, it’s not Tim Burton’s autobiography. It’s the bizarre true story of Margaret and Walter Keane and the fortune they made in the 1960s on paintings of children with, you guessed it, big eyes. Still, it’s not hard to analyze Burton’s attraction to this story. Each new movie “from the mind of Tim Burton” seems to parody his own aesthetic, turning it into a brand more than an auteur’s style. It would be far too easy to say that Walter represents the big, money-hungry studios and Margaret is Tim, just victims of their own popularity. But this is a movie that deserves to stand alone–and after Dark Shadows, I’m sure Burton wants it that way.
The audience might already be familiar with the weird 1970 court case in which Margaret sued Walter for slander while he stubbornly insisted that he was the original artist. But Big Eyes sheds light on the couple’s even weirder marriage. Margaret originated her iconic wide-eyed waifs when she was just a modest painter selling portraits on the street. But it was Walter who took credit for her work and turned them into a massively lucrative venture by selling cheap posters to the general uncultured public. The art world turned up their noses and scoffed, of course, but, as Walter passionately declares, the world is built on the lowest common denominator. Continue reading Big Eyes (2014)
The most impressive aspect of Ida, the 2014 EFA champion and Polish Golden Globe nominee from director Pawel Pawlikowski, is without a doubt the stark visual staging and meticulous shot composition. Unlike Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley — another awards season foreign language contender — the visual beauty of Ida meshes seamlessly with the story rather than overwhelming it. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska plays the young nun-in-training of the film’s title, and her forays from the convent into what some might call “the real world” provide the framework for Ida.
Ida was essentially born into her role in the convent, abandoned as a child and only now old enough to venture out. She’s nearly ready to take her final vows and become a full-fledged nun (“It’s morphin’ time!”) but before she does, she leaves the convent to track down her estranged aunt and get a little taste of the outside world. It’s not long before this Catholic nun discovers a truth about her past: she’s Jewish. This is only the first of many threats to Ida’s identity, one focused squarely in the past and in the present, and the revelation of the love and struggle and verve of the world outside the convent shakes up Ida’s future.
Continue reading Ida (2014)
Doc Sportello ain’t a do-gooder, as one of the trailer lines for Inherent Vice sings, but he’s done good. Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh movie doesn’t seem to match up with anything else he’s done, tempting though it may be to shove it in the same category with Boogie Nights simply because they’re both comedies. There’s a little Boogie in there, for sure – there’s also mid-’80s Leslie Nielsen zaniness, a bit of Robert Altman, a bit of early Guy Ritchie, a bit of everything. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sofa-riding P.I. suddenly embroiled in a kidnapping/murder case that’s way, way over his head. The moving parts of the case are as perplexing to Doc as those of the film proper might be to us, and when Doc gives up trying to make sense of it all is about the time we do the same.
So, yeah: Inherent Vice has Jewish real estate moguls, ex-convicts, flat-topped cops, Japanese drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, doped-up dentists, maritime lawyers and an increasingly large cross-section of people known from San Fran to San Diego with clear disdain or clear indifference as hippies. There are loan sharks, FBI agents, tenor sax players. There’s a big boat which might be called The Golden Fang, might not. How could these disparate agencies possibly be connected?
Continue reading Inherent Vice (2014)
This is Boyhood. This is right now. This is no ancient Greek tragedy; there is no intricate or precise or necessarily coherent plot structure. What this film is all about is in the title: Boyhood is the narrative of a young man growing up in a difficult and harsh world. This film will make you laugh hysterically, and it will make you cry. Watch this film alone for the first time. That way, you can let yourself truly feel it. That’s important, because this is more than a movie. This is a therapeutic exercise.
It is possible that I am partial to Richard Linklater’s film because: one, I am a boy; two, I share some of the same experiences that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) has had. I know what it is like to have divorced parents, and I know what it is like to see my mom cry. I know what it is like to be bullied and I, too, have often wondered why the world has to suck so much. Many of us have. Many more will. That is why this film is so truthfully beautiful. It captures such incredible, emotional aspects of human life and brings you back in time to the moments in your own life that are relatable to what is going on in the film. I cannot even begin to think of another film that has brought me so close to tears so many times. Boyhood is able to give its audience that inexplicable Dead Poets Society vibe. Just that feeling that makes the film relevant to life in such an actual and immediate way. This is the type of film that leaves you unsure what there is to do next. When you decide to sit down and watch this film, you effectively decide to spend the next three hours completely and totally immersed in and consumed by the universe of Boyhood.
Continue reading Boyhood (2014)
We’re getting to the point where anything produced by HBO is pretty much guaranteed to be a worthwhile watch. A history of cutting funding for the likes of Deadwood, Rome and even The Wire at one point shows the premium service isn’t afraid to ditch something they’re not 100% confident in, no matter how good the early episodes are. Olive Kitteridge, of course, isn’t really a show – the four-hour miniseries spanned two nights earlier this week and will probably play on a loop for the next week, but after that no más. Still, the HBO association is evident in a high production value and a deep care taken with the characters and material that few other channels can afford to provide.
Frances McDormand plays the titular Olive, aging middle-school teacher in smalltown Maine, mother of a bratty son and wife of an irrepressibly optimistic husband (played by the always-brilliant Richard Jenkins). We meet Olive as she walks through the forest, gray ratty hair stemming out from her pale skull, and she calmly lays out a picnic blanket and removes a loaded gun from her coat. We suddenly backtrack to twenty-five years earlier, but the tone is set in that initial sequence: Ollie is unhappy, gazing longingly at the gnarled branches reaching toward the hazy sky, and maybe we’re about to see why.
Continue reading Olive Kitteridge 1.1 – “Pharmacy”
With brand-new releases the tendency is usually to shy away from spoilers in reviews, and those potential spoilers can be especially sensitive with a long-anticipated film like Interstellar (“I waited two years for this and find out the night before that [censored] is really [censored] the whole time??”). I respect reviewers who are able to provide an accurate representation of a film without divulging any/many of its secrets, but I’ve never been one of them. I can tread lightly, sure, but to really talk about a movie like Interstellar there are important plot points that need to be laid out in the open. Just the fact that we have a three-hour movie with a two-minute trailer means that the film holds vast sequences, settings, and even actors that you couldn’t possibly expect, and it’s partly those revelatory realms that we’ll be dealing with here. Consider yourself warned.
Now: let’s talk about ghosts.
Continue reading Interstellar (2014)