Quick Hit: Fierce and unwavering in its execution, but continues on a bit longer than is necessary.
Beasts of No Nation is a film currently available for streaming on Netflix. It details the stories of a young boy named Agu in an unnamed African country (that shares a striking resemblance to the Democratic Republic of Congo) as he moves from victim to child soldier and so on. It’s one of the films that put Idris Elba (The Mountain Between Us, Dark Tower) on the map as a powerful force in film, due to his role as Commandant. It’s written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (of True Detective Fame).
I think the first thing that needs to be discussed is that the film is harsh. It has no issue portraying the slaughter of innocents in graphic, unflinching detail. Many of the rebel forces in this film are children, and a large part of the story is that Agu’s family is murdered and his only way to survive is within the relative comfort of the family of soldiers. However, in order to prove himself, he has to murder someone else with a machete. As I said – it’s a rough film.
The storytelling throughout is good though. In order to transition the story from a young boy losing his family to a young boy becoming a man is tough enough, but to through in the fact that he must survive by becoming a soldier is harder still. Fukunaga manages it deftly, mainly through some visual storytelling techniques and time lapses that allow us to skip to when Agu is a man. He does take some swings that miss – in particular there is some hallucgenic coloring in one scene I disliked, but overall the story is told well.
The highlight of this film is by far Idris Elba as The Commandant. His rich voice fills him with authority even during conversations between two parties. He stands alone throughout the film very often, but just as often serves as a father figure for the child soldiers. This façade gets torched when you see some of his regular activities though – it’s disturbing that so much of this is based on true occurrences. But even as you watch his world fall apart, The Commandant still manages to serve as a tragic figure, torn by the war that he has fought so hard in.
I really don’t have that much else to say about this film. It’s powerful and I’d warn those with more sensitive constitutions to pause before pressing play. Other than that, I’d give it a “B-“.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
Quick Hit: Creative and expansive, sometimes to its own detriment.
Adopting movies from Manga and comics into motion pictures has always been a bit of a tricky business. Though both are visual mediums, one is largely “live action” while the other is obviously drawn art form. Some of this has been changing, with Disney leading the charge into a more CGI-driven world. This allows for a wider variety of things to be adapted. When you throw in the master of 3D, James Cameron, and a storyteller who is known for kinetic storytelling in Robert Rodriguez, the final effect is Alita: Battle Angel – an adapted manga that features a large-eyed protagonist and a huge story that is filled with a large amount of exposition.
The story begins with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finding the pieces and head of an cyborg that he eventually resurrects using the body he had originally designed for his daughter. The result is Alita (Rosa Salazar) and she wakes up with a bit of amnesia, with only fragmented memories betraying her previous violent past. She was dumped from the sky city that is described as paradise into the Iron City dump. Why or how or by who is a question for additional films in a series that this movie seems convinced it warrants. Trying to stop some of the other evil cyborgs that roam the streets as part of a bounty hunting scheme is one portion of the plot, another is a romantic subplot that involves a guy who is doing some not so great things, and still another plot consists of a large explanation of the game of rollerball, which essentially seems to me like Death Race but on skates.
It’s an incredible amount of information, and the majority of the cast handles it deftly and makes it far more interesting than maybe it warrants (the background made me want to seek out the manga this was based on). But it’s Rodriguez and Cameron that do the majority of the convincing, because the digital world created around these characters is incredibly convincing. There’s a character who is essentially a head in a mechanized suit that I’m told by IMDB is played by Jackie Earle Haley. I would never have known it based on the digital creation of the character. Waltz gets maybe the least interesting character arc overall, as his motives don’t quite seem to line up with his actions, but hey – at least he gets to handle a freaking rocket-powered battle axe.
There’s a lot to like about the world that we’ve been dropped into – it’s striking and oddly beautiful at times. But the insistence to give us the background on just about everything – almost as if Cameron and Rodriguez knew that the likelihood of a planned sequel was unlikely, and they felt like the needed to shove 9 years of Manga into one 2 hour film – makes everything really, really messy. This is never more apparent than when we have Ido giving the backstory for himself and his ex-wife (Jennifer Connolly of all people) while also explaining the history of Iron City and its bounty hunting style. While I’ll never really complain all that much about listening to Waltz explain anything, it is a LOT of exposition. It also inevitably leads to certain storylines feeling less developed – like the aforementioned Waltz and his ex-wife.
So if you’re willing to go in with a turned off brain, you’ll probably find a lot to like about the film. But if you can’t suspend that gray matter, you’ll leave upset. I’m getting more and more efficient at doing the former, so I’m giving it a “B-“. A side note here - if you start watching a movie that has a giant-eyed protagonist who at times has her body ripped apart and keeps fighting anyway, and don't turn your brain off a bit... I'm concerned.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
Quick Hit: Beautiful but with no substance, much like a good Angel Food cake (Quarantine methaphors).
Todd Haynes is a cinephile – of that I have no doubt. Watching through his filmography, it’s very easy to see that he misses the bygone areas of years past – most specifically, that specific aesthetic that you find in large cities. His films mimic his interests (as do most artists creations) – they are beautiful things that are full of well-constructed sets and costumes. Wonderstruck, based on a book by Brian Selznick, follows this same thread. And that is today’s review.
Wonderstruck follows the intertwined paths of two 12 year old children. One is Ben, played by Oakes Fegley (of Pete’s Dragon fame). He’s a young boy that loses his mother (Michelle Williams) and never met his father, and to top it all off, a freak lightning accident leaves him mostly deaf. 50 years before, there was another child without hearing (Millicent Simmonds, whose actually deaf, and whose expressive face was used just as well in A Quiet Place) who is traveling around New York trying to find her favorite star (played by the lovely Julianne Moore).
I’ll get this out of the way first – the movie technically is gorgeous. The shots with Simmonds in particular are crafted in a way that reflects the silent films of yore. It couples well with the world that she would live in as a deaf child. It’s also really fun to watch the time lapse between the two children. The set design is extraordinary – no detail seemed too small to recreate for either era that the children are living in. It’s really beautiful.
It’s unfortunate that the rest of the film doesn’t seem to line up with that. It seems like Haynes is so obsessed with the look that the story fades into the background. There’s plenty to like about the story – the parallels between the characters, the story of children overcoming disabilities; the issue is that this is all glazed over. There is little to no discussion or exposition (which does seem to fit with hearing impaired characters), but it means that the last 20 minutes of the film are a giant dump of exposition. It also means that there are some stretches that are fairly boring. For a movie that is designed to be for children, there isn’t a lot to really keep their attention.
I really like the performance of Simmonds, but Fegley isn’t really enough to command a screen presence as large as he gets. Like I said, it means that without the exposition, you feel like you are just mainly watching a really pretty picture. It’d almost be better to have the film be entirely silent, because then you could expect it.
So is it worth watching? Maybe. The technical aspects are really great. But the story is lacking, which is why this one gets a middling grade. I’m giving it a “C-“.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"