Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation

Hollywood has done a bang up job over the years telling the story of young men destroyed by wars.  Some might argue it’s been their bread and butter.  Occasionally there have been poignant child’s-eye-views of war, from the profane (Come and See) to the romanticized and sentimental (Hope and Glory).  But what happens when the children are the soldiers?  Hardly new in our human history, but always horrific and tragic, Beasts of No Nation (from the novel inspired by grim reality from Uzodinma Iweala) shows us what happens when children become warriors and delivers a first-hand account of one such child Agu (Abraham Atta) in an unnamed present-day African nation torn apart by civil war.  The harrowing experience seems more at home on the written page (which for some reason always allows for easier digestion of the inhumane aspects of humanity), but in the hands of Cary Joji Fukunaga (acclaimed filmmaker of such varied fare as Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre and the first season of True Detective), the story demands a visual chronicle.

When you’re the guy best known for that unforgettable tracking shot of the McConaissance traveling through a ghetto Bayou hellscape in a drug raid for the ages, you better deliver when you become your own cinematographer on your next film.  Filling the duties of producer, director, co-screenwriter and cinematographer, Fukunaga, for anyone who wasn’t sold on his talent already, arrives here as advertised and announces himself as one of the major new forces to be reckoned with in cinema.  Capturing atmospheric images of beauty and horror and raw human drama, Fukunaga (aided by Dan Romer’s music score) nails the technical aspects of the film.  His sure hand thus allows his cast – lead by the amateur Atta who perfectly captures the essence of a child soldier making you sympathize, fear and ultimately empathize, and anchored by a volcanic Idris Elba in an Oscar-worthy supporting turn as the vile Commandant who recruits and leads the children into guerilla warfare – nail the emotional aspects of the story. Continue reading

This War Has Put an End to Decent Things

Hope and Glory Title Photo

For many, childhood is a war: a battle of wills with adults, a rage against growing up, a fight against awakening into the violent world of adulthood.  It’s not surprising then that many of the greatest films about childhood and coming of age take place against the backdrop of actual wars.  Three of the top five films in my list of the 41 greatest films about childhood involve war and how children and adults learn to deal with it in different ways.  Many of the films on this list (including the film at number one) are no doubt sentimental favorites (arguments could easily be made there are grander artistic achievements further down the list).  It should come as no surprise that these sentimental favorites were first seen in childhood and that many of the films come from directors delving deep into the wellspring of nostalgia and semi-autobiography; those indelible moments from our shared childhoods crystalized onto the silver screen.

I was about the same age as the protagonist, Billy Rohan, when I first saw John Boorman’s Hope and Glory.  I loved every bit of it, and even at that young age I knew there was something unique about its point of view.  It painted war as how I imagined I (as a child at the time) would’ve reacted to it: a blast of excitement in an otherwise mundane suburban life previously populated by games and make-believe.  Here my soldiers and toys had come to life, dirigibles suspended in air over my streets, German bombers flying overhead, danger and adventure lying in the rubble of my neighbors demolished homes.  The juxtaposition of adult horrors and children’s games (a juxtaposition dealt with far more seriously and catastrophically in films like Forbidden Games and Come and See) resulted in a picture of scrappy, working-glass survivors striving for a sense of normalcy and return to innocence in a world gone stark raving mad.  Continue reading

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

These damn apes outsmarted me again!  When Rise of the Planet of the Apes burst onto the scene three summers ago, I had grave misgivings. The concept was always inherently silly, and it was hard to imagine any kind of re-imagining of the cult/camp classics from the 1960’s and 1970’s making any kind of sense.  But, lo and behold, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a finely crafted piece of entertainment with amazing effects, an emotionally involving story, a stupendous lead performance from Andy Serkis as super ape Caesar, and confident direction from maestro Rupert Wyatt.  When the film’s surprise success guaranteed sequels, I was crushed to learn Wyatt would not be returning in the director’s chair.  In whose hands could a sequel make any kind of sense?  This thing would be a debacle or at the very least have a bad case of sequel-itis, right?

Well, here I am, dear readers, admitting I was wrong…again.  Apparently Matt Reeves (who for far too long, lived under the thumb of the overrated Hollywood demigod J.J. Abrams) can direct the heck out of an Apes flick.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes capitalizes with expert precision on the goodwill from the first film, once again putting Serkis as Caesar and the other apes front and center, ups the emotional ante, ups the action, and mines the very best elements from uber-popular TV shows to be massively appealing to a broad audience without ever seeming to kowtow to the masses.

Ten years following the events of the first film, the human race has been nearly wiped out by the simian flu, and Caesar and pals have set up a peaceful little society in the redwood forests outside of San Francisco.  But behold, there are some humans still struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic community downtown, and they come up into Caesar’s territory to get a dam running again that will bring power back to the city.  The film opens from the apes’ point of view, and for nearly twenty minutes they are the only characters on-screen.  It’s a big gamble to start the film this way, but the amazing effects make the apes seem more human and relatable than ever, with Serkis and Toby Kebbell as Koba giving Oscar-worthy performances.  The humans contain a sympathetic makeshift family (made up of Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Reeves’ very own Felicity alum and muse Keri Russell) and a questionable leader played by Gary Oldman.  Quickly we learn the apes, like the humans, are divided into two factions: those hoping for peaceful coexistence, and those who are far too trigger-happy and untrustworthy. Continue reading