The Heart of the Matter in Beirut

There’s a great scene in Brad Anderson’s latest film, Beirut, where a former party-diplomat turned washed-up labor contract negotiator Mason Skiles (a frazzled-yet-still-dapper-perfect Jon Hamm) settles into his Beirut highrise hotel after returning to the city for the first time in a decade and after finding it a hostile, gunshots-outside-of-the-airport-and-checkpoint-riddled mess, pours himself a drink and walks to the window to take in the bitter, shattered view of a stooping, bombed-out skyline.  Anderson’s camera then shifts POV’s to that of the bombed out skyline as it pans out and we see Mason staring out his window, the hotel itself one of those battered buildings, a shell-hole and tentacled crack blighting its side just a few windows away from Mason’s own.

You can imagine a late-era Graham Greene having written the scene, but it’s Tony Gilroy who penned the screenplay instead.  Gilroy adroitly uses the civil war-torn era Beirut of the 70’s and early 80’s the same way Greene used WWII blitzkrieg era London (in The End of the Affair) and post-WWII era Vienna (in The Third Man).  It’s a cluster **** of diplomatic nightmares, crumbling buildings, intrigue and perils (of both the heart and the body).  Continue reading

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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

The Pros and Cons of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

Abe Lincoln has an axe to grind with you!

I am disheartened to report, ladies and gentlemen, that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (the film based on the Seth Grahame-Smith novel) is a most spurious piece of anti-Vampire-American propaganda that tarnishes their good name and celebrates their horrific and callous mass destruction!  The litany of crimes attributed to Vampire-Americans is legion.  Would you believe the following?

The reason slavery flourished in the American South?  Vampires!

The reason a young Abraham Lincoln got into politics?  Vampires!

The main cause of the Civil War?  Vampires!

The reason poor Willie Lincoln became ill and died in childhood?  Vampires!

The source of Mary Todd Lincoln’s depression and madness?  Vampires!

But seriously…to all of those crying foul over this preposterously premised film not containing a single note of humor…well, you obviously missed the joke.  I applaud the filmmakers’ absolute conviction in presenting the material dead seriously.  Taking a Zombieland approach wouldn’t have worked and would’ve made the film even more painful to sit through.

What are fair game, however, are the film’s obvious flaws such as the clamoring sound design that rendered some dialogue incomprehensible coupled with some of the most hacksawed editing this side of a Michael Bay film where scenes or spoken lines were often cut off mid-thought only to race to another scene before the viewer could even digest what happened.  Continue reading

Crazy White People

Would you like some coffee with your civil war?

Claire Denis is one of the most renowned and prolific female directors in world cinema, but her films are known by few outside of urbane critics and religious patrons of the art houses.  Her surprisingly heartfelt slice-of-life piece about multiethnic Parisians, 35 Shots of Rum, probably would’ve made my top ten list last year had I seen it in time and is a film that deserved a wider audience.  Her latest, the frustratingly non-humanist White Material, isn’t about to win over any new fans or stir up any kind of decent business.  But it will have plenty of people talking.

In an unnamed African country, civil war has broken out.  Isabelle Huppert plays Marie, a French woman who runs a coffee plantation and refuses to leave amidst the anarchy and danger, even after French soldiers beg her and her family to evacuate and all of her laborers abandon their work to flee.  Determined to bring the latest crop in, she hires a weary group of day laborers while her family falls apart and a notorious rebel leader, wounded and hunted, finds refuge in her home. 

Giving the film no historical context is a bit frustrating, but Denis, who has her own tenuous ties to the continent, seems to indicate this could be “Anywhere Africa” and what she displays — the ailing after effects of colonialism, the brutality of civil wars, the inhumanity of using children as soldiers, and the rampant anarchy of a land full of “hot air” is a hellish portrait of her former home. Continue reading

A Visit to Gettysburg

Late spring is the perfect time of year to visit Gettysburg as the tourist and reenactment season has yet to begin and the stinking heat of summer has yet to enshroud the bucolic Pennsylvania hamlet.  The popular destination can easily be reached in less than three hours from South Jersey or any point in the greater Philadelphia area.  While Civil War buffs and professional ghost hunters could easily make a long weekend of it, we found that one day is perfect for a leisurely self-guided auto tour of the sprawling, picturesque and monument laden battlefield followed by a stroll through the quaint downtown area full of bed-and-breakfast establishments, restaurants, souvenir shops and haunted houses.

What struck me most about the battlefield was not only its size and scope (give yourself at least two hours for the free self-guided auto tour if you plan to make the appropriate stops) but also the meditative peacefulness that now enraptures the place where so much violence once conquered.  It’s a true marvel just for the scenery let alone the history.  Continue reading

A Visit to Fort Mifflin

Recently featured on the TV show Ghost Hunters, Fort Mifflin always finds itself at the top of the list of most haunted places in Philadelphia.  Built in 1771, the fort was an important outpost during the Revolutionary War designed to defend Philadelphia from British ships.  During the Civil War, the fort was turned into a makeshift prison for captured Confederate soldiers, wayward Union soldiers, and unruly civilians.  Over the years it has served as a training ground and up until 1954 was the oldest fort in the nation in continuous use.  The venerable Fort Mifflin has weathered the passing of time as it lies between the Philadelphia Shipping Yards and the International Airport along the Delaware River while many claim some of its past residents refuse to leave. 

I recently paid these hallowed grounds a visit one dreary spring afternoon with a friend looking for ghosts.  Maybe it was the gloom of the light rain falling, or the meditative drone of the airplanes flying so low overhead, or the toxic smells wafting over the marshlands, or the perfectly staged lighting or lack thereof in each and every passageway and tunnel, or the fact that I hit my head on one of the lowly arched doorways in the festering bowels of the ancient fort, but there was certainly a feel to the place that could only be described as creepy.  Here are the photos I captured while exploring Fort Mifflin: Continue reading