Weekly Movie Reviews: Dec 17-23, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

I’ve been looking forward to watching Beasts of No Nation for a couple of reasons. I read Ishmael Beah’s memoir of his days as a child soldier in Sierra Leone (A Long Way Gone) about a decade ago and many of the scenes described in the book have stuck with me through the years. Plus I really enjoyed director/writer/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre.

We follow Agu, a young West African boy whose village is caught up in a civil war between government and rebel forces. He loses contact with his family and ends up initiated into the NDF, a rebel militia led by a charismatic commandant. This movie does not shy away from depicting the graphic details of war, and it is horrifying to watch, especially because the young soldiers can go from childlike behavior to murderousness instantly. The commandant (played by the ever-reliable Idris Elba) is similarly scary (you would have to be if you’re actively recruiting children to be soldiers), but he has his own human moments too. The best thing about the movie is that it does not shy away from the complexities of the situation and the impact that has on its characters. There’s terror and fear but there’s also friendship and family and it all merges together just like it does for Agu.

The child actors all do an extraordinary job, but especially Abraham Attah who plays Agu. At no point did I think about the fact that I was watching someone act, despite all the nuance that the role demanded.

Other Movies Watched

No Country for Old Men (2007)

I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to watching this movie. For a long time I was vaguely resentful of it because it won the Best Picture Oscar and I couldn’t imagine any movie that year actually being better than There Will Be Blood. After watching it, my opinion hasn’t changed but this is still an excellent movie.

When out hunting, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds more than two million dollars in cash from a drug exchange gone wrong. He decides to keep the money, triggering a murderous rampage by hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who is investigating the murders, anticipates the consequences but is helpless to stop them from occurring.

The hitman Chigurh is the character who drives the whole plot, and he is a psychopath. He follows a set of strict rules that make his actions weirdly admirable, even as he slaughters innocent people. It is not a happy movie. But it has a bleak atmosphere and some beautiful cinematography, it tells a tight story, has exceptional performances by all the actors, and is paced perfectly.

The Master (2012)

I find the existence of cults deeply disturbing and director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t exactly make movies that are comfortable to watch anyway, so I wasn’t looking forward to watching this movie even though I knew it would probably be terrific.

We focus on Freddie Quell a troubled World War II veteran, who falls in with “The Cause”, a cult led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd and becomes a part of his entourage. Joaquin Phoenix is great at playing serious and intense weirdos and Freddie Quell in this movie might be the most intense weirdo he has ever played. He is impulsive, dangerously volatile, and easily disliked. Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his opposite – charismatic, contemplative, and poised. Yet the two men are drawn to each other despite constant reminders of their differences. I wouldn’t touch either of them with a ten foot pole but watching them react to each other is fascinating.

The dynamics of how cults work are depicted well and it frankly terrified me to see how susceptible people are to those behaviors. Freddie is able to fill a hole in his life with Dodd’s group because it’s easier than finding purpose and meaning on his own, and that seems like a fairly common situation.

The Verdict (1982)

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer who has been relegated to ambulance chasing after he was framed for jury tampering years ago. When his friend refers a simple medical malpractice case to him, he sees an opportunity to both do the right thing morally and improve his reputation and takes the case to trial against everyone’s expectations.

I’m used to legal dramas about evil corporations being stirring and inspirational (at least by the end) but this is a fairly bleak movie, even when there are good things happening. Washed up people are often depicted in movies as just waiting for the right spark to be lit to go right back to the enthusiastic and well-adjusted people they used to be, but that’s not the case for Paul Newman’s character. He struggles to hold himself together even when he does find something that gives him meaning and he’s not always a nice person either (his treatment of his girlfriend in a scene where he thinks she has betrayed him, for example). The movie is more of a character study than about the case or the courtroom drama, although those aspects are gripping as well. And it’s an outstanding one, down to the bittersweet ending.

The Wolverine (2013)

I’ve grown to like director James Mangold quite a bit (3:10 to Yuma, Girl, Interrupted, Cop Land, and especially Logan; let’s just ignore Kate & Leopold though) so I was excited about watching his previous solo Wolverine film. It’s set in the same continuity as the first X-Men movie trilogy and felt much more similar to a traditional superhero movie than Logan but it was still pretty decent.

One of the cool things about The Wolverine is that it’s set almost entirely in Japan. It’s a small-scale story and doesn’t involve the usual tropes about having to save the world. The premise is that Wolverine receives word that Ichirō Yashida, an old acquaintance, is about to die and travels to Japan to meet him. He becomes sucked into the family’s internal politics after Yashida dies and leaves his company to his granddaughter instead of his son. The movie does not stint on action; there are plenty of mutants to go around, as well as ninjas, gangsters, and other assorted mayhem-causers. But there are also satisfying emotional payoffs earned by previous slow character moments. And there’s always something infinitely reassuring about Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine.

Megan Leavey (2017)

I’m a sucker for animals (I will stop and pet any dog or cat I encounter) so I was excited about Megan Leavey, which is based on the true story of combat dog Rex and his human (the eponymous Megan Leavey, a Marine). We see Rex and Megan meet and become an effective team, and eventually when Rex’s bomb-sniffing career comes to an end because of illness, Megan (now a civilian) fights to adopt him so that she can take care of him.

This movie is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the premise – a feel-good story that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside by the end. It does a good job of depicting military life and how Megan fits into it, starting with her enlistment. The pacing is a little off; the time jump from Megan leaving the Marines to Rex’s illness was jarring. It also seemed like the movie was trying too hard to make the story touching; Megan and Rex worked together in 2005-06 and Rex developed his illness in 2012, which means that Rex spent much of his time working with other handlers. I’m sure he still had a great bond with Megan but it seemed a little blown out of proportion.

Playing by Heart (1998)

Playing by Heart focuses on a few different people – an older couple working through a past affair, a couple of women entering new relationships, a man dying of AIDS and his grieving mother, an adulterous wife, a man who seems to be a pathological liar. They seem unrealted at first but there are clues throughout that reveal their connections and their stories converge at the end of the movie.

I used to like movies that told several different stories with a common theme (like Love Actually and Paris, je t’aime) but I realized while watching this movie that my tastes have changed (or maybe the two movies I mentioned are just exceptionally well-made). I can’t pinpoint anything that was particularly bad about the movie but it just didn’t work for me. Some of the dialogue seems like it’s supposed to be poetic but it came off as pretentious instead. None of the characters are given enough time to be fully developed and there wasn’t any nuance in their portrayal. Angelina Jolie has the best role and steals every scene she’s in, but Ryan Phillippe as her romantic interest is bland and tedious to watch. Other great actors like Sean Connery and Gillian Anderson feel wasted.

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