Black Panther (2018)

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The Constant Gardener (2005)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

While serving at the British embassy in Kenya, soft-spoken Justin begins to suspect his wife, Tessa, is having an affair. She’s always going off with her African colleague, Dr. Blum, and she and Justin have been somewhat estranged since their child was stillborn. When Tessa winds up dead, and Blum, the man she was supposed to be with, is nowhere to be found, all of Justin’s fears seem confirmed. But when he looks through her belongings, and discovers some incriminating documents hidden away, he realizes that Tessa was working on something big, and that her death might not have been an accident.

The Constant Gardener is a slow-paced, by-the-numbers thriller, whose strong performances, African setting, and sharp social commentary help elevate it above the many other conspiracy stories out there. Adapted from the novel by John Le Carre, the writer behind such espionage books as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the film offers up simple, undemanding entertainment. It’s highly predictable, and its politics are beyond blatant, but that never gets in the way of the story. For the two hours and ten minutes I watched it, I was never bored, which is always a good thing. And like all of Le Carre’s works, there is a great emphasis on character development here. See, he’s never been interested in gun fights, explosions, or any of the heightened, fantastical things that one might find in the works of other spy writers, like Ian Fleming. Instead, his stories are highly grounded, with the violence being minimal, and most of the stories focusing on the personal lives of the spies. That’s pretty much the case here too. The first 40 minutes are almost all character development, and there’s very little actual onscreen violence. Instead, the spies in this picture act like real spies. They’re subtle. They cover their tracks. They get things done through indirect networks of people. And that was quite refreshing to see.

It was also, in many ways, the film’s greatest weakness. For while it was nice to see these characters be thoroughly fleshed out, there was a point during the first 40 minutes where I asked myself, “Okay, are we ever going to get back to the murder mystery?” And the mystery itself, like I said before, is highly predictable. I could tell, straight off the bat, who the villains were, and there were at least three points in the film where it stopped and reminded us “hey, these are the bad guys,” as if we’d somehow forgotten. That kind of bugged me, as did the camerawork. It was almost all handheld, and there were a TON of extreme close ups where all we could see were people’s faces. Anytime I saw one, I thought to myself, “Come on, guys. You’re in an incredible location. Use it!” Sigh.

But, overall, The Constant Gardener’s fine acting, sharp commentary, and rich character development do balance out its flaws, and make it worth watching. Give it a look when you’ve got the time.

Beasts Of No Nation

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

As much as I’d like to give this film a perfect score, I just don’t feel that I can. And that drives me crazy. I mean, on the surface, this film has everything I’m looking for–an engaging narrative, realistic characters, stellar performances, gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful color scheme. Not only that, it stars an entirely non-White cast, and was written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, a fellow Asian American filmmaker and NYU Tisch alumni. Everything I need is present in Beasts Of No Nation, so why aren’t I crazy about it?

Well, one reason could be the pacing. See, for those of you who don’t know, this movie I’m writing about, Beasts Of No Nation, tells the story of Agu, a young boy in an unnamed West African nation going through a Civil War, who, after his family is killed, becomes a child soldier. In this respect, it is not unlike the Oscar-nominated Political THriller, Blood Diamond. But, whereas Blood Diamond  was primarily an action film, and therefore had quick pacing and high octane thrills, this movie takes its time, and in some places, lingers on scenes and images that aren’t entirely necessary. There are several, rather long, shots of characters playing soccer, playing tag, going to Church, sitting and dancing, and even of completely random things, like bugs on branches, and dripping faucets. I understand the necessity of building up atmosphere and ambiance, but come on! Move the plot forward! Have stuff happen! Blood Diamond has a running time of over 2 and a half hours, a good 10 minutes more than this movie, and yet, it doesn’t feel nearly as long as this. And you want to know why? Because stuff actually happens there! There aren’t any extraneous scenes of people riding in cars or watching the rain fall. Every cut and image in that film is necessary! I never realized how important pacing really was to the success of a picture until I saw Beasts Of No Nation.

Another possible reason why I’m not as crazy about this film as I probably should be is the ambiguity. What I mean by that is, we’re never told what country this is supposed to be, why the war is happening, or even what the moral center of the film is. Now, on some level, I can understand why Fukunaga probably did this. He probably wanted to tell a universal human story with a universal human center, and that doesn’t necessarily require specific details, like a national identity, or a historical backdrop. But, at the same time, if we’re not given a specific conflict or country to latch on to, we’re not left with any real reason to care. I mean, even in completely fictional movies about war, like Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings, we’re told where we are, what the conflict is, and who the different sides are. We’re given context. We’re given something to grab on to. We don’t have that here. We don’t know what place this is. We don’t know who the good guys and the bad guys are. All we know is that there’s a kid, some bad things happen to him, he becomes a soldier, and he kills lots of people. What’s the purpose of that? To tell us that war is bad? Uh, I hate to break it to you Cary, but I think everyone in the world already knows that. At least Blood Diamond wanted to educate us about a specific issue–the illegal diamond trade–and give us an insight into the specific problems faced by a specific country–Sierra Leone. The lack of specificity in Beasts Of No Nation was likely done to make the film’s story and themes more universal, but, in the end, only managed to alienate the audience from what was happening, and unintentionally contribute to the homogenization of African cultures in the Western mind.

But, with all that said, I did still enjoy this movie, and have decided to give it a 7 out of 10. Yeah, it drags in some places. Yeah, it’s ambiguity can be a bit off-putting. But, overall, I do still think Beasts Of No Nation is a strong piece of filmmaking that should be watched and admired. If you’re a fan of Mr Fukunaga’s work–True Detective, Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre–or are simply looking to watch a well-shot, well-acted movie, give this film a look. It’s streaming on Netflix right now, and playing in some theaters.