Beasts of No Nation, concocted almost single-handedly by Cary Joji Fukunaga — or that guy who brought us True Detective season one — has been touted as potential player at next year’s Academy Awards. The catch? It would be the first Netflix original to rub shoulders with Hollywood’s elite on their golden night. Its online distribution platform may well be the future of entertainment (hopefully not exclusively), but the film itself is rooted in the past and present, telling a story of violent civil war in West Africa.
Fukunaga (director, screenwriter, cinematographer) patiently paints youngster Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family with endearing strokes: once a teacher, his father is now a humanitarian clearing land for refugees; his mother evokes a loving aura, carrying out maternal and manual tasks with a smile; and his aloof big brother is your typical teenager, obsessed with muscle mass, girls, and having a laugh. Agu himself is smart egg, a kid full of sneaky creativity. He deconstructs his father’s TV and rebrands the empty frame an “imagination television” hoping someone will fork out some cash or food for it.
Granted, there is a significant military presence in the unnamed village and displaced groups are struggling to find a place to settle, but life for Agu is fairly good given the circumstances. That is, until war truly makes its presence felt. “Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing,” narrates Agu. And everything does change, horrifyingly so. Separated from his family, Agu finds himself lost in the bush and about to unwillingly travel down a path paved in unethical stone. For at this point Idris Elba’s Commandant swaggers on-screen, an eerily charismatic rebel leader who hypnotises with words, poisoning the minds of those too inexperienced to think for themselves. Elba suitably commands, persuasive in posture and delivery.
Head of the Native Defence Force, his followers parade a faux-macho exterior, wagging weapons and wearing the surrounding landscape as a battle uniform. Agu, now with nowhere else to go, falls in line and begins his training as a child soldier. As words such as “family” and “father” ring out, you can see Agu’s resistance collapsing and his loyalties shifting towards Commandant’s bloody policy. The latter trains his young army to understand stringent battle formations and inflict uncompromising punishments, all the while a soundtrack of propaganda wails out in the background. The soldiers also play football, albeit more aggressively than normal, a fleeting reminder of their humanity.
Once in battle mode, the situation turns to abhorrence: one particular execution is horrid, but thankfully (admirably) Fukunaga doesn’t gratuitously linger on the visual. It’s not that type of film. Rather, Beasts of No Nation wants to convey the very real dehumanisation of children via war and mind-warping. The sieges that we see are so impersonal, so chaotic, that it is difficult to tell who is killing and who is dying — and that’s the point. One such invasion is painted red even before blood has been shed, ominously predicting the inevitable while also projecting the drugged-up mindsets of the invading adolescents.
Fukunaga’s lens work gives character to the jungle; shots of mossy foliage landscapes wonderfully signify the denseness of the locale, parading this idea that there is no escape, not even for the rebels. It is a notion best captured early on as Agu attempts to escape a band of gun-toting killers: Fukunaga pulls his camera back, carefully revealing the contrast between the vibrant jungle ahead and the smoke-filled decimation in the youngster’s rear view. The environment transcends reality: the aforementioned coaching sequences, engulfed by mist, are loosely reminiscent of those swampy Dagobahian sessions in The Empire Strikes Back.
Blood Diamond is a clear cousin: the setting, the narrative, the relationship between Agu and his family — these are all shared characteristics. But Fukunaga’s piece doesn’t have said outing’s heart. While the lack of direct Western involvement is entirely justified (character or plot-wise), the lack of a determined, soulful saviour hurts. In Blood Diamond, that saviour is Djimon Hounsou. He plays the father of a young child solider and his stunning performance imbues Edward Zwick’s film with hope and humanity, traits that are somewhat lacking on this occasion. You find yourself yearning for a Hounsou-esque force in Beasts of No Nation, particularly as Commandant’s poisonous grip over Agu gains momentum, but there simply isn’t one.
There is also very little grace — some might argue rightfully — and this causes you to pull away from proceedings. Without a father figure valiantly attempting to save his son, there is nothing really to tow you back in. Abraham Attah is a true revelation as Agu, his transformation from bright boy to corrupt soldier disheartening, but also lacking in any semblance of goodwill. Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye is equally as good as Strika, another fighter with whom Agu bonds, yet unfortunately the duo don’t share enough screen time to truly generate a sense of collective humaneness.
I think the film is too long. Scenes reap repetition by the 80-minute mark, though this could be a measure employed intentionally to emphasise the gruelling nature of war. Fortunately, it does begin to incorporate some political elements in the third act; we hit an urban centre where Commandant engages in a verbal joust with another NDF head honcho. As they barter back and forth over payment, leadership, and resource deployment, The Last King of Scotland springs to mind. Had Fukunaga cherry-picked a tad more from his aforementioned genre ancestors, he could have been onto a classic.
For those who might’ve missed it, I wrote an article for Cara’s joyous Blogiversary Bash: It’s my top five Leonardo DiCaprio films! He’s only one year short of the big four-oh, yet the Californian-born star already has a mightily impressive portfolio under his belt. His consistency in front of the camera is unwavering, which is quite a feat when you take into consideration the variety of roles DiCaprio has played; everything from a vile plantation owner, to an ill-fated artist, to aviation genius Howard Hughes.
Have a read if you’re interested, and be sure to check out the other excellent contributions too.
Aaaaand we’re back with more Blogiversary Bash epicness! Today’s too-cool-for-school guest blogger? None other than Adam from Consumed by Film! Have you guys been to Adam’s site? If not, go there! Adam reviews films like a pro, and he’s got lots of great stuff to look through, so definitely check things out. Any ol’ who, Adam is here to talk about his favorite roles from a very talented actor.
Today I am focusing on some of my favourite films in the thriller genre. Just before I begin, I would like to be clear on how I make the distinction between thriller and action, because sometimes they seem to mesh into one. This is just my own personal way of telling both genres apart and there really is no right or wrong answer here — you may think something completely different!
Firstly, the main similarities between the two genres are the typically a fast-paced plot and, more often than not, a heroic character fighting off a villainous one in one way or another. For me, the separation tends to occur in the tone of the film. For example, a thriller seeks out suspense and jeopardy as the driving force, whereas an action film is all about excitement and liveliness. Also — and again this is just the way I see it — action films tend to be more light-hearted than thrillers (not always, but generally).
Anyway, on to five greats!
The newest film on the list, Skyfall was released in October 2012 and declared instantly by the vast majority of viewers to be the best Bond film ever. Helmed by Sam Mendes and with Daniel Craig reprising his role as James Bond, the film follows Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) throughout his investigation of a violent attack on MI6 at the hands of former agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who is out for revenge.
As I mentioned earlier, Skyfall has been touted as the best Bond film ever by audiences and critics alike, and has now grossed well over $1 billion which makes it — as of writing — the eighth highest grossing film of all time. That tells you that Sam Mendes done something right. In fact, he done just about everything right in this emotional roller coaster ride. For the first time, the audience is invited into the ins and outs of the relationship between Bond and M which makes this instalment more weighty and heartfelt, yet it still maintains that slickness that has always been associated with the franchise. Mendes has a stellar cast at his disposal — joining Daniel Craig (who plays his best Bond to date opposite Judi Dench, in my opinion) in Skyfall are newcomers to the franchise Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris who each add their own nuances to the film (Wishaw is particularly good as Q). However, the star of the show is Javier Bardem with his charismatic, extravagant portrayal of villain Raoul Silva. On a par with Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale (we will just ignore Quantum of Solace for now) Bardem is hugely effective opposite Craig and the two flourish as a result.
Although Bond has become a genre on its own essentially, Skyfall claims a spot in my top thriller films for its crisp, free-flowing script and interesting characters.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
No Country For Old Men is an Academy Award winning 2007 film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (or just the Coen brothers). The plot surrounds Josh Brolin’s character, hunter Llewelyn Moss after he uncovers over $2 million worth of cash at a drug deal gone wrong and is pursued as a result by vicious hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who has been hired to recover the stolen cash. Meanwhile, almost retired sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) finds himself thrust directly into the cat-and-mouse chase between the two.
It is not often the Coen Brothers get it wrong and, true to form, No Country For Old Men is a knockout. This marks Javier Bardem’s second appearance on my list, and for the second time he steals the show. Bardem is excellent at portraying a psychotic, emotionless killer and his aura throughout the film adds to the creepy, on-the-edge, thriller-ish atmosphere. Both Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are terrific in their depictions of a desperate war veteran and a straight-to-the-point county sheriff respectively. The 1980s Texas setting truly adds to the grit (wink) and once again proves just how good a pair of eyes the Coen Brothers have at selecting locations for their films — have a look at Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? if you do not believe me.
No Country For Old Men is captivating and intense, just two of the many characteristics which make it a very enjoyable thriller.
Ben Affleck’s third directorial feature, political thriller Argo, opened in cinemas a few weeks before Skyfall in October 2012 and stars Affleck, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston. The film is a dramatisation of the Iranian hostage crisis in the 1980s where six fugitive American diplomats require assistance in the form of extraction out of Iran from CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck).
I cannot wait for Affleck’s next film, because this one is absolutely outstanding. Argo defines the thriller genre — every characteristic required to make this film a success is in there. Gripping, intense, polished and stylish, Argo delivers on all fronts. For a political thriller, the plot is not difficult to follow, yet it remains shrewd and without any glaring mishaps. One of the more surprising elements here, particularly following the terrifying opening sequence, are the pockets of dark comedy splattered throughout the film which by no means feel out of place. Affleck manages to equate the frantic goings-on with enough dark humour to ensure the film does not become too lifeless or overbearing. Each of the performances from the cast are solid, with Alan Arkin standing out in particular, but the constantly flowing nature of the plot is the key to this film’s success.
How Ben Affleck was snubbed by the Oscars (he did not receive a nod in the Best Director category) is beyond me. Argo is a must-see film and definitely one of the best released in 2012.
Directed by Christopher Nolan, the summer blockbuster of 2010, Inception, stars a jam-packed ensemble cast lead by Leonardo DiCaprio, who receives his support from the likes of Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard (the list goes on). DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an extractor — or plainer terms, a thief — who enters his subject’s dreams in order to carry out an extraction. When he is offered the chance to see his children again, Cobb must assemble a team of specialists together in order to plant an idea into his target’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious — a process known as inception.
I am probably going be referring to film critic Mark Kermode a lot during this next paragraph, because his review of Inception is one of the best I have heard. Massive summer blockbusters are sometimes tarred (often justifiably) as being big money-making schemes with very little for their audience, who have become accustomed to seeing films where absolutely nothing happens other than some pointless, soulless action sequences (I am looking at you Michael Bay). Kermode attributes this to a small percentage of filmmakers perhaps assuming their audience is too ‘dumb’ to be able to watch a film and at the same time… think. Yes, think. It really is absurd, but it does appear to happen. Look at Transformers for example: the whole franchise is nothing more than robots hitting each other, which is fine once (I suppose), but not over and over again until it becomes so intolerable it hurts to watch. Inception, however, is a perfect example of a massive blockbuster that provides enough action and thrills to appease everyone, but also makes its audience think during the film — and it worked, because the film has taken over $825 million. Why? Because people appreciate that Christopher Nolan is looking out for his audience and making films that will challenge them, but that are also highly enjoyable (The Dark Knight trilogy being another example). Also, because Inception had a number of different layers to it (both literally and figuratively) and because people enjoyed it, some then had to go back and see it again in order for them to fully understand it! That does not mean those people are dumb, quite the opposite in fact: it means they are thinking.
But I digress. Inception is a show-stopping thriller stuffed full of ideas, great performances, amazing visual effects, comedic moments and even some emotion (look it up, Bay).
Blood Diamond (2006)
The oldest film on my list (albeit not very old), Blood Diamond is another political thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This time he accompanied by Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly in a Sierra Leone setting. At the height of the Sierra Leone civil war (1996-2001), smuggler Danny Archer (DiCaprio) teams with a local fisherman (Hounsou) and a reporter (Connelly) in an attempt to seek out and gain possession of a large diamond, with each of the three boasting different motives.
Leonardo DiCaprio (incidentally, my favourite actor) gets a bad rap for his South African accent in this film — it sounds great to me, but maybe I am touch biased. I doubt that. The performances are very strong, with all three protagonists providing a combination of fury, optimism, emotion and anguish to accompany the desperate situation they find themselves in (particularly DiCaprio and Hounsou). The story moves at greater-than-steady pace which provides the thriller-ish aspect which the film has in abundance, with Edward Zwick’s narrative ensuring the audience remains grasped throughout. Part of the formula which contributes to Blood Diamond’s success in my eyes, is its realism as it depicts some of the hardships most civilians staying in Sierra Leone (and elsewhere) were going through during the civil war. A few of the scenes are harrowing, not in a particularly gory way, but because they dramatise atrocities occurring around the world. I would say, however, that Zwick does not make these scenes exploitative in away way — they are an essential part of the story. On a last note, the African setting is absolutely stunning and almost becomes a character itself during the film.
Blood Diamond really hits home in its realistic nature, and at the same time serves up a gripping tale of two very different men with one common goal.
And now for some honourable mentions:
Se7en (1995) — This is a very accomplished horror story about two men tracking down a serial killer who leaves them clues in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins… only, with people involved. Morgan Freeman and a young Brad Pitt excel in their roles.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) — At times you get obsession, then you get Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. What opens as a fairly innocent thriller closes with just enough menace to fill anyone for a day. Or a lifetime.
Inside Man (2006) — A very underrated film in my opinion, Inside Man sees the charismatic Denzel Washington tasked with rescuing a bunch of civilians caught up in a bank robbery masterminded by Clive Owen. Very intriguing action with a wonderful twist.
Taken (2008) — I think just about everybody has seen Taken — it’s on the TV at least once every week (and weirdly, it costs exactly three pounds in just about every shop in Scotland). Often brutal, always entertaining and the birth Liam Neeson: action star.
Wrecked (2010) — A small, independent thriller starring Adrien Brody as a man who wakes up in the middle of a forest after a car accident he cannot remember anything about. Interesting, dramatic and unique.
Source Code (2011) — This may make an appearance on another list, but as a thriller it just about misses out my top five. Therefore, I will refrain from saying much more for now (but it is very, very good).
What are some of your favourite thriller films?
(Note: Mark Kermode reviews each week’s new film releases between 2-4pm on Fridays with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5live, so check them out if you like films, or flappy hands. You will not regret it.)