The evil men do
Netflix’s original movie Beasts of No Nation may not have received any Oscar nominations, but it’s still well worth seeing, especially for the performances of Idris Elba and Abraham Attah, both of which deserved nominations.
Many other movies available this week, ranging from bittersweet comedies to sci-fi romances, indie dramas to Hollywood thrillers, deserved more recognition than they actually received. But that’s part of the fun of being a movie fan: exploring and discovering things well after their theatrical dates. Even a goofy comedy-action movie and an experimental documentary deserve a second look.
Finally, we have an actual Best Picture nominee doesn’t seem to have found a very big audience, even though it’s one of the season’s better offerings.
Beasts of No Nation (Netflix)
Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015) has been the subject of some controversy. Certain theater chains boycotted it when Netflix released it online, and then (possibly in relation to this), the film received no Oscar nominations, sparking an outrage about lack of cultural diversity (#OscarsSoWhite). But all that aside, the movie itself is a powerhouse, brutal, crisply-paced, and still somewhat optimistic.
Abraham Attah gives an astonishing performance as Agu, a young boy caught in an African civil war. When his father and brother are killed, he runs into the jungle and is discovered by a band of guerrilla soldiers, most of them young men not much older than Agu, and led by the fearsome Commandant (Idris Elba). He ensures their survival, but also exposes them to shocking horrors. In one heartbreaking moment, we see how Agu has become numb, laughing and playing games as men are shot behind him. Elba’s creation is monstrous, proud and vain and vile, and the actor received numerous other nominations and awards for his performance.
Director Matthew Vaughn is now on the “A” list with the Kick-Ass, X-Men, and Kingsman movies, but his second feature, Stardust (2007), is still somewhat underrated and deserves to be better known. Adapted from a novel by Neil Gaiman, it tells the story of Tristan (Charlie Cox), a young man unaware of his royal birth, living in the humble village of Wall. He vows to bring back a falling star for the town beauty (Sienna Miller), but is surprised when the star itself turns out to be a beautiful girl (Claire Danes).
Unfortunately, many people are also after the star: a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants to use the star’s powers to gain immortality, and a dying king (Peter O’Toole) has sent his three sons after the star; whoever brings her back wins the throne. Robert De Niro plays a sky pirate, Ricky Gervais has a funny scene as a merchant, and Ian McKellen narrates. Vaughn beautifully balances warm humor, romance, and adventure with a brisk pace, bright colors, and clean lines. I think it’s the best movie of its kind since The Princess Bride.
Charlie's Angels (Netflix)
Every year, many of us bemoan the lack of decent women’s roles in movies, but not so long ago, there was a brief renaissance of tough women who could kick some serious tail, ranging from Buffy and Xena on TV to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Charlie’s Angels (both 2000) in theaters. And while the former film hired legendary Hong Kong martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, Charlie’s Angels had his brother, Yuen Cheung-Yan in charge of the action. It worked: this movie is pretty, slick, colorful, and fluid, the opposite of the rest of the shaky-cam stuff that passes for action. It’s fun, too: Drew Barrymore (who also produced), Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz are the “angels,” who check in with their unseen boss, Charlie (voiced by John Forsyth, reprising his role from the 1970s TV series upon which this is based).
The frenetic, no-holds-barred plot involves some stolen voice-tracking software, and a double-cross. Sam Rockwell and Crispin Glover are bad guys; the latter has one of those canes that turn into a sword. Bill Murray provides extra laughs as Bosley, Matt LeBlanc and Luke Wilson are clueless boyfriends, and LL Cool J plays himself. The soundtrack is like a demented mix tape, leaping over genres and decades. Weirdo co-star Tom Green (then romantically involved with Barrymore) is the only real drawback here.
Paranoid Park (Hulu)
Director Gus Van Sant is one of those rare directors who seems to have insight into the secret lives of boys, especially the outcasts and misfits (seeMy Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Elephant, and others). Chosen by the prestigious film magazine Cahiers du Cinema as the best movie of its year, Van Sant’s Paranoid Park (2007) is more experimental and fragmented than Van Sant’s other films, but no less powerful. A Portland skateboarder, Alex (Gabe Nevins), goes to a secret, illegal skate park at night, but when a security guard is killed, the cops come looking for everyone who was there.
Van Sant tells the story largely out of order, using the violence as a way to get to know the rhythms of the characters, rather than an end unto itself. Sections include unusual choices of music (such as Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini movies), and the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle switches from 8mm to 35mm film stocks almost at random. Taylor Momsen also stars, along with newcomers Lauren McKinney, Daniel Liu, and Jake Miller.
The Firm (Hulu)
The late Sydney Pollack directed this serviceable thriller, the very first big-screen adaptation of a John Grisham novel. It’s long and complex, but entertaining in an appealingly simple, almost old-fashioned way. The Firm (1993) stars Tom Cruise as an idealistic young lawyer who is invited to join a special Memphis law firm. The money is amazing, and he throws himself into his work, until he realizes that the firm is actually evil, helping rich people hide their money. But before he can do anything about it, his life is in danger.
Gene Hackman is well-used as the snaky lawyer who appears to be Cruise’s mentor, and Jeanne Tripplehorn is easy on the eyes as Cruise’s wife. The cast also includes no less than Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Terry Kinney, David Strathairn, Wilford Brimley, Gary Busey, Margo Martindale, Dean Norris in a small role as a thug, and Paul Sorvino in an uncredited one. But the standout scenery-chewer is Holly Hunter as a bottle-blonde private eye’s secretary, wisecracking and stalwart. She received two Oscar nominations the same year, one for this (Supporting Actress) and one for The Piano (Lead Actress). Dave Grusin’s heart-thumping score also received an Oscar nomination. A second Grisham movie, The Pelican Brief, was released later in the year.
The Fury (Amazon Prime)
The Fury (1978) is one of Brian De Palma’s loonier movies, and is still fairly unsung, coming as it does in-between his hits Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980). Kirk Douglas stars as former CIA agent Peter Sandza, who is looking for his son, Robin (Andrew Stevens). The son, who has psychic powers, has been tricked into working with a nasty bad guy (John Cassavetes, no doubt saving money to direct his own films). His brilliant plan is to build an ESP/telekinetic army to fight the Russians. Peter finds help from teen Gillian (Amy Irving), who also has special powers; together they must get to Robin before it’s too late.
The Fury is a little like an undisciplined version of Scanners, building up to an explosive, telekinetic showdown, but De Palma directs feverishly, as if his life depended on it. His striking compositions suggest terrifying demons at work. Charles Durning and Carrie Snodgress also star, and look for Dennis Franz and Daryl Hannah in small roles. John Farris wrote the screenplay, adapting his own 1976 novel. John Williams composed the score.
Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola’s second feature film has its share of haters, but I—and a few others—consider it among the best films ever made, worth savoring again and again. Telling the story of two lost souls who find each other in a strange place, Lost in Translation (2003) has an exotic, dreamy feel, as if viewed after a night in which sleep would not come. Bill Murray (who received an Oscar nomination) plays movie star Bob Harris, in Tokyo to shoot a whisky commercial. He meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the new wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) in their hotel, and, jet-lagged and lonely, they form a special friendship.
When alone, Bob’s view of Japan is somewhat absurd; but when he’s with Charlotte, he begins to see its crazy beauty. Murray’s wry humor is at its very best here, mixed with a lovely melancholy. Johansson seems down-to-earth and curious, and she holds her own with the great comedian. Their final goodbye, with its private, whispered message, is one of the great endings in movie history, comparable to the final moment in Chaplin’s City Lights. Kevin Shields of the band My Bloody Valentine contributed the music. Coppola won an Oscar for her screenplay.
Two years after Lost in Translation, Bill Murray gave an equally great performance in a similarly searching, bittersweet, comedy-drama, but Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) somehow did not get nearly the same kind of attention or response. He plays Don Johnston, who made a tidy sum in the computer business and has retired. Just as his latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walks out on him, he receives an anonymous letter informing him that he has a son, now 19. His next-door neighbor, an amateur sleuth (a great Jeffrey Wright), urges him to follow up and narrows down Don’s many former lovers to four potential baby mamas. They are played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton.
Don hits the road to see all of them and possibly find out more about the mysterious son; each visit is very different from the one before, both funny and poignant (and sometimes scary). Along the way, he meets other women (Chloë Sevigny, Pell James) who shed new light on his situation. Jarmusch’s tone is dryer than Coppola’s, and in long stretches, Murray acts with only his face, body, and eyes. It’s an oddball to be sure, but it’s also a funny, mysterious, beautiful film.
I’m not sure why I love this weird, sleazy 1980s item so much, with Mickey Rourke’s hammy, mutant performance, but Barfly (1987) is a movie I can watch just about anytime. Charles Bukowski wrote the screenplay, based loosely on his own life, which, for a while, was largely spent in bars, and Rourke plays the thinly veiled Henry Chinaski. He hates his local bartender (Frank Stallone) and constantly picks fights with him. He writes stories in his spare time, occasionally tries to find work, but mostly just drinks.
Things change when he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), whose lover pays for her booze intake; Henry and Wanda become lovers and drink together. Eventually a publisher (Alice Krige) becomes interested in Henry’s stories, but he’s not sure a life of luxury suits him. Director Barbet Schroeder keeps a kind of filmy sheen on the movie, making sure everything has the same grimy feel, and coating Rourke’s berserk performance so that it seems more authentic. Francis Ford Coppola was a “presenter,” Jack Nance (Eraserhead) appears as a detective, and Bukowski himself plays an “old timer” in the bar. “To all my frieeeeeeeennnnds!”
The same year that Paul Thomas Anderson made a huge splash with Boogie Nights (1997), his second film, he also made his debut with the much quieter and less-seen Hard Eight (1997), also known in some quarters as Sydney. It’s a solid film, but it’s so small-scale—and so influenced by Quentin Tarantino—that seeing it wouldn’t really lead one to believe what Anderson was eventually going to be capable of.
Philip Baker Hall stars as Sydney, a small-time gambler in Reno who knows how to make a living and get by without getting himself in trouble. He buys a coffee and a smoke for a down-and-out man, John (John C. Reilly), who tried and failed to win money to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sometime later, they have become a kind of father-son team, but when John becomes involved with a waitress/prostitute (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a fast-talking gangster (Samuel L. Jackson), things become unhinged. Anderson’s approach is quiet, painting a sad town that’s always either dark or overcast, with few moments of razzle-dazzle. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears in an early role as a hothead craps shooter.
Not to be confused with the Oscar-nominated Russian film from 2014, this Leviathan (2012) is a documentary about fish. Sounds thrilling doesn’t it? But as directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, this immersive, mesmerizing movie nearly hypnotizes with its focus on detail rather than information. Shooting on a fishing trawler outside of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the filmmakers strapped cameras to nets and chains and just about anywhere else they could think of, catching close-up moments of fish sloshing around on the deck, or the feeling of dipping in and out of the ocean.
For a while, we watch the men doing their jobs, cutting the good bits from the catch and kicking the leftovers into the water. Occasionally we watch seagulls against the inky sky. The soundtrack consists entirely of waves crashing, chains clanking, and other rocking, swishing sounds, with no dialogue or narration. This is not for everyone’s tastes, but for those who can get in tune with it, it’s a revelation.
Bridge of Spies (Vudu)
Steven Spielberg’s latest received six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, but it’s still one of the director’s least-appreciated movies. Unjustly so, as it’s incredibly vivid, focused, and moving. In Bridge of Spies (2015), Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer, who, during the Cold War, is assigned to defend an accused Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (English stage actor Mark Rylance, whose appealing performance earned him a nomination). This leads to a trip abroad, to negotiate a tricky trade for two American prisoners: a downed pilot with sensitive U.S. secrets and an ordinary American student.
Hanks is terrific and carries all his scenes with remarkable ease, but the movie’s greatest achievement is its design, which has a very palpable sense of another time and another place; it feels like time traveling. This achievement also helps smooth over any Hollywood liberties taken with the true story. Joel and Ethan Coen polished the screenplay, and their unique brand of snappy dialog can be heard in a few scenes.
In case you missed it, here's a link to last week's movie recommendations.