Tag Archives: Academy Awards

Fences (2016)

Fences is the final Oscar 2017 Best Picture nominee I had yet to watch, so I wanted to go into it completely fresh and without any expectations. All I knew was that it’s a drama directed by and starring Denzel Freaking Washington.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that Fences must be an adaptation of a stage play, because the majority of the film takes place in a limited location and it’s pretty much just all talking. As a Google search confirmed later, Fences is based on the Pulitzer-winning play of the same name by American playwright August Wilson.

The premise is very simple: Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker who lives in Pittsburg during the 1950s with his wife, Rose (played by Viola Davis), and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). His best friend, Jim, is played by Stephen Henderson, and he also has a younger brother played by Mykelti Williamson and a grown-up son from a previous relationship played by Lyons Hornsby.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, because the joy of Fences comes from gradually finding out who these people are and who they once were. Troy Maxson starts off as just an affable, garrulous, baseball-loving regular guy, but our perceptions of him change as the film progresses and we find out more about his past and his deep flaws. He’s essentially both the protagonist and the antagonist of the film.

The film is more or less a performance vehicle for Denzel and Viola Davis, both of whom put in remarkable performances. Denzel is deservingly the biggest threat to Casey Affleck for Best Actor. Just the sheer number of lines he reels off with apparent ease and the way he articulates those lines — in typical suave Denzel fashion — is awesome. In the beginning, I still saw Denzel rather than the character he was playing, but less than 30 minutes in, I forgot about the actor and only saw Troy Maxson.

As good as Denzel is, however, he is somewhat overshadowed by Viola Davis, whose heartbreaking portrayal of Rose could very well be the best performance of anyone in 2016 — male or female. It’s a shame she was shoved into the Best Supporting Actor category because she is no doubt the lead actress of the film, and while she is a lock to win the award I would have liked to have seen her take on Emma Stone for Best Actress, a fight I think she could have won.

Ultimately, Fences is an intimate, powerful family drama and a character piece that focuses on relationships, hopes and dreams, and the hardships of the black community from that period in time. In all honesty, it’s the type of film I doubt I would have been able to appreciate in my 20s — it’s almost all dialogue and “drama” — but as a man in my 30s I think it’s great. That said, despite being emotionally invested in the story and characters and feeling that gut punch on multiple occasions, it is still probably the weakest of the nine Best Picture nominees this year.

4 stars out of 5

Arrival (2016)

At last! I finally got to see Arrival, the sci-fi movie directed by Prisoners and Sicario (and soon Blade Runner 2049) filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Of all the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year, Arrival was hands down the one I wanted to see above all others. Villeneuve is a master at creating atmosphere, tension, and stunning visuals, and I couldn’t wait to see what he could do with a film based on an award-winning science fiction story.

With expectations that high, I almost anticipated disappointment as I walked into the darkened cinema today. I intentionally avoided most of the trailers and all reviews so nothing will be spoiled, though I did hear a throwaway line in a podcast that revealed a little too much for my liking. Still, I felt like I knew little enough to make the experience fresh and unencumbered.

When I walked out of Arrival, I was speechless. I didn’t say anything more than a couple of words for quite a long time. My mind just couldn’t stop spinning and thinking about what I had watched and what it all meant. It’s 116 minutes long but I felt like I could watch another 116 minutes of it. I have no doubt I will be thinking about the film for days and I can’t wait to watch it again. It’s a thinking-person’s sci-fi movie—my favourite kind.

The plot is very simple. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a top linguist who is contacted by the US government when mysterious alien crafts suddenly appear around the world with no apparent agenda. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) plays physicist Ian Connelly, while Forest Whitaker plays an US Army colonel. The film takes quite a realistic approach to what would happen in the event of an alien arrival event, providing its own subtle takes on government relations, societal reactions, religious beliefs and individual emotions.

The film is absolutely stunning to look at. I was very excited about the visuals of this movie after seeing Sicario, and though Arrival has a different cinematographer (Bradford Young, who was the DP for Selma; Roger Deakins was the DP for Sicario), the look is nonetheless beautiful. I’m not talking about just the special effects, which are seamless, but the landscapes and Villeneuve’s use of camera angles and focus. I’m very surprised the film was not nominated for Best Cinematography.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Arrival is some kind of alien invasion blockbuster. It’s a much more contemplative film where the pace is very measured. There was a section of the movie after the initial contact that felt a little slow and had me worried about where the narrative was heading, but fortunately, it soon got out of that rut and dragged me into its world. Before long, Arrival developed one of the most immersive film experiences I’ve had in years. I became completely lost in its story, characters and intrigue. There are so many fascinating little revelations and twists and turns — not all of them are shocking or unpredictable, but even the ones I could see coming nonetheless sent chills through my body.

The performances are, as expected, wonderful. Amy Adams should have been nominated for her portrayal, which carried the film from start to finish and was full of raw, nuanced emotion. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all solid in supporting roles. I imagine much of the acting from Adams and Renner came in front of green screens, which only makes their performances more remarkable.

The closest film I can compare Arrival to is the 1997 classic Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster. Both are very personal sci-fi films that are fantastic at creating intrigue — they show enough to whet the appetite and satisfy your curiosity, but not too much so that the sense of mystery remains in tact. Both films are also very philosophical and emotional. I like how they don’t explain everything and leave the audience with unanswered questions and room for open-ended interpretations.

In the end, Arrival turned out to be every bit as good as I hoped it would be, albeit via an experience that was very different to what I had expected. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and ultimately very moving and heartbreaking. It is definitely one of movies on my list of favourite films of 2016 — the only question is whether it’s at the very top.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: The film isn’t perfect though. Apart from that slow patch I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t a fan of the Chinese general character played by veteran Asian actor Tzi Ma. The big blunder the film makes is that the head of the People’s Liberation Army should actually also be the President of China (and also the General Secretary of the Communist Party). Also, as hard as Amy Adams tried, her Mandarin pronunciation was poor,

Moonlight (2016)

The Academy sure likes movies that break your heart. After watching Manchester by the SeaI was pretty sure I wouldn’t see a movie this year capable of punching me in the gut as violently as that one. As usual, I was wrong. Moonlight made me just as sad and depressed.

Written and directed by the marvellous Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is a portrait of an African American growing up in the projects in Florida. The story has a three-act structure that offers three separate snapshots of the protagonist, Chiron, at different stages of his life — as a quiet, innocent child (Alex Hibbert), as an awkward teen discovering who he is (Ashton Sanders), and as a hardened adult (Trevante Rhodes).

Each segment is harrowing, heartbreaking and devastating in its own way, and yet so beautifully shot by Jenkins, who admits paying homage to the exquisite visuals of legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express). There are side-by-side videos available on YouTube now that show how the scenes mirror each other.

Unlike Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight doesn’t really have any moments of levity or hints of hope and inspiration. There’s no humour in Chiron’s world, just darkness, despair and loneliness. Like Hidden Figures, it’s an important film that will open eyes, and like Hell or High Water, it’s a film that reflects contemporary American society and gives a voice to those who have been forgotten or stigmatized.

What really stood out about Moonlight for me, apart from the muted style of Jenkin’s direction, is how genuine it felt watching Chiron’s story. The dialogue, the facial expressions, the body language — everything came across as authentic.It’s done so much better than a film like Precious, which also portrays a sad existence but shoves it in your face way too hard. On the other hand, though Chiron’s world could not be further from mine, I was able to sympathise and empathise because the film touches on so many universal values, from love and hate to friendship, bullying, discrimination, loneliness, identity, isolation, hypocrisy, and forgiveness.

Personally, I liked the first  two segments more than the final one, which was slower and more contemplative, but also more cliched. I think it’s good to know the film’s three-act structure because I didn’t know about it going in and I was almost disappointed every time the story jumped in time to the next act. I wanted to know more about kid Chiron and I wanted to know more about teenage Chiron. I even wanted to know about what happened between gaps. That’s the sign of great storytelling and character building.

Of course, the film wouldn’t be as effective without some wonderful performances. It’s hard to pick a standout from the three versions of Chiron, each played to near-perfection by the three actors. They looked very different and developed different personality traits, and yet you could sense the same person underneath. Special mention also goes to Best Supporting Actor favourite Mahershala Ali, who shines in the first act as a drug dealer who befriends Chiron. Naomie Harris is also great as Chiron’s abusive mother.

In the end, Moonlight is a film I wish was longer because I wanted to know more about what happened to Chiron, and yet it’s also a film I don’t want to watch again because it’s so heavy — almost too heavy — and because of how sad it made me. As a piece of art, however, the quality of the movie is undeniable, delivering not just a great portrayal of a character and his life with tremendous realism but also well-crafted storytelling, poignant drama, and stylish aesthetics. It’s a film that will strike a chord no matter who you are.

4.25 stars out of 5

Lion (2016)

I hopped on the Lion bandwagon long before I even saw the movie. I remember stumbling across a “Dev Patel movie” trailer on YouTube months ago and was immediately taken aback by how well he nailed the Aussie accent (yes, way better than Meryl Streep!). The true story premise was so intriguing that I just couldn’t wait to watch it, and the anticipation then went through the room when I found out it was one of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

And so I finally managed to watch Lion the other day, and it was just as beautiful and emotional as I imagined it would be. Perhaps not quite as good as I hoped it would be, especially considering its reputation as one of the best 9 films of the year, though I would still definitely recommend anyone with a heart to check it out.

Directed by Garth Davis in his feature debut, Lion tells the remarkable true story of an impoverished five-year-old boy named Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar)  from a small village in India who is accidentally transported on a train to more than a thousand miles from his home and is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). More than 20 years later, Saroo, now all grown up (and played by Dev Patel), begins to use Google Earth in an effort to find the home and family he had long lost and almost forgotten about.

As one would imagine, Lion is a gut-wrenching yet heartwarming tale full of sadness, longing, and ultimately inspiration. It’s one of those films that is just as powerful and impactful even when you know the ending. Expect to cry buckets of tears, especially if you are a parent who has ever feared losing a child, or in Nicole Kidman’s case, an adoptive parent in real life. That said, it’s not like director Garth Davis intentionally tries to milk tears out of his audience — it’s simply the effect of the story itself.

Of course, the film would not have worked as well without the amazing performances, starting with the little kid, Sunny Pawar, who comes across as believable as you could possibly get in a situation like that. Dev Patel shines in his best role since Slumdog Millionaire and is well-deserving of his Oscar nomination, though it’s a little bit of a shame that they chose to put in the Best Supporting Actor category as opposed to Best Actor in order to boost his odds. Nicole Kidman is also as good as she has ever been, and I’m admittedly not the greatest fan of her work.

Interestingly, Davis chose to tell the story essentially in two chronological parts — first telling the child’s story in its entirety before telling the adult’s version — as opposed to starting off as an adult and using flashbacks. I personally think it worked quite well this way, because the first half of the film is definitely the stronger half. That sense of fear and “oh no” from seeing a child’s life change forever before your eyes and the struggles he went through before getting adopted is some really heavy stuff, and using flashbacks to tell that part of the story wouldn’t have done it justice.

Conversely, it also meant the second half of the film wasn’t quite as impactful. My concerns on how they were going to depict the Google Earth search turned out to be unfounded as they did it in a way that was not boring at all, though even then, it felt as though there was no enough material to sustain half a movie. For me, the interesting part was Saroo’s inner torment from leaving his brother, mother and sister behind and his struggles with identity, but the film put too much attention on this love story with an American character played by Rooney Mara, which I thought wasn’t really necessary for the story at all. I would have rather the movie focus more on Saroo’s relationship with his father and troubled adoptive brother (Divian Ladwa), two areas that weren’t fully fleshed out. As a result, there were some scenes in the second half that I found plodding.

Flaws aside, Lion is still an incredibly uplifting and powerful film. The fact it is a true story amplifies everything even further. While it is not exactly subtle, the film deserves credit for finding the right balance between empathy and entertainment, drama and melodrama. I think it’s an even better film than Slumdog, certainly deeper on an emotional level and with greater resonance.

4.25 stars out of 5

Hidden Figures (2016)

Of all the nine nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, Hidden Figures could well be the pick for most general moviegoing audiences. Seriously, not everyone is up for delightful song and dance (La La Land), heartbreaking/hard-hitting drama (Manchester by the Sea, Lion, Fences, Moonlight), the horrors of war (Hacksaw Ridge), modern westerns (Hell or High Water), thought-provoking sci-fi (Arrival), or the greatest movie ever (War for the Planet of the Apes) — okay, so one of these movies isn’t a nominee or even out yet, but still.

Embarrassingly, I knew nothing about the three remarkable African-American women Hidden Figures is inspired by — Katherine G Johnson (played by Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe). These three mathematicians overcame incredible social obstacles in the 1960s to essentially change NASA and were integral to some of the most important space missions in history.

While the film focuses on all three women, the central lead is Johnson (Henson), who was brought onto the Space Task Group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) to play catch up to the Russians, the first country to launch a man into orbit. Vaughn (Spencer), who was unfairly held back from a supervisory role, and Jackson (Monáe), who sought to attend an all-white college so she could become an engineer, are more like important supporting characters with subplots that take place around the core story.

It’s easy to forget that the film was set in a time when blacks still had to sit at the back of the bus and use different bathrooms. Moreover, it was also still a deeply sexist era, where women’s ambitions in the workplace were frowned upon if not overtly discouraged. It really was a double-whammy for the heroes of this film, who took on the system with amazing courage and determination. Director Theodore Melfi (who passed up a Spider-Man film to do this) does a fantastic job of depicting this period with the right amount of awareness, subtlety and delicacy, never falling too deeply into self-pity or outrage. Instead, NASA is shown to be rather advanced for its time and as a place that values ability and contribution rather than the colour of one’s skin.

Thanks to Melfi’s direction, Hidden Figures has a fun, lively energy to it that is as entertaining as it is uplifting. There are serious scenes of drama but also plenty of comedic moments and tense, thrilling space sequences. It’s a sign of great storytelling when you can be completely engrossed in the story even though you know how things will turn out.

The three leads deliver wonderful performances, and to be honest I wouldn’t have had a problem had all three earned Oscar nominations. Spencer did have the more lively personality of the three and got more of a chance to strut her stuff, which is probably why she was the only one to get the nod in the end.

The rest of the supporting cast is also really good, in particular Kevin Costner as the likable Harrison. Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, and Mahershala Ali (nominated for Moonlight) round off what is a fantastic cast that absolutely deserved the Outstanding Performance by a Cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

To me, Hidden Figures is like last year’s Bridge of Spies or The Imitation Game from the year before — it’s  based on a very important, inspirational, little-known true story; it’s driven by wonderful performances; and the direction and storytelling are top-notch. While I don’t think it’s quite as good as the aforementioned two, I do think Hidden Figures is definitely one of the best films of the year and certainly one of the most enjoyable and crowd-pleasing.

4.5 stars out of 5

Hell or High Water (2016)

Even months before I even knew what it was about or who was in it, I had heard about some movie called Hell or High Water. I don’t think it even got a cinematic release where I’m based, but the praise was fairly universal.

And so, just a few days before it was named one of the 9 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars later this month, I finally got to watch it — and I absolutely concur: Hell or High Water a brilliant film, completely different to what I expected but an authentic, immersive experience fueled by high-octane performances, tense action and a surprising amount of depth and insight into today’s America.

I went into the film knowing virtually nothing about it except that it’s regarded as a “modern western”. Set in West Texas, the film tells the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who turn to robbing banks. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger hot on their heels as he tries to piece together their patterns and the reasons behind their intense crime spree.

Hell or High Water is directed by David McKenzie (Young Adam, Perfect Sense) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), and if you’ve seen any of their past films you’ll be able to get a decent sense of the tone and pacing. Granted, westerns are not my favourite genre, and the rhythm of the film is more contemplative than frenetic, with long segments of pure dialogue.

However, there is just something magnetic about how the film has been executed. The cinematography is stunning and the depiction of the desolate landscapes and foreclosing ranches is sobering. The troubled characters come across as genuine and the sharp dialogue they get to spew out is some of the best of the year — insightful, humorous and cutting. Actually, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Hell or High Water probably explains Donald Trump’s election victory better than any other fictional film released in 2016.

The performances are wonderful. Chris Pine isn’t known for his acting, though his turn as the more level-headed of the two brothers is perhaps the best performance of his career to date. Jeff Bridges has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, though for me, the guy most deserving of recognition is Ben Foster (either as Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor), who plays the crazy, unpredictable brother. His presence is so intense and managed to keep me at the edge of my seat because he’s just so unpredictable.

Hell or High Water is also a film that shows you don’t need a huge budget or special effects to crank out spectacular action sequences filled with tension and impact. Despite a budget of just US$12 million, McKenzie makes the most of the landscape and creative ideas to infuse the action scenes with gripping thrills. Some moments actually reminded me of the action in the final season of Breaking Bad. It’s that good.

Some viewers might find the pace a little on the slow slide, though my only complaint is that there’s too much mumbling in the dialogue. I thought it was just be Jeff Bridges because we’ve heard it before, but both Pine and Foster do their fair share of it too. Apart from that, Hell or High Water is a sublime cinematic experience that ticks all the right boxes — an intriguing plot, well-rounded characters, great dialogue, compelling action and thought-provoking drama. Definitely check it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

We’re heading into Oscar season now, and everybody’s raving about Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Gangs of New York screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, apparently the current favourite to take home the gong for Best Actor next month (he already won at the Golden Globes).

I just watched it, and man, it’s quite an experience. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a loner working as a handyman-slash-janitor in Boston who is one day forced to return to his hometown following the passing of his brother, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). And unbeknownst to Lee, he was named in the will as the guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, who is up for Best Supporting Actor), a regular but popular 16-year-old kid into sports and girls. They used to be close until Lee left, and must now find a way to get through this tragedy together.

The film features multiple flashbacks that come without warning — there are no captions or camera effects to let you know the time frame — but the storytelling is smart enough that it doesn’t take long to figure out what time period it is in. These flashbacks are important, because they help set up the characters and let you know who they are and who they used to be, and most importantly, reveal why Lee left his hometown and became the way he is. There’s also a surprising amount of subplots and minor characters played by recognizable names, including Michelle Williams (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan and Matthew Broderick.

Manchester by the Sea is not for everyone. Regular moviegoers might find the pacing a little slow, and damn does it have moments of incredible sadness will that threaten to rip your heart out. I have a heart of stone and I was very close to tears on numerous occasions. Yet, despite all the melancholy, there is a surprisingly amount of humour and tender moments, largely fleshed out by the amazing chemistry and performances of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. The banter between the two feels authentic and heartfelt, even though they don’t always say what’s on their minds. Kudos also to Lonergan (up for Best Director and Best Screenplay) for being able to manage the tone of the film just right, especially by making the humour an organic part of the relationships and dialogue rather than something forced in to provide levity.

In fact, much of the film and Affleck’s masterful performance plays out in this very nuanced way. It’s a very controlled portrayal, one in which silence and facial expressions convey much more than words. It’s incredible how emotional the film is when there aren’t really any “Oscar-clip” scenes of people bawling and screaming and acting all hysterical. I haven’t seen all of the Best Actor performances yet, but Affleck definitely would be deserving — sexual harassment allegations controversy in real life notwithstanding — if he were to take home the award. Likewise for Hedges, who has come out of nowhere to snag just about every nomination there is for his performance in the film. Michelle Williams is also very good as always, but I honestly think she wasn’t in enough scenes to warrant a nomination this time around.

While acknowledging that some people would not like it (especially how it doesn’t tie things up neatly for the audience), I personally think Manchester by the Sea is a great film — about family, sorrow, regret, self-loathing and forgiveness. It’s heartbreaking but tinged with hope and littered with the small joys of life, and I love the depth and subtlety of not only the performances but also the dialogue, direction and storytelling. It’s easily one of the best dramas of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

A Monster Calls (2016)

I’m frankly a little stunned at how poorly A Monster Calls has performed at the box office. I remember the film getting a lot of buzz early on, and the trailer made it seem like the kind of emotionally-charged fantasy drama that critics adore . And the critical response was indeed kind (86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 76% on Metacritic). With a cast featuring Jynn Erso (ie, Felicity Jones), Sigourney Weaver and Aslan’s voice (ie, Liam Neeson) and directed by Spaniard JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel), you would think the film would draw in big numbers. Yet, the film has yet to make back its low budget of just US$43 million.

Personally, I liked A Monster Calls a lot. It’s perhaps not as amazing or enjoyable as I hoped it would be when I first encountered the initial buzz, but it’s nonetheless an unusual and original fantasy film with wonderful visual effects, powerful performances, and a good dose of heart.

Based on the eponymous novel by Patrick Ness, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story of a young boy (played magnificently by Lewis MacDougall from Pan) who conjures a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of dealing with his single mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with cancer. Sigourney Weaver plays his traditional and strict grandmother, while Toby Kebbell plays his absent father.

As you can gather from that premise, A Monster Calls is a heavy film — dealing with death, bullying, and generation gaps — and I can understand if some people found it too emotionally draining to sit through. It also has a strange structure, in which the monster appears to tell fables rendered in stylish animation. Each fable has an underlying message, but it’s vague and subject to interpretation (think The Alchemist, if you’ve read that book), which could be frustrating or enlightening, depending on your perspective.

The colour palette is greyish and the tone of the film is dark — too dark for young children — and there are some scenes that could be described as scary or certainly unsettling. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near as creepy, but it does have a tinge of that Pan’s Labyrinth vibe. It’s got an odd feel to it, which I like  because it’s different and puts me on edge, though it could put a lot of audiences — both young and old — off the film. And I suppose that’s where it fails, as the film is too dark and heavy for kids and also potentially too confusing for adults expecting a more straightforward story.

That said, it’s hard for me to not appreciate the movie. The creature design is awesome, with the special effects capturing the weight and size of a moving, walking tree with all the fine details you would expect. The cast is fantastic, especially young MacDougall, who I believe is destined for stardom as he’s only 14. Felicity Jones is lovely as always, and the big surprise for me was Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just her ability to pull off the British accent either — the range of emotions and restraint she puts into the grandmother character is impressive. And of course, you can never go wrong with Liam Neeson’s powerful voice. You know the tree monster is a figment of the child’s imagination, and yet it’s done well enough that it makes you wonder — or is it?

So like I said, I recognise the weaknesses of A Monster Calls as a marketable film that appeals to audiences. It’s an emotional movie experience without a lot of laughs or joy, it’s too dark and it’s too strange. And yet, I found myself engrossed and hit by all the gut punches the film through at me. I like how it paints the cruel realities of the world and life through the eyes of a child and the ways we cope with stress and tragedy. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of fantasy and like having your thoughts provoked and heartstrings tugged, definitely give A Monster Calls a try.

4 stars out of 5

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Okay, so I’m blaming Beasts of No Nation as the reason why my Best Of and Worst Of lists of 2015 has STILL not been published. I held off on doing the lists because, based on the word of mouth and buzz I had been hearing, I thought there was a possibility it might end up on my Best Of list. And then I watched it but never found time to review it properly. And before I knew it, December 31, 2016. So before it’s too late, here goes.

Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing coming-of-age film about a young boy (Abraham Attah, who is going to be in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming) who becomes a child soldier in Africa, fighting under a terrifying warlord played by the brilliant Idris Elba. It’s written, shot, and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the genius behind the first season of True Detective, and you can see shades of his style and flavour all throughout this film.

It’s a traumatic and uncompromising film in many respects, and yet comes across as authentic. Idris Elba, in particular, is spectacular, really lifting the film into another stratosphere. It was a total-package performance, from the look to the voice (including accent) to the subtle expressions and body movements. I knew I was watching Idris Elba on the screen but the character he was playing on the screen genuinely made me uneasy and afraid.

That said, the film does follow quite a predictable progression and lacks the gut-punches that would have made it a much more memorable film. I’m doing this review a few months after I watched it, and yet there aren’t many scenes or moments that stand out. I feel like the first half of it, when the boy is being initiated into the militia, comes across as more gripping. The expected fall from grace in the second half wasn’t quite as convincing.

Beasts of No Nation is a very good film, a hard-hitting, well-shot and well-acted movie. There was talk that the film, or at least Idris Elba of receiving an Oscar nomination, but when it/he didn’t (he did get a Golden Globe nomination), there were suggestions that it was slighted because it was released globally on Netflix. I don’t quite agree with that assessment. As much as I liked the film, it didn’t wow me or floor me like I thought it might, and for me there were easily better films and performances that year.

3.75 stars out of 5

Concussion (2015)

concussion

“Tell the truth,” Will Smith (and Jada)! Concussion didn’t deserve any Oscar nominations!

After all the hoopla about how the Smiths boycotted last month’s Academy Awards because of a perceived snub against the film — and in particular, the Fresh Prince’s portrayal of Dr Bennet Omalu — I decided it was time that I checked out this controversial flick about the deviating effects of repeated head injuries in the NFL.

As the true story goes, Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian forensic pathologist, performs an autopsy on former gridiron great Mike Webster (David Morse), who suffered from terrifying mental illness in his post-playing days prior to his death. He found it bizarre that Webster turned out that way despite his apparent sound physical health, and further investigation and research led him to conclude that repeated head trauma incurred throughout a long career in football was the cause behind a disorder he refers to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Needless to say, this finding doesn’t go down too well with a lot of people (I thought it was common sense that getting concussed isn’t good for your brain, but whatever), from organisations that make billions out of the brain jolting to casual lovers of America’s No. 1 sport. As you might expect, Omalu is faced with loads of obstacles, abuse and threats, but the determined dude soldiers on to force the NFL to “Tell the truth!”

First of all, I’m going to address the controversial inaccuracies before casting them aside. I didn’t know how closely the film followed real life until I read up about it later, so I’m not going to let that affect my initial impressions. It does appear that Concussion took a lot of “artistic liberties” with the truth, and while some of it can be attributed to the same people who wanted to silence Omalu in the first place, there are several  irrefutable facts that are clearly manipulated for movie purposes. But let’s not pretend Concussion is the first “true story” to have a few fictional elements.

My problem with Concussion is that it comes across as far too neat, far too conventional, and far too shallow for what is supposed to be a complex, explosive, adrenaline-pumping drama about something so many Americans care deeply about. While it is well-made for what it is, the film follows a familiar Hollywood trajectory that hits predictable plot markers all the way through. You know he’s going to find something and you know it’s going to stir up trouble and you know he’s going to fight. There’s really nothing that will catch you off guard.

To be fair, there is sufficient intrigue — largely thanks to the subject matter — to maintain interest, and the performances from the all-star cast add a nice touch of class to what is obviously a top notch production. But the overwhelming vibe I got from watching the movie is “packaged”. Its depiction of the scandal is extremely simple, straightforward and one-sided, and for a story like this you almost need it to be messier and to have more risk-taking.

That scene in all the trailers where an emotional Omalu demands that they “Tell the truth!” is a great illustration of my point. You can tell it’s been set up as Will’s big “Oscar moment”, from the lighting to the camera angles to the fact that Omalu had never been anything close to as animated as he was, making the outburst somewhat jarring. I imagine they had planned for the clip to be played during the introduction of the Best Actor nominees at the Oscars ceremony. You know they did.

Will Smith typically plays characters with clean images, and Omalu is unfortunately also portrayed as a saint, which I believe is to the detriment of the film. He’s a man of God and science, a genius with more than half a dozen degrees, and a perfect gentleman with the utmost manners and integrity. He’s a little eccentric but not socially inept or odd, and the only time he loses his temper is when he wants people to “Tell the truth!”

It’s fine if that’s who Omalu really is, but from some accounts he’s actually quite a flamboyant character who doesn’t mind the finer things in life. Wouldn’t a complex protagonist be a lot more interesting than some boring, lionised hero who always does the right thing against all odds?

None of this is a criticism of Smith, who delivers another stellar performance notwithstanding his lack of physical resemblance to the real Omalu (think a shorter, chubbier version of David Oyelowo, who actually would have been an awesome choice). And you could have fooled me that Smith’s African accent wasn’t shaky because it sounded pretty good to my untrained ears.

The rest of the cast is also very solid, with Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks being the standouts along with rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who feels slightly wasted in the love interest role.

In other words, the fundamentals of a good drama are all there. Writer and director Peter Landesman also doesn’t press too hard on the audience manipulation, setting up the impactful moments but not shoving the emotions down our throats (apart from “Tell the truth!”). For some, that might actually be a negative, as there are audiences who no doubt prefer to be told how to feel (a la The Blind Side).

Concussion is therefore not a bad film, but it’s also an unremarkable one. While the subject matter and overall quality of the production guarantee a viewing experience of a certain level, the decision to play it safe and stick to the oft-used blueprint for true stories/biopics denies it the opportunity to rise above the pack in the way that Spotlight did. And that’s the truth!

3.25 stars out of 5