15 January 2016

Beasts of No Nation Doesn't Do Its Subject Justice

Written and directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Full cast and crew at IMDb

This movie is too stylish for its subject. Fukunaga might be one of the best visual storytellers working; he was singlehandedly responsible for the eerie, briefly culture-conquering appeal of the first season of True Detective. His facility with camera movements and his misty, washed-out bayouscapes elevated Nic Pizzolatto’s pseudophilosophical bullshit into art; take them away, and you get Season Two. 

But child soldiers in war-torn Africa aren’t akin to the quasimystical villains of that HBO drama; their experience is a real experience, their violence a real violence, and Beasts of No Nation feels afraid of itself—afraid of the inherent ferocity, even softening it with Dan Romer’s tender score, making it weirdly beautiful with moody slow-motion and colorful, striking compositions. 

The content instead demands brutal honesty, brutal, like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left: cameras that can’t and won’t look away, because what they're showing is too serious to show any other way. Instead, Fukunaga presents it with the palatable outrage typical of Oscar nominees—and the movie got no nominations for the trouble. 

The Visit is Not a Return to Form for M. Night Shyamalan

Written and directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Full cast and credits at IMDb

What’s most surprising about The Visit is how derivative it is. M. Night Syamalan has always been more impressive as a director than a writer, a stylish and distinctive visual storyteller whose complexly lit, elegantly framed and provocatively prolonged shots were always more compelling than his twist-endings, even at their best (his first three movies); The Village and The Happening are great films, despite their silly scripts, because they’re magnificently composed. 

I know I’m in the minority here; most people consider Shyamalan foremost a writer, his trademark not long shots but narrative surprises, and so his latest, about two siblings who go to stay with their estranged, strange grandparents, was being called a “return to form.” Well. It’s a serviceable horror film, engaging enough for what it wants to be, which is low-stakes and easily consumed, exploiting popular trends: it’s found-footage horror (shot by the eldest child, a girl, who’s into moviemaking). Shyamalan sneaks in a few aesthetic characteristics: the best is when the kids meet their grandparents at the train station, and the girl leaves the camera on the other end of the platform, recording the crucial moment from an eye-squinting distance. 

Otherwise, this is familiar stuff, and not even from Shyamalan’s previous films. The scariest thing the grandmother does, in the middle of the night, is scurry around on the floor like a crustacean or a bug, her long, dark hair obscuring her face; it’s straight out of long-obsolete J-horror. And the “twist” at the end is easily guessed from the beginning. This may be a necessary palette cleanser for a director who spent the last few years consumed doing the hackiest hack work in Hollywood, such as After Earth and The Last Airbender. And I’d love to see Shyamalan return to form. But this isn’t that film. Instead, like so many filmmakers these days, he did his best work in almost a decade for television: Fox’s Wayward Pines miniseries, which is moody, handsome and full of unexpected developments.