Review: Beasts of No Nation

A big screen movie made by streaming media behemoth Netflix, for click and view streaming, Cary Fukunaga’s beautifully brutal war story, Beasts of No Nation feels too large and too difficult a watch to warrant a casual click on a stay-at-home Friday night. But this is where we are in terms of movie-going in 2015, and forgive me if this seems a vulgar comparison, not unlike the political landscape in the anonymous African country where, “nothing is ever for sure, and everything is always changing.”

Beasts of No Nation is a grand experience on a heartbreaking subject matter, told at a pace that easily turns from relentless tension to quiet introspection, featuring child soldiers and rebel militias that are indistinguishable from the corrupt government. If I heard right, Nigeria is mentioned once, presumably because that is where the author of the novel on which the story is based, Uzodinma Iweala, hails from. The movie is never clear on this, but clearly wants to be a universal story about the misery of endless, senseless (and probably petty) warfare on the Dark Continent – particularly from the point of view of a child.

As evidenced in the many establishing shots in the first season of True Detective, Fukunaga has an eye for long-shot tableaux, and here the green jungle stands out against the rusty soil peppered with children carrying sporting camouflage and Kalashnikovs. Presumably the land’s vermilion hue is due to all the blood spilt in conflict without end. The film has no problem erupting the red stuff, mostly by the hands of these children; the most harrowing are two children taking a machete to the skull of a panicked civil engineer, his hands in the air of surrender. There is blood on the camera in this scene, literally.

That it was not always so, however, is the greatest trick pulled on the audience. The first twenty minutes of Beasts of No Nation are set in a poor but bustling town on the edge of the war. Children have the frame of a television set that they are carrying around, trying to sell as an ‘imagination TV’ where, once they set it down on a table, they proceed to rapid fire act out various ‘channels’ for the onlookers: dance programs, kung-fu movies, and so forth. There is no school (it burned down) and lots of idle hands, but the feeling is of freedom rather than poverty. The tone is all singing and dancing and innocent joy. We meet Agu and his family. Agu’s mother chides their behavior, “if you do not know what to do, ask God for the answer.”

This, right before she is put on a crowded and expensive vehicle (conflict-surge pricing of which Uber has got absolutely nothing on) to get out of the area before things get bad. God is not listening. She will not be seen again as the war descends on the town in the form of armoured gun trucks and death squads. In the chaos, it is not entirely clear if anyone survives beyond Agu. He witnesses the brutal murder of his entire family circle before fleeing into the jungle alone. It is here that he is quickly swallowed up by what will be his next family unit.

At this point in his career, it is not like British actor Idris Elba needs a coming out party. This, more or less, happened a decade ago, playing an educated Baltimore drug pusher in HBO’s The Wire. And despite having a couple of Ridley Scott movies under his belt, several jaunts through the Marvel Comic Universe, four seasons with his own UK TV show Luther, a Nelson Mandela biopic, a Guillermo del Toro Kaiju flick, and has been the subject of an on again off again campaign to make him the next James Bond, Beasts of No Nation still feels like we are just getting to see what kind of star-making performances the man is capable of.

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Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp [trailer]

I never saw the original film from 2001, but apparently it’s pretty funny. Funny enough that Netflix is releasing an 8-part mini-series that is a prequel to the original. The fact that it stars basically the same cast but they’re all 15 years older is part of the gag I guess.

Anyway, here’s the trailer if you’re into this sort of thing. Some bits work in here pretty well, others don’t. I quite like the “what?”, “nothing.”, “what?” banter at the end with Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black.

The cast is stacked: Elizabeth Banks, H. Jon Benjamin, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Janeane Garofalo, Nina Hellman, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, AD Miles, Marguerite Moreau, Christopher Meloni, Zak Orth, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Marisa Ryan, David Wain, Molly Shannon, Michael Showalter, Jordan Peele, Kristen Wiig, and introducing Jon Hamm.


Review: Mission Blue

I am never one to say no to beautifully lit underwater photography, either in grainy 16 mm or pristine HD. Here there is plenty, but the most compelling image in activist/biopic documentary, Mission Blue, is that of a lone plastic lawn chair, sparsely illuminated on the ocean floor. It is a bit of detritus found thousands of miles from land and a reminder that the consequences of our civilization of convenience and plenty, range far. This is hardly news to you, savvy filmgoer and documentary enthusiast, and director Fisher Stevens (with Robert Nixon) are aware that the audience for their film knows the ocean has been used by humanity as a vast sewer.

Thus, the intent of their documentary is to frame things in a new perspective. That is to say, collectively, we have made this colossal mess over pretty much a single lifespan. Take a minute to think about that. With no irony whatsoever, the example span, writ large, is the accomplished Marine Biologist Sylvia Earle, celebrity scientist since the 1960s who is now pushing 80 and still full of life and passion for preservation of earth and memory. But things have changed pretty dramatically since she dipped her toe into the Gulf of Mexico as a child.

Stevens, if you recall, has an Oscar for producing another piece of aquatic activism, 2010’s The Cove, and here he spent three years with Earle, in wetsuits, diving off The Galapagos Islands, on the lecture circuit with bottled water, and in her memories – as a child, spouse (three husbands), mother, numerous expeditions to untouched parts of the world, and even a brief time as government bureaucrat managing The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mission Blue again confirms Werner Herzog’s musing that exploring the deep oceans is analogous to exploring the stars. How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky. The difference is that in our terrestrial big blue, there are teeming amounts of ‘alien’ lifeforms, glowing and gracefully moving; things that make James Cameron’s chemiluminescent CGI recreations in Avatar kindergarten stuff by comparison. Cameron and Earle respectfully tussled over who got to ride in his deep diving submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench a few years ago. Earle broke deep diving records via JIM suit in the 1970s, earlier, she was of the first people to live for a lengthy period of time in an underwater habitat. She lobbied the ‘king of the world’ to get his his tall skinny ass out of his own gear, and give her a shot at going deeper.

She burned through several marriages, had a bunch of kids, and generally shattered any 1950s or 60s notion of the domestic female, becoming a celebrated science icon along the way. She reflects on the difficult of the balancing act for family, and it’s not hard to scale up the notion to how we manage the planet. Mistakes were made, and things chug along, older, more frail, but still hanging in and carrying on. It is a major plus to have the Earle do the bulk of the films voice-over; she is as complex and compelling a human being as one would expect.

She can say, “I saw the before. I saw the after,” when it comes to the death of so many of the worlds great coral reefs and other vibrant parts of the planets hidden depths. The massive depletion of so many types of species of fish (Cod, Menhaden and even the mighty and feared shark) in service of feeding, often indulging, a human population that ballooned from two billion to seven billion people, happened over her lifetime.

How many sharks have people killed compared to how many people sharks have killed? A million to one ratio, most likely. And that is just fishing for the fins that are craved so much in Chinese soups. This does not even count all the dead zones in the ocean we’ve caused in the past 50 years: not just dumping garbage, or Exxon Valdez oil-disasters, these are almost minor compared to the run-off of farming fertilizer carried in the water table and rivers into the oceans which plays holy hell with the eco-system. If the oceans are the planets temperature regulations system, climate change is not just carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it is also the barren spaces we’ve wrought; a chair with a view of the annexation of Earth’s very own ‘Galaxy of Life.’

OK, one can get a little depressed about this stuff, and so, like many activists docs, Mission Blue exits on a hopeful note. The eponymous organization to designate the equivalent of 20% of the ocean space as aquatic National Parks. (No drilling, no dumping, no hunting.) A fifth of the ocean allowed a breather to recover from the burden the last 100 years of human history seems reasonable and sane.

Whether or not you find this documentary didactic or obvious (humans muck up nature, it’s what we do) or even a commercial for Earle’s Mission Blue project, this does not change the fact that it is all clearly and compellingly presented. The discarded lawn chair is a source for almost a paralyzing melancholy, but we can just pick the damn thing up and let nature fix herself.

Mission Blue available exclusively on Netflix, and the trailer is below:

Netflix Will Continue its Television Show-like Series Releases with Something for the Kiddies

After our small discussion about “House of Cards” on episode 290 of The Cinecast, there is/was much chatter in the comments about the future of release schedules when it comes to Netflix original content and their episodic entertainment. “House of Cards” full season was released in one fell swoop so that viewers could just enjoy the entire run from start to finish at their own pace rather than being forced to wait for the next episode on a week by week basis.

So this July, Dreamworks Animation is theatrically releasing their next potential franchise with Turbo; “a high velocity 3D comedy about an ordinary snail who dares to dream big – and fast.” Then in December, Dreamworks is collaborating with Netflix to release an animated series based on the movie specifically for the Netflix kids audience entitled “Turbo: F. A. S. T. (Fast Action Stunt Team)”.

So by going after the little ones, this is one more step in the direction of subscriber based television becoming the norm. Of course it likely won’t be the norm for many many years yet, but it’s headed that way. The story doesn’t say whether “Turbo: F. A. S. T.” will be released all at once, but my hunch is yes it will.

“Netflix boasts one of the largest and fastest-growing audiences in kids television. They pioneered a new model for TV dramas with House of Cards, and now together, we’re doing the same thing with kids’ programming,” said DreamWorks Animation’s Chief Executive Officer, Jeffrey Katzenberg . “DreamWorks is thrilled to be part of the television revolution.”

So your kids will now be begging you for Netflix so they can watch the new big thing (presumably similar to something like Shrek or Cars) and you’ll be able to plop them down in the rec room for 16 hours of straight animation while you get your house work done.

The Best Holiday Movies You Can Watch Instantly On Netflix

With winter in season, the entertainment world starts buzzing about the upcoming holidays. TV channels play holiday shows and movies, and radio stations air Christmas songs. Families start getting into the holiday spirit, and with the cold weather outside, people huddle around the TV more.

If you’re not an avid TV watcher, then Netflix is the next best option. Netflix streaming through an Xbox 360, Wii, PS3, Google TV, Android or an iPhone/iPod can let you get instant access to thousands of movies anytime, as long as you have a reliable internet connection.

Top Holiday Movies Found On Netflix

According to Matt Barone at, Netflix has over 100 top rated movies from every genre, streaming at any given time. Viewers can take their pick of some of the greatest action, adventure, horror, comedy, sci-fi, or family movies ever made, but for the upcoming holidays, here are some great movies you can find to celebrate the season:

Miracle on 34th Street

This television classic has been around since 1955. Thomas Mitchell plays Kris Kringle, a department store Santa who claims to be the real Santa Claus. A feel-good movie for families.

Home Alone 2

Kevin, played by Macaulay Culkin, was left home the previous year and had to defeat a pair of burglars. This time he finds himself in New York City and the same criminals are not far behind. Definitely a great comedy to watch with friends or family.

White Christmas

Two military war friends, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, fall for two sisters and follow the girls to a resort owned by their former commanding officer, who is in danger of losing the place. A great romantic movie for couples.

Jingle All the Way

In this family comedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a father who decides to get the hottest toy for his son just before Christmas Day. Competing with another father (played by comedian Sinbad) for one of the last toys, he encounters a number of problems along the way.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

The Griswold family plans a big family Christmas, only to be turned into a huge disaster, featuring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. Classic Chevy Chase movie.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

In this Tim Burton classic, Jack Skellington, King of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas Town and tries to understand the concept. This movie revolutionized the genre for its unique animation, characters, and creativity. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should add it to your list to watch.


Will Ferrell plays a man raised as an elf in the North Pole, who discovers he’s not an elf and goes to the U.S. to find out who he really is and where he came from. The success of the film has turned it into one of the top rated Christmas movies of all time.

DVD Triage: Jiro Dreams of Silent Houses and Deep Blue Seas

So I missed doing last week’s DVD Triage altogether, and what a mistake THAT was. There were a lot of interesting releases last week, compared to a relatively slow week this week. So I thought I’d just quickly list last week’s most interesting releases quickly here before getting into this week’s. Highly Recommended: The Turin Horse, Extraterrestrial. Recommended: Mamitas. Curious Myself: Lockout, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Intruders. Other Notable Releases: The Three Stooges, Get the Gringo, Casa de Mi Padre, Friends With Kids, 4:44 Last Day on Earth. TV Releases: Eureka S5, Leverage S4, Sanctuary S4, Alphas S1. I’ll do the same for classics down in that section. I have just included last week’s Instant Watch releases along with this week’s; not an inordinate amount of either releases or expirations.

New Release Pick of the Week

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
This documentary about Jiro Ono, widely considered the finest sushi chef in the world, and his ongoing love for his art and striving toward perfection in the sushi that he prepares and serves has been getting near-universal acclaim on its way around the festival circuit. Our own Marina adds to that with a four-star DVD review.
2011 USA. Director: David Gelb. Starring Jiro Ono, Yashikazu Ono.

Other New Releases

Age of the Dragons (2012 USA, dir Ryan Little, stars Danny Glover)
Bathory: Countess of Blood (2012 USA, dir Jurai Jakubisko, stars Anna Friel)
Big Easy Express (2012 USA, dir Emmett Malloy, stars Mumford & Sons, etc.)
Boss: Season 1 (2011 USA, stars Kelsey Grammer, Connie Nielsen)
Brake (2012 USA, dir Gabe Torres, stars Stephen Dorff)
Inspector Lewis: Series 5 (2011 UK, stars Kevin Whately, Laurence Fox)
Meeting Evil (2012 USA, dir Chris Fisher, stars Luke Wilson)
My Way (2011 South Korean, dir Je-kyu Kang, stars Jang Dong-Gun)
On the Inside (2011 USA, dir D.W. Brown, stars Nick Stahl)
Treasure Island (2012 UK, dir Steve Barron, stars Eddie Izzard)

Would you like to know more…?

DVD Triage: Margaret and Flynn Have an American Reunion

New Release Pick of the Week

After sitting on a shelf for some eight years, Margaret finally got a very limited release last year, and despite a muddled trailer and mixed reaction, a whole raft of critics have emerged acclaiming it as a masterpiece, albeit a flawed and messy one – this release is a longer and presumably more coherent director’s cut. I didn’t get out to see it myself, but I admit I’m fascinated by the story surrounding it.
2011 USA. Director: Kenneth Lonergan. Starring: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, J. Smith-Cameron, Allison Janney.

Other New Releases

Adventure Time: Season 1 (2010 USA, creator Pendleton Ward)
The Flowers of War (2012 China, dir Zhang Yimou, stars Christian Bale)
Senna Blu-ray (2010 UK, dir Asif Kapadia)

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DVD Triage: Instant to the Rescue!

There is pretty much JACK SHIT in terms of New Releases this week, and not very much of interest in catalog releases, either aside from a few possibly-but-not-really interesting Blu-ray upgrades. So I exercised creative license and moved the Instant Watch section to the top, because they came through with first-of-the-month releases this time, and there are quite a few notable things to check out. Look further down for DVD releases, and still further for Instant Watch expirations, which are pretty much the same as last week.

Instant Watch Picks of the Week

12 Monkeys
This is pretty high on my personal to-see list, not least of which because I think I’ve already seen it and can’t remember a lick of it. But I’m a pretty big fan of the original short La Jetée, and Terry Gilliam doing a feature-length take on that idea can only be a good thing.
1995 USA. Director: Terry Gilliam. Starring: Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Christopher Plummer.

In the Mood for Love
There was actually just a conversation about this film as compared to other Wong Kar Wai films, and if you weren’t sure which side you came down on, here’s a chance to watch or rewatch it. Personally, I think this film is gorgeous and amazing, though I haven’t seen all of Wong’s filmography by a long shot.
2000 China. Director: Wong Kar Wai. Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung.

Once Upon a Time in the West
Man With No Trilogy notwithstanding, this is easily the Leone film I want to come back to most often, even if it’s just to drink in that opening scene one more time. A great villainous turn from Fonda doesn’t hurt at all, either.
1969 Italy. Director: Sergio Leone. Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudie Cardinale, Jason Robards.

Other Instant Watch Releases

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DVD Triage: The Wrath of 21 Artists

Trying a new thing with the title this week, instead of just the boring old date. Kinda silly, but yeah. There are quite a few releases this week, both new and catalog, big name and festival faves. Oscar films are out in force with both The Artist and foreign film nominee Bullhead making their way to DVD and Blu-ray. Meanwhile, Criterion has some tasty new Blu-rays, and small distributor Olive is making marks with two difficult-to-find Jean-Luc Godard films.

New Release Picks of the Week

The Artist
Last year’s Oscar winner and a pretty big favorite around here, too – I know I couldn’t manage to resist its old-fashioned charm and homage to the silent film era. Simply a lovely and adorable film.
2011 France. Director: Michel Hazanavicius. Starring: Jean Dujardin, Béatrice Bejo, John Goodman, James Woods.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
A very long, slow burn, but one that ended up sticking with me far longer than a lot of festival films do. The mystery isn’t the point here, the character interactions are, and they unfold with a subtlety (and sly humor) I didn’t expect, but very much appreciated.
2011 Turkey. Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel.

Other New Releases

Christopher Nolan Director’s Collection Blu-ray (includes Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception, Memento, Insomnia)
Damages: Season 4 (2012 USA, stars Glenn Close, Rose Byrne)
The Decoy Bride (2012 UK, dir Sheree Folkson, stars David Tennant)
Oranges and Sunshine (2010 UK, dir Jim Loach, stars Emily Watson)
The Perfect Family (2011 USA, dir Anne Renton, stars Emily Deschanel)
Sector 7 (2011 South Korea, dir Kim Ji-Hoon, stars Ha Ji-Won)
A Thousand Words (2012 USA, dir Brian Robbins, stars Eddie Murphy, Allison Janney)
Sound of Noise (2012 Sweden, dir Johannes Stjarne Nilsson, stars Bengt Nilsson)

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DVD Triage: 19 June, 2012

Sorry about the horrific delay in this column this week! Between big projects at work, my husband’s car being in the shop, and trying to squeeze in some LA Film Fest screenings, my writing time was a bit cramped this week. Also, after lulling me into complacency with very few expirations over the last several weeks, Netflix is expiring a whole slew of awesome things on the first of July, which both took me a long time to list out and made me sad while I was doing it. Lots of great stuff in there, so be sure to check the full list.

New Release Picks of the Week

Stylistically caught between the French and Czech New Waves and whatever Tsangari and Lanthimos are leading down in Greece right now, this film is a low-key but secretly weighty look at a young woman’s unconventional attempts to deal with her late-blooming sexuality and the impending death of her father. My AFI review.
2010 Greece. Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari. Starring: Ariane Labed, Evangalia Randou, Vangelis Mourikis, Yorgos Lanthimos.

Jeff Who Lives at Home
Jay and Mark Duplass, once poster children for the Mumblecore movement, are edging nearer and nearer the mainstream, and from all I’ve heard, it’s working out pretty well for them. I’ve yet to see this one, but despite not usually being interested in the Segal/Helms oeuvre, I’m curious to check it out.
2011 USA. Director: Jay and Mark Duplass. Starring: Jason Segal, Ed Helms.

Other New Releases

The Big Fix (2011 USA, dir Rebecca Harrell & Joshua Tickell, stars Peter Fonda)
Cat Run (2011 USA, dir John Stockwell, stars Paz Vega)
Exit Humanity (2011 Canada, dir John Geddes, stars Brian Cox)
Four Lovers (2010 France, dir Antony Cordier, stars Marina Fois)
Franklin & Bash: Season 1 (2011 USA, stars Breckin Meyer)
Holy Rollers (2011 USA, dir Bryan Storkel, stars Colin Jones)
My Afternoons with Margueritte (2011 France, dir Jean Becker, stars Gerard Depardieu)
My Reincarnation (2011 Tibet, dir Jennifer Fox)
Seeking Justice (2011 USA, dir Roger Donaldson, stars Nicolas Cage)
Wilfred: Season 1 (2011 USA, stars Elijah Wood)

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