One Film Critic’s Week in Review: From Beasts of No Nation to The Last Witch Hunter

For film fans, the time period from late October through New Years is like one extended Christmas morning. All the big movies that you have been hearing about for the past year have their releases clustered together so that they can maximise their award-season potential. But for a film reviewer, you feel more like an accountant at tax time. You can’t let up for a moment or you will undoubtedly miss something significant.

For those of you who are interested, here is brief capsule of my week.

Monday: ROOM, directed by Lenny Abrahamson

The week got off to a roaring start with this tense thriller/psychological drama scripted by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel. Abrahamson, who directed the bizarrely beautiful cult favourite Frank last year, works wonders with this tale of entrapment and freedom. Five year old Jack has never lived anywhere other than the converted storage shed in which he and his mother Joy have been imprisoned by the sexual predator known only as Old Nick. But Jack is a very happy little boy because Joy has created an engaging world for him in “Room.” He knows virtually nothing of the world outside and so he doesn’t miss it. But Joy remembers and is desperate to free them both. The sequence in which Jack does escape is among the most riveting you will see in any movie this year. After their escape, Jack experiences all the wonders of the world, while Joy battles the reality of how much she has lost. The movie is both sad and uplifting, and Jacob Tremblay as Jack is a veritable life force for the movie, narrating, playing, screaming and filling the frame with infectious humanity. I currently have it as my third favourite movie of the year, and I don’t imagine it will slip much lower than that.

Tuesday: GOOSEBUMPS, directed by Rob Letterman

There’s a moment in Goosebumps in which a young police trainee, played by Amanda Lund, has come to check out a possible domestic disturbance at a quiet suburban home. But she is so excited by this case that she draws her gun and shouts “You’re under arrest!” as soon as the home owner opens his door. She is patiently corrected by her partner. This kind of very funny moment, given to a minor character, is emblematic of how clever this R. L. Stine adaptation is. It is geared toward kids as a comedy-horror, and its plot is rather mundane. Monsters converge on a small town high school during the big dance and only a group of plucky kids can save the day. Nothing very special in its plot or its look. But those clever moments elevate it well above a movie like Pixels, out earlier this year. With Jack Black delivering a pitch perfect creepy-funny performance as Stine, and a solid effort from Dylan Minnette as the good looking teenage hero, Goosebumps makes my top fifty so far, about fifty spaces above the aforementioned Pixels.

Wednesday: GOODNIGHT MOMMY, directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

If Goosebumps was creepy-funny, this Austrian import is just out & out creepy. Twin boys Lukas and Elias seem to lead an idyllic life in their isolated, expensive home. Running through fields and exploring caves, collecting insects and adopting a pet cat. But when their mother comes home from the hospital with her face wrapped in bandages and acting oddly, things begin to change. We begin to question the sanity of multiple characters and what seemed like domestic bliss morphs into domestic terror. The movie drifts into surrealism and develops the feel of some of Roman Polanski’s early psychological horrors. By the time we reach the harrowing climax, the tension becomes explosive. As in Room, child actors Lukas and Elias Schwarz carry a lot of the movie. Franz and Fiala, who also collaborated on the screenplay, underplay the horror very effectively so that the growing tension is unrelenting. Though dealing with more overtly horrific material, this also reminded me of 2014’s Force Majeure, only I found this story far more engaging. Currently 31st on my 2015 list.

Thursday: STEVE JOBS, directed by Danny Boyle

This is the only movie I saw this week that I wrote a full review on, even though there were two that I liked better. But there is a lot to say about Aaron Sorkin’s tightly structured screenplay, Boyle’s frenetic visualisation, and a series of strong performances. And, of course, about the subject itself. Based on Walter Isaacson’s profile, the movie does a very good job of capturing the restless genius and the astonishing cruelty that teamed up to create Jobs. Sorkin builds the screenplay around three distinct product launches – the original Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1988, and the new Mac in 1998. Each sequence shows Jobs backstage preparing to dazzle yet another curious crowd, as four friends/co-workers – key Macintosh player Joanna Hoffman, programmer Andy Hertzfeld, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and Apple CEO John Sculley – come to debate various technical and personal issues. In the middle of each sequence, Jobs’ personal demons, in the person of unacknowledged daughter Lisa, will also make an appearance. Sorkin is gifted enough to make this work and there are moments of sheer verbal brilliance. There are also moments, as in the middle sequence when Sculley’s firing of Jobs from Apple is handled in a dizzying intercut sequence of flashbacks, in which the movie gets so dense and difficult that it becomes hard to even watch, much less follow. It’s possible that a movie about a difficult genius was best served by a difficult, genius structure, but it might have been better to open things up. And it definitely would have been better to have some continuity person pay attention to Kate Winslett’s Polish accent, which seems to grow stronger over time in her portrayal of Hoffman. Despite those problems, this remains an engrossing and at times dazzling portrait of a fascinating character, good enough to make my top 15 as of now.

Friday: The Last Witch Hunter, directed by Breck Eisner

And this one makes my bottom 15. Enough said? Well, let me just add that for a movie that was sort-of, kind-of inspired by a video game, this feels more like an adult rip-off of Harry Potter without any of the charm or wit or sensitivity. It doesn’t even get its bread and butter action scenes right. They are dark and choppily edited and almost impossible to follow. This is too bad because the premise is actually rather good. But the story makes little sense, the twists are pretty easy to see coming, and lead Vin Diesel doesn’t even make my top ten list of things that are wrong with the movie. That is stern condemnation if ever I saw it.

Saturday: BEASTS OF NO NATION, directed (and written and filmed) by Cary Jojo Fukunaga

Fukunaga’s return to features should put him at the forefront of under-40 filmmakers. This NetFlix original, which is also being released theatrically, is a devastating portrait of how civil war has wreaked havoc on generations of African children. It is at times barbaric and hallucinatory, at times sweet and mischievous, and in Abraham Attah as its central figure and narrator Agu, it offers another child who, like Jacob Tremblay, is impossible not to watch. The scene of Agu carrying his wounded friend Strika through the jungle is as emotionally devastating as Jack’s escape in Room is relentless. This also boasts a stand-out performance by Idris Elba as the revolutionary commandant who takes Agu in after the boy’s family has been killed. There is at least one regular contributor to Curnblog who I know will have a strong reaction to Beasts, for it is hard to watch this dissection of the madness of war without thinking Fukunaga must have been influenced by Elem Klimov’s apocalyptic Come and See. Fukunaga pulls back a little bit, injecting minor glimpses of hope into the devastation. In so doing, he might lose just a little bit, for there is nothing in Beasts that can equal the burning of the Perekhody church in Klimov’s movie. Then again, there are few scenes in the history of cinema that can equal that sequence. Beasts of No Nation does just fine without the comparisons. I am still figuring where it goes on my list, but it is securely in my Top 10.

So there you have it. A pretty good week, all in all. See Room. See Beasts of No Nation. Skip The Last Witch Hunter. See the others based on your interest in the subject matter. As for me – and I don’t mean for this to sound like I have a God complex – I’m taking Sunday off. After all, I need to rest up before seeing Paranormal Activity: the Ghost Dimension next week.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

9 thoughts on “One Film Critic’s Week in Review: From Beasts of No Nation to The Last Witch Hunter

  1. The Last Witch Hunter was disappointing, But – I ask you: how many other movies star Michael Caine and Vin Diesel? For that combination alone it was worth the price of the ticket.
    And thanks for the pointer on Goodnight Mommy.

  2. You have my condolences in advance on having to watch another Paranormal Activity movie (and this coming from someone who thought the series actually had the potential to regain its former glory until the last fifty seconds of The Marked Ones).

    • Thanks James. And in the middle of the week, I caught a nice print of Rififi in a theatre. Good to remind yourself of a classic when in the middle of so much new stuff.

  3. I’m actually aiming to finish 5 reviews this week, too! I don’t know what I’m doing here writing a comment. Solidarity, maybe? Humble brag. No. The thought is stressing me, but so far I got two revisions all done and I started Room yesterday, so I’ll finish it this morning (I didn’t like it as much as you did. I think the child’s perspective has some built in traps that critics are falling into. Although it is a much better film than Frank). Then the German film submitted for Oscar: Labyrinth of Lies and hopefully ending with a review of The Experimenter. Yep, it’s Oscar season!

  4. I like the look of ‘Room’ very much, Jon. And you mention ‘Come and See’ in your overview of ‘Beasts Of No Nation’, which immediately piqued my interest of course. That is prestigious company to be in, so I hope that it is as good as it reads. I recall the similarly-themed ‘Johnny Mad Dog’, (2008) which impressed me at the time. Is it better than that, I wonder?

    Thanks for the list, and as always for your thoughts on them too. I don’t know whether to be envious of your job or not. On balance, I reckon I am. Quite a lot.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. The Come and See reference was for you. It isn’t as oppressive or as single-minded, but it certainly delivers its message. I’ll be interested in hearing how you compare them.

Leave a Reply