Saturday, December 12, 2015
Not a good Christmas tree movie
I think of it as an informal tradition each year on the night we erect our Christmas tree to settle in for some nice viewing that enhances that holiday mood.
Last year, for example, I think it was the sweet little indie Happy Christmas, the Joe Swanberg movie that just plastered a big smile on my face.
Checking my records, it was not in fact Happy Christmas, which we did not watch until December 21st. That would have been more than a week after we got our tree. But Happy Christmas is the kind of movie you watch in this scenario, anyway.
Beasts of No Nation is, um, not.
Nor should it have ever been considered to be such. In fact, we pretty much knew it wouldn't be. But near the end of 2015, we have backed ourselves into a bit of a cinematic corner. We've front-loaded all the "easy" viewing, the stuff that seemed like a "fun" watch. Leaving us with a bunch of important documentaries and things like Beasts of No Nation, which, to its credit, earned Netflix a Golden Globe nomination (for Idris Elba) just a few days ago.
There was a point in the film's first 20 minutes when I said "You know what? A good movie is a good movie, and it doesn't matter if the subject matter is challenging. It can still give you that much sought-after 'special feeling,' simply because that's what the movies can do. They can transport you and give you the kind of cinema-affirming experience you seek in a Christmas tree movie, even if they are about youth soldiers killing each other in Africa, just because great cinema is great cinema, and great cinema rewards even when it punishes."
After those first 20 minutes, Beasts of No Nation punished, but it did not reward.
And boy did it punish.
I certainly wasn't expecting anything rosy from the guy who directed season 1 of True Detective, the brilliant Sin Nombre and the very good Jane Eyre, none of which are the least bit rosy, nor from the guy who cited creative differences in stepping away from the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King's It because he wanted to make it more depraved than the studio could stomach. Cary Fukunaga is not a rosy filmmaker.
To get a bit of an idea how much the rug is pulled out from under you in Beasts of No Nation, the first 20 minutes of this movie are actually funny. I laughed like six times. There was absurd humor and life-affirming humor and a sense that things were basically okay even in a part of the world where things were basically not okay.
Then things became really, totally, absolutely not okay, and stayed that way for the rest of the movie.
Neither do I want Cary Fukunaga to sugarcoat what's going on in Africa right now, what has been going on for years and what will be going on for years to come. But if you're going to give me a brutal look at feral soldier types indiscriminately spraying machine gun fire, indifferently executing some people, and then very consciously executing some other people in very barbaric ways, at least do it for less than two hours and 17 minutes. I get the gist of that kind of thing over a lean 95 minutes, thank you very much.
As ever, Fukunga is a technician of the highest order -- he shoots his own movies and makes everything look absolutely terrific. But if you thought the True Detective first season story was meandering and plodding and ultimately didn't go where you thought it was going to go, or worse, didn't seem to go anywhere at all, you should expect more of the same here. And you should expect it to frustrate you more than perhaps it did there.
And dammit, it's just not the thing to watch when you've spent the earlier part of the evening screwing trees into tree stands, hanging lights and ornaments and listening to the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Unfortunately, Peanuts is not out here yet, and it's really not out yet on video.