Fires On The Plain (1959)
Director: Kon Ichikawa
The year is 1945, and the setting is the (just barely) Japanese-occupied Philippines. Japan has been losing the war and its army has been reduced by lack of supplies and manpower. As things go from bad to worse, discipline breaks down too, and the army begins to resemble a gang of convicts more than a fighting force. Soon it becomes a brutish fight for survival.
All of this horror is told through the eyes of a tubercular Japanese soldier. His sickness in some ways protects him from the worst of the ugliness around him, but no one really emerges unaffected. This is a story of the effects of extreme duress on human social bonds, and on this level, it succeeds marvelously. And while extreme hardships can bring out the most terrible human impulses, they can also bring out the best.
The actors deliberately starved themselves to achieve a realistic look; production even needed to shut down for a time when one actor collapsed on set.
Director: John Hillcoat
Depression-era bootleggers (the Bondurant brothers) in rural Virginia are pushed around by a corrupt law enforcement officer who wants a slice of their illicit profits. They’re not happy about that, being used to going their own way and doing their own thing.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between the brothers and the corrupt official (played by an oily Guy Pearce), as the Pearce character tries to locate the Bondurants’ big still in the woods. There is an unimportant subplot about one of the brothers’ (Shia LaBoeuf) romance with a local girl.
Not much of importance happens here, but this movie is still worth a watch, I suppose. Tom Hardy plays the main role as one of the Bondurant brothers, and watching him growl and mumble through his scenes is always a pleasure. At least for me, anyway.
Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Director: Cary Fukunaga
One of the best war films of recent years, and a remarkable achievement. The plot tells the story of a war orphan in an unnamed West African country who is impressed into service with a local warlord. It’s a story that could have been taken from any one of the many conflicts in West Africa over the past few decades, but never before have filmmakers taken up the subject. Presumably this is because they (falsely) assume that foreign audiences would not be interested in such conflicts.
But conflict is conflict, and the same dramas and emotions come to play whether we are in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or West Africa. The gritty realism here is amazing, and had me wondering more than once how the hell the director was able to film some of these combat scenes. And on a personal level, we see just how tragic it is when children are brutalized and desensitized to violence to such an extent that atrocities just become business as usual.
The film is really carried by two actors: the boy Agu (Abraham Attah) and British actor Idris Elba. Both performances are fantastic. Those used to seeing Elba in his usual film and TV roles will be surprised at his transition to the bloodthirsty rebel “Commandant.” He gets it all perfectly: the accent, the dress, the posture, and the unfeeling cruelty. It’s movies like this one that restore our faith in cinema to tell stories that have power and current relevance.
Not to be missed.
Director: Dan Gilroy
This is Jake Gyllenhaal at his very best. He plays a weasely little sicko named Louis Bloom. Basically, Bloom decides to go into business for himself as a freelance news-gatherer. He drives around Los Angeles at all hours of the day and night, looking for lurid crime stories that he then sells to local TV stations.
But what starts out as an enterprising little bit of work soon turns into an amoral obsession. There is nothing that this guy will not do to get a story. Nothing. Bloom sabotages other competitors, lies to everyone, manipulates TV producers, and practically participates in crimes himself in order to generate attention.
This is a brilliant allegory, and a zeitgeist film, about our celebrity-seeking and attention-obsessed culture. And it’s chilling in its accuracy. In the view of some people, morals, ethics, and basic human decency mean nothing when fame and celebrity are at stake. What makes all this so disturbing is that we all know people exactly like Louis Bloom. Our society is breeding them, and it only seems to be getting worse.
I dare you not to be unsettled by this one.
Read More: Sunday Film Roundup (6/5/2016)