Nothing beats the sheer adventurous spirit and eerie primal mythos that fuels Stephen Hopkin’s The Ghost And The Darkness. It’s a go-to comfort movie for me whenever I’m feeling down or stuck inside on a rainy night. It’s like a campfire tale told on a quite windless night on the Serengeti, and like all the best scary stories, this one has roots in fact. In 1898, production of the East Africa Railroad along the Tsavo River was stalled for weeks, the workers suffering repeated attacks from two savage, mysterious lions. Acting against instinct, killing for sport rather than food and disappearing back into the night as quickly as they came, they were so ferocious and relentless that locals gave the eerie nicknames “the ghost and the darkness.” The story has film written all over it, and Hopkins chooses the swashbuckling, Universal style horror route, and an irresistible tone. Val Kilmer, in his heyday, plays Patterson, an engineer sent by the boorish railroad tycoon Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson, chewing scenery like steak) to speed up production and pick up the slack in order to finish ahead of schedule. Not on the lions watch. He’s scarcely arrived when they begins their endless tirade of horrific attacks, forcing him to trust in the skills of leathery game hunter Remington (Michael Douglas), sort of like Van Helsing crossed with Indiana Jones. The film clocks in under two hours but it seems longer somehow, like we’re stuck with them in real time as the hopelessness of the situation sets into our bones, raising the stakes for our hunters and hammering home how terrifying an ordeal like this must be. Casting is on point here, watch for Bernard Hill as the sympathetic camp doctor, the late Om Puri and a brief early career cameo from Emily Mortimer as Patterson’s wife. Occasionally straying into the realm of melodrama is this one’s only fault, for the most part it’s a hair raising, nightmarish account of adventure and terror told with style, packed with atmospheres and primed to get pulses racing.
Usually, I’m not super hot on adaptations of John Le Carré novels. His style tends to veer towards dense, impenetrable narratives that confuse and confound me, and are further frustrating because they have such wonderful casts and production value (I’m lookin at you, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The Constant Gardener, however, is a breathtaking story that I’ve enjoyed very much since I saw it in theatres at probably too young an age. It fashions a story that although is complex and refuses to be straightforward about what it’s trying to say, contains essential beats and stunning performances from its actors. It’s also set apart from other Le Carré yarns for having the most humanistic, compasionate core to its story, centering it’s focus on the atrocities that humans can commit upon each other in mass, faceless fashion and showing us the sparse, golden good deeds that a few kind people can put forth to counter such madness. An organic, emotional theme is nice compared to the clinical, detached style we usually see from this writer. The film is lucky in the sense that it has deeply gifted leads: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two actors who always resonate with a relatable human kinship in their work, and are both superb here. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British ambassador in a god forsaken African region whose luminous wife Tessa (Weisz) is found dead in a remote area under suspicious circumstances. She was investigating several high profile pharmaceutical companies, under scrutiny for their sociopathic, amoral drug testing trials on the poverty stricken Africans. Intrigue strikes in after this, as shellshocked Justin pieces together what lead to her death, and how he can cripple those responsible using espionage and a level of keenness that’s well above both his pay grade and mental constitution. Flashbacks abound as we see Justin and Tessa’s early years unfold, adding all the more to the lumps in our throats as we know the ultimate outcome which the film frankly showed us in the opening frames. Welcome supporting turns come from other UK geniuses like Bill Nighy as an icy CEO, Richard McCabe as Fiennes’s courageous brother in law, Danny Huston as a shady friend of Tessa’s and Pete Postlethwaite as a mysterious doctor who figures later in the plot. Cinematographer César Charlone makes sweeping work of bringing the chaotic nature of Africa to life, it’s people, landcsape and aura beautifully rendered in shots that evoke the best of Monét and similar artists. Such beauty brought forth from a story filled with unpleasantness is interesting, almost a refusal to present the depressing story in any other fashion than to show us the virtue in tragedy, the cost of lost lives and unchecked corruption present for all to see and wince at, yet somewhat quelled by the undeniable forces of light also in play. Rachel and Ralph’s work is an example of this; They are compassion incarnate, pools of hurt, determination and love for one another in the face of evil, unfair odds. They should both be very proud of their work here. Direct Fernando Meirelles has helmed Blindness and the classic City Of God, and as such is no stranger to infusing pain and sorrow with esoteric, positive qualities. He takes full advantage of the African setting, where suffering is commonplace and along with his entire troupe, throws all the lush, alluring kindness straight into the face of horror in an audacious stylistic set of choices which make The Constant Gardener one of the most achingly well constructed romantic annd political thrillers of the decade.
Cary Fukunaga’s African child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation is tough-medicine cinema, yet most definitely not the film I was expecting. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it in one way or another after viewing it last weekend, and it’s a film I’m likely to revisit rather soon, thanks to Netflix running it as a streaming option on their site (Landmark Theaters, the only chain that’s theatrically presenting the film, doesn’t operate in my area). In Beasts of No Nation, it’s the sheer force of the filmmaking that immediately struck me; it’s clear that Fukunaga is an admirer and student of Mann and Malick, as his film echoes both Heat and The Thin Red Line on more than one occasion, be it from a sonic or image standpoint. The film is violent, but not as violent as you might expect, and I’m wondering if the film should have been even more upfront and explicit with its atrocities, but I think it’s the artistic subversion from the expected norm that is most startling during the film’s numerous sequences of bloody carnage and combat. And make no mistake – you’re definitely treated to some disturbing moments of emotional and physical abuse – it’s just handled in a more experiential manner. In a sense, Fukunaga has made an existential journey film starring an eight year old, and as such, there are sequences that feel incredibly impressionistic at times, literally like seeing life and all of the horrors that it can offer through the fleeting glimpses of a person too young to fully comprehend all of the details. My parents are here one minute…and gone the next. I’m all alone in the jungle…until I’m not. There’s someone here who wants to take care of me…but I don’t truly understand the methods to his madness. Fukunaga explores the notion of lost generations, children stripped of their familial identities, never to have them returned to any sort of normalcy.
It’s no surprise that Idris Elba is startling and fantastic as the corrupt ring-leader of the child soldiers, and it’s truly scary to watch him operate in this film. From one moment to the next, you can never truly predict his behavior, and the way Elba interacts with the children has a stinging realism that makes the film’s most harrowing moments all the more potent. Child actor Abraham Attah, making his feature film debut as Agu, is nothing short of spectacular, but not in the traditional sense of what you expect from a movie star or even an amateur phenomenon; he has the smarts, the poise, and seemingly the understanding of the material to make the toughest scenes in the film all the more challenging and rewarding to observe. Shot on location in Africa, this film has a fevered, nightmarish quality, with many of Fukunaga’s lush and beautiful images (he also operated as his own cinematographer) leaving a lasting impact that will be hard to shake for days. From the sight of grenades being duct taped into the mouths of prisoners to the surreal moments with the burning embers of tree branches that have been blasted by rockets from helicopters, Beasts of No Nation envelopes the viewer with a tactile sense of place and unnerving atmosphere, with gun shots consistently heard off in the distance, and bullets casually flying overhead. Dan Romer’s dynamic soundtrack builds to some nearly overwhelming crescendos of orchestral music, while the fluid editing keeps the two hour and 15 minute runtime moving at a very fast clip without ever feeling rushed. This isn’t a film to watch and immediately snap off a quick judgement; it needs to marinate and simmer and become fully processed after viewing, as it’s a film that dares to look at a subject that we only get soundbytes of from our meaningless mainstream news cycle. There’s also a faint whiff of racism in that Fukunaga was reportedly turned down by every major studio, with only Netflix having the temerity to finance and release this long-in-the-coming work of punishing art. Beasts of No Nation finished on a note that I never expected, and offers a journey of purposefully draining dramatics in an effort to shock and rattle the viewer. Ignoring this film shouldn’t be an option.