First Watch: Steve Jobs

The trailer for Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs asks if a great man can be a good a man, or as Steve Wozniak’s character says, “both decent and gifted.” Steve Jobs, the character, isn’t interested in that morality or with pleasing anyone but himself. Jobs’s only motivation is sharing his vision with the world, giving all that he has to give, the entirety of his flawed self. He knows no other way. Jobs also knows what we want before we want it, and he leaves us to catch up. The movie follows Steve Jobs backstage through a maze of messy relationships, joining the endless queue for his attention. It’s a constant chase and we are always a few steps behind.

Fassbender’s portrayal of Jobs is believable and gripping. The movie revolves around three product launches — three of the tensest moments of his life. The small scope of the story and close-up shots revealing only a fraction of Jobs’s face suggest the audience is only receiving half of the story, half of the man. Fassbender argues that idea, emitting a full range of emotion, easily transitioning from aggressive to lighthearted in a matter of moments. Immediately following the film’s best scene, a heated encounter with Apple CEO played by Sorkin favorite, Jeff Daniels, Fassbender playfully slides down a stair rail.

As expected, the Aaron Sorkin screenplay is perfect. Accompanied by a subtle, pulsating score from Daniel Pemberton, his magical words with musical cadence are fit for the grand stage of Steve Jobs. The man and the movie are made for theater. Each product launch is grander and more ambitious, each encounter filled with more angst and resentment, each crescendo echoing louder, culminating in an impromptu showdown between Rogen and Fassbender. Their relationship is the most captivating and often results in Rogen delivering some of the film’s most poignant advice. Rogen as a dramatic actor is great. He is always on his back foot, perfectly encapsulating the apprehension everyone employs during an encounter with Jobs.

Jobs’s list of friends dwindles fewer by the minute, but the movie still makes it difficult to choose sides. We are all too familiar with the mythology and genius of his work. Even during the film’s most humanizing moments, Jobs is unable to help himself from his own genius, keeping a safe distant from others. That is where we must remain, outside of the room, eavesdropping. We can question the truth of what we hear, but we cannot turn away; the story is too great.

First Watch: Beasts of No Nation

Agu, played by Abraham Attah, looks right into the camera during Beast of No Nation’s final moments, telling a counselor from the missionary school which has abruptly supplanted his harrowing days as an NDF child soldier that he “just want[s] to be happy in this life.” The weight of the film’s previous 130 minutes is visibly bearing down upon him, the vigor, joy, and mischievousness that can be found in his eyes at the film’s onset gone, replaced by motionless, murky pools. Most importantly his innocence. He tells the counselor of the family that loves him, of his good heart, his good nature, more trying to convince himself than whomever is sitting in the chair opposite, trying to convince the viewer whom has seen this world through Agu’s eyes, been forced to drown inside of those growing pools right alongside him.

Agu, played by Abraham Attah, looks right into the camera during Beast of No Nation's final moments, telling a counselor from the missionary school which has abruptly supplanted his harrowing days as an NDF child soldier that he "just want[s] to be happy in this life." The weight of the film's previous 130 minutes is visibly bearing down upon him, the vigor, joy, and mischievousness that can be found in his eyes at the film's onset gone, replaced by motionless, murky pools. Most importantly his innocence. He tells the counselor of the family that loves him, of his good heart, his good nature, more trying to convince himself than whomever is sitting in the chair opposite, trying to convince the viewer that has seen this world through Agu's eyes, been forced to drown inside of those growing pools right alongside him.

It's this progression housed in Agu's eyes that makes his plea all the more heartbreaking. We have seen him at his best: eating dinner at ease and playfully joking with his family, a door-to-door "imagination television" pitchman goofing off with his friends, and we have seen him at his worst: hacking an innocent academic beyond recognition with a machete in painfully drawn-out slow motion, something like enjoyment briefly floating to the surface of those otherwise still pools. It's the existence of both of those boys in the version of Agu that asks for his redemption that makes Beasts of No Nation such a complicated, gut-wrenching story. Were both of those boys always present? Floating in and out of existence as the circumstances call for, the ruthless killer lurking in the shadows of the dinner table or the little troublemaker shuddering on the side of the battle-torn road. While we can't know the answer to that question, it's an unequivocal yes that both of those boys now live inside of Agu, and he'll have to forever reckon with that, something Attah makes beautifully and tragically apparent in the film's final, high-stakes scene.

Leaning so heavily on Attah, a complete unknown, first-time actor, to bring scenes of both the early levity and ultimate gravity alive is only one of director Cary Fukunaga's brilliant decisions on display here. Attah, in being a fresh face on screen (whether silver or small, given the film's Netflix Original distinction), is able to utterly embody Agu and the viewer never questions him. It's as if Attah is experiencing the reality around the character in real time, reacting perfectly to every horror around him. By the time he sits across from the counselor, it could be either Agu or Attah himself that feels the weight that is visibly bearing down upon his shoulders. Fukunaga mercilessly trains his camera on Attah for the monologue's duration, a culmination of all of the moments he refused to turn his lens away from for the film's brutal span. Even those when that brutality is implied, such as the machete scene or later on when the Commandant (Idris Elba) sexually assaults Agu, Fukunaga's camera shows what is necessary to display the toll those moments take on his protagonist. Each shot is handled with intention and care, a plain indication of the level of Fukunaga's commitment to his film.

Perhaps it is this commitment — the fact that Fukunaga adapted the screenplay himself from the Uzodinma Iweala novel of the same name, directed, and shot the whole thing himself — that draws such beautiful performances out of all those around him. Attah is a stunning emergence, all of the support around him — from his silent partner-in-crime Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) to his brother (Francis Weddey) pouring nearly tangible love and affection for Agu — further carry forth Fukunaga's naturalist approach to his tough subject matter, but Elba himself is just as surprising. This shouldn't come as a surprise, but in a way it does: Beasts of No Nation is so reliant on realism and grit — especially when it comes to its performances — that for Elba to eschew any prior iconography as The Wire's Stringer and the titular Luther and his generally overpowering Idris Elbaness and deliver a rich and believable performance as the Commandant is an accomplishment in his own right. He was never at risk of standing out in the crowd of unknowns and embodies the monstrous character in a way that, though he finds none of the redemption that Agu does, makes him a sympathetic character as well. The story is a tragedy on all fronts, not just Agu's: each and every character that finds his or her way on the screen is a victim, and Fukunaga treats everyone with respect for that fact.

Beasts of No Nation will not be a blockbuster. In fact, it hardly will find footing on any blocks to bust. However, its cultural impact should far outweigh the level of opportunity it receives to make said impact. Fukunaga and all involved seem keenly aware of the responsibility that a film has which will choose war as its focal point, particularly a war as widespread and terrifying as the one here, which sees an impressionable child have to worry that he has become nothing more than a beast. That responsibility is reigned perhaps as well as any war movie has ever done, reconciling the philosophical weight and visual beauty of a film like Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line with the importance of not looking away, not sugarcoating. Even the film's score, devastatingly composed by Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild), seems to struggle with his reconciliation; in one of the film's pivotal scenes where the Commandant's roughshod army is set to take a key bridge, the score fights for an identity that will both celebrate those young souls perishing in the dirt but revile at their deeds, tonal argumentation overlaying the graphic imagery put forth by Fukunaga. Ultimately, this is the film's mission: to celebrate Agu for the boy he was, the boy he could again become, but never turn its eye from the boy he can be.

First Watch: Crimson Peak

The world of Guillermo Del Toro’s ninth feature film Crimson Peak is one that is announced with its very first utterance: “Ghosts are real. This much I know,” Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) narrates over footage of her bloodied and frightened on a snowy backdrop which is later explicated. Del Toro quickly asserts the claim by bringing forth these ghosts, never turning a blind eye to them for gimmickry and cheap thrills at sudden spooks. The sudden spooks come not despite this forthrightness, but actually because of them. They’re inescapable in a way that turning the lens to an empty corridor or revealing it was only the wind could never achieve; the lens turns to a corridor with a plodding, smoky ghost, and it’s the wind, but it’s so much more, and we’re just going to have to deal with that reality for Crimson Peak’s duration.

The world of Guillermo Del Toro's ninth feature film Crimson Peak is one that is announced with its very first utterance: "Ghosts are real. This much I know," Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) narrates over footage of her bloodied and frightened on a snowy backdrop which is later explicated. Del Toro quickly asserts the claim by bringing forth these ghosts, never turning a blind eye to them for gimmickry and cheap thrills at sudden spooks. The sudden spooks come not despite this forthrightness, but actually because of them. They're inescapable in a way that turning the lens to an empty corridor or revealing it was only the wind could never achieve; the lens turns to a corridor with a plodding, smoky ghost, and it's the wind, but it's so much more, and we're just going to have to deal with that reality for Crimson Peak's duration.

By establishing his world in this way, Del Toro is able to better hide the true horrors of the film. Edith, an aspiring author, later defends her novel by saying that it's "not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it," and the same can be said of Crimson Peak itself. The ghosts are merely facts, remnants from another realm that will always stand for the horrors done in this one. By diverting our shaken attention around every corner of the terrible Allerdale Hall, looking for the next phantasm to provide some answers, the truth lurks right at the surface in the brutal deeds done by the crumbling manor's living residents. Del Toro frames his shocking imagery of jarringly realistic violence within the familiar Gothic fantasy land to stunning effect, but it's not a sleight of hand.

In fact, everything is hidden in plain sight with Crimson Peak.

The fatal burst of passionate evil that erupts in Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) is always contained in her silently pulsing promise of harm that is barely contained through the duration of the film. But the eruption is no less the dazzling for it. If Crimson Peak has a greatest strength it would be this fact, that all of its cards are revealed from the start and we still clap in delight when Del Toro turns one over to show us our card. Somehow it's this fulfillment of promise that makes the film work in a mode that had long been dried up, where houses creak and come to life and ghosts glide through their walls and mysterious lords who are not what they seem are exactly what they seem.

Del Toro's vision, of course, is carried out by the performances pulled out of the actors on screen. Every second of Chastain's performance, from the silent dark breezes of the film's first half to the ravenous storm that befalls Allerdale Hall in Crimson Peak's climax is completely dazzling. Her chemistry with Tom Hiddleston (playing her brother Thomas) and Wasikowska in their warped domestic triangle create near breathless tension and her violent surges plummet the action of the film into joyful chaos by its end, creating ghosts of all, in one way or another. Her presence truly does haunt the film, in the best possible way, which Del Toro makes sure to allude to in Crimson Peak's final shot of her specter, plucking away at her piano lullaby.

Of course, the fantastic performances of Chastain, Hiddleston, Wasikowska, and Charlie Hunnam (Dr. Alan McMichael, who is pretty much just Jax Teller with better bedside manner and wardrobe) were basically a bonus with Crimson Peak. Del Toro hardly needed talent that immense to make a film that looks this good tell a captivating story. Everything put forth on the screen was utter eye candy, from the gorgeously tragic Allerdale Hall and its bloodmud-stained terrain to the turn of the century costuming and special effects. Del Toro has proclaimed that this is his most composed film, and the payoff of that thought and effort is brought to bear in full here. WIth Crimson Peak, he has not only created a world in which ghosts are real, but one in which the horror and the beauty of that realization is to be experienced firsthand.

First Watch: Sicario

Midway through Sicario, the ostensible Department of Defense task force chief Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolin) looks over his shoulder and tells the ever-questioning FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to “keep watching. Learn. That’s why you’re here.” Macer had just been on a harrowing ride-along with the task force to Juárez, Mexico with the objective of bringing Guillermo Diaz, the brother of Mexican cartel kingpin Manuel Diaz, across the border to El Paso to ultimately “make enough noise” to bring Manuel out of hiding and lead them to their true objective, cartel leader Fausto Alarcon. The mission devolved into a highway border-crossing bloodbath that left Macer shaken and angry at the vagueness surrounding her role in the task force’s shadowy objectives, and Graver attempts to sate her desire to be freed from the dark by implying that some greater truth about what was going on around her would reveal itself in time. The statement, however, felt more closely directed at the audience itself. Told through Brolin’s signature sideways smirk, director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) asks his audience to pay close attention. To wait for it. The surprise is coming.

Midway through Sicario, the ostensible Department of Defense task force chief Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolin) looks over his shoulder and tells the ever-questioning FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to "keep watching. Learn. That's why you're here." Macer had just been on a harrowing ride-along with the task force to Juárez, Mexico with the objective of bringing Guillermo Diaz, the brother of Mexican cartel kingpin Manuel Diaz, across the border to El Paso to ultimately "make enough noise" to bring Manuel out of hiding and lead them to their true objective, cartel leader Fausto Alarcon. The mission devolved into a highway border-crossing bloodbath that left Macer shaken and angry at the vagueness surrounding her role in the task force's shadowy objectives, and Graver attempts to sate her desire to be freed from the dark by implying that some greater truth about what was going on around her would reveal itself in time. The statement, however, felt more closely directed at the audience itself. Told through Brolin's signature sideways smirk, director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) asks his audience to pay close attention. To wait for it. The surprise is coming.

Villeneuve is aware of audience expectation that not everything is as it seems when it comes to film. Macer may stay in the dark, ultimately told that she's only kept around to clear some red tape governmental issue rather than her value to the mission, but Villeneuve wants us to know that if we pay close enough attention, we may learn something about how the world, or at least a filmic portrayal of the world, works. This is ultimately Sicario's greatest strength as a film: Graver pulls off the line with such easy conviction that even the audience believes that it is her, not we, that will learn something over the course of the film, that she will come to this greater realization that she seeks and that it will have positive effects on the world around her. She is an upstanding law official, never wavering in wanting to do things by the book — in a way coming to represent the book itself by the film's end — but the only thing that she learns is how to survive the frame of the film and that she has no real effect on the world that exists outside of that frame. It will go on, with or without her.

This realization, of course, comes in the form of Benicio Del Toro. As most realizations do. The times when director of photography Roger Deakins points his camera Del Toro's way to capture the enigmatic character Alejandro are the film's more captivating moments. Alejandro quite literally arrives from nowhere, eliciting gradually more fearful glances from Macer, becoming more of a shadowy and frightening presence in the film with each passing scene, becoming that realization not through so much shock and surprise, but by simply fulfilling the promise that his character's haunting presence seems to imply all along. If he is surprising by the film's end, it's only in how far he is willing to go to complete his own objective, which leaves the theater pulsing with fear during his and Macer's final moments together on screen. Del Toro and Blunt both carry the film throughout, an enveloping dark presence and the small light that attempts to find its way through it. Their performances are truly the film's core that carry forth the message that, film or not, sometimes the light isn't going to find its way.

This is ultimately what Sicario stands for, the bleakness that we sometimes can't escape. In fact, it's a bleakness that we often must come to face head-on. Deakins and Villeneuve say this most poignantly at the onset of the film's third act, as the task force is silhouetted against the gorgeous and expansive southwestern sky, colored infinitely by twilight. It's a rare moment of peace and beauty (though the entire film is shot beautifully, from an aesthetic standpoint) that is shattered slowly by their descent and eventual disappearance from the frame, leaving the desert empty and alone. The task force not only evades the beauty's embrace, they dig right into the core of it with their objective; Villeneuve hovers on the empty sky for a few seconds before throwing the viewer headlong into a nightvision firefight inside of a smuggler's tunnel, only meters below the serenity we just witnessed. Perhaps this is what makes Sicario such a harrowing watch: it's hard to sensibly stop and enjoy something like the majesty of a desert sunset when we know all along that the "land is run by wolves," as Alejandro tells Macer in the film's final moments.