Thursday, October 22, 2015

Half of a Yellow Sun [Nigeria, 2013]

Nine Things About the Film "Half of a Yellow Sun"

1. This movie is basically two short films with the same characters. The first half is a melodramatic romance. The second half is a historical war drama.

2. It's about two upper class, educated Nigerian sisters in the early 1960's and how they shock their traditional parents by shacking up with men that won't help their careers. These romantic choices help determine the roles they play in the Nigerian Civil War at the end of the 1960's.

3. The plot of the first hour is kind of boring as a story, but it's interesting as a character study. The older sister, Olanna, lives with a professor named Odenigbo that likes to imagine himself as a revolutionary. The younger sister, Kainene, runs the family business while sleeping with an English writer named Richard. There is drama, and cheating, and scandal, in both families.

4. While the first hour is a soap opera, it's also helpful in setting up the second hour. The opening scene of the movie shows Nigeria gaining independence from Britain in 1960, which sets lots of other things in motion. In between the family drama, you learn more about how Nigeria works - the geography, the class system, the prejudice and tribal politics.

5. Almost exactly halfway through the movie, the ethnic, economic, and cultural conflicts brewing in the background suddenly become the main story. Odenigbo's tribe, the Igbo people, don't trust the northern government. They carve out a little piece of the country and attempt to secede, declaring themselves the country of Biafra, independent of Nigeria. Everything comes unglued (in real life, over a million people died in this war that lasted about 30 months).

6. The movie attempts to explore topics such as nationalism, tribalism, identity, and what white Westerners are doing in their country. But since half the movie is spent on cheating spouses and relationship politics, there isn't much time for these more complicated ideas.

7. Thandie Newton is a really good actress that has never landed the big role she deserves (I still remember her from Beloved). She does well in this movie, and I was glad to see her again. Chiwetel Ejiofor is another great actor, and he plays Odenigbo with a good mixture of intelligence, stupidity and dumb loyalty (the same year this movie was made, Ejiofor also starred in 12 Years a Slave).

8. The movie was filmed in Nigeria, which brings an authentic feel to the events portrayed. But it was strangely shot - it's beautiful, but sometimes looks like a stage play.

9. This isn't a great film, but it's a good one. It's entertaining, educational, and is an example of Africans telling their own history. This two-hour movie taught me more about the world's largest continent than I ever learned in school.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Houses October Built (USA, 2014)

Nine Things About The Houses October Built

1. I've seen some really bad found-footage horror films, but this movie is one of the worst I've ever seen. It is proof that just because you have a video camera at home and have an idea for a movie, that doesn't mean you should actually make it.

2. The idea of the movie isn't bad. It's supposed to be about a group of 5 people who are tired of the regular haunted house attractions that pop up before Halloween, and they go on a cross-country quest in their RV for a rumored real one that doesn't fake the things that happen inside.

3. Unfortunately, most of the movie is either pointless conversation between the characters (who sometimes read poems), or sloppy camera footage inside real haunted house attractions. I suspect that the script must have been written when the writer (and star of the movie), Zack Andrews, was stoned.

4. Nobody tries to explain why they need six video cameras (with infinite batteries and storage space) strapped to the inside and outside of their RV. How many times are they going to want to watch something from the position of their tire? Or what you can see behind the vehicle?

5. I think one of the main characters was supposed to be a serial killer, but nobody ever really seemed bothered that the dude brought girls to the RV at night, and then he wore their clothes the next morning after the girl disappeared. They were too busy discussing where they should go next while rolling up joints.

6. While walking toward one of their nightly haunted houses, one of characters said something to the effect that it looked like it was made by bored teenagers. Which is funny, because I had just thought the same thing about the movie.  I think most of the budget was spent on those rubber masks you can buy from Halloween stores starting about Labor Day.

7. Some of the footage inside the haunted houses had some chilling and unsettling moments. I think. It's too bad the person holding the camera was usually screaming and waving the camera around, so you mostly just saw blurs of light and plastic or plywood walls.

8. For some reason, a couple of the monsters in one of the haunted houses appeared again halfway across the country an another house. I'm not sure if this meant supernatural trickery was happening, or if the filmmakers just couldn't afford another mask.

9. This could have been an interesting movie. But once again, the no-budget found footage gimmick, combined with a rambling script that never answered any of the questions it made you ask, turned this film into something more boring than watching pumpkin seeds dry.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Martian (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Film The Martian

1. This is probably the science fiction film with the most actual science that I've ever seen.

2. Based on a book by the same name, it's about a crew exploring Mars. When a huge dust storm hits, one of the crew members, Mark, is punched in the gut by piece of equipment and the crew leaves him for dead. Of course, he's not dead.

3. The movie goes back and forth between Mark's efforts to survive on Mars, and NASA's efforts to save him - and everybody can only use science and math. That's it. That's the whole plot. There's no violence, or aliens, or space battles (although technically there is one space pirate).

4. NASA consulted closely on this film to make it as accurate as possible, including the surface of Mars. So it's also kind of a commercial for NASA. But that's OK. Anything that encourages scientific education is fine with me.

5. There are two big scientific inaccuracies in the film - a storm on Mars couldn't be that strong, and the lack of atmosphere means Mark would have died of cancer. Additionally, I'm personally really suspicious of the "Iron Man maneuver". However, I think these are acceptable fudges, because they make the movie possible, and it is worth being made. The really cool things Mark does are basically real, even the way he makes water.

6. It's nice to see an accurate portrayal of a mission like this, that relies on the delicate interplay of many different specialties, such as physics, chemistry, botany, and math. Nobody gets to be a superhero, but anybody can cause a mission to fail.

7. The cast is not only talented, but diverse. It's really great to see males and females of various races all being smart together. It's a subtle message that subjects in science, math, and engineering are for anyone who wants to study them (by the way, am I the only person that thinks Donald Glover is a really good actor and deserves much bigger roles than what he gets?).

8. Director Ridley Scott said he thinks the theme of the movie is that nobody is really alone. Which is funny, because I saw the exact opposite theme.

9. This movie is a rarity in Hollywood - it's entertainment mixed with actual learning. If you need action, or flashy special effects and interstellar drama, you're going to be disappointed. But with a story this compelling and realistic, I wouldn't be surprised to see a boost in science and math majors as a result of this movie.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Unfriended (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Movie Unfriended

1. This is not a great movie, but is much better than I expected. It's an innovative take on the tired "found footage" gimmick so popular in horror films today, and is an impressive attempt at a new type of storytelling.

2.  It was produced by Timur Bekmambetov, who is best known for directing the Russian fantasy/horror classics "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" a decade ago.

3. The entire movie takes place in real time, on one computer screen. All the acting is done through video chats and instant messaging. For people not used to seeing the ability of young people to casually and expertly multi-task using modern technology - or who find it annoying - the movie will be a big turn-off. But that very ability is the ironic hinge of the entire movie.

4.  The story is about five friends talking online one evening, who are joined by a mysterious sixth person connected to the one-year anniversary of the suicide of one of their classmates.

5. The smart thing for the kids to do would be to turn off their computers about 10 minutes into the movie. But of course they won't do that. They can't. Computers and phones are their interface with the world, and they attempt to negotiate the intrusions of the stranger in terms of that reality.

6. In an impressive feat of authenticity, the movie uses real programs like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, Google, and even LiveLeak, instead of generic imitations that you usually find in movies.

7. The supernatural aspects of the film are stupid and boring. But I think this movie is just pretending to be a horror film. It's not actually about a spirit looking for revenge. It's about the horrific ramifications that can follow from careless and thoughtless actions.

8. The movie uses the horror genre as an entrance to explore other issues such as cyber-bullying, technology as an authentic extension of real life, the self-destructive nature of high school relationships, and the self-centered stupidity of the teenage years as a whole. In this context, the movie is actually kind of compelling.

9. If you want an actual horror film, watch something else. If you don't understand modern technology, watch something else. At it's heart, this is a Generation-Y teen movie that explores themes going all the way back to Rebel Without a Cause. But what makes this movie different (and more relevant) than those other teen films is the exploration of how fleeting teenage mood swings are no longer quickly felt and forgotten; they are too easily turned into permanent public records that can literally come back to haunt you.