Ezra, Nigerian-born, England-educated filmmaker Newton I. Aduaka’s fictional take on the war children of Sierra Leone which follows the tale of the eponymous child-soldier lead, is the first film to approach the same subject broached in Ishmael Beah’s best-selling memoir “A Long Way Gone.” But unlike Beah, who was himself kidnapped and forced to fight in a war he couldn’t comprehend, Aduaka, a child of the Biafran War, was only four when that fighting ceased. According to press notes, it was the French TV broadcaster Arte that approached Aduaka to make his film. And it is this lack of a “burning desire,” an absolute passionate need to put a personal truth up onscreen, that ultimately does Ezra in.
While I applaud the nobility inherent in the attempt to create a cinematic record of an important piece of history, this is simply a case where a highly skilled director is paired with the wrong story. Aduaka, who cites the Italian neo-realists and Tarkovsky as influences, is just too in love with the visual to care about much else. The cinematography flows like a river, a silent witness, over the beautifully bright costumes of the strong African women and the red carpet of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission courtroom, from present-day Ezra’s testimony to flashbacks of atrocities painted in blood. I almost wish I’d watched Ezra with the sound off, for the script is about as deep as a textbook lesson. The screenplay serves the camera like a cart before a horse.
And then there’s the acting. It’s one thing to avoid using a Hotel Rwanda Don Cheadle, quite another to cast actors who seem to have been chosen on the basis of how interesting they look at the end of a lens. The performances are plodding, lacking in all subtlety or nuance. As a result, when Ezra’s sister gets her tongue cut out, the scene carries as much weight as if it had happened to one of the background extras. One constantly feels the heavy hand of the director on top of the performers—you can almost see Aduaka motioning to Mamodou Turay Kamara’s Ezra to “turn this way, now that.” Aduaka values picturesque framing over true emotion and Ezra suffers for it. Yes, this is a “big” story, but without sufficient character development, the small personal details that create a living, breathing human being, we simply don’t care about the greater picture. We’re left with empty scenes of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission moderator waving a bible like a threat, a judge rolling her eyes at a lying witness—all too easy and formulaic. The dialogue goes from “Who did this to you? What happened?” to monologues overstuffed with references to government corruption and blood diamonds. When Ezra threatens to shoot a fellow soldier point blank you know he won’t because he’s a “good guy,” a cowboy who manhandles only when defending his honor, when sending his sister away for her own good. We only know that he’s killed many people in horrific ways because he’s testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We’re told, not shown.
In fact, none of the onscreen “murderers” seem all that capable of murder, only of that same brand of melodrama that occurs in the courtroom as observers “ooh” and “ahh” in all the predictable places. Yes, it’s a good idea to contrast Ezra, who was forced into the war through kidnapping, with his future wife Miriam, who willingly and idealistically joined. It’s not such a good idea for Miriam to tell of her Maoist upbringing like she’s teaching a course on government history (much like Ezra does in his truth-telling testimony). Of course, this all occurs after the unnecessary dialogue when Ezra first notices Miriam: “Who’s that?” he whispers to a soldier as the camera emphatically cuts back and forth between the budding lovebirds. “She’s very sweet.” She’s also an AK-47-carrying revolutionary who we never see kill.
In the end, Ezra adds up to a series of faux reenactments alternating with a courtroom scenes lacking in much drama. From the first minute to the last we’re constantly reminded—through peephole views, grand overhead shots, a slo-mo to sped-up drug-taking orgy, and forced scenes that don’t ring true (a soldier loudly accuses the leader of stealing diamonds and, surprise!, is shot for it)—that we’re watching a movie. Ezra never even agonizes over his choice to leave the child soldier life; he simply walks away like he’d never been brainwashed in the first place. For me, the most disturbing scene is one in which Miriam sneaks up behind Ezra’s sister, covering her eyes to surprise her. In wartime Sierra Leone that’s one sick joke, and one that goes unnoticed by a director so blinded by love for his camera.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man