Generic to a fault, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation falls prey to common pitfalls of both biopics and debut features. The obvious passion for central figure Nat Turner (and his leading of a slave uprising 30 years before the Civil War) is often thrown asunder by bland characterizations and clunky visuals. The film has the fire to tell a story untold, but still lacks any ideas in how to tell it – Birth is almost always in conflict with itself.Parker plays Turner and wrote the film (with Jean Celestin), and Turner is presented with the glass half full from each of Parker’s three entry points. Turner is rendered bland on the page, distancingly deified on the screen, and inconsistently played (though with some powerful moments). While we are taken along the chapter marks leading to the rebellion, Turner remains unilluminated for the audience, somewhat of a cipher that we can’t even project our own emotions upon. In losing the man, the film loses a bit of its meaning. Continue reading “In Review!: “The Birth of A Nation””
Ava DuVernay’s relentless documentary 13th charts the connective tissue between American slavery to our current mass incarceration epidemic, showing the evolution of American degradation of black bodies through the loophole language of the 13th Amendment that allows slavery to continue through criminal punishment. The film is exhaustive and vigorous, connecting history with our present with an inarguable force and impact.
DuVernay crafts the film like a fortress against the opposition ready to call the film mere propaganda. The data exposed at every turn is accessible (if suppressed) elsewhere, but the power of 13th lies in the rational linear assembly of its thesis. Where propaganda aims to play squarely for your emotions and baser instincts, this is a document that calls primarily upon your intellect and rationale. Similarly it is also deconstructing insidious racist ideologies and practices through examining how they have evolved around legality to continue suppressing African Americans. There is condemnation for all sides of the political divide; 13th stakes no political affiliation beyond common decency for black people in America.
The Girl on The Train‘s central character Rachel (Emily Blunt) confesses to one of the story’s several red herrings “I’m afraid of myself.” Unfortunately for the character (compellingly frustrating on the the page) and actress (appropriately frayed, but flopped around like a rag doll for the sake of making her Pathetic and Lost), the film is afraid of itself.
What could be a thrilling dive into Lifetime movie territory with a glossier budget is instead the softest of lobs, too tepid to get kinky and too undercooked to command audience attention. Even its fleeting flirtation with 90s sex thriller elements and brutal violence are watered down with disinterest, as if it doesn’t know that that salaciousness is why we’ve showed up to Train in the first place. By denying its trashier impulses (and influences), the film suffers a bit of an identity crisis.
Occasionally there is a film that can make you want to scream at the screen “People don’t talk like this!” Reality in film is never a necessity; language itself can be absurd, heightened, merely a tool to be morphed to serve the film. But sometimes the literal words out of the mouths of characters only reveal the misguided point of view failing the film at play.
Unfortunately Sully is such a film. A new nadir for director Clint Eastwood, the film shows the director completely asleep at the wheel. It’s a film from a director who has turned off their eyes and ears to the world, completely disassociated from the reality it tries to create. Based on the true story of Captain Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger (a rare flatline performance from Tom Hanks) and his miraculous emergency water landing of a US Airways passenger plane in 2009, the film becomes accidental farce.
Without an ounce of the kind of poverty porn cheap sentimentality that has come to define contemporary American cinematic takes on third world struggles, Queen of Katwe is a triumphant piece of mainstream filmmaking.
From the true story chronicled in an ESPN Magazine in 2012, Katwe centers on the rise from poverty of local Ugandan girl Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) once she joins a local chess class and goes on to compete in global tournaments. The story becomes close to a three-hander, expanding its sights to Fiona’s hardened and skeptical mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and her sacrificing teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Phiona is the film’s center but the expanded point of views extrapolate on the Ugandan setting, broadening the scope beyond her experience through a focus on character.
Returning from a long absence from the screen, Renée Zellweger is back and in her signature role for Bridget Jones’s Baby – and she hasn’t lost any of the magnetism or ability. Anyone cruelly focusing on perceived changes to her face is in for the rudest of awakenings: she’s still the same old Bridget, the same charming Renée.
Another in a growing line of sequels arriving long after their built-in sell by date, Baby is actually quite winning in how it captures the original’s appeal without irony or cynicism. First director Sharon Maguire returns (the second installment The Edge of Reason is wisely ignored) and every ensemble member is back, sans Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver. Indeed, not much has changed and that’s all for the better.
Happy Labor Day weekend, I’ve been busy!
Now that festival season is in full swing and launching us into the Oscar season, I’ve updated the Oscar predictions pages! Some question marks to be answered in the coming months:
- Will Viola Davis be campaigned in lead or supporting for Fences? The role has been positioned in both on stage.
- Can Isabelle Huppert be this year’s recognized legend or will multiple projects divide her love? If Elle gets more attention, is it too prickly and slippery for the pearl clutchers?
- Is anything from the spring and summer going to be able to get a resurgence? For below the line categories, The Jungle Book and Love and Friendship could be major threats.
- Debating The Birth of a Nation‘s Oscar chances in regards to Nate Parker’s reemerging rape charges and homophobia is indeed gross, but regardless of controversy: could voters just get plain tired of talking/hearing about the movie for nine months?
- If Silence does open this year (The Wolf of Wall Street had the same release dates woes this time during its year), will there be a long-gestating payoff for the Martin Scorsese passion project? That narrative only took Gangs of New York so far when it didn’t deliver.
Following the lovely and unimposing Love is Strange (and to a lesser extent the isolation of Keep the Lights On), Ira Sachs latest film Little Men proves that the writer/director’s New York City is just about the most honestly realized world in contemporary movies. Men plays like Strange‘s slightly more hardened cousin, the worlds of both so rooted in Sachs’s signature compassion and honesty that it’s as if both could be happening concurrently. The diverse world he builds of humble intellectuals doing their best with inconvenience is even more nuanced here, bursting with no-win compromises for all and a powerful cinematic modesty.
It’s become a style that makes Sachs’s work immediately recognizable, his voice coming through without the mannered tics or inventive wordplay of his peers. If it feels precious to the audience, it’s because the director is organically building a world that’s all too true to real life.
While I agree with Oscar on selecting Zsigmond’s work for Close Encounters as the overall winner, does it have my choice of best Best Shot? Let’s review the Best Shots from the past week…
And best of the Best Shots is…
There is enough distance between the present and claims of author Lillian Hellman’s embellishment and falsifications for the origin story of Julia to see the story for itself. One wonders if a contemporary viewing audience would even know who the hell Hellman is (for shame), likely surprised that it was based on a portion of her memoir. Though the film does put her on the pedestal of self-important, suffering artist, if not the story’s hero, you can see how the narrative served to puff herself up. The film was released before authenticity lawsuits were brought up, so its original audience perhaps viewed it differently.
No, now we view the film primarily through the lens of its terrifying depiction of rising fascism. It’s not just the current election the makes it seem all the more real, but the rise in nationalism elsewhere in the world today that’s all too familiar to the fifty years leading up to the events in the film.