Monday, October 17, 2016

Movie Review: American Honey

American Honey
Directed by: Andrea Arnold.
Written by: Andrea Arnold.
Starring: Sasha Lane (Star), Shia LaBeouf (Jake), Riley Keough (Krystal), McCaul Lombardi (Corey), Arielle Holmes (Pagan), Crystal Ice (Katness), Veronica Ezell (QT), Chad Cox (Billy), Garry Howell (Austin), Kenneth Kory Tucker (Sean), Raymond Coalson (JJ), Isaiah Stone (Kalium), Dakota Powers (Runt), Shawna Rae Moseley (Shaunte), Chris Wright (Riley), Summer Hunsaker (Kelsey), Brody Hunsaker (Rubin), Johnny Pierce II (Nathan), Chasity Hunsaker (Misty), Michael Hunsaker (Logan), Kaylin Mally (Destiny), Laura Kirk (Laura), Will Patton (Backseat), Daran Shinn (Front Seat Cowboy), Sam Williamson (Driving Cowboy), Bruce Gregory (Mitchell).
Donald Trump is name checked early in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey – and while Arnold would have no real clue that Trump would become a serious Presidential contender when she shot the film (it was finished by May of this year, when it premiered at Cannes) – I couldn’t help but think about Trump numerous times throughout Arnold’s wonderful new film. The film takes place in the Midwest and South of the United States – and centers on a group of young people from around America (all of whom are, tellingly, white) who travel around in a large, white panel van – being dropped off every day in residential neighborhoods trying to sell magazine subscriptions. The movie knows that selling these is hopelessly outdated, as do the kids selling them. What they are really trying to do however is trying to guilt people into buying them. Often they are let off in well off neighborhoods – places where they never see any kids like this on a day-to-day basis, and perhaps they can alleviate some of the guilt they feel for being so well off by paying $40 for a magazine subscription they do not want. In American Honey, Arnold is showing the audience those left behind in America – and some of those doing the leaving. And yet, as grim as that sounds, American Honey is alive in a way few films are – the film is a sprawling Americana tapestry that is beautiful to look at, contains a real love story, and is an iTunes musical filled with joyous pop songs from the beginning to the end of 163 minute runtime.
The film centers on Star (the wonderful newcomer Sasha Lane), an 18 year old girl who we first meet dumpster diving with her two younger siblings – feeling excited when they score a full, uncooked chicken. She catches site of the van that will play such a large role later in the film, and is drawn to it – dragging her siblings across the street and into a Walmart, as the gaggle of young people spill out of it. It’s in the store, that she locks eyes with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) as he dances to Calvin Harris & Rihanna’s “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” in the checkout line. Jake asks her to come with them – and at first she resists. We do see her home life though – a father (stepfather?) and a creepy slow dance he forces upon her and we intuit he has forced even worse things on her in the past, and a mother who hangs out in a bar – not a sad sack on a barstool (although, she may well be drinking) – but line dancing – who looks at Star as if she is the most selfish, ungrateful person in the world because she no longer wants to watch her mother’s kids for her. With this at home, it’s no wonder Star ends up in that van.
The movie is short on plot – but that hardly matters. The various kids in the van do become a sort of family to each other – and to Star – even though they never really open up to each other. They are all, likely, somewhat like Star- coming from broken, dysfunctional homes from around the country. They are selling these magazines not really to get ahead – they don’t make a lot of money, basically just enough to allow them to keep selling more magazines. The only one making any money is Krystal (a wonderful Riley Keough) – their boss, who rides around in a convertible instead of that van, and will do anything to motivate more sales – fear, intimidation – even some lame encouragement.
The emotional core of the movie is the connection between Star and Jake – one that perhaps she takes more seriously than he does, at least at first. These are the only two characters however, whoever do let their guard down with each other, and actually do talk about “the future” (their dreams are so small, it’s actually really sad, even as Star explains her with such hope). In their sex scenes together, Arnold zooms in close – filling the screen with Star’s face, perhaps only an eye – getting lost in that momentarily revelry and release. Star is, in some ways, a very smart young woman – in other ways, she is very naïve. She gets herself into a few situations over the course of the movie where you cannot help but hold your breath and hope the worst doesn’t happen – going off with a trio of middle aged “cowboys” in a convertible, jumping into the bed of a pickup truck with oil workers, going on a “date” with one of them later that night. Unlike many of the others in that van, she hasn’t become overly cynical yet – when she meets a family that undeniably reminds her of her own (but, perhaps even worse) – she gives up the pretense of a sales pitch, and instead buys them groceries. Like Katie Jarvis, who delivered a brilliant performance in Arnold’s Fish Tank back in 2009 (I really do want to see her in something else again, she was excellent in Fish Tank) – Arnold has found an actor with no previous experience, who is capable of holding the camera on her for almost the entire runtime of this film. She is an expressive actress, without overdoing it. She anchors the movie with her great work. Not to be outdone, LaBeouf is clearly doing the best work of his career as well – on one level, she is little else other than a huckster – a dirty, grimy, ponytailed version of a Glengarry Glen Ross character, instantly sizing up what people want him to say, and saying it. But there’s a little more to him than that – even if he doesn’t quite realize that. LaBeouf is very good here.
American Honey is a perfectly imperfect film. It’s the type of film that when you look back at it, you cannot help but be amazed that Arnold gets away with everything she does here – the number of sing-a-longs in the movie should be too many, including a climatic one to Lady Antebellem’s American Honey, which should be too on the nose. Yet remarkably, it does – the movie holds together – a grimy, dirty, road trip to the heart of America, which is both joyous and depressing. That’s not an easy thing to pull off – but Arnold does it here, reconfirming her status as one of the most interesting directors working today.

Movie Review: Mascots

Directed by: Christopher Guest   
Written by: Christopher Guest & Jim Piddock.
Starring: Zach Woods (Mike Murray), Sarah Baker (Mindy Murray), Michael Hitchcock (Langston Aubrey), Tom Bennett (Owen Golly, Jnr.), Kerry Godliman (Sarah Golly), Parker Posey (Cindi Babineaux), Chris O'Dowd (Tommy 'Zook' Zucarello), Christopher Moynihan (Phil Mayhew),  John Michael Higgins (Upton French),  Maria Blasucci (Jessica Mundt),  Matt Griesser (Andy Dibble),  Jim Piddock (Owen Golly, Sr.),  Adam Karchmer (Monty Murray), Zoe Provenzano (Maggie Murray), Susan Yeagley (Laci Babineaux),  Carrie Aizley (Robyn Wexler), Ed Begley Jr. (A.J. Blumquist), Jane Lynch (Gabby Monkhouse), Scott Williamson (Bruce Van Wyck), Don Lake (Buddy Campbell), Brad Williams (Ron 'The Worm' Trippman), Fred Willard (Greg Gammons, Jr.), Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Jennifer Coolidge (Jolene Lumpkin), Bob Balaban (Sol Lumpkin), Harry Shearer (Competition Announcer).
There is no denying that Christopher Guest is a comedic genius – who over the course of his career has perfect the mock-umentary genre. He co-wrote and starred in This is Spinal Tap (1984) – and then co-write and directed Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006). The latest of those may have been a step down from the previous outings, but when you’ve made three comic masterworks in a row, simply delivering a very good comedy (with a brilliant Catherine O’Hara performance, as an aging B-actress convinced she’s about to be nominated for an Oscar), it’s hard to complain. Guest has taken the last decade off from directing features, so his return of Mascots was hugely anticipated by myself – and other Guest fans. Even if it didn’t quite live up to his best work – even minor Guest is better than most other comedic filmmakers. Unfortunately, Mascots is even more minor that I had feared.
On the surface, Mascots feels like it should be in Guest’s wheelhouse. He has always specialized in making comedies about people who have a very narrow obsession – heavy metal, community theatre, dog shows, folk music, Oscar campaigns, etc. who have made that into their entire lives. While it would be easy to mock these characters – a Guest, admittedly, has fun doing that, he also makes them into people who actually do grow to like and feel for them. They start as caricatures, and then grow into real people by the end. Perhaps because of the fact that most of the characters in Mascots spend so much time in giant foam costumes, that never really happens this time – they become less human in the final act, as they get lost in their costumes.
The film centers on the annual Mascot competition – where 20 mascots, mostly from America, but some from around the world, will be competing for a “Furry” – the trophy they win – and yes, Guest and company are aware of the furry sexual fetish, although the few jokes they make about it seem tacked on. We follow a few of these competitors – married couple Mike and Mindy Murray (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker), whose marriage is in trouble because of an affair he had, as resentments come bubbling to the surface throughout. Then there’s Owen Golly Jr. (Tom Bennett), a Brit, who inherited the mascot role of a small time soccer team from his father (Jim Piddock) – and who longs to try some new routines, much to his dad’s chagrin. There is Cindi Babineaux (Parker Posey), who is coached by Corky St. Clair (Guest, reprising his Waiting for Guffman role), and supported by her sister (Susan Yeagley) – who longs for her own opportunity in the costume. There is Phil Mayhew (Christopher Moynihan), whose character is a plumber, and he quite literally enjoys toilet humor in his routine. Finally there is Tommy Zucarello (Chris O’Dowd), a small town hockey mascot, who decided to make his character a giant fish, since all he wants to do is hit people. Lots of other people filter through for a scene or two – Ed Begley Jr. and Jane Lynch – as the bickering judges, John Michael Higgins and Maria Blasucci as network executives (if you use the word network loosely), Fred Willard, basically being Fred Willard, as a clueless coach, Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban, wasted in a scene or two, etc.
Some of what happens is undeniably funny – I really enjoyed Posey’s delusional character, who has basically choreographed her mascot to be some sort of modern dancer – and her sister, who is so happy when she has to fill in, she doesn’t realize everyone hates the routine. Tom Bennett, so much fun in Love & Friendship earlier this year, is once again a riot as he tries to fight with dad, and gets into some misunderstandings about American life right as the competition is about to get going. I’m not quite sure Chris O’Dowd’s character works – you cannot help but wonder, given the number of times he’s been banned from certain arenas, how he made the finals in the first place – but O’Dowd sells the character as all raging, self-destructive id.
Most intriguing in the film may well by Zach Woods and Sarah Baker as the married couple – although, it must be said that very little of what they do is funny, despite both being gifted comic performers. This is an almost uncomfortably real portray of marital discord – with her passive aggressive behavior finally reaching a boiling point, and his ability to try and put on a happy face cracking from the beginning – the two performances are very good, but you almost wish they were in a different movie.
The final act of the movie is basically the competition itself – with one act after another taking center stage. It’s all very well done, I suppose, if seeing people in giant costumes prancing around is your thing. What’s missing in that last act is the emotional core – the sympathy for the characters – that normally makes a Christopher Guest movie so much more than a silly comedy. Without that, Mascots is still enjoyable to be sure. It misses Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, who are often the emotional core of Guest’s films – but there’s still plenty to like here. But unlike what Guest has done before, Mascots is ultimately rather forgettable – it’s nice to have Guest working again – I just wish the result was a little bit better.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Movie Review: The Accountant

The Accountant
Directed by: Gavin O'Connor.
Written by: Bill Dubuque.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Christian Wolff), Anna Kendrick (Dana Cummings), J.K. Simmons (Ray King), Jon Bernthal (Brax), Jeffrey Tambor (Francis Silverberg), Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Marybeth Medina), John Lithgow (Lamar Black), Jean Smart (Rita Blackburn), Andy Umberger (Ed Chilton), Alison Wright (Justine).
When I am not reviewing movies, my full time job is, of course, an accountant. As far a movie accountant go, I know what to expect most of the time – movie accountants are bookish nerds, unable to see life as anything but numbers that need to be broken out of their sad, pathetic little lives. When you want a boring guy in the movie, the chances are he’s either going to be an accountant, or sell insurance. So, when I saw the trailer for The Accountant – and it had Ben Affleck killing a lot of people, I knew I would have to see the movie. Ultimately, while the film isn’t particularly good, nor is it much of a mold breaker in terms of how it portrays accountants (there are two in the film – played by Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick, are both are desperately alone), it is a least a little amusing to see how the film plays with others perceptions of accountants. The action is okay as well. I’d be willing to go so far as to call the film a guilty pleasure – except, I think, it does way too far over the top in its last act, and in ways that inspire groans, not smiles.
In the film, Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff – a strip mall accountant, who clearly has trouble dealing with people, even if he is a genius. In flashbacks to his childhood, we learn that he is autistic – he has a brilliant mathematical mind, but zero social skills. His dad, who worked is PsyOps in the army, put him and his brother through vigorous training – mainly so that Christian would be able to defend himself, and lead a relatively normal life. He doesn’t though. The head of an investigatory unit in the Treasury department (JK Simmons) has seen him pop up in photos of very bad people from around the world – he knows he is their accountant – someone they bring in to “uncook” the books, and see what happened. Somehow this accountant, with a lot of secrets of powerful men, has been able to stay alive however – if anyone ends up dead, it’s the clients not him. Simmons blacks an underline, Madina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to track down this mysterious accountant. In the meantime, Christian has gotten a new job – not for gangsters, but a robotic company run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow) where he fears some money has been embezzled – this was noticed by the whip smart Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick – thankfully, not a love interest for Affleck’s character, at least not a traditional one). Then there’s also Brax (Jon Bernthal) – a financial fixer in a different way – bringing his gun along to intimidate people into doing the right thing for his clients, who we’re sure, will eventually come into play with the main action.
Writing that all down, I realize that the film had WAY more plot than I thought it did – and way more than was needed (I didn’t even mention Jeffrey Tambor’s character). The movie kind of spins off in many different directions at once – but I have to say that director Gavin O’Connor does a decent job at harnessing it all into one coherent movie. For the first two acts, he keeps all the balls of this complicated plot in the air and humming along. It isn’t really his fault when they come crashing down in the last act – the screenplay by Bill Dubuque tries too hard in the last act to try to pull the rug out from under us – but his twists are the worst kind – the ones that make zero sense when they are revealed, because it puts everything that happened in the movie up until then non-sensical (in contrast, the best twists endings, like Fight Club, The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, make complete sense once they are revealed).
For the talented ensemble cast, let’s be honest and call this what it is – a pay cheque movie. Affleck has to play flat and emotionless – much like in Batman vs. Superman earlier this year, but thankfully a lot less dour and whiny. He does this okay – but I do think it was a challenge for him to keep his more natural, good nature come out at times. Now that he’s an Oscar winner, this is the type of role J.K. Simmons will get more of – largely forgettable character roles, but ones that are larger than the ones he used to get – although he does a decent job of selling the longest monologue explaining things since Donald Sutherland in JFK. Perhaps its because I’ve watched a few old school Brian De Palma movies recently, but I kind of expected more from John Lithgow – I wanted to see him play a slimy psycho, but his role is largely forgettable (even if his last scene in the film is a gem – largely unrelated to him though). Jon Bernthal gets to add another meat-headed psycho, given to long monologues to his resume – the type of thing he does in every film since The Walking Dead. Poor Addai-Robinson gets to stare dumbfounded at a computer screen for most of the running time. Best of the bunch is probably Kendrick – even if she is essentially playing her Up in the Air character again, she is so charming – and so unexpected in an action movie like this, that she’s a joy to watch.
The Accountant isn’t really a bad movie – it runs over two hours, and that’s too long, but for a good 90 minutes of that, it’s an entertaining little action film – the type of film you mildly enjoy and then fall asleep to on TBS on a Sunday night. It goes off the rails at the end to be sure – and is never really as memorable as you’d want it to be. Even if this movie accountant kills more people than most – like the rest, he’s still largely forgettable.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Movie Review: Christine

Directed by: Antonio Campos.
Written by: Craig Shilowich.
Starring: Rebecca Hall (Christine Chubbuck), Michael C. Hall (George Peter Ryan), Tracy Letts (Michael), Timothy Simons (Steve Turner), J. Smith-Cameron (Peg Chubbuck), Maria Dizzia (Jean Reed), John Cullum (Bob Andersen).
Christine tells the story of Christine Chubbuck – the Sarasota, Florida news reporter, who in 1974 kill herself on live television. She has become famous for that one act – and that act alone. Antonio Campos’ film tells what happened in the months leading up to that shocking, infamous moment – and does so in a way that both highlights the specific mental breakdown that drove Chubbuck to do what she did, as well as the casual, everyday sexism faced by women in the news room at that time (and given what Roger Ailes has been accused of, today as well), as well as the decline in the quality of news – which isn’t something that happened overnight, but started decades ago. It is a chilling, disturbing film – anchored by an exceptional performance by Rebecca Hall, which turns what could have been an exploitation film into something deeper, darker and more haunting.
In the film, Christine is played by Hall as a driven woman – someone committed to doing high quality reporting, on issues that matter. Her boss, an old school chauvinist named Michael (Tracy Letts) wants harder hitting stuff – violence and blood, and it doesn’t matter to him that Sarasota isn’t a particularly violent place, the ratings are in the crapper, and he needs those stories. When word goes around that the station owner has just bought another station in Baltimore – and is looking to move some of his on-air Sarasota talent to the much bigger market, Christine is driven to get that promotion, but is also torn between doing the type of crap Michael wants, and doing what she believes in.
Yet, even in the earlier scenes of Christine – where she mostly seems normal, there are signs that something is not right. She is constantly complaining of stomach pain, but won’t see a doctor. She still lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), although she refuses to call her mom (what makes this even stranger, is that we learn that Christine has moved around a lot in the last few years – most recently from Boston – and mommy always seems to be right there). There is a definite crush she has on George (Michael C. Hall) – the somewhat dim news anchor, although the pair of them seem to barely interact. Hell, we are introduced to Chubbuck as she sits alone in the studio, recording herself interviewing Richard Nixon. How much of this is just regular quirks and oddities – and how much is signs of legitimate mental illness? Only throughout the movie will we find out.
This is clearly Hall’s best performance to date – finally fulfilling the promise of her earlier work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Red Riding 1974, The Town and Please Give. Here, she plays Chubbuck as a high functioning person, with a definite mental disorder. It should be obvious to those around her, but very few of them seem to pay all that much attention to her. They assume she’s just driven – but there’s more going on beneath there. As the film progresses, she unravels in more and more obvious ways – the early competence at the news room gets called into question with her pitch of “re-enactments”, and increasing paranoia and mood swings. Hall plays Chubbuck almost like a frightened animal – cornered and trapped, not sure whether to fight, flee or give up. There is a brief moment when things seem like they could be looking up for her – George actually asks her out – but as it becomes clear what his intentions are (and, to be fair to him, it isn’t anything horrible), she unravels further – producing a rather sad revelation she makes to a complete stranger – and pretty much seals her fate. The ending – which we all know from the beginning (and, after all, the film wouldn’t have been made without) is shocking – but also tragic by that point.
Hall’s performance is great to be sure – but the film is not just a one performance showcase. For one thing, Michael C. Hall is great as the personification of the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” ethos of the 1970s – well-meaning but oblivious to those around him, and their feelings. Letts proves once again what a tremendous actor he is – his role as Michael doesn’t quite have the depth of his work earlier this in in Indignation – but he’s great once again.
But it’s deeper than that as well. Campos’ previous films as director – Afterschool and Simon Killer – have been provocations as much as anything else, and uncomfortable ones at that, not how technically assured they were. In Christine, he keeps the icy tone of those film in many regards, but dials back the desire to shock the audience – and instead gives us a more sympathetic portrayal of Chubbuck than I would have thought him capable of. You know the end is coming, but you pray you are wrong. Then, I think Campos does an interesting thing – he keeps going, for just a scene past where we expect the film to end – you assume the film will end on a literal BANG – but Campos doesn’t do that. Instead he follows a relatively minor character – a friend of Chubbcuk’s from the news room, who through the course of the film does try to help her, before getting her out of the way before Chubbuck can bring her down with her – home, and what she does is really rather cold and chilling. I know some see this scene as a rather superficial observation about the difference between reality and the sitcom universe on TV – but I’m not so sure. I think it says something more about that character than we realize – and it isn’t pretty. It is a great way to end one of the more disturbing movies of the year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Movie Review: 13th

Directed by: Ava DuVernay.
Written by: Spencer Averick & Ava DuVernay.
I’m not sure that there will be a more relevant film this year than Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary 13th. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best film of the year – hell, in a year that produced O.J.: Made in America, it’s not even the best documentary – yet it is the film that I would most encourage everyone to see – especially those people who have spent the last couple of months complaining about Colin Kapernick kneeling during the National Anthem or complain that it should be All Lives Matter instead of Black Lives Matter. I don’t necessarily think that 13th uncovers a lot of new information about its subject matter – how the legal system in America criminalizes being black – but it’s as stunning of a 90 minute summation on the topic could possibility being.
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution freed the slaves – but contained in it a clause that the documentary will return to again and again – which basically says that all men are free from indentured servitude, unless as punishment for a crime – in which case, all bets are off. What DuVernay spends the film doing is documenting the various ways the legal system has been used in the aftermath of that amendment – all the way to today. It argues, as should be clear to all but apparently is not, that things like Black Lives Matter, and the protests against police in the wake of the number of shootings of unarmed African American men, did not happen in a vacuum – that in order to understand them all, you need to understand the history that led to them. Basically, the film argues that ever since the 13th Amendment was passed, America has found one way after another to keep black people in prison – it’s Jim Crow laws, Richard Nixon’s Law & Order campaign, Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, George H.W. Bush and the Willie Horton ad, Bill Clinton’s three strikes and you’re out law, mandatory minimums, super predators, etc. etc. etc. The Prison Industrial Complex now is huge – and there’s a lot of money to be made in it. But in order for that money to keep flowing, there needs to be a constant stream of prisoners going to jail. The prison population keeps expanding – America has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the number of prisoners in the world. Black men make up only 6% of the America population, but 40% of the prison population – one out of every four of them will spend time in jail. This has far reaching consequences on the African American community – fathers taken away from their children, for years at a time – and when they do get out, they cannot vote or do other things everyone takes for granted.
If 13th were just a series of statistics – spouted off by a series of talking heads, like most documentaries, it would still be a good film. But the film is more than that. DuVernay doesn’t just have her talking heads spout those statistics, she also charts the cultural stereotype of the scary black man – from D.W. Griffth’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, to today – how the media shapes the conversation, and even turns African Americans against their own – African Americans buy into the racist rhetoric like everyone else does.
The film is also interesting visually – the film contains many shock cuts of the word “Criminal” every time it’s uttered in the movie, bringing to the foreground the type of subtle messaging being done that we often do not even notice. She even finds a way to make many of these talking head interviews visually interesting, but placing the camera at odd angles, and interviewing her well-chosen experts in locations we are not expecting. By the time we get to the end of the movie – which ends with a montage of many of those deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of the police, we have been primed to expect it – yet the outrage is still there.
13th is an important film – which I hope doesn’t make it sound like homework. I know those types of message documentaries (I’ve heard them called URL docs, because inevitably, in the end credits, there is a website address urging you, the viewer, to get involved). I’ve grown weary of those docs – mainly because they’re never all that interesting or challenging, and the essentially become sermons. That isn’t 13th – which is more important than most of these other message docs, but also better made, more engaging and more infuriating. It is one of the few films I would say is truly essential viewing.

Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation
Directed by: Nate Parker.
Written by: Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin.
Starring: Nate Parker (Nat Turner), Armie Hammer (Samuel Turner), Aja Naomi King (Cherry), Colman Domingo (Hark), Aunjanue Ellis (Nancy), Jackie Earle Haley (Raymond Cobb), Penelope Ann Miller (Elizabeth Turner), Mark Boone Junior (Reverend Zalthall), Roger Guenveur Smith (Isaiah), Gabrielle Union (Esther), Tony Espinosa (Young Nat Turner), Jayson Warner Smith (Earl Fowler), Jason Stuart (Joseph Randall), Chiké Okonkwo (Will),  Katie Garfield (Catherine Turner), Kai Norris (Jasper),  Chris Greene (Nelson),  Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Simon).
If there is one thing not lacking in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, its ambition. It’s a film he labored on for years, raising money independently for it, writing the screenplay, directing and starring in a film about Nat Turner – the slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. By calling the film The Birth of a Nation, Parker makes clear his ambition to spin a counter narrative to D.W. Griffth’s landmark 1915 film of the same one – considered by many to be the first American cinematic masterpiece, despite the indisputable fact that the film is incredibly racist, historically inaccurate and led directly to the resurgence of the KKK in America (the KKK are the heroes of The Birth of a Nation – they ride in and save the day in the climatic sequence, saving white women’s virtue from over sexualized black men, intent on raping them – and then Jesus blesses, the KKK). If you take cinema seriously, eventually, you do have to watch and reckon with Griffth’s The Birth of a Nation – the techniques Griffith either invented, or at least perfected, in that film give us the basis of cinematic language. Most still hold Griffith up as a master filmmaker – and acknowledge The Birth of a Nation’s place in cinema history – but most also embrace his 1916 follow-up Intolerance instead of Birth of a Nation. All of this is a way of saying it took guts for Parker to name his directorial debut The Birth of a Nation – placing it in direct conflict with Griffth’s film. It’s an appropriate title as well, because Turner and those like him, did start a movement of African Americans that still has relevance today – in things like the Black Lives Matter movement.
I do wish the film was able to live up to its lofty ambitions – and that it was as strong as a work of an art as it is a political statement. It isn’t though. As a director, Parker clearly wants to be Mel Gibson (who he consulted when making the film), as he portrays Turner as a William Wallace like figure, leading a ragtag group of men against an overwhelming more powerful enemy, but doing so anyway. When the battle scenes eventually do begin (surprisingly late in the film), its clear Parker has been watching Braveheart when he was staging the battles – the bloody and brutal, and well-choreographed. As an actor, Parker is clearly channeling Denzel Washington at times – Turner was a preacher before he led the rebellion, and as the film progresses, and his sermons become more and more fire and brimstone, Parker tries to match Washington’s matchless oratorical ability. He comes surprisingly close though.
The film could have used a little bit more of Gibson-inspired insanity. I’m not the biggest fan of Gibson as a director (Apocalypto is clearly his best film though), but Gibson has been able to capture religious belief crossed with insanity well in the past – and The Birth of a Nation needed more of that fever dream like insanity – Turner and his men, after all, killed everyone they came across – slave owners, their wives, their children – even infants – etc., and while one can certainly argue that turnabout is fair play (who many slaves were killed – including women and children – a hell of a lot more than Turner killed), there still needs to be something in them that allowed them to do that – and the movie doesn’t really address that.
In fact, the movie spends far more time showing how and why Turner eventually snapped, rather than the aftermath – from the time he was a child, and brought into the big house and taught to read, only to be thrown back into the fields again cruelly. How his childhood playmate, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), eventually grew into his owner – and while Samuel thinks of himself as a “good” slave owner, not like the others he and Nat see as Nat preaches to them, he shows his true colors more than once throughout the film. The first 90 minutes are really a series of indignities that either happen to Turner, or he at least witnesses on his preaching tour. He’ll see how other slaves are starved, beaten, chained up, lynched and whipped all in an effort to “keep them in line”. He himself will see his wife raped – by three slave catchers – the wife of another man raped (on the order to Samuel), and be severely whipped for the crime of baptizing a white man. He is forced to go on a tour, preaching to slaves – and at first, he tows the company line, reading scripture that defends slavery. Eventually, he’ll change, and read scripture about fighting back against slavery (the white people are too dumb to tell the difference – the slaves get it).
I have my problems with The Birth of a Nation. I do not like the depiction of rape in the film – there are, as I mentioned two in the film, although neither is shown in any detail. Yet both of them are seen almost entirely through the eyes of the husbands of the women raped – and the after effects of the rapes depicted onscreen are only in how it motivated the men, not the effect on the women – Turner’s wife is portrayed almost like a brave martyr, being ever patient, and trying to talk Nat down. The other woman, Esther (Gabrielle Union) – doesn’t get a line of dialogue (although, admittedly, when she stumbles out of the house after the rape, the silent look on her face is one of the most unforgettable moments in the film). I think in the scenes of the rebellion itself, Parker should have pushed himself even farther in their brutality. I also wish, he had pushed himself a little bit further in the depiction of Turner’s religious belief – it stays on a fairly superficial level. It also would have been a good idea to make some of the other characters more complex – as it stands, it’s hard not to look at the film as at least in part, a vanity piece for Parker.
And yet, I think what works about the film is quite good. This certainly does feel like a directorial debut – many first time filmmakers wear their influences on their sleeves a little too much at first, before they gradually settle into their own style. Parker has skill here – he could use a little more subtlety – but perhaps that will come in time. The Birth of a Nation is not a great film – but it’s a very good debut film.
Note: In the body of this review, I didn’t mention the rape allegations about Parker that have plagued the film’s PR push for the last few months. Reading over the various reports on them, I find it impossible to believe that Parker was not guilty of the crimes he was accused of – whether or nor he was convicted of them. Having said that, we all know with 100% certainty that Roman Polanski is a rapist, and in the last few years, I’ve certainly come around to feeling that Woody Allen likely is as well. I still watch and review their films, and do not mention their crimes, so I figured in the body of the review of The Birth of a Nation, I should not mention Parker’s – even though I have to wonder if the way he portrayed rape in the film – and its effects on the husbands, not the victims themselves, and his own disastrous PR campaign, where he has said one dumb thing after another, are not in some ways related. Normally, I do say you should separate the art from the artist – and even if Parker made it harder than most with this film, I still tried to do that here.

Movie Review: Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow
Directed by: Babak Anvari.
Written by: Babak Anvari.   
Starring: Narges Rashidi  (Shideh), Avin Manshadi (Dorsa), Bobby Naderi (Iraj), Ray Haratian (Mr. Ebrahimi), Arash Marandi (Dr. Reza), Bijan Daneshmand (Director), Sajjad Delafrooz (Secretary), Behi Djanati Atai (Pargol), Hamid Djavadan (Mr. Fakur), Soussan Farrokhnia (Mrs. Fakur), Aram Ghasemy (Mrs. Ebrahimi), Nabil Koni (Mr. Bijari).
Under the Shadow is a slow build horror movie, which would work almost as well as a drama had the film decided to eliminate the horror elements altogether. It takes place in Tehran in 1988 – during the decade long war between Iran and Iraq, and almost all of the movie takes place in one apartment building. It’s there where Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives with her doctor husband, and their young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Shideh wanted to be a doctor as well – and got far along in her schooling, but was eventually expelled because of political activity during the Revolution. She tries to continue her studies, but is rejected – and her husband isn’t overly sympathetic. When he is forced to relocate to help in the war effort, Shideh stubbornly refuses to leave the apartment with Dorsa to move in with his parents in a safer location – Tehran is being bombed daily, but she’s determined to stick it out.
This is pretty much the story of the first hour of the film – writer/director Babak Anvari slowly ratchets up the tension in the film, when Dorsa loses her beloved doll, and is told by another child in that building is haunted by djinn. That child, a little boy, is staying with another family in the building because his parents have been killed in the war – and according to his new guardians, hasn’t said a word since he got there. But something is haunting Dorsa right – and eventually Shideh, right? After all, Dorsa’s doll is missing, and Shideh’s Jane Fonda workout tape was destroyed and put into the garbage. And there’s other creepy things going on throughout the film.
One of the strengths of Anvari’s film is that he never really pulls back the curtain to have the big reveal. Right to the end of the film, it’s possible that the mother and daughter are really being haunted, and also that it is the delusions of the mother, fed by her daughters (relatively) normal childhood fears. The film has garnered, and earned, comparisons to Jennifer Kent’s brilliant The Babadook – even if I think Kent’s film is more accomplished, scarier and overall just a better film. But Under the Shadow is still able to wonderful convey the paranoia of Shideh – as he drives herself crazy with all the pressure that is mounting around her.
Under the Shadow is my favorite type of horror film, because it grounds its fears in real life. Ultimately, the source of the horror doesn’t really matter – ghost stories often do not scare me on their face, because I don’t logically believe in ghosts. Yet, in the case of something like Under the Shadow and its djinn – the horror works because it’s built into the characters. It helps a great deal that Anvari is a gifted stylist as well – yes, like most horror filmmakers, he isn’t above a good jump scare every once in a while, but for the most part, he builds up the terror naturally. In particular, he uses sound incredibly effective – this is a film full of constant noise – but it’s the kind of mundane, background noise we often do not notice. That makes the few moments in the film where everything goes quiet even spookier than they otherwise would be.
Under the Shadow is Anvari’s first feature as a director – and it certainly shows a lot of potential for a great career to come. The way he mixes realism with horror is something most experienced directors could not do. I cannot wait to see what he does next.