Battle of the Sexes(9/30/2017)

I’m not exactly sure why it is that Tennis is the one sport where people seem to be genuinely just as interested in the female competitions as the male competitions, outside of certain Olympic events anyway.  The WNBA has a small fraction of the viewership of the NBA for example but at least there is a WNBA, I don’t even know if there’s a comparable league for female baseball players or hockey players and I don’t even know of any female football teams even at the collegiate and high school levels.  There’s some interest in female soccer in America, largely as a product of the U.S. female soccer team being noticeable better than the men’s team, but that also sort of seems to be a product of the European and Latin American markets that actually love soccer not really caring enough to build up competition for them.  As for other individual sports I know there are some female boxers and female MMA fighters, but again, they don’t seem nearly as popular as their male counterparts.  Clearly there must be something about tennis that leads to equal coverage, maybe it’s that it’s such a finesse sport that the difference in strength just isn’t apparent on TV… but then you’d think that female golfers would have more of a platform.  Maybe it’s just a matter of female tennis players having gotten a useful platform from early on in the sport’s history.  They play in the same Grand Slam tournaments at the same time as the men and tend to get coverage at the same time.  Whatever it was it was something unique and the new film, Battle of the Sexes is about (among other things) a moment where a major star in women’s tennis stood up to defend that one shard of relative gender equality in sports and managed to make a statement about gender equality in the rest of society as well.

Set in the early 70s, the film follows tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who is already more or less at the peak of her career at this point and has just won a major tournament which has netted her a hundred thousand dollar check.  News of this gets to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a 55 year old man who was a tennis champion in the 1940 and was old enough to actually have his career interrupted by World War II.  At this point in life he’s playing on the senior circuit and is having marital problems caused in no small part because of his compulsive gambling.  Jealous that King is able to get those kind of paychecks he starts to get it into his head that even in his advanced age he could still beat her and feels like he deserves to still be making that kind of money because of it.  He approaches her with the idea of doing a “battle of the sexes” exhibition match but King has a million other things on her plate at that time.  She’s in the middle of a boycott of the main tennis authority because their director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is refusing to offer them equal prize money with the men, and she’s also in the process of beginning an affair with a hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), unbeknownst to her future ex-husband (Austin Stowell).  However, when Riggs manages to win a similar exhibition match against the other female tennis great of the era, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) King decides that enough’s enough and accepts Riggs’ challenge.

Battle of the Sexes was directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who are probably still best known for having made the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of filmmaking you’re in store for with the film.  This is a pretty safe and pretty straightforward telling of this period of Billie Jean King’s life.  I’m sure some of the standard issue creative liberties have been taken (I think some of the events are compressed into a shorter period of time) but otherwise the film does not take too many risks in its format and aims.  Emma Stone does some of the best work of her career as King and does a good job of changing herself into this butch athlete and capturing the uncompromising but at times playful aura that King needed to take on through this whole episode.  Steve Carrell perhaps unsurprisingly emphasizes a lot of the over the top and comical elements Bobby Riggs’ persona and doesn’t need to go too far outside of his usual wheelhouse to do it.  The movie is a bit on the fence about how much of a sexist Riggs really was; on one hand it’s very clear that his main motivation for making this happen was money and that some of his “male chauvinist” bluster was not too far removed from the antics of a bad guy professional wrestler taking a heel turn.  On the other hand, some of his resentment does seem legitimate.  He sees himself as being equally talented to King (and given his performance against Court that might not have been completely irrational) and felt that because of this he was deserving of an equal amount of money and attention despite not being in the same league as younger male players anymore.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters too much what Riggs’ true motivation was because at the end of the day he was probably doing a lot of harm.  His trolling plainly brought out the worst in a lot of people (the number of people who showed up to the big match carrying signs like “Team Male Chauvenist” is kind of disturbing) and he also may well have done some real damage to the entirety of women’s tennis if he had actually won his big match against King.  At a certain point it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for greed, lulz, or genuine hate, the end result is still shitty and saying “I didn’t really mean what I said” just isn’t a good excuse.  That little observation is mostly something I’m bringing to the movie as the film itself is not overly hard on Riggs and instead largely just dismisses him as a clown rather than a truly insidious figure when compared to the real institutional sexism represented by Jack Kramer.  That would be easier to roll with if not for the fact that this country recently went through another battle of the sexes of sorts in which a vulgar self-promoting asshole challenged an over-qualified female to a contest of sorts in a cynical attempt to regain relevance in his old age, and unlike this event the heroine didn’t vanquish the unrepentant chauvinist.  Clearly this movie was already well into production before the final results of the 2016 election were known and had sanity prevailed during that contest I suspect that seeing the feminist kick the chauvinist’s ass would have had a lot more resonance, but the actual election results really just make the film’s “and then everything got better” ending ring kind of false despite obviously being historically accurate.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that won’t really leave you with many concrete complaints.  The performances are all solid, the look is appropriate, it gets exciting when it needs to, it’s hard to really place your finger on a single element that you want to change really and yet it also leaves you wanting more.  The movie takes a pretty safe approach that guarantees it will be warmly received by most audiences but never really rises too much above the level of average.  Then again maybe that’s the right approach for this particular story.  This was after all a silly exhibition tennis match whose ultimate effect was largely symbolic.  Hyping it up further might not have worked and taking a more overtly satirical approach might have cheapened it a bit too much.  Maybe the light prestige approach was perfectly suited to the story but I consequently my personal response to it was a bit muted.

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The Big Sick(7/16/2017)

If nothing else, 2017 has been a great year to learn about the lives of 30-something, male, 1st or 2nd generation American immigrants from the Indian subcontinent of Muslim origin who went on to become stand-up comedians. In May the second season of Aziz Ansari’s excellent Netflix series “Master of None” came out, a show that’s most about the romantic and professional life of a thinly veiled Ansari analogue but which also had a memorable episode about his childhood and his hesitance to tell his old school parents that he eats pork and has more or less abandoned his Muslim roots. Less than two weeks later Netflix also released “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” a strong one-man show from the titular stand-up comedian and Daily Show correspondent which focused largely on what it was like to be the only Indian and Muslim in town when he was growing up in Davis, California and about how difficult it could be to deal with his traditional and rather image conscious parents. And now, we finally get the much buzzed about and arguably most high profile of these projects yet which from Kumail Nanjiani, who is one of the stars of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Nanjiani is of course a little different from Minhaj and Ansari, firstly because he’s Pakistani rather than Indian and secondly because he was actually born abroad rather than in the United States and then emigrated in his teens, but based on the projects these various comedians have made I think there’s a good chance that all three would find some common ground in their experiences as his new film, the Sundance hit The Big Sick, looks at (among several other things) a by now somewhat familiar push and pull between American pursuits and traditional family norms.

The film is overtly biographical and follows Nanjiani (who literally plays himself, his character’s name has not been changed) during his pre-success years working in Chicago as an Uber driver while trying to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. Early I the movie we see Nanjiani hook up with a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan), who he meets at one of his comedy shows, and though both are a little leery about getting into a “real” relationship they do find themselves growing close over the next couple of months. Nanjiani is not, however, willing to tell all of this to his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff), especially after his brother (Adeel Akhtar) warns him that they will never accept him again if he marries outside the faith. As such Nanjiani ends up sitting by as his parents present a series of Pakistani women of marrying age to him in hopes that he’ll go along to get along. Eventually Emily learns about this and storms out and strongly suggests that it’s over between them. The next time Nanjiani sees Emily she’s in the hospital with some unknown lung infection and as the first person on the scene he’s forced to give the doctors permission to put her in a medically induced coma. Soon Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) show up, both of whom know about the messiness in Kumail and Emily’s relationship, and wonder why he’s sticking around as long as he is.

The Big Sick has been described as a romantic comedy, which is accurate insomuch as it’s a comedy and it’s about a romance of sorts but insomuch as “romantic comedy” has come to be shorthand for a very specific formula it might be a bit misleading.  In film the “romance” is usually suggests a plotline wherein the boy wants to get the girl (or vice versa), roadblocks are placed in the way of this, and by the end we know if he or she has achieved their goal and lived happily ever after.  In the broadest of strokes that’s true of this film as well, but with one of the participants spending the majority of the film in a coma things play out differently… and not in some kind of creepy Talk to Her kind of way.  In many ways the film is less about Nanjiani’s pursuit of Emily and more about his own reconsideration of what he wants in life and what he’s willing to sacrifice to get it.  Specifically he needs to decide whether he’s willing to alienate himself from his family in order to date outside of the traditions of the home country, where he sees his stand-up career going, and what he really thinks about Emily now that he’s in this strange situation related to her.

Joining the movie in its second half are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, and the movie does a pretty good job of making these two rather average people seem both interesting and likable.   Their presence serves as something of a “what if” scenario for Nanjiani and to make him consider the implications of monogamy and what he wants for his future.  Those two kind of steal the show when they show up but Nanjiani himself is no slouch either and Kazan is believably desirable as well. All told the romantic elements of this are pretty well thought out and interesting, it’s actually the comedy elements that disappointed me a little.  The film is intermittedly funny but for something with Judd Apatow’s name on it I maybe expected something that would be a bit more consistently hilarious than what I got.  Ironically given that complaint, I could have done with less stand-up comedy as well.  I know this is depicting a reality of Nanjiani’s life when this happened to him, but I’m sick to death of these insidery indie movies about struggling stand-up comedians and I just kind of wish they had turned that into some other career ambition.  Really there’s a lot of “autobiographical indie comedy” syndrome going on here and that’s not really a genre I tend to get too excited about unless it just so happens to hit me in just the right way.  It’s certainly an enjoyable little movie but is it one for the ages?  Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth a rental.

*** out of Five

The Beguiled(7/4/2017)

This review contains spoilers

I think it’s fair to say I’ve had something of a hot and cold relationship with the work of Sofia Coppola, one that has not always been in line with the rest of the critics.  I liked her debut feature The Virgin Suicides plenty and like most people I liked her breakthrough film Lost in Translation quite a bit though I maybe don’t quite put it into the same lofty realms of greatness that some of its bigger fans have placed it in.  I was not, however, a fan of her 2006 film Marie Antoinette at all and while I haven’t revisited it in a while I don’t think my opinion on that would change much.  I got even less out of her follow-up film Somewhere, a film I have actually never finished watching, so I’ll refrain from further comment about it.  Oddly enough though, I actually liked her last film The Bling Ring more than a lot of critics did, possibly just because my expectations were maybe a little lower than a lot of people’s.  Truth be told, I think the expectation game has frequently worked against Coppola.  People expected Marie Antoinette to be an attack on the vapidity of the upper class, it instead ends up being a defense of its protagonist’s naiveté (one that doesn’t even end with a beheading), and people are disappointed.  People expect The Bling Ring to be an attack on teen celebrity worship, it ends up essentially being a more traditional look at millennial ennui, and people are disappointed.   Coming out of Cannes there seems to have been a similar complaint against her latest film The Beguilled, in part because critics seem to have wanted something a bit pulpier and more outrageous than what we got.

The film is set in Virginia in the middle of the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school that has been largely abandoned save for the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), one teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five pupils.  One day one of the younger students named Amy (Oona Laurence) is scrounging in the woods when she stumbles upon a Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who is wounded and separated from his troops behind enemy lines.  She decides to bring him back to the school and Martha agrees to patch him up and make sure he’s healed before they attempt to turn him in to the local confederates.  Realizing that he’s something of a captive McBurney starts angling to manipulate his captors and find ways to endear himself to them.  It doesn’t go smoothly.

The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel called “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan, which more than likely would have fallen into obscurity had it not been previously adapted into a film in 1971 (also called The Beguiled) which was directed by Don Siegel and starred Clint Eastwood in the role now played by Colin Ferrell.  That original film is not a great film or even a particularly good one so much as it’s an interesting artifact or sorts and it’s not overly popular and is mainly just discussed as a stepping stone in the evolution of Eastwood’s onscreen persona.  This would in many ways make this an ideal subject for remake as it isn’t an untouchable classic and there’s certainly room for improvement.  On top of that this is a story with a certain set of… let’s say “sensitive themes” which could make for an interesting update.  The original film is, after all, the work of two of the most masculine people in film history in Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, the very same people who would later that same year make Dirty Harry.  As such it would seem that, in the hands of a director who has been widely praised for adding a distinctly feminine touch to cinema, a remake of such a film would be a noticeably subverted adaptation.  There is indeed a little of that here, but I was actually surprised at how much Coppola actually didn’t change.

The crux of what makes this story interesting is that it inverts the usual gender power dynamics.  In this house, which seems almost entirely isolated from the outside world, the man present is wounded, outnumbered, and in a position where he’ll be sent to a brutal prisoner of war camp if he displeases the women.  In his desperation he’s left with the one option that women are often left with in literature: to use sex appeal as a weapon.  McBurney quickly assesses that the women in this school are rather thirsty and quickly engages in a degree of flirtation with them, especially with the relatively age appropriate ones.  It’s not particularly clear how much of this macking is done because of his own sexual desires and how much of it is done out of self-preservation but as the movie goes on all the games he plays with these women’s emotions become increasingly high stakes and start to backfire and he eventually tries to take back power in more direct ways, which also backfires eventually.  All of this is true of both the 1971 version as well as the remake, the differences are mostly a matter of focus.  Specifically the love triangle (love square) between McBurney, Martha, Edwina, Alicia is actually expanded on in the original film and because of this it’s less ambiguous (though not entirely) that Martha’s decision to amputate McBurney’s leg was out of jealousy rather than medical necessity.  This subtle shift has the effect of making the movie a bit less salacious and also justifies some of the women’s actions, but also makes the revelation that McBurney is sleeping with Alicia (who’s named Carol in the original) kind of come out of nowhere.

That’s a change but not really a major one.  Instead it seems that the appeal here is less a personal or political shift and more just the usual coat of paint that modern remakes of older films are given.  Were I of the belief that the 1971 version of The Beguiled were a particularly well-crafted movie to begin with I might have been less receptive to this, but that movie feels less “vintage” than simply “dated.”  Coppola ups the production values noticeably for the sets and the photography that she and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd bring to the film is excellent.  The movie was shot on 35mm and a lot of the scenes in it are lit by candlelight very effectively.  The casting is also an improvement this time around.  Clint Eastwood was probably miscast in the original movie and he’s said as much in interviews about it and Colin Ferrell probably works a little better in this role.  The women are all a little better here as well with actresses like Nicole Kidman, Kirstin Dunst, and Elle Fanning all bringing a lot to their roles and the younger actresses also doing well in the movie.

The Beguiled is an interesting case in that one’s enjoyment of it will likely be dependent in what you expect from it and your willingness to let it operate on its own terms.  Given that this source material with a rather loaded premise that’s rife for dramatic revision I suspect a lot of critics are going to go in expecting something a little more radical and will be disappointed as a result.  Those going in expecting something that operates on the same salacious and borderline trashy wavelength of the original film will not really be getting what they want either.  This is in fact something a little more straightforward than that: an adaptation that simply discards some of the bullshit from its source material and delivers a better told and more streamlined story and does it pretty well.  That’s not something to be completely overlooked and given that this is in many ways the closest that Sofia Coppola has gotten to making a more accessible genre exercise I’d say it’s a step in the right direction.

Baby Driver(7/1/2017)

I remember when I got my first mp3 player.  I was in high school, probably either a junior or a senior and I was late to the Ipod party but I had already been collecting song files for a while at that point through various less than legal sources like Limewire and Kazaa.  Rather than actually get an actual mp3 player when I was on the go I’d burn albums onto CD-Rs and carry a binder of these burned CDs around in my backpack and listen to them on a red Sony discman that would periodically skip if I bumped it around too much.  It was an astonishingly annoying way to listen to music but that didn’t occur to me until I finally got a 5th Generation iPod (the first model that also played video) and quickly began to wonder how I ever lived without it.  A few years later I gave that iPod to my father who traded me for the 80gb model that he bought without actually needing the extra space and I still have and regularly use that 80gb 5th generation iPod to this day.  I’ve never upgraded to the iPod touch because until recently they didn’t have the space capacity for my 12,000+ song music collection and even now they are making higher capacity touches I’m reluctant to switch to them as I enjoy the simplicity of a device with actual buttons and since my decade old iPod still hasn’t broken I don’t need to worry about replacing it.  Anyway, I bring this up because the new Edgar Wright film Baby Driver is, among other things, a celebration of music and the way we listen to it when on the move and it’s medium of choice is the same Apple product that revolutionized 2005 me’s various bus rides.

Baby Driver is set in contemporary Atlanta and follows a baby-faced young man who goes by the name Baby (Ansel Elgort).  Baby seems to be about eighteen and looks like he’s barely old enough to have a driver’s license and yet seems capable of driving with the speed and precision of Dominic Toretto, The Transporter, and The Driver from Drive all wrapped into one.  This skill seems to have been the result of an almost autistic drive to become a master after experiencing a traumatic car crash as a child and this has also led him to some other strange mannerisms.  He’s a very quiet person with a compulsion to record conversations he has and more importantly seems to be wearing earbuds and listening to music at almost all times.  This mix of skills have led him to be a rather unlikely getaway drivers for robbery crews and he’s currently doing this to pay off a debt to a mysterious heist planner named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who claims that Baby is only a few more jobs away from being square with him, but it quickly begins to look likely that he’s not going to let Baby get away so easily and given that Baby has recently met a young waitress named Debora (Lily James) that he’s thinking about running away with whether Doc wants him to or not.

The first thing you’ll notice about Baby Driver is that the thing has wall to wall music in the background.  There’s a very wide mix of popular music on the soundtrack from various decades and genres.  It will happily transition from The Damned to The Commodores to Beck to Young MC and more often than not it goes for the deep cuts from these artists rather than the super recognizable songs you might expect (though there are a few of those too).  At times it feels a little bit like Edgar Wright is just trying to show off how deep his knowledge of semi-obscure music runs, but he is at times able to capture what the experience of listening to pop music is like and how it can tap into your feelings and how you can use it to relate to others.  If Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was about what being a little too obsessed with videogames does to your mind Baby Driver is about what being a little too into music does to you.  What’s more Wright is able to use this music to choreograph both the action scenes and some of the quieter moments where Baby is just getting coffee or dancing around in his apartment because he’s pining for Debora.

The character of Baby is and remains a bit of a blank slate through much of the movie.  You get some sense of his past in the movie and a basic gauge of his morality but he is ultimately closer to being a collection of ticks and quirks than he is to being a fully human character and his past with the accident at times feels more like a contrivance than a believable backstory, but it is nonetheless a pretty interesting move to make an action movie starring someone like this.  I also don’t know that I really bought too much into the relationship between Baby and Debora, or at least I didn’t necessarily see what Debora saw in Baby.  There is definitely something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl quality to Debora; she’s this amazing and almost angelic chick who just falls into Baby’s life and instantly falls madly in love with him for seemingly no reason other than that he’s nice and has cool taste in music.  That’s not a believable relationship, that’s a nerdy crate digger’s fantasy.  Granted, Edgar Wright already did try doing a dive deep into the push and pull of human relationships in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and I certainly didn’t need more of that, so maybe it’s for the best that he just stuck to a simple “boy meets girl, girl falls for boy” relationship this time around.

If the protagonist and love interest here don’t quite work perfectly Wright makes up for it by bringing a pretty entertaining assortment of colorful characters to fill in the heist crews that Baby works with.  Notably, Kevin Spacey is pretty interesting in the movie even if he isn’t really venturing too far from his usual on screen persona of being this sort of intense guy in a suit.  I guess what makes him interesting here is that he’s sort of a fish out of water; he’s ordering around these tattooed thugs and he doesn’t take himself as seriously as his exterior would have you think.  Jon Hamm also shows up playing a bank robber with a sort of Bonnie and Clyde thing going on with his girlfriend/partner in crime played by Eiza González.  It’s a pretty good vehicle for Hamm, who has been pretty desperate to show off his comedic chops after spending seven seasons playing the intense and tortured Don Draper on “Mad Men.”  This is a good vehicle for him because he can be this quirky presence while still playing things straight and using that intensity that he’s capable of.  Finally, there’s Jamie Foxx who plays this just completely unstable thug who adds a real streak of dark humor to the whole movie through his causal relationship to violence and general lack of control.

Edgar Wright is, above all, a filmmaker who is very interested in exploring genre tropes and seems particularly interested in the action movie.  With Hot Fuzz he tackled traditional action conventions through outright parody and he also examined action filmmaking in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World he also tried to examine action filmmaking by (in my opinion rather awkwardly) adding metaphoric action scenes to what is essentially a non-genre story.  With Baby Driver Wright comes closer to taking on the action movie in a more direct and somewhat sincere way.  The film is not really a comedy exactly.  It’s not aiming for a laugh at every turn and there are real deadly stakes involved in its various action scenes, but it’s not a movie that takes itself wildly seriously either.  Action movie tropes like bank heists, standoffs, and car chases are played straight but there is a subversion in that Wright seems to be removing a lot of the bravado from the proceedings.  Baby is not a typical action hero either in look or in attitude, he’s up against people who aren’t exactly the kind of evil we’re used to seeing our action heroes fight against, and by mixing almost all of them with pop music rather than Hans Zimmer scores or something Wright gives the movie an altogether different tone than someone like Michael Mann would.

As these things go I think it’s pretty to safe to say that Baby Driver is a very fun spectacle but also an ephemeral one.  It’s definitely style over substance and the character beats don’t really land as well as the themes of friendship did in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End.  It’s been something like two days since I watched it and I can already sort of feel it escaping my memory despite how much I enjoyed watching it.  Edgar Wright has never been a filmmaker I’ve been terribly inclined to revisit the work of despite some pretty obvious talent on display and despite it in many ways his most shallow effort I can still probably see myself revisiting Baby Driver more than some of his other movies for reasons I can’t quite place my finger on.  It might simply be because it’s his least referential effort which is least reliant on overt references to other specific movies and pop culture (outside of the music).  That or maybe I just really like car chases.  Whatever it is that makes this stand out it’s probably the Edgar Wright movie I’ve most unequivocally liked since Shaun of the Dead, which was another movie that had to deal with the burden of a sort of terrible title that it will hopefully be able to overcome at the box office.

The Birth of a Nation(10/7/2016)

10-7-2016BirthofaNation

It doesn’t happen too often but every once in a while there’s a situation where two movies that aren’t remakes of one another or anything will share a title for one reason or another.  For example, there are two movies called Twilight, not so much because one movie was leeching off another but more likely because Stephenie Meyer just hadn’t seen or heard of that 1998 Paul Newman/Gene Hackman thriller when she named her YA series.  Other times it’s less a matter of not knowing about a previous work so much as it’s a matter of not caring.  For instance, when Ridley Scott is making a mega-budgeted movie about Roman gladiators he’s probably not going to give up on his preferred title just because there was already a somewhat obscure boxing movie called Gladiator just eight years earlier.  Occasionally I’m sure this practice leads to some video store confusion (god help the people who got more than they bargained for when they tried to rent the Oscar winning race relations drama and went home with a David Cronenberg movie about car crash fetishists) but for the most part only the most anal of people tend to even notice this sort of thing.  Of course every once in a while the reuse of a title isn’t an accident and isn’t meant to be something people aren’t going to notice, sometimes it’s a deliberate comment on the previous work and that very much seems to be what’s going on with the new film The Birth of a Nation, which appears to be a rather intentional attempt to “take back” the title of D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist / highly innovative 1915 epic of the same name.

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is not a retelling of that now one hundred year old film and is actually set a good thirty years before the events of that film (which starts with the Civil War and goes through reconstruction).  Rather, this new The Birth of a Nation is set more or less from the beginning on the 19th century up through 1831 and focuses in on the life of the famous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker himself).  The film begins with a young Nat Turner learning how to read, despite his owner’s reservations, and having this buoyed on by his owner’s wife/future owner’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) who has Turner study the bible extensively.  Twenty years later an Adult Nat Turner now acts as a preacher for the slaves on the plantation while working on the cotton fields otherwise, and eventually his current owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) devises a scheme where he’d have Nat “tour” other plantations and preach subservience to the various slaves on each of them.  As he sees plantation after plantation and witnesses more and more suffering on his own plantation Turner becomes increasingly angry about the constant suffering that he’s surrounded by and begins to plan for a violent rebellion for freedom.

Making a movie about someone like Nat Turner certainly takes balls.  Turner was not a figure like Martin Luther King who managed to achieve great change through something as noble as passive resistance, but then again he was also completely cut off from all the “civilized” channels resistance.  He couldn’t pass around a petition, he couldn’t write a letter to his congressperson, he couldn’t boycott anything, and he couldn’t march on Washington.  Parker however seems less interested in wrestling with the gray areas of this situation than in viewing Turner’s rebellion into an act of heroic martyrdom.  In its structure and outlook the film has been compared to Braveheart but the closer analogue may actually be Kubrick’s Spartacus which actually was about a failed slave rebellion, albeit in a very different time and place.  Parker’s film lacks the epic scope and substantial production values of those two movies but it’s similar to both in the way it builds up its protagonist as this uniquely strong and noble figure whose very passion for freedom propels the people he leads into the fray of battle.

For all the film’s passion, I don’t know that it makes a particularly ironclad argument for Nat Turner’s heroism or for the importance on the rebellion he started.  It’s not that I have any qualms about the fact that this slave army killed white slave owners (fuck those people, they can burn in hell) or even that his rebellion killed women and children along the way (war is messy, what are you going to do), but I do think he bears some responsibility for the fact that his actions got a lot of innocent slaves and freemen killed both in the rebellion itself and by the white retaliations that occurred after the fact, all in service of a rebellion that failed within 48 hours and didn’t really accomplish much of anything directly other than an immediate sense of cathartic vengeance and maybe a little bit of “died with their boots on” bombast from the rebellion’s participants.  Perhaps that makes him the perfect hero for the Jill Stein/Bernie or Bust fringe of this political moment but is this really a victory in the grand scheme of things?  The ending of the movie would suggest that Turner’s ultimate victory was in his legacy, in the way he inspired future generations of black men to fight for their freedom, but that argument strikes me as a bit tenuous.  Parker would perhaps have been better served arguing that Turner was fighting less out of a belief that his rebellion would succeed and more out of a desire to strike fear in the hearts of slaveholders and show that there’s a price for holding people in bondage… but that combined with Turner’s religious fervor would arguably make him a terrorist, and that is a level of complication that the film probably isn’t too interested in exploring.

Of course when I watch the aforementioned Braveheart and Spartacus I certainly don’t spend this much time pondering whether or not the failed rebellions in either were “worth it,” why is that?  Well part of it may simply be that those rebellions lasted well over 48 hours and in the movies didn’t feel like such doomed enterprises from the beginning.  Also, those movies didn’t really claim to be smart social commentary so much as they were excuses to stage epic battle scenes.  On that point I’d also point out that both of those movies are well made enough to distract from such inconveniences and while The Birth of a Nation isn’t badly made per se it certainly isn’t the work of a master filmmaker.  Elliot Davis’ cinematography is functional, but looks a bit cheap and not overly confident, as if it doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be stylistic or natural and I really couldn’t stand the movie’s score by Henry Jackman, which overplays the movie’s uplift in all the most cliché ways possible. The performances are also all fine but unexceptional.  I feel like everyone in the cast is being asked to play a lot of their roles with rather broad strokes, none the least Parker himself who is never quite able to capture his character’s gradual transformation from “loyal servant” to violent rebel and seems generally unwilling to explore some of the less noble aspects of the character’s religious fervor.

Having finally seen the movie I kind of think the critics at Sundance maybe did the movie a bit of a disservice by hyping it up so much.  The movie is certainly a fairly noble effort but it’s hardly the first or the best movie about slavery and I don’t think it holds a candle to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.  That movie was the real deal and deserved every bit of the praise it got in 2013, I think it’s a lot more mature than this and also just generally a better made in every way.  Then again I can also see why this would have stood out amongst all the movies about mumbley Brooklynites that were likely circulating in Park City and it also stands out among the action movies and comedies that are getting wide releases more often than not.  It’s a movie that’s worth seeing both to be part of the conversation and to see a lot of the clear passion on the screen, but the Oscar buzz was premature.

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Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice(3/26/2016)

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I liked Man of Steel.  A lot.  To the point where it was in my top ten that year.  This was not a popular opinion.  I spent the better part of 2013 getting into fights with people who absolutely hated that movie and it was kind of draining to defend the movie as much as I did because I didn’t really have an intellectual silver bullet to prove the movie’s worth.  At the end of the day it was all a matter of taste, I thought it was a very well made superhero movie with a certain grandeur to it and I didn’t come into it demanding that it reflect whatever it was Superman was supposed to represent in the past.  Other people disagreed and were turned off both by the fact that it avoided the candy-colored lightness of the Marvel movies and also by the fact that Superman was depicted in a more human and fallible way and by the fact that it ended in a big destructive fight sequence that didn’t strike them as heroic.  I kept trying to explain that the collateral damage in the finale was mostly caused by the villains rather than the hero and that it wasn’t reasonable to expect Superman to stop and save random individuals on the street when there’s a bigger battle to be fought against a rampaging villain, but most people just don’t want to listen after they’ve found a high horse to get up on.  Anyway, given my appreciation for that movie you’d thing I’d be excited for director Zack Snyder’s follow-up, but that hasn’t really been the case, in part because it sounded like DC was cravenly trying to ripoff Marvel’s already tenuous “make superheroes team up” formula and was taking too many other dumb suggestions from the peanut gallery.  I’d like to say I was wrong to doubt Snyder and that I’d once again have a movie worth defending but alas, the critics are going to be right about this one.

The film picks up a little over a year after the events of Man of Steel and introduces audiences to our new Batman (Ben Affleck).  This batman has much the same origin story as the character we’re used to but has been engaging in his war on crime for quite a while by the time we enter into his story.  Bruce Wayne has been suspicious of Superman (Henry Cavil) since his introduction, in part because he lost friends during the disaster in Metropolis.  The public at large is also uneasy about this new entity in the world, especially after he’s blamed for a number of deaths in a rescue mission gone wrong in Africa.  There are congressional hearings into that incident and the high profile Metropolis billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) begins searching for a substance called Kryptonite that could be sold to the government in order to bring down this superhuman one and for all.  As tensions rise between all involved parties, it becomes clear that all these forces could come crashing into one another in an epic battle royale.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a whole lot of things it has to do: it needs to be a sequel to Man of Steel, it needs to introduce a new Batman, it needs to set up the formation of a Justice League down the line, and it needs to make good on its title and show Batman and Superman get into a great big fight.  Doing any one of those things would be a tall order and doing all four is s nigh impossible task and one also has to question if some of these things was a good idea to begin with.  The decision to create a DC Cinematic Universe where a bunch of separate heroes join up reeks of a company aping off of a competitor’s success and I don’t think that the Superman created in Man of Steel was ever meant to be part of a larger universe of superheroes, at least not this quickly.  Ultimately though I don’t think that part of the challenge is really the problem here, although it does lead to one embarrassingly clunky scene where three new heroes are introduced to audiences via CCTV footage.  Instead I think the biggest problem is the pressure of finding a good reason to actually have Batman and Superman fight.

The film’s opening scene depicts the finale of Man of Steel, but from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, who was apparently on the ground that day trying to reach his corporate headquarters.  It’s an interesting scene in that it shows Bruce Wayne doing exactly what everyone apparently thought Superman should have been doing in that scene: saving people.  He manages to help life debris off of one guy and manages to save one girl from a falling object all while doing fuck-all to actually stop General Zod or end the crisis at hand.  That’s the thing about the ending of that movie, people claim that Superman’s actions were needlessly destructive but he did kind of save the whole world in the process and I personally think he has nothing to apologize for.  But fine, whatever, assuming that his actions were indeed controversial with the public why don’t they just run with that?  Why is there also this incident in Africa in which Superman is blamed for the deaths of a bunch of people who were clearly shot rather that punched or vaporized by heat vision or any number of other telltale signs of Superman related slaughter?  That’s a waste and it’s frankly never exactly clear how the public at large feels about Superman, but it’s clear that Batman doesn’t like him at all.  You’d think that since Batman is himself a misunderstood vigilante (one who uses particularly questionable methods in this one) he wouldn’t be quick to judge Superman, but view him as a threat he does and the movie even goes so far as to stop everything and display an interesting looking but completely out of place dream sequence to underscore this.  It makes even less sense that Superman thinks ill of or particularly cares about Batman, but there is an underdeveloped sub-plot where Clark Kent wants to do a series of stories about Batman even though this shouldn’t really be news at this point in Batman’s career.

Ultimately the thing that brings these two to blows is an incredibly elaborate scheme by Lex Luthor and one that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as it plays out.  For starters, the direction they decided to go with Lex Luthor was completely wrong from the start.  The idea was to turn the character into a young Mark Zuckerberg style billionaire, but didn’t make him a self-made innovator so much as an heir, and then lazily cast the guy who straight-up played Zuckerberg in a different movie.  What’s more Luthor is depicted less as a ruthless, power-hungry, and brilliant criminal and more as a raving maniac who just wants to instigate mass destruction.  There is very little real motive for Luthor’s actions in the movie, Superman doesn’t seem to be on his case at all and as far as he knows neither is Batman so it’s quite unclear why the guy is so obsessed with killing either of them and especially not to the point where he’s going to go to such wildly extreme measures.  The whole movie would actually make a lot more sense if they’d just ditched Luthor and replaced him with The Joker, a character who would actually have a vendetta against superheroes and would have a lot less to lose by going to such extreme measures.

Zack Snyder is going to catch most of the blame for the movie even though his direction is almost certainly the best thing about it.  The film certainly looks good and there are some action scenes here that are really well done.  There’s a fight towards the end where Batman takes out a room of armed thugs which is basically the action scene we’ve long waited for from the character, the promised fight between the two characters isn’t bad once it gets started even if it ends in the stupidest way imaginable, and the chaotic final action scene is… well, it has problems but it certainly works better than it might in other hands.  In fact I think the most does sort of find its footing in its last half hour or so and becomes fairly effective as superhero action film but the damage is already done at that point.  I certainly don’t think that Snyder is blameless for this thing and there are some scenes like a poorly rendered car chase that he should have handled better, and people who were displeased by the collateral damage in Man of Steel will be just as mad at this movie.  In fact, I’m a lot less willing to forgive this one myself in that regard because Batman is a character that generally seem more rigid in that regard and some of the deaths here generally seemed more avoidable.

Really, the guy who needs to be fired for this thing is David S. Goyer… actually I’m not sure I want to pin this on him either because he was frankly given a rather thankless task.  The people truly responsible are the Warner Brothers marketing people who gave them an impossible number of things to do with one movie.  The decision to make this thing without first introducing Batman in a solo outing made sense given that no one really wanted a Batman reboot this early after the Nolan trilogy, but they probably should have just done that because trying to introduce a character in a massive crossover project like this proved to be too much.  What’s more, they should have never gotten it into their heads that this needed to literally be Batman versus Superman because the extent to which they had to contrive in order to bring these guys into opposition was a waste.  A simple team-up would have been sufficient.  Finally they shouldn’t have used this as an opportunity to cravenly introduce a larger universe of heroes because it really comes off desperate.  The Wonder Woman introduced here is decently rendered but the movie is too overstuffed as it is and the other cameos are just shameless. If they had discarded some of the excess baggage this thing might have had a chance but as it is the damn thing is an unsalvageable mess.  DC flew way too close to the sun with this one, they saw that Avengers money and decided to just dive in head first before they learned to swim.  It’s a shame because I do think that the grandiose and sincere style that Snyder was developing was sound and that they were right to try to do things differently from Marvel but they completely botched the execution along the way.