Kong: Skull Island(3/9/2017)

The 1933 film King Kong is pretty much an undisputed classic, but it’s also one that can be easy to take for granted.  That might be because it doesn’t really fit too cleanly into any of the other trends of 1930s cinema.  It has little to do with the horror films being made by Universal at the time, its stop-motion effects were largely relegated to B-movies after it came out, and its director Merian C. Cooper never directed another movie and relegated himself to roles further behind the scenes after he made Kong.  It wasn’t really until a new generation of filmmakers who grew up on Kong came to prominence that its influence really became known, and this has led to a number of highly reverent remakes which have tried to recapture what they see as the importance of the original film.  There was of course the 1976 version, which seems kind of corny in retrospect but it is clear that Dino De Laurentiis was trying to make it an event blockbuster in the mold of Jaws and he really wanted to make audiences cry when the gorilla kicked the bucket.  But the movie that really showed the reverence that a new generation of filmmakers had for that first movie was Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, which worked really hard to remake the first movie into a prestige epic that audiences would take as seriously as he took the original.  I was on board for that, but I think Jackson’s zeal turned out to be rather off-putting to general audiences that didn’t share his reverence for the material just wanted to see a giant monkey smash things and move on with their lives.  That movie was also probably not what the studio was looking for as it, like every other version of the story, ended with Kong dying which doesn’t leave room for much of a franchise.  With the new film Kong: Skull Island filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts has taken a different approach and decided to make a King Kong movie that fits more into the mold of a modern summer blockbuster that takes the series in a more populist B-movie direction.

For this iteration of the Kong story the setting has been moved to 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  With Nixon negotiating and end to the war a scientist named William Randa (John Goodman) and his colleague Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) believe they may be seeing their last opportunity to explore an uncharted island that has been the cause of many missing ships and airplanes.  After convincing a senator (Richard Jenkins) that they need to explore this mysterious island before the Soviets do he’s allowed to mount an expedition.  Because he knows this could be trouble he brings along a military escort led by a colonel named Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s bitter about the end of the war and eager to do one last mission.  They also bring along an experienced Jungle tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a war photographer named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) as well as a whole bunch of other scientists and soldiers.  Once they get there however, they quickly find that the weather is hardly and most frightening thing about Skull Island and that they are once again in for the fight of their lives.

Previous films in the Kong franchise and movies of the Kaiju genre in general really tend to play the Jaws approach of delaying the appearance of their titular monster as much as possible so as to make its really satisfying when said creature finally makes its entrance.  Kong: Skull Island doesn’t really play that game.  Instead the military and the expedition members encounter Kong almost immediately after they get to the island and before they’ve even seen the rest of the monsters on Skull Island.  People who were disappointed by the relative lack of Godzilla from Gareth Edwards’ recent Godzilla will probably not feel the same way about this film.  This Kong walks fairly upright and as such more closely resembles the original Kong than the one in Peter Jackson’s movie, which more closely resembled the look of a real Gorilla.  Vogt-Roberts is very willing to give Kong close-ups and seems particularly fascinated by his teeth.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about the effects work here and it won’t amaze people the way that the effects in the 1933 film and even the 1976 and 2005 versions did to some extent but the CGI here is strong and confident just the same and watching Kong and the various monsters do what they do is definitely fun to watch with the emphasis being on action rather than raw spectacle.

One of the first thing you notice about the film is that it has a surprisingly large cast of characters played by a variety of fairly recognizable characters and it quickly becomes clear that this is because the movie is absolutely ruthless about killing people off and is kind of shockingly violent for the sort of lighthearted blockbuster that this is.  This was perhaps also true of the 1933 film, in which dozens upon dozens of nameless sailors are killed by various monsters and the Peter Jackson movie also killed off a whole lot of people but there was usually a certain gravity given to the scenes where the characters you’ve come to recognize were dispatched.  This movie on the other hand kind of revels in building up characters just enough so that you make some connection to them before it proceeds to kill them in fairly flippant ways.  I wasn’t exactly disturbed or offended by this but it did seem rather tonally odd, and this movie generally is not very precious about tone.  The movie invokes the novel “Heart of Darkness” by naming characters Conrad and Marlow (yet somehow has the restraint not to name Samuel L. Jackson’s character Kurtz), which was reference that didn’t make a lot of thematic sense when Peter Jackson made it before but at least the jungle adventure in that movie was appropriately dark, here it makes even less sense as the tone doesn’t resemble that book in the slightest and it has none of its themes about colonialism or psychology.

I suppose those references were included because of its association with Apocalypse Now which is definitely a movie this movie wants to be, except without all the darkness and politics.  There is pretty clearly some Vietnam allegory with the Samuel L. Jackson character once again stubbornly trying to win an unwinnable war, but it doesn’t have anything to profound to say about that conflict in general.  It also has an incredibly lazy soundtrack that hits seemingly every cliché of the “Vietnam movie.”  I mean, if you’re making a movie with Vietnam in the background and you think “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is a creative choice you should go back to the drawing board.  You also shouldn’t invoke “We’ll Meet Again” unless you want your audience thinking about nuclear war, and it’s probably just generally a mistake for any movie to use “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by The Hollies for any reason, as that is seemingly in every movie set in the early 70s. In general, the film’s period setting does not add a lot to the movie at all and mostly just seems to be flavoring, but not necessarily bad flavoring and probably does give it a certain something a film set in 2017 wouldn’t have had.

This thing is coming out in early March but at the end of the day its best described as a movie that follows the template of what audiences expect out of an early 21st Century blockbuster for better or worse.  Its characters are fairly stock action movie types, it has a lot of CGI driven action scenes, it has the balance of drama and comedy that people have come to expect from these movies.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn’t a completely bland director and he does bring some interesting visual ideas to the film (looking at you Richard Nixon bobble-head) but he also doesn’t have a wildly bold vision either.  This is a very lightweight monster movie action movie and it will probably please most audiences and will subvert very few expectations.  People looking for a silly little monster movie to watch will probably not be disappointed: the monster fights are cool, the human parts are amusing, and the scenery is nice… it does pretty much everything it advertises.  People looking for more than that or for something that’s more of the lineage of the classic film that this takes its name from might be a little disappointed.  It’s an inelegant and kind of messy movie but it gets the job done and it has some very cool moments at times.

Neruda(1/28/2017)

It used to be, back in the days of Hollywood factory filmmaking, that film directors would routinely make at least a movie a year but more than likely more than one.  I think this was partly because directors came into the process later and left it earlier than they do now but it’s still impressive how fast they could crank out movies.  Today there are still directors capable of putting out two movies in a year, Clint Eastwood has been known to do it and so has Spielberg, but it’s a pretty rare occurrence.  Even rarer though is the act of putting out three essentially unrelated movies in a single year, which is what the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain has managed to do by releasing his films The Club, Jackie, and Neruda all in the year of 2016.  Granted, this was largely the result of the vagaries of how foreign films get released in America.  IMDB would consider The Club a 2015 film because of its earlier Chilean release and Neruda only barely got in by getting a New York/L.A. release in late December, but from where I sit he did manage to get all of these movies in during a single year.  What’s more, every one of these movies is at the very least interesting.  The Club didn’t quite work for me but it had some interesting things to say about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and I’m certainly on record as thinking Jackie (which was his English language debut) is one of the year’s best.  For Neruda he returns to Chile to tell the story about a very famous Chilean.

The film is set in 1948 and at this point Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a larger than life figure in Chile and a world famous poet and political activist in the country’s communist party.  It’s a tumultuous time in Chile as the recently elected Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) has proven to not be the leftist figure that everyone had hoped when he was elected and it has become clear that everyone in the communist party would soon be in danger.  Neruda goes underground but continues making appearances among the Chilean counter-culture as he seeks a means of exiting the country.  Meanwhile, an police investigator named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) has been brought in by Videla and tasked with finding Neruda, a task that Peluchonneau has every intention to complete.  This will however prove difficult as Neruda is slippery and willing to taunt Peluchonneau at every turn.

I’d be lying if I said I was familiar with the life and work of Pablo Neruda before seeing this movie.  I’m not proud of that, the man was a Nobel laureate and was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” by Gabriel García Márquez, so he certainly seems like someone an educated person should know about.  The film focuses less on his literary achievements than on his status as a political figure in Chile but either way it’s a pretty decent crash course in what he was like and what his stature was.  In playing the character Luis Gnecco certainly seems to have captured the look of Neruda, or at least what he seemed to look like in the photos I was able to google, then again I’m not wildly familiar with Gnecco as an actor so it’s hard to gauge how much of a transformation this is.  Either way the movie does a good job of showing the poet’s free spirited defiance and it’s fun to see him elude the authorities at every turn.  Audiences seeing the movie are likely meant to be well aware of the fact that Neruda does not get captured and the movie never tries to give the illusion that Peluchonneau is ever going to be a match for Neruda even when he occasionally seems to have the drop on him.

Where the movie started to lose me was in its second half where the movie introduces a meta element with the Gael García Bernal character which I don’t think is really as fascinating as it possibly could have been.  I’m not going to discuss it in much detail here but I’m still not exactly sure what was supposed to be real and unreal in it and I’m not sure what the ultimate point of that was supposed to be.  I do wonder if that business was a reference to something in Neruda’s literature or an actual documented element in his life that more familiar audiences would be better able to pick up on but for me it just felt a bit odd.  If it hasn’t been made clear so far, I think the fact that I’m not Chilean has me at a bit of a disadvantage with this movie, or perhaps more accurately my ignorance of early 20th Century Chilean history and the works of Pablo Neruda have me at a bit of a disadvantage.  That said, I don’t begrudge Larrain for having chosen not to dumb down his movie for people who don’t go into it with a whole lot of outside knowledge.  The fact that he made his one of his other films this year, Jackie, in a similarly uncompromising way is one of its strengths and I wonder if part of the chilly reception that it’s gotten is that audiences less educated in that story have left it a touch baffled.  However, I’m not going to entirely blame myself for the fact that this movie didn’t entirely impress me.  There are other issues in it like it’s rather bland and washed out photography and regardless of if I’m missing anything that ending still could have been handled better.   Either way I do think this is a worthy, if slightly disappointing entry in Larrain’s filmography and I look forward to his future work.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story(12/16/2016)

In the world of videogames there’s a term that’s been come to used, at least amongst people with some interest in the financial side of the industry, called “annualization.”  This is used when a company, usually a major publisher like Activision or Ubisoft realizes that one of their series is a really popular cash cow and put enough resources into it to have multiple teams working on multiple sequels to it at once so that they can reliably put out a new installment of the franchise every single year.  This makes sense for sports games like Madden but becomes more problematic when it’s applied to series that are actually supposed to have stories like the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise and even when it’s applied to something like “Call of Duty” which doesn’t have a continuous story it still sort of kills a lot of goodwill from consumers who complain that they’re being bilked into buying the same game over and over again, and even if they’re okay with this in principle there’s no doubt that this practice sort of kills that anticipation that players build up for new installments of franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” who take a slower approach and make each installment an event.  This same practice isn’t unheard of in the world of film, in fact you could argue that the Marvel movies have been doing it for years now, but it seems to have really taken a hold now that Disney is also trying to do something like it with their newly acquired Star Wars license.  Now for basically the first time there’s a Star Wars movie in theaters that isn’t an official “Episode,” a sort of Star Wars “Halo: Reach” that’s officially called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Rogue One is set in the days leading up to the start of the original Star Wars film and focuses on a woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has been coerced into working as an engineer for the Empire.  With this in her past and her mother dead Jyn has seemingly grown up to be something of a streetwise rebel.  Her parentage does catch the attention of the Rebel Alliance, who believe that Galen may be working with an Imperial general named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) on a super weapon that could end the Rebel Alliance once and for all.  As such a task force led by a guy named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and featuring a reprogramed Imperial robot called K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) break her out of prison and bring her on a mission to find Galen and determine what he’s up to and if necessary neutralize him.

When I first heard the title Rogue One I had envisioned it as a sort of Star Wars flyboy movie that would focus on a squadron of X-Wing pilots, but the film is more of something along the lines of The Guns of Naverone with a team of misfits setting out to retrieve one of cinema’s most famous MacGuffins.  There are definitely some good ideas at its center.  In essence the movie is trying to give the viewer a better idea of what life under the Empire leading up to the original trilogy and what the fighting in the titular wars was like for those in the trenches rather than the VIPs we follow through the other movies.  That’s a great idea in theory, but certain aspects of the execution here leave something to be desired and the movie gets off to a real shaky start.  The film doesn’t begin with an opening text scroll like the other Star Wars movies, which is a smart way to differentiate it from the “real” Star Wars movies with episode numbers, but the movie could maybe use one because the first act of the movie feels like something of a jumble of names we don’t know and political machinations that could have used a bit of extra exposition to untangle.

A big part of the problem may simply be the new characters that the film introduces just aren’t that strong or maybe that the movie doesn’t do a very job of establishing a connection between them and the audience.  Jyn Erso is a character that certainly seems interesting in theory and Felicity Jones does bring a certain something to her, but at the end of the day she’s a bit one-dimensional on the page and her motivations seem a bit inconsistent.  The movie desperately wants her to be this aloof Han Solo type but she spends the whole movie trying to protect her father’s honor and the movie never really seems to decide how many fucks she gives in general.  Similarly Cassian Andor just seems like a very one note company man and other characters like a defecting Imperial pilot with brain damage or something played by Riz Ahmed mostly just seems to confuse matters and the movie just never makes other characters like Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus just kind of seem to be here out of a nebulous obligation for the movie to build a team rather than because there’s any real reason for their presence in the film.  Not every character here is lame, the robot K-2SO is pretty charming for example, but few of them really leave the same kind of impression as the iconic characters from the original trilogy or even some of the new characters introduced in The Force Awakens.  Hell, for all their shortcomings even the prequel trilogy probably introduced more characters that people are likely to remember the names of than this movie.

Beyond that the film is frustrating in that it establishes this darker tone and puts forward some interesting ideas only to then squander them.  In particular I was not impressed with the way the film suggests that the Rebel Alliance had its shortcomings and destructive tendencies only to fail to really explore them.  For example, the initial mission that Jyn Erso is sent on is to find a guy named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who Mon Mothma labels as an extremist Rebel who has ultimately proven to be a liability to the Alliance.  That’s an interesting idea but it goes nowhere, we never really see what makes this guy a Rebel extremist or what he’s up to.  When we meet him he’s certainly an interesting looking character but all he actually does is give Jyn the next piece of the puzzle and send her off to the next location.  Later we’re left to deal with a tension within the group as they debate over whether to assassinate Galen Erso, but the stakes to this are never really clear.  We as an audience know that whatever harm Galen can do has already been done and if it hasn’t then what is the urgency to deal with him?  Later still we have to deal with what is essentially one of these stock standard movie situations where the hero is right about something but the Rebel Alliance acts as this artificial roadblock to the “man of action” who wants to do something and when the Rebels have a change of heart on this point it isn’t terribly clear why.

Having said all that, the film kind of redeems itself in its third act.  It probably isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a big battle scene which is classic Star Wars with the action cutting between three or four different aspects of the action scene each one of them interesting in their own way.  It isn’t just that spectacle that makes this third act work though, it also does a lot of clever things to connect the movie to the beginning of the original Star Wars in ways that are impressively seamless.  I was also impressed with the film’s willingness to have a rather dark ending that isn’t afraid to leave things in a pretty grim place to set up why the Revels so desperately need “a new hope.”  Of course the film’s interest in recreating aspects of the original Star Wars does have some drawbacks.  For one thing, Grand Moff Tarkin is a character in the film, which is narratively logical but it with Peter Cushing having died in 1994 the filmmakers decided to use CGI to resurrect him, an idea I might have been willing to roll with if the technology was there but the result is decidedly a trip into the uncanny valley.  I don’t know that I would have wanted them to recast the character either so I guess I wish they had left him out or maybe done his scenes with those blue hued hologram things or something.  Their decision to bring back Darth Vader for a few scenes was also done with mixed results.  You’d think his costume would make him easy enough to recreate, but there’s just something different about him… maybe David Prowse deserves more credit than he gets.

It’s been a truism in filmmaking that if a movie has a lousy ending it will undue a lot of goodwill a movie has built up and if you have a great ending audiences will forgive a lot of earlier mistakes and Rogue One may prove that to be true.  The film’s last third does indeed really leave you just about ready to completely forgive how poorly written the first two acts are, but not entirely.  I don’t think time and repeat viewings are going to be kind to this movie, the thrill of seeing Darth Vader unleash on some Rebels is going to diminish over time and the unfulfilled potential of the film’s exploration of the messy side of rebellion is going to remain a disappointment.  I must say though, that I feel like a bit conflicted about my reaction to this one.  When The Force Awakens came out I thought it was pretty cool but complained that it stuck too rigidly to the formula of the previous movies and relied too much on old characters and nostalgia, and now here comes a movie that boldly eschews the old formula and plays by a new set of rules and it’s still not really what I want.  I guess that’s what’s frustrating about the movie: it seems to have the right idea and go about it the right way, it just botches the execution along the way and doesn’t handle its best ideas the right way.  Despite all that, on balance there is definitely enough here to make the movie a mostly worthwhile experience as the best parts work like gangbusters, it’s just that you’re kind of left with what could have been.

Loving(11/20/2016)

When President Barrack Obama was elected there was a lot of great hope that we’d finally entered a “post-racial” era of American history.  That was a nice thought, but clearly it was total bullshit.  Here we are eight years later and not only have we failed to continue in a progressive direction but we’ve allowed a monster to become president, a blatant racist and misogynist who has made no secret of his plan to dismantle whatever progress has been made in recent years (Editor’s note: if you are a Trump supporter and are offended by any of this partisan discourse, kindly get fucked, I’m in no mood to mend bridges right now).  What to make of this?  Well, what it suggests to me is that these ideas of “making progress” were misguided.  Racism is not something that can ever truly be defeated and erased from the minds of the American people, rather it’s something that we’re always going to need to fight and keep in check through elections, laws, and court rulings because whatever milestones we reach and victories we achieve can be wiped away if we’re not vigilant.  The new film Loving is about one of the landmark victories of the past in the fight against institutional racism, a victory that in more ways than one helped pave the way for Barrack Obama’s electoral victory eight years ago but now almost seems like something that could disappear someday if we aren’t more vigilant than we have been recently.

Loving tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a white man and black woman from Northeast Virginia who in 1958 bucked the mores and laws of their time and place by crossing into the district of Columbia to get married.  The two of them lived in a semi-secluded valley where the poorest inhabitants seem to live in relative integration between the races, including Richard who gets along well with Mildred’s family and friends for the most part.  The two of them don’t seem to think about their union as something done in defiance of an unjust law so much as it just seems like a natural progression in their relationship.  However, wind of this marriage does eventually make its way to the county’s sheriff and suddenly the two of them have deputies storming into their house at night and arresting them under anti-miscegenation laws.  With limited resources the two of them accept a deal which would allow them to avoid jail time but force them to move across state lines into D.C. and thus live an urban lifestyle that they are unequipped for.  Fortunately they do eventually meet an ACLU lawyer named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) who believes this could be a good test case that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

This film can easily viewed as one in a long line of black history movies that have come out recently, but I suspect that the project was originally conceived in response to a different civil rights fight: the fight for same sex marriage equality, a similar fight for the right to marry for which this story could serve as a sort of allegorical argument for preventing the government from deciding who could and couldn’t legally sanction their union.  Granted, Deadline Hollywood has reported that director Jeff Nichols wasn’t even hired to write the film until May of 2015, which was about a month before the landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was announced, so it’s fair to say that this wasn’t written to be a propaganda tool, but I’m still pretty sure there’s a reason this particular case is coming up at this particular time.  One could look at this timing and say that the movie came out too late and that it isn’t as topical as it could have been had it come out a couple years earlier, but once again, recent events have led me to reconsider my previous notions of “progress” on social issues and consider that it is perhaps worth being reminded on a regular basis how important the legal protections we currently have.

As previously mentioned, Loving was directed by a filmmaker named Jeff Nichols, who is not really the first director I would have suspected to be making this kind of middlebrow civil rights history movie, but I guess it makes a certain sort of sense given that he has long been the maker of films about the South.  What Nichols seems to bring to the movie is a degree of restrain and dignity that you wouldn’t get if this was given the treatment that something like 42 or Race doesn’t.  The movie never succumbs to the corny indulgences that I’m sure this could have stepped into though this approach does have some shortcomings as well.  The racism here seems a bit colder, more institutional than it does in a lot of these movies, which is probably realistic but it almost makes the environment that these two characters are living in seem at odds with their legal predicament.  In the movie it almost seems like the only people in the state of Virginia who were viscerally offended by inter-racial marriage were police and judges, which would seem to beg the question of just who it was who was electing these openly racist police and judges.

I also feel like the movie could have stood to be a bit more… romantic.  I suppose I like that the movie didn’t go the rather cheap and probably dishonest route of turning the Lovings into some crazy kids who consciously buck the odds and let love conquer all, but a little more of a spark between the two of them might have been nice.  The movie begins with Mildred already pregnant with their first child and Richard proposing, so the movie completely sidesteps their initial courtship and their relationship seems so tender and almost naïve that there isn’t a whole lot of physical chemistry onscreen.  What’s more their relationship later on seems almost a little too ideal to be real.  There’s hardly a single argument between the two aside from a few almost passive aggressive disagreements about how to proceed with their case.  I’m sure there are marriages out there which are this conflict free, but there’s a reason they tend not to make movies about those relationships, and given the pressures they were under I would imagine there would be at least one or two blow-ups between the two of them.  Part of this disconnect likely had to do with the pressure the Lovings were under during their lifetimes to prove that their relationship was viable and their understandable desire not to let the world see signs of weakness, but I at least like to think that fifty some years later it might be time to show another side of the relationship even if it required a degree of creative license to achieve.

Needless to say, as well made as this is it’s still a decidedly “safe” movie that’s meant to tell a story that will tell provide a fairly digestible moral to audiences who don’t want to be challenged to hard by their tales of racial strife.  The movie doesn’t really go into the reasons why the Lovings were chosen to be the test case brought to the supreme court rather than the other interracial marriages that the ACLU could have chosen.  The fact that it was the woman who was black, the fact that the two of them couldn’t be construed as “radicals,” the fact that Richard looked like a “good ol’ boy,” and Mildred had very maternal ambitions were likely all factors in why they were more likely to be sympathetic to the public of 1967 and they’re also likely factors in why this was chosen as the movie to sell to middle class movie goers and Academy voters in 2016 and also why the whole movie can seem a bit less than radical to people looking for something a little more radical in their modern civil rights movies.  And yet, once again, recent events have made me rethink these things a little and wonder if maybe there’s more of a need for education in “the basics” of civil rights than I might have thought a month ago.  But, the fact remains that whether or not movies like this are needed a film review is ultimately supposed to be a personal reaction and my personal reaction was to find the movie mostly respectable and decently watchable but decidedly less than visionary effort and the mere fact that it could have been a lot cornier than it is doesn’t automatically make it something too special in my eyes.

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

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.

*** out of Five

Snowden(9/25/2016)/Sully(9/26/2016)

Every so often Hollywood will manage to put out a pair of movies so close to one another that one can’t help but look at them side by side.  One such instance seemed to happen this month when two film’s went into wide release within a week of one another that are so different and yet so very similar.  Both films are ostensible biopics about ordinary-ish people who became news stories within the last ten year for actions they took more or less over the course of a single night.  Both films were directed by veteran filmmakers who have become associated with opposite sides of the political spectrum and both films have the challenge of expanding what are ostensibly brief “moments of truth” into feature length films.  Hell, both films are named after surnames that start with “S.”  And yet, what links the two films on a deeper level is that both films more or less exist to ask one simple question: “was this guy a hero?”  The two movies I am of course talking about are Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic Snowden and Clint Eastwood’s Chesley Sullenberger biopic Sully.

To summarize these movies would almost be to simply recite the news headlines of a couple years ago, but I’ll do it just the same.  Snowden depicts the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levit) leading up to his decision to leak multiple government surveillance program to journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).  We see his time working in the CIA in both a direct capacity and as a contractor as well as his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).  While Scully chronicles the day airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) was forced to land an Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson River after losing two engines and the immediate aftermath of this incident including his time he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) spent defending his actions to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Both of these movies come with their share of baggage; Sully needs to make a feature length film out of an incident that took something like thirty minutes in real life and Snowden has similar issues while also having to contend with the legacy of the critically adored documentary Citizenfour, which covers a lot of the same material.  Both movies address these weaknesses by adopting non-chronological structures.  Snowden probably does this in a more traditional way by making Snowden’s Hong Kong meeting with Greenwald and Poitras (the centerpiece of Citizenfour) into a framing story from which we flash back to most of Snowden’s adult life leading up to that moment.  That’s not terribly original but it does serve to solve one of the bigger problems with Citizenfour: the fact that that documentary did not really have an ending.  Where Citizenfour set up this Hong Kong meeting as the beginning of something (namely a vigorous public debate), Stone’s Snowden instead sets this meeting up as the end of something (namely its main character’s arc).  Sully by contrast begins after “the incident” and spends a majority of its runtime focusing on Sullenberger as he reacts to his sudden fame, experiences post-crash jitters, and defends his actions to the investigators.  It does of course eventually flash back to the crash, but the post-crash material is more the main story than a mere framing narrative.

The post-crash material in Sully showed some real promise in its early sections, in part because it seemed to be interested in getting into the head of its protagonist and exploring his self-doubt.  At times it almost felt like a sort of companion-piece to American Sniper in that Sullenberger almost seemed to be going through a sort of post-traumatic stress as he contemplated what happened.  I was especially interested in this notion that maybe Sullenberger had spent so much time considering worst case scenarios that once he finally found himself in an actual crisis he maybe, just maybe, over-reacted and tried to pull a hero move that may not have been necessary.  The movie seems somewhat interested in tackling these issues during the first act but it quickly becomes clear that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki are less interested in these nuances than maybe they should have been.  Once the inquisitors from the NTSB come into the picture they feel less like professionals trying to do their jobs and more like smarmy villains who seem dead set in hurting our hero.  I get the impression that these NTSB hearings have been condensed to the point of ridiculousness, all the parts where the questioners are being fair and professional is cut out and the few spots where they ask questions that prove baseless are emphasized.  All the interesting self-doubt and second guessing of the first half is completely thrown out in favor of this bizarrely abrupt ending where the movie hits and incredibly smug note and then just cuts to credits rather than even bothering with the obligatory coda where our hero is reunited with his wife or something.

Given that Sully brings this controversy up just to drop it, I can’t help but feel like the movie was creating complexity where there may not have been any in the first place.  Most people going into the movie already think Sullenberger was an unambiguous hero and the movie perhaps only sows doubt about this in order to give the film something do with its runtime.  With Snowden Oliver Stone does not really have this luxury as his subject was a highly controversial figure from the moment he entered the public consciousness and in many ways Stone’s movie is interested in mounting a defense of his actions.  As such there isn’t a whole lot of nuance in his movie either, but at least it doesn’t bring up the specter of nuance just to take it back and say “never mind.”  The movie does do a pretty good job of showing exactly how the invasive government programs that Snowden blew the whistle on worked and how extensive their operations were.  That’s something that Citizenfour was never really able to do and the movie also gives the viewer a better idea of how extensive Snowden’s CIA/NSA career was.  On the other hand the fact still remains that the life of Edward Snowden, computer nerd extraordinaire, was never exactly the world’s most exciting person outside of his eventual whistle blowing and while seeing him slowly grow his convictions does have some interest it does not exactly make for the world’s most thrilling movie.

Both movies have at their centers a pretty strong performance.  Tom Hanks is solid as Sullenberger as you’d expect given that playing likable everymen is his specialty.  It’s hardly his best work but maybe it’s not that fair to dock points from the guy for his consistency.  Joseph Gordon Levitt could also be said to be a pretty obvious casting choice for Edward Snowden but we’re slightly less used to seeing him play these kind of roles.  Both movies sort of suffer a little just because their stars feel like movie stars playing dress up as commoners, but to some extent that’s just something you need to accept in Hollywood movies like this.  Sully is probably the more obviously cinematic of the two movies given that it has a special effects scene at its center and that crash re-enactment definitely delivers on what its audience is expecting form it and I particularly liked the way it was able to successfully depict this crisis as a perfect fusion of different people working together to pull off a really unlikely save.

Beyond that the movie is tonally more or less what you’ve come to expect from a Clint Eastwood movie, albeit with a slightly lighter center given that the subject matter is fairly uplifting and Tom Hanks’ general presence adds a touch of levity as well.  Of course Oliver Stone is also a pretty skilled filmmaker and while he’s been floundering as a filmmaker for the last couple decades he has always maintained a pretty good grasp on the fundamentals of filmmaking.  There’s nothing in Snowden that’s as adventurous as what Stone was doing in something like JFK or Natural Born Killers but there are at least a couple of neat touches like a scene where Snowden is having a Skype call with his CIA mentor and rather than filming a computer screen Stone superimposes the image of this guy in the entire background of the screen with Snowden looking on in the foreground as if the CIA guy were Big Brother giving orders to one of his subjects.  Stuff like that is relatively rare in the movie though and Stone generally plays things really safe, possibly to the movie’s detriment, and while this is better than most of the stuff Stone has made recently it still isn’t really the return to form that we’ve been waiting for from the guy.

So, in a direct contest between the two movies I’m not entirely sure which I’d choose.  The actual plane crash scene in Sully is probably better than anything in Snowden but then again Snowden leave you with a little bit more to chew on and nothing in Snowden pissed me off as much as the way Sully ended.  Really though I’m not sure I can say either of these movies rose above the level of “average.”  Of the two Snowden is probably the bigger lost opportunity as I feel like something a lot better could have been made either by a younger and more adventurous Oliver Stone or someone else who just had a more creative approach.  Sully on the other hand probably wouldn’t have benefited from a less conventional approach so much as it could have used a few more re-writes, possibly by someone with a slightly more thoughtful approach.  Ultimately I think both movies probably do justify their existences, but just barely and while I would say both will work well enough for people who are already interested I’m not sure I’d recommend either as movies which people who are on the fence should go ahead and take the plunge on but I’m sure both would satisfy if caught on HBO or Netflix some day.

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