The Marvelous Brie Larson — #3

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

I have been looking forward to March, not so much because of my undying allegiance to the Marvel brand but rather to Brie Larson. This is the month where she takes the next step, going from an indie darling to a mainstream commodity. Because superhero movies are the only movies that seem to matter anymore, getting the lead in a new Marvel movie seems to this armchair critic a kind of validation of one’s hard work and talent: You’ve officially arrived. You ARE Marvel-worthy.

But with great publicity comes great controversy, and by now we are all aware of the furor surrounding Captain Marvel and its star. Reading/listening to all the ways in which her comments have been misconstrued has been infuriating to say the least, and while the push for greater diversity in the movies and in the press covering them is certainly a discussion worth having (it was a sobering moment learning that 78% of the current critical landscape skews white male) I fear going in that direction is invariably going to turn into a rant. Besides, to focus on the negatives would be to completely lose sight of what this feature is about — celebrating the strengths and unique qualities of the performer in question.

And there is no denying that there is much to celebrate here. Captain Marvel, flying defiantly in the face of all those who were adamant a female-led superhero film just won’t sell, has racked up an impressive $900 million in global box office receipts. Bigger numbers geeks than I will tell you with greater confidence how the film probably won’t crack the billion-dollar mark, but let’s not turn a nose up at 900 mill.

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/adventure/sci-fi

Premise: Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Character Background: Carol Susan Jane Danvers hails from a distant world known as Hala, the galactic capital of an alien race called the Kree. In comics lore, Carol isn’t actually the original incarnation of Captain Marvel. That distinction belongs to her super-powered colleague (and at one point love interest) Mar-Vell, who was originally conceived as a Kree Imperial Officer sent to spy on Earth and, under the guise of Dr. Walter Lawson, took note of our technological developments as we readied ourselves for space exploration and in the process of sympathizing with the humans, met and fell in love with a certain American Air Force Pilot, one Carol Danvers. Famously the Captain Marvel brand has endured a long and convoluted history and Marvel Studios takes advantage, dispensing with the romance and macho heroics. As the story used to go, it was Mar-Vell who saved Carol both from an envious Yon-Rogg in pursuit and from a powerful blast from some crazy Kree machine but due to their physical proximity to each other at the time of the explosion Carol’s DNA got infused with that of Mar-Vell, rendering her half-human, half-Kree, and 100% badass. The film, however, gives the character more agency, depicting her “transformation” as a direct result of her own actions, when she shoots the energy core that powers her light-speed-capable jet to keep the tech out of the hands of Yon-Rogg. Because she essentially inhales the Space Stone she becomes super-powerful, but in the exchange also loses her memory. The film then becomes about her working backward to discover where she’s really from and what side she’s on in this overarching Kree/Skrull war.

Brie Larson, a refreshing new face in this familiar superheroic collage, trained for nine months to prepare for the physical aspects of the role, learning judo, boxing and wrestling . . . and throwing in the occasional push-a-5,000-pound vehicle for 60 seconds for good measure. She said of the lengthy preparation: “I got super-strong. It wasn’t enough to just put the costume on and play pretend strength, I wanted to be actually strong.”

Of course, the physical abilities are just one aspect of the character — and they are significant, suggesting she may well be the key in defeating the terrible Thanos in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. But her film arc is just as much about her emotional growth and her psychological state. In flashbacks we see how a parade of men have routinely discounted her as being some kind of “Not Enough” — she’s not strong enough, fast enough, doesn’t smile enough. And damn it anyway, she endures, standing back up and pushing on, turning a deaf ear to the jeers. Brie Larson describes Carol as “probably the most dynamic character I’ve ever played. I’ve had to go through every possible emotion with her. That’s what I want: I want to see complicated female characters.”

Marvel at this Scene:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dqeEZJvFuiE

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.wikipedia.com

30 for 30: The Last Days of Knight

Release: Thursday, April 12, 2018

→ESPN

Directed by: Robert Abbott

In the eyes of many Bob Knight is an obvious candidate for the Mt. Rushmore of collegiate hoops coaching greats. He has numbers on his side and generations of fans ensure he won’t be forgotten. But whereas words like legacy are most often used to glamorize and romanticize the past, when it comes to Coach Knight, who threw chairs and kicked lockers out of frustration, was caught on tape grabbing a player by the throat during practice and one time even used fecal matter to demonstrate how he felt about team effort, legacy takes on a different, perhaps darker connotation.

If we’re talking accolades this guy is doing the butterfly in a deep pool of ’em: In his 29 years with the Indiana Hoosiers he amassed 902 NCAA Division I wins which, as of 2008, when he retired (at this point he was head coach at Texas Tech), was the most all-time at that level. Today it is third-most all-time, recently eclipsed by his former assistant and current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.

Knight’s coaching résumé includes three NCAA Championship titles, 11 conference titles, one National Invitational Tournament Championship, four Coach of the Year honors and thus far the last true undefeated squad in 1975-’76. In 1984 he coached the Olympic team and led the Americans to victory in L.A., making him one of the elite few college coaches to have won an NIT title, an NCAA title and an Olympic Gold medal.

Statistics can speak volumes about a coach’s skill, knowledge and experience but what of their style? Their moral code? They certainly don’t tell the whole story when it comes to this highly controversial figure. The Last Days of Knight is a scintillating exposé directed and narrated by and prominently featuring former CNN producer Robert Abbott. What begins with a journalist inquiring into the curious transfer of three top IU players out of the program in the 90s opens up into a much larger and troubling story about institutional corruption, abuse of power and toxic fandom.

After his playing days were over Bob Knight established himself as a demanding coach with an old-school approach, equating hard work and discipline with success. His intimidating presence earned him the nickname ‘The General.’ His first stint was coaching the Army Black Knights at West Point at the ripe age of 24 and while successful, early cracks in his composure began to show, proving in moments of frustration to be a combative personality and a hot head. In 1971 he was hired as the head coach at Indiana, and though his first year ended in disappointment he’d soon have the Hoosier faithful in the palm of his hand, bringing multiple titles to a state that worships the game.

While Coach Knight and his temper take top billing, Abbott also plays a major role in the narrative, and for good reason. Not only is the film a culmination of 17 months of painstaking research and chasing down crucial interviews, the downfall of a coaching deity is directly linked to Abbott’s investigation. During the process he learned to appreciate how much of a bombshell his story was indeed becoming, and on camera he is up front about the moral dilemma he often found himself in. From a journalistic perspective you don’t get a story much better than this: Bob Knight, coaching God, has been doing terrible things to his players. He taunts them. Hurls insults at them. Plays mind games with them. At the same time he was acutely aware of the pain his investigation was causing, not to Coach but to the whistleblowers who, as a result of speaking out, endured public humiliation and faced lynch mobs and unrelenting death threats. The additional complication of Abbott himself coming under fire for pursuing what some high-powered, well-connected individuals called a witch hunt further amplifies the drama.

What makes Knight’s run at Indiana so extraordinary is the amount of leeway a little (okay, a lot of) winning afforded him. His tenure outlasted that of school administrators and athletic directors. It’s been said that at the height of his success Knight became a more influential figure than even the state governor, his ability to mold boys into men under his authoritative leadership earning him first the respect and then the undying loyalty of the Hoosier community. A pattern of abuse endured not just one bad season, it went on for decades, always justified by a well-above-.500 record and perennial postseason success — at least up until 1994, the last time a Bob Knight-led Indiana squad would reach the tournament. He would stay on as head coach until September 2000.

The Last Days of Knight is conspicuously devoid of any current interviews with the man himself. The fall from grace is old news now but a lack of immediacy doesn’t dilute the power of the voice or the images. Throughout we get several truly frightening sound bites of him in fine fear-mongering form. Other clips depict his behavior during press conferences, at times as bizarre as it was hostile. Meanwhile interviews with Neil Reed, the player whose neck Knight grabbed, serve as an indictment on an institution that prioritizes the bottom line over the well-being of its students.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: The downfall of Bob Knight remains one of the most popular stories in modern college hoops, so it surprised me it took ESPN this long to produce a film on it. But better late than never, because while the film doesn’t really offer new insight into a story that’s been rehashed in the media for years on end, the personal perspective offered by Robert Abbott adds another layer of intrigue. In an era where the integrity of journalism is being intensely scrutinized, this documentary does feel more timely. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 103 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.theshoptrailers.com

First Man

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018

→IMAX

Written by: Josh Singer

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

While First Man is only a small step into a different genre for director Damien Chazelle, the way he tells the story of the Moon landing may well represent a giant leap for fans of his previous, more emotionally-driven work. The historical reenactment is uncharted territory for the maker of dream-chasing dramas Whiplash and La La Land, yet the obsessive, single-minded pursuit of a goal makes it feel thematically akin. Told from the point of view of Neil Alden Armstrong, First Man offers an almost purely physical, visceral adventure. Strap in and hold on for dear life.

For the first time since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk I left a movie exhilarated and fulfilled but also a little jelly-legged . . . and A LOT concerned about the state of my ears and the quality of service they would henceforth be able to provide. I guess what I am saying is that the movie gets loud, but that’s underselling it. In intermittent yet unforgettable bursts First Man comes close to overwhelming the unsuspecting moviegoer with its sonic power. All that style isn’t just for show, though Oscar surely will come a-knockin’ on Chazelle’s door next February. By way of audial and visual disorientation he creates an immersive experience that makes us feel our vulnerability, our loneliness and limitations on the final frontier.

It’s apparent from the stunning opening scene that Chazelle intends for us to feel this one in our bones rather than our hearts. A brutal tussle between Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his X-15 rocket plane which keeps bouncing off Earth’s atmosphere sets the stage for the challenges to be faced later. This early chaos provides a formal introduction to the physicality of First Man, while reaffirming the mythology around the actual man. How he survives this ordeal is a feat in and of itself. Once back on terra firma the deconstruction of that mythology begins. Guided through seven tumultuous years leading up to the mission itself, we gain privileged access to Armstrong’s domestic life — that which became all but sealed off completely to the public after the Moon landing — as well as a better understanding of events that paved the way for an American victory in the space race.

In First Man there isn’t a lot of love being thrown around, whether it’s Armstrong’s awkwardness around his family when it comes to saying goodbye, or the way the public has come to view NASA and its affinity for spending money and costing lives. Working through the troubleshooting days of the Gemini program (1964 – ’66) before moving on to the more technologically advanced but still flawed Apollo missions, First Man has less time for romanticizing and fantasizing. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and America needed to know: how many astronauts are expendable in the interest of getting one over the Russians? All the while Gosling’s traditionally Gosling-y performance doesn’t allow us to get particularly attached to his character. All of these factors contribute to a rather disconcerting experience as we never get very comfortable on Earth, never mind in a coffin built out of aluminum and traveling at 17,000 miles an hour.

The film isn’t without its moments of raw emotion. An early scene depicts the tragic loss of two-year-old daughter Karen to cancer, and for a brief moment Neil Armstrong is in shambles. Logic and reason have completely failed him. Claire Foy is excellent as wife Janet, who becomes the closest thing we get to an audience surrogate while her husband grieves in his own way by burying himself in math and physics homework. But even her tough exterior sustains serious damage as time goes on and both NASA and Neil’s lack of openness with her as well as their two sons becomes ever more a source of frustration. Our feelings more often than not align with hers.

Elsewhere, Armstrong’s aloofness is noticed by fellow Apollo hopefuls Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who each befriend him to a certain extent but are never quite able to crack the code of really getting to know him. His fears, his doubts. His favorite men’s magazine. His aspirations beyond walking on Earth’s lonely satellite. (As an aside, several of the astronauts from the Apollo missions went on to pursue political careers, but Armstrong went the other way, withdrawing from public life and even refusing to autograph items when he learned his signatures were being forged and that those forgeries were being sold all over the globe.) Stoll is a bit more fun as the extroverted Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon — the inventor of the Moon bounce, if you will — though he hardly inhabits the man in the way Gosling does.

Adapted from the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is a story of ambition delivered in blunt fashion. It isn’t a sexy, glamorous tale of fame or even nobility. This isn’t a story about a nation claiming its stake on a distant, lifeless rock. Nor is it about mankind advancing itself, despite what was said when boot met Lunar soil. This is an account of what it cost one man, one civilian, to get to the Moon. And the physical stresses, while pronounced in the film, are only a part of the deal. Often Linus Sandgren’s camera harries the subject rather than deifying or celebrating him. Certain angles rob the guy of personal space while tracking shots of him heading towards some vehicle or other give the impression of the paparazzi in constant pursuit. Neil’s always on the move, busy with something, and inquiring cameras need to know.

First Man is certainly not the film a lot of people will be expecting, be it the distance put between the audience and the astronaut or the scenes Chazelle chooses to depict (or not depict). Flag planting or no flag planting, this feels like the story that should have been told. It feels like a privilege to have experienced it.

I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon

Recommendation: First Man uses a typically enigmatic Ryan Gosling performance to create an altogether lonelier feeling historical drama. In retrospect, the release comes at an odd time. Next summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Lunar landing, so I’m not sure why First Man is coming out right now. Not that a few months makes that much of a difference, when you have a dishearteningly large percentage of the public believing A) we never went or B) the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. Fair enough, I guess. Those with a more open-mind, however, are strongly encouraged to experience First Man in IMAX. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “What are the chances you’re not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore! So you’re gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!”

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30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog

Release: Thursday, July 13, 2017

→ESPN 

Directed by: Daniel H. Forer

Love them or hate them, any appreciator of grown men yelling at each other over the airwaves in the name of entertainment has Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to thank for giving birth to modern sports radio talk. At the height of their success, no one could touch them.

Directed by 10-time Emmy Award™-winning documentarian/writer/producer Daniel H. Forer, Mike and the Mad Dog offers one final parting gift to fans of the sports talk show that aired for 19 years and five — count ’em, five — hours each weekday afternoon on WFAN 101.9 FM. Nestled deep in the heart of New York, “The Fan” is famous for becoming the first radio station in the country to offer 24/7 sports coverage. Over the course of a fleeting but highly entertaining hour Forer digs into the origins of the show, the personalities that made it happen, and the mechanisms that both drove its success and that ultimately led to its downfall.

The first broadcast of Mike and the Mad Dog aired in September 1989. At the time there was little evidence to suggest the experiment would be successful, never mind end in the tearful manner in which it did in August 2008. Francesa had done the grunt work at CBS, starting out as a stat boy and college sports analyst, before expressing an interest in shifting over to radio broadcasting. WFAN at the time were looking for established talent rather than someone with no experience. Though Francesa’s encyclopedic knowledge helped him gain footing, station management had no desire to give him his own platform.

Chris Russo, on the other hand, was all but born on-air, his voice “a bizarre mixture of Jerry Lewis, Archie Bunker and Daffy Duck.” He was energetic, a Tasmanian devil behind the mic. Russo began his career at a station in Central Florida, where his thick New York accent was so alien he was sent to a speech therapist twice a week. He later relocated to The Big Apple, briefly dipping his toes into Christian radio at WMCA before becoming roped into a most unlikely gig with WFAN, where he’d spend the next 19 years foaming at the mouth over the days’ hottest sports stories.

Mike and the Mad Dog was created out of a need to better reach WFAN’s target audience — the city proper and its surrounding suburbs. A more traditional, buttoned-up format predated it and featured a revolving door of national anchors who all failed to resonate. The station desperately sought a more local feel, and in the seemingly diametrically opposed Francesa and Russo they struck gold. Not only were they true-blue New Yawkas, they were bona fide geeks who spoke in the language of the typical sports fan. They both loved sports and talking about them — they just didn’t really love the prospect of talking about them with each other.

The documentary covers an impressive amount of real estate, touching on a number of personal aspects before moving beyond the personalities and their disparate upbringings to address the numerous controversies they became involved in and occasionally triggered themselves. From the Don Imus firing in 2007 to the infamous broadcast on September 12, 2001, Mike and the Mad Dog have taken the show to some incredible highs as well as cringe-inducing lows. Consistent with their style, they dealt with backlash in their own acrimonious ways.

Given how routinely Francesa and Russo together (and individually) became the thorn in the sides of local sports figures — be they current team owners or retired players (even columnists, like the Post’s Phil Mushnick weren’t exactly safe) — those events weren’t aberrations. Of course their stance on Imus and reaction to 9/11 also didn’t do much to dispel the notion that after so many years the two had developed egos larger than the city they were covering. Their vast sports knowledge wasn’t to be questioned, yet it also couldn’t save them from getting into trouble. Forer holds interviews with friends and former colleagues who admit there were times the two just couldn’t help themselves.

Arranged marriages can be awkward, as the pair attest on camera. That’s how they viewed their relationship — less a natural coming together as it was a forceful shoving. Chemistry lacked to say the least in the early going. Yet, as time passed, they found their rhythm and gained a respect for each other, with Mike in particular being impressed with his very animated partner’s ability to hold his own in a debate. After so much time together, they became more like a family and the documentary effectively captures that spirit. As Russo might put it, sometimes family drives ya frikkin’ nuts.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: Mike and the Mad Dog is an intriguing exploration of the way ambition, recognition and egotism all play a hand in the shaping of high-profile careers. It is close to essential viewing for those who have lamented the break-up (now 10 years ago) and have never quite gotten over it. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 50 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.newyork.cbslocal.com

#OscarsQuiteUnpredictable

oscars-snafu

Steve Harvey reaching out to Warren Beatty after he was involved in what has got to be the most embarrassing SNAFU in Oscars history — and possibly of the actor’s career — strikes me as humorous for some reason. I know it isn’t funny, but what if there really is some support group for this sort of thing? Victims of Award Ceremony Gaffes Anonymous, does that exist?

Look, I’m not here to point fingers and perpetuate the blame game because, well, I feel as though a sufficient pall has been cast over Barry Jenkins’ legitimate victory and Jimmy Kimmel’s first Oscars hosting gig. Poor guy. It’s not like he was the greatest host ever — the highlight of his night is without a doubt his manipulating the pit orchestra in order to rush Matt Damon off stage as he was presenting, which was amusing but not good enough to make me stop missing Billy Crystal.

But Kimmel’s night was going really well and for it to end in such a bizarre and awkward way, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. Or just assume that M. Night Shyamalan had played a part. And we all know that while it was probably the decent thing to do to try and divert the awkwardness away from the presenters (does anyone know what country Faye Dunaway is now living in by the way?) and towards himself, we also know this was not his fault. A scheme like this would be too complex for Jimmy Kimmel to mastermind, anyway. Besides, I don’t feel bad for the talk show host in the way I feel bad for La La Land.

ryan-gosling-snubbedI suppose the good that came out of this “custody battle” — besides the fact that one of the most deserving films in recent memory actually took home top honors — was that we got to know a little bit more about La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. It’s almost unreasonable how composed he was. How gracious in defeat he was. How sincerely his congratulations were offered to his competitors. I think there’s something we can all learn from the way he (and others) handled their situation.

I rated the two films differently but truth be told, and given everything that happened on Sunday, I think I would have been alright if the honor were shared between both films. That’s where the Academy really screwed things up. (Okay, I guess I am going to have to do a little scapegoating here.) Sure, PwC has taken the heat and rightfully so, but even if there were not enough trophies to go around on stage, I don’t know how you can allow for something like this to happen.

And it’s not like ties haven’t happened before, because they have. Six times actually. Six times a producer or director or cast member was spared the humiliation of being cut-off mid-acceptance speech because they hadn’t, in fact, any right to be making it. Of course, the way the 89th Academy Awards ended feels like a first. This wasn’t an example of indecision or voter fraud. This was an unprecedented production fiasco that unfolded in real time. To further troll the Academy and PwC, I’m really not sure if there could have been any protocol for this. And I really doubt there will be a ‘next time,’ so there probably never will be.

With the elephant in the room having been addressed, allow me to breakdown the categories that I featured in my preview post:

Best Picture (Winner: Moonlight) 

What I predicted: La La Land

If I had it my way: Moonlight

Well, the cast and crew of La La Land certainly went skipping up on stage because for a fleeting moment, as I had predicted, life for them was but a dream. But oh man, how fleeting that feeling was . . .

On the bright side, Moonlight becomes just the second LGBTQ-related film ever, behind Midnight Cowboy in 1970, to win Best Picture. And it is the first time in Oscars history a film with an all-black cast has won the award. Just let that sink in for a second.

Directing (Winner: Damien Chazelle, La La Land)

What I predicted: Damien Chazelle

If I had it my way: Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special

No real surprise here. The art that lives within the 32-year-old director is undoubtedly unique and profound. For him to go from directing a film like Whiplash to La La Land in the span of three years is, well, the guys at Consequence of Sound said it best: it’s just baffling.

Actor in a Leading Role (Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea)

What I predicted: Casey Affleck

If I had it my way: Casey Affleck

Amazing. To go from being the architect of your own potential destruction to Oscar-winner in the span of a few months is about as crazy as #EnvelopeGate. When a sexual harassment scandal reared its ugly head once again in the lead-up the Oscars, it seemed Ben Affleck’s younger, smaller and generally awkward brother had the odds stacked against him. Not to trivialize the troubling story that has been following the actor for some time, but his work in Manchester By the Sea deserved the win. It is almost enough to make us forget that hey, Oscar winners ain’t saints. I said ‘almost.’

Actress in a Leading Role (Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land)

What I predicted: Emma Stone

If I had it my way: Amy Adams, Arrival

Emma Stone, you need not worry if I’m doubting the legitimacy of your win. Your work in the movie speaks for itself. Your ‘Audition’ scene took my breath away, and I never quite got it back. I’m so glad Leo didn’t have any trouble with his presentation, because the Oscar absolutely went to the right person this year. Emma Stone has further cemented herself as one of the most meteoric stars of her generation. Jennifer Lawrence, watch your back.

Actor in a Supporting Role (Winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight)

What I predicted: Mahershala Ali

If I had it my way: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

I love that in an era where Muslims are feeling more and more persecuted and marginalized in this country, one has just taken home Oscar gold. It feels something close to poetic justice, even if other artists this year have indeed suffered the effects of an unprecedented travel ban. I was introduced to Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Remy Danton in Netflix’s brilliant political drama House of Cards. I was impressed right away. In Moonlight, his turn as an empathetic drug dealer who exerts major influence on the young Chiron early in the narrative, is enough to break your heart. But in ways you might not expect. It’s a stunning supporting turn, and a big part of the reason I thought Moonlight was able to reach some other psychic level that La La Land just couldn’t.

stinkeye

Actress in a Supporting Role (Winner: Viola Davis, Fences)

What I predicted: Viola Davis

If I had it my way: Viola Davis

Viola Davis was one of the only true locks for the evening, the other being the winner of Best Documentary Feature (congratulations to Ezra Edelman and O.J.: Made in America for a well-deserved but, yes, very inevitable win). So while I didn’t exactly jump for joy when Davis won, I was nonetheless psyched for the woman. The Oscar win identifies her as the first black actress to complete the Triple Crown of Acting. She has officially taken home an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award for her scintillating work as beleaguered housewife Rose Maxson.

Animated Feature (Winner: Zootopia

What I predicted: Zootopia

If I had it my way: Moana

Blah. Zootopia was good I guess, but this is becoming one of those movies where, the more I hear about it, the more I’m feeling disdain for it. Studio animations have this unprecedented burden of becoming message movies these days, so I guess that’s what the Academy was looking for this year. How many heavy, controversial issues can you jam into one colorful little narrative? That’s the competition. Me, personally? I would have taken anything over the contrived kumbaya of this Disney “classic.” Even The Red Turtle, whatever the hell that is.

Cinematography (Winner: Linus Sandgren, La La Land)

What I predicted: Linus Sandgren

If I had it my way: Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

So you could look at the Best Picture fiasco two different ways. You could feel terrible that La La Land lost in the manner that they did, or you could look at them as being a production that simply missed out on lucky #7. Yeah, they were involved in one of the most egregious mix-ups in an event of this magnitude but they also walked away with SIX OTHER TROPHIES. Inarguably one of the categories they absolutely had in the bag was this one. Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture Los Angeles in a classically romantic, old-fashioned way while reminding the viewer that they are experiencing events in the present tense is truly astonishing. La La Land is a technicolor dream sequence executed to perfection. The iconic Griffith Observatory has rarely looked so good before.

Costume Design (Winner: Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)

What I predicted: Colleen Atwood

If I had it my way: Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed

For a film that I actually never bothered to see I was really pleased with the final result. Though I really didn’t see any of the other nominees challenging the fantastic (sorry) and ornate wardrobe drummed up by the costume designer of such classics as The Silence of the Lambs and Edward Scissorhands.

Production Design (Winner: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land)

What I predicted: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

If I had it my way: Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte, Arrival

I conclude my wrap-up with another fairly predictable result and La La Land‘s first Oscar win of the night. I could make the case for Arrival‘s ability to craft iconic imagery out of simpler elements being more impressive than what the Wascos (a husband-and-wife duo who worked on such films as Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction) were able to achieve. After all, the latter were afforded the unique and historic architecture and landscape of metropolitan L.A., while Arrival‘s production design team were tasked with making the rural pastures of Montana seem eerie. But, call it what it is: La La Land is a gorgeously rendered production whose heart and soul is owed to more than just the infectious lead performances and a few jazz numbers.


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Photo credits: http://www.abcnews.com; http://www.tmz.com; http://www.avclub.com

 

#OscarsSoPredictable

oscars-17-best-pic

On Sunday, February 26, the spectacularly cavernous enclave that is the Dolby Theatre plays host to yet another parade of pretty people in expensive garb and jewelry, boasting all sorts of hair-do’s (and don’ts), sharing a laugh over that one time they embarrassed themselves in front of their director — generally doing things to humanize themselves, to ease the tension that invariably arises on this day when famous people, who are about to become more famous, try not to act so famous.

I am left with but a few familiar questions as to how it all goes down this year.

What will the controversy be this time around? What wardrobe malfunction shall befall which hapless celeb?

How awkward will the evening get when Jimmy Kimmel runs out of funny?

Do we really have to wait until February 26 to watch La La Land collect all the gold, or will I need to go back and give this entire post a new title? How predictable will the Oscars be this year?

Will there be enough of the world left this time next year for another one to be held?

Without placing too much emphasis on the term ‘deserving,’ of the names that have been deemed worthy of inclusion, here are those that I feel have the greatest odds of actually taking home a statuette that night in ten categories I consider the most interesting of the night.

Best Picture

The cast and crew of La La Land will skip merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily up on stage because life is but a dream. Never mind the fact it is directed by Best Director lock Damien Chazelle, chances are if you make a musical in today’s day and age and it doesn’t suck, you will probably get an Oscar.

My preference (of those selected): Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Swiss Army Man

Directing

This is one of many for jazz lover Damien Chazelle (La La Land). 2017 is his year. I can’t say it’s entirely undeserved. He has crafted a passionate, joyous ode to a cinematic trend that has seemed for awhile to be done and dusted, and makes the entire enterprise look effortless — which probably only he can confirm was anything but.

My preference (of those selected): Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Jeff Nichols, Loving

Actor in a Leading Role 

It has to be Casey Affleck for his bruising portrait of a man in a deep, unshakable funk in Manchester By the Sea. I’m raising hell if Ryan Gosling gets the call. (And I love Ryan Gosling.)

My preference (of those selected): Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea

My preference (of those not selected): Tom Hanks, Sully

Actress in a Leading Role

We might have the biggest controversy on our hands with this category. The unconscionable exclusion of Amy Adams for her work in the impossibly human drama Arrival (about aliens) has managed to annoy everyone. But if there’s anyone here who could help us possibly get over that farce, it’s Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving. What a wonderful performance. I couldn’t get enough of it.

My preference (of those selected): Ruth Negga, Loving

My preference (of those not selected): Amy Adams, Arrival 

Actor in a Supporting Role

First of all, what is Dev(elopment)* Patel doing in this category? If he’s not a leading role in Lion, who is? Are you telling me his child counterpart is the lead? That there are no leads in this film? What’s going on here . . . But in all reality, it’s irrelevant because he’s not winning this anyway. That honor is going to Mahershala Ali for his sturdy but immensely flawed supporting character Juan in Moonlight. Ali seems to be on the rise, and quickly, ever since I saw him on House of Cards. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you free yourself from the shackles of an Underwood-run White House.

My preference (of those selected): Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

How many have noticed this guy missing on the ballot? How many of you are surprised?

How many have noticed this guy missing on the ballot? How many of you are surprised?

Actress in a Supporting Role

This is too hard to call with any degree of accuracy. But my gut instinct — first of all, it’s going to come down to a head-to-head between Viola Davis (Fences) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight) — my gut instinct tells me the odds are in Harris’, no, wait — Davis’ . . . no, Harris’ favor. Ah, screw it. Can we split the award this year? I cannot choose. But because I must, Naomie Harris as one nasty mama in Moonlight. Damn, was she fierce.

My preference (of those selected): Naomie Harris, Moonlight 

My preference (of those not selected): Lupita Nyong’o, Queen of Katwe

Animated Feature

Zootopia seems to be the frontrunner in this category, and that plays right in to my theme here. How very expected, especially during the times in which we are currently living.

My preference (of those selected): Moana

My preference (of those not selected): The Little Prince

Cinematography

One of my favorite “non-major” categories is that which recognizes outstanding achievement in cinematography. I’m a person who responds strongly to the visual appeal of things. (I’m also a visual learner.) There are a lot of great selections this year, so this one is another that’s going to be tough to predict but my gut is telling me Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture La La Land in ways we have rarely seen before is going to score big.

My preference (of those selected): Rodrigo Prieto, Silence

My preference (of those not selected): Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

Costume Design

Here’s a category I actually do not pay much mind to, but the results are always interesting at the ceremony. The obvious choice to me is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Ornate and fun, Colleen Atwood’s wardrobe for this Harry Potter spin-off film is sure to receive confirmation that at least her efforts were worthwhile.

My preference (of those selected): Consolata Boyle, Florence Foster Jenkins

My preference (of those not selected): Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed 

Production Design

Production design and set design are major elements to consider as well, and yet I rarely address them in my reviews (probably an oversight). It’s another of those categories that seems to only become relevant when design elements seem to be the only thing going for a particular movie (like the slightly disappointing Coen brothers’ tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!) Their farcical celebration of a bygone era is my dubious pick for the Oscar this year.

My preference (of those selected): Jess Gonchor (production design) and Nancy Haigh (set decoration), Hail, Caesar!

My preference (of those not selected): Craig Lathrop (production design) and Mary Kirkland (set decoration), The Witch

* This is an inside joke I share with an longtime follower of my blog, the result of what I would consider one of the best typos of all time.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: Fantastic Lies

fantastic-lies-movie-poster

Release: Sunday, March 13, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Marina Zenovich

Marina Zenovich’s Fantastic Lies establishes one simple truth that cannot be disputed no matter what your feelings are towards Duke University and the air of superiority it cultivates. The scandal that rocked the Durham-based university in March of 2006 and the manner in which it was handled became nothing short of a farce.

Zenovich is primarily linked to her documentaries centered around filmmakers and entertainers, most notably director Roman Polanski and comedian Richard Pryor. She turns to sports in her most recent effort, sorting through the chaos that ensued when three players from a high-profile men’s lacrosse team were implicated in the alleged gang rape of an exotic dancer hired for a team-sponsored party. Fantastic Lies premiered on March 13, 2016, 10 years to the day of the event.

Driving the narrative is the frenzy generated by national media who were convinced the story had but one logical conclusion: Duke was guilty. What had long been feared to be festering below the surface finally had manifested publicly. A culture in which the privileged were given every benefit of the doubt had finally run amok. Along with the media circus, so too descended upon campus countless social activists who had been waiting for something like this to happen to Duke. Fantastic Lies, then, is as much about separating fact from fiction as it is about the media and the role they continue to play in shaping public perception; how, in this case, a “tragic rush to accuse” created such a toxic atmosphere protestors (some even Duke students) called for the castration of the players responsible.

The Blue Devils’ on-field triumphs are shoved so far into the background they almost don’t exist. Fantastic Lies engages in an altogether different and more sobering manner, developing into an often disturbing legal drama that very matter-of-factly presents the investigation and subsequent fall-out as the witch trial it was. In fact the only way in which athleticism factors into Zenovich’s film is in the context of how the team’s reputation had endeared them to the community. Their 2005 campaign is touched upon briefly, a season that unfortunately ended with a loss to rival Johns Hopkins University in the championship round. It’s also made clear only two things are taken more seriously on these hallowed grounds: men’s basketball under the immortal Coach K, and academia.

Yet an interview with a student who once lived next door to some of the players reminds us that not all who have been fortunate enough to be accepted into this prestigious community — Duke infamously rejects something like 75% of all valedictorians who apply — buy into that hype. If you do manage to slip the surly bonds of Ordinariness there’s no compulsion to embrace every aspect of campus life. It’s okay to hate jocks here, too; though you might well be identifying yourself as part of an even more elite group in your refusal to attend a single sporting event. Crucially this perspective is added to impress upon us how seriously the odds were stacked against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans when they became the players identified as the assailants of Crystal Mangum.

Mangum, an African-American woman struggling to make ends meet, was one of two dancers hired by the team and who had been paid $400 for a two-hour performance. When they refused to continue after five minutes, the mood soured and soon racial epithets and drunken threats were being thrown around. The players felt they had been hustled. Mangum proceeded to dial 9-1-1, claiming she had been sexually assaulted in the bathroom of a house belonging to captains of the Duke lacrosse team. It would take over a year of court battles, the dismissal of the head coach, the surrendering of the entirety of the 2006 season and the disbarring of a district attorney before the truth of what actually transpired in the moments before the call was finally recognized. In April of 2007 all charges were dropped against the players. Not only were there no traces of DNA found on Mangum — none belonging to the players anyway — there was compelling evidence none of the boys named were even in the house at the time of the phone call.

Zenovich does well in laying out the labyrinthian legal process in a way that’s both interesting and digestible for those not familiar with the judicial system. A significant chunk of the narrative focuses on District Attorney Mike Nifong, the man hired to represent Mangum and who was using the case to build a platform for his campaign for a higher public office. Confident the act was a hate crime, Nifong’s crusade, with the help of some corrupt cops, would soon prove to be an egregious example of how human nature can obstruct justice. The probe thus became an immensely flawed process that violated the accused’s fundamental right to due process. As one source puts it, that process would have been a comedy of errors if any of it was funny.

Of course the situation was anything but comical. Mangum’s false accusations bruised Duke’s reputation and irrevocably changed the lives of the three players and their families forever. If you aspire to become a professional athlete one thing you absolutely cannot afford is to become implicated in a rape case. And despite being found innocent, Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans are never going to be able to escape the stigma attached to their days at Duke. There has, however, been a silver lining to their trials and tribulations. These experiences had a transformative power, particularly for Seligmann who ended up transferring to Brown University to finish his undergraduate studies before pursuing a law degree at Emory University. In addition to his plans to pursue a career in law, he also has become an active member in the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.

Fantastic Lies is a highly emotional documentary that to some degree feels like a peace-offering to the families of these students. Zenovich’s unbiased approach seems to uphold every major tenet of good journalism. There is truth and accuracy, humanity and fairness in her reporting. That this installment feels less like an ESPN film and more like a particularly twisted episode of Law & Order indicates the director felt no obligation to adhere to a certain formula. This is an independent voice, free of bureaucratic input. This is the bald-faced truth. If it isn’t, she and only she will remain accountable for further muddying the waters. The power of the account proves Zenovich is all too aware of this.

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a-former-public-editor-for-the-new-york-times-explained-why-the-duke-lacrosse-case-was-the-perfect-media-storm

Recommendation: Incredibly complex legal case proves to be a consistently absorbing watch. Bolstered by an emotional intensity and featuring an almost overwhelming amount of fact-based evidence to support the notion Duke had been victimized of a vicious smear campaign, Fantastic Lies feels as though it’s in another class when it comes to ESPN films. This is a remarkable work that should be seen by everyone who believes they have the Duke student body completely figured out. A must-see documentary that is as upsetting as it is vital. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . .]

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.businessinsider.my 

30-for-30: Four Days in October

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Release: Tuesday, October 5, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Gary Waksman

In October of 2004 the Boston Red Sox became the first team in major league baseball to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series at the championship level. In that famous set they sent their BFF’s the New York Yankees packing, eking out two desperate wins at Fenway before making the dreaded trip to The Death Star Yankee Stadium for their signature final two victories.

Boston was able to carry their historic momentum into the World Series, making short work of the St. Louis Cardinals in a 4-0 sweep, tallying eight consecutive playoff wins and securing their first World Series Championship in 86 years. The Curse had indeed been reversed. But as some players noted in interviews at the time, something about defeating them Yanks felt more satisfying than receiving their rings. Director Gary Waksman certainly seems to agree. Their dominance in the World Series becomes such an afterthought here, making only a brief appearance in the form of a line of text slotted in at the end credits.

Though, it sort of makes sense for Four Days in October to play out as more of an underdog story than an encapsulation of their entire too-good-to-be-scripted postseason run. October 17, 18, 19 and 20 were the most pivotal of all, and they successfully encouraged the seething hatred shared between the two cities to peak at perhaps an all-time high. There’s a strong, prideful, cultural component to the film that may not be understood or that does not translate well to those who aren’t represented by the talking heads in this film — including Boston native and series creator Bill Simmons — but that which is integral to the experience. The real meat-n-potatoes of this rivalry is the tension underlining every pitch, every stolen base, every out, every controversial call.

On the matter of controversial calls (this really is a perfect segue): one of the pivotal acts, one of the defining moments of not only the series but of this film is the now legendary performance put on by Curt Schilling in Game 6, in which he pitched like a man possessed — or perhaps just in delirium from the pain he was in — against the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, allowing only a single run in seven innings while his right sock turned red from blood loss following an impromptu medical procedure that allowed him to play. His heroic effort, along with some clutch homers from none other than David Ortiz enabled the Sox to best the pinstripes 4-2, forcing a decider and putting the Yankees even further back on their heels, heels that were threatening to give way at any moment.

The controversy? Four Days in October‘s original format runs fifteen-ish minutes longer than what you’ll find on TV now. The (six-year-old) film has been trimmed to fit within the hour block in an effort to accommodate live games that sometimes often run long. There are several episodes within 30 for 30‘s first season alone that fit within that time block, but few of them feel as obviously affected by editing as this. What’s worse, the nature of what’s missing from the final reel — a substantial amount of Schilling’s Game 6 performance — would have undoubtedly elevated the drama. It often feels cheap and lazy to criticize something based on stuff that’s not there or stuff you think you want to see included but no sports fan is going to say there isn’t enough material in this particular chapter of a storied rivalry to fill a time block twice as long. Or more.

Adding to the drama around the production is the acrimonious manner in which Schilling and ESPN parted ways earlier this year after the former pitcher (who had worked for ESPN for six years almost to the day) yet again engaged in what was deemed a social media no-no (particularly for employees who regularly appear on camera). He tweeted a rather radical political image that commented on North Carolina’s recent law changes regarding bathroom use for transgender people, a move that put the Worldwide Leader in Sports in a not-so-difficult position. They kinda had to fire him. There’s conspiracy, and fan paranoia can run rampant if left unchecked, and then there’s what can only be described as bad publicity. The re-cut version of the film aired after Schilling’s firing, and Schilling didn’t much appreciate it. Don’t you just hate it when things become overly political? I hate that Four Days in October slightly suffers because of these distractions.

Working with what we have here, there’s still plenty to become invested in, even if you’re not a believer in America’s pastime being a game that often lasts five hours long. The documentary features some truly compelling highs: Dave Roberts’ game-saving stolen bases; Ortiz’ walk-off home runs; A-Rod getting handsy with Bronson Arroyo (who could forget?). A good chunk of audience reaction and fan celebration — mostly the Red Sox faithful, occasionally a New Yorker with their mouth agape — is spliced in with soundbites from players and their little moments in front of the camera. The enthusiasm behind the scenes is genuinely contagious. If there’s one thing that isn’t missing in Waksman’s film, it’s the heart and soul of Boston baseball. This is unabashedly a film for those dedicated fans, and why shouldn’t it be. This really is a remarkable story.

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Recommendation: Unfortunate that some extracurricular stuff comes into play here, but Four Days in October is nonetheless sufficiently exciting and recounts several of the defining moments throughout that stunning week in the postseason. Bostonians have this one set on replay every fall, while Yankee fans, I just don’t see making the effort to track this down, even if it is right there on Netflix. I don’t blame them. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 53 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.beyondhe.com.au; http://www.foxsports.com 

The Birth of a Nation

the-birth-of-a-nation-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nate Parker

Directed by: Nate Parker

It’s all but inevitable making comparisons between Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir and the debut feature from Nate Parker. Some have even gone as far as to regard the latter’s work as the 12 Years a Slave of 2016, which, in hindsight, seems a little hasty.

There is plenty of evidence that supports the notion the two films are cut from the same cloth. Both pieces center on fairly young, literate black males who endure uniquely brutal circumstances in the antebellum South. 12 Years may be more notorious for its unflinching depiction of violence, but The Birth of a Nation is no slouch, offering up a similarly sweeping, damning indictment of society by channeling the greater travesty of institutionalized racism through a singular perspective. Nation even compares favorably to its spiritual predecessor in terms of emotional heft and the authority it carries — these are very serious films with conviction to match and an unusual ability to break your spirit through sheer force of realism.

They are also deeply personal works, helmed by capable filmmakers whose vision and whose commitment to that vision seem to go unquestioned. Parker proves himself an indispensable asset, serving not only as Nation‘s director, writer and producer, but fulfilling a substantial lead role as Nat Turner, an enslaved man who inspired a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Unlike McQueen’s third effort, one that followed a free man’s descent into hell having been abducted and sold into slavery, Parker’s debut begins in the muck, gradually building toward a rebellion that caused the deaths of an estimated 65 whites, while retaliatory action on behalf of white militias and mobs cost the lives of roughly 200 African Americans, both freed and enslaved and many of whom had never so much as raised a pitchfork in (righteous) anger. There’s an appalling reality we must face come the end credits, too. A brief title card lets us know just how barbaric life would become in this region in the aftermath. And after being captured we’re told Nat was hanged, beheaded and then quartered, and parts of his corpse were “repurposed” in an effort to eliminate any trace of his existence.

Appropriately, a sense of martyrdom permeates the drama, though this is also the very rough, blunt edge that comes to define the blade of justice Parker is attempting to wield. That the portrait desperately wants to be at least something like The Passion of the Christ when it grows up — Parker clearly regards the figure as more Jesus Christ than Dr. Martin Luther King — doesn’t necessarily make the film profound. It does make it rather clumsy and pretentious though. His introduction, The Birth of a Leader as it were, is far from being a stroke of subtlety, and it’s a moment that we’ll frequently return to during the longer paces of the second and third acts. There’s a mystical quality to the way we’re introduced to Nat as a young boy running from something (presumably violent) through the thick, dark woods. He stumbles upon a small gathering of prophets (as one does) who see the boy growing into a man of considerable influence and power. The only thing they don’t say is specifically how the plot is going to develop.

Nation is a beautifully realized production, from its musty yellow/gray/brown wardrobe to the McQueen-esque shots of a southern landscape that stays still as a painting, hauntingly indifferent to the passage of time. Set against this backdrop are universally committed performances, with Parker offering one of the year’s more morally and emotionally complex protagonists. As a black preacher afforded certain luxuries (you might call them), like maintaining a borderline friendly relationship with the proprietors of this particular plantation to which he has drifted and for whom he picks not-so-endless supplies of cotton, Nat is an immediately empathetic character even if his saintly aura feels awkward. Armie Hammer, who plays Samuel Turner, also turns in strong work, managing to effect a slave owner whose humanity may still lie dormant but is constantly being ignored in favor of simpler, more immediate solutions — getting drunk as a way to deal with his economic woes, and taking out his problems on what he calls his property. Yes, it’s all very Edwin Epps-ian.

Like many plantation owners Samuel and his wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) are enduring very harsh economic times and they are looking for other ways to raise money. A local reverend (Mark Boone Jr.) suggests they employ Nat’s gift to help suppress unruly slaves elsewhere. Sure enough, as we travel with him and Samuel to various plantations and experience the atrocities ongoing there, it becomes clear the young man has a certain power that can pay dividends. But it comes at a hefty price for Nat as the psychological torment of remaining obedient spreads like a cancer throughout his soul, while the contradictory, physical act of standing before his people while he suppresses them with scripture hurts him as much, if not more. It’s a perfectly twisted nightmare, one that comes to life powerfully and memorably via the conviction of a freshman director.

The narrative swells almost ungainly to encompass Nat’s budding romance with the newly arrived Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a quiet but beautiful woman who is taken by Nat’s kindness and confidence. And so we’ve reached a point where the more predictable stuff starts to happen: as Nat’s preaching continues he finds his popularity growing, but also finds his fiery sermons are only inflaming wounds rather than healing them. Violence is visited upon Nat’s home as Cherry, now his wife, barely survives an assault from three men, one of whom is Jackie Earle Haley’s detestable Raymond Cobb, the same man who had years ago murdered Nat’s father right in front of him. Tacked on for good measure are the moments of suffering that now feel de rigueur for the genre — an off-screen rape, the whipping at the post, lynchings. Not that these moments are ineffective or that we once think about dismissing them, but the bluntness with which Parker inserts these moments of torture overrides the film’s more compelling epiphanies, like him discovering that for every verse in the Bible that supports strict obedience to a higher power, there is one condemning man for his violent and hateful behavior.

It’s also unfortunate the road to rebellion isn’t realized as fully as one might expect from a film so provocatively titled. There’s a sense of unity in a few of the ending scenes, but it feels rushed and secondary to the personal stakes that have been ratcheted up by each act of cruelty Nat witnesses; nevertheless it’s not a stretch to imagine these quiet rumblings later erupting into full-fledged war as the country tears itself apart from civil unrest. And Parker even directly addresses those connections by depicting a young boy briefly glimpsed sitting by becoming a soldier on the front lines. While compelling in its own right, transitions like these have little nuance and feel clunky, evidence of a director still finding his style.

In spite of its clumsiness and familiarity Nation feels weighty and you can sense the rage steaming off the pages of this script. You can smell the ink, taste the sweat and the tears that were poured into this labor of love. Yes, the film left me feeling profoundly sad, and I would be lying if I said I wanted to see it again. Yes, the narrative could have (and probably should have) been more subtle with its paralleling of Nat’s suffering to the final hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, I am aware that the director’s public image as of present isn’t exactly of the sort you want to tout during awards season. (I find the latter tidbit interesting insofar as it is curiously poor timing for Parker.) Still, there’s enough here to distinguish the film as a unique vision, and one that gains some points for poignancy as nationwide protests continue to dominate headlines as more and more black athletes take a knee. That Colin Kaepernick felt he had to do something symbolic during the National Anthem is evidence that not much has really changed. Meanwhile the red on the flag continues to run.

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Recommendation: Hard-hitting, violent and downright nasty at times, The Birth of a Nation is not an easy watch but it is an important film. It’s an interesting one to watch given its pronounced spiritual roots, even though I personally think the Jesus Christ parallel is a bit much. I am not ready to proclaim this a must-see; it’s not quite as masterfully created as Steve McQueen’s film but at the same time I also get the comparisons. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Submit yourselves to your Masters, not only to those who are good and considerate. But also to those who are harsh.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Ghostbusters

Dont answer the call man

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Paul Feig; Katie Dippold

Directed by: Paul Feig

It’s fun, and perhaps more than anything inspiring, watching a foursome of funny women transforming and transcending in what was supposed to be a god-awful Ghostbusters reboot. Yeah, I said it — I enjoyed the new movie. Bring it on, man. I ain’t afraid of no haters.

Before things get out of hand I have to say Paul Feig is no Ivan Reitman. And as fun as this truly becomes, the diaspora of knee-slappers and laugh-out-loud one-liners are still no match for the collective comedic genius that is Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Comparing the two — and I’m going to have to try hard to avoid an overdose of comparisons in this review — is like comparing . . . well, I just don’t want to do it. We are living in a completely different era. An era, mind you, that’s without Harold Ramis. We have lost our beloved Egon. But his spirit can live on. I’m not naming names but . . . Kristen Wiig. Damn she’s brilliant.

The set-up is familiar but far from derivative. Wiig plays Columbia University lecturer Erin Gilbert. Her past comes back to literally haunt her as she sees that her former paranormal research partner Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) has made available for purchase online a book the two worked on years ago that posited the existence of ghosts in a world parallel to our own. Seeing this as a potential road block to her success in academia, Erin confronts Abby and asks her to take the book off the web. That’s when she makes the deal to join Abby and her eccentric engineering pal Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon — remember that name) on a quick adventure to see if their life’s work is legitimate or not. In exchange, Abby will honor her request to stop publicizing said book, as much as that may hurt Abby on a personal level.

They visit an old, haunted mansion that still offers guided tours, as one of their tour guides (the perpetually creepy Zach Woods) claims he saw something spooky. There they encounter a ghost, confirming that their life’s work is indeed legitimate. Abby’s psyched, Jillian goes berserk and Erin . . . well, she just gets covered in ghost vomit. A recurring theme, we’ll come to find. The team starts to take shape and quickly. Perhaps too quickly, but delaying any further isn’t an option for a movie not planning on breaching the two-hour mark. Now they need a work space. They can only afford the upstairs loft above a crummy Chinese restaurant, one that seemingly can’t grasp the concept of properly portioned wonton soup. The trio take on the services of Chris Hemsworth‘s Kevin, nothing more than a good-looking but incredibly dumb blonde. (We’ll get into the reversal of sexist stereotypes in a bit, because it’s better that I keep you in suspense.)

Meanwhile a lonely MTA worker, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), witnesses an isolated ghost-related incident on the subway line and reports it to the fledgling “Department of the Metaphysical Examination.” Having extensive knowledge of the city she makes a pitch for joining them in their efforts. She can even provide transportation. They end up creating what amounts to a nuclear reactor mounted atop a hearse that may or may not still have bodies in the back. It even comes complete with a “very un-American siren.”

Life in the ghost busting world is pretty interesting. Friendship dynamics are as well-defined as they are compelling: whether it’s the stunted growth in both the personal and professional relationship between Erin and Abby, the general insanity of Jillian or Patty’s confidence, there is a lot to latch onto here. Feig manages to create an environment in which his actors can really flourish. Strong positive vibes emanate. The camaraderie between the four is contagious, even if it waltzes often into goofy territory. McCarthy dials down her sass to affect a genuine personality we can actually cozy up to, necessarily establishing this as her best work to date. Wiig continues to perfect the deadpan. McKinnon is just plain fun. Jones has less work to shoulder but she’s nowhere near as boisterous and overbearing as her SNL résumé would have you believe.

I wish Ghostbusters handled its themes more delicately though. I guess subtlety goes out the window when you’re dealing with hundred-foot tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Men and thousands of other spirits. The casting of an all-female team should be enough to suggest it is doing something about the glaring gender inequality in modern cinema, but apparently it’s not for Feig. He, along with MADtv writer Katie Dippold concoct a fairly thinly veiled critique of the negative reaction to their own film by frequently drawing attention to the Youtube comments section on videos the ghost busting ladies have posted, in an effort to spread awareness of a potentially apocalyptic threat in New York at the hands of freak/genius Rowan North (Neil Casey).

Couple that with the fact that every significant male character is either a villain (the aforementioned Rowan is one particularly weak link) or just an idiot (the annoyance Hemsworth creates is absolutely intentional which in and of itself is annoying) and you have the recipe for a million “I told you so”‘s from anyone who has been against such a film in principal from the moment it was announced.

No, Ghostbusters is best when it’s focused on the friendships (the ghosts are pretty cool but largely forgettable, as they were in the first). McCarthy and Wiig are at the center of what eventuates as a heartwarming tale of loyalty and not giving up on lifelong goals. Their comedic repartee is energetic and surprisingly wholesome, even if the comedy they’re working with is largely inconsistent. It is true that what passes as comedy today barely passes as watchable, never mind as the stuff that elicits the kind of belly laughs the originators could. But there is so little of that limp in Ghostbusters. Instead it kind of struggles to keep the greatness going, occasionally succumbing to a lesser script and less experienced principals. That said, I wasn’t prepared to endure the hardest laugh I have had in a theater all year. Wait for that metal concert to go down. Wait for that scream. Oh my god, that scream.

Look, trying to convince anyone who has taken it upon themselves to let Akroyd and Murray personally know they suck just for endorsing such a thing, well that’s just a fruitless endeavor. To those people I’m sure I’ve betrayed something or other. I am not even going to address those who think bringing women in to do what was once done by four men is a mistake (although it is ironic that the film couldn’t dispense with sexism entirely). The original was apparently the paragon of excellence and therefore is lesser just because 2016 happened. A reboot just seems sexy and trendy and the cool thing to do, and maybe it is, but there’s one thing I know for sure: Ghostbusters is not another regurgitated, passionless affair. It likely will never garner the nostalgia the 1984 film did, but it is much farther from being the movie that an alarming number of fanboys seem to assume it is.

Ghostbusters gif

Recommendation: Massively negative hype is unfortunately going to impact box office intake, but my advice is this: don’t skip out on the movie based on hear-say and an admittedly poor trailer. It would be a shame to think millions missing out on this just because of the power social media gives people. Ghostbusters is well-acted, funny — unfortunately not consistently but the good bits hit hard — and surprisingly moving when all is said and done. I really had a good time and in the interest of full disclosure I wasn’t expecting to at all. Not because of the cast. But because most modern comedic adventures turn out to be a bust. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “It smells like roasted bologna and regrets down here . . .”

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