Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2018 (plus something extra!)

So it has been at least a year since I came up with one of these, but there has never been a better time than now, after another Oscars has come and gone.

2018 was a slower year for me in terms of movie consumption and posting, with 32 reviews total, including two 30 for 30 sports docu’s — down from 57, including my Blind Spot series, the year prior. I still managed to see a pretty diverse range of movies, from the breathtakingly ambitious, big-budget spectacle to daringly original science fiction adventures; riveting directing débuts to established filmmakers continuing to hone their craft or in some cases making brave/contentious career moves. Let the record show that theatrical releases were heavily favored, with just two (!) reviews resulting from streaming/On Demand — yipes!

Before we break down my favorites, a few thoughts on this year’s Big Show (the “something extra!” from the post title — sorry if I got anyone overly excited). I did find a few things to cheer about, despite my general apathy towards the selections this time around (though I am relieved to know I have been far from the only one in that regard).

Tell me something boy . . . who did your tan?

I enjoyed the acceptance speeches by Best Actor/Actress winners Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) — this before he apparently fell off the stage — and Olivia Colman (The Favourite). They were extemporaneous and maintained an air of genuine surprise and appreciation. Personally, I would have gone with Bradley Cooper and Melissa McCarthy, but I never did see the Queen biopic and I can’t really disagree with Colman winning either. She killed it in The Favourite

Spike Lee winning for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman was satisfying and appropriately applauded. It isn’t as prestigious as Best Picture but that is a long overdue win in a still significant category for a guy who has been snubbed as much as anyone by the Academy. I could have done without his thoroughly awkward acceptance speech, though. I’m not sure if that was poor penmanship he was combating or what.

I find it funny and kind of ironic that the once-near-reclusive Alex Honnold is now the star of an Oscar-winning movie. Yes, it’s a documentary but Free Solo took home the trophy! 

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s live rendition of their embarrassingly obvious winning number (Original Song — Shallow) was arguably better than the version in the movie. I admit to not being a big Lady Gaga fan but this song is pretty great, and, not to keep beating a dead horse here, so is Brad Cooper’s voice. 

Poor Julia Roberts getting caught in that awkward position of being the last presenter at an awards show where there is no host to make closing remarks — however redundant those are. I missed the first half hour of the show but of what I saw this was the only time the absence of some kind of unifying thread was really felt. “Well, it looks like this is the end of the show!” Provocative. Profound. Poetic. Always good to end on a strong note. 


Speaking of ending on a strong note, as promised, here are the ten movies I enjoyed the most in all of 2018. 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part western anthology film soaked in the Coen aesthetic. Its narrative style offers up a variety of experiences that range in tone from silly and farcical to achingly romantic to macabre. And therein lies its greatest strength. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It isn’t among the Coens’ most thematically daring or memorable but I am having a hard time not calling it one of my favorites. Review here.

Talk about a movie that doesn’t let you sleep well afterwards. A stunning first effort from Ari Aster, Hereditary offers a challenging story rife with disturbing imagery and over the course of two very stressful hours it plunges headfirst into a deeply personal exploration of grief and what the grieving process can do to us. Sure, mourning can be channeled into positive, healthy activities; grieving can actually strengthen bonds on an emotional level. But it just as easily can rip relationships apart and alter perception in some rather profound ways. As a bona fide horror film, Hereditary takes us down a road where the pain of a loss becomes utterly overwhelming. Aster’s shocking vision is brought to life by a committed cast (led by a spectacular Toni Collette) who do a heartbreakingly good job reminding us that when death hits home, nothing can ever be the same again.

Five barks out of five for this predictably charming stop-motion animated film from Wes Anderson. The presentation style is actually a rarity for the King of Quirk (this is his second animated movie following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) but the storyboarding is familiar — the only real complaint I had with Isle of Dogs. This is essentially a lost-until-found retread of Moonrise Kingdom but with canines being ostracized from society instead of precocious pre-teens deliberately running away from it. But familiarity doesn’t really hold the film back from being a genuinely enjoyable adventure from minute one. Voice work is provided by several Anderson regulars plus a few inspired newcomers in Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig and . . . what’s this, Yoko Ono? Review here

Fans of The Office‘s Jim Halpert always suspected the actor who played him of having strong, wholesome family values — but I doubt any of us realized that man, John Krasinski, had a knack for scaring audiences too. His third directing gig finds him in completely different waters, not just from the TV role that made him famous but as well his previous directing efforts, comedy-dramas Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) and The Hollars (2016). The story fixates on a family trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world overrun by creatures that hunt not by sight but by sound. A Quiet Place was simply robbed of a Sound Editing Oscar this year — no offense to the guys behind Bohemian Rhapsody — because while the well-crafted characters and deft performances help us emotionally connect, it’s the brilliant use of sound and just as often its absence that creates and sustains an almost unbearable atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. You could cut the tension with a knife in the screening I attended. A Quiet Place is an example of an experiment in visual/aural relationships that never becomes a gimmick. Review here.

I had my reservations about Free Solo, because I wasn’t sure how the inner workings of someone as athletically elite and boundary-pushing as Alex Honnold could be translated into something understandable or identifiable by a broad audience. Quite honestly I didn’t expect much in the way of humanity or humility from a climbing documentary. I did anticipate some great scenery, based on Jimmy Chin’s accolades as a world-renowned climbing photographer. I assumed because of who the subject is — a dirt-bagger who has made a living climbing more often than not without protective gear — the film wouldn’t be able to find a responsible angle when it came to presenting his climbing/life philosophies. Then I saw the movie. The best thing about this documentary for me was not the obvious. It wasn’t the spine-tingling, vertigo-inducing cinematography that suspends us above the Valley floor for excruciating minutes at a time, it wasn’t the calculus of filming certain crux moves or capturing the flow of any given pitch on the big wall without being a distraction to the climber. Instead it was the very unexpected way Honnold invites us into his headspace — the most holy of places for a free soloist — and shares with us revelations that feel like they are being shared for the first time. Review here

Finally, a vehicle to showcase Melissa McCarthy’s under-appreciated range as an actress and comedienne. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is decidedly more drama than comedy, yet as despairing as life is presented here — not to mention the character herself — there is always a misanthropic chuckle to be found in this wonderfully acted, sympathetically directed film about an author who turns to forging literary items as a way to make ends meet. Lee Israel was once a famous writer but she became even more infamous for stealing letters written by deceased playwrights and other writers and passing them off as her own, even embellishing them to increase their value. The mischievous comedy becomes more pronounced when we get introduced to her old drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who gets swept up in the misdeeds because, well, he’s a bit of a miscreant himself. A deeply human story and McCarthy’s ability to win me over made this one of the biggest surprises of the year. Review here

Three Identical Strangers really sent my head for a spin. It’s the remarkable true story of three brothers who meet for the first time in their late teens/early twenties. It turns out to be an emotional rollercoaster, with director Tim Wardle able to package a wealth of material into a fairly streamlined, three-act narrative with some inspiring highs and gut-wrenching lows as we learn about the true nature of their family history and the circumstances of their births. As I wrote in my review: “There is a reason he considers the triplets the ‘single greatest story’ he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second.” Review here

A Star is Born is a classic heartbreaker for a new generation. Bradley Cooper proves himself ever more the leading man (and a singer to boot!) while co-star Lady Gaga is an even bigger revelation, turning in a nuanced performance that also tells us something about her real-life experiences rising up the charts as a pop superstar. This may be the fourth time a star has been born but there is an undeniable emotional vulnerability to Cooper’s version, a rawness both in the character work and the creative process as it is depicted throughout the film. A familiar tale where confident execution makes a world of difference. I loved this movie. Review here.

Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I had in all of 2018 and it is my favorite of all the Spider-man movies that have been featured on the big screen. For me it offered the perfect escape, all major elements present and accounted for: a fun story, spectacular visuals (really, I could have written a piece just on that alone), interesting characters (I’m still not sure who my favorite was, Spider Gwen, Ham or Noir), rich emotion, exciting action, and music that was both modern and not objectionable, with Post Malone’s Sunflower instantly becoming one of my go-to tracks whenever I sit down to write. Review here

Alex Garland’s new film is the epitome of what makes science fiction one of my favorite genres. I can never get enough of the kind of imaginative, big-idea storytelling science fiction often invites (Interstellar; 2001: A Space Odyssey) and especially movies that challenge us to think about what we are being shown. Some people don’t like putting in effort to understand a movie and I can appreciate that perspective. If that describes you Annihilation is 100% not a movie for you. From the talented writer/director of 2014’s Ex Machina, and the writer of 28 Days Later comes a truly original story (okay, so it’s technically an adaptation/condensing of a series of novels by Jeff VanderMeer) about a group of female military scientists who enter a quarantined area of marshland to investigate its origins and to get possible answers as to what happened to all the other previous missions who went in but never returned. When they enter, a series of strange events occur that transform both their mission and their bodies. Of all the things that can’t be forgotten about this movie — strong character work, some bizarre and often indescribable imagery — it is the atmosphere in which the mystery sits and stews that really makes a lasting impression. Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. Review here.


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.time.com; http://www.hollywoodreporter.com; http://www.indiewire.com; http://www.slashfilm.com; http://www.variety.com; http://www.slashfilm.com; http://www.socialnews.xyz; http://www.irishtimes.com; http://www.themarysue.com; http://www.electricliterature.com

Month in Review: November ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

the cast of Thanksgiving Day 2018

With Thanksgiving behind us, let us also hope the cinematic turkeys are too. As we head down the final stretch of 2018, I plan to resume a steadier pace — no promises, but that is the goal. That shouldn’t be too much to ask given the slate of films that sprawls out in front of us. Here’s a brief rundown of what I am most feverishly anticipating, loosely organized based upon what it is that draws me to them.

Director(s)

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster); If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, Moonlight); Climax (shield your eyes, kiddies — it’s the new film from the polarizing Argentine Gaspar Noé)

Cast(s)/Character(s)

The Beach Bum (Matthew McConaughey as “Moondog” — watch out 2019, ‘Moondog McConaughey’ is totally gonna be a thing); Vice (Christian Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as Dubya, and Steve Carell as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — that is just ridiculous casting, all of it!); Serenity (Matthew McConaugh — hey, I see a pattern emerging, plus Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou and Diane Lane)

Story

Welcome to Marwen (from the director of Forrest Gump, starring Steve Carell) — Mark Hogancamp, a victim of an attack so brutal he loses most of his memories of his life before, constructs a miniature World War II village, called Marwen, in his yard to help in his recovery; Vox Lux (read Cinema Axis’ early review here) — An unusual set of circumstances brings unexpected success to a pop star; Mary Queen of Scots — pits the mighty Saoirse Ronan against the equally powerful Margot Robbie, as Mary Stuart (Ronan)’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I (Robbie), Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

That’s 10 titles, a list to which I could add twice as many but I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say, I think the next coming weeks are going to be very exciting. With that established, here is what has been going on on Thomas J this past month.


New Posts

New Releases: Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Widows; The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Other: Avery


Around the Blogosphere 

Maybe old news now, but whatever happened to the remade Suspiria? There was serious buzz about it in the months leading up to it, and then that just . . . fizzled out. The film never entered my area. The few reviews I did read were rather negative. Here’s CC Pop Culture’s take on this (apparently unwanted) retread.

Jordan of the one and only Epileptic Moondancer has an interesting review of a new Robert Redford flick that I truly wanted to see, but missed out on. Check out this hot take on The Old Man and the Gun. Shots fired! 😉

In my lamenting-of-bad-weather post (Avery), I said I was going to throw up a review of Nic Cage in the insane revenge thriller Mandy. Well, that hasn’t happened yet. To tide you over, here’s what The Ghost of 82 had to say about it. (This is a thoughtful review that only makes me more annoyed I haven’t gotten around to it yet.)


What films are you most looking forward to in the coming weeks/months?

Month in Review: March ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

I didn’t end up posting much this March as a result of some very whacky weather (and March Madness — which really lived up to the hype this year), but a steady diet of Oscar and film festival coverage kept me going. The first two weeks brought over two feet of snow and a weeklong power outage. I ended up watching the 90th Academy Awards in a hotel room, eating Doritos out of a cup and biting my fingernails when yet again Warren Beaty came into contact with an envelope.

What I did manage to accomplish this month, besides further cement my status as your local weatherman, you can find below. Here is what has been going on on Thomas J during the month of March.

…and then there was light!


New Posts 

New Releases: Annihilation; Unsane 

Other Posts: In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking; 30-for-30: One and Not Done

Movie News

Time is running out on our beloved Avengers. Because I never read the comics, I wonder who we are going to lose in this ridiculously heavily anticipated round of Marvel mayhem. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

You have the choice between two Dwayne Johnson blockbusters this year. Hypothetically you have only enough money to see one of them. What will it be — him going apesh*t in Rampage (April), or as an amputee building security manager who thwarts terrorists in Skyscraper (July)?

The hype for John Krasinski’s directorial debut — wait, what? This is his fourth effort?! — A Quiet Place has reached critical mass. I can’t wait to get my hands on his first horror film and confirm whether the rumors are true, that Dwight Shrute is indeed the main villain.

Blogging News

My favorite blog on the planet has been putting in the overtime with their coverage of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Seriously, if you love movies, and aren’t following Assholes Watching Movies already, you are missing out! Their reviews are top-rate and holy balls Batman are they in abundance.

Some of you might be aware of my enthusiasm for Alex Garland’s latest movie, Annihilation. Well, as it turns out — I am not the only one who has been mesmerized. Viewers the world over have been responding to the film surprisingly well considering how few actually got the chance to experience it in theaters. I don’t usually get too wrapped up in what the majority think but in this case, I have become enamored with this film and how it has spoken to audiences. It really is an exciting film.

The Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger’s recent Blindspot Review of Will Ferrell’s Anchorman pulls no punches. It was a great and rib-tickling read and it defines exactly why I have been following this blog for the better part of a decade — the honesty!


🙂

Month in Review: February ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Happy New Year from Thomas J! Since I didn’t create one of these posts end of last month, I figured I’d belatedly wish everyone it now. And this also gives me a chance to ask: how well are you keeping up with those new year’s resolutions? That’s okay, I didn’t make any either. And if I did, they are so well-forgotten only eight weeks into the year it begs why I even made them in the first place.

Despite appearances, I have been seeing many a good movie. But out of fear of getting further backed up, I think at this juncture I’m going to be cutting ties with a few reviews and moving on. I’ve had ideas about what I have wanted to say, but at this point getting back into that headspace feels like beating a dead horse. I’ll list a few of my reactions to this year’s crop of Best Picture nominations with incredibly in-depth, one-line reviews. I think by now everyone has settled far enough into a consensus on many of these titles anyway.

So, without further ado, here is what has been happening in the last several weeks. (Hold on to your butts.)

Mansfield, NJ


New Posts

The Commuter

The Cloverfield Paradox


My Oscar Reactions (best picture only)

The Shape of Water — didn’t see; didn’t want to see; won’t see. I’m not supporting inter-special romances. I’m just not.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — two of the very finest performances of the year in Frances McDormand as a grieving mother and Sam Rockwell as a racist hick cop. Jaw, meet floor.

Phantom Thread — sigh. Why did PTA and the great DDL have to get locked in on this boring twaddle about the haute couture of 1950s London? Pass.

Darkest Hour — a towering performance from Gary Oldman means he is all but guaranteed the Best Actor award, but Best Pic seems a long shot. The drama that surrounds him plays out far too didactically to be considered a true heavyweight contender.

The Post — safe, predictable and disappointingly trite, not to mention a tad too leftist, even for me — a decidedly liberal snowflake.

Dunkirk — amazed to see this nominated. Good for Christopher Nolan. It’s about time.

Call Me By Your Name — the nominee that I know the least about. What little I have read about this one has been glowingly positive. Bummed that it never even veered close to my area.

Lady Bird — I was blown away by a little independent picture that has next-to-no chance of winning it all. From Greta Gerwig, here comes a firecracker of a coming-of-age story that tells it like it is. Loved this one. And Saiorse Ronan — you go, girl.

Get Out — . . . really? I mean, this was fun but it’s a little too “lite” for the Oscars, don’tcha think?


Blogging News 

So there is going to be a sacrifice. I will NOT be participating this year in the Blind Spot series. Last year it was fun, but I don’t think I can make that kind of a long-term commitment this time around. Perhaps next year.

But as Natalie Portman deduces in Annihilation, “it’s not killing everything. It is just making something new.” Well, this isn’t technically a new feature, but my 30-for-30 spotlight has been long dormant. (You can check out all posts in that series by clicking here or by visiting the submenu up top under ‘Features’). It is making its return in March. Look for extensive basketball coverage as we enter the NCAA Tournament (where my Tennessee Vols are actually, finally, going to enjoy some post-season action). Most likely these will be posted on the last day of each month. If you too are a sports fan, keep your eyes peeled!


That’s it for now. What do you hope will win in the Big Four categories this coming Sunday? And will the Best Picture presenters find an even more creative way to confuse us all this year . . . ? 

November Blindspot: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Release: Friday, September 15, 1995

→YouTube

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Before the X-Men made Bryan Singer a household name in the early 2000s, he had already achieved what the vast majority do not by directing an Oscar winner on his second try, the 1995 neo-noir mystery The Usual Suspects. He had help of course, with his regularly contributing screenwriter taking home one of the two statues for his talky and twisty original screenplay while Kevin Spacey snagged the other for his star-making role as a small-time con man suffering cerebral palsy. The director’s ambition has certainly grown over the years, as have his budgets, but the irony remains that some of his most inspired work resulted before he ever earned his seat at the big kids’ table.

Even if Singer failed to earn plaudits for himself that February night, his craftsmanship here is undeniable. The Usual Suspects is not only stylish without being affectatious, it offers its cast of brand-name actors plenty of room to stretch their legs and play off of one another’s unique energy. The film is not just a master class in obscuring the edges of morality but the cinematic sleight of hand is also really impressive. So often the frame is filled with smoke and mirrors figuring out what is actually going on can be a tall task. Patience (and a willingness to forego immediate comprehension of events) pays dividends. Singer makes you feel as if you’ve accomplished something by the end, something that cannot be said about his more blockbuster-friendly fare, fun as those adventures may have been.

Despite the peripheral blur, the premise remains simple. A major dope deal turns ugly aboard a boat moored in the San Pedro Bay, and a lone survivor, claiming immunity, recounts the details of his involvement and the events leading up to it through extended and potentially unreliable flashbacks. In the present tense, U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) must decide on what level to trust his source. He knows as well as any thug he’s put behind bars that no one wants to be a rat.

The story begins with an explanation of an event that took place six weeks prior, an amusingly farcical police investigation into the disappearance of a truck carrying guns through New York. Although a group of five mangy suspects are brought in for questioning, no culprit is identified. While sequestered in a holding cell, one among them, Stephen Baldwin’s bad-boy hipster Michael McManus, hatches a scheme to screw with the boys in blue as a token of their gratitude for being pointlessly incarcerated. Everyone is on board except Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a former dirty cop trying to turn over a new leaf by going into the restaurant biz.

The others — Benecio Del Toro‘s too-cool-for-proper-enunciation Fred Fenster; Kevin Pollak as angry guy Todd Hockney and the recently disgraced Spacey as the aforementioned Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint — have no compunction to leave this cell changed men. A series of profitable but small-time jobs eventually leads the gang to a big payday, when an opportunity arises to clear their names with an arch-criminal by the name of Keyser Söze, an almost mythological figure whom no one ever sees or hears from directly. Because their affinity for theft has struck a little too close to home, one of Söze’s representatives, a mysterious man played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite informs them they can avoid certain death if they disrupt a major coke deal about to go down in the Bay, one that stands to net a competing drug lord $91 million.

Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay, which has curried so much favor with the Writer’s Guild of America over the years it’s now considered among the top 40 greatest screenplays of all time, creates a confluence of themes that include but are certainly not confined to: persuasion versus manipulation; virtue versus vice. Does crime really pay off all your debts? A scale of relativism emerges from the morass: the only thing worse than a career criminal is a career criminal who rats on his colleagues. And in The Usual Suspects, there’s sort of this poetic justice with the way snitches get their stitches.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: This is a movie you’ll have to put some effort into but it’s so worth it you’ll very likely end up like me, embarrassed you decided to give up on the first 20 minutes in the first place. After those 20 very confusing and frustrating minutes, the nut eventually cracks. It’s milk comes spilling forth. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Something better than another damn quote: The line-up scene was scripted as a serious scene, but after a full day of filming takes where the actors couldn’t keep a straight face, Singer decided to use the funniest takes. Behind the scenes footage reveals the director becoming furious at his actors for not being able to keep their shit together. In an interview, Kevin Pollak states that the hilarity came about when Benicio Del Toro “farted, like 12 takes in a row.” Del Toro himself said “somebody” farted, but no one knew who. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

Month in Review: August ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

First of all, I’d like to give an acknowledgement to the victims of the ridiculous storm that slammed not once but twice into the Texas-Louisiana coast over the last week, almost 12 years from the day since the costliest natural disaster in American history gutted New Orleans. The images coming out of Houston and the surrounding areas are going to be difficult to shake, harrowing reminders of our increasingly tenuous relationship with Mother Nature. Those images, like the ones below, only serve to heighten the urgency in documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel, which was recently released into theaters this past month to a chorus of crickets.

On a lighter note, August offered an interesting collection of theater trips for me. I visited Dunkirk (twice, once with my dad), traveled to Berlin with Charlize Theron and to the Deep South with . . . Daniel Craig (?!). I rekindled my disdain for The Circle in a belated review, while inadvertently stumbling upon one of my favorites of the entire year in Brigsby Bear. Loved, loved, loved, loved that movie. So much so, I gave it only my third HIGH FIVE of the year.

August found me once again dodging my responsibilities to my 2017 Blindspot challenge. Apologies to those who may have been anticipating a review for I Love You Philip Morris. I will make it up to you this month with a look back at QT’s Reservoir Dogs. And yes, I did just say Reservoir Dogs is on my Blindspot list.

Don’t judge.


New Posts

New Releases: Dunkirk; Atomic Blonde; Logan Lucky; The Circle; Brigsby Bear

Movie News

I’ve been pretty impressed with the number of actors and Generally Famous Faces who have contributed their own money to victims of Hurricane/Tropical Depression Harvey. I can only hope the money will be put to good use.

A bittersweet farewell to acclaimed director Tobe Hooper, whose original Texas Chainsaw Massacre inspired nightmares in everyone but me, apparently.

↓The Speculation Section It is early, yes, but Oscar buzz has returned and I for one am excited. Which movie is going to receive all the accolades, which ones are going to pull surprises and which ones are going to play the role of the unloved red-headed stepchild at the 90th Academy Awards next February? Christopher Nolan’s latest is among the most obvious of multi-Oscar heavyweights, though you also should not count out Wonder Woman or War for the Planet of the Apes either. It’s an unfair world and I know Brigsby Bear doesn’t have a shot in hell, but IMO it’s right up there as one of the year’s greatest treasures.

But what about those that we still don’t know anything about? What if I told you that not only was a movie starring Adam Sandler up for consideration this year, but that the star himself is as well? How hard would you laugh? (How much would I blame you?) The movie is called The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) and will drop into theaters this October. Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro apparently has something good cooking with his seriously cool-titled The Shape of Water, with early word pegging it as potentially the Pan’s Labyrinth director’s best work to date. Alexander Payne (Sideways; Nebraska) is due for a new release this season as well and he already has a lot of critics in his corner with Downsizing, a “social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.” Honey, I just shrunk Matt Damon.

Blogging Updates 

Recent additions to my Netflix queue that you may see reviewed sometime in the near future*: What Happened to Monday?; The Number 23; To the Bone; Okja; Oklahoma City; The Discovery; The Most Hated Woman in America; Abattoir; Chasing Coral; The Wailing; Deidra and Laney Rob a Train. 

* To make things interesting, I’ll turn this over to you guys — of those titles, I’ll take and review the top three most popular choices. But this will only work if I get enough feedback. So don’t be shy! Weigh in with your thoughts about which Netflix flick I should tackle first, second and third!

Photo credits: http://www.pbs.org; http://www.time.com; http://www.nbcnews.com; http://www.abcnews.go.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.

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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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#OscarsSoPredictable

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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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Allied

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Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Brad Pitt finds a new ally in Marion Cotillard in his post-Angelina Jolie world. Sad face.

Actually, those were just rumors. And this isn’t a gossip column.

On the other hand, the two are pretty convincing playing a pair of lovestruck assassins whose loyalty to one another constantly competes with their loyalty to their own countries. Robert Zemeckis’ homage to classic wartime romantic epics is undeniably better because of the effortless charm of his leads, though Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh they are not. Not that that’s exactly a fair comparison. Allied isn’t setting out to reinvent the wheel; it rather feels more like a new tire with fresh tread. Perhaps it is better to consider the film more in the context of how it measures up to the classics found in Zemeckis’ back catalog as opposed to where it lies within the genre.

The film opens with SOE operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into the sand dunes of French Morocco. It’s 1942 and he’s on a mission to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. He’s to work with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who narrowly escaped France after her resistance group became compromised. On the assignment they pose as a married couple and are successful in eliminating their target and escaping with their lives.

What begins as merely a cover story develops into the genuine article, and soon Max and Marianne are married and settling down to start a family in London. In a particularly memorable scene they welcome their daughter Anna amidst the chaos of another aerial raid accompanying the German blitzkrieg that devastated the East End. Even under normal circumstances the birthing of a child is an event that tends to really bring a couple together, so I can only imagine going through that experience literally on the streets while debris and gunfire are raining down around you would do wonders for your ability to commit to your significant other.

The intensifying pressures of the war make Max’s job a living hell when he is told by an officer that outranks both himself and his direct superior Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) that his wife is a suspected double agent who is actually working for the Germans. He is ordered to trick Marianne into playing into a trap and once it’s proven she is indeed a German spy he must execute her himself or face being hanged for high treason. Behold, the great sacrifices that must be made in love and war. Or in this case, love during war.

Old-fashioned romance is shaped by two terrific performances from Pitt and Cotillard who once again remind us why they are among the industry’s elites. The heartache accompanying Max’s dilemma is compounded when you take into account how good their characters are at what they do. The performances within the performances are compelling. Steven Knight provides the screenplay, tapping into the psychological aspect of a most unusual and highly dangerous profession. The first third of the film makes a point of fixating upon that idea, of how trust is so hard to come by when you’re a professional spy.

That same third is a good barometer for how the rest of the film will play out. If you’re expecting bombastic, flashy displays of wartime violence you may need to look elsewhere, although the aforementioned blitzkrieg provides some pulse-pounding moments. Knight’s story ditches numbing CGI in favor of a more human and more intimate perspective. It’s an approach that admittedly contributes to a slower paced narrative but one that never succumbs to being boring. This is a film that’s more about the way two people look at each other rather than the way entire nations fight each other. On those grounds alone Allied feels like a throwback to war films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, and where the former lacks the latter films’ sense of grandeur it more than makes up for it in nuance.

Ultimately Allied finds its director working comfortably within his wheelhouse while offering  a darker, more subtle story that’s well worth investing time into.

allied

Recommendation: The trifecta of a steadily absorbing narrative, plush cinematic texture that contributes mightily to the mise en scène, and excellent performances from two seasoned pros makes this an easy recommendation. Especially if you are partial to Robert Zemeckis’ compassionate voice. Every one of his films have been tinged with a romantic element but whereas The Walk, his penultimate release, suffered from an over-reliance on it (to the point of schmaltz, in this reviewer’s opinion) his 2016 effort uses it to its advantage, creating an ultimately enjoyable and often surprising wartime drama that will reward repeat viewings.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Hey, what happened to my kiss?” 

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The Birth of a Nation

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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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