The Birth of a Nation Review (2016): It’s Very Much a First Film

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There’s a world of difference between ambition and a good film. Every filmmaker has a vision, has a hope they will make a transcendent piece of art but sometimes those ambitions get away. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation resides in that frustrating state of purgatory.

As an actor, Parker has appeared in several films but The Birth of a Nation is his first as a writer and director (the script was co-written by Jean McGianni Celestin). The story of Nat Turner is a daring undertaking but Parker’s vision and determination doesn’t translate to the screen.

The story unfolds like a traditional biopic; we begin with Turner as a child and lead up to the rebellion that solidified his placement in history books. The bulk of the film is set in 1831, when Turner was a plantation slave. He was different then most. He had a much easier relationship with his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), was literate and led sermons.

Being able to read and having a uncommonly close relationship with his owner didn’t stop Turner from recognizing the unacceptable cruelty that surrounded him. He rallies other slaves and leads one of the bloodiest uprisings in history, pushing back against the owners who don’t think twice about doling out a hundred lashings.

Parker doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of Turner’s rebellion but finds difficulty balancing it in with the rest of the film. The first hour-plus is slowly paced and rarely focused and then in the blink of an eye he is taking an ax to a master’s chest. Parker takes far too long to create tension or generate interest but, most importantly, he takes too long to find the passion in the story. The writing feels like a very unpolished first draft.

Conversely, his direction may be a little too polished. Parker includes numerous transition sequences with the hopes of flashing his filmmaking bona fides, trying to prove himself the daring newcomer. There are various snippets or brief scenes that don’t add to the overall story, which only beg the question of why they were included, giving The Birth of a Nation a less-than-subtle feel.

The Birth of a Nation made waves at Sundance when it was met with rapturous applause and bought by Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million. In January, the film was the answer to the two-year #OscarSoWhite issue. Is this a movie worthy of gold statues? Not a chance.

4 out of 10

Don’t Breathe Review (2016): Every Breath You Take…Will Get You Killed

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Don’t Breathe is the second film this year that finds an evenhanded combination of thrills and disgust, pairing them together to great effect (the other is the terrific Green Room, which you should seek out if you haven’t seen it).

It’s sad that the current state of modern horror filmmaking is one of a thankless genre. Most depend on the flickering lights or the bedroom door that moves on its own to generate suspense, which is usually done to no avail. Director Fede Alvarez (who last rebooted Evil Dead) doesn’t hold back from trying to shock you any way he can but he’s mostly effective in his conquest.

The film focuses on three friends, who have a full-time job robbing houses. Rocky (Jane Levy) robs with a specific purpose in mind, while her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) goes along because he has feelings for Rocky. The trio is completed with Rocky’s boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), a cornrow-clad punk who swaggers with the confidence of Danny Ocean; he’s just missing the charm and aptitude.

The group – like most morally conflicted thieves – have a code of ethics, where they take possessions under a certain amount but never money. All of that changes when a big score surfaces. They find out that a retired Army veteran is sitting on a settlement of $300,000. The man lives alone and is blind, so they aren’t even going to bother to wait for him to leave his house because it should all be a piece of cake.

Turns out, it isn’t and the $300,000 is much harder to get to than they had hoped. The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) is smarter than these three combined and because this is a Hollywood film, he doesn’t need his eyesight to inflict terror upon them. What ensues is a game of cat-and-mouse in a grim house that the Blind Man (I swear, this is what he is credited as) has managed to trap his burglars in.

The basic plot may seem a little shopworn but Alvarez consistently ratchets up the tension with every scene. Things get bloody, as you would expect, but rarely does it feel contrived for the sake of showing blood. There are twists and turns within the night in the house, each surprising, and one fallen off the edge to the side of repulsive.

Minnette and Levy, in particular, carry the film as strong young actors. Their angst, ennui and desperation all feel believable and authentic. Their uneven relationship feels lived-in, never forced in as a plot tactic. The character of Money is as often on-the-nose and his name. He’s a caricature with no real weight in the film. Lang makes for a threatening antagonist, mostly evoking chills through action and not words.

It’s unfortunate that good horror and thriller films are such a rarity in today’s world because it’s seemingly hard to come up with anything new or fresh. Don’t Breathe never attempts to reinvent the wheel but will more than satisfy your thrill-seeking cravings.

8 out of 10

Nine Lives Review (2016): New Family Film Needs to be Neutered

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Nine Lives is the strangest movie I have seen in some time.

Besides having the look and feel of a mid-2000s Disney Channel movie, it has a dark undercurrent that is off-putting, especially since it is a film geared towards families. More on that later.

The most perplexing thing about Barry Sonnefeld’s (Men in Black) movie is that it attracted the likes of two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, Oscar Winner Christopher Walken and the always lovely Jennifer Garner. They read this script and willingly signed on to such a dud and I can’t understand why. Maybe they owed someone a favor? If they all just needed the money, I urge you to donate to the GoFundMe page I will begin for them once I am done writing this review.

Spacey stars as New York billionaire businessman, Tom Brand, who is working on having his named on the tallest building overlooking the city. This is all he cares about, forget his wife, Lara (Garner), and young daughter (Malina Weissman), who wait for him at home wondering when he may ever return. Tom never cared about anything besides himself or his business dealings. “Your son had to fill out an application just to see you,” Lara reminds him of his older son, David (Robbie Amell), from his previous marriage.

Tom just scoffs at her pleas to be a more present father and husband. He can buy anyone presents to make his absence acceptable. For his daughter’s birthday, she asks for a cat, so Tom stops and buys one from a shadowy cat whisperer (Walken, naturally). Events transpire and Tom ends up in a coma and his soul inside of the cat.

Seems like harmless family stuff, right? Well throughout the course of the film, we have the absentee father and his bitter ex-wife. Then there’s the question of if daddy will ever make it out of the coma. Oh, not to mention, it is heavily implied that one character plans on committing suicide. It’s all fine because Spacey’s cat pees on rugs, in purses and even stumbles around drunk in the name of wackiness.

Stunningly, there are five screenwriters credited to Nine Lives. Together they don’t find any kind of balance in tone to make this an enjoyable, silly-stupid family movie. This movie is all over the map and somehow, someway, its final draft was greenlit.

I’m not being harsh on this film for being a dumb family film. I’m being harsh on this film because it is completely warranted. The movie produces exactly one laugh off of a joke and a handful of laughs from how shockingly stupid it all is – not to mention a few cringes because it’s really a nasty film.

1 out of 10

The Best Movies of the 21st Century – So Far

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Last week, the BBC posed the following question to film critics (not me, but I still wanted to play!): What are the 10 best movies of the 21st century, so far? In the past 16 years, some truly great films have come out. Even a few masterpieces. Boiling it down to 10 is a daunting task. Part of the fun about writing about movies is all the arduous list making that comes with it.

The following 10 movies are what I landed on. Tomorrow, I would probably move things around or change some movies. The number one film, for me, is a no-brainer. Anyways, my choices are:

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1. The Social Network (2010): Nothing is perfect, they say. Well, that doesn’t apply here. David Fincher’s dramatization of the creation of Facebook is a perfect film. Rarely does every aspect of a movie work in concert so perfectly. From the performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, to Fincher’s direction, Aaron Sorkin’s script and the score, this is a perfectly assembled film. It’s more thrilling than the average thriller dumped in a multiplex on a weekly basis.

When you boil it down, The Social Network is the tech generation’s Citizen Kane. It is about a deeply flawed character who built an empire that separated them from the rest of the world. If you put these films side-by-side Charles Foster Kane and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t all that different. Their creations consumed them and their characters end up alienating everyone around them and each film closes with the characters alone in a room.

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2.  Zero Dark Thirty (2012): As The Social Network captures a moment in time, so does Kathryn Bigelow’s meticulously crafted Zero Dark Thirty. Her follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker detailed the 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie fell subject to some controversy but every great film is worthy of a discussion.

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3. Million Dollar Baby (2004): Clint Eastwood packaged his film as a formulaic boxing movie but it ended up being so much more. The final act is haunting and devastating, also worthy of a discussion after. The movie won four Oscars: Best Picture, Director (Eastwood), Best Actress (Hilary Swank) and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman). This is the best boxing movie since Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

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4. Requiem for a Dream (2000): Darren Aronofsky’s movie about drug addiction is one of the toughest movies to sit through. Most people who have seen it can only stomach it once but like the subject matter, it’s quite addictive. Ellen Burstyn gives quite possibly the performance of her career as a woman addicted to diet pills. This is a sad and scary movie but it’s impossible to ignore its greatness.

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5. No Country For Old Men (2007): What a career Joel and Ethan Cohen have. Some filmmakers strive to make just one film that they will always be remembered for but the Coens have managed to craft two masterpieces (Fargo and this). No Country For Old Men is as tense as a movie comes and took home the Best Picture (among Director, Supporting Actor and Screenplay) at the Oscars. This is a brutal, masterful film.

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6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001): There is no movie-going experience like having seen your first Harry Potter film for the first time. The magic, the effects and the genuine thrills of it all created a movie that will forever stand the test of time. I read the books when I was younger but am not even that devout of a Potter fan. This is just a wonderful movie.

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7. The Dark Knight (2008): Christopher Nolan’s second film in his Batman trilogy is a transcendent superhero film. It’s like a peak Michael Mann thriller wrapped in Batman packaging. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is a performance for the ages. Unlike the last film in this trilogy, this movie earns every minute of its lengthy runtime.

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8. Sideways (2004): Sideways is a funny movie at times but it’s a melancholy one throughout. Paul Giamatti’s performance as a sad-sack writer, who takes his friend on a trip through California wine country just before he gets married is a thing of delicate beauty. Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen earned Oscar nominations for their performances (and deserved to win), while Giamatti’s snub still stings after all these years.

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9. Boyhood (2014): Sometimes the big ideas produce simple results and they are perfect. Richard Linklater’s near-three-hour film follows a family over the course of 12 years, using the same actors throughout. It’s a gorgeous time capsule for audiences. The film won Patricia Arquette an Oscar for her sympathetic portrayal of a mother trying to provide the best life for her two children.

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10. Cold Mountain (2003): The majesty of the late Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain was woefully overlooked when it came out. Thought to be a sure-fire Oscar player, the movie did manage to get seven nominations but missed out on Best Picture. This is an old fashion romance film set during the Civil War. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.

With any Top 10 list, there are have to be honorable mentions. At some point these following movies were apart of the 10 above:

A History of Violence (2005)
In the Bedroom (2001)
Doubt (2008)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Chicago (2002)
The Hours (2002)
Mystic River (2003)
Spotlight (2015)
Zodiac (2007)
The Departed (2006)
Little Children (2006)
Up in the Air (2009)

 

 

State of the Movie Union 2016

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We are at the halfway point of 2016. It feels like just yesterday I was scrambling to see all of the 2015 Oscar contenders and before you know it, we will be talking Oscars again.

Now is not that time. Now is a time for reflection and to take a look at what 2016 has offered at the movies. The first half of the year tends to offer a few gems but the early months are known cinematic wastelands. This year, so far, has offered several good movies and even a few great ones. It was a much stronger first half than expected.

I’ve seen a couple of films that will more than likely make it on my Top 10 list at the end of the year. I just haven’t been able to shake them and they have already warranted multiple viewings.

The best movie I’ve seen so far this year is Jeff Nichols’ Midnight SpecialNichols has proven himself to be a gifted filmmaker with only a few movies to his name. Early in his career, he made a muse out of Michael Shannon with Shotgun Stories and they have continued to work together consistently since. Between Take ShelterMud and now Midnight Special, Nichols is crafting a diverse filmography. His latest is a marvel. Midnight Special is a movie shrouded in ambiguity and while the mystery may prove to be more interesting than the results, he takes us on an unforgettable and thrilling journey.

Other favorites from this year are:

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Sing Street – John Carney’s affectionate ode to 80s music is one of the most pleasant movies I’ve ever seen. It’s not particularly original or edgy but it put a smile on my face throughout both times I saw it.

10 Cloverfield Lane – Director Dan Trachtenberg’s chamber piece is a tense and thrilling exercise in mood and atmosphere. He keeps three characters locked in a cellar – the film was first conceived as a project called The Cellar – and ramps up the tension with every scene. John Goodman is terrifying in this.

But it doesn’t stop there. Richard Linklater’s Everbody Wants Some!! is a terrific, shaggy 80s comedy about brotherhood in college, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a gnarly treat for horror fans, Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky evenhandedly built tension from beginning to end and Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is a sexy, sun-kissed romp in Italy. As delightful as Finding Dory is, Zootopia is the best animated film so far this year. And Deadpool. We can’t forget about Deadpool, the best Marvel film of the year.

There has been a little bit of something for everyone this year but with the good comes the bad. As surprising as it has been to have such a good crop of films this early in the year, there have been plenty that weren’t so good.

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Take Warcraft, for example. Rarely has there been a movie without a whiff of a redeemable quality. It’s ugly, boring, stupid and a real disappointment coming from Duncan Jones, who gave us Moon and Source Code.

Standing beside Warcraft as some of the worst selections of the year so far are:

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Gods of Egypt
Fifty Shades of Black
The Brothers Grimsby
London Has Fallen

But we can’t dwell on the bad. I’m very pleased with what this year has given us so far and I look forward to the last half of the year at the movies.

 

X-Men: Apocalypse Review: Everyone Seems a Bit Blue

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Apocalypse can be defined as the end of the world or a cataclysmic event. The real question here is can it also mean the end of a tired franchise?

X-Men: Apocalypse is the latest in the mutant saga that has been ongoing in the multiplexes for 16 years. Director Bryan Singer first brought X-Men to the screen in 2000, directed a fantastic sequel in 2003 and then returned with some prequels and sequels later in 2014. Like most money-making machines, the X-Men films have had a few touch-ups along the way with Singer always involved in some capacity of these films.

Maybe it’s time for Singer to move on. A once cool and interesting story of a cadre of weirdly talented characters now feels exhausted. Singer seems exhausted. X-Men: Apocalypse is a result of a director ready to move past his billion dollar enterprise.

The movie opens with a prologue set in ancient Egypt, where En Sabah Nur, or Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), goes into a long slumber. He is later awakened and ready to obliterate the world and start anew through his own vision.

Meanwhile, the other mutants of the series are off doing their own thing. Erik, or Magneto (Michael Fassbender), has settled down in Poland. He is married with one daughter and works as an iron worker. He has changed his name with the hopes that no one will ever find out who he really is. He is perfectly content, if not the happiest he’s ever been, laboring away every day and coming home to his family at night.

Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is still the head of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. He welcomes a new class of mutants, including Scott Summers, or Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and a young Jean Grey (Sophia Turner). Nicholas Hoult returns as Hank McCoy, aka Beast.

There’s also Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven, or Mystique, and Rose Byrne’s CIA officer Moira MacTaggert returning for the latest outing. Evan Peters is back as Quicksilver. And we meet Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler. Exhausted?

There’s a lot of characters stuffed in X-Men: Apocalypse and not nearly enough material to go around, which is a problem when a movie runs just shy of two and a half hours. A lot of these characters get minimal dialogue and sometimes feel like extras in the background. Olivia Munn enters as Psylocke, who joins forces with Apocalypse, and is of no use to this film.

If anyone is growing tired of X-Men is appears to be the lovely Lawrence. She is an actress of incredible range and ready to continue making movies outside of the two franchises she has been a part of. She just seems dazed and bored, lacking the firecracker energy she brings to the majority of her roles. Fassbender is the only character given a whiff of nuance but he is mostly required to brood throughout most of his scenes.

In the matter of a few years, Isaac has become one of the most interesting actors working in movies today. His performances in A Most Violent Year, Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina has shown what a versatile actor he is. Buried under ugly make-up, Isaac makes for an uninteresting villain. His work in Ex Machina is far more terrifying and menacing than anything he is asked to do here.

The real problem with X-Men Apocalypse is its lack of forward momentum. There’s no drive to the story. It’s a numbing and soulless summer spectacle, which has left the fun and energy in previous film.

X-Men: Apocalypse? Please let it be just that.

3 out of 10

 

 

Purple Rain

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It’s unfortunate that it took Prince’s untimely death for me to finally see Purple Rain. Despite the loss of a renowned artist, seeing it for the first time at The Little Theatre in Rochester, NY was the perfect way to experience this slice of rock B-movie heaven.

The energy and excitement entering the sold out tribute screening of the 1984 film was palpable. The majority of the crowd was dressed in purple and some had Purple Rain t-shirts on, fully prepared to commemorate such a towering figure in the entertainment industry.

Once the film began, the excitement never subsided. The Warner Bros. banner came up and mere seconds later, the words “Dearly beloved” were spoken, the intro to “Let’s Go Crazy” and the crowd erupted in applause. The film, which follows Prince’s character The Kid, begins with the toe-tapping energetic song.

Purple Rain is loosely based on Prince’s life and his origins as a musician and we can see much of that in The Kid. He’s a soft-spoken, mystery man of few words, a badass in heels and on a motorcycle. But once he’s on the stage, a ferocious animal is unleashed.

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The film has never been regarded as any kind of classic cinema. It’s energy is undeniable and even as hokey as its narrative might play in 2016, it’s a complete blast. Not everyone was lucky enough to see Prince in concert but watching Purple Rain in a crowded movie theater gave some of us the chance to feel like we had that experience.

Seeing a tribute screening of Purple Rain was a prime example of the excitement of going to the movies. Though you don’t always want people around you singing and clapping along to the film with Purple Rain you wouldn’t want it any other way. You want to go crazy with your fellow moviegoers.

Purple Rain, as to be expected, is punctuated with poignancy watching it just over a week after Prince’s passing. A hush fell over the crowd once the music began for the titular anthem. As soon as The Kid sang those first lines – “I never meant to cause you any sorrow. I never meant to cause you any pain” – everyone fell silent and watched in awe. There were tears among the crowd.

I’m not entirely sure how to describe my level of fandom of Prince. I’ve loved some of his well-known and bona fide classic songs for forever but don’t feel right calling myself a diehard fan. I’ve always enjoyed his music and appreciated how cool he made being “different”. If you watch an interview Prince did with Larry King, he shoots down the notion he is weird or different. “Compared to what?” Prince retorts to King’s comments about not conforming to industry standards. Go Prince.

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