The Birth of A Nation

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2016

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Screenplay by and Directed by Nate Parker

Based on a story by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin

Produced by Nate Parker/Kevin Turen/Jason Michael Berman/Aaron L. Gilbert/Preston L. Holmes

“Aren’t you tired of slave movies?” “Why can’t we make anything else except slave movies?” “But I don’t want to see another slave movie.” “When I go to the movies I just want to turn my brain off and be entertained.”

That usually was what I heard from some of my friends of color whenever the subject of THE BIRTH OF A NATION came up. Funny how I never hear any of my Jewish friends complaining when a new movie about The Holocaust is in theaters. Slavery is The Holocaust of the African-American in America and me; I don’t think we can talk about it enough. Slavery is woven into the very fabric of America’s DNA and until and unless we all decide to be honest about that fact and deal with it, we’re always going to have racial issues. But, everybody’s movie choices are their own and if you don’t want to see THE BIRTH OF A NATION, God Bless. There’s always another Kevin Hart comedy or all-black remake of a twenty year old Lifetime thriller that is more to your movie-going taste, I’m sure.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that THE BIRTH OF A NATION is more of a biopic than anything else. If for nothing else the movie should be seen if just to get acquainted with Nat Turner if you don’t know much about him and be encouraged to do more reading about him on your own. Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in the summer of 1831 that caused the deaths of nearly three hundred people, black and white. We do get to the viciously bloody rebellion but before that we spend a lot of time with Nat Turner and grow to understand why he led this rebellion as he is a complicated man who lives in several worlds at once.

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There’s the slave world he lives in and his complicated relationship with his white childhood friend Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) who becomes his master when they grow into adults. As a child, Nat learns how to read thanks to the benevolence of Sam’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller.) The only book she’ll allow him to read is The Bible and this leads to Nat’s spiritual growth as he becomes a man of faith, living in the world and word of God, preaching to his fellow slaves on his plantation at first. But then, other plantation owners persuade Sam to bring Nat around to preach to their slaves, figuring that he’ll preach them to be good, docile Tobys.

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It has the opposite effect since because he gets to travel to other plantations where the treatment of slaves is truly and horrendously barbaric. Nat’s inner struggle with his faith in the face of such raw brutality and savagery is what sets this movie apart from other movies with similar themes. There’s also a very interesting added layer in that we see slaves who are not that far removed from their African culture and indeed, have integrated tribal rituals and ancestral rites into their Christian beliefs. Nat embodies this as he has visions both Christian and African as if they are both working in his soul. It’s a layer that’s not explored enough for me but it does provide religious fuel for THE BIRTH OF A NATION that powers the engine of Nat Turner’s eventual breaking point and his transformation from man of God to bloody-handed revolutionary leader using The Bible’s words no longer as loving instruments of peace but as swords of war.

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If there’s any flaw with THE BIRTH OF A NATION it’s that we spend too much time with Nat Turner. I was on good footing about his beliefs, his feelings and his thoughts and Nate Parker most likely won’t win an Academy Award for Best Actor but he should. As the adult Nat Turner he’s on screen for most of the movie’s running time to the detriment of the other characters in the movie, I felt. Most of whom we really don’t get to know all that well with the exception of Roger Guenveur Smith as Isiah, a house servant who tries to counsel Nat away from his plan and Jackie Earle Haley as Cobb, a slave catcher. I’ve enjoyed the work of Mr. Smith and Mr. Haley for many years now. They’re actors who guarantee that when they’re on screen, you can’t take your eyes off them. Mark Boone Junior provides what little comedy relief we get in the movie as the boozehound Reverend Walthall. Gabrielle Union is also in there somewhere in what amounts to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo.

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Usually I end my reviews with asking you the question should you see the movie or not. THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a movie I would venture to guess that most of you have made up your mind about already and have either seen it or passed it by so that question is moot. Me, I enjoyed it. Not as light entertainment to waste a couple of hours. I’ve seen enough of those movies this dismal movie year. THE BIRTH OFA NATION is an intelligent, historic biographical drama that I appreciated for not being “just another slave movie.” Yes, the character of Nat Turner is still a controversial one and some may criticize me for characterizing Nat Turner as much an authentic American hero as any other, black or white that you can name. But be mindful that his revolution began with the same spirit as America’s revolution to break from England. He also wanted to be free.

120 Minutes

Rated R

London Has Fallen

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2016

Millennium Films/Focus Features/Gramercy Pictures

Directed by Babak Najafi

Produced by Gerard Butler/Mark Gill/Matt O’Toole/Alan Siegel

Screenplay by Christian Gudegast/Creighton Rothenberger/Katrin Benedikt/Chad St. John

Story by Creighton Rothenberger/Katrin Benedikt

Based on characters created by Creighton Rothenberger/Katrin Benedikt

We’re all busy people here so I’m going to cut right to the chase: there is absolutely no reason for you to see LONDON HAS FALLEN.

Let me explain: it’s not that it’s a bad movie. In fact, much like its predecessor;  2013’s“Olympus Has Fallen” it’s a satisfying throwback to 1980s Action Movies. It’s a B-movie with A-list talent and budget. Both “Olympus Has Fallen” and the other White House invasion movie of 2013, “White House Down” turned out to be better “Die Hard” movies than the actual “Die Hard” movie that also came out that same year; “A Good Day To Die Hard.” In addition, LONDON HAS FALLEN manages to also pull off the job of being a pretty good “Die Hard” knock-off. This is why I’m telling you that there’s no reason for you to see it. You’re not going to see a movie that’s wildly innovative in plot, character, visual style or storytelling. LONDON HAS FALLEN does not in any way, shape or form re-invent The Action Movie. It is the filmic equivalent of a Big Mac with a large Coke and fries. Not that that has to be a bad thing. Sometimes all you want is a Big Mac with a large Coke and fries.

But if you did indeed see “Olympus Has Fallen” and enjoyed it as I did then you’ll probably want to check out LONDON HAS FALLEN. And you’ll probably have a good time watching it as I did. I went in with full knowledge of what I was getting and I was satisfied with that.

Top Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) and his wife Leah (Radha Mitchell) are getting ready for the birth of their first child. Mike is seriously contemplating resigning from The Secret Service to devote his time to his family. That decision is put off by the sudden death of the British Prime Minister. The President, along with about fifty other prominent world leaders all travel to London for the state funeral. Mike naturally goes along, with Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) as well.

Turns out that the entire funeral is a massive death trap. Armies of mercenaries attack the world leaders and their protective details as well as bombing various London landmarks such as Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. The terrorists hack into London’s computer and power network, effectively shutting the city down. London is cast down into utter chaos as civilians are massacred in the streets and the terrorists run riot. It’s up to Mike Banning to get the President (Aaron Eckhart) to safety before the terrorists capture him as they intend to kill the President online while the world watches.

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Sounds like a pretty exciting set-up, don’t it? And it is. The special effects guys have a field day going nuts destroying London’s most beloved landmarks. They do their job of convincing us that London really is being blown to smithereens. Back in Washington D.C. Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) Joint Chiefs Chairman Clegg (Robert Forster) Secretary of Defense McMillan (Melissa Leo) and White House Chief of Staff Mason (Jackie Earle Haley) watch the carnage on jumbo sized 4K monitors and spend most of the the movie wringing their hands in agony and muttering “son of a bitch!” every two minutes. Seriously. They take turns saying it. Except for Melissa Leo, who I honestly believe didn’t have a single line in the movie. She has some terrific reaction shots, though.

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Back in London, Mike makes contact with an old buddy of his, MI6 agent Jacqueline “Jax” Marshall (Charlotte Riley) who hides him and The President in a safehouse until a Delta Team can extract them. However, when a group of terrorists show up, Mike realizes that the danger to The President’s safety and London is even greater than anyone thought as there has to be a mole inside the British government working with the terrorists.

While I’m glad to see Gerard Butler once again back in Action Hero mode, I can’t help but wish that he hadn’t wasted all those years making braindead romantic comedies. He’s equally as good with the obligatory wisecrack after breaking someone’s neck as he is in the quieter scenes he has with Eckhart, Mitchell and Bassett before the mayhem starts. Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, Jackie Earle Haley, Robert Forster and Melissa Leo are all way too good actors for this material but they’re game to play along and they do. And when you have actors of this quality in a Action Movie they can’t help but give the story an added depth. They’re just hardwired that way.

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The movie is directed competently and effectively by a director I’m not familiar with by the name of Babak Najafi and he really doesn’t go out of his way to put a visual stamp all his own on this movie but he does do something I’ve never seen before in an action movie and it’s really quite remarkable. Remember the long tracking shot in “Goodfellas” where Henry Hill takes his girlfriend through the Copacabana? It lasts about three or four minutes, right? Well, Najafi does something similar here in a scene where Banning and the Delta Team are trying to rescue The President from the terrorist stronghold. It’s a vicious, savage firefight done in one long tracking shot that has to last at least two or three minutes and it’s a really badass piece of work.

So should you see LONDON HAS FALLEN? Didn’t I answer that question at the beginning of this review? Go back and read it again.

Rated R

99 Minutes

 

Watchmen

2009
Warner Bros & Paramount Pictures

Directed by Zack Snyder
Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin and Deborah Snyder
Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse
Based on the comic book limited series and graphic novel created by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (artist)

If you were reading comic books back in 1986 then you probably read the twelve issue limited series WATCHMEN right from the beginning. You were in on the ground floor of a work of art that has come to be called ‘The Citizen Kane of graphic novels’. Actually that should be ‘The Citizen Kane of comic books’ but I’ve noticed how hard the advertising is stresses that WATCHMEN is based on a ‘graphic novel’. It’s as if Warner Bros. and Paramount are trying to hide the comic book roots of the material. They’ve got no reason to. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the comic book version of WATCHMEN was far more than men and women in brightly colored spandex beating the piss outta each other. It was a political thriller/satire, a murder mystery, a deconstruction of the superhero concept and an examination of the psychology of those people in the brightly colored spandex. And thankfully, the movie version of WATCHMEN is the same.

Thanks to a really cool credits sequence we’re introduced to an alternate world where superheroes came into prominence during the World War II era. Although costumed crimefighters such as Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, Silhouette and Dollar Bill are called superheroes they actually have no real superpowers. They’re ordinary men and women who put on masks, wear costumes and go out to fight crime. It isn’t until the 1950’s that the world gets its first real superbeing: Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) who, like a lot of DC and Marvel characters gains superpowers due to a scientific accident. Ironically, its Dr. Manhattan’s creation that intensifies the Cold War between The United States and Russia. The Russians are kinda spooked that America has a glowing blue god who can reshape matter and energy at will. Thanks to Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian/Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) the Vietnam War is won in a week. Both Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian go to work for the U.S. government while other costumed heroes are forced into retirement due to legislation outlawing superheroes.

Things heat up rapidly when The Comedian is brutally killed and his murder is investigated by Rorschach/Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley) a vigilante who ignored the ban on masked heroes. Rorschach believes someone is out to kill all the retired heroes and goes to visit them one by one, hoping to persuade them to join him in his investigation. Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) thinks he’s crazy. Dr. Manhattan doesn’t care. Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) thinks he’s paranoid. And the richest, smartest man in the world, Ozymandias /Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) is too busy trying to create a new energy source to be bothered. But before long events will drive all these former heroes back into their costumes as it soon becomes apparent that the world is on the verge of a nuclear holocaust and they may be the only ones who can prevent it.

For years WATCHMEN has stumped some of the most creative directors working in the industry today. We’re talking about guys like Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky, both of who thought the graphic novel was unfilmable. And then along comes Zack Snyder who does such a terrific job and is so faithful to the source material that you wonder what the fuss was about. All of the characters look as if they stepped right out of the graphic novel and Zack Snyder recreates scenes in such detail it’s scary. And there’s plenty of Easter Eggs all through the movie for those of us who have read our copies of WATCHMEN to death but that won’t prevent those of you who haven’t from enjoying it.

The acting in this movie is top notch. Jackie Earle Haley easily walks off with the honors in this one. Rorschach is an extremely disturbed and dangerous man and Haley plays him that way, with no sugarcoating. I remember first seeing Jackie Earle Haley way back in 1983 in a raunchy comedy called “Losin’ It” which also starred Tom Cruise and Shelly Long but Haley stole that movie from them easily. He’s got great people to work with in this one such as Patrick Wilson. He plays Dan Dreiberg in such a way that you at first have a hard time imagining this overweight, quiet guy was ever a superhero. But once he puts on that Nite Owl costume his transformation is remarkable to see. And Malin Akerman is nothing short of amazing. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her anytime she was on the screen. Her character occupies a unique place in the superhero history of this world and one of the most interesting aspects of this movie is to watch her complex relationships with the other characters.

So should you see WATCHMEN? Absolutely. It’s not just a great superhero movie. It’s a great movie, period. The characterizations and story aren’t just excuses to have golly-gee-whiz special effects and big fight scenes. Even though the movie is complex and there are flashbacks and flash forwards it’s never confusing. And it’s truly a pleasure to watch a director at work who knows how to film action/fight scenes and doesn’t take the lazy way out by resorting to shaky-cam. It’s a movie with intelligence and one sign of its intelligence is that the superheroes don’t fight supervillains. They’re fighting something even more deadly: social conditions and their own moral values. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking indeed and between this and “300” Zack Snyder has a place in movie history.

163 minutes:
Rated R:  This is most definitely a superhero movie for adults. There’s graphic violence, nudity and language.  Send the kidlets to bed before you watch this one, folks.