The Edge Of Seventeen Review

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Over the years, movies have explored virtually every corner of the all-American high school. We’ve spent time with the nerds, jocks, and hot ‘gals, and watched combinations of them all mate and mingle. It’s been a whole lot of fun, really. However, what we haven’t had yet is a coming of age story that drips with the unfiltered nihilism of somebody utterly agonized by growing pains. Enter The Edge of Seventeen, a cagey character study that enters the world of pent up adolescent rage in the year of our lord, 2016.

We find ourselves in the undeniably frustrating world of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). She’s spent her whole life having trouble connecting with other people, with the exception of her best friend Krista (Haley Ku Richardson), especially following the death of her father. Not helping matters is the universal popularity of her hunky brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and a tense relationship with her widowed mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick). Already unhappy, Nadine has what little peace of mind she does have turned inside out when she discovers that Darian and Krista have begun dating. Thus begins an existential spiral of sorts, as Nadine desperately tries to find something healthy to attach herself to.

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If you’re looking for a story about a plucky young ‘gal who deals with boy trouble with an adorkable sense of humor, this ain’t your movie. Nadine is a whirlwind of negativity, largely unable to cope with the world around her. In the hands of a subpar actress, this could have made for an unwatchable headache of a film. However, we’re fortunate enough to have Hailee Steinfeld, who finally gets a role worthy of her promising breakout performance in True Grit back in 2011. She creates a character who balances cutting wit with honest emotional turmoil. She delivers every line with such intense self-loathing that it feels as if each word out of her mouth strains her more than the last. She also displays a great deal of physical defensiveness, often shaking with rage or recoiling at any form of physical contact. However, underneath all of her pain, Steinfeld shows us shades of the kind person that lies deep inside Nadine. At the end of the day, she’s a sweet girl who is just having an incredibly hard time processing the world around her, and adjusting to the social interactions that she is actually comfortable having.

Steinfeld’s powerhouse turn certainly doesn’t overpower the strong supporting cast. Woody Harrelson shines in every scene he’s in as Nadine’s equally cynical history teacher. These two have several brilliant exchanges of tender depreciation. Seeing a student and teacher act like two old pals on a park bench is something entirely new, and it works like a charm. Hayden Szeto has a low-key charm as Erwin, a kind boy in Nadine’s class who she ultimately comes to bond with. Jenner, Sedgwick, and Richardson also get several wonderful confrontations with Nadine, and they all feel authentic. These aren’t characters with contrived movie issues. They’re characters who have caused each other severe trauma and do their best to work through it despite Nadine’s absolute resistance to any sort of reconciliation.

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This film is the brainchild of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (who makes her debut behind the camera here), who does a wonderful job at both ends. Her screenplay does very well at capturing the voice of high school kids without coming across as overtly quirky. If anything, Nadine is a middle finger to the Junos, Olive Penderghasts, and Cady Herrons of the world. Her direction is light on its feet. She keeps things moving at a nimble, energetic pace while giving her actors space to play in the moments that count. Time will tell if this is a case of beginner’s luck, but Craig does prove herself to be a generational voice to watch.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem that ultimately does harm the story’s emotional trajectory. The way that Krista and Darian’s relationship starts to develop proves them both to be fairly despicable people. The way they treat Nadine, somebody who is so close to both of them, is so cold hearted that it makes her fury towards them entirely understandable. The film continuously tries to paint this as a two sided issue, but no matter how many times it tries to sidestep how horrible these two are being, it never becomes less obvious. It’s certainly not completely devoid of nuance, but by the time the film circles back to them with its “the world isn’t about you” arc, the beats that follow don’t feel entirely earned. The rest of the narrative relies so much on our secondhand embarrassment for Nadine, that this very cut and dry element ultimately doesn’t mesh as well as Craig thinks it does.

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The Edge of Seventeen is one of the thematically rich and flat-out hilarious high school movies of the twenty-first century. It’s certainly the best one since 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It might lack the penchant for gut punching that film had, but it more than makes up for that with Nadine’s fascinating anti-charm. Not all of the subplots quite mesh together, and the conclusion does feel slightly contrived. However, following a film that may come across as all too real for many people in this phase of their lives, a little comfort food isn’t the worst thing. Take the family over Thanksgiving, and have a good old time squirming at days gone by together.

Rating: B+

Nocturnal Animals Review

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Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is the kind of film that wriggles its way into your soul. Equal parts bizarre, thrilling, and richly cinematic, it seems meticulously constructed to rattle every audience member in different ways. It is equal parts avant grade art film, violent pulp fiction, and actor’s showcase. In a year in which unoriginality has practically suffocated movie theaters, this film isn’t just a breath of fresh air, it’s a shot from an inhaler. All of this may just sound like critic talk, buzzwords, if you will. However, this isn’t just a movie for people to throw those words at only for it to fade if obscurity. This is something that could join the ranks of  initially under-the-radar psychological thriller classics like Fight Club or Memento. It certainly has in my book.

The story centers on art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). She’s feeling a bit down as of late, as her latest exhibits aren’t exactly striking her fancy, while her marriage to her distant husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) falls apart by the second. Just as things seem hopeless, she receives a manuscript for a novel dedicated to her called Nocturnal Animals written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). She starts to read, and the stories of both the novel and her relationship with Edward both unfold. The novel’s plot deals with Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), a father who finds himself engulfed in a sea of sorrow and revenge after a gang of delinquents, lead by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) murders his wife and daughter.

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The way that Tom Ford, who both wrote and directed this film, stages this narrative is nothing short of brilliant. While the story within the novel would be compelling enough as its own movie, seeing it act as a window into its author’s mind makes it all the more layered. The film reveals itself as an analysis of the kind of people who are driven to write crime fiction, and what darkness lies beneath the surface. We don’t get to see a ton of Edward and Susan’s relationship, but we see just enough to provide a clear picture into the man Edward became when he wrote this novel. Ford’s screenplay is also full of crackling dialogue that is perfectly measured for the separate tones of the parallel storylines.

This is a film so chock full of fantastic performances that giving each of them their full due could take up an entire review. Following up her brilliant work in Arrival with another award-worthy turn, Adams does so very much with what is ultimately a very minimalist role. As Susan pieces together the inspiration for the novel’s story, the price of her actions slowly starts to set in. Conveying so much often with simple facial expressions, Adams anchors all of the insanity in something very human. However, it is Gyllenhaal who runs away with this film in his duel roles. He gets so very much to play with here. The optimistic writer who begins to fall into cynicism through his relationship with Susan, and the grieving father who slowly loses his soul as he seeks revenge. Gyllenhaal nails both sides, with some sequences of pure emotional intensity that rank among his best work. He’s been courting an Oscar nomination with something of a career comeback for a couple of years now, but this could very well be the role that finally gets him the gold.

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Meanwhile, the supporting cast is just as strong, particularly in the segments of the film inside the novel. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast as a detective who comes to help Edward with his case and eventually slides way too deep into it. He’s cold and calculating, but there’s a great vulnerability to him. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson stuns as the charismatic but brutal sociopath in question. It is as if all of the screen presence and charisma he’s been lacking in his Godzilla and Kick-Ass turns had been accumulating to burst out into this one performance. He’s both charming, and terrifying, often at the same time. It’s a turn that’s going to open a great deal of possibilities for him in the future.

Ford’s background as a fashion designer is extremely evident in his direction. Every shot in this film is meticulously crafted and beautifully captured by Seamus McGarvey. He paces the novel segments with the urgency and emotion of a David Fincher or Alfred Hitchcock movie. There are extended sequences of breathless suspense, fueled almost entirely by dialogue, that feel play-like in their execution. Meanwhile, some of Susan’s more reflective moments feel ripped out of a Nicolas Winding Refn film, with the aesthetics taking center stage in the storytelling. However, this movie never comes across as an imitation of those filmmakers. It’s clearly has a great deal of influences, but it is very much an animal onto itself.

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In fact, the only false note this movie hits comes at the very end. The film hits a stirring but somewhat ambiguous crescendo, cuts to black, and then keeps going for another ten minutes. The point it does cut off at isn’t bad per say, but it lacks the emotional impact of the moment before. However, since the rest of the film is paced so well, this slight flub at the end is very easy to forgive.

Nocturnal Animals isn’t going to be for everybody. It’s disturbing, somewhat off center, and contains some sequences that might be a little polarizing. However, none of the film’s strange elements come from a place of pretentiousness. This isn’t a string of empty images used to stroke a filmmaker’s ego. Every piece of this fits together perfectly. Tom Ford has asserted himself as a master storyteller here, somebody who could in time join the ranks of some of the all-time greats. Like a truly riveting novel, this masterpiece is impossible to turn away from, and once it’s over, you’ll be itching to pick it up again.

Rating: A+

Arrival Review

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By this point, how many alien movies can we possibly stomach? The space bugs come down, they shoot us, stuff gets destroyed, we shoot them back. We get it. Fortunately, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is as exhausted by these troupes as I am. This is an invasion film completely uninterested in being a standard action blockbuster. At its core, this is a character drama in which aliens just so happen to be around. Close Encounters of the Third Kind reflected through Black Mirror.

The story centers on a group of twelve mysterious (and rather almond looking) “shells” that land in different corners of the world. In an attempt to make first contact, the government brings in Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist and grieving mother, to attempt a parlay with our off world friends. By her side to crunch numbers is snarky physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who becomes equally invested in learning the mysterious visual language the aliens use to communicate. Meanwhile, the governments of the world, channeled through Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) begin to grow impatient, hoping to strike first if the aliens prove to be hostile.

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Very little of the tension in Arrival is directly centered around the aliens. Sure, they have massive ships, and they’re not exactly pleasant looking, but they have virtually nothing to do with the ticking clock. All of the anxiety created in this film is centered around human nature. How patient humanity be in the face of unfamiliarity? How fast can we learn? Can the pursuit of knowledge override the agony of grief? The high concept premise is completely in service of these characters’ journeys, almost to the point of becoming invisible after a while. Pacing wise, it mirrors last year’s wonderful Ex Machina, letting conversation and discovery take center stage.

Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) is becoming one of the new masters of exploring intellectual themes under the mask of pulpy genre cinema. He’s a filmmaker completely dedicated to atmosphere, and Arrival takes its time to let that atmosphere slink through the theater vents. With that said, there isn’t a wasted shot in sight. The film almost immediately jumps into gear, doing a fantastic job of bringing us on the journey with Louise and company. The build up to seeing the aliens is particularly fantastic. Villeneuve bends and winds his camera through every crevice of the spacecraft as we’re slowly brought into its hull. It’s a slow build, but every moment is captivating. The amazing cinematography by Bradford Young, who borrows the lens from Villeneuve regular Roger Deakins, certainly helps that along. This may be a grimy looking film full of gray and black colors, but it never seems bleak. There’s an air of mystery in virtually every frame, which keeps everything moving through a brisk two hours.

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Backing up this aesthetic beauty is a wonderful cast who each give understated, textured performances. Amy Adams is in top form as the fiercely intelligent but emotionally scared Louise. She completely draws us into learning about and understanding these aliens. It’s deeply refreshing after seeing so many movie scientists constantly make silly mistakes so that set pieces can happen. With that said, there’s something broken inside of her, and whenever she’s not working, that becomes deeply apparent. Jeremy Renner plays very well off of her while providing doses of warm levity. He’s not given quite as much of an arc, but his presence is almost as comforting to us as it is to Adams. This isn’t the movie where two people from different sides of the fence bicker for half the story only to arbitrarily come to common ground. These are two good people who are drawn together to solve a problem, and Villeneuve is smart enough to know that is fascinating enough. Only Whitaker winds up being a little underserved. While his character isn’t exactly the trite angry army man, he’s not exactly given a lot more to do besides wind the ticking clock.

Even with all of these fantastic elements, there are moments where things do seem to lag for just a second. Occasionally, it seems as though Villeneuve is beating certain elements of the story into the ground. It seems heavy handed. However, as the film builds to its conclusion, all of those seemingly extraneous pieces start to snap into place. A massive and incredibly satisfying twist not only validates how much Villeneuve has toyed with the audience but demands them to return for a second viewing.

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Arrival may be a deeply intellectual and dense film, but it never presumes itself to be smarter than it’s audience. It respects them enough to give them a story worth paying attention to, but it never descends into being gimmicky. It’s an utterly genuine and emotionally satisfying story. It may seem a little grim at first glance, and while it certainly goes into very dark territory, there’s a deep optimism at its core. It’s a film about uniting, learning, and standing for something beyond ourselves, and right now, that could not be more needed.

Rating: A

Doctor Strange Review

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It is nothing less than a miracle that in eight short years, Marvel Studios has managed to bring us two waves of superhero epics. We’ve been through bombastic team-ups, imitate character studies, and more than one romp through space. The initial Avengers franchise has made a group of scrappy B-Listers iconic fixtures in pop culture. However, the tales of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, and company are starting to reach their conclusions. This begs a key question. When our old friends fade into the twilight, who’s next? Never one to shy away from a challenge, Marvel has decided to not only evolve its universe but bend it over backward and turn it inside out with Doctor Strange.

The film introduces us to arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). He’s a fast driving, music-loving, life-saving force of nature completely unwilling to listen to anybody but himself. However, all of this recklessness comes back to break him when his car cascades off of a hill in a catastrophic wreck that should reduce him to a pile of pulp. Nevertheless, he finds himself severally disabled and depressed, the steady hands he built his career on now limp and useless.  Desperate for help, Strange turns to a group of eastern zealots who could potentially fix his affliction. Upon arriving, he is thrust into a mystical journey by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who proves to him in spectacular fashion that there are many universes beyond our own and that with practice, Strange can learn to traverse them. Time is of the essence, though, as her former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has made a deal with darker forces to send our world barreling into hell.

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Every origin story is made or broken by the depth of the hero it is creating, and in Stephen Strange, we’re given quite a mixed bag. One one hand, he’s a bit of an iceberg for much of the first act. He’s so astonishingly arrogant and cagey that it’s hard to feel terribly sorry for him when tragedy strikes. On the other, once his journey does begin, and he learns to channel his intelligence and glib sense of humor into something beyond this world, he becomes rather compelling. Benedict Cumberbatch walks a very fine line in his relationship with the audience here. While he’s charismatic and crafty, Stephen’s cold demeanor never truly leaves him. A lesser actor could’ve easily pushed this character too far in either direction, but Cumberbatch is such a magnetic talent that he hits a sweet spot about midway through. We want to see what he’s going to do next, even if we don’t always love him.

Unfortunately, C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay is awfully concerned with a bunch of muddled and dull subplots that do not directly involve Stephen Strange. In fact, we very quickly gloss over Stephen’s training in a transition so jarring that it’s clear that several minutes were cut out. Instead of getting more compelling material out of our red caped friend’s evolving spatiality, a wasted supporting cast sucks up screen time as they flounder under the weight of exposition. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo is a complete bore. While the film tries to create a begrudging friendship between these two men with very different ideologies, the telegraphing for future stories is beyond obvious. It’s a melodramatic and broad turn from an actor capable of much better. Mikkelsen is stuck with yet another lame-brained Marvel villain. Sure, he gets a bit more backstory than the Ronans and Malekiths of the world, but it feels like an afterthought. Rachel McAdams feels trapped and uninvested as Strange’s generic love interest. Fortunately, Tilda Swinton is typically fantastic as the Ancient One. Unlike the other supporting characters, she’s not just there to explain but to enrich. She’s graceful and wise, but also not one to be trifled with. She and Cumberbatch have strong rapport together, their intellectual conversations making for some of the film’s strongest moments.

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The whole affair starts to feel like a soapy vocabulary test after a while. There are only so many eyes of agamotto, sanctum sanctorums, and orbs of oglethorpe a guy can learn about before it all starts to blend together. Weirdly enough, it’s a film that both needs to streamline itself while adding an extra ten to fifteen minutes. If it had focused more on the man we came to see, the other elements could have acted as varnish to a compelling story instead of dragging things down. That said, there are many welcome notes of humor here, keeping things moving at a fairly nimble pace.

Fortunately, director Scott Derrickson has one major ace in the hole. The visual effects and the action scenes created therein are astounding. Superhero movies have gotten rather lazy with action as of late. Big things punch other big things, bing-bang-boom. Doctor Strange uses every single special effect as a paintbrush, shifting the geometry, color, and architecture of what we are looking at. As such, we get fights in which characters scale buildings that have been folded over, create shields of energy with their bare hands, and trade punches as time reverses behind them. Meanwhile, there is a chaotically beautiful sequence of Stephen flying through several levels of reality that just might set the new gold standard for trippy imagery in film. Derrickson might have a bit of a mess to sort through, but he and the artists behind these incredible moments single handily make the film worth seeing in the largest format possible.

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Doctor Strange is often as messy and chaotic as the alternate dimensions its protagonist travels through. While Cumberbatch creates a very compelling if appropriately odd hero, the rest of the story simply isn’t strong enough to give him a truly powerful vehicle. However, the sheer ambition of the world building and the stunning effects work ultimately create an experience that makes the filmmakers feel like the true sorcerers. Next time, if Stephen Strange conjures a screenplay as magical as the world he lives in, perhaps he can headline one of Marvel’s supreme films.

Rating: B

Moonlight Review

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Less than one month ago, audiences were “treated” to The Birth of a Nation. Writer/Director/Star Nate Parker selfishly took advantage of the struggles of his people during slavery in order to create a trite vanity project for himself. It was yet another film that placed African Americans in subservient roles to garner awards attention, and this time, people saw through it. It is time for a change of pace. It is time for Moonlight, an emotional powerhouse hell-bent on capturing colorblind human experiences.

The film is told in three chapters that each chronicle the life of Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert). He’s a young man who from a very early age struggles with his sexual identity in a world that has very little tolerance for it. Many of his classmates are homophobic, his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict, and any romantic prospects are, to put it kindly, limited. That said, there are a few folks who do show him kindness, namely surprisingly wise drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe).

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Moonlight could have very easily fallen apart under the eye of a heavy-handed director. Fortunately, Barry Jenkins is a revelation behind the camera, acting less as a messenger and more as an observer. He isn’t afraid to let several lengthy sequences breathe, allowing his magnificent actors to give restrained and authentic performances. This sense of pacing is critically important, especially when some of his writing occasionally clashes with the subdued tone. There are several wordy monologues that would feel more at home on the stage than the screen. They’re delivered well, but occasionally it feels like the film has to stop to dump them onto the audience. With that said, a stage version of this story would likely be spectacular.

It is a nearly impossible task to have three different actors of vastly different ages take on the same character, and not jar the audience. As such, it is all the more impressive that Rhodes, Sanders, and Hibbert each create cohesive pieces of the whole that is Chiron. It is fascinating to watch Rhodes’ borderline catatonic child transform into Sanders’ awkward ticking time bomb adolescent and then into Hibbert’s tragically closed off adult. Although this is a huge acting challenge, there is nothing showy or stereotypical about these performances. While the story is largely centered around Chiron’s sexuality, these actors ensure that element isn’t all there is to him. They’re very subtle, and that’s what makes them so compelling. Meanwhile, Ali and Harris deliver nomination-worthy supporting turns. Ali, who is not in the film nearly enough, is charismatic and wise but deeply flawed. Harris, giving the most emotionally raw turn in the film, has a couple moments of heartbreaking dependancy. She’s not the stereotypical absent-minded mother we see in so many films like this. This is a woman who is hurting desperately and doesn’t realize what she is neglecting until it might be too late.

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This is also one of the most gorgeous looking movies of the year, and it doesn’t contain a single special effect. Cinematographer James Laxton does some absolutely masterful work here. There is not a single wasted shot, with every frame either dynamically moving the camera, or capturing mosaic-like beauty in the most everyday circumstances. Even the color scheme here is meticulously crafted, with a palpable dark blue aesthetic that gives everything a grimy but artisanal aesthetic. It is an achievement that will likely be fawned over by aspiring cameramen for years to come.

However, for as strong a piece of work as Moonlight is, it does hit several false notes along the way. In an effort to transition from chapter to chapter quickly, Jenkins often cheats his audience out of some key emotional moments. These transitions, much like the monologues, are very stagey. When we come back from our “intermission,” we hear about several beats that would have been more impactful if seen. As such, everything leads into a bit of an anticlimax. The film hits a very key high note, and then abruptly ends before letting that note linger for a while. It would not be surprising to see an extended edition of this film somewhere down the line, and particularly in the case of the second and third chapters, there’s likely some great material on the cutting room floor.

Although Moonlight ultimately comes up a bit short of fully delivering on its powerful message, it is still a refreshing and beautifully crafted piece of work. Jenkins emerges as a potent filmmaker with a whole lot on his mind, creating what will likely be considered one of the strongest films about the LGBT community. It’s a movie that represents what Hollywood should be striving towards. The entry of different (non Anglo Saxon) perspectives, stories centered on emotion instead of action, and thought provoking content that warrants a second watch to fully soak in. If that’s your cup of tea, grab that tea, a blanket, and a friend you cry with, and bask under the Moonlight.

The Birth of a Nation Review

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It’s hard to tell when it is time for Hollywood to close the book on certain subject matter. After all, every artist has a unique perspective on social issues, especially when they’re rooted in history. However, while watching the unendingly vile The Birth of a Nation, one thing became very clear. It’s time to close the book on films about American slavery for a while. There’s a few reasons for this. This period was given a filmmaking masterclass with 12 Years a Slave. Hollywood needs to represent African American actors in prestige roles that aren’t subservient. However, above all, the lingering horrors of such a time period should never be mined to create a vanity project. Enter Nate Parker, our writer, director, and star. He’s decided that simply depicting slavery isn’t enough, slavery needs to be all about him.

The film chronicles the life of infamous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (Nate Parker). As a child, Nat’s masters plunge him into the teachings of the bible when it’s discovered that he can read. Naturally, Nat is a preacher in adulthood, with his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) taking him to other plantations to spread the word. However, when Nat falls in love with and marries a new slave by the name of Cherry (Aja Naomi King), things take a turn. She finds herself constantly abused, which starts a fire within Nat that only grows as he witnesses further atrocities.

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All of the major issues with The Birth of a Nation ultimately fall onto the prolifically incompetent and arrogant Parker. His direction is not only flat but highly derivative. There are a ton of aesthetic choices ripped directly from 12 Years a Slave. Obviously, a lot of that comes with the territory, but the film doesn’t even try to give itself a visual identity of its own. If anything, the cinematography is dull, giving everything the look of a History Channel original movie.  Meanwhile, while the violence is depicted harshly, the film often fetishizes it. These brutal moments aren’t there to drive home the barbarism of this time, it’s for cheap shock value. That said, there are a couple moments of effective imagery here, including one slave punishment that may never leave you. There are also some very odd symbolic cutaways thrown into the story with no real coherence. They’re there to give the Oscars something to put in the film’s reel and don’t serve the story at all.

On the acting front, people are either stilted or playing cartoon characters. Parker is a relative nonentity as Turner. Beyond being a fiery preacher, we never really get a sense of Nat’s personality. He’s there to witness the events of the film, but Parker never sells the journey they take him on. There’s a stoic neutrality to the whole performance that isn’t subtle acting but simply an inability to properly convey what is occurring on screen. We needed to get a sense of how much emotional and physical agony Turner was in for the climax of the film to register. Meanwhile, Hammer does what he can, but is given a character that is fairly inconsistent from scene to scene. One minute, he’s a somewhat kind man, in others, he’s a tyrant. These transitions don’t feel like shades of gray, they feel like a character marred by inconsistent writing. The supporting cast all blend together for the most part, with Jackie Earle Haley getting slapped with a cartoon character of a villain. King does get a couple of nice moments here and there. She’s the only one in the cast that really sells the terror element, so good on her.

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These elements mostly make for a film that’s simply boring and limp, but when we really get into offensive territory is when it clues you into what it’s secret hand is. Considering what ultimately happened to him, Nat Turner is something of a martyr. By sheer nature of the story, that element is bound to rear its head. However, what Parker has done is spend millions of dollars to turn himself into that martyr. As the film closes, there is a final image in which these motivations become entirely clear. Parker is trying to make himself the face of the agony of millions not to make a point, but to advance his career. It is as if Mel Gibson had played the role of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. It’s not about the story or the audience, it’s about the director.

There has been a whole mess of bad movies in 2016. However, it’s been even longer since I’ve witnessed a film as conceited as The Birth of a Nation. It’s a film so sure that Parker is a force to be reckoned with, that it forgets to prove that he has anything to offer. This is a Wal-Mart bargain bin “prestige” film desperate to ride the coattails of 12 Years a Slave and play on African American tokenism as a manipulation tactic. Hollywood has a lot to improve on when it comes to inclusion, however, I will give them credit for one thing. They’re better than this movie. Hopefully, the rest of awards season proves me right.

Rating: F

Sully Review

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Some incredible stories simply don’t deserve movies. That’s a truth that’s hard for Hollywood to accept. So difficult, in fact, that sometimes they will bend over backward to fill in the blanks. Enter Clint Eastwood’s Sully, which attempts to wrap a compelling narrative around 2009’s Miracle on The Hudson. There is no denying that what happened on that January afternoon was nothing short of amazing. However, an incredible event does not always involve the most fascinating of people. While Captain Chesley Sullenberger is undoubtedly a true American hero, he’s not exactly Hollywood material. Eastwood’s film knows this but never makes a compelling case for telling his story anyway.

The film opens post-miracle with Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) under investigation. The higher-ups have their doubts that Sully’s decision to land the plane in the Hudson was necessary. In fact, simulations have brought to light that he might have been able to perform a safe airport landing. Despite having saved every passenger that day, these revelations cast a shadow of doubt on Sully. He ponders if he made a reckless decision, despite the urges of Skiles and his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) to embrace what he did. Meanwhile, he finds himself overwhelmed with the constant media attention, which has turned him into a worldwide legend.

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Eastwood is very clearly chomping at the bit to bring this harrowing near-disaster to the screen. However, he finds himself so focussed on crafting that sequence, that everything in between is neglected. This is one of the least dynamic biopics in some time. Early on, it settles into variations of the same few scenes and never spices things up. Sully and Skiles defend their case, we see a piece of the crash, Sully has a moment to himself in which something regular haunts him, and then he calls his wife. Rinse, repeat. Not only is this structure droning, but it’s weighed down by horrific dialogue. Every exchange here feels ripped out of a parody of Oscar bait movies. We’ve got our achingly on the nose soliloquies, and our “naturalistic” banter that implies that Eastwood hasn’t mingled amongst people in decades. Honestly, the birds who flew into the engine that day likely had more interesting things to say than any of the characters.

Hanks, who’s made a legendary career out of playing ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations, struggles like crazy here. In every moment, he’s desperately trying to pull pathos out of moments that just aren’t there. Eastwood’s direction is so restrained, that Sully is never given even a moment to break his stout exterior. While characters who are deliriously committed to a job are often fascinating (see Eastwood’s American Sniper) they need to be dynamic. It’s a shame, as Hanks is perfect for the role, but there’s just nothing there for him. Meanwhile, the esteemed supporting cast faces very similar struggles. Eckhart attempts to provide the film’s heart and soul, but his interactions with Sully never rise above contrivance. He’s completely supportive, and that’s about it. Linney is given embarrassingly little to do. She appears only in a series of phone call scenes that confine her to the “concerned wife” stereotype.

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For all of Sully’s flaws, it can at least boast about how well its central set-piece is executed. Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern do a fine job capturing the intensity of those fateful 208 seconds. They play with perspective, scale, and the wide framing of their IMAX cameras to make the audience brace for impact. The passengers’ fear is palpable, and the rescue effort is earnest and uplifting without being over the top. However, the film even undercuts the impact of this sequence. Eastwood insists on showing us the crash multiple times  in slightly different ways. By what feels like the fifteenth time we’ve seen the same events, all the spontaneity is gone. It feels completely procedural. Ironically, feelings of detachment towards situations like this is exactly what Eastwood is trying to fight. In an attempt to make a statement about human intuition vs mechanical precision, he gets caught up in the machinery of filmmaking.

Sully ultimately does the greatest disservice possible to it’s distinguished subject. It does nothing to make him interesting beyond his moment of heroism. There really is no room for this film after Robert Zemeckis masterfully mined the same territory in Flight. Eastwood is so concerned with celebrating the captain’s simplicity, that he didn’t bother to build complexity around him. Hanks tries his best, and the main centerpiece is well-crafted, but there’s nothing to support them. Although he attempts to put the audience in the captain’s chair, Eastwood has made a film that would barely pass for a simulation.

Rating: D

Southside With You Review

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We all know who the Obamas are. At least, I hope. No matter where they fall under one’s presidential ranking, they’ve still had two of the most iconic terms in history. As such, Southside With You comes with a bit of prestige packed in. This isn’t just the story of two people falling in love, but two important people falling in love. But what if we didn’t know who these folks were? Would they make for compelling characters outside of their place in history? Well, if you place them in a Chicago-set version of Before Sunrise, you certainly find out.

Southside With You chronicles the first date Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) ever went on. At first, Michelle sees this as a “business only” affair, as Barack invited her under the pretense of a community meeting. However, that sneaky devil Barack has a few other things on the agenda. They visit an art museum, go to the movies, and walk around the park, all while bonding and bickering.

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In order to make a conversational movie like this work, the actors have to be completely on. Films like Before Sunrise and The End Of The Tour resonate because the two players don’t feel like performers. They feel like real people, and the conversation flows naturally. A lot of that alchemy comes from good screenwriting, but a good portion of it is luck. Unfortunately, Sumpter and Sawyers don’t exactly have that same spark. They’re certainly not bad. In fact, Sawyers in particular not only bares a striking resemblance to Obama but captures his charismatic persona. There’s just a very mechanical feeling to their delivery. The film feels like two actors walking around town, rehearsing their lines for a play. All of the moments where sparks fly are there because they’re in the script, not because they’re sold by honest performances.

The script in question by writer/director Richard Tanne isn’t exactly innovative stuff either. It runs through all the standard “deep conversation” points, without much organic build up. They burn through each subject mechanically, almost as if their topics are run by metronome –

Bing!

What were your parents like?

Bing!

What are you hoping to do in the future?

Bing!

Do you believe in God?

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It gets monotonous after a while, especially with how badly the scenes are paced. Some moments are far too brief. The general ideas are laid out but they aren’t given time to marinate. Some go on for far too long, especially a scene midway through at the community meeting in question. Every second of this meeting is lovingly re-created in this sequence. It all hinges on an extended speech by Barack that starts to just feel like Hallmark card phrases.

Tanne has a real opportunity to make the city of Chicago a character in this film. To use his backdrop as something of a chorus to the main story. However, it’s mostly used as just space to fill the scene. However, there is one moment where the movie feels truly alive. When Barack and Michelle visit the art museum, Barack starts to explain the origins of the paintings. The story he tells is rooted in culture, and while the audience looks a the paintings, we start to feel as though we’re on this date too. If only the rest of the film could have captured this.

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Southside With You isn’t a bad film, but it’s an entirely mediocre version of much better films. It feels like an extended twenty-minute portion of a much better movie about the Obamas. The only reason it has gotten such a wide platform is because of who its two characters happen to be. However, their first date doesn’t prove to be as fascinating as they are. Once the inevitable full force, Oscar-bait, Obama movie comes our way, Southside With You will likely fade from memory.

Rating: C

Hell or High Water Review

“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

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A phrase that is ever so popular among seasoned moviegoers. Often times, it’s a lamentation that the leaner, more story driven films of old have been warped into tech demos. The Ten Commandments is now Exodus: Gods and Kings, Death Wish is now Taken 3. We’ve certainly had plenty of soulless dreck over this seemingly never ending summer to prove that theory true. However, right as we approach the end, Hell or High Water appears. A scrappy little modern western determined to hearken back to a more authentic period of filmmaking. It aims, in short, to do more with less.

The film begins with the Howard brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), performing a bank robbery. This isn’t amateur hour at Wells Fargo either; these boys have it down to a science. Determined to raise enough money to save their family’s land, the brothers carry out an elaborate money funneling scheme. Meanwhile, aging detective Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) becomes obsessed with tracking the boys down before he retires. After all, what good is a cop who doesn’t go out with a bang?

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We’re not exactly in unfamiliar territory here, and director David Mackenzie doesn’t pretend like we are. Instead, he focuses on taking the clichés of the genre, and building a solid foundation around them. That foundation is built on two duos, both beautifully brought to fruition by the actors. Pine and Foster have incredibly believable chemistry as brothers, both of them playing to their strengths. Pine is understated and kind, while Foster is loving but volatile. Meanwhile, Bridges gives one of his best turns in quite some time as the cynical lawman. Sure, he’s doing his Hamburglar cowboy voice again, but with a bit more depth. He brings much-needed humor and heart to the film, as a man right in the midst of his end-life crisis. He too has an excellent rapport with Gil Birmingham as his partner Alberto, who nicely balances him out with his more sober attitude.

Mackenzie drenches his film in the Texas sun, giving the film a beautifully rustic aesthetic. The temptation is high in films such as these to spice up rural America. Make it seem charming, and full of warm faces. Here, the supporting characters feel like genuine working class people. They talk back quite a bit and are certainly not Hollywood pretty, but there’s a genuine sense of community among them. This makes individual scenes a lot more compelling, as our main stars don’t have to rely on themselves to carry the weight. Every bit player is authentic, and the film’s look and feel does the rest.

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Meanwhile, the action sequences are vintage western filmmaking. Mackenzie is incredibly methodical in his direction. He makes us wait long periods for more violence, as its sudden appearance is more jarring and intense. Every single gunshot has weight and impact, especially considering how real every character in the film feels. Even with these great set-pieces, some of the most intense moments come when there’s no violence at all. Sometimes it’s just a look that a character gives, or a moment of silence in which anything can happen.

Hell or High Water only seriously falters in its lack of originality. Sure, it’s all very well realized, but there really aren’t any surprises here. In fact, there are several moments with telegraphing so wonky that it might as well be pinned on the screen as a reminder. Also, while the brothers’ emotional motivations are very clear, the fine points of their plan occasionally seem convoluted. One has to wonder where either of them got the education to figure out such a complex scheme. It’s certainly better to have intelligent characters than stupid ones, but it occasionally does muddle the tone.

In a summer full of films that lazily regurgitate troupes, it’s nice to see a movie execute them with craftsmanship. Hell or High Water certainly isn’t going to win any points for changing the game. However, it plays the game well enough to stand-out. Rich performances and characters make all the difference in a film like this, and it has that in spades. It feels a film from the “used to,” era and I suspect for many, that will be more than enough.

Rating: B+

Suicide Squad Review

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Decades from now, when we look back on all of these superhero movies, the tale of the DC Universe will likely make for the most fascinating story. With an incredible library of characters all under one roof, there is infinite potential. Potential to make films that go beyond the normal tropes of the genre. Movies take us under the sea, along with the speed force, or into the mind of its eclectic rogues gallery. Before Suicide Squad, that potential was still very much alive. Sure, Zack Snyder wildly struck out with Man Of Steel, only to return with a fascinating if utterly messy follow-up, Batman V Superman. However, the addition of Fury director David Ayer brought some hope back. Perhaps his psychologically taxing cast bonding methods and talent for intense action sequences could save the day.

oh well…

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Suicide Squad centers on a group of imprisoned criminals from all over the DC Universe assembled to save the world. See, archeologist June Moone (Cara Delevingne) has stumbled upon a horrible curse. A witch by the name of Enchantress has taken over her soul, using it to awaken her brother Incubus. As mean monster people do, they want to create an army and take over the world. To stop them, ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) turns to the worst of the worst. Listing all of the team members is an exercise in futility, so here are the only two that matter. Most prominently, Deadshot (Will Smith) is an assassin trying to create a life for his daughter. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), eternal love of The Joker (Jared Leto), plans to reunite with her puddin’ and sabotage the mission.

David Ayer has made such a mess of this movie that you might hear “cleanup on aisle DC” over the credits. From the get-go, the storytelling is fundamentally broken. There are so, so, so (there aren’t enough sos in the world), many characters that their introductions have to be done at lightning speed. In the first act, all of the important characters have an avalanche of footage scrunched into short montages. By the time characters like Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Boomerang (Jai Courtney) come in we’ve run out of time for even a montage. All they get is a seconds long introduction, often with a tacky music cue. Sure, we learn ‘what’ all these characters are, but we never learn ‘who’ they are. There’s no time for that, they have a mission to complete.

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…and what a boring mission it is. Despite marketing itself as a story of “bad vs evil,” the film is terrified of letting these characters be themselves. After all, that just might get them an R-Rating. Instead, this flash mob of colorful characters is thrown into a generic TNT Original movie. They walk into a room, shoot and punch a bunch of Enchantress’ zombies, and then repeat. There’s very little problem solving, or teamwork involved. These characters are basically just doing their thing, but they’re all in the same room. It doesn’t help that Ayer, who gave his previous battle scenes such weight and consequence, seems utterly bored. Since human beings are only involved on one side, the enemies might as well be video game minions.

By the time the film decides to chill out and lets the characters have one scene to chat, it’s moot. Sure, there have been small interactions peppered throughout, but they haven’t meant a thing. They’re small barb fests, in which the jokes feel completely forced. It is hard to even recall one scene where they don’t remind the audience that they’re the bad guys. Why? Because if certain audience members don’t read comics, they might just forget. It’s a film that tries to stylize itself in every way that doesn’t matter. All the tunes, flashy action, and comic book imagery in the world doesn’t matter if there isn’t any camaraderie.

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Fortunately, anchoring this terrible material are a couple of good performances. Smith can’t help but bring charisma to Deadshot, even when given some horrible lines to read. He lands a couple of those jokes while selling us on the character’s drive to return to his family. Viola Davis lends an icy cool to Waller’s ruthless behavior. Even Jai Courtney turns out to have something to offer after all in his limited role. Sure, he’s playing a cartoon character, but he admirably throws himself into it. However, the gal who runs away with the movie is Margot Robbie. Her Harley Quinn is a bit more pulled back than classic versions but is utterly intoxicating. Sure, she’s a tragic figure, but she’s also intelligent, brutal, and venomously sexy. Hopefully, her solo movie comes to fruition so she can stop pulling dead weight.

Speaking of dead weight, there is no load more beyond this earth than Jared Leto as The Joker. It’s certainly hard to imagine Leto ever living up to the late Heath Ledger’s masterful version clown prince of crime. That said, whatever he’s come up with here certainly isn’t the way to go. Despite his atrocious on-set behavior, his take feels completely half-assed. It’s a combination of a lame impression of Ledger with a cartoon mob boss. He’s never the least bit funny, or scary. Fortunately, he’s not in the movie very much. In fact, many people aren’t in the movie very much. You’ve got folks like Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag and Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo who simply lack screen presence. While others such as Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc and Karen Fukuhara’s Katana simply have no time to do much of anything.

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Beholding the Hindenburgian disaster that is Suicide Squad is hard to even process. It’s a film that hits the ground sprinting, without a story to tell. It’s a movie about a team, in which the characters hardly get to interact. However, above all, it’s just plain laborious. A generic action movie with DC villains peppered in. Insult to injury, the third act is one of the most baffling final battles ever put in a comic book film. In fact, this is the kind of film that is going to kill comic book movies.

David.

DC has just begun.

But now you’ve gone and thrown it all away.

Rating: D