The Lego Batman Movie Review

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As Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump belts out what might be the greatest Batman theme of all time over the visually electrifying and hilarious opening sequence of The Lego Batman Movie, one thing becomes clear. This is a deliriously infatuated Valentines Day love letter to DC’s iconic self-proclaimed frontman. When we’re watching this astonishingly narcissistic version of The Caped Crusader, it’s an amalgamation of almost eighty years of comics, cartoons, and films. Bruce Wayne has had some incredible victories and catastrophic failures over all that time and this movie revels in poking fun at every single one.

We find Batman (Will Arnett), who is totally not Bruce Wayne, in a bit of a personal rut. Sure, he’s foiling bad guys left and right, but his lobster thermidor fueled evenings are starting to feel a little lonely. He refuses to let anybody crack his smoldering masculinity, though, which makes it a little difficult for his new adopted son/sidekick Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) to feel appreciated. Meanwhile, The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is plotting the destruction of Gotham city in classic fashion, desperate for his foil to see him as his arch-nemesis.

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The original Lego Movie by Phil Lord and Chris Miller had an astonishingly dry wit for a kids film and that is back in full-force here. In its first act, The Lego Batman Movie is a comedic end-zone dance. It’s a beautiful balance of loving jabs at the history of the character and sharp satire of the way the general public sees him. Not even the foreboding studio logos of the Nolan era get off scot free. This Bruce Wayne is one hundred percent the brooding orphan who punches mentally ill people and the script never shies away from acknowledging that. Arnett fully commits to this absurdity and practically everything that comes out of his mouth hits. It practically breaks the sound barrier of comedic momentum, for a little while.

Unfortunately, things grind to a halt as soon as we get into the Bat-Family story-arc. Michael Cera’s Robin is beyond grating. We see the extent of his “adorable” goofy child routine within five minutes of him being on-screen and he never evolves beyond that one joke. Rosario Dawson’s Barbara Gordon is about as flat as Cera, albeit with a little more depth. When they come into the picture, the film becomes less about poking fun at Batman and evolves into a fairly standard Bat-Family story that just so happens to be a comedy. That isn’t to say that there isn’t anything enjoyable going on. Galifianakis’ adorably insecure Joker is a hoot whenever he appears and Ralph Fiennes is such a genuinely solid Alfred that you’ll wish that he were playing opposite Ben Affleck as well. It just cannot carry the pace it establishes early on, eventually indulging in standard animated movie tropes with the absurdist humor becoming dizzying after a while.

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However, even when the story and comedy get a little flat, the visuals are extraordinary. Director Chris McKay and his animation team deftly carry on the manic aesthetic that Phil Lord and Chris Miller established in the original Lego Movie. Every frame is jam-packed with small touches that won’t be caught on the first viewing. It really feels like each set was built with the gleeful hands of an overstimulated child. It all really starts to kick in during the frenetic fight sequences, in which the animators take full advantage of everything an animated Batman is capable of. The characters are always moving as they leap through the air, avoid gunshots with silly “pew pew” noises and build weapons mid-battle. It’s a wonder to behold, even during the film’s third act which starts to over indulge in action.

Lord and Miller’s Lego Movie was not only a strong comedy but a sharp social satire to boot. Batman was certainly one of the funniest characters in that story but he was also very much a supporting player. The Lego Batman Movie very much feels like a spin-off. It doesn’t have nearly as much to say and the character who felt so fresh before does start to wear out his welcome. Chris Mckay is an alum of Robot Chicken and his film very much plays like a cleaner version of one of those sketches. However, the key to that show is brevity, which begs the question of if this would have been a stronger film if it had only clocked in at thirty minutes. However, it’s never anything less than enjoyable even in its weakest moments and the adoration for the Batman lore is on constant display. I’d certainly rather see a Justice League made out of these blocks than flesh and blood. Take from that what you will.

Rating: B (atman)

Split Review

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For years, the once great M. Night Shyamalan subjected audiences to bloated, tone-deaf, time-wasting efforts. Then, all of a sudden, he pumped out The Visit.  This scrappy, micro-budget black comedy about a couple of rather unsettling grandparents was just what the doctor ordered, introducing us to a Shyamalan who seems to have finally gone back to his roots. Split largely follows that same model, albeit with much darker subject matter. It certainly has a couple powerhouse actors in James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy to its name. All the pieces are in place, which makes it all the more disappointing when Split reveals itself to be an absolute mess.

The story follows Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), three teenage girls who find themselves in a horrific pickle. A man named Kevin (James McAvoy) has abducted and confined them to a small cell in a mysterious fortress. However, Kevin isn’t your average girl-snatcher. He’s a man with 23 different personalities living inside of him, each with their own motivations and relationships with the others. They seem to have taken these girls for some kind of ritual involving ‘The Beast,’ a mysterious 24th persona that the others seem fearful of.

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Shyamalan has set up a very ambitious story here but seems unsure of exactly how to tell it. This becomes an entirely different movie from scene to scene. It’ll go from being a tense abduction thriller to a goofy comedy, to a therapy training video within the span of five minutes. It could be argued that the disjointed structure could be to reflect what’s going on in Kevin’s head, but that never quite comes across. Shyamalan’s writing is so obtuse and vague that nothing grounds this story. None of these characters except Casey feel like real people. They’re either props for McAvoy to play off of, or plot devices to give the audience blatant exposition. We spend a great deal of time with Kevin’s therapist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as she explains Kevin’s disorder to other unimportant characters. There’s even a sequence straight out of Lucy where she is literally giving a ham-fisted lecture on the subject. It’s a film that wants to throw the audience for a loop sometimes only to spoon-feed them at others and the balance never gels.

James McAvoy is one of the finest character actors in the business and he throws himself into Kevin’s many alter-egos with complete conviction. He’s juggling different accents, mentalities, and agendas and does a good job at making them all feel really unique. Even the subtle contortions of his face make all of the difference between the obsessive-compulsive Dennis and the infantile Hedwig. However, Shyamalan never holds McAvoy back. It’s such a constantly showy performance that eventually he goes from being a creepy force of nature to complete cartoon character. It gets a little embarrassing to watch McAvoy devour the scenery after a while. On the flip-side, Anya Taylor-Joy continues her streak of fantastic horror movie turns. While her character is given an overwrought backstory that seems manufactured for shock value, she gives a wisely restrained performance here. She’s so damaged that she can relate to Kevin on some level and watching her try to act as his interpreter and confidant leads to the film’s strongest moments. Meanwhile, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula make no impression at all, while Betty Buckley tries her best to bring some gravitas to a trite cliche of a character.

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While Shyamalan’s script is a hot mess, his direction does manage to keep the film afloat for a little while. This is the most restrained he’s been behind the camera for some time. Employing Mike Gioulakis’ (It Follows) masterfully claustrophobic cinematography, he works with the location to build the tension. Every room in this lair feels like it leads to nowhere. We’re as trapped in here with Kevin as these girls are. It’s actually surprisingly light on horror set pieces, opting more for character moments, which is a strong notion that would work great if the narrative was stronger.

For a while, Split is watchable if nothing else. It all seems to be leading to a payoff that would make or break the entire thing. Then, the third act arrives and completely combusts everything that came before. We’re treated to a ludicrous, left-field reveal that completely betrays the restrained tone that the rest of the film had been building up. It’s not only laughable in its own right but then pulls a set-up right out of its behind that feels insultingly cheap. Obviously, to go any further into it would ruin it, but the third act ultimately struck this movie down into being a flat-out failure.

I admire Shyamalan for trying to do something different with Split. For all of its faults, its a rather uniquely styled film. That said, it also completely defuses any of the tension by being so over-the-top. McAvoy’s commitment to the role ultimately ends up being a major weakness as Keven enters caricature territory. It’s a competent mess for a while but then the abysmal third-act brings it into the realm of complete trash. I’m rooting for Shyamalan and I believe that his new approach to filmmaking will lead to a film that is as great as he clearly hoped Split would be. However, he may want to stick with a story with one coherent personality to get there.

Rating: D+

Lost In London Review

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It was a December evening at the movies like any other. The audience is waiting for the film to start, completely tuning out the Fathom Events promos that run before. All of a sudden, Woody Harrelson pops onto the screen to make a major announcement. He has decided to shoot an entire film in one take and live stream it for audiences around the country. This would be an insane proposition for any director, let alone an actor who is making his first go behind the camera. It was a cinematic high-wire act that I just could not resist. I felt genuinely nervous for Harrelson as Lost in London was about to begin but now that’s it’s all over I have to say – –

He did it.

The film is a semi-autobiographical comedy in which Harrelson plays himself during one of the worst nights of his life. After a performance of a play that he’s not enjoying being in, his wife Laura (Eleanor Matsuura) finds out about a sex scandal that he’s been caught in. Furious, she leaves him alone in London for the night, agreeing to meet with him at midnight to talk things over. Harrelson then falls into a never ending string of disasters as the evening wears on, some of which involve Owen Wilson who has grown tired of his longtime friend’s attitude.

Harrelson has done an astonishing job staging this film. They could’ve easily made this a one room bottle film and have achieved the same goal, but instead, we visit 24 locations through one extended take. We go from restaurants to nightclubs to jail cells and everywhere in between and it feels seamless. This smoothness is all the more impressive considering that most of the sets are in and around one building, as it never feels like we’re being manipulated to hide production transitions. The actors hit most of their marks perfectly, with only one major flub that was only noticeable after the Q&A with Harrelson and his crew. The only major issue is the audio. Since we’re constantly transitioning from inside to outside, each setting has a different resonance. We have sequences inside a massive auditorium that are a bit echoey and traffic in the moments outside that make some of the dialogue inaudible. However, this only becomes a major problem every so often, as the majority of the film takes place in locations where the crew does have control of the audio.

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All of these theatrics would grow stale rather quickly if the film itself wasn’t up to snuff. Fortunately, Lost in London is a biting and often hilarious look into the way society views celebrities, and the way they, in turn, see each other. Harrelson turns all of the story’s guns on himself and gives a strong performance in the process. We find him in a place where he’s not quite a ‘has-been’ but certainly not a major star either. Being in that in-between spot drives him insane and we can feel that frustration pouring out of the screen. Wilson’s relaxed delivery is the perfect counter balance. While he’s not in the film a great deal, the relationship the two of them establish leads to the film’s sharpest moments. It’s hard not to get a few belly laughs out of Harrelson constantly poo-pooing Wes Anderson out of jealousy.

At one point in the film, Harrelson is confused for Woody Allen, fitting considering that his writing often mirrors the sardonic tone of Allen’s strongest work. Every character has so much to say and it’s flying out at a mile a minute. At times it does feel play-like, with gaggles of extended monologues that occasionally enter into ponderous territory. However, the dialogue is so detailed that we get a really strong sense of who even the subliminal characters are, and British character actors Peter Ferdinando, Martin McCann and David Avery revel in chewing up the scenery. This certainly isn’t a subtle film, but there are quieter, more character-driven moments that break up the more theatrical elements.

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Lost In London is one of the only ‘all in one-night’ films that feels like it actually could happen within that short space of time. There is not a wasted second here and it often scores huge laughs as a result. It feels like a scrappier cousin to Birdman in both style and content while still establishing a voice of its own. It’s hard to say if the film will attain a following now that the gimmick has been carried out, but with some cleaning up of rougher technical elements, it certainly has a shot. Harrelson shows great potential as a writer/director and under a more conventional format, he may just make a great film one day. For now, he just has a pretty good one that still presented us with something we’ve never seen before.

Rating: B+

The Bye Bye Man Review

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You toss and turn in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. “I’m terrified,” you think to yourself, “what if somebody walks through the door, and points at me?” You try sitting still, gazing at your wallpaper hoping that it will put you in a hypnotic trance. It doesn’t work. “Any second now, the wallpaper could move a little,” you theorize. Finally, you give up on trying to sleep and turn on the TV. You see The Bye Bye Man on one of the movie channels thinking that it must be a lost episode of Are You Afraid of The Dark. You turn it on, and all of a sudden, all of your worst fears come to life. The pointing, the wallpaper, and an old man in a hoodie accompanied by a hell hound who looks like he was shat out of another dog. There will be no rest for you tonight as you kiss your sanity bye bye.

The Bye Bye Man tells the spine-tingling tale of three college-age intellectual heavyweights who have recently moved into a new home. Elliot (Douglas Smith) is quickly regretting moving in with both his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and his much more attractive friend John (Lucien Laviscount). When he goes up to mope in his room during a party, he finds a piece of paper that reads “don’t think it, don’t say it,” over and over again inside of a nightstand. Unfortunately, the paper both thinks and says “the bye bye man (Doug Jones)” a demonic entity who infects your mind to the point of insanity at the sheer mention of his name. Elliot starts to lose himself as The Bye Bye Man starts lurking his way into his everyday life, eventually forcing his friends into the fray as well.

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One has to wonder, if two male friends use the expression “bye bye man” upon leaving each other’s company, does the man of the hour take that as an invitation? How important is “the” in this equation?

Imagine that Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Ghostface and Pennywise all were high school boys sitting at a lunch table. They’re an inseparable clique, practically a family. They howl at each other’s stories about which teacher they slaughtered that day, happy as clams. The Bye Bye Man is the kid who sits across the table by himself, listening to Limp Bizkit while sipping on a non-alcoholic beer. He stares at this group every day, desperate to be a part of it. Sometimes he even gets up the courage to walk over, but whenever the slasher icons try to talk to him, all he can do is point and run away. This has to be most laughable attempt at a new horror villain in quite some time. This film really wants to sell us on the notion that the sheer idea of this man is what drives the characters insane. However, when we do see him, we never understand why he even bothers them. Sure, he points at you and sits nearby at the library, but that’s not exactly nightmare material.

We certainly don’t care about any of these characters, who are brought to life by three of the worst actors allowed to be in a major film in years. Every line delivery sounds like it is said by people who learned how to talk an hour before shooting. We have a couple veteran actors in Carrie-Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway who show up late in the game, but they’re clearly so embarrassed that it’s hard to get much out of them. As these folks fumble through an abysmal screenplay by Jonathan Penner, one has to wonder if this was based on an elementary school Halloween Pageant.

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Stacy Title’s flat direction certainly doesn’t help matters. She has no eye for what makes a scary sequence, often leading us along in the dark for a few minutes only to show us the lamest payoff imaginable. This is clearly a film cut down from an R-Rating, as there is not a drop of blood when people are hurt or killed. I guess the studio just wanted to provide a safe space for a few teenagers to lose their virginity.

It doesn’t seem humanly possible to make a horror movie this devoid of anything remotely creepy, particularly one that was released in theaters. It takes a character who’s about as intimidating as Barney the Dinosaur, and doesn’t even let him do anything. The only thing this movie will make you scared of is staying awake to watch the rest of it. Unless there are several substances involved, you should let this thing continue to play in empty theaters until it goes – – well, you know.

Rating: F

Patriots Day Review

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Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg have established themselves as the star-crossed lovers of American disaster movies. In Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon they depicted some truly horrific events with unflinchingly tense action and sincere reverence for the real people involved. Patriots Day is the most high profile story they’ve told so told far and as such will be held under the most scrutiny.There’s already been a bout of backlash against Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders, a fictional police officer who anchors the real-life figures who make up the rest of the film. It’s impossible to not take some of this blowback from the city of Boston into account here. They were the ones who experienced it. However, to completely write this movie off would be ignoring some of Berg’s finest filmmaking yet.

The film bounces between several different people who all are at the epicenter of the Boston Marathon Bombing. Saunders is a recently suspended homicide detective who’s pulling grunt duty at the marathon when the bombs go off. Afterward, Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) set up a command center and try to track down the men who pulled off this horrific attack while Watertown police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) awaits orders to begin the manhunt. We also spend some time with the attackers in question, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) Tsarnaev as their foolproof plan starts to crumble around them.

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Not only does Mark Wahlberg give a really strong performance here, but the film doesn’t cater to him as much as it may seem. Yes, Tommy is at the center of the film’s narrative, but he doesn’t take over the story. He gets us into the room where the nonfictional people are taking the real initiative. The film never pretends that Saunders solved the whole crisis just to feed Wahlberg’s ego, it merely brings him and us along for the ride. Goodman, Bacon, and Simmons all bring humanity to their largely procedural roles. We feel the rage and sadness that comes from having the hometown that they were sworn to protect being thrown into such chaos. Meanwhile, Wolff and Melikidze give us a pair of compelling antagonists. Melikidze’s Tamerlan is the alpha dog, who will stop at nothing to carry out his mission while Wolff’s Dzhokhar is just a stupid kid caught in the middle of it. It’s a harsh depiction of these two men, but it has enough depth to keep it from entering xenophobic territory, even if the casting of Alex Wolff is a little scummy). A great deal of attention is paid to the authorities’ fear of jumping to the conclusion of Islamic terrorism for fear of the political fire storm that comes with that, reflecting the film’s more restrained style of flag waving. It is a film about the American people, not America itself.

Berg places us right in the middle of all the mayhem, practically strapping the audience on top of the bombs. He is a master at building tension, playing with our fear of the inevitable. The wait for the explosion during the marathon is excruciating, especially with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ paranoia drenched score underneath. Once the violence strikes, there’s a perfect balance of brutality and restraint. Berg shows us the graphic and often fatal wounds these victims suffered, but he doesn’t linger on them with spurting blood and guts. All of the action sequences here take on that aesthetic, particularly an incredible suburban standoff towards the end of the film. These aren’t invincible action heroes spraying clip after clip in midair. Every bullet feels like it could hit somebody, and Berg masterfully uses the geometry of the street to set up new elements. The community itself is as much a character as anything, with the resilient civilians even acting as soldiers themselves in some instances. We feel like we’re in the fight ourselves, even if that occasionally means getting disoriented by the constantly moving camera. It’s not gratuitously shaky, but occasionally it does get a little lost in all of the mayhem.

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All of this intensity and sincerity should push Patriots Day into being a great film, but unfortunately, the script isn’t quite up to par. There’s a great deal of speechifying about the standard “this is good vs evil, hate is not love, love is not hate,” themes that seep into all too many of these films. So much of the movie does such a great job showing us these values, that it’s a little insulting that it so often needs to stop and tell us about them. There are also a couple of fatty subplots that drag things out over two hours, mostly involving the victims of the attacks. It’s one thing to show little snippets, but we devote several minutes to some of these people. It’s a movie about law enforcement, with little short stories of people lost and reunited awkwardly spliced in between. These victims deserve their own film, and seem to be getting just that with David Gordon Green’s Stronger later this year.

Patriots Day is as robust a showcase for the Wahlberg/Berg collaboration as there likely will be. It’s constantly tense and exciting while not sensationalizing the events to the point of disrespect. It doesn’t feel selfish, telling all sides of the story to the point of it feeling a little clunky at times. It may still understandably be too fresh a wound for some who were actually affected by the catastrophe, but if you can stomach it, it’s a haunting and inspirational gaze backward into one of the darkest weeks in our country’s history.

Rating: A-

Live By Night Review

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Evan as an actor with a decidedly mixed batting average, Ben Affleck has become one of the most respected directors in Hollywood. He gave us two well spun Boston crime webs in Gone Baby Gone and The Town, only to turn around and deliver an equally strong historical thriller in Argo. However, in each of those three films, it was clear that Affleck was still trying to prove just how talented he was behind the lens. After Argo’s Best Picture win, he knows that he’s in the club, and you can start to see that arrogant confidence in Live By Night.

 
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a low-level crook who’s desperately trying to get out of the prohibition-era life of crime as quickly as he can. Unfortunately, he finds himself trapped in a love affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the wife of kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister). White destroys Joe’s life, and after a stint in prison, Joe decides to join up with White’s rival, Maso Piscatory (Remo Girone), who’s cornered the market on Rum in Florida. Joe ends up heading out to The Sunshine State, slowly establishing himself as the enforcer of that sect of the business and becoming a powerful outlaw in his own right.

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This is a lengthy and complex epic with a lot of chess pieces on the table. Affleck is aiming for a Martin Scorsese vibe here, even implementing voice over to string everything together. Unfortunately, Live By Night can only dream of having the energy and focus of movies like Goodfellas and Casino. Where Scorsese’s films feel like one story with a multi-layered narrative, Affleck’s feels like an entire season of television haphazardly crammed into two hours and ten minutes. The structure is largely episodic, with Joe taking on various adversaries in self-contained spurts. Each of these little chunks lightly sets-up the next, but in a way that feels like we should be waiting a week to see how it pays off. Besides Joe, none of these characters are really given the chance to have an arc, because they’re rushed off-screen so quickly to get to the next segment. The connections become so loose, that it’s easy to forget where we even started by the time the film comes to its climax.

 
Since these characters are so paper thin, the cast isn’t really given a chance to bring much to the table. Affleck is a capable leading man but he seems to be somewhere else whenever he’s on-screen. Trying to pull off this insane balancing act while acting at the same time must be incredibly stressful, and it shows. While he’s done solid character work in his other films, Affleck would’ve definitely benefited from using a different actor here. The supporting players are either too subdued or flat-out cartoonish. The other gang members and mobsters, in particular, feel like they’re pulled right out of a Sunday comic from 1930. Matthew Maher’s ridiculously over the top cross-eyed klansman is the worst offender, devouring the scenery like it’s a meal made just for him. Zoe Saldana and Sienna Miller are wasted in one-dimensional love interest roles, while Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper do more subtle work that clashes with the more over the top bits. Elle Fanning gets a couple of strong moments as Cooper’s former drug addict turned preacher daughter who forms a strong uprising against a casino Joe is building. Joe’s choice of whether or not to snuff her out is the most interesting morality play in the film, and they get a couple of strong moments to play off of each other.

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Even with the film’s deep flaws, Affleck’s strong direction saves it from being a total wash. It certainly has the most unique visual style of any of his work. The cinematography has a very picturesque quality to it, with sharp colors and contrasts bleeding through every frame. It looks a living version of a mural you’d see hanging in a restaurant. The production design is beautiful as well, authentic without feeling showy. Every moment of action, large or small, is thrilling. Affleck has a keen eye for blunt violence, making every kill feel painful. It ranges from little murders on the streets. to car chases, to shoot-outs, and it all works. Unfortunately, Affleck’s screenplay is a lot more interested in the most procedural parts of the story. There is an absolute glut of table-set conversations here. In fact, there is so much sitting around that one has to wonder if Affleck just got tired of standing up on the set. Dialogue is absolutely a key part of any crime film, but it needs to be extremely dynamic, and so many scenes here feel exactly the same. It doesn’t help that much of the dialogue is extremely cliched. The film wants to say something new about morality, criminality, and cruelty, but you can practically see it looking over at a better movie’s paper to do so. It often seems as though the characters are more concerned with setting up lines for the trailer than they are for the story.

 
Live By Night is by far Affleck’s weakest and most indulgent film. It wears the clothes and shoots the guns of a great crime film, while unintentionally becoming a parody of itself. With that said, it’s not a total loss. It never stops being great to look at and there are several moments that hint at a better, more streamlined film. However, what we get instead is a bloated mess that can’t decide if it’s a cartoon or a classic, and ends up being neither.

Hidden Figures Review

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The majority of inspirational story movies these days might as well be made in a computer. It’s as safe a bet as they come. Underdogs lose, underdogs win, crowds clap. They’re practically a studio tax write-off at this point. However, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures has a very clear and important mission in mind. The directive: create an inspirational All-American biopic for all the young girls who stayed at home when their fathers and brothers saw Nice Athletes Beat Mean Athletes 7. This isn’t a film about winning, this is a film about scraping your fingers to the bone to do something valuable, even if said work goes unrecognized.

 
Hidden Figures spans the early 1960s during the Space Race, centering on three African American women critical to NASA’s enterprise. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a virtuoso mathematician assigned to be a human calculator for the Space Task Group. She’s a cog in the machine, grinding out equations to the somewhat apathetic eyes of her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and higher-ranking co-worker Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is a tech savvy overseer a group of female number crunchers with ambitions of climbing higher in the administration. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is a gifted engineer desperately trying to go through the red tape needed to do such work for the company. The film mostly focusses on Katherine, with the other ladies’ stories running parallel and occasionally intertwining, as the three are close friends.

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Melfi could have easily coasted on the inherent importance of this story and phoned in a bland effort. Instead, he’s brought these amazing women to life with three pitch-perfect actresses at the top of their game. Henson does what may be her best work yet as Johnson. Many actors who take on ‘misunderstood genius’ roles theatrically infuse the character with social awkwardness. Henson takes an entirely different tact, practically overflowing with charisma in every scene. She’s the most intelligent person in the room and often uses that intellect for sharp humor. It’s great fun to watch her mow over people in higher positions who are clearly far below her league. Spencer is a little more reserved, with a more potent animosity for the people who have held her down. She’s somebody looking for the perfect opportunity to stand up for herself. Monáe brings a sharp determination to Jackson that’s so compelling, that it’s a little disappointing that most of her material seems to be on the cutting room floor. In fact, the three ladies aren’t on screen together as much as one may think, which is a shame, as their chemistry is electric.

 
Unfortunately, many of the supporting players do get lost behind our three wonderful leads. Kevin Costner might as well be checking his watch as he sighs through the mentor character we’ve seen him play hundreds of times. Harrison does get a few strong moments, but they are by virtue of the script, not Costner. Kirsten Dunst puts on what may be the worst on-screen southern accent in years as an administrator who’s trying her best to regulate Spencer. Parsons’ Paul Stafford is a sniveling brat who isn’t particularly dynamic, becoming a more of a stepping stone than a character by the halfway point. The only one who really shines is Mahershala Ali, who brings a warm charm to Henson’s love interest.

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This is a highly conventional movie, but what saves it from feeling trite is a sharp screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. A story so full of procedural discussions about equations and mechanics could easily wear out its welcome. As such, the script works overtime to make sure every scene is filled with crackling dialogue. It also intelligently avoids making anybody into a mustache twirling comic strip racist. Most of the white characters are people who have nothing personal against African Americans but are simply so accustomed to how things are that they don’t have it in them to be different. It’s a nuance that extends to even the less well-realized characters, giving the whole film an extra layer of realism. Melfi’s NASA feels like a real workplace, with people desperately trying to get along and work together despite their societal biases.

 
At the end of this film, I looked to my right and saw a preteen girl sitting with her father. They both seemed delighted, but the look in the girl’s eyes warmed my heart. She seemed genuinely inspired by what she had just seen. Hidden Figures certainly isn’t going to win any praise for originality. However, that standard structure is built as meticulously as a rocket ship, with each piece designed to be as robustly entertaining and empowering as possible. In a world where most fantasy superheroes are male, it’s high time we start telling the stories of some real life heroines who are just as mighty.

Rating: A-

A Monster Calls Review

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J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls is a prolific medley of traditional fable and ‘boy and his monster’ tropes. It’s a Grimm fairy tale retelling of E.T, if the extra terrestrial were a nightmare fuel version of The Giving Tree. Bayona doesn’t so much aim to re-invent these beats so much as to meticulously implement them to wind up an emotional haymaker. Evoking Spielberg can be quite the risk, as it can be either highly successful via Stranger Things or reach Super 8 levels of obvious mimicry. On the eve of his Jurassic World sequel, Bayona could use a few positive comparisons to Spielberg. He’s certainly off to a strong start with the casting. For as much as we lament about different ethnic and social groups being represented on film, you can’t say that the giant tree demographic has been ignored. They’re even spanning genres now. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot had comedic timing to spare, but this hardwood thespian is out to prove that trees have dramatic chops as well.

The story centers on Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), an imaginative and artistic young boy forced into a living nightmare. He’s on the verge of losing his beloved mother (Felicity Jones) to terminal cancer that refuses to subside despite a number of treatments. Terrified of both his mother’s passing and the possibility of living with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Conor goes into his mind to give. There, he conjures up a fantasy of a hulking tree beast (Liam Neeson), who decides to tell Conor three tales in exchange for a recount of the nightmare that won’t subside.

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A Monster Calls is a story that needs to very delicately balance its sappy and foreboding elements. If one is out of whack, we won’t believe the other. Fortunately, Bayona is becoming quite acute at just that. His viciously intense disaster film, The Impossible, never forgot that the bonds of family are far more important than seeing people get swept up by water. A Monster Calls never quite enters that level of physical danger, but the emotional trauma being dealt with here is very raw indeed.  Both Conor and the audience need a constant outlet of escape, and Bayona provides just that through his visuals. The entire film takes on a distinctly storybook esque look. It almost seems as though every room or landscape could have been drawn with the same pencils that Conor uses in his pictures. There’s absolutely no attempt to make the monster look real. He’s a figment, and his design is exaggerated as such. We’re also given a bit of eye candy in the tales he tells, as they’re depicted through stunning animated sequences stylistically reminiscent of the tale of the Deathly Hallows from the final Harry Potter films.

Since the entire thematic arc of the film rests on the psychosis of a child, an inauthentic actor could easily wreck this whole affair. That pressure makes Lewis MacDougall’s breakout performance all the more special. He brings a potent maturity to Conor, a boy with a very childlike mind who’s had to grow up all too fast. He’s a solid anchor for the whole film, but as he comes to his therapeutic epiphanies through his outings with the monster, MacDougall hits a couple of the most authentically heartbreaking notes I’ve ever seen out of a child actor. Felicity Jones also shines as a woman with too much love to give and all too little time to give it. Watching her decay from a vibrant and positive person into a shell of herself is almost as rough for us as it is for Conor. Liam Neeson is both terrifying and tender under all of that bark. The monster is certainly far from the most fleshed out CGI character in the world, but Neeson’s playful delivery ensures that he’s never generic. The only one who struggles a little is Sigourney Weaver. While she can play cold and strict with the best of them, she’s battles a horrific British accent that is clearly the product of a simple miscast.

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Even with the immense talent on both ends of the camera, A Monster Calls is often at the mercy of its screenplay by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the young adult novel on which the film is based. Since we’re revolving things around the monster’s three stories, the plot structure becomes incredibly rigid. We know exactly where we are in the plot simply by counting how many times we’ve seen the creature, and the dynamic between Conor and his new friend becomes a little predictable after a while. Extenuating said predictability are some laughably trite moments of dialogue that read as though they were copied off of a web generator of touching movie phrases. We’re stuck with a great deal of these sigh-inducing moments in the first act before the monster shows up, keeping the film from really gaining momentum for a while. However, all of the elements do eventually start to come together and then coalesce into a devastatingly touching final twenty minutes. It’s not an unpredictable ending by any means, but the earnest execution may be enough to make a even a regular tree cry. 

Even with a fair few moments of hokey storytelling, A Monster Calls is still a deeply moving little fable. It’s the kind of world-weary film that kids should be exposed to once and a while, tackling some deeply disturbing themes in a more approachable way. In fact, this could be a highly therapeutic story for any child who’s had the misfortune of losing a parent. Its effectiveness as a parable often overrides its flaws as a film, with Bayona crafting a story with an emotional core that’s as strong as oak. Best of luck with the dinosaurs my friend, you’ve earned some fun.

Rating: B+

Lion Review

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Barring a couple exceptions, American audiences generally don’t go for foreign films, especially when they chronicle harrowing subject matter. Prescribing a reason for this is pointless, as there certainly isn’t some nefarious motive behind this alienation. There just isn’t a market for these stories here. However, there is plenty of room for inspirational true tales of underdogs who triumph over adversity to swelling music and all that hubbub. With Lion, Garth Davis has created a Sunday-Night Sampler of these two styles. For all intents and purposes, he’s fused together two different short films to tell the tale of Saroo Brierley.

The first half of the film centers on Saroo (Sunny Pawar) as a young boy in India. When his brother Gaddu (Abhishek Bharate) brings Saroo along on a trip to find work, the two are separated in the middle of the night. Little Saroo finds himself on a train headed for Calcutta, where he is stranded for an extended period. However, he finds himself in luck when an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) bring him into their home. Saroo grows into a well adjusted young man (as Dev Patel takes over the role) who despite having lived a privileged life, is desperate to find the family he lost all those years ago.

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Davis has no qualms with depicting the hardships that young Saroo is forced to face, putting us in the shoes of a small child lost in a world he doesn’t understand. He paints the streets of Calcutta as crowded and cutthroat. We can barely see over taller people’s heads as Saroo evades one danger after another. There is barely a safe patch of dirt for him to sleep on. These sequences are not only extremely visceral, but are presented entirely in Bengali and Hindi. It’s a intense and compromise-free first half.

This portion of the film is carried handily by Sunny Pawar, who has outclassed 2016 turns by actors decades older than him here. He draws us in right away with pure adorable innocence and then completely sells the instant transition into maturity that he has to make. In only a few minutes, the rapport between him and his brother is utterly lovable, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when it’s torn apart. Even when he’s not saying a word, there isn’t a moment where we don’t feel his pain. We can’t imagine anything gruesome happening to this poor kid, which makes the white-knuckle suspense all the more potent.

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Then we transition into Saroo’s adult life with his new family, and the film takes on a decidedly different tone. While the emotional authenticity remains the same, everything starts to feel a bit more like a conventional biopic. We see Saroo in a much more prosperous position, in which he has far more agency in tracking down his home. What makes it work is the subtle and powerful performance by Dev Patel. With a thick Australian accent and those luscious locks, Patel disappears into the role. Saroo’s anxiety now comes less from danger, and more from separation from that danger. That may seem benign and is to a certain extent, but Patel’s work continues to keep us holding on. Kidman also shines as Saroo’s all too earnest adoptive mother, a devoted caregiver who desperately wants to help people beyond her circle of affluence. This is critically important, as in the wrong hands this relationship could have come off as a trite ‘white savior’ narrative straight out of The Blind Side. Thankfully, for as conventional as Lion gets, it never quite enters that territory.

Where the film starts to run into problems is in prioritizing the elements of Saroo’s college years to focus on. A great deal of time is spent with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and frankly, she couldn’t be less interesting. Mara does what she can, but the part is criminally underwritten. She exists entirely to further Saroo’s arc, with no district personality of her own. One minute she’s caressing Saroo in bed while telling him that she’s there for him no matter what, the next she’s caressing Saroo in bed while telling him that she feels ignored. Are you bored yet?

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Meanwhile, there’s a much more compelling relationship set-up with Saroo’s adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who suffers from severe mental illness, that the film decides to completely ignore. We hear that Saroo is protective of him, but we never see that in action. Whenever Mantosh is on-screen he seems to only serve as a cheap emotional punchline. It’s a baffling choice, as the contrast between the two brotherly relationships should be the thematic centerpiece of the film. It wreaks of studio interference and ultimately wastes a lot of time. Davis does bring the film to a deeply touching and tender conclusion, though, which makes some of the more superfluous elements seem worth it.

Lion has moments of ferocious power, particularly in the first half. When we’re in Calcutta with young Saroo, it makes a strong case for being one of 2016’s best films. However, while the second half is still enjoyable, it’s sullied a little by conventional elements that are below the story the film is telling. At the end of the day, Davis succumbs to making the kind of film that ends with a fun little Sia pop song, which may make for a more palatable movie, but it keeps it short of being a great one. Seriously, though, what movie doesn’t have a Sia single over the credits these days?

Rating: B

The 10 Worst Movies Of 2016

There I was, a 20-year-old man waiting for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows to begin. When the day started this just seemed like yet another dumb summer movie, but then a devastating thought occurred to me. I was spending my entire summer watching terrible film after terrible film. In that moment, I pondered giving up film criticism altogether. Alas, here I am, barely. Despite redeeming itself a bit towards the end, 2016 brought about a seemingly endless onslaught of brain dead garbage. We had stale sequels, baffling passion projects, and disheartening dreck galore, and today is the day that I have my revenge. Get ready folks, because the Turtles who almost broke me didn’t even make the list.

10. Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon

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The Neon Demon is a whole lot better than Refn’s previous effort, Only God Forgives, and it’s still absolutely terrible. Refn is undeniably a singular stylist, with Drive and Bronson standing as wonderfully bizarre near masterpieces. However, both of those films had source material to hold him back, and when he’s left to his own devices he goes hog wild with masturbatory pretension. Here, he’s crafted a story that on paper could have so much to say about the perception of women in modern society. How they’re expected to be perfect, to the point where they’re essentially turned into subhumans. He even starts things off strong, tricking us into thinking that he just might bring us the Black Swan for the fashion industry. Then the third act comes, and the film swings so wildly off the rails that any artistic tools used before are knocked over to create an ugly mush on the floor. It certainly gets points for atmosphere (bolstered by a brilliant score by Cliff Martinez) but reveals itself to be such a maddening mess that it brings itself into company that Refn is clearly above. It’s time to adapt something again, my friend. I’m rooting for you.

9. Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne

Jesus Christ it’s Jason Bourne.

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Imagine that Matt Damon and Jason Bourne were in an almost decade long relationship. Together, they re-defined each other, often for the better. Everything was great until it wasn’t. Through The Bourne Ultimatum, they took one last amazing trip together, getting everything out of their system before admirably parting ways. Matt wins the breakup, going on to numerous successes, one of which landed him an Oscar nomination. Jason Bourne tried another relationship with Jeremy Renner, but his heart wasn’t in it. After a few years of being single, he calls Matt Damon for coffee to “catch up.” This film is the boring, awkward one night stand that comes after, after which Matt Damon slowly slips out of bed while Jason Bourne is still asleep. Everybody involved in Jason Bourne seems as though they were forced at gunpoint to be there. Paul Greengrass, who is nothing short of a genius on his best day, seems intent on burying this franchise for good with his uninspired direction. It’s more of people in suits pulling up computer screens with a red dot on a map that reads “Bourne,” mean looking men going to find him, resulting in them getting punched in the face. When you’re in the middle of a ten-minute motorcycle chase through the crowded streets of Greece, and the leading man looks like he’s about to pass out, how can you not do the same?

8. Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers

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I cannot tell you how desperate I am to love Kevin Smith’s movies. When he’s not making films, I can’t get enough of the guy. He’s so utterly genuine. However, part of that down to Earth persona is his persistent acknowledgment that he is not the greatest director in the world. Personally, I’ve found his comedies rather underwhelming, but was rather impressed with him breaking out of his comfort zone by veering into horror with Red State and Tusk. So much for that. Yoga Hosers, which spins off Tusk’s three most irritating characters, is Smith passively giving up and releasing a home movie in theaters. I would be willing to perhaps get past the evil sausages played by Smith if his two leads, played by Harley Quinn Smith and Lilly Rose Depp were given even a shred of something to do. I have nothing against these two girls, they even manage to wring some moments of chemistry out of this slog. However, this is clearly a screenplay written by a man in his mid-forties desperately trying to understand teenage girls. Oh, and did I mention that Johnny “How Actively Unbearable Can I Be In This Movie?” Depp spends a large section of the runtime making an Oscar campaign for Steve Martin’s Inspector Clouseau seem like a plausible notion. Kevin, perhaps you should film Moose Jaws on your Flip Cam, show it to your family, and spare us the cash, eh?

7. Ben Stiller’s Zoolander 2

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This one is all our fault. The original Zoolander was a hilariously zany piece of bubblegum with endless quotability. It still holds up today, but that wasn’t enough. We begged him for a sequel for over a decade. It didn’t matter what else he was doing, including the flat-out brilliant Tropic Thunder. “Zoolander 2, Zoolander 2, Zoolander 2!” shouted the hordes. Stiller commendably dodged this pressure for so long. He knew what this would be, but we just kept poking him. So he made it, presumably so that we could finally shut up about it. Notice how not a single person has asked him for Zoolander 3.

6. Edward Zwick’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

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The first Jack Reacher looked atrocious, and I say that as a massive Tom Cruise fan. He just seemed bored in what appeared to be a rejected Bourne script. Shockingly, that was not the case in the slightest. Writer/Director Christopher Mcquarrie took what could’ve been a dime store action movie and turned it into a burly little film in which Cruise actually really shined as the subdued, no-nonsense Reacher. Five years later, we get Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Once again, the trailers looked like garbage. “Ne’er worry my friends,” I said, “Our old pal Jack simply plays a fool for the trailers.” Nope. Much like our pal Matt Damon, Cruise may as well be looking at his phone for a call from Doug Liman as he slogs through a flat diet soda version of the first film. However, where Jason Bourne was just lifeless, Never Go Back is utterly insulting. When Cruise manages to get through airport security with a fake passport picture that appears to be a picture of a 20-year-old Abercrombie model, this series died peacefully in his arms.

5. Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed

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4 years ago, Michael Fassbender signed on to lead an Assassin’s Creed film produced in part by Ubisoft. Having the developer play a major role in the film’s development seemed like a promising step forward for video game movies, especially with an incredible talent like Fassbender. Perhaps this could’ve been the first good one. What we get instead is a 125 million dollar fan film, if the fan in question was actively trying to ensure that nothing with the name Assassin’s Creed would ever see the light of day again. This is a film with no interest in making its’ “The Matrix but they stab instead of shoot” premise approachable to anyone who hasn’t played the games. Believe me, nobody is going to start after watching this mess, which reduces the virtual field trip into the Spanish Inquisition into 3 quick montages of blurry, bloodless action. Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of scenes with characters walking around a dark gray base, frowning at each other.  About halfway through the film, Michael Fassbender starts deliriously belting Patsy Cline’s Crazy as he’s literally dragged into the second “run run jump jump” scenario, and by that point, I considered joining him. The sad part? That is only the second most embarrassing scene involving Michael Fassbender in 2016.   

4. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad

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Most of the movies on this list weren’t exactly surprisingly bad, perhaps just disappointing at worst. Suicide Squad wasn’t just terrible, Suicide Squad broke my heart. Just when comic book movies were starting to seem a little stale, this looked like a brand new recipe. An edgy, Dirty Dozen-esque team up of super villains? Sign me up, especially after the incredible Bohemian Rhapsody trailer. 

Upon leaving the theater, I was genuinely unsure of what the hell I had just witnessed. David Ayer, a director who had proven himself with the excellent End of Watch and Fury, had wiped himself with the DC Extended Universe and flushed it into theaters. This is an ugly looking, poorly written and often utterly nonsensical film. It takes characters with so much potential and throws them into a Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark spooky witch story that mostly involves them running around on one city block. They’re so generically realized that the script has to constantly remind us that they’re bad guys. Sure, Will Smith, Jai Courtney, and the criminally wasted Margot Robbie have some fun moments but the movie does everything in its power to hold them back. Then, of course, there’s Jared Leto’s much buzzed-about turn as The Joker. Going into this film, I quite liked Jared Leto. Now, I could never see him in a movie again and it would be too soon. If they don’t recast him and give Margot Robbie a worthy Joker to play off of next time, they’re dooming any Gotham set DC film.

3. Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse

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Just when the X-Men series seemed to come roaring back to life with Days of Future Past and Deadpool, Apocalypse spends over two hours re-burying it. After finally finding the perfect balance of humor and drama in his previous effort, Singer returns to his previous model of tone-deaf comic book films. In introducing a new generation of mutants (or a recast generation) Singer gives these fresh actors nothing to do while flat out humiliating his veterans. Oscar Isaac, in particular, should delete Singer’s number after being forced to walk around looking a mascot for a condom brand while snarling all his lines in cheesy cartoon fashion.

Singer also gives us the year’s single worst scene, once again involving our friend Michael Fassbender. For the film’s first major destruction set-piece, what better place is there than Auschwitz? As Fassbender crumbled the concentration camp to the ground, all I could wonder is if this script went through a single person before it was shot. I can’t even do Power Rangers: Holocaust Force any justice. Take a look for yourself.

2. Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog

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There’s a pretentious fallacy that film students have in their first year that depressing equals art, even if nothing happens. Todd Solondz seemingly never broke out of that, delivering one of the strangest excuses for an anthology I’ve ever seen. Each of the four stories has at least one moment of utterly nonsensical screenwriting. We have a scene in which Julie Delpy describes to her 8-year-old son a dog in her old neighborhood who would rape the other dog, Ellen Burstyn talking to a bunch of creepy little girl clones of herself and a two minute tracking shot of runny dog shit on the street. Despite having so many threads, it’s a film with no point. I’m sure if you asked Solondz, he would say that is the point. All I know is that I had to spend two hours inside his head and it was utterly yawn inducing. Oh yeah, there’s a cute dog in it. You occasionally see him walking around, or something. Aww.

  1. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation

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I cannot remember the last time I saw a film as utterly despicable as The Birth of a Nation. Nate Parker, who directs and stars, has turned what could’ve been a stirring tribute to one of slavery’s most iconic figures into an arrogant vanity project. He doesn’t care about the atrocities themselves, those are just set dressing. He wants an excuse to paint himself as a hero, a brave filmmaker who makes himself a martyr for one of the darkest periods in American history. That attempt only comes off as pathetic when you watch his cheap looking, emotionally barren, and exploitative film. It seems a little strange to watch an alleged rapist play out his fantasy of avenging the rape of Nat Turner’s wife. However, then you realize that the rape of Nat Turner’s wife was a fabrication of Parker’s screenplay, at which point I almost vomited. This film made me actively uncomfortable, and not in the way it wanted to. 

Dishonorable Mentions: The Darkness, Norm of The North, Office Christmas Party, Masterminds, The Legend of Tarzan, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Warcraft, Sully, Keanu, Independence Day: Resurgence, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows