Sold for a record $17.5 million at the Sundance Film Festival, there were big expectations for the Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation. Writer/director/actor Nate Parker was the toast of the town and the studio had its sights set clearly for a fall release and a big Oscar push. Then came the revelation from Parker’s past linking him to an accusation of sexual assault (it should be noted he was acquitted of the charge, though it should also be noted the woman declined to continue pressing charges during the second trial). Suddenly the Oscar hopes for Birth of a Nation were put into a tailspin and journalists were wondering if this salient news would provide older Oscar voters just the excuse they needed not to watch the movie. After having finally seen the film for myself, I can attest that this movie wasn’t going to go far into the Oscar race anyway. My friend Ben Bailey said it best as we walked out of The Birth of a Nation, making an apt comparison to the 2013 Best Picture Winner: “12 Years a Slave was a better movie made from a less interesting story; and this is a more interesting story but given a much lesser movie.”
In 1830, Nat Turner (Parker) is earning extra money for his friendly slave owner (Armie Hammer) as a preacher, convincing slaves on other plantations to work harder and obey their cruel masters. He reaches a breaking point and organizes a revolt, violently killing the same plantation owners that kept them in bondage. Nat felt his revolt could be the catalyst for slaves all over, but it was put down by overwhelming forces two days later.
Nat Turner is a historical figure extremely deserving of a big Hollywood spotlight. The problem is that Parker’s movie feels like the arthouse version of the Hollywood Martyr Blockbuster, a field popularized by director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond). This thing checks just about all the formula boxes you’d expect by showing the arc of a character called into action, forced to take a stand against an exploited people and series of injustices, and the eventual death for the cause. It’s meant to be inspirational but that sense of inspiration can be capped when you see the machinations. All storytelling at some level is about pulling the strings of an audience, but the storyteller must do their best to make this as nonobservant as possible so as not to disturb the experience. Parker doesn’t have that skill quite yet, either as a director or as a screenwriter.
His movie kept my interest but I felt oddly removed from it, unable to fully absorb the characters, which should never happen in a revolt against slavery. Case in point, we know how the movie is going to end so Parker needs to engineer something of a win for Nat, and that’s where Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), nasty slave catcher, comes in handy as a conquerable antagonist. He ends up being the man responsible for chasing Nat’s father away, so it’s even more personal. During their final fight, Cobb implausibly wrestles atop a struggling Nat (this guy has to be at least 60 years old and it’s Haley, not Stallone). Parker even includes the knife that’s just… out… of… reach. I rolled my eyes. Parker shouldn’t have to resort to these tactics to rouse his audience, and as stated above, they’re just too nakedly transparent in their formula machinations. I wanted more suspense sequences like during the opening when Nat’s grandmother has to think on her feet to conceal contraband, smart uses of dramatic irony and ratcheting up the tension. The movie is structured too narrowly as Nat’s call to action, but Parker seems preoccupied with hitting all these other checkmarks to fully open him up as a human being.
Structurally, this movie is amiss because we don’t need 90 minutes to justify why slaves would violently revolt against their masters. The best part of Birth of a Nation is its final act when the revolts come and the slave owners get what they have coming. Some will equivocate that not all slave owners abused and terrorized their slaves to the same degree of abject cruelty, but the very nature of owning another human being is an assault on fundamental morality. 12 Years a Slave had an excellent 15-minute section where it disproved the notion of the “good slave owner” with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Even he too was corrupted because the institution of slavery is a corrupting agency. What that movie was able to communicate in 15 minutes is what The Birth of a Nation takes 90 minutes to do the same. The entire movie should have been the slave revolts with some choice flashbacks interspersed to give the movie even better context for the personal animosities against specific slave owners. That way we can better explore the emotional side of Nat Turner and his company without resorting to extended degradation. Parker deserves some credit for being very tasteful in his depiction of the brutality against slaves and the heavy heart of aiding and abetting an unjust system. It doesn’t whitewash, so to speak, the horror of slavery but also refrains from exploiting tragedy for easy gains. With that being said, and I may be alone in this observation, but I found it a bit peculiar that the sexual violence committed against women seems to be primarily framed as how it impacts the male characters, making them sad or angry at the mistreatment of their women. I may be over-analyzing this but it happens twice and stuck out to me. The structure of the movie does a disservice to the emotional power it demands, and Parker should have shown us the bloody campaign rather than the lead-up to the campaign.
Parker also shows some noticeable shortcomings when it comes to directing his fellow actors. His performance is a highlight and his moments where he’s trying to hold back the tide of mixed emotions working for the slave owners and using Scripture to justify the worst of the worst. This is a great showcase for Parker as an actor of suitable range. It’s not a great showcase for any other actor. The performances are a bit big when needing restraint, and a bit broad when nuance would be required. There’s no character that even comes close to the deeply wounding impressions left by the brilliant Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender from 12 Years a Slave. Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) is given one note to play after the first act and that is aspiring drunk. I don’t know if there’s a scene where he isn’t accompanied by some bottle. It’s meant to communicate his increasing sense of shame he has to excuse, but it’s also a fairly facile acting crutch. The women in the film come across as angelic (there’s even a vision of an actual angel in the film) or maternally strong as steel. The lack of variance becomes frustrating, as it seems that Nat Turner is the only character, and by extension actor, allowed depth. You’ll enjoy the actors on screen but be scratching your head to recall anything memorable.
The Birth of a Nation is very purposely meant to evoke the title of the famous 1915 D.W. Griffith movie, the world’s first film blockbuster and also virulently racist to its core. It’s about the formation of the Klu Klux Klan in a Reconstruction era to save all the honorable white people from the new hordes of wanton free slaves. It’s deeply offensive though an undeniable touchstone in the history of narrative filmmaking. I was looking for some kind of larger thematic connection beyond slavery but it seems that Parker’s movie is meant to be a reclamation of the title. There’s a moment at the very end that made me think that there was another possibility (spoilers). As Nat Turner is executed, one of the last images is a close-up on the face of a young teenage slave who witnesses his death. The camera then pulls out and that boy has aged into a man and is fighting with a battalion of other black soldiers during the Civil War (the movie literally becomes Glory!). I was wondering if we were going to continue skipping forward in time, next to the Civil Rights marches, next to protests against police brutality in the modern era, so that Parker was drawing a direct line from the experiences of old and how they have shaped the America of today, the birth of our current national racial injustices. This doesn’t happen, unfortunately. The Civil War flash forward is the only jump in time.
I’ve been critiquing Nate Parker’s movie for the majority of this review and I don’t want to leave you, dear reader, with the false impression that this is a bad movie; overrated and slightly disappointing, yes, but not bad. If it didn’t sound like faint praise I would say that The Birth of a Nation is a perfectly fine movie. It held my attention though I kept thinking of other ways this movie could have improved, from a restructured plot that begins with the slave revolts, to more attention to the supporting characters, to less fidelity to the patented formula of the Great Martyr Biopic. This was a passion project for Parker and took him over six years to complete. Walking out of my theater, I simply didn’t feel like that same passion was evident on the screen.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Years after the events from Olympus Has Fallen, Secret Service agent Mike Banner (Gerard Butler) is escorting President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) to London to attend a funeral. It’s there where chaos strikes and Muslim terrorists, disguised as British agents and local police, unleash a series of attacks and explosions throughout the city. Mike is able to rescue the president but the two are essentially in enemy territory looking for an escape, and the terrorists have seized London and plan on executing President Asher live on the Internet for his drone strikes in the Middle East.
The first mission for an action movie is to entertain with its action sequences, and it is here where London Has Fallen falls. The budget has been reported as high as $100 million dollars, and if this is true it may be the biggest waste of $100 million dollars I’ve ever seen on film. The movie just looks cheap. The locations (Bulgaria often doubling for London) look too vague and interchangeable with empty streets. Also, for a city that has over ten million inhabitants, why are these streets so empty? There were people milling about outdoors after 9/11, and the president wasn’t rumored to be somewhere on the streets in that scenario. Another sign of the movie’s cheapness: I’m certain that the shots of the emergency vehicles in London were stock footage. Now this wouldn’t be the first film to pad its establishment scenes with purchasable B-roll footage, but the offense is simply how poorly the movie is at hiding this fact. The footage is clearly from a lower video/film quality and not referenced as a media perspective, so the quality of the movie will suddenly drop for a brief few seconds to watch a cadre of ambulances race off. But back to these lackluster action sequences. There are very few variations on the standard run-and-shoot variety with little regards to geography. The initial escape from the first attack has some sizzle but it devolves into a series of chases and stands being made in small locations. The final assault on the bad guy’s compound unfolds as a tracking shot to kick things off and it’s here that you get a full sense of the movie’s limited ambitions. The action isn’t accelerated or given a visceral kick from the long take; it’s just guys shooting off screen, walking, shooting, with the occasional explosion. There’s no added benefit from the tracking shot, and yet somebody must have thought it would be so cool to do so and patted themself on the back.
Another issue is that Butler’s character is nearly indestructible and without any vulnerability. Olympus Has Fallen didn’t wow me but it hewed closed to the Die Hard plot points and that’s a great formula to model your action movie after. In that scenario, Mike Banning was outnumbered and had to rely upon his stealth to be most effective. In the sequel, Mike has to protect the president but it’s really just the story of two buds running from place to place, having the occasional chat, and then Mike easily murdering any slew of bad guys, then repeat until the climax. It doesn’t make use of locations enough to cast out the sinking feeling of redundancy. Repetitive action sequences rely upon the concept of “more is better” when what we really demand is “more but different.” The best action movies are the ones where each sequence can stand on its own, push the story forward, makes smart use of its geography, and develops organically. There just aren’t enough of these in London Has Fallen. Our lead character is boring because he is never seen in a vulnerable position. He is told how outnumbered he is and his quippy reply is a trailer-ready line: “You should have brought more men.” This guy doesn’t sweat and only growls and stabs (lots of stabbing in this) and the R-rated violence does little to give this man anything resembling a personality. Mike is a dullard, and his personal arc of whether or not he’ll turn in his resignation from the Secret Service is one of the least believable moments of indecision you’ll ever witness. Gee, I wonder if Stabby McLoves to Stab is going to step away from his stab-heavy vocation.
With the action failing, it becomes even more apparent, and shockingly so, just how unpleasantly xenophobic and grotesque the movie’s overall political message becomes, so much so that you’d have to imagine a contingent of Trump supporters watching with baited breath and cheering mindlessly. It’s not uncommon for the bad guys in Hollywood action films to be darker-hued foreigners, so that wasn’t exactly something shocking, and the movie opens with a stab at creating a legitimate and politically pertinent grievance, a drone strike with unexpected collateral damage that obliterates a wedding party. The bad guys here have a cause that at least goes beyond blind ideology, though perhaps vengeance is actually a lesser motivation than something larger akin to ideology. They aren’t really fleshed out beyond this simple concept of vengeance or given anything larger to play with because they’re simply just villainous cardboard cutouts. And yet, most of this is expected with the territory of a typical action thriller. It’s when London Has Fallen decides to go the extra ugly mile when the movie starts becoming something far more unseemly and uncomfortable. I’m not expecting the most culturally nuanced portrayal of geo-politics, but this movie is practically a campaign ad for anti-Muslim nationalism. Our hero brutally stabs a nondescript bad guy and definitely enjoys inflicting pain. He kills another guy while screaming, “Go back to Fuckheadistan” (note to the geographically challenged: not a real standing nation as of this writing). Then it’s not enough that our hero is beating our secondary villain, he also has to deliver a speech about America’s standing and just what these pesky terrorists will never understand: “100 years later, we’ll still be here, and you’ll be dead.” What highlights these moments is that there aren’t any other political aspects in this movie, even a scant dismissive comment on something like gun control, so it feels like London Has Fallen has purposely chosen to highlight this anger and distrust of foreigners with its hero. It comes across like giving voice and credence to your crackpot uncle who, naturally, is voting for Trump to sweep them illegals and dusky-faced folk from the borders of ‘Merica.
There’s an ongoing subplot in London Has Fallen that answers the question of how many Oscar nominees can you cram into a room and waste their talents. The answer, it would appear, is four, folks. Interspersed between Mike and the president on the run is Vice President Morgan Freeman (yes he has a character name but it’s really VP Morgan Freeman) deliberating in the White House with the assembled cabinet. There’s Melissa Leo (The Fighter) returning as the Secretary of Defense, Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as a general, and Jackie Earl Haley (Little Children) as DC… something. Every time the movie has to cut back to this room full of wasted talent you’re reminded just how sad this movie is becoming. These characters don’t even have any larger bearing on the plot or any agency into the ongoing conflicts. Instead they are presented as exposition devices and reaction shots. These are some terrific thespians, including two Oscar winners, and here they are barking exposition or delivering forlorn reaction shots. We have four Oscar nominees and they’re stuck in a room, looking horrified into the camera lens, and slowly uttering lines like, “My God.” I do not begrudge actors taking paycheck roles (everybody’s got bills to pay) but this entire scenario is just an insulting waste of time.
Nobody is going to argue that Olympus Has Fallen was one of the greater works of cinema but it was a mildly enjoyable action thriller that was diverting enough to remind its rowdy audience of the Cannon genre films of the 80s. It was bloody, brutal, and fitfully entertaining (my preference was the other 2013-Die–Hard-in-a-White-House flick, White House Down). It was good enough, mostly because it hugged Die Hard closely and repeated the same plot mechanics to success. Now on its own, the sequel has to manufacture its own plotline and it doesn’t fare as well. Director Antoine Fuqua didn’t want to return for the sequel after reading the script, and this is a guy who made King Arthur and Shooter. Shooter, people! His replacement is an Iranian-born filmmaker, which just adds another level of questions for the finished product, and make no mistake, London Has Fallen is just that – product. It’s not really meant to be savored or enjoyed so much as it is processed and consumed and forgotten. The action doesn’t work well and is poorly orchestrated, often repetitive, the characters are boring, the villains are one-note, the capable actors are wasted, the overt political messages that continuously emerge are ugly and pointedly xenophobic, and the end even turns a drone strike, the same tool we saw wipe out an innocent wedding gathering to open the movie, into a crowd-pleasing climactic moment of payback. London Has Fallen is a misguided nationalistic action movie and then some.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Steven Spielberg’s long in the works biopic of Abraham Lincoln could have easily been retitled, The Thirteenth Amendment: The Movie, such is the narrow band of focus. Lincoln is an engrossing, handsomely mounted study in the political machinations that went into passing the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery. Unless you’re a fan of history of politics, I can’t imagine that this movie is going to prove that engaging for you. This is a big movie about Big Moments with lots of people with beards giving speeches. Daniel Day-Lewis does a tremendous job as our titular sixteenth president, giving the man more foibles and traces of humanity than I can remember from any screen portrayal. Liam Neeson (The Grey) had long been attached to be Spielberg’s Lincoln, but I cannot fathom any other actor in the role after seeing Day-Lewis’s amazing work. I think he’s a shoo-in for his third Oscar. It’s intriguing to witness what a political animal Lincoln was, able to play off different sides to get his way. In the end, you may even feel a stir of patriotic pride, inspired by the good that government can grant with the right leaders for the right causes. The supporting cast all provide great performances, from Sally Field as the volatile Mrs. Lincoln, to James Spader as a conniving lobbyist, to Tommy Lee Jones as a stubborn curmudgeon… so basically Tommy Lee Jones. Just about every speaking part is a recognizable character actor. Who’s going to turn down the prospect of a Spielberg Lincoln movie? The tighter window of focus allows the movie greater depth as an important political juncture in our nation’s history, but Lincoln could have also been the 19th century equivalent of that Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill.” This is an easy movie to admire but I think a more difficult film to love, to fully embrace.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Dark Shadows was a daytime soap that aired for only a brief period of time as far as soaps are concerned, 1966-1971, but it was enough to make a lasting impression. The supernatural soap featured vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night, entangled in high-stakes drama and romantic excursions – it was the Twilight of its day. Director Tim Burton and his attached-at-the-hip collaborator, actor Johnny Depp, were fans as children and have kicked around a big-budget big screen version for years. Now that Dark Shadows hits theaters, you’ll be left wondering whether they really ever liked the original show or secretly despised it.
In the 1770s, Barnabus Collins (Depp) is the son of fishing and canning magnate in colonial Maine. He has a fling with Angelique (Eva Green), one of his family’s servant girls, and unfortunately for him, the gal is also a witch in her spare time. She curses the Collins family, killing Barnabus’ mother, father, and the woman he loves. She then turns him into a vampire, riles the villagers into mob mode, and Barnabus gets trapped in a coffin and buried for good.
Two hundred years later, a construction crew unearths an old coffin and out pops Barnabus from his prison. The world is a very different place. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is running the Collins family manor and canning company, which has fallen on hard times. A rival canning company is snapping up fisherman contracts, and this company is led by none other than the same ageless Angelique. Elizabeth tries to conceal her distant relative’s unique “condition” from the rest of her family, her brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), grieving the loss of his mother, moody 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), and caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). The Collins family also has a new hire, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who looks strikingly like Barnabus’ lost love from 200 years ago. He becomes smitten with the new lass, who may be the reincarnation of his lost love. That’s enough to rev up Angelique’s wild sense of jealousy, as she tries to get her long-desired man and destroy anyone that stands in her way.
Is this ever one ghoulish mess of a movie. It never settles on a tone; is it supposed to be a larky tongue-in-cheek send-up, a Gothic melodrama, a dysfunctional oddball family comedy? What is this supposed to be, because whatever it is, it isn’t entertaining. Oh sure, it’s entertaining in a, “Where the hell is this going?” kind of way, but so is being kidnapped by a drifter. The movie feels like it has a box filled with ideas, and every so often it just shakes up that box, reaches inside, grabs one and says, “Let’s give this a try.” The screenplay, credited to author Seth Grahame-Smith (Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), is awash with half-baked ideas and poorly developed characters. The live-in doctor, played by the second stalwart of the Burton Repertory Players, Helena Bonham Carter, is a hoot. Carter (The King’s Speech) has got an edge to her and an interesting dynamic with Barnabus, but sadly her storyline is tied up far too quickly. The character of Victoria is a rather interesting one, a girl who could communicate with her ghostly former relatives, who happen to look just like her. The gal was sent to a mental asylum by her parents and escaped, compelled to come to the Collins mansion. Why in the world wasn’t she the movie’s protagonist? That is a far more compelling perspective than a goofy vampire who speaks all old timey. Seriously, the Barnabus stuff is your basic fish-out-of-water comedy, lazily commenting on the times. There is no joke that is too obvious for this movie (Barnabus inquires why Carolyn has no husband; Barnabus is fascinated by a lava lamp; Barnabus thinks Alice Cooper is an ugly woman – sigh). A lot of the shapeless narrative would be forgivable if the movie was just funnier. Barnabus is just not that fun of a character. His anachronistic verbiage gets dull when you discover that seems to be the movie’s one joke. You may start tuning him out like I did.
The movie feels like a collection of subplots and no main storyline to gather traction. We’re told that the youngest Collins, little David, is enamored with Barnabus, though considering we’ve only seen the two together in like one previous scene, this seems like quite a leap. Unless David has gotten particularly skilled at hiding behind rocks, we haven’t seen any of this. The entire character of David and his sleazy father could be eliminated and they would only minimally affect the story. And then there’s the late revelation that one of our characters has a hidden secret identity, a revelation that fostered no setup. When the character looks into the camera to explain and ends with a curt, “Deal with it,” it’s like Grahame-Smith himself is speaking directly to the audience, mocking it for hoping that the movie would actually do a good job of setting up and paying off character development and relationships. Stupid audience. Why can’t you just be happy with all that neat Tim Burton set design?
The final melee between the Collins family and Angelique keeps reminding you of the dashed promise of the flick. Angelique, in her witchy withiness, summons dark forces to make statues come alive. Well, sort of. They flail their arms a tad. And then she makes the walls bleed. Well, sort of. The dripping blood stops after just a few inches from where it began. If you’re going to make the house bleed, I want Shining-level torrents of the red stuff. The tonal inconsistency, matched with the muddled plot and scant character work, makes for a pretty frustrating bore of a movie.
You could usually count on Depp (Alice in Wonderland) for at least committing himself to another bravura weird performance, but the material fails him. He’s caked with alabaster makeup, given claw-like hands thanks to additional knuckles (why…?), and he’s trying his best to transform a list of peculiarities into a character, but like most things concerning the movie, it does not coalesce properly. I actually think the most entertaining actor in the movie is Green (Casino Royale). Part of that might be my hormones revved up from her frequent cleavage-baring outfits as the vampy villainous (no pun intended). There’s not much to her role but at least she has fun with it, bringing an admirable level of energy while her peers remain laconic, content to submerge into the 70s scenery. She shows a nice flair for comedy heretofore unseen. Strangely, Green adopts a slightly raspy voice that sounded like an imitation of, none other than, Helena Bonham Carter. If Burton’s note to his film’s young, frisky, sexy antagonist was, “Sound more like my wife doing an American accent,” then I think we’ve butted into something personal best left between husband and wife.
Ultimately, I have no idea who this movie is going to appeal to. The fans of the original soap will surely not be pleased with the jokey, tongue-in-cheek manner that Dark Shadows treats its source material. Fans of Burton’s stylized, dreamy, Gothic fairy tale visuals will find the film tedious and a poor waste of the man’s talents. Even the casual Depp fan will probably find the movie mostly unfunny, weird, and boring. The tonal whiplash never settles down, and the plot is replete with half-developed characters, ideas, and plot points. It just seems to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but that’s not the best way to tell a story. Not even Burton’s visuals or Depp’s performance can save this movie. Dark Shadows is unquestionably amongst Burton’s worst films (2001’s Planet of the Apes debacle takes the crown), made all the more inexplicable by the fact that Burton and Depp are self-described fans of the TV show. Maybe we all have different definitions of “fan” that I am not privy to. This movie deserves a quick death.
Nate’s Grade: C
The next in an endless assembly line of vapid horror remakes, a new trip to the realm of Elm Street at least held some promise. The famous boogeyman Freddy Kruger was going to be played by Oscar-nominee Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen). Has any other actor of Haley’s caliber played a blatant slasher villain in recent memory? And the playground of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was the world of dreams, which should be fruitful territory for some bug screen chills. I mean you don’t have to adhere to earth logic anymore, not that horror movies tend to. I didn’t expect much but I expected the movie to do more. Many of the signature moments from the first film are simply repeated. How does an entire school of young kids forget that Mr. Krueger molested them? What is the point of hiring Haley and giving him nothing to do? Lead actress Rooney Mara (soon to be seen in as the “girl” in David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) looks as bored as somebody watching her movie. Her performance is lifeless for a film that requires energy and action. There is such wasted potential in the world of reams and personal fears. The whole movie just feels so rote and routine, following an established pattern of terrorizing the teens and knocking them off one-by-one; you get an overwhelming impression that everyone was just going through the motions, repeating someone else’s song and not bothering to make it their own.
Nate’s Grade: C-