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-
How can one review the 2016 version of Ben-Hur without bringing up its multitude of predecessors, chiefly the 1959 Best Picture winner with one of the greatest sequences in all of cinematic history? I try and judge each movie on its own merits but remakes are difficult by nature because without the fame and hopefully good will of the original, they wouldn’t ever exist, and yet they have to find their own voice and purpose in order to justify why we even need another version of the movie. I understand some of the excuses why even tackling a new Ben-Hur would be advisable, mostly coming down to a more audience-friendly running time that’s half of the 1959 classic. Of course truncating a four-hour biblical epic has its own problems too, and while this newest Ben-Hur isn’t a three-chariot pileup of a misguided mess, it certainly pales in comparison and comes across mostly as a jazzed up yet mediocre imitation of something immutably great.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a wealthy first century Jewish man who is sold into slavery as punishment from his adopted brother Mesalla (Toby Kebbel), a Roman soldier. Messala is also one of the greatest chariot racers for the Roman Empire, and so Ben-Hur, after surviving a slave ship shipwreck, rises to the top of the chariot ranks to confront Messala, seek vengeance, humiliate him, and find his family once more.
It’s obvious that this new remake wasn’t going to banish any cinephile’s memories of the 1959 version, but some of the decision-making handicaps the overall impact of the 2016 version, chiefly among them the characterization and casting of its lead. Judah Ben-Hur is definitely lacking when it comes to being a strong and engaging hero. The casting of Huston does not abate this. For fans of TV’s Boardwalk Empire, it’s clear that Huston can be a very capable and intriguing character actor, and he has an easy handsomeness that might slide him readily into mainstream big-budget projects. The problem is that Huston lacks the gravitas the role requires and this is further hampered by the limited characterization, and the two negative qualities twist together, lessening and lessening the quality of the picture. He’s certainly no Charlton Heston (unfair comparison, I grant you).
Here’s how bland it got: I was feeling more sympathy for the character presented to be the central antagonist. In the first act, I felt more for Messala and his plight than I did for Ben-Hur, and I’ll explain why. Ben-Hur comes from a wealthy Jewish family and a life of privilege, yet Messala did not want to fall back on this and wanted to make his own path, joining the Roman army. He returns several years later and connects with Ben-Hur, asking him to help root out zealots that would jeopardize a peace with Rome and incite violence against innocents. It so happens Ben-Hur is secretly harboring a zealot and, surprise, the guy stupidly tries to assassinate Pontius Pilate in full view of the Middle Eastern world. Ben-Hur allows the zealot to flee for his own safety. Messala has little choice in bringing some consequences but he’s asking for the zealot’s name, you know the guilty party, or else he knows that Ben-Hur’s family, Messala’s adopted family, will suffer in place as punishment. He’s begging his brother, pleading with him, and yet Ben-Hur refuses even though it may cost his own family members their lives. This plot point, by the way, is new. In no other version of Ben-Hur does a zealot jeopardize the Ben-Hur family. It’s always been an overreaction to the accidental coincidence of falling tiles from the family roof that doomed Judah Ben-Hur to slavery. This change makes the protagonist more culpable. It was here that I felt I was on Messala’s side. My friend Ben Bailey likens this to siding with a “kind Nazi” and says Rome was the Evil Authority that should be bucked at every opportunity and burnt to the ground. I don’t know what this says about me but I think it shows that the writing failed to make me root for our hero.
The movie gets slightly better once Morgan Freeman enters, as most movies do, and from there the plot streamlines into training to be a world-class chariot driver to take away from the glory of Messala and thus the roman overlords. The story follows familiar underdog plot beats seen in other sports genre movies from hob-knobbing with the disdainful and overconfident elites to training montages; it’s all here. It’s all marching toward that climactic brother vs. brother chariot race, and I’ll give the filmmakers credit that it’s respectable. There are some genuinely exciting moments and some great camera angles to communicate the danger and thrills of the action. The editing is a tad too choppy and the camera setups strangely favor far too many close-ups for a large-scale competition. Nothing could compare to the 1959 chariot race, which still holds up as one of cinema’s greatest sequences, more so with the renewed appreciation for practical effects. It’s not CGI horses and chariots and people in the stands cheering along. All of that is real and all of it is stunning to witness play out to tremendous realistic heights.
Director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not exactly the first name you might think of tackling a biblical epic. His sensibilities seem, at first glance, a bit lowbrow for such a venture, but the man is a gifted visual stylist, as he’s shown to perverse degrees in the perversely watchable Wanted. If you’re trying to bring the story of Ben-Hur to a new audience for a new century, Bekmambetov will at least ensure that it looks pretty, and most certainly it does. The biggest fault is with the challenges of the adaptation and the shortcuts and alterations that hamper the development of the characters and their ultimate arcs. Bekmambetov has one virtuoso sequence, and no it’s not the chariot race. It’s when Ben-Hur is chained in the galley of a slave ship and becomes one of the rowers. We’re trapped in his limited perspective during an attack sequence and it’s a terrific sequence. The confusion, the adrenaline, the fear are all accurately portrayed, and as the battle escalates and the ship is under attack and eventually sinks, it’s a race to escape his chains that is visually striking and exhilarating to watch. I don’t blame the director for this movie not working well.
Another side effect of the overall truncating of the Ben-Hur saga is that the religious elements, namely the inclusion of Jesus Christ, feel really tacked on and obvious, reaching for a faith-based audience but doing so clumsily. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is on the outskirts of the events of the movie, just enough to clue you in to his parallel presence (“Oh look, it must be Palm Sunday”), but he’s really another means to an end. The purpose of Jesus is to (spoiler alert) help facilitate Ben-Hur to abandon his anger and vengeance and instead adopt a position of forgiveness for Messala. The problem is that at a little over two hours long, and with the Jesus stuff fully feeling flimsy and tacked on, this big turning point for our protagonist also feels flimsy. Why would he be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus when his knowledge of the guy is primarily a helpful carpenter who fetched him water when he was thirsty? It doesn’t add up the way the movie wants.
Was a Ben-Hur remake doomed to fail considering the parameters it was fighting against? Not necessarily. While no remake will ever displace the majesty of the 1959 classic, a new movie doesn’t have to, merely opening up a new angle on a familiar story (the novel was originally published in 1880) and providing something of substance. It doesn’t have to cancel out one good movie to be its own good movie. There are enjoyable aspects of this newest Ben-Hur but all they end up becoming are aspects, frayed bits that fail to become a satisfying whole. It was a mistake to cast the blandly effective Huston in the lead and leave the character underdeveloped; a protagonist can survive one of these sins, not both. It was a mistake to coast for as long as it does with its second act. It was a mistake to provide more significant supporting characters, and Jesus doesn’t count. It was a mistake to film much of a chariot race in tight close-ups. This is not a disaster despite the money that will likely be lost. It’s easy enough to watch but hard to fully connect, and those memories of the 1959 film keep creeping back, providing unflattering comparisons.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Well meaning and somberly recreated, Free State of Jones is a historical drama that wants to illuminate the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) who deserted from the Confederate army and seceded from the very people who seceded from the United States. Knight and the people of Jones county Mississippi declared themselves independent and awaited the consequences. At first the Confederate army is annoyed, but as armed skirmishes increase and Knight’s team swells with poor farmers and runaway slaves, garnering Robin Hood-esque folk hero status, you’re expecting an escalating level of force that will doom Newton. We’ve seen this kind of historical drama before where men (usually men) of courage and politics ahead of their time are stamped out by the forces of oppression and we then celebrate their noble sacrifice. I kept waiting for Jones to go this route, and then (slight historical spoilers) the Civil War ends and instead the last half hour is an episodic history tour that includes the rise of the KKK, registering freed black men for voting, and early voter suppression acts. There is also a storyline strewn throughout that takes place in a 1940s Mississippi courtroom. At first you’re left scratching your head about the flash forwards, and then the connections come to bear. We’re watching Knight’s (great?) grandson and his legal troubles because the courts don’t know whether he’s the byproduct of Newton’s first wife (Kerri Russell), who left him, or his common law second wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former slave. It’s a storyline that just doesn’t really gel with the movie as a whole and really only serves to remind you that 100 years later Mississippi was still a pretty terrible place to live. Free State of Jones’ failure is that it doesn’t make this slice of history emotionally engaging. We don’t get a strong sense of whom Newton is as a person except for his 99% rabble rousing. His relationship with Mbatha-Raw’s character is the most engaging part of the film given its inherent conflict, and I’ll credit writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) with how restrained he is about dealing with her sexual abuse from slavery. The relationship is treated very tenderly and Mbatha-Raw aces her scenes. Also warning to dog lovers: there are several sequences of violence against man’s best friend that will be hard to watch. Free State of Jones works better as a history lesson rather than as a fully formed movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.
12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):
Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”
This brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.
There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.
With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.
From a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.
The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.
Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.
To criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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+
Most people regarded David Mitchell’s 2004 sprawling novel Cloud Atlas was unfilmable. It has six different stories each set in a different time period, slotted into a different genre, and each a variation on storytelling. Mitchell’s tome was structured like a series of nesting dolls, each narrative pulling back to reveal a character reading the previous manuscript, and eventually the direction was reversed. We go from the mid-nineteenth century to post-apocalyptic and back again. I read the book over the summer and found it to be enthralling, especially because each storyline was written so distinctively in a different writing style. The post-apocalyptic linguistics definitely took some getting used to. How could you turn this unwieldy book into a workable movie?
The Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, teamed up with German director Tom Tyker (Run Lola Run) to try and find a way. They decided to split up the stories into a musical syncopation, with stories blending into one another. As a result, Cloud Atlas is six different movies for the price of one but it’s far more than the sum of its parts. Cloud Atlas coalesces, bleeds, and bends, becoming a Mobius strip of causality and courage and love. The trio of directors, who shot simultaneously with two separate film crews, has done the impossible and translated Mitchell’s brilliant novel into a soaring, compelling, and multifaceted epic on hope and humanism.
Where to begin with this one? Well, in 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is traveling across the Pacific back to his home in San Francisco. He’s fallen ill on the ship and keeping the secret of a stowaway in his chamber, a Moriori slave named Autua (David Gyasi). In 1931, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a penniless gay musician looking for refuge. He offers his services to the aged but still famed composer, Vyvian Ayers (Jim Broadbent). Ayers will dictate and Frobisher will assist in writing. In 1971, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a reporter investigating a series of murders tied to a nuclear facility and a report the head honcho (Hugh Grant) doesn’t want exposed. In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is a small-time publisher who mistakenly checks himself into a nursing home that won’t allow him to leave. In 2140, a new working class is grown from the lab. Somni 451 (Doona Bae) is one of these fabricants. With the help of a revolutionary (Sturgess), she escapes her confines and learns the horrors of the totalitarian world and becomes part of the rebellion. And 100 winters after “The Fall,” mankind has descended into agrarian tribes. Zachry (Hanks) is a goat herder who reluctantly agrees to take Meronym (Berry) to a hallowed mountain. Meronym belongs to the last group of technology-abled civilization, the Prescients, and Zachry mistrusts her and is tempted to kill her to protect his people. Just describing this stuff is tiring and could take up two reviews.
This is going to be a very divisive movie, this much I can tell. It’s so powerfully earnest that you either embrace its mushiness and ambitions or you smirk and mock its New Age philosophy and optimism. There will be no middle ground with this film. We’re talking about transmigrating souls over the course of 500 years, Tom Hanks as a post-apocalyptic goat herder, and an evil presence known as Old Georgie, who looks like the forgotten cousin to the Wicked Witch of the West. There is some stuff in this movie that is plenty goofy, especially when seen on the surface. It takes a while to ease into the film, adjust to its tempo and accept the context of those goofy elements. But once that’s established then it feels like you can handle anything. There’s such an overflowing of feeling in this movie that it’s easy to make fun of it, to dismiss it under the safety of ironic detachment. It would be easy to decry the Cloud Atlas team for being self-indulgent or pretentious. What they are doing is far from normal, but the achievement of Cloud Atlas is the graceful way it finds to connect the rhythms of a deeply felt humanity. It has its stirring moments and memorable scenes, but when compacted and collected into a beautiful whole, that’s where the movie transcends. When an authoritative character barks, “You are but a drop in an ocean,” and our hero responds, “What is an ocean but a series of drops?” you either roll your eyes or you cheer. This is an earnest movie that wears its humanism on its sleeve. You either roll with that or you don’t, and I decided to embrace the big, messy, mushiness of the whole project and was swept away.
For a three-hour movie, the time flew by, and by the end I knew I had to see Cloud Atlas again. The first viewing requires much in the way of processing. You’re stringing together the disparate strands of the narrative, you’re listening hard to decipher the post-apocalyptic tongue of Zachry and company, and then you’re also keeping track of what actors are playing what characters, crossing lines of race and gender. The disguised actor factor is something of a fun ”who’s who” party game throughout the movie; initially distracting and somewhat questionable (especially the cross-racial makeup). I think seeing Cloud Atlas a second time will allow me to immerse myself further, finding new depths and connections. The pacing is surprisingly swift for a three-hour movie. You barely notice the time is gone, and honestly I could have done with even more movie, especially during the Neo Seoul segment. Given the six segments, some stories are going to be more compelling than others. I don’t think too many people are going to be as compelled with Frobisher’s creative sessions as they are Somni’s escape from enslavement. Initially, you’ll be scratching your head what they all have in common, and the lighthearted segments seem to clash with the more severe segments of systemic abuses. But then the big picture starts to eventually emerge and you see the parallel themes of oppression, bondage, rebellion, sacrifice, abolition and the yearning for freedom at all costs. The filmmakers find clever ways to thematically link their different tales. The movie starts to become a musical experience, much like Frobisher’s central melody, the overlapping notes of repetition and the swelling movements of human life in minor and major.
As anyone who endured the Matrix sequels will attest, the Wachoswkis are film theologians and Cloud Atlas is unabashedly spiritual. The filmmakers openly favor examining the spiritual side of Mitchell’s novel rather than the political. I found the results to be intriguing but short of profound. From a philosophical/theological standpoint, Cloud Atlas is not breaking new ground or even going into great depth. We’ve got some basic Eastern notions like reincarnation and trying to improve upon one’s soul through various lifetimes. There’s also the notion that death is just a transitional phase and not the end. The film is also very interested in the transcendentalist interconnections of human history. “With each crime and each act of kindness, we give way to our future,” says Somni at one point. I like this; it’s essentially karma in its purest form but it also denotes that every choice gives ways to multitudes of possible futures (perhaps pedestrian but I still like it). I feel that human kindness is long-reaching and casts out many ripples, and Cloud Atlas is a film all about the ripples, seeing the long-reaching effects to causes, and discovering that individuals can become movements and movements can become inspiration. I also like the relatable debate over religious belief in the far-flung future; the Valley people worship Somni as their gracious Goddess, but the more advanced Prescients view her as a person, noble and with strong and important ideas but flesh and blood. And yet the film doesn’t look down on Zachry and his people for their beliefs; Somni inspires them to do good. Do the details matter when the results are positive? Cloud Atlas has plenty of intriguing questions roiling around, moments of pause worthy of post-screening debate. It’s not too deep but it’s far from shallow (the Wachoswkis love their Christ-like imagery, don’t they?).
From a filmmaking craft standpoint, Cloud Atlas is often breathtaking. In some respects it feels like something radically new, a $100 million dollar art film. The visuals are wonderful and the different time periods all come across handsomely mounted, perfectly realized, the details vivid and period appropriate. The future worlds are easily the most engrossing just because of how different they are. You’re never spoon-fed the answers in this movie, so we’re left to put together what lead to each future. I would have loved to have gotten even more details about Somni’s world, a time where democracy has been replaced by “corpocracy,” a world run by corporations. The ambitious story structure of Cloud Atlas could have easily become confusing, but the filmmakers smartly give each segment its own little undivided period to set up that world and its unique tone. They even provide date stamps. Then things get more spliced together, the different storylines cascading and braided together. Some of the storylines have to wrap up early and others are saved for heartbreaking finales of tragic resonance. The elliptical romances spanning centuries provide nice counterpoints and satisfying out-of-time conclusions for storylines that don’t always end cheerful. The movie is often thrilling, intellectually stimulating, disturbing, and poignant, though to be fair it comes up short when it comes to emotional involvement. Like the stunted depth of its philosophy, the movie has a way of drawing you in but never fully; it’s all about a wealth of human feelings and the nature of humanity yet it quixotically comes up short emotionally.
With up to six roles to play, the actors are given plenty to work with. It would be redundant to say you’ve never seen many of these actors like they are in Cloud Atlas (has anyone ever seen Berry in whiteface?). Every actor gets to play heroes and villains, saints and sinners. Only Weaving (The Matrix) and Grant (The Pirates! Band of Misfits) play antagonists in just about every story, and when you have Weaving at your disposal you have to give the man a role with menace. Grant gets to play a post-apocalyptic marauding cannibal. You won’t see him eat anybody’s face in one of those Bridget Jones movies. Like the filmmakers, the actors display full commitment to their varied roles no matter how silly some of the future diction may sound (“for true-true”). Hanks instantly anchors your empathy as Zachry and grounds a storyline that has the biggest danger of slipping into silliness. Readers will know I’m not the biggest Berry fan, and that is probably being charitable. However, I was truly impressed with her work in Cloud Atlas and would easily classify this as her best work since her Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball. Her portrayal of Luisa Rey has such fire and her Meronym has such melancholy. Broadbent (The Iron Lady) is still highly enjoyable as a pompous sort, I’m always happy to see Keith David, and Weaving is delightful in his venomous villains, as a devil, a hit man, and most vividly as the Nurse Ratchet-style sadistic head nurse antagonizing Cavendish. The real breakaway star is Bae (The Host), who also benefits by having the most involving storyline. Her gradual awakening is just about note-perfect, alternating between curiosity, horror, amazement, and finally anger. All of those emotions need to be free of histrionics but if too underplayed then Somni seems like a walking zombie. Bae finds the right somber middle ground and her journey is the most emotionally rewarding.
In the end, there’s so much to unpack, dissect, discuss, debate, and contemplate with this movie, and every hour I think of some new connection that dovetails the plots. Cloud Atlas is a thrillingly artistic mosaic, a giant puzzle that begs for closer examination. Unlike the films of Terrence Malick, this is a dense, challenging work that is also accessible and, here’s the heretical part film snobs, entertaining. We get a kaleidoscope of the human experience told in beautiful flourishes. There are a lot of demands with Cloud Atlas, and ultimately it may demand multiple viewings to completely sort out one’s opinion on this gigantic picture of gigantic feeling. I’m still uncertain whether I really enjoyed it or loved it, nagging doubts concerning the limited emotional attachment to consider. I’m curious what a second viewing, stripped of analyzing which actor is in what body, will allow me to further appreciate the scale and scope of the film’s achievement.
The individual stories of Cloud Atlas may not be terribly profound but collectively this movie is something special. I anticipate it will be trendy to mock its sincerity and ambition and New Agey spirituality (not that a negative opinion is automatically invalid). We live in a cynical world. It’s rare to find a movie that has so many things to say with such intense earnestness. It’s even more rare for that movie to be good. Due to the sci-fi elements and time hopping, The Fountain and 2001 will be natural film comparisons, but In some ways Cloud Atlas reminds me more of another divisive film, 2001’s Moulin Rouge!. Both were sincere movies about the genuine power of love and human connection, told with such artistic flair, drive, and ambition, and both attempt to transform the traditional tropes of storytelling and drama into a brave new 21st century collage of sight and sound and sprawling spirits. Simply put, you’ll never see a movie like Cloud Atlas again. So do yourself a favor and see it already, then find someone to talk about it and compare how fast the time goes. Then, if you’re like me, see it again.
Nate’s Grade: A
Did you know that our sixteenth president had a rather unorthodox hobby, and it was really the purpose that drove him into politics and later the White House? That’s what the gonzo best-selling book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter purports. When he was talking about a house divided not being able to stand, he was secretly talking about vampires, you see. The film version, under the tutelage of producer Tim Burton, looks like it’d be an axe-swinging good time. I realize the absurdity of wishing the filmmakers had hewn closer to the source material, a radical reinterpretation of American history, but there it is. I cannot tell a lie.
Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is a man determined to rid this new country of the scourge of vampires. His mother was murdered by a vampire landlord, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), when Lincoln was only a little boy. As an adult, Lincoln tries to avenge his mother’s death but Barts is too strong. Henry (Dominic Cooper) saves Lincoln and teaches him all about vampires and, more importantly, how to hunt and kill them. They strike up a partnership: Henry will provide names of vampire targets and Lincoln will dispatch them with extreme prejudice. Lincoln tries to live a solitary life but keeps building attachments; to his co-worker Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), to his childhood friend Will (Anthony Mackie), who needs Lincoln’s help to forge some slave papers, and the enchanting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Abe realizes the limitations of killing vampires one by one. The vampires are exploiting Southern slavery as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Lincoln realizes the only way to foil the vampires is to eliminate slavery, and to do so he must be in a high government position, and so Lincoln retires his axe to turn to abolitionist politics.
It feels that rather than embrace the courage of its convictions, the movie is trying to please as many mass markets as possible. So many characters and storylines are inserted wholesale without any connection to the book. The film is almost unrecognizable from the book. Now, I’ll quit my bemoaning for the time being because a movie has to exist on its own merits, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is just a mess. As far as new characters included only to appeal to broad audiences, there’s the Black Best Friend, long a staple in movies meant to say, “Hey, our lead character is hip and has no problems with race,” but really it’s always been a depressing act of pander and I always feel sympathy for the thousands of black actors who have to compete over the limited best friend parts. Giving Lincoln a black best friend seems to remind the audience that Lincoln was against slavery, you know, in case anyone didn’t know anything about the man nicknamed the Great Emancipator. Then there’s the ascension of Mary Todd Lincoln into a feisty, strong-willed, formidable ally rather than the insular, clinically depressed woman she was in real life and in the book. Mary even gets some grand hero moments taking out a vampire in slow-mo coolness. The transformation of Mary feels just as big a pander as the character of Will. Then there’s the idea that Lincoln and his small inner circle of pals are placed in the center of action, like they alone and their heroic escapades single-handedly turn the tide of war. It’s handled so ham-handedly that it all plays out like they’re the Scooby Doo gang solving the Case of the Vampire Insurrection.
Lincoln’s history is given such shrift attention, just enough to fill out the standard tortured hero’s backstory for the aims of the story. We see Lincoln as a child but just enough to establish his tragedy and hunger for revenge. Then we cut to him as an adult and going to kill Barts. That’s quite a big leap in time with little careful setup. The time before Lincoln’s presidency is just enough to supply him with a stock character posse and a plucky love interest, and then it’s right to the Civil War. So much time in between the main events just gets squeezed out, and so Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter feels like it’s always one scene away from a clumsy montage.
The vampire threat, as presented, also feels too insurmountable. Not only can these vampires walk in the daylight, they’re super strong, super fast, and can make themselves invisible, a neat new trick. When they ally with the South they seem nigh unbeatable. The movie makes the mistake of making the adversary seem too powerful, so the eventual thwarting of the vampire Confederacy feels too easy and far-fetched given the magnitude of the threat. Adam (Rufus Sewell) is hinted at being like the first vampire, but then this idea is never picked up again. Why even hint at something significant if you have no intention of pursuing it? There’s another new wrinkle where vampires are incapable of killing their own kind. If this is the case then why aren’t the vampires turning every single person they can find into vampires? It shores up their side and guarantees less potential people that could kill them. I’m curious how certain swaths of southerners are going to react to seeing their beloved Confederacy teeming with devilish creatures. Then again, I think the romanticism of the Confederacy is hogwash. When insurrections win we call them revolutions of independence, and when they lose we call them treason. Guess what? The South lost.
As much as I enjoyed his book, I have to lay the blame at the hands of Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his book into the screenplay (he’s 0-2 this summer after his disastrous screenplay for the other vampire movie this summer, Burton’s Dark Shadows). Granted, I’m sure he got intensive notes on how to alter his story for the big screen; the whole projects reeks like it had too many cooks in the kitchen. The interconnection from the book, finding clever ways to marry history and alternative history together, have been ground down to stream line Lincoln into an American super hero. Not only is he handy with an axe, this Honest Abe can leap from racing horse back to racing horse back, and even get clobbered by a horse and keep on going. The coda at the end feels like a missed opportunity to carry on the Lincoln tradition into our modern age. With the clever reworking replaced by blockbuster superficiality, the film merely takes history and has it perform the outrageous rather than finding smart ways to connect all the outrageousness to the established facts.
What the movie has to the credit of director Timur Bekmambetov is a strong visual pulse. Bekmambetov directed 2008’s testosterone-soaked Wanted, so you know you’re going to get some crazy and eye-catching images on display. The action sequences do pack a punch and I’ll admit that seeing an axe utilized as an inventive martial arts weapon is considerably cool. There are two standout set pieces. The first is a fistfight between Abe and Barts in the middle of stampeding horses. You feel right in the thick of the action, horses stampeding all around, the sun setting to offer an eerie yet beautiful glow to the ordeal. It’s one of the more reality-stretching moments, as I noted above, but man if it isn’t thrilling and lovely to watch. The other standout sequence is a climax aboard a speeding locomotive itself atop a large wooden bridge engulfed in flames. Abe and Will stand back to back, swapping the axe to kill vampires, and then hey have to outrun the collapsing train. In these moments, the movie is joltingly alive, bursting with excitement and that rare yet glorious feeling of watching something beautifully different. I just wish this sensation wasn’t so fleeting in the movie.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a violent historical reworking that isn’t good enough to be properly entertaining and it isn’t bad enough to be considered camp. The film is mostly disappointing because it should feel far more engaging given its whacked-out premise the very cheeky promise of its title, and strong source material, a pulpy, ripsnorter of a read. The movie has some stellar standout moments but I think what ultimately hinders the entertainment value is how dumb everything comes across. This is not dumb in the winking, self-aware, satiric sense, but dumb in more of the blockheaded, Michael Bay, formulaic blockbuster sense. I wouldn’t even classify this movie as an enjoyably dumb, a silly summer slice of escapism like Battleship, which is looking better every week after new, disappointing summer releases (and it’s not even July yet!). The spirit of this movie is missing, the cleverness of the conceit drained, and the fun is bottled up. What this movie reminds me of is the stupid 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which took classic literary characters and threw them into a genre movie. Both movies figure the exercise alone, seeing classic literary or historical figures in absurd contexts, was enough to justify entertainment. I say that you have to work harder.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?
The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.
Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.
What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.
The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.
The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.
Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.
Nate’s Grade: A-