Archive for October, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

Posted in Biography, Drama on October 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin


 photo birth_of_a_nation_zpsayzjohqa.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgJust based on the title alone, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation might appear to be a remake of the infamous 1915 silent directed by D.W. Griffith. That picture, though financially successful, was highly controversial upon release and remains so to this day. Though hailed as a masterpiece for its revolutionary filmmaking techniques, it was also criticized as racist propaganda. A highly inflammatory piece of agitprop, the chronicle embraced the Southern cause in the Civil War and made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. Hard to fathom in this day and age, but this was a perspective that saw the abolitionist movement as destructive to the fabric of southern society. By “re-purposing” the title of that notorious achievement, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation also seeks to stir controversy. It is a subversive choice. This drama is a response of sorts, but from the viewpoint of one slave, Nat Turner.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was an African American who led a rebellion of fellow slaves and free blacks on August 21, 1831. The uprising in Southampton County, Virginia lasted about 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 white people. The biography portrays his life. As a child, he displays a self-taught reading ability that impresses his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller). She encourages his desire to read, but only from the Bible. As Nat grows older, he becomes a dynamic preacher. When his talents are recognized by white men, he is exploited into performing a role that will eventually change him. Turner’s master (Armie Hammer) profits by taking Nat across the country on a preaching tour to other slaves. We see how the word of God is manipulated to condone slavery. His sermons are meant to quell the workers and keep them in line. Nat’s facility with the Bible grows. He learns that for every line that appears to justify the practice, there is another that soundly condemns it. In his travels, Turner begins to see the scope of slavery, and his experience compels him to become a different kind of leader.

Nat receives preferential treatment for his work, but you can see his anger seething within. The Birth of a Nation is highlighted by some memorable images. The sight of a white girl and a black girl at play with a rope around the latter’s neck is a shocking image that jolts the viewer. When one slave refuses to eat, the horrific solution is too harrowing to even describe here.  An attack on Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is the defining moment that ultimately drives him to action. A quiet performance, actor Nate Parker often lets his face do the talking. He progressively realizes he is being used as a tool by white southerners to subjugate black slaves. Throughout the film, he often registers this through facial expressions and not words. His acting is a triumph of composed rage.

The Birth of a Nation is fashioned as a tale of revenge. It’s a difficult watch. The narrative dedicates very little time to the revolt itself. Instead it mostly dwells on the build-up of appalling events to which Nat Turner is a witness. The events have a galvanizing effect on him. He is transformed from a peaceful preacher into an angry rebel leading the downtrodden into an insurrection. Like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, there is no shortage of atrocities presented on screen. It becomes so relentless that by the end of the picture, you’re so primed to see the oppressed rise up against their captors that the mutiny becomes a catharsis. As such, The Birth of a Nation is not a “slave” movie per se, but a “soldier” movie.

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful work, but it’s a disturbing one as well. As a document that challenges racism and white supremacy, it is most assuredly a step in the right direction. Nat Turner was hanged and given no formal burial. We are told (not shown) that he was then decapitated, quartered, and skinned. Soon after his death, attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner. If you thirst for more of his story, I would suggest that. This film functions as a cinematic memorial that celebrates his memory. It also recounts a historical event and honors the legacy of Nat Turner. He was an early champion of civil rights – in a not-so-civil manner. He deserves a biography. Yet his story is told in broad strokes with plot points invented for dramatic effect (i.e.  Nat Turner’s wife was never gang raped by slave patrollers.  Nor was it the final inhumanity that inspired him to riot). It’s an emotional experience but not necessarily a wholly factual one.

The Birth of a Nation originally debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to thunderous applause and much acclaim back in January 2016. I will attest that it is is indeed a thought-provoking work. However in the ensuing months, rape allegations against the director have hung over this feature like a dark cloud. The Birth of a Nation has gone from “can’t-miss” to “should-miss”.  It tanked at the box office. I’m not here to tell you whether you should see this movie or not. That’s up to you. I can only give my opinion so that you can make an informed decision. Personally, I try to separate the art from the artist. I’ll admit it’s not always easy to do. Here I’ve chosen to review the film itself and in that spirit, I believe the message is worth your time.

10-08-16

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Queen of Katwe

Posted in Biography, Sports on October 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo queen_of_katwe_zps5vheippe.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgUnderdog sports stories are a dime a dozen, so it’s a small wonder that despite the prevalence of that theme, Queen of Katwe is an impressive feat. Yes, the narrative is structured in a way that feels familiar to anyone acquainted with the conventional design of these accounts. Call it a rags to riches or coming of age or triumph of the spirit or whatever-you-want-to-call-it fable. All those characterizations apply in theory, but labels are a disservice to the sheer distinction of this inspirational drama. Make no mistake, Queen of Katwe is something special.

Queen of Katwe tells the unconventional story of a young illiterate girl from the slums of Uganda who develops into a chess champion. Reflect on that sentence for a moment and consider the unlikelihood of that idea. It would sound contrived if it weren’t actually a true tale.  Phiona Mutesi grows up in Katwe which is a neighborhood in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Her father has died and now she is solely raised by a single mother, Harriet Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o). Too poor, Phiona has been forced to drop out of school because her family cannot afford to send her there any longer. Now she sells maize.  One day, she is invited to join a chess program by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He runs a local Christian ministry, the Sports Outreach Institute. Phiona picks up the game quickly and he soon discovers she has a gift.

Queen of Katwe uncovers a side of rural resolve not often depicted in motion pictures. This is Uganda – a movie about African life and its people. Katwe is a community full of humanity with homes made of plywood and tin that sit alongside a lumber yard and a trash dump. It is unapologetic, unglamorous, gritty and yet dynamic and full of spirit. It presents Phiona’s journey in such vivid detail that the experience becomes immersive. Mira Nair brings a remarkable verisimilitude to her work. The Indian director burst onto the scene in 1988 with Salaam Bombay! Then followed it up with Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding. She is a distinctive artist with an ease for the rhythms of various cultures. That’s a refreshing contrast to the abundance of movies set in the U.S. Admittedly the story arc arrives at a redemptive place. This is expected, yet the account never seems “Hollywood”.

All this authenticity would merely be window dressing without charismatic personalities to captivate our interest. Recognizable stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o do have key roles and they’re both mesmerizing. However, it’s Ugandan Madina Nalwanga in her very first role that is the central star. She has a naive, unaffected presence. In fact, her attendance of the movie’s premiere at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood was only the 2nd time the actress had ever seen a movie in a cinema. (The first was during filming.) Nair surrounds Madina with local young folks that have never acted as well. The unvarnished charisma of Phiona’s brother (Martin Kabanza) sister (Taryn Kyaze) and chess friends are their virtue. The non-actors add to the authenticity of this portrait. Queen of Katwe is such a vibrant depiction of reality in Uganda that the fascinating chronicle about a chess champion becomes a bonus.

You cannot resist the allure of Queen of Katwe and if you can, then please allow me to pray for your soul. This is a tale that nourishes the heart without saccharin or sentiment. That’s not easy. Chess is such an allegory for life and the movie draws compelling parallels between Phiona’s existence and the politics of the game. The lowly pawn’s promotion to a queen is an attractive rule to which the young girl particularly responds. We understand Phiona’s love of the game and it becomes our affection as well. Chess is probably the least cinematic “sport” I can think of and yet the chess matches are fun, exciting and full of energy. The children have a galvanizing charm when they’re playing that is infectious. If there is a quibble, it’s only that the plot does reach the very conclusion you anticipated even before you sat down to watch. I mean let’s be real. This is a Disney production. Nevertheless, the way it plays out is still a pleasure. The narrative keeps uplifting the heart right down to the delightful end credits. Watching the actors walk out one by one joined by their real-world counterparts is one of the purest joys I’ve had at the cinema all year.

10-04-16

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Posted in Adventure, Science Fiction on October 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo miss_peregrines_home_for_peculiar_children_zpsbvzyjo5a.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThere’s no denying that Tim Burton has a distinct point of view. He’s always championed the outsider, the weird, the different in his movies. Thus he seems ideally suited to lens an adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The debut novel by author Ransom Riggs recounts the tale of Jacob “Jake” Portman (Asa Butterfield), a seemingly normal boy who wants to learn more about his beloved grandfather after his death. Jake’s search uncovers clues that lead to an orphanage on Cairnholm Island in Wales. Once Jake arrives at Miss Peregrine’s estate, he descends into a world of the unknown. There he finds himself in a bizarre time loop populated by a group of odd youngsters. What makes them so unique is that they have supernatural powers or deformities. Grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) had always filled Jake’s head with these fantasies when he was very young. It now appears that these whimsical bedtime stories were indeed the truth.

Fables about orphans, often ones on the fringes of society, have long been the subject of beloved fiction. The Outsiders, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter, even Annie are some of our most enduring tales. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is no different. Ok so our narrator Jake isn’t an orphan. He has a mom (Kim Dickens) and a dad (Chris O’Dowd). However his grandfather didn’t and neither do the kids under the care of Miss Peregrine. This is an adventure about the struggle to find a place to fit in. It speaks to anyone who has ever felt like they don’t quite conform to rigid societal norms.  In essence, it’s for everyone. So no, the idea isn’t particularly fascinating or innovative but the manifestation of that idea is. The construct allows Tim Burton to work within his wheelhouse. Say what you will about Burton’s narratives. His work is visually gorgeous. Miss Peregrine is no exception.

Tim Burton has assembled a strong cast. Eva Green is a joy as the headmistress with a smoking pipe who has some peculiar abilities of her own. She’s not the primary lead but she’s mentioned in the title so I’d say the character is a key component. Miss Peregrine is sweet, but there’s an edge to her. She’s sort of a “Scary” Poppins that speaks in soothing tones with just enough curtness to her words to have a little bite. Then there’s the Peculiars, little curiosities, each one with a special ability. We live in the time of superhero movies so they’re not unlike the X-Men to cite a familiar reference. This one floats, another controls fire, he is invisible, she has superhuman strength, this boy has a beehive in his stomach. There are others. The benefit of their ability isn’t as important as its portrayal in cinematic form. The script doesn’t give us the opportunity to truly understand these people in any meaningful way. Yet I had fun in simply discovering and understanding their talents. Samuel L. Jackson plays the film’s main antagonist, the power-hungry Mr. Barron. Apparently, he is the leader of a group of evil monsters who look human. Unfortunately his poorly defined villain is a weakness of an increasingly convoluted saga.

The fable is not perfect by any means. It has a tendency to drag in the 3rd quarter, but I was mostly entertained throughout. Miss Peregrine’s simple beginning starts out promisingly, then grows ever more puzzling. It ultimately lacks a coherent narrative. Yet it never fails as a beautifully realized period piece. Tim Burton is known for his fantastical worlds. Miss Peregrine is the expression of the director’s dreams. The cinematography is nicely handled by 4-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Inside Llewyn Davis). Set in 1943 with Gothic flourishes, Tim Burton makes good use of on-location shooting, first in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, then Belgium, England, and Wales. All of that shows in the strong visual aesthetic. Torenhof Castle in Belgium was used as the setting for Miss Peregrine’s home and it’s stunning. I especially liked the exterior shots with a topiary garden of various animals. The production design utilized the actual rooms inside along with constructed practical sets, as opposed to digital backdrops.  These include a parlor, a dining room, a conservatory and a lab where one of the children can resurrect the dead. Speaking of which, there are many delightfully frightening images. Colleen Atwood’s costumes exploit this too. The image of two mute twins in white robes and masks to match, still haunt my mind. The chronicle is long and unfocused, but there are still enough moments to charm. Think of it as an exquisite but messy entanglement.

09-29-16