The Birth of a Nation (2016) Review

the_birth_of_a_nation_2016_filmScore: 2.5/5

“Birth of a Nation” is the story of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led. It is also the title of a 1915 DW Griffith film.

The Griffith film is incredibly racist, implying that African American men were sexual brutes who wanted nothing more than to ravage white women. But the women of the south are saved by the Ku Klux Klan, which means the country is saved – according to Griffith.

By giving his film the same title, director and star Nate Parker has turned the tables. Now, the white slave owner is the lustful predator and the black woman the victim. The heroes in this “Birth of a Nation” is the band of brothers led by Nat Turner (Parker).

Sometimes a film comes out at just the right time and “Birth of a Nation” was a long time coming. The century after Griffith’s film has been filled with racially charged violence and prejudice with whites being the main perpetrators. Romantics thought that it would have all ended when the country elected its first black president, but those tensions just became more veiled.

The refusal to acknowledge the tension coupled with unrest which resulted from a quick succession of police shootings of unarmed African Americans seem to have led up to this moment in cinema.

But that was only how it was marketed. What I saw was a much different film.

The real Nat Turner – as well as the Nat Turner of American lore – was a man who had visions of God telling him to free the slaves and annihilate the white race. By omitting that characteristic of Turner, what is left is a one dimensional hero figure – Beowulf. Parker’s Nat Turner is actually a divine figure. But he isn’t motivated to free the slave, instead he is motivated to protect women from lustful men, slavery for Parker’s Nat Turner almost becomes an afterthought.

In fact, everything that should have been explored in a film about one of the most controversial moments in American history appeared to be treated as afterthoughts. Never mind the complex relationships between free blacks and slaves, rich whites and poor whites and every other possible combination of those four groups. Never mind the intersectionality of race and class. Never mind the economics of slavery. What is important is Nate Parker – yes, I did that on purpose.

It becomes clear that Parker never wanted to make a movie about Nat Turner, instead he wanted to make a movie that would get Nate Parker more name recognition. It’s infuriating to think that “Birth of Nation” talks such a big game but walks such a small and self-serving walk.

The film that needed to exist should have been a character study within an origin story of the root of racial tension – or one of them at least. We need a film to come out that will help us cope with the ugliness that is racial prejudice so we can finally understand each other. If that’s why you want to see “Birth of a Nation” prepare to be disappointed.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on March 25, 2016

BatmanScore: 2.5/5

In history, defining moments can sometimes be summed up by a great match between great opposites: Persia vs. Sparta, direct current vs. alternating current and Coke vs. Pepsi.

Yet there has never been a match up so anticipated as the one between Batman and Superman. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is Zack Snyder’s take on the DC titans’ duel.

The film takes place sometime after the events in “Man of Steel,” which seems to become more and more like a prologue as the blistering hurricanes of time erode. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) sees Superman as a thorn in the side of his business empire after the Metropolis branch of Wayne Enterprises is destroyed in the battle between General Zod and Superman.

Meanwhile Superman (Henry Cavill) finds it difficult to continue has duties as Clark Kent at the Daily Planet as a result of fighting Wayne’s war against him (proving my opinion that Clark Kent is a terrible reporter).

Like J.J. Abrams and “The Force Awakens,” “Batman v Superman” has been breaking the Internet since its announcement in 2013. The parallels between the two films are undeniable: built-in name recognition, a large fan base, media anticipation, action-packed blockbuster chops. In theory, everything should have been right.

But that’s if the following elements from “Batman v Superman” are omitted from the equation: While Batman had a groundbreaking stand-alone trilogy, Superman had a reboot with mixed reviews. The same director from said reboot returns with greed and intentions to introduce the entire DC universe.

Add to the equation, and it becomes understandable why “Dawn of Justice” would create both an artificial high for die-hard DC fans and a disappointing pit for the casual movie-goer.

The performances, including Affleck and Cavill,  are not at all bad. What makes them falter is that the characters are given odd motivations.

Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is portrayed as a spastic Silicon Valley billionaire with diabolical tendencies. This doesn’t seem right. Wouldn’t it make more sense if Luthor was an old money fat cat, not unlike the Koch brothers or (dare I say) Donald Trump? Wasn’t his unwillingness to embrace change the driving power of his villainy?

Eisenberg isn’t a bad actor, he is just bad for this part. Sure, the filmmakers were just trying to be different by creating a grittier universe. But where is it written that 21st-century comic films have to be gritty and realistic – an oxymoron considering most cityscapes are green screen. Since Christopher Nolan opened Pandora’s box with his “Dark Knight” trilogy, the hero part of “superhero” has become unimportant, while the undesirable brooding and the need to seem relevant have taken over.

In addition to the epic battle between the DC demigods, there are also Senate hearings, a giant blob monster and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) which just goes to show that “Dawn of Justice” came into fruition only because somebody was blinded by giant dollar signs.

The worse part of it all is that movie-goers will buy tickets to this gloomy fruit salad of depression and disappointment. To put it lightly, “Dawn of Justice” has no intentions to be a fun piece of entertainment. It was meant to be a cash cow that will give birth to more cash cows.

The unnecessary introduction of Wonder Woman will surely become a film about her, as well as one for Aquaman (who will be portrayed by Jason Momoa) until it all reaches a dark franchise cake-topper known as “Justice League.”

With that in mind, perhaps the film should re-titled “Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Money Bovines.”

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is currently screening in theaters nationwide.

The 5th Wave (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Feb. 11, 2016

5th-Wave_posterScore: 2.5/5

Actors Chloë Grace Moretz and Nick Robinson are a part of a new generation of Hollywood stars.

Robinson has proved to be a hit in indie films like “Being Charlie” and “The Kings of Summer,” while also proving that his boy-next-door good looks were bankable in the blockbuster “Jurassic World.”

Moretz has demonstrated her innocence-fueled wisdom in “Hugo” and “(500) Days of Summer,” but has also taken the transition from child actor to starlet in “Carrie” and “If I Stay.”

Together, these young thespians should have been able to use their talents to bring life to a genre that is quickly becoming diluted. This, of course, did not happen.

“The 5th Wave” is set in the middle of an alien invasion. The title indicates that there is a series of assaults that otherworldly beings used to take over Earth:

  1. Power is taken away from the world through a giant electric shock. Systems of communication and transportation are destroyed as the result of the first wave. Many lives are lost.
  1. Tsunamis wipe out the coastal population.
  1. A plague kills the survivors and those living in the interior of the continents.
  1. Ground troops are deployed to pick out the remaining survivors.

I list these waves because it seems unnecessary to have so many. If this is really an advanced alien civilization, wouldn’t it just be easier to develop a super virus that can kill everyone instead of a few people? Why develop tsunami-inducing technology when biological warfare is more effective?

Is there a military industrial complex that holds back such developments, complete with elected representatives from districts where most constituents are employed by companies that build tsunami technology? If so, there’s no way that an alien civilization with the same bureaucratic obstacles as the United States would be able to effectively take over Earth. But I digress.

Of course, the big picture issues of such an invasion don’t matter because this is about Cassie Sullivan (Moretz) trying to find her brother who was kidnapped by the aliens. But wait, there’s more. It turns out that her brother is actually at the same camp as her high school crush, Ben Parrish (Robinson).

Never mind the potential billions of lives lost. What matters is that Cassie has to find her brother while also avoiding the alien death squads roaming the planet while trying to find a way to face her feelings for Ben.

As a young-adult film, “The 5th Wave” is just another comet that passes by our field of vision before quickly fading away from both our hearts and our memories. But it wasn’t like it was there to begin with.

“The 5th Wave” is currently playing at the Regal Natomas Marketplace Stadium 16 in Sacramento.

The Hateful Eight (2015) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com Dec. 29, 2015

The Hateful EightScore: 2.5/5

Quentin Tarantino is so beloved that four times out of five, a poster of “Pulp Fiction” can be found hanging in a film student’s dorm room. “The Hateful Eight” comes off as typical Tarantino, minus the charm and wit from previous films.

At the start, Tarantino’s love for himself is clear from the title card –“The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino” — as if to remind audiences that “genius” is more important than quantity.

Five minutes after the overly indulgent overture, a stage coach approaches The Bounty Hunter  (Samuel L. Jackson) sitting on a pile of bodies. The passengers in the coach are The Hangman (Kurt Russell) and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a foul-mouthed murderer. So it’s okay that every five minutes or so Jackson and Russell beat her to a bloody pulp.

The three characters eventually find refuge in a stage coach lodge with five other characters. It is the events that unfold within this lodge that make up the plot of “The Hateful Eight.”

“The Hateful Eight” plays like Tarantino’s first film, “Reservoir Dogs,” with more star power and a bigger budget. Perhaps these new resources are what made the story suffer. With long, drawn out conversations, most of which lead to nowhere, the writer/director uses this film to show his poetic dialogue as if his prose has changed the face of the world itself.

It is also similar to the overrated “Django Unchained” in which Tarantino wrestled with his inner demons to understand his place in the African-American community. Though both films look at racial inequality as a terrible stain on American history, the liberal use of a certain racial slur and the fact that Tarantino is not African-American make the films come off as outrageously inappropriate.

He even goes as far as portraying the Confederate general character (Bruce Dern) as a manipulating pedophile which is, of course, revealed in a line of gratuitous banter that leads nowhere.

Tarantino’s aesthetic presents violent behavior as near parody, taking cues from stylized dramas like spaghetti westerns and exploitation. Nonetheless it is violence, making “The Hateful Eight” one of the most violent films of the year, and far from a good one.

“The Hateful Eight” opens nationwide on Wednesday, Dec. 30. It is playing at the Regal Natomas Marketplace Stadium 16, Century Stadium 14, and Century 16 Greenback Lane in Sacramento.

Staten Island Summer (2015) Review

Staten_Island_Summer_posterScore: 2.5/5

Perhaps the world is too used to the Judd Apatow School of Comedy. Why must all movies about two friends trying to throw a party in order to have sex must be compared to “Superbad?” Yes it is a great movie, but is it truly the benchmark?

“Staten Island Summer” is about Danny (Graham Phillips), a lifeguard at a public pool in Staten Island. At this pool, he works with his best friend Frank (Zach Pearlman) who fills in the roll of Jonah Hill. He also works with the hilarious Mary Ellen played by the always welcomed Cecily Strong. John DeLuca plays the mother-loving – to put it politely – Anthony, the guido of the group because you know, Staten Island. Since this is a 21st century comedy there has to be a pothead; Bobby Moynihan is that pothead named Skootch.

Together this menagerie of down-on-their-luck lifeguards must throw the biggest party of the summer. But wait! They must first fight off Chuck the speedo wearing manager (Mike O’Brien). Usually this is where the plot gets ridiculous, but I’m willing to accept that.

Of course there has to be Danny’s love interest and that love interest is Krystal Manicucci (Ashley Greene) the daughter of a Mob Boss because again, Staten Island. Danny wants to have sex with – or at least kiss – Krystal. But he can’t because if he does, her father will kill him. After this… shenanigans ensue!

If “Staten Island Summer” is just trying to be funny then it achieved it. It is funny in that writer Colin Jost loves his characters. Colin Jost is known for taking the place as co-anchor of “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.” It was a change from the quick witted Seth Meyers that most twenty-somethings grew up watching. Now there’s Jost, Harvard educated with schoolboy good looks. He’s funny in the way that my football player friends are funny. You laugh at what he has to say, but you wouldn’t buy a ticket to go see his stand-up.

It is an achievement in casting that Graham Phillips play proxy Jost. Phillips is known for his role as Zack Florrick on “The Good Wife” where he plays the handsome son of two politicians. In “Staten Island Summer” he’s more fish-out-of-water with the loud blue-collar ladies and gents of Staten Island. His performance was good.

With all of that said, director Rhys Thomas was working with a script that needed to go through a few more drafts before it was ready. “Staten Island Summer” was just a bunch of observations of one’s surroundings without any unity in them except the fact that they all have to do with Staten Island life. Although I enjoyed this work more than I enjoy Jost’s work on “SNL.” Perhaps screenwriting is more suited for his taste.

“Staten Island Summer” is now streaming on Netflix.

Maleficent (2014) Review

Maleficent_poster

Score: 2.5/5

One of the most important rules in film making is show, not tell. Disney’s “Maleficent” breaks that rule because this film was purely made to be a fun family film like “Frozen.” “Maleficent” is the story of “Sleeping Beauty” from the point of view of the villain who is the title character (played by Angelina Jolie)… sort of. I understand taking poetic license with a fairy-tale that is nearly or more than three centuries old, we all know the story of “Sleeping Beauty;” it’s the kind of story that is supposed to be fun to watch and feel almost nostalgic. Yet there’s nothing to like or dislike. With a run time of just ninety-eight minutes, I wasn’t given time to form opinions about the characters. Don’t worry, fellow moviegoers, Disney has solved this problem by simply adding narration that explains everything for you. And when they feel that narration is a bit bland, what’s the harm of having the characters just tell you themselves?

The young Maleficent is a fairy. A pretty metal fairy, I might add, because I have never heard of a fairy with eagle’s wings and horns and wears earth tones. She falls for a young farmer boy named Stefan (pronounced Stef-fon which made me think of nothing but that one character that Bill Hader portrayed on “Saturday Night Live”). Soon he gives her a gift when hormones are just kicking in, and that gift is “true love’s first kiss.” Awww, you all say as you read that, that’s sweet. Now here’s the thing that I mentioned earlier, the characters sometime explain things for you. During their first encounter, Maleficent touches Stefan’s hand and is burnt. This is due to Stefan’s metal ring. She says, “Iron burns fairies.” Okay, well we’ve established that plot point, but they couldn’t have just showed the burning? Why couldn’t they just show it and not add that off beat line? But I’ll stop there… on that example of telling and not showing.

Later, when they’re older, Maleficent has become the guardian of the moors. The evil king (we know he’s evil because the narration tells us he is) arrives with an army (that has like ten guys) and says, “These are the Moors, a place where no man would ever venture due to the dangers within.” Now that line was just stupid. If the battle was just shown, it would have given us just that much information. Do the filmmakers (or the committee to make the Jolie movie) think the audience needs that many crumbs, that they thought it best to just throw the entire loaf? Filmmakers can trusts audiences now (even if they are children), you don’t show them a red apple and say that you are showing them a red apple. They know what you’re showing them, so just SHOW IT and don’t TELL IT.

Then there’s the problem with the actual story of “Sleeping Beauty.” I have read reviews that put this movie in a category that was created after the Broadway hit “Wicked.” But the difference between “Wicked” and “Maleficent” is that at least “Wicked” kept to the source material. “Maleficent” just changed the story completely and used some of the same names. The prince (a very handsome Brenton Thwaites) is introduced late in the second act and then quickly disregarded early in the third act to prove that true love comes only from those who care for you. Come on, Disney, there’s a difference between the love that family has for one another and the love one chooses for one’s self. True love’s first kiss, comes from the love you choose. The love that comes from family is mandatory and yet true because you have a connection with this person that no one outside the relationship will ever understand. People like true love that you choose.

The movie has a $180 million budget. Apparently that kind of money can only produce a product with sloppy storytelling, Candy Crush like special effects, and a good sized salary for Jolie (who also served as Executive Producer). Speaking of Jolie, this was the part that she was born for. But a part is only as good as the script it comes from, and not even all of the fake cheeks in the world would prove that statement wrong. Yes, I know that this was a blockbuster movie and only made to make money. It’s supposed to be fun! The key word in the last sentence is “supposed.” It’s not even fun to watch because it’s just a blur of color and narration. Couldn’t some of those millions have gone to better battle sequences or a more creative director?

So to end my review here is my message to studios for the next summer season: It’s one thing for a movie to make money, but it’s another to make it worth those earnings.