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.

The Jungle Book (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on May 4, 2016

The_Jungle_Book_(2016)Score: 4/5

“And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today”

-Robert Louis Stevenson

Disney’s first adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” the 1967 animated film, was not entirely beloved. Instead, the songs were beloved while the work as a whole was forgettable, at best.

Director Jon Favreau does not update the tale of Mowgli for modern audiences. Instead, he allows the folklore to linger and push the plot forward – as it was meant to do.

Like “Peter Pan” or “Winnie the Pooh,” “The Jungle Book” is part of the canon for English-speaking children. Mowgli always represented the wild child within. To children, his life was ideal. One day he would be running with wolves, and the next day he would be fighting off monkeys with bears and panthers, while also hanging out with elephants. What’s not to like?

As far as the film’s special effects are concerned, they are not realistic. But that is because they are not meant to be. “The Jungle Book” is not supposed to be an achievement in computer effects. Instead, the jungle and its animals are presented through the point of view of a small boy.

That’s not to say that the film does not pay homage to the cinemasphere. The temple where King Louie – masterfully voiced by Christopher Walken – and his tribe of primates dwell is similar to Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”  Even Louie, always draped in shadows, has taken the form of Marlon Brando.

Walken is not the only iconic voice in the film. Ben Kingsley is the voice of Mowgli’s mentor, Bagheera, and he brings his unique English stuffiness and harrumph to the character. I suppose that is because Bagheera is a proxy for Rudyard Kipling, the British author of the book on which the film is based..

But to cast Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Kaa was a bold choice of brilliance. In the scene when Mowgli first meets the great python in her canopy home, the images are of a biblical nature. Johansson’s seductive voice slithers with the movements of the serpent. If Kaa were a male, perhaps the forbidden sin of desire would have been absent. But Kaa’s femininity gave the scene an eeriness that will make it unforgettable for years to come.

Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book” for his daughter Josephine, who died at the age of 6. Originally, the book was a collection of short stories set in British-ruled India. Many of the stories feature a feral child called Mowgli and his interactions with the animals of the jungle.

A child cannot survive in the jungle forever, which is the great metaphor for growing up. Bagheera tells Mowgli that he can only be safe from Shere Khan, a tiger who forbids humans from entering the jungle, by living with man. Like when Wendy in “Peter Pan” is told that she will have to move out of the nursery, it is painful for Mowgli to hear, but it must be done.

“The Jungle Book” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

Confirmation (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 30, 2016

Confirmation_posterScore: 2/5

HBO’s latest original film, “Confirmation,” is a minor addition to the channel’s recent repertoire of political dramas in the same strain as 2008’s “Recount” and 2012’s “Game Change.”

But instead of exploring the behind-the-scenes operations of political campaigns, the film instead explores the confirmation process of Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Even before Thomas’ colleague Anita Hill came forward with her sexual harassment allegations against him, Thomas was a figure steeped in overwhelming controversy. As a textualist that believed the Constitution must be interpreted as it was originally written, he was accused by many liberals of not caring about civil rights.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding Thomas’ jurisprudence, the Senate – at that time controlled by the Democrats – was sure that he was a shoe-in for the court.

It wasn’t until a staffer for Ted Kennedy found Hill’s name that she ever felt the need to come forward.

Hill is portrayed by Kerry Washington, who doesn’t at all look like the real Hill, but instead embodies her. She embodies how Hill carried herself during the proceedings and how she anticipated the waves of criticism and skepticism that were bound to follow.

Wendell Pierce portrays Thomas, not as a man who knows he did something wrong and is trying to cover it up, but as a man who is sure that he has done nothing wrong. To him the hearings were a political circus, a public humiliation, or in his own words “a high tech lynching.”

Overseeing these hearings is the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear). The members of the committee are all men and Senate lifers: old segregationist Strom Thurmond, Republican yes-men Alan Simpson and Arlen Specter, and failed presidential candidates Paul Simon, Ted Kennedy and Biden.

Biden’s leadership style throughout the hearings was centered on compromise, to a fault. Because of his approach, the GOP members were able to walk over him and Hill was left abandoned.

However, these powerful dynamics and themes of gender and race are completely ignored by director Rick Famuyiwa.

Instead, the main focus that “Confirmation” has is on the personal struggle of Thomas at home. Too much time was spent at Thomas’ Washington, D.C, townhouse as he ignored Hill and the hearings. This came off as if Thomas was the true victim of the entire affair, which is far from the truth.  Famuyiwa tried to find two sides to a story that was clearly an all-out assault on a victim of sexual harassment. This doesn’t come from research, this comes from scenes in the film.

There’s a moment when Republican members of the committee are called inside the White House by Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein (Eric Stonestreet) to discuss tactics for the hearings. There were only two ways the narrative could end: Hill’s story ends up being true (meaning Bush nominated a pervert), or Hill is a liar. As history shows, the committee worked as hard as they could to prove that the latter was correct.

Orrin Hatch read passages of “The Exorcist” to imply that Hill plagiarized one of the harassment accounts. Missouri Senator Jack Danforth consulted with psychologists to see if a mental illness existed that would cause Hill to create fictional scenarios in her head.

When it comes down to it, this was not a high-tech lynching of Thomas. This was the Republican Party slut-shaming Hill.

But this was the movie that could have been. I can no longer dwell on what could have been. What exists now is a film that can only be described as entertaining at best, and disappointing at worst.

“Confirmation” is now streaming on HBO Go.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 21, 2016

Everybody_Wants_Some_posterScore: 5/5

There are directors like Quentin Tarantino and Francois Truffaut who make good movies,  and once in a lifetime will make a film that stands the tests of time. Then there are Directors – with a capital “D”– like Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini and Werner Herzog who have consistently created great films, with minor works still being good.

Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has proved to be a Director with a capital “D.” Beginning with his first feature-length film “Slacker,” the Austin native has created a style of filmmaking that is equal parts autobiography, slice-of-life, philosophical rambling and stoner thoughts that is quintessentially Linklater.

The most recent addition to the auteur’s portfolio is “Everybody Wants Some!!” and though it is a minor work that will be lost in the shadow of “Boyhood,” it still stands as an example of how Linklater continues to produce quality content.

A typical Linklater film is set in the near past in a short time frame. In the case of “Everybody Wants Some!!” the year is 1980, and the time frame is three days before classes start at a small college in Central Texas.

The focus is on a group of college baseball players that live in two houses on the outskirts of campus. Not exactly a fraternity, but the ambiance is the same, minus the stereotypes. Their coach tells the players that he doesn’t care what goes on inside the houses as long as they follow two simple rules: no alcohol allowed inside, no girls allowed upstairs in the bedrooms. In short, no partying.

But here’s the thing: They’re young athletes. Of course there’s partying; they’re young athletes–jocks, bros. Shenanigans are bound to ensue. It is the animal part of “Animal House.” But I digress.

Many of Linklater’s films do not have a concrete plot or story, and “Everybody Wants Some!!” is no exception. It is a collection of relatable characters that are observed from the point of view of an active “straight man.” The straight man in this film is Jake (Blake Jenner). With this formula, the possibilities are endless.

From Jake’s point of view we meet characters like Plummer (Temple Baker), who I will spend quite some time on. I know guys like Plummer and I assume we have all known guys like him. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t know that he’s a douchebag and can’t help it, yet he has a heart of gold. For that we can’t help but like him. Baker, who according to IMDB has no prior acting experience, plays Plummer well and it is hysterical.

Linklater says that the film is a “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused,” but I suppose that is just what his agent told him to say for the film to sell tickets. Though the two films have similarities, they stand apart.

Though the film is set in the 1980s, Linklater was careful to differentiate between the 1980s of MTV, John Hughes and Reagan. To most of the country, 1980 was still the end of the ‘70s. Jimmy Carter was still president and muscle cars reigned supreme. The scars of Vietnam and Watergate still hadn’t healed. In a way, America in 1980 was still clenching onto a wild kind of innocence.

Linklater knew this and with that insight in mind, he used “Everybody Wants Some!!” to remind people what it truly meant to be young, wild, free and full of beer.

“Everybody Wants Some!!” is currently playing at the Tower Theater on Broadway in Sacramento.

Recount (2008) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 16, 2016

Recount_(film)Score: 4/5

As the 2016 presidential election draws nearer and the cycle continues to electrify with surprises, I am reminded of the influence of past elections.

Like a kaleidoscope that assaults our fields of vision with aggressive intensity, each election cycle brings with it defining images and phrases: “I Like Ike,” Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, Mitt Romney and his “binders full of women.”

But the 2000 presidential election can be summed up in one phrase: There’s a problem with the numbers in Florida.

These are the most important words spoken in Jay Roach’s 2008 HBO film “Recount.” The movie, which premiered on television, dramatizes the events that transpired in the Sunshine State when Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore became locked in an eleventh-hour decision over who would be the rightful winner of the presidency in 2000.

State campaign officials were left  to figure out who actually won Florida, which in turn would determine who won the presidency. The close margin of votes between the two candidates in Florida prompted an automatic recount of votes.

“Recount” opens with problems with the “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach, Florida. Candidates were listed on both sides of the ballot with the punch card in the center. The confusion that elderly voters experienced is represented by a single woman who looks at her ballot, and then at the sign in the booth that says “time limit in voting booth is five minutes.” She finally punches a hole into her ballot, but the only problem is that she doesn’t know whom she has voted for.

This is the moment it all began. It was the moment when every lawyer in the country had to learn about chad (small pieces of paper punched from the ballot when the voter chooses a candidate) and whether hanging chad (punched but still partially attached) and dimple chad (punched but all corners still attached) had to be counted. It was the moment Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern) became a national name.

Harris can only be described as a whack-job, and Laura Dern is a master at playing a whack-job. She’s been thrust into one of the most important positions in the world, and she abused it for the sake of herself. Everyone on both sides of the election can see it. Because it’s so clear that she’s trying to push the recount into Bush’s favor, leaders of the Bush campaign become afraid that Americans would think they’re influencing her (which they’re not).

During election years, the animalism of people comes out, and 2000 is no exception. Death threats are sent to members of canvassing boards during the proceedings. A protest in Miami-Dade County almost erupts into violence as a group of Bush supporters nearly attack a Gore lawyer. The canvassing board feels so threatened they decide to end recounting proceedings.

As history has shown, Florida eventually goes to Bush. The truth is that the Gore campaign stood no chance against the complex apparatus of think tanks, law firms and state officials that supported Bush in Florida. It didn’t help that George W. Bush’s brother Jeb was governor, either.

At the end of “Recount,” a Gore aide approaches a Bush aide on a tarmac and asks him if the best man won. Whether the best man won the election or Florida will never be known, despite the images of Katherine Harris and hanging chads that defined that election cycle.

What images will define the 2016 election?

“Recount” is currently available for streaming on HBO Go, HBO Now and Amazon Prime.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 11, 2016

A letter of concern to Nia Vardalos

greek wedding 2Score: 1.5/5

Ms. Nia Vardalos,

Thank you for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

When I was just an awkward middle schooler in Southern California, you came into my life with your unique insight on family, love and happiness.

As Toula Portokalos, you were every person who ever felt as if there was more beyond his or her own family. You showed us the inevitable conclusion that family will always be a part of who we are.

Your confidence and Archaic sexuality stood grounded and strong in the sea of chaos that was your family.

Though I am not of Greek descent and there are more differences than similarities in the Filipino and Greek cultures, I still felt like your family was my family.Your description of the lack of personal time as a result of your family always being in each other’s business struck a chord with me.

I am filled with the great memories of weekly barbecues with my extended family, and Easters in the park, where the men would stand around the pit talking about football, the women would gather around a table and share the week’s gossip, and the kids would run in a massive swirl of energy that never seemed to wane.

Yet when I saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” your epilogue to your magnum opus, the Nia Vardalos that I knew and loved, was absent. Literally.

I understand that you wanted to show how Toula’s teenage daughter was experiencing the same anxieties of being part of a big family, but why was Toula pushed to the sidelines along with a subplot about trying to create the perfect marriage with her husband? It made no sense for her character.

Without Toula, the Portokalos family has become nothing but a collection of one-dimensional characters. Toula was the glue that held it all together. In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” she is part of the madness.

Though your daughter, Paris, was supposed to be the straight man–a replacement for Toula–she only came off as being a brat.

There were also other additions to “Greek Wedding 2” that didn’t seem necessary or in character. The odd main plot about Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan) not actually being married clearly only existed because there needed to be justification for the title “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.”

And why was John Stamos in there?

Ms. Vardalos, do not take this lamentation as a criticism, but instead as a warning.

You are too talented to be corrupted by the dollar. “Greek Wedding 2” shows that it’s getting to you. Do not become one of those writers-for-hire, taking whatever project has the highest amount attached.

Your voice is still strong. Use it.

With love and concern,

Zach

Everything is Copy (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 2, 2016

everything_is_copyScore: 5/5

If writer Nora Ephron could be described with only three words, they would be “everything is copy.” Writers most likely know what this means, but for those outside of the bubble, Ephron explains the phrase perfectly:

“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim, of the joke.”

“Everything Is Copy” is a documentary paying homage to the late Nora Ephron–the writer, filmmaker and journalist who brought freshness and charm to romantic comedies that hasn’t been seen since her passing in 2012. If you don’t believe me, watch “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Ephron’s body of work went beyond her films. In the early ’70s, she was a reporter for the New York Post and a columnist for Esquire. In her life she wrote eight books, most of them collections of essays.

For most writers, their work persona is the version the world knows. Ernest Hemingway was not the macho man of his books, but a man who yearned to be like his characters.

However, to Ephron, everything was copy. Her life experiences are what fueled her writing, her sense of self, and her perspective on love and relationships.

“Everything is Copy” is directed by Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein (Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story along with Bob Woodward, is Jacob’s father). He breaks with the objectivity of journalism to discover that his mother actually believed the mantra that she stole from her own mother.

As the documentary progresses, he discovers that the phrase “everything is copy” is not just witty advice from one writer to another. It was the key to her success.

In the documentary, former Sony Studios executive Amy Pascal described Ephron as being smart, insightful, witty, sexy and ambitious. The same can be said about Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally” or Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia.”

Yet when Ephron said everything is copy, she also meant the bad things that happen in life. Her novel “Heartburn” was based on her marriage and eventual divorce with Carl Bernstein after his affair with a mutual friend. The documentary describes the process of the divorce and the emotional effect it had on Ephron as Bernstein continued to threaten suing her for the book. But what it proved was that even during a time of emotional strain, Ephron put the experience into her work.

Terrible days are part of the human experience. Everyone has them, some more often than others, and they make it feel for a moment like the world is crumbling into the bottom of the space-time continuum.

If you’re a human being, bad things will happen. You’ll be late for trains, you won’t get into your dream school, somebody will say no.

Now for a personal reflection: Recently I was informed that I was not accepted into the school I wanted to attend since I was 13–my dream school. For three days straight, I moped, cried, yelled at the dog and ate Oreos. After three days, however, I watched this documentary and it reminded me that “everything is copy.”

Now I eat Oreos for fun instead.

“Everything is Copy” is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.