Tag Archives: Film Review

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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Whether for art or commerce, making a film is a team sport. The undertaking insists that many minds and many hands work many hours in concert. Still, some films are far more the product of an individual’s tireless effort. Nate Parker wrote, directed and stars in The Birth of a Nation, the story of Nat Turner and his 48-hour slave rebellion. It exists more because of him than anyone else, save Nat Turner.

Nate Parker was also accused of rape in 1999, a controversy that has become intrinsically tied to his film and the conversation surrounding it. In answering a question that is both new and terribly old, each of us must decide whether or not the artist’s (alleged) transgressions should swallow his work. Though many would like this to be a universal assessment, it is inevitably personal. And in making this determination, it’s important to remember that not only can an artist’s work surpass the artist, but in fact, it should.

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Noah (2014)

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Darren Aronofsky has always felt a bit like America’s Lars von Trier — a brilliant misanthropic visionary, a storyteller whose wry approach often hits closer to home than we’d like. Aronofsky is more of a romantic than von Trier, but the emotional depths to which both men often insist on traveling feel kindred. And the results tend to share a gloom that distinguishes them from their peers. While Noah begins as an immense action epic, it ends in much more familiar territory for Aronofsky: Tense, probing character drama dealing with the lengths to which an obsessive person will go to do something they believe in.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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Ralph Fiennes hasn’t been given many chances to act silly. Even his lighter roles end up heavy, which is why his filmography is built on Schindler’s Lists and English Patients. It begs the question of how Wes Anderson landed on Fiennes for his M. Gustave, whose kooky concierge is the comedic axis of the film? — a question answered promptly with a hundred minutes of Fiennes’ inexhaustible talent and charm. This may be Anderson’s purest comedy to date, which says any number of things about the director — he’s lightening up, he’s more interested in genre, he understands how hilarious Willem Dafoe will look with a false, canine-heavy underbite. The Grand Budapest Hotel is another minutely detailed, masterfully constructed film from Wes Anderson, and a reminder that he’s almost certainly the most meticulous director working today.

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Amarcord (1973)

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We all have stories from our youth. Their veracity is usually up for debate, but the stories are there, napping in the shadowy parts of our brains. Amarcord — a Northern Italian phrase for I remember — is Federico Fellini’s story. It has a small town, and fascists, and befitting the frenzied concupiscence of teenage boys, a coterie of beautiful women serving as little more than objects. Looking backwards in time is a finicky venture, and for Fellini bears out all manner of misremembrances in service of his dark comedy, which is often about the way those inevitable misremembrances make our stories better.

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The Monuments Men (2014)

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It’s often a good thing when a director settles into his own style, when he reaches a degree of comfort with his voice as a storyteller. It means he can spend less time obsessing over style choices and more time considering what lies at the center of the stories he’s chosen to tell. Not so George Clooney. In Leatherheads and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney revealed a proclivity towards the atmosphere of Old Hollywood–Old America even. He also showed a modicum of nuance in the way he presented it. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men finds him exploring this inclination more single-mindedly and fruitlessly than ever before.

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2013’s Top Nine

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So here they are, my best of 2013. I’ll allow my two-month demurral and the list’s incompleteness (who does a top nine?) to speak for the sort of year I had in the theaters. Still, I saw enough to have an opinion and I’m going to share it with you.

Enjoy.

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Salinger (2013)

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Salinger is built like an homage, speaking of the man with a spiritual reverence, maintaining an air of enigmatic romance with “never before seen” imagery and footage. The author’s elusiveness is the throughline, and Salinger wants desperately to play a part in the creation of his mythology, assembling old friends and contemporaries to talk about his work and character with great solemnity. It works, not because the film is effectively made, but because the story of Jerry “J.D.” Salinger is so salient. For those who have read Salinger, and felt a kinship with the man through that writing, Salinger is the rare film that unlocks its subject while somehow telling you what you already knew: He was a true artist, and true artists don’t owe us anything.

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American Hustle (2013)

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I just don’t have much to say about American Hustle. Not for lack of trying, but the film hasn’t given me much to think about since I saw it a week ago. It’s a perfectly okay movie built on a mildly interesting true story that has a few things to say about the follies of greed, and includes a pair of knockout performances. But more than all that, and first, it’s a film that reminds you how utterly flaky Academy voters can be.

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Help! (1965)

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The plot of Help! is absurd and absurdly simple: An eastern cult can’t perform its sacrificial rite without a gaudy ring that, as it turns out, was sent to Ringo and is now stuck on his finger. Led by a screw-eyed Swami named Clang (Leo McKern), the cult hunts the Beatles and the ring around the globe — whenever possible, tomfoolery abounds. It’s a story made for a 20-minute cartoon, yet Director Richard Lester, in his second outing with the boys, somehow found a way to stretch it into a full 92-minute feature.

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12 Years a Slave (2013)

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Steve McQueen probably hated Django Unchained. Where Tarantino’s Django Unchained toyed with history’s facts to make the horrors of slavery a plot point, 12 Years a Slave is a film about a torture perpetrated on millions of black men, women and children. McQueen’s third feature isn’t interested in the audience’s comfort or catharsis, and tells a story full of vicious, hard violence and fractured souls. McQueen brings you as close as he possibly can to the horrors of antebellum slavery, not shying from bloody truths, and ultimately reminds us that far, far too often, history’s mad men and their ugly horrors go unpunished and unredressed.

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