Richard sits in with Beverly Thomson to have a look at the weekend’s new movies, the boozy thriller “The Girl on the Train,” the courtroom drama “Denial,” the rebellious “The Birth of a Nation” and “Two Lovers and a Bear,” starring Tatiana Maslany.
Richard and CP24 anchor Jamie Gutfreund have a look at the weekend’s new movies, the Emily Blunt thriller “The Girl on the Train,” the Nate Parker historical drama “The Birth of a Nation,” Rachel Weisz in a slice of legal history called “Denial” and “Two Lovers and a Bear,” starring Tatiana Maslany.
Out of Sundance “The Birth of a Nation,” a biopic of slave, preacher and revolutionary Nat Turner written, directed and starring Nate Parker, was being touted as an Oscar contender. It set a record as the biggest distribution deal ever made at the Sundance Film Festival and won rapturous reviews.
Then the news broke that Parker was accused of raping a drunk, unconscious 18-year-old Penn State University student in 1999, orchestrated campaign of harassment and that although he was cleared in a 2001 trial, the alleged victim was so traumatized by the incident that she went on to commit suicide in 2012 at the age of 30.
Word around Tinsel Town is that these revelations have torpedoed any Oscar hope the film might have had, but the question is, will Nat Turner’s tale prove more potent than Parker’s own story?
From a young age Nat Turner (Parker) is told he is a child of God, someone with purpose. Growing up on the Turner plantation, he is taught to read but nonetheless is sent to work as a field hand. As a young man the seeds of his discontent are sewn when he is sold to unscrupulous plantation owners, sent out to teach the godly value of servitude to his fellow slaves. “Slaves submit yourself to your masters,” he preaches. His words make his owner rich and lift some broken spirits, but soon the hypocrisy of his proselytizing seeps in after a series of unspeakable events. He witnesses rape, brutality and after he baptizes a white man he is whipped to within an inch of his life. Beaten but not broken, he decides to fight back just as David, Goliath and Sampson did. Where he was once a spiritual leader he is now a rebellion chief. “With the help of our father we will cut the head off the serpent!”
It took Parker seven years to bring “The Birth of a Nation” to the screen and his passion is writ large on every frame. He has made an audacious film, a brash epic that borrows its name from D. W. Griffith’s racist 1915 blockbuster.
It is Turner hero’s moral journey from slave to rebellion leader. It’s a coming-of-rage story that spares few details. We are shown the casual cruelty that turned Turner from a peace-loving preacher to a man pushed to violence. On screen Parker is at the center of the action, appearing in almost every scene and bearing the emotional brunt of the narrative. He is the story’s engine and with an understated, powerful performance he keeps us along for the ride.
It’s the filmmaking that falls short. There are moments of singular imagery—a slow tracking shot of bodies hanging form a tree set to Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is unsettling and unforgettable—but Parker has paced the film at a deliberate, monotonous tempo that doesn’t do the story any favours. It feels like a missed opportunity to not build tension, to not allow the remarkable story to lead the way.
Turner was a remarkable man, whose actions led directly and indirectly to the Civil War. Parker fails to fully place the man into historical perspective and by doing so ignores dramatic opportunities.
“The Birth of a Nation” is an important story of a man in an inhuman world. Parker treats the material and the man respectfully but could have used more urgency.
Hollywood is in the habit of remaking everything these days, relying on brand recognition to sell their movies, so it’s hard to understand why this remake of “The Bodyguard” is called “Beyond the Lights.” Sure, the character names are different, it was written by different people, Kevin Costner is nowhere to be seen and it’s an “original” story but a sense of déjà vu hangs heavy over the movie’s every frame.
When we first meet Noni Jean she’s a young girl with a set of pipes to revival any American Idol contestant. Her mother and manager—her momanger—Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) is a determined presence with her eye set on superstardom for her daughter. Cut to a few years later, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is now a hip hop star à la Rihanna. She’s on the cusp of fame, has a rapper boyfriend and a record about to come out that is guaranteed to be a hit. One night, just days before a big performance at the Billboard Awards, the pressure gets to be too much and Noni tries to jump off the balcony of her hotel room. She is rescued by Kaz (Nate Parker), a handsome police officer working on her security detail who grabs her hand just as she is about to tumble in to the tabloid headlines.
A romance blossoms between the two, despite the protests of their parents. Kaz’s father (Danny Glover), a retired police officer is grooming his charismatic son for a career in politics while Macy Jean simply wants sever any ties to the suicide story. Noni and Kaz, however, have a special bond, one born out of an understanding of what it’s like to have pushy parents and wanting to do your own thing.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood trowels the melodrama on thick in this sensationalistic show-biz fable but that doesn’t stop her from commenting on the downside of notoriety in a way that hasn’t been done since “A Star Is Born” chronicled the decline of singer John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson). It’s an occasionally scorching look at the world of fame, but defaults to soap opera theatrics to keep the plot moving forward.
None of this would register if Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker weren’t such compelling performers. Mbatha-Raw wowed in last year’s “Belle” and shines here playing both sides of Noni’s personality, the onstage diva and conflicted offstage woman. If anyone sees “Beyond the Lights” a star may be born. Her chemistry with Parker is undeniable and together they overcome the film’s unnecessary plot theatrics.
Richard: Mark, looking around at the press today in the lobby of the Inter Continental, the host hotel for the media, put me in the mind of an episode of The Walking Dead. Everyone is beat and there are still a few days to go, movies to see and celebrities to be coddled and interviewed. The end, howeVER, is in sight and to me right now it looks like a big glowing orb. A delicious orb of made of cookie dough and beer. How’s it going for you?
Mark: Day 8 of the hostage crisis and no signs of release, Richard. Haven’t eaten a proper meal since TIFF started. Very little sleep. No contact with my family. They’ve turned me into a broken man and I’m ready to talk, to name names and talk about where the gems are. And there have been some real gems in the festival so far. Any faves, my friend?
RC: Reese Witherspoon had a couple of movies at the festival. The Good Lie is a Blind Side-esque story of a social worker who helps three Sudanese Lost Boys find work in America and reunite with their sister. It got a standing ovation at the gala BEFORE the stars came out. Pretty rare for a credit roll to bring people to their feet. She’s also in Wild, the story of a troubled woman who hikes 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Filled with happiness, pain, sorrow and more melancholy than a Patsy Cline ballad, it feels like a life on parade. Like puzzle pieces the snippets piece together to eventually form a whole. And it’s funny too. I’m still laughing about the “lady hobo” scene.
MB: I found Beyond the Lights to be a terrible movie-fraudulent and packaged, with bad concert footage in place of plot and character development. It’s the story of a Beyonce-type diva who finds her true self, but I’ve never seen the journey to authenticity portrayed with such little authenticity. Yet in this bad movie-and I mean Showgirls bad-movie, there are the two leads transcending the material at each moment. Gugu Mbatha-Raw fills the screen with her electric presence, and Nate Parker as her Bodyguard redux cop boyfriend delivers an impressively restrained performance.
RC: I’d put Jack O’Connell in the stars to watch category. Every year there is someone to look out for. A few years ago Michael Fassbinder became a big star after his portrayal of hunger striker Bobby Sands helped make Hunger one of the big hits of the festival. In 71 O’Connell plays a rookie British soldier lost in an IRA controlled part of Belfast at the height of “The Troubles.” It’s a break out, and is a nice sedt up to his next movie, the Angelina Jolie directed war-drama Unbroken based on the life of WWII POW and Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini. I also think Bang Bang Baby’s Jane Levy could break big after TIFF this year.
MB: I’d put Julia Sarah Stone in that category too. The lead in Wet Bum, she brings a wide-eyed innocence and slow burn to the coming of age picture. The movie meant something extra to me because I, too, came from a family that owned nursing homes. The movie is slight, though, and not a lot happens in it, which is why it’s so important we identify with the young girl. Unfortunate title, though, and I think you may get websites you’re not looking for when you google it.
“You know what this is like?” asks Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) in the new dramedy “About Alex.” “It’s like one of those 80s movies with a big group of people.”
Bang on Sarah. In fact, it’s exactly like ”The Big Chill” with new names and faces.
The movie begins with the title character Alex (Jason Ritter) soaking in a tub, texting a Romeo & Juliet quote– “ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”—to his friends before taking a razor blade to his wrists. The news of his suicide attempt quickly spread to his closest, although mostly estranged, friends from college.
Coming together in an upstate New York house to support and comfort their old friend each brings with them their own issues.
Sarah is insecure, stuck living in the past. Ben and Siri (Nate Parker and Maggie Grace) have been together for years, but may be torn apart by job opportunities on opposite coasts, while Isaac’s (Max Minghella) young girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy) is an unwelcome newcomer in this group while Josh’s (Max Greenfield) abrasiveness is the sand in the Vaseline that opens old wounds.
“About Alex” leans heavily on “The Big Chill” and similar college-reunion movies for its basic structure, but ups the navel-gazing quotient. These aren’t the self-obsessed Boomers of yesteryear, they’re the self-reflective Millennials of today. Faced with uncertain futures and an unsettled present. Not too different from their cinematic predecessors, but their reactions to their situation isn’t formed by the turbulent 1960s or the Vietnam War but by social media filtered through a quarter-life crisis.
Much of cultural the substance of “After Alex” is keenly observed by the engaging cast–“[People] don’t talk about anything [today], says Josh. “They just reference things. ‘I had a great weekend. I went to this wedding. It was a lot like Wedding Crashers, but meets Memento.”—but as good as the performances are, by the end of the film the story descends into melodrama which underscores the overall unoriginality of the script.
Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter and star of the new film About Alex, doesn’t call himself a method actor, but he used some tricks to prepare for his latest role.
“There are certain times when I try to help myself get into a mindset by trying to create circumstances around me that mimic certain feelings,” said the 34-year-old actor.
The action in About Alex begins with the drained looking titular character (Ritter), feeling cut off from his closest friends, sending a farewell tweet before attempting suicide.
“I felt like Alex might have spent some sleepless nights, haunted and alone, so I spent a lot of time just wandering around my house. I made myself coffees and tried to stay up all night. Basically not giving my brain a chance to rest. It was just about transferring that over into a more extreme version, helping me get into a mindset of someone who doesn’t see any other solution and who wants the pain to end.”
The actor, who has a recurring role on the show Parenthood, says, “it would have felt a little bit strange to me if I had gotten a great night sleep, woken up, had a big breakfast and then had to jump into the scene. I guess I don’t trust myself enough to be able to jump straight into something that heavy.”
The movie takes on a Big Chill vibe as Alex’s best friends — played by Parks and Rec’s Aubrey Plaza, Maggie Grace of Lost, Max Minghella, Non-Stop’s Nate Parker and The New Girl’s Max Greenfield — gather at an upstate New York home to support him.
“I basically fell in love with every single one of the actors there,” says Ritter, who used the remote shooting location as another chance to get into his character’s head.
“We all really created friendships on that set but then they would all go away every weekend,” he says. “They’d go back to the city and see family and friends or hangout and I would just stay up there and really feel their absence. It was like a microcosm of what it would feel like to be Alex. He feels, even though it’s not true, that he’s been abandoned by his close friends.”
That desertion, in part, comes from social media. Alex’s cries for help via twitter “get lost in the sea of tweets,” so Ritter hopes people walk away from the film, “feeling like, ‘You know who I should call right now? This person.’ Call, don’t tweet.”