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.
In 1986 Rob Reiner made one of the all time great movies about being a kid. “Stand By Me” was an exercise in dark edged nostalgia. Twenty years later he’s revisiting the Eisenhower and Kennedy years but leaves the dark stuff behind. “Flipped” is coming-of-age “Rashômon” filtered through “Leave it to Beaver” with a dash of “The Wonder Years” thrown in for good measure.
Set in 1960 the story begins when Bryce and his upwardly mobile family move in across the street from the Bakers and their daughter Juli (Madeline Carroll). It’s love at first sight for six-year-old Julie, who flips for Bryce’s “dazzling eyes.” Of course Bryce wants nothing to do with her; she is, after all, a girl. Juli won’t give up, however, pursuing—some might say stalking—him straight through till grade seven. Bryce does everything he can to dissuade her, until she finally gets the hint, and then, of course he develops a big time crush on her.
Told in a he-said-she-said structure, Juli and Bryce detail the day-to-day developments in their lives from their very different points of view. Much of the film’s humor comes from the discrepancies in the way each of them perceive the way their relationship is going. The back-and-forth is a trick that should get old but somehow, because of the writing but more than that, because of the charm of the young cast.
Reiner has cast extremely well, particularly in the case of Madeline Carroll who plays Juli. It’s a tough role, one that requires the audience to believe that she is wise and articulate beyond her years. We’ve all seen precocious kids on screen before, but the thing that separates her performance from other annoying kid’s performances is the work she does behind her eyes. You can see her working through the complexities of life, trying to figure out relationships and the way the world works. It’s a remarkable and endearing performance that carries much of the movie.
The rest of the cast—Anthony Edwards, Penelope Ann Miller, John Mahoney, Aidan Quinn and Rebecca De Mornay—are effective but none feel irreplaceable in the way that Carroll does.
The he-said-she-said format won’t be for everyone, but the characters, the gentle humor of the script, the performances and the soft nostalgic glow that Reiner dabs on every frame is very appealing.