Movie Review: “The Birth of a Nation”


If there’s a single good thing that has come out of the real-life rape controversy that has come to hang over Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” it is that is forces one and all to dispense with the Sundance hype attached to this bio-drama and regard it on its own terms.

And it’s not bad, a solid “Hollywood” history of the 1830s Nat Turner slave  revolt in Virginia with a love story, religion, injustices, torture and murder, a movie with middling, un-affecting acting but high artistic pretensions.

Parker (“The Great Debaters”) plays Turner, a Tidewater Virginia slave taught to read by a patronizing but semi-sympathetic landowner (Penelope Ann Miller).

The film’s genius is in showing Turner’s acceptance of the “slavery’s in the BIBLE” argument of the whites until the murderous, inhuman cruelty of the system and the injustice of it all has him finding his own Bible passages to condemn the slave holders and justify revolt among the slaves themselves.

Armie Hammer (“The Lone Ranger,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) is the son of the plantation family that owned Turner, people who fell on the more humane end of the “peculiar institution” spectrum as it was practiced in the 19th century South. But even though Samuel Turner (Hammer) grew up with young Nat and tolerates his familiarity, and efforts to get better treatment for all the farm’s slaves than local tradition expects, and even helps Nat rescue a tortured young slave (Aja Naomi King) whom he eventually will marry, at the end of the day, “Massa” is still the white man who must be feared and obeyed. 

Nat has been told, almost since birth, that he’s “a child of God. You’ve got PURPOSE!” And as he turns his Bible education to sermons, he makes himself even more useful to the master. He can “help folks get their slaves to calm down a bit” with his lay sermons about obedience, “God’s will” and such.

And so he does, until the horrors of the life he and his wife live and the system he witnesses — barbaric cruelty and gruesome violence, much of it meted out by the murderous slave hunter Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley )– drives him to preach revolution and dream of freedom won by vengeful, righteous violence.

birth1Parker does better at suggesting the shell shock Nat seems to wear as his lot in life. His urgent pleas go unheeded as his owner is peer-pressured into letting visitors enjoy the forced sexual favors of slave women. Parker is not as good at capturing the mesmerizing preacher that history tells us Turner was. Like Armie Hammer’s early-career efforts at depicting Billy Graham, it’s his lack of command in the pulpit that lets Parker down.

The supporting cast is bolstered by the presence of a whispering, acquiescent butler/house servant played by Roger Guenveur-Smith, and Miller, Hammer and Haley, but undercut by too many other players who were simply all Parker could afford on an indie film budget. Mark Boone Jr., in particular, seems miscast –a beefy bearded character actor who suggests nothing of a wily, conniving, argumentative and racist-to-the-marrow preacher.

The handy comparison here is to the Oscar-winning “Twelve Years a Slave,” and “Nation,” an attempt to re-brand that title from the racist KKK history D.W. Griffith filmed during the silent era, is nothing near as moving or impactful. Flashbacks to Nat’s childhood and his nightmarish “African in America” dreams show more ambition than plot necessity. The acting isn’t as good, the writing not as sharp, the directing pedestrian at best.

And then there’s the elephant in the room, a beast from the same herd that hangs around Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and child abuser Victor Salva’s films. That would be the after-Sundance disclosure that the director/writer/star of the film Parker and his college pal, co-writer and apparent partner in rape,  Jean McGianni Celestin behaved callously, despicably and almost certainly criminally in sexually assaulting a drunken coed whose life spiraled into drugs and an early death (so her family says) due to a Penn State University crime and the half-hearted prosecution of it.

Critics can and must separate the art from the artist, and on its own merits, “The Birth of a Nation” has value and is worth seeing, even if the breathless early praise seems to owe more to the high altitude and pack mentality of Sundance Film Festival hype.

But it is the audience that will ultimately pass judgement on Parker, Celestin, and their movie, a court of public opinion that will decide if the $17.5 million Fox Searchlight bought it for (pre-rape allegations) is money down the drain. And it’s simply not good enough to forgive and make anyone forget the filmmakers’ pre-movie sins.

MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity

Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi KingJackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Roger Guenveur Smith

Credits:Directed by Nate Parker, script by Jean McGianni Celestin and Nate Parker. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 2:00

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Movie Review: “Queen of Katwe” has all the right (chess) moves


That grande dame of international cinema Mira Nair gives a gritty Third World texture to “Queen of Katwe,” a faith-based Disney drama about a poor, illiterate Ugandan who masters the lethal intricacies of chess.

It’s a conventionally inspiring feel-good dramedy with a lightness that Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “The Namesake”) ably gives weight with on location veracity. Her directorial eye, trained on the slums of India (“Salaam Bombay”), knows where to look to find the beating heart of the Katwe ghetto of Kampala, Uganda.

“Queen” is about Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a shy child who sees no future beyond the daily struggle to shuck and sell maize (corn) on the crowded dirt streets of Katwe. Her widowed mother, played by Oscar winner (“Twelve Years a Slave”) Lupita Nyong’o,  has lost one child, is about to lose Phiona’s pretty/flirty teenage sister (Taryn Kyaze) to the first guy who pays attention to her and is struggling to pay the rent on their shanty and keep them all fed.

And that’s when an under-employed engineer forced to take work as a youth soccer coach decides what this neighborhood’s kids need is chess. Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of “Selma”) is an earnest, generous do-gooder determined to find something for the kids who can’t or won’t play soccer to do.

Chess? “It teaches discipline and mental strength.” Her brother (Martin Kabaza) drifts into it. Phiona follows him.

Even at that local level, among the lowest of the low, Phiona is an object of scorn and teasing. She smells “like a pig.” She can’t read, doesn’t talk much. But she can see the board, reason through problems, and as her teacher teaches, “make a plan” to escape the dangers her opponents put her in.

Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler (“The Hoax”) simplify chess, letting an adorable younger girl (Nikita Waligwa) explain its rudiments to Phiona.

These pieces? “They kill each other.”

“In chess, the small one can become the big one.” 

And this? This is the Queen, “the most powerful of all the pieces.”

Phiona is a quick study and soon is making all the unsportsmanlike boys pout.

“A girl has given you checkmate!”

Nair’s ear for the music of English as a second (African) language is uncanny, and she leaves the thick accents intact, complete with non-verbal vocalized expressions of disgust, amazement and delight, African kid equivalents to “gee whiz” and the like.

The story arc, based on a true story first published by Disney’s ESPN, follows Phiona and the Katwe kids to posh private school tournaments and into international play. Nair lets us see Phiona’s determination — studying and practicing by paraffin lamp light, learning to read so that she can read books on chess — as a combination of nature and nurture.

Nyong’o never lets the mother, even in her most fraught moments, ever seem less than fierce, and even when Phiona turns cocky as gifted kids often do, that upbringing is the rock she leans on.

Queen of Katwe

Young Nalwanga has a first-time actress’s stiffness, but a beatific smile. She lets us see the potential her coach does. And Oyelowo ably delivers the film’s aphorisms and life-lessons to Phiona and her “pioneer” teammates.

“Sometimes the place you are is NOT the place you belong.”

In lesser hands, this could have been patronizing (a common problem of Disney “African” films of the past) and heavy-handed. Nair downplays the faith part of “faith-based” and focuses on the class warfare — unmannered and uncultured poor kids proving they can hold their own, intellectually, with the uniformed upper-class private school dandies.

It’s overlong and rarely surprising, but Nair skillfully plays the limited board this story gives her, a queen among filmmakers making all the right moves.



MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material

Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’oTaryn Kyaze
Credits: Directed by Mira Nair, script by William Wheeler, based on the Tim Crothers biography . A Walt Disney release.

Running time: 2:03

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Movie Preview: Nobody is on the fence about “Bad Santa 2”

The first film had its fans (Me) and detractors.

Growing up in the South, I recognize in Billy Bob Thornton the true exemplar of cotton picking cussing, with every politically incorrect profane tirade delivered in a Drawl for the Ages.

Hell, if Angelina Jolie’s secret dream is to UN her way into Britain’s House of Lords, Billy Bob ought to one-up his FIFTH ex-wife with a few trial balloons aimed at a Senate run.

Why not?

“Bad Santa 2” will be here Nov. 23, just in time for Christmas.

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Movie Preview: “20th Century Women” makes Jimmy Carter a prophet and Annette Bening a true believer

The latest from the director of “Beginners,” Mike Mills, puts Annette Bening and Billy Crudup and Greta Gerwig in the late 1970s, right in the middle of our “national malaise.” And finds heartfelt fun and wisdom in it.

An odd trailer, but a politically prescient one.

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Movie Review: “The Late Bloomer”

late2Stand-up comic, impressionist and actor Kevin Pollack steps behind the camera for “The Late Bloomer,” a sweet-spirited if slightly rude rom com masquerading as a sex comedy.

It’s a little flat-footed, with the script-by-committee lacking the nimbleness you want in your stand-up comics or comic films.

But there are lots of laughs – throw away lines, daft cameos. It’s a shame none of them come from the supposedly funny central premise.

Johnny Simmons of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” stars as Dr. Peter Newmans, a psychotherapist specializing in sex — specifically, all the things you can accomplish if you avoid it. Hes written a book, “From Sex to Success,” about it. His agent (Jane Lynch) has him booked for a NED Talk (TED Talk was taken). He could be “The New Tony Robbins!”

“Instead of copulating, try COMMUNICATING,” he prescribes.

Peter has not just written the book  on how much of our lives is wasted thinking about sex and having it. He’s practiced it. He’s a bit of a hermaphrodite.

Even his cuter-than-cute neighbor (Brittany Snow) can’t seem to, um, get a rise out of Peter.

Turns out, there’s a medical reason for this. He’s had a tumor on his pituitary glands that arrested his development. Take that tumor off, and it’s off to the races — with voice-cracking/zit-creating hormones and erections at the drop of a hat.

The sitcom-cute scenerio gives Pete pals he’s given keys to his apartment (which they abuse) and mismatched parents — Maria Bello is the hippie mom, J.K. Simmons the lovably gruff dad who is awfully proud his 30ish boy is suddenly a Man in Full.

“Whoops! He could put an eye out with that thing! Looks like you’ve got the Sunday Times rolled up in there!”

late.jpgIt’s a comedy with six credited writers, and is very much what you’d expect from guys who do stand-up. It’s all-verbal.

The doctor who treats Pete suggests “a CAT scan,” and asks him “How’s your insurance?”

“I’m a Phd!”

“Yahtzee! Make it a CAT scan AND an MRI!”

Laraine Newman channels Terry Gross to play a public radio show hostess, Ileana Douglas shows up as a sexually frank lesbian and Brian Doyle Murray turns up as a stage hand — each with her or his share of “ba-da-BING” zingers. Paul Wesley is the inattentive, sports-betting beau who pays too little attention to Michelle (Snow), whom Pete pines for.

“Worst officiating since The Kennedy Assassination!”

Young Simmons makes a threadbare farceur, and the characters closest to him — his buds, Luke and Rich (Beck Bennett and Kumail Nanjiani) fail to register. But Bello and J.K. click, and Lynch reminds us that she deserves better than TV’s “Angel from Hell,” or this.

Pollack is obviously persuasive enough to land a lot of big names for this film’s bit parts. As an actor himself, Pollack has been most at home in small parts with just a hint of charm, heart, edge and comic flash. That’s kind of how he directs “The Late Bloomer.” Unfortunately, his leading man is basically a wan cameo in his own movie, not funny enough to hold his own with the big girls and big boys.


MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity and language

Cast: Johnny Simmons, Brittany Snow, Jane Lynch, J.K. Simmons, Maria Bello
Credits: Directed by Kevin Pollack, script by Kyle Cooper, Austyn Jeffs, Paul A. Kaplan, Joe Nussbaum, Gary Rosen, Mark Torgove. A Momentum/eOne release.

Running time: 1:35

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Movie Preview: It’s Franco vs. Slater in the gay porn murder tale “King Cobra”

“King Cobra” is “based on a true story” about a rivalry between two online porn video producers — played by Christian Slater and James Franco — feuding over a hot new “discovery” one of them controls.

With those leads, and Alicia Silverstone and Molly Ringwald in the cast for nostalgia value, you might expect this to get something resembling a better-than-token release.

But no. “Gay porn” means that IFC Midnight is the only distributor that would touch it. Well, that and it might not be that good.

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Movie Review: “Deepwater Horizon”


We’re entitled to a little skepticism when a movie titled “Deepwater Horizon” pitches itself as about “the heroes” of the worst oil spill disaster in U.S. history.

Somebody, a lot of somebodies, screwed up. The consequences were dire for the environment and deadly for many of the working class Joes the film depicts.

But as all hell is breaking loose on the drilling ship way offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, you see a name tag, Burkeen, and the guy wearing it (Jason Kirkpatrick). The rig has had a blowout that’s turned into an inferno, and the survivors’ only way off is by lifeboats that a burning, teetering crane is almost sure to destroy.

The crane operator, Aaron Dale Burkeen, sees that, and even as his mates are yelling “What are you DOING?”, clambers up behind the controls and renders it harmless at the cost of his own life.

And that’s when you realize, maybe we don’t know the story here.

Peter Berg’s film is a Mark Walhberg/Kurt Russell action picture that takes you inside the exploding rig, with sound effects so real that you’ll hunch down in your seat to dodge the rivets and debris shrieking past your ears.

If has a villain — BP, a multi-national multi-billion dollar corporation only too eager to take shortcuts — and the villain is personified by John Malkovich as the guy in charge of the drilling, a drawling Louisianan determined to get this “hole from hell” back on budget. He’s authorized skipping a crucial pressure test that rig boss Jimmy Harrell (Russell) and electrician and eyewitness to this all Mike Williams (Wahlberg) are shocked to discover when they return to the ship for their weeks-long shift.

“No mud, no flow. We got to go!” Vidrine Cajun-coos, and so they do.


Berg and the screenwriters set up a neat class conflict, cavalier bosses worried only about their higher-ups vs. the working men and woman, Andrea Flytes (Gina Rodriguez), one of the pilots steering the “ship” to keep it over the bore-hole, who suffer the consequences.

Wahlberg’s Mike is an ex-Marine with a wife (Kate Hudson) and kid and an ex-military way of looking at BP’s wishful thinking, which he calls the “hope as a tactic” delusion.

“Hope ain’t a tactic, Don.”

Yes, the foreshadowing is overt — not subtle. As in “Sully,” we know what’s about to happen. But unlike that true story, we don’t know the specifics, and Berg recreates both the massive rig (“Anything that big ought to be made by God.”) and its state, held together by “band-aids and bubble-gum,” mud-covered crews overworked and disaster lurking.

The chaos of the blow-out and specifics of the injuries and fatalities are as harrowing as any action picture, and too close to real for comfort. We don’t get to invest in many characters, and we await that moment when the star yells at somebody “I am NOT gonna die on this rig!”

But Berg (“Lone Survivor,””The Kingdom,””The Rundown”) finds the humor in the banter of clock-punchers, the eye-rolling sarcasm that’s your only defense when somebody in a higher pay grade gives orders that are an accident waiting to happen.

He makes “Deepwater Horizon” a disaster movie that works by putting us there, letting us second-guess along with the experts and shake our heads that justice and responsibility for the guilty is different when they’ve got the money and the backing of a gigantic company to soften that blow.

And Berg reminds us that even in the worst disaster, people can be selfless, heroic, and in the case of Aaron Dale Burkeen, professional even if those who gamble with their fates are not.



MPAA Rating: PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson, John Malkovich,  Gina Rodriguez, Ethan Suplee
Credits: Directed by Peter Berg, script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. A Summit release.

Running time: 1:47

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“Trolls” — the early buzz turns uglier as the JT sountrack takes a beating


On the surface, it looks like the most cynical kids’ cartoon since those godawful “Barbie” straight to videos your little girls adored.. Still, “The Lego Movie” — they’d had years of practice making spoof videos — came off, so maybe “Trolls” won’t be as bad as the trailers.

Just because a studio played brand-leech and made a movie out of kids’ toys doesn’t mean it has to suck.

But this musical package comes with a Justin Timberlake tunes, and a soundtrack. And now that people are hearing that soundtrack, well, it’s not pretty. It’s a shark-jumping moment for JT, according to Jezebel. 


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Box Office: “Mag Seven” ride off with $37, “Storks” deliver $22+


Denzel Washington still packs an action picture punch, and Chris Pratt has another hit under his belt as “The Magnificent Seven” gallops off to a $37 million opening weekend, right in line with projections of what this remake built around those two and a name director (Antoine Fuqua) would do.

Reviews were mixed, but the movie went for multiple demographics in the casting and emphasized the action, if not the smarts, heart and soul of the original films — “Seven Samurai” and 1960 “Magnificent Seven.” That’s a great opening for a Western, by any measure.

I think the true story action drama “Deepwater Horizon” will eat this middling “epic” for lunch next week, but we’ll see.

“Storks,” the Warner Animation cartoon won’t be setting any records. Opening in the same window as such hits as “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “Hotel Transylvania,” it felt like a hard sell and Friday’s numbers back that up – $20-21, for the weekend is what they indicate.

As with all animated fare, Saturday will be the most telling. It’s not dazzling enough to blow up —reviews have been middling — but mid$20s seems within reach.

“Sully,” which opened at $35 weeks ago, remains a big draw, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” remains a let down. Fringe fare such as “Snowden” and “Hillsong” are fading away.

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Books the the Big Screen — So, what’s next?



Killing time before a recent screening, I ducked into a Big Box Book Store and found myself stopping short at the vast collection of fiction and graphic novels bundled near the entrance.

With every given week carrying news of some new deal that Marvel/Disney or DC/Warner Brothers or not-to-be-left-out-Fox has made, some fresh comic book property on its way, the mind reels as the eye wanders over titles.

In comic book terms, Den Of Geek has listed 69 titles (and counting), with “Doctor Strange” leading the way and a sea of sequels to earlier films close on its heels. “Bloodshot”? That’s a new one on me.

Interviewing the fellow who wrote “Men in Black” and the creator of “Surrogates,” to say nothing of Frank Miller, Robert Rodriquez (“Sin City”) and Zack Snyder (“300,””Watchmen,” “Batman v. Superman”) long ago disabused me of the mistaken and widely held notion that comics/graphic novels are easily adapted because the narrative, characters and zingy one-liners are already in storyboard form. But “Sin City” and its ilk seemed to prove the contrary. They ARE easier, because the storyboards ARE already done for you.

But the reason we’re seeing a sea of such titles is because so few comic book/graphic novel adaptations bomb. They’re money in the bank. Why? They’re branded, pre-sold to a ready-made audience that knows the title/characters/basic plot.

No, there’s no new “Lord of the Rings” out there, beloved by generations. The closest thing to that, the C.S. Lewis “Narnia” books, ran out of gas pretty quickly.

The recent abandonment (more or less) of the cut-and-paste YA (young adult) ripoff series “Divergent” suggests Hollywood has realized that as yet, it has no replacement for “The Hunger Games,” with even “The Maze Runner” series not coming close to the films that made Jennifer Lawrence famous.

Stephen King is back in the Big Picture game, thanks to “Dark Tower.” But for…how long?

Titles are always bubbling up as Hollywood is starved for fresh material, but what has this fall’s book to big picture buzz?


Care to bet on any of them? Over at they’re putting decent odds on the world suffering through another Nicholas Sparks adaptation.

“Mortal Engines” (by Philip Reeve) may be on Hollywood’s YA radar for a franchise.

Could there be interest in other Judy Blume kids’ books adapted for the screen?

I read mostly non-fiction, but would you bet that anybody would take another shot at a Hemingway biopic, another “Desert Fox” WWII ? If people will line up for a new Spider-Man every six years, why not?

Russell Crowe has lobbied, after his fall from grace, for Fox to leap back into the “Master & Commander” series by the late Patrick O’Brian. I remember his cheekiness when the first film came out. I asked Crowe if he’d signed on to do sequels, and he laughed like a man who had leverage and didn’t want to give any of it away. The leverage is long gone, but that series could easily, if expensively, brought back to life. Any chance of that happening?

Writers, especially these days, often get their first decent paycheck not from their publishers but from Hollywood (per Kate DiCamillo of “Because of Winn-Dixie.” She told me she bought a Mini Cooper with the cash). So they’re eager to sell.

Who can we turn up the buzz for, other readers out there in movie loving land? Any titles that leap to mind? Famous writers, new talents? Non-fiction? Comment below.



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