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Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s acclaimed new feature, feels in many ways the love child of The Tree of Lifeand the fourth season of The Wire. Certainly, the Malickian comparisons are not entirely unwarranted; Jenkins’s intimate coming-of-age (and, indeed, coming-out) tale about a black youth coming to terms with his homosexuality does bear a familiar dreamy philosophy (if fewer dinosaurs).

Based on an unpublished play, Moonlight doesn’t concern itself with the ambition of toying around with traditional coming-of-age structure the way that something like Boyhood did. Rightfully so, as it turns out; the film circumvents gimmickry adeptly, if not entirely. The film is divided into three segments, which each section portraying a crucial moment in the life of young Chiron.

In many ways, Moonlight feels almost the antithesis of Malick’s personal opus . . . at least, on the surface. In The Tree of Life, the central character—Hunter McCracken’s Jack—was torn between two warring sensibilities in his parents: Brad Pitt’s domineering father and Jessica Chastain’s angelic mother. In Moonlight, the roles are somewhat inverted. Chiron (played in his initial incarnation by Alex Hibbert) doesn’t have a father in his life and his mother (Naomie Harris) is an inattentive crack addict. When we first see Chiron (known at this stage of life as “Little” for his diminutive stature), he is being pursued by bigger kids, who throw derogatory slurs and garbage at him. Chiron bears the brunt of this abuse with a saint’s stoic silence, and it’s only at the intercession of an older male figure that things start to take a positive change. This figure is Juan (Mahershala Ali), a goodhearted man despite being the neighborhood drug dealer. Juan recognizes Chiron as a troubled soul in need of direction and a male authority figure in his life. Knowing that his mother is a lost cause, Juan takes Chiron under his wing. These moments of bonding—Juan teaching Little to swim, or eating dinner with Juan’s girl (an excellent Janelle Monae)—are the strongest scenes in the film. The only other positive connection Little has in his life is Kevin (Jaden Piner), who acts as a guiding spirit of sorts through the world of an urban youth . . . and, for Chiron, the potential to be more than simply an emotional anchor.

The second chunk of the film deals with Chiron as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), who has become the favorite target of schoolyard bullies. He also has to deal with his mother’s addiction spiraling out of control, and of course his budding sexuality. By this point in his life, Juan—his only positive adult male influence—has left (in a rather abrupt, almost dismissive manner that, unfortunately, kind of poleaxes Ali’s otherwise magnificent work in retrospect, as it feels like it lacks a proper denouement) and the only real connection he has is with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), whose popularity amongst his peers is a strong contrast to Chiron’s withdrawn nature. Kevin, whose acted as something of a Virgil figure to Chiron’s Dante as they navigate the purgatory of teenage life, also awakens something far more primal and poignant in his shy friend, culminating in a galvanizing yet tender moment on a twilit beach. Unfortunately, the reality of the world they inhabit shatters this beauty when a betrayal is forced, perpetrating a cycle of emotional brickwalling, institutionalized injustice and bitterness the boys found themselves born into, and by the time the third and final act reveals Chiron as an adult, his softness has become inured over time into a tough rind. Now going by the moniker “Black” (given to him once by Kevin), Chiron—here played by Trevante Rhodes—is an Atlanta drug runner in the same mode as his long-gone father figure. However, that spark of gentleness is not dead, awakened by a chance phone call one day.

With Moonlight, Jenkins creates a cogent and coherent coming-of-age tale that deals with the ellipses of youth quite adeptly, if a bit too succinctly at times. The film loses a bit of force after the brilliant first act, especially in regards to Mahershala Ali’s presence. It’s like they forgot they only booked him for a few days’ worth of shooting and his exit feels far too abrupt and dismissed. He was phenomenal, but it feels undercut somewhat. I can’t shake the feeling that Juan felt like the creator’s favorite character (or, at least, the respectable father figure that gives guidance), and Ali’s natural magnetism and charm made him such an indispensable force within the movie. It makes sense viewing it from Chiron’s perspective (Juan leaving early in his life left a void), but narratively it still feels a bit unsatisfying and how they wrapped him up just didn’t quite work. I know that’s not life, that people drift or die and we move on, but narratively, it left a vacuum that the rest of the film couldn’t quite fill. I’m not saying that he needed to see Juan gunned down in front of Chiron on a street corner or something and for them to have a tearful one-on-one, but I do think that it would’ve been a life-shaping moment for him to at least react to the news, as it’s one more good thing snatched from him.

The other dominating parental influence in Chiron’s life was a bit on the underwhelming side for me, however. Naomie Harris, an excellent actress, perfectly captures the lingo and accent . . . but her performance feels a leftover from when the story was stagebound. Where everyone else plays it close to the vest, she lets rip, and unfortunately it comes off as showboating. I can understand how people would cotton to her, but it’s the only performance in the piece that feels out of sync with the others, and while she’s the only addict in the piece, convincingly portraying addiction is one of the most difficult things to do (hi Emily Blunt!). It all feels like posturing, and it’s a shame to see a good actress like Harris fall short of what I think could’ve been true greatness.

Full kudos also must go to the actors who played Chiron in his different incarnations. Alex Hibbert’s tight-lipped, glowering work is the strongest of the lot for me; there’s a entire lifetime, short as it may be, of hurt and anger and mistrust in his coiled little frame. Ashton Sanders perfectly plays a youth on the cusp of manhood, torn between his inner truth and the brutal reality of the world he inhabits. Trevante Rhodes, who I personally felt drew the short straw when it came to the quality of material, nevertheless does fine work with what he’s given and convincingly portrays the latest destination of Chiron’s journey through life.

Moonlight has its moments of visual beauty (cinematographer James Laxton bathes the film in gorgeous hues of black and blue), but it’s the undercurrent of simple human interaction and emotion flowing through a culture that largely eschews any sort of benevolence or affection for fear of seeming “weak” that makes Moonlight as startlingly fresh and powerful as it is. Even though I find that the film comes with diminishing returns with each successive act, it makes up for it in heart.

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From its opening scene onward, La La Land shows how much of an antithesis it is from its director’s previous film. Damien Chazelle trades the high-octane, nerve-tightening world of competitive jazz he explored in Whiplash for the ethereal, cotton-candy fantasy of Hollywood. Chazelle, a former music student who ultimately gravitated towards film, has still remained firmly rooted in his musical heritage; his first film was the little-seen musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and his following two films seem to have formed something of a loose trilogy in that respect. But despite this common thread, there’s very little else to bridge them. In terms of its energy, La La Land is so far removed from Whiplash’s frenzied, frenetic pace that to watch both films back-to-back would incur, well, whiplash.

This isn’t to say that La La Land is sedate; it’s lively, it’s sprightly, it’s vivacious. And true to form for Chazelle, it dances and jigs between surgical precision and organic freewheeling. At its heart, it’s a relatively simple tale, one we’ve seen many times before. Aspiring actors on the make in Tinseltown has been a staple in cinema ever since the beginning—from Janet Gaynor in A Star Is Born to Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr.. It’s a well-worn story, but also a well-loved one, and the beauty of simplicity is it lends itself to creativity. If Whiplash could be considered a jazzman’s riff on Amadeus, then La La Land is Chazelle reviving Cukor and Busby Berkeley for the modern age, bringing timelessness to our own time.

As said before, it’s the story of a wanna-be thespian: Mia Dolan, a Nevada transplant who languishes in a backlot coffeeshop in between unsuccessful auditions. The role of the would-be starlet is easily given to cliché, but Emma Stone’s self-assuredness lends a real vibrancy to Mia’s character, one that goes beyond a mere pretty face. There has been some criticism that Stone playing a bubbly ingenue isn’t “much of a stretch” for her, but that doesn’t take away from the boundless energy and confidence she exudes from every pore, and it’s that blend of charm and control that makes her command the screen as much as she does. Whether it’s belting out big musical numbers or soft-shoeing her way past Hollywood landmarks, Stone electrifies.

And she doesn’t do it alone. Throughout the film (which is blocked off in four segments, each with a seasonal header, to clue us in to the fact that it chronicles a whole year), Mia has chance encounters with Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a skilled jazz pianist forced to “slum it” by playing Christmas ditties in swank restaurants or play keytar in an A-ha! tribute band at parties. Sebastian fancies himself a jazz purist, although his blindspot is that most of the greats he idolizes were trailblazers who weren’t afraid to try new things to further their craft. Sebastian resents any sort of musical progress, especially in regards to his former bandmate Keith (John Legend), whose synth-infused take on the genre is propelling him to potential greatness. Sebastian’s interactions with Mia graduate from annoyance to curiosity to sweet puppy-love and, ultimately, a relationship.

As their relationship blooms, however, their dreams begin to suffer. Mia’s failure to get callbacks eats away at her, until she decides to take a stab at one final burst of artistry by penning a one-woman play, in hopes of validating her career choice. Sebastian, whose raison d’être was always to own his own jazz club, winds up having to swallow his pride and take a job offer from Keith to tour in his band, sacrificing personal artistic integrity for a steady paycheck. And as the seasons change, so too does the film’s outlook; it’s optimistic one moment, melancholic the next. This is largely aided by the wonderful use of color; Linus Sandgren’s cinematography makes it come off like a cinematic mood-ring.

Musicals are a fickle thing in cinema; oftentimes, I feel that they either can’t break free of their stage conventions (if they are adapted from that particular source), or they try to be stylized to the point of overexerted gimmickry (looking at you, Moulin Rouge!). But because La La Land was conceived as a film project from the start, it doesn’t have that hurdle to jump. What’s more, the music (courtesy of Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics provided by the likes of Pasek and Paul) is toe-tappingly catchy. There are a good half-dozen songs in the piece, both lyrical and instrumental, that are just infectiously delightful, adding to the film’s buoyancy without weighing it down. (I’m humming “Someone in the Crowd” as I write this.)

Some might see La La Land as nothing more than a well-shot piece of fluff, and while it may not hit with atomic-bomb force like Whiplash did, its feather-light approach is no less powerful. For only his third film, Chazelle’s direction is as accomplished as a veteran with decades in the biz under his belt; he never overdoes it, and every auteuristic decision feels as spontaneous as Sebastian’s jazz-house riffs. Not since the days of Robert Wise has a director understood the medium of the musical so thoroughly and yet used the music to fuel the movie, rather than vice versa. And Chazelle resists the natural inclination for a saccharine ending; La La Land caps off on a beautifully bittersweet moment that can rival any grand sweeping gesture of affection in film. This is Gosling and Stone’s third foray together, following Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and as galvanizing as their dynamic always is, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are someday compared to the likes of Powell and Loy, Astaire and Rogers, Bogie and Bergman. Certainly, a film like this lives and dies on the chemistry of its leads, and this one flourishes.

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The play’s the thing, as the Bard once said, but rarely do we see great theatre translate well to the silver screen. A scant few manage to stick the landing . . . but for every Streetcar Named Desire and Glengarry Glen Ross, you have a Rock of Ages or an August: Osage County. It takes a lot of skill and fortitude to keep the “stage” out of a story that had its origins there.

The latest transfer from Broadway to Hollywood is Fences, August Wilson’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It is notable not just for bringing an acclaimed play to the screen, but for giving two acclaimed actors the opportunity to reprise their legendary stage performances on celluloid. What’s more, one of those actors is directing the project himself.

Having lived and breathed the play for almost a decade and winning a Tony Award in the process, it’s fair to say Fences is Denzel Washington’s passion project. And there’s certainly much to be passionate about, particularly as an actor: the story follows Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball ace who never cracked the color barrier and wound up eyeing out a meager living as a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh, all while having to keep his family unit running like clockwork. Washington’s interpretation of Maxson is that of a larger-than-life sermonizer, the sort that in another life and time might’ve found success as a backwoods revival-tent preacher. Troy is all shit-eating grins and quick-fire homilies, wont to slather on the B.S. with his co-worker, drinking buddy and confidante Bono (a wonderfully stalwart Stephen McKinley Henderson). The only thing keeping Troy (so says he, at any rate) on the straight and narrow is his dutiful wife of sixteen years. Rose (Viola Davis, reprising her Tony-winning part alongside Washington) is at first the familiar supportive spouse in any ‘50s family, archetype bordering on stereotype. But as the film progresses and the cracks in the Maxson family unit start to grow, so too does Rose’s resolve.

For behind closed doors (and not-so-closed-off backyards), Troy isn’t the backslapper he purports to be. He is a stern and unforgiving pater familias verging on tyrannical, quick to lay down the law at every opportunity and always looking at every gesture with hooded suspicion. His older son from a previous marriage (Russell Hornsby) is a musician, but Troy looks at him as a good-for-nothing layabout always looking to make an easy buck—especially from his old man come payday. His younger boy, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is a budding high school athlete eager to break from the shackles of his home life and make something of himself as a college football player, but Troy forbids him from those pursuits, ostensibly under the reasoning that as a black man, he would be taken advantage of and get screwed out of an honest living. But there is a seething undercurrent of jealousy tinged in these warnings, as though Troy fears Cory’s success would be emasculating to him, the father, the dominator. Rose, while not afraid to speak her mind, nevertheless is constrained by society’s expectations of the ‘50s housewife and thus has very little authority under Troy’s roof. The only member of the Maxson clan Troy shows any softness toward is his younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffered a debilitating brain injury fighting in World War II—but there is also more to that story than simply filial duty.

Washington has long lived with Troy Maxson in his veins, nursing the character over the years since he played him onstage. One would expect an actor to mine some sympathy for a character they’ve been close to for so long, to make excuses for him. And as Washington pulled double-duty as director, you’d think that would be magnified. Not so. Washington knows full well that Troy is a hypocrite and while he clearly enjoys spitting the choice lines August Wilson gave to him, he also seems to relish in exposing the bitter rind of Maxson’s soul. When confronted by Cory over his lack of support and love for him, Troy’s famous riposte (“What law says I got to like you?”) has a deliciously staccato beat to it that viewers will find amusing, as my audience did . . . but it is more an indictment of Troy than it is of his son. And the more that Cory labors under the strain of that dynamic, we end up rooting for him to stand up to the old man.

But while Cory is naturally rebelling under his father’s influence, Rose can only wither. And when a past sin of Troy’s comes to the light, Davis—who spends much of the film somberly looking at the action from the corner of one frame or another, only to break in with a soft interjection here and there—cuts loose, lobbing sixteen years of hardscrabble existence right back in her husband’s haughty face. I’ve complained of Davis’s staginess in the past, how her emoting seldom feels natural. And while this big scene does fit the pattern of her big emotional moments in the past (I really hope she has stock in Kleenex), it feels surprisingly and refreshingly restrained, tweaked back from its usual maximum. Most of her truly cutting lines aren’t even delivered in big, screamy soliloquy, but instead in slow, even tones. We are watching the light going out for a woman’s life, not with a bang, but a long, slow whimper. It’s too subtle for the stage, perhaps, but just right for the screen.

As a director, Washington’s track record has been somewhat spotty for me. He’s competent, but rarely comes off inspired. Here, he largely manages to keep out of his own way and just let the actors (himself included) do their thing. There’s very little flash to it, which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good in that for the most part, there isn’t any sort of false “auteuristic” style that can pull us out of the film. It’s bad in that when he does decide to make a flourish or two, it stands out all the more. There’s one bizarre time-elapse shot that moves one character the space of six feet, and the first half’s editing felt a bit too chop-heavy in the cross-cutting department. Washington may not have the moody command of William Friedkin in his Letts adaptations, or the flexible wisdom of James Foley when he did Glengarry Glen Ross, but what he lacks in style, he makes up for in respect. One can feel his deep reverence for the material, and while his devotion is almost to a fault (the script could’ve done with a fair bit of tightening here and there, and honestly—aside from the guilt Troy may or may not have surrounding him—you could almost excise Brother Gabriel from the plot entirely and it wouldn’t lose much), it makes up for a lot in my book.

And indeed, that love fuels Fences the whole way through. Even if Washington’s visual aesthetic may not be his strong suit, Charlotte Bruus Christensen does a fine job of making it feel as fluid as possible, taking the edge of the general stodginess a translated play typically codifies. Marcelo Zarvos’s score is lithe and light, poignant when it needs to be without seeming mawkish. But as with most adapted plays, it’s about the performances, and boy, do they shine through.

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Hacksaw Ridge, the title of Mel Gibson’s first directorial foray in over a decade, sounds like it should belong to a B-grade slasher flick but rather evokes the ill-gotten nickname of a real-life patch of rock on the island of Okinawa, where thousands of Americans and Japanese fought and bled in the final year of World War II. It is also the place where Desmond T. Doss, a scrawny soldier from the Virginia mountains, earned the highest military award America can bestow on a native son: the Congressional Medal of Honor. In point of fact, Doss—an Army medic who also happened to be a conscientious objector—charged headlong into hellfire to rescue dozens of wounded . . . and he did it all without firing a single shot.

Gibson has seemed primed to direct a World War II film for ages. He more or less invented the way modern cinema handles medieval combat in Braveheart, he brought a harrowing—and stomach-churning—lens to the suffering of history’s most famous martyr in The Passion of the Christ, and he made a high-octane chase film (on foot!) through the Mayan jungle in Apocalypto. A World War II flick? Sounds like a cinch. But Hacksaw Ridge, despite its gruesome pedigree, feels decidedly old-school in its approach. Not that it’s a bad thing by any means. It feels, at times, like Sergeant York . . . by way of Takashi Miike, perhaps.

After a brief and mostly blurred prologue of the intense savagery that would turn Doss into an American legend, Gibson introduces us to Desmond as a young boy, playfully scampering with his brother through the bucolic beauty of the Blue Ridge (nice juxtaposition there!). The boys grow up chasing each other and eventually, as brothers do, get to rough-housing. Their mother (Rachel Griffiths, sadly underused here) admonishes them while Daddy Doss (a distressingly riveting Hugo Weaving) seems content to let them thrash it out. But then, in a fit of primal violence, Desmond grabs a brick and what once was a simple brotherly brawl turns into a terrifying scene, one that shapes young Desmond forever.

By the time he grows up (now played by Andrew Garfield, affecting the same sort of syrupy genteel accent Montgomery Clift would present in things like Raintree County), Desmond is a deeply committed man of faith who eschews the very idea of violence. His rustic aw-shucks life is almost Disney-esque; there is one scene, no joke, where Desmond whistles and a bird chirps right back. His sweet nature catches the eye of a beautiful local nurse (Teresa Palmer), and their courtship is right out of the Frank Capra playbook. Gibson presents their relationship as virginal, as though this were a picture made under the umbrella of the Hays Code. Desmond’s desire to lead a peaceful existence creates another paradox when the war itself rolls in. Despite grim warnings from his father, a traumatized Great War vet, Desmond signs up for the Army to be a medic.

When Doss joins his unit at basic, his pacifistic tendencies quickly earn him the ire of his fellow soldiers. Though he excels at every other arena in training, he refuses to pick up a weapon. His squadmates suspect him of cowardice while his sergeant (Vince Vaughn, who—it’s worth noting—is the only actual Yank in the main cast) and captain (Sam Worthington, surprisingly stalwart here) belittle him as unreliable in the field. Even though Doss proves his mettle eventually by sticking with the unit despite hazings and nightly beatdowns, his superiors remain unconvinced, and Desmond winds up in the stockade on a court-martial charge. Here the film leaves Full Metal Jacket territory to play in the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sandbox, as Doss must convince a military tribunal that his religion and personal beliefs will not keep him from serving his country, and that in a world where everyone is tearing each other’s throats out, why not try to put a bandage on a couple of them? Eventually (spoiler alert!), Doss wins out—and he and his unit are shipped out to Okinawa and the film’s titular ridge. And that’s when we remember that we’re watching a Mel Gibson film.

The ten-year sabbatical has done little to temper Mad Mel’s love for the visceral. In Hacksaw Ridge, blood doth flow—and guts, and limbs, and all manner of gore. If Spielberg’s landmark Omaha Beach opening were trebled in length and hopped up on mescaline, it might approach the sheer insanity of Gibson’s battlefield bonanza. But it’s the lead-up to the charnel-house bloodshed that makes it all the more horrifying: Gibson continuously tightens the piano-wire of our nerves, filling us with an overwhelming sense of foreboding as the men hike up the ridge . . . and then one sudden sound sets off a Dantean din of gunfire and grenades that seems everlasting. Many a filmmaker has built on the “war is hell” theme, but Gibson has taken that mantra and given it an almost Biblical meaning—don’t think I didn’t notice the “blood raining from the heavens” image, Mel!

And square in the middle of it all is one skinny country boy who walked right into it without a single weapon. Andrew Garfield, an actor who has only recently started to make an impression on me, presents an old-fashioned gawky charm that would’ve made him a favorite of William Wyler and Howard Hawks. His angular features belie a wise-beyond-his-years soulfulness, making us easily root for him to stick to his guns (sorry, stick to his beliefs!) and make his stand. When he winds up in the meat-grinder that is Hacksaw, he perfectly portrays Desmond’s resourcefulness and grit without making him seem like a superhuman badass. There’s no swagger to Garfield’s Doss, but there is a streak of won’t-quit toughness to him that he perfectly embodies.

Unfortunately, the trouble with a film like this is that there is little room for development of other characters beyond the typical stock parts. Desmond’s mother has little to do save for throw a platitude or two his way. His father has substantially more to do but the potential for much more is there (seriously, Weaving could’ve anchored a film about shell-shock). Palmer fills the typical bright-penny girlfriend slot with aplomb, and her chemistry with Garfield certainly sizzles far more than what they are allowed to display, but nothing much beyond that. The worst to get this treatment are Doss’s fellow soldiers. We’re introduced to a good dozen or so throughout the film, many of them with names like “Tex” and “Hollywood” and “Ghoul.” But we don’t really get to know these guys, and certainly most of them look so interchangeable from one another that when one gets blown apart by a grenade and another gets bayonetted, it’s hard to know who’s who. Such is the fog of war, I suppose. The exceptions are Vaughn’s hard-assed sarge and “Smitty”, a lantern-jawed tough played perfectly by Aussie newcomer Luke Bracey. This gang might’ve been a band of brothers in life, but they mostly lack the distinct personae of the boys in Band of Brothers.

But that doesn’t detract from the overall picture, especially when Gibson himself is operating at peak capacity. He is a master conductor, and his orchestra is finely tuned and well-honed to the task. John Gilbert’s whip-quick editing adds a jagged edge to the battle sequences, keeping us on our toes lest we become complacent even in the midst of all this ferocity. Simon Duggan’s cinematography is unflinching, no matter if he’s lensing a bird taking wing or a head bursting like rotten fruit, while Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score hits notes both plaintive and just plain harrowing. And in Garfield, Gibson has found the perfect centerpiece.

Hacksaw Ridge is a story of paradoxes: how a man who hated violence and refused to take part in it would nevertheless be on the front lines for one of the most terrible conflicts in human history. It’s a film about people coming to terms with reality. The reality of war, the reality of human nature, and the reality that courage is not something that can be found on the surface at first glance. It is as much of a paradox as the man who made it: a director who revels in violence but also, with this newest film, preaches a message of peace.

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Like all forms of art, films are decided to stimulate, to galvanize, to excite and/or incite, depending on the person. Whether it is to sweep audiences in the grandeur of a technicolor ballroom or an intergalactic siege, or to meditate on stark realities presented in gritty documentaries, cinema is an important tool to spread a message to the masses on an epic scale. Sometimes, the message can be found right in the title. So it is with Nate Parker’s directorial debut: The Birth of a Nation.

Obviously, Parker’s film was designed to provoke heated discussion and controversy even before a frame of it had been screened, especially when we enter the film’s name into evidence. The title hearkens back to the 1915 cinematic epic of the same name, where D.W. Griffith shaped modern movie-making while shamefully wallowing in racist rhetoric. His Birth of a Nation is an important film to be studied for how it pushed technical convention to show what cinema was capable of, but the pro-Klan nature of the story was revolting even by standards of the era (and, indeed, the KKK’s revival in the early 20th century is largely thanks to this film’s popularity). A century later, Parker’s choice in title for his film is far from accidental. He seeks to “reclaim” the title, to use its notoriety as both an accusation of Hollywood’s acquiescence to past injustices as well as to evoke a sense of a “new beginning” in the art-form. And, of course, to present a depiction of history.

America was built on a foundation of blood and misery; James Ellroy once wrote that our great nation was never innocent. And that ethos is the crux of Parker’s film—the evils wrought by slavery were ingrained into our culture generations before the birth of Nat Turner, the black preacher who used his words and faith to kickstart a rebellion in Virginia in the 1830s. Where most films feature slaves suffering in quiet dignity, Parker portrays Turner’s revolt as a paragon of Old Testament justice and retribution. Birth of a Nation is a bloody affair, though on the spectrum of recent slave sojourns it falls somewhere between the clinical detachment of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and the gory ejaculations Quentin Tarantino made his mainstay in Django Unchained.

Parker wore many hats in the making of this film: writer, producer, director, star. On paper it reads like a vanity project, although there is almost nothing showy about his work as an actor here. Parker anchors the film by refraining from playing Turner as anything other than a modest man, a youth who grew up on a plantation and witnessed the oppression of his people firsthand. In the first scene, when Nat is just a kid, he sees his father (Dwight Henry) accidentally kill a white man and flee from a surefire lynching. He sees the way that his brightness and aptitude for learning is curbed by a prevailing fear among his masters that he might begin to question his place in the world. Even his master’s son (Armie Hammer), whom he frolics with as a child, grows up into an alcoholic reprobate who treats his former friend like chattel.

Turner, who was driven to the Bible in lieu of the more “off-limits” books in the plantation study, becomes an adept preacher, and other slaveowners in the county see him as a potential tool to calm the rabble-rousing and insolence they find in their property. Turner initially seeks to use the word of God to inspire faith and love, but soon he becomes disenchanted with some of the horrific untruths he is forced to spew in front of his masters. He begins to realize that there is just as much in the Good Book that drives the reader to think of insurrection and freedom. While these thoughts percolate, Nat becomes enamored of Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), a new slave to the plantation. It is an atrocity visited upon her that really sets the powderkeg alight that will, in turn, erupt into full-fledged violence.

Parker saves most of his firebrand sizzle for behind the camera. The direction of the film feels a little less confident than one would expect from a film of this scale, and indeed some of the imagery—while wonderfully shot—can seem a bit derivative, less inventive. Clearly, Parker must’ve studied long on films like Braveheart and Apocalypto (to the point that this film feels almost like the lost first film of Mel Gibson), and while there are riveting sequences that are adeptly staged and shot, it feels like there are bolder moves he could’ve made here and there. Certainly, by the time the rebellion occurs, we are ready to see a good hour of bloody justice being doled out . . . but then the film just sort of peters out, and while the last scenes do pack a great visual wallop, the punches feel unjustly pulled at the last second. The timing was perfect for a film to be made with this message, but perhaps it came at the wrong time in Parker’s career. He’s tenacious and fearless, and the film benefits from that energy, but it needed some fine-tuning that a couple of films under his belt would’ve given him.

This isn’t to say The Birth of a Nation doesn’t excel in other arenas. The performances, while hardly flashy, are uniformly reliable and never really feel out of touch with each other. Parker and King have an instant rapport that blossoms wonderfully, even if the script can only touch on their dynamic so much in the runtime the film presents. Hammer coaxes a surprising amount of humanity the debauched scion of a respected plantation owner whose farm falls into disrepair when he takes over, and he makes us wonder if his boozing is the result of self-loathing at the generation-instilled societal ills he continues to perpetrate. There are a number of recognizable character actors peppered throughout, playing slaves and slavers alike (Jackie Earle Haley plays perhaps the most virulently despicable character in the film, and he sells his role’s malignancy perfectly). The cinematography offers some truly glorious shots (if a little highfalutin at times), and the soundtrack provides an earthy undercurrent.

With all of the controversy directed at Nate Parker now, it’s hard to separate the art from the artist. When one analyzes a creative’s work, it becomes a nigh-Herculean task to divorce yourself from whatever is in the ether. Certainly, the brouhaha surrounding Parker has affected the film itself, with multitudes proclaiming that they refuse to pay to see it. (I was one of only three people in my screening.) Certainly, much of the controversy is justified and I have given my thoughts in length on it elsewhere. But in terms of The Birth of a Nation, I do think that the scandals have blemished a film that, while flawed, nevertheless belts out a strong message that resonates with great gusto in today’s climate. Is it fair? Depends on who you ask. I do think that the film should be seen, though the method of doing so is entirely up to you.

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Paul Verhoeven has always worn the mantle of provocateur with pride, from the alluringly pulp Basic Instinct to the scandalous stripper saga that was Showgirls. Even when he dips his toe in genre fare, there’s still nevertheless an undercurrent of erotic satire in them (remember the tri-boobed woman in Total Recall?). Even when Verhoeven plays it straight, like in the brilliant Black Book, his films nevertheless drip with sensuality. His latest film, however, takes a more measured but by no means less lacerating tack.

At first glance, Elle is so cold-blooded it could almost be mistaken for a Michael Haneke film, especially as it features Haneke’s muse, the glacially poised Isabelle Huppert, at its center. Certainly, Elle kicks right off in a suitably brutal manner one would typically see from Haneke: namely, the savage rape of its primary character in her own home by a masked intruder. Shades of Funny Games certainly are evident here, but Verhoeven nevertheless keeps his own brand of reptilian energy alive in the film. Huppert’s Michèle immediately gets back into her daily routine: overseeing the newest release from her video-game company, dealing with the drama of her son’s upcoming fatherhood with a girl Michèle cannot stand, and seeing her mother tentatively flirting with a new marriage while her father, a convicted murderer, languishes in prison. With everything on Michèle’s plate, a little sexual assault is merely seasoning.

The shocking opening scene will certainly have audiences squirming, and indeed Verhoeven revisits it a couple of times throughout the film as Michèle mulls over the event, with variations here and there as she imagines how she could have defended herself—or provoked him further. And despite her desire to move on from the event, it continues to linger, especially as her assailant sends her threatening texts that he may not be done with her. But rather than go to the police, Michèle finds herself almost being an encouraging presence to her assailant, as though she craves the demeaning, degrading act to which she was subjected.

It is certainly a problematic viewpoint for any film to have: that of a rape victim desiring to return to the act itself. But Verhoeven’s lurid sensibility strangely doesn’t hit the exploitative level that he typically sets out to achieve. While the story does juggle its fair share of melodramatic subplots (swapping out an affair for a cuckolding here while touching on a dark childhood there), it mostly focuses on playing up the stalker cat-and-mouse theme. Michèle goes the Brave One route at first: buying (and using) mace, going to a gun range. But as all of her life’s little foibles start to coalesce all at once, it’s almost as though she seeks the grim simplicity of simply being a “victim.”

I’ve always found Huppert to be a technically masterful but nevertheless somewhat clinical actress, one whose austerity can sometimes keep us at arm’s length when she should instead be drawing us closer, deeper. I find that can be a bit of a detriment to some of her performances, but Elle relies on that puritanical presence, and her ascetic approach to her portrayal of Michèle is largely what makes the film work in the first place. She navigates the hectic labyrinth of her life like a ship cutting through thick fog, and even as Verhoeven puts his thumb on the tongue-in-cheek scales, she never once feels like she’s in on the joke. Though Huppert was not Verhoeven’s first choice (he shopped the script to the likes of Marion Cotillard and Carice van Houten beforehand), she nevertheless feels like the right one. Her flinty nature provides the dour center the film requires.

Elle does feel a bit bloated in his second half, and I honestly could’ve done with most of its tangential subplots being axed. Verhoeven’s films generally outstay their welcome in terms of runtime, and Ellecomes dangerously close to that, but Huppert’s compelling performance and Verhoeven’s approach to the material will keep audiences in their seats, albeit forever squirming.

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When we first meet John Link, Mel Gibson’s grizzled ex-con anti-hero in his latest thriller Blood Father, he’s in the midst of an impassioned soliloquy at an AA meeting. A self-proclaimed “real success story,” Link is a recovering alky two years out of the slammer, whose wife left him and whose daughter is in the wind, leaving him with no one in his corner and with no one to blame but himself. It’s a fitting noir-esque introduction to Link, but also—perhaps more appropriately, especially as he’s talking straight at the camera when he says it—it seems to be coming from Gibson himself.

Directed by Jean-François Richet, who helmed 2008’s gripping gangster diptych MesrineBlood Father seems at first glance to be another addition to the tried-and-true Gibson formula: a brutal guy on the wrong side of the tracks takes on those who wronged him, often in typically gruesome fashion. Certainly, John Link could be blood brothers with Porter and Driver, Gibson’s violent protagonists from Payback and Get the Gringo. Living on the fringe of society while scratching out a living as a tattoo artist from his grungy desert trailer, Link is as blunt and terse as his monosyllabic name would suggest. The difference is that Blood Father feels like Gibson confronting the demons that put him and his career on the skids over the last decade. His performance feels like penance, and not in a negative way. Gibson’s mainstay has always been passion—in both definitions of the word—and here he bares himself to the bone.

Link’s efforts to stay on the straight and narrow are complicated by the cataclysmic arrival of his wayward daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty). Strung-out and on the run from a bunch of bad customers, Lydia’s presence puts her father on an inexorable course towards violence—which, of course, he excels at dishing out. And true to form for a Mel Gibson joint, there is no shortage of it: once the blood starts flowing and the bullets start flying, it’s hard to stop.

Gibson’s trademark wild-man intensity is in full froth here, and it’s always a welcome sight to behold, even if it’s been in otherwise subpar productions or against lesser actors. For the most part, fortunately, Blood Father isn’t pigeonholed in either category. While some of the dialogue sounds more than a little ponderous (Lydia spends much of the film spitting out sheaves of insight with such precision that you’d think she were a Sorkinian heroine instead of, well, someone who snorts heroin), the rest of it is balanced in taut, punchy lines that would make Hemingway proud. And unlike Get the Gringo, which featured Gibson at the top of his game making his co-stars look downright amateurish, he’s bolstered by some reliable names this go-around: among them, William H. Macy as Link’s good-natured AA sponsor and Michael Parks as a seedy old contact from his past. In fact, the only real weak link of the cast is Moriarty, whose erratic performance is far too self-conscious and unconvincing for us to really care about her plight. It’s only through Gibson that we care (and to his credit, he does and we do).

Much of Blood Father is a foregone conclusion, all the way up to its bullet-riddled finale. And while the film rarely evinces an inspired note, it’s still a good potboiler, and there’s nothing wrong with a well-worn story if it’s well-told. But with an actor like Gibson at the fore, it becomes something more personal. Blood Father’s about a man facing old sins and the grim reckoning that comes with them. And every single one of Mad Mel’s is on full display here.

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David Mackenzie’s latest film, Hell or High Water, feels like one of those movies that could’ve been made at any point in cinema’s existence. It is a simple meat-and-potatoes tale of bank heists and blood brothers, the sort of story that great directors from Kubrick and Altman to Arthur Penn and Tarantino have made their staple at one time or another. And though it’s set against the woeful landscape of an America in the throes of the most recent economic downtown, you could easily see it taking place in the Dust Bowl era of Bonnie & Clyde.

Working from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (scribe of last year’s superior Sicario), Mackenzie sets his film in the Texas midlands, the last frontier against “progress,” as the few scattered denizens would call the encroaching destruction of their old-fashioned way of life. Gone are the desperadoes, the Gary Coopers and Jesse Jameses of old, and all that’s left are a few dying embers of what had once been the great American dream.

Three such embers are at the heart of Hell or High Water, and it’s these three that set the desert fields ablaze in a trail of blood and violence. Two of these three are a pair of brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard—rough country boys who are at once peas in a pod and yet polar opposites. Toby (a sufficiently grunged-up Chris Pine, playing a stoic Southern loner role that somehow bypassed Josh Brolin, who usually corners the market on such parts) is quiet but decent, eking out a hardscrabble existence in a desperate attempt to keep his family ranch from foreclosure. His big brother Tanner is far more erratic and intense, which makes the casting of Ben Foster a no-brainer. Tanner’s antics seem downright Tremor Brother-esque; a hard-living ex-jailbird with no compunction against brutality if required.

The brothers have cooked up a scheme to save the family farm as well as get revenge on the faceless banks that have fucked them over: by pulling a string of penny-ante heists at each branch, taking only cashiers’ trays of loose bills (to prevent ink-pack bursts and access to traceable currency). It’s a smart play, but also one that requires several jobs in rapid succession. And sooner or later, their luck will inevitably run out.

This is where the third ember comes into play: Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Played as a prickly amalgamation of Rooster Cogburn and Columbo, Jeff Bridges’s soon-to-retire lawman decides to pursue the bank job investigation as one final hurrah before he turns in his star. Paired with Gil Birmingham’s stalwart, snarky Alberto (who also bears the brunt of his partner’s deliberately un-P.C. ribbing), Marcus shrewdly assesses that the thieves are working towards a goal and accurately calculates the locations they’d need to hit in order to meet their quota. But as with every single heist film since the days of old, something goes wrong.

There is a grim edge to Hell or High Water, but it refuses to wallow in it. Instead, it is bleakly funny, fraught with little character foibles sure to get a chuckle or two out of any audience. Even in the tensest moments (and there are more than a few, be forewarned), there is a nevertheless a laid-back undercurrent. In large part, it’s due to how easy the three leads slip into their characters and convey decades’ worth of life and experience in their performances. Bridges impresses the most, at least for me—there are several moments in the film where he is as good as he ever has been, even as the Dude—and you could almost see yearly spin-offs built around the character on cable TV. Pine, who usually sings best playing zany sorts like in his Carnahan collaborations, nevertheless is very striking as a low-key working joe who nevertheless has a depth of insight far exceeding his rough-hewn appearance. And then there’s Foster, who is never anything but riveting when he’s on-screen and whose mercurial talents continue to cement him as one of the peak actors around.

Hell or High Water also cements Sheridan as a writer to watch out for. His last two scripts have been perfectly methodical, like a chemist’s precise formula, almost perfectly calibrated. He has an ear for dialogue, both ruminating (at one point, a cowpoke laments that the way the country’s going, no wonder his kids don’t want to raise cattle for a living) and snappy (“Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.” “Drink up.”). Aided by a plaintive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis—as if there could be any better pick—Sheridan’s voice is powerful enough that it almost seems like Mackenzie hardly has to do any heavy lifting at all. And though he doesn’t set up high-octane thrills like Denis Villeneuve did with Sicario, he instead presents a sober, soulful threnody to the dying myth of the American outlaw.

(On a final note, I agree with Tanner: only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.)

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It’s always fascinating to see what a director does immediately after their latest project gets a critical drubbing. Some directors immediately reassess their career choices and decide to opt for something safer, more commercial. Others burrow into the darkness, afraid to try again lest they be excoriated once more. Still others shave their heads and bitch about the state of cinematic criticism. Then there are the directors who decide “To hell with it!” and let their freak flag fly. And none get freakier than Nicolas Winding Refn.

His ultraviolent Oedipal fantasia Only God Forgives—a film I thoroughly adored, warts and all—was deemed little better than radioactive waste after its Cannes bow. Refn himself seemed to be considered something of a Chernobyl in human form, as a lot of people who lauded his visionary artistry in Driveimmediately began to wonder if they’d made a mistake. They had, but not in the way they thought. With Drive, they had considered Refn the heir apparent to the likes of Michael Mann and Walter Hill, not realizing that the dreamy flick about a laconic getaway driver was the anomaly in Refn’s canon. He is more akin to the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Yet even so, The Neon Demon—a title that perfectly suits its director as much as it does the film itself—pulsates with a distinctly unique touch for a director previously known for his explorations of hyper-masculinity. It’s clear that Refn idolizes women, putting them on a pedestal to be worshipped. And indeed, the central focus of his latest film is about the superlative female form as it exists in mainstream culture: supermodels. Yet there is nothing soft or tender about the world in which these characters inhabit; it’s a cutthroat (and I do mean cutthroat) environment just as savage and unforgiving as the seedy Danish streets and Bangkok back-alleys Refn has explored before.

At first, it seems a world wholly unfit for Jesse, a cornfed beauty just getting her start in the business. For this central role, Refn calls upon an actress who has spent her entire life in front of the camera, in one form or another: Elle Fanning, who has a remarkable gift of using her overlarge ice-chip eyes to switch from wide-eyed naiveté to dangerous austerity at a moment’s notice. Despite, or perhaps because of, her youth (Jesse is barely sixteen), as well as her possessing that nascent “it” factor, she catches the eye of a couple of industry mainstays, and suddenly, the gangly Georgia girl becomes a sensation.

But Jesse’s burgeoning success in the industry isn’t met with unanimous delight; the world of high fashion is, like nature, red in tooth and claw—or perhaps in heel and nail. And soon she runs afoul of a couple of catty runway vets who look at this new face as an unwanted interloper. Gigi (Bella Heathcote) is a plastic surgery junkie, addicted to nipping and tucking to achieve perfection. Sarah (Aussie model Abbey Lee, who recently lent her rangy beauty to George Miller’s furious Mad Max franchise) is ancient by supermodel standards and glumly knows that Jesse will be usurping her position in the industry. There is more than a passing resemblance between Fanning and Lee; they could be sisters, or (as I feel Refn may have intentionally or unintentionally portrayed) the same person on polar opposites of their career spectrum. While these two stare daggers at Jesse behind her back, the rest of the industry becomes entranced by her je ne sais quoi. She bewitches aspiring photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) and seen-it-all makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), as well as earning leering gazes from the likes of skeevy slumlord Hank (Keanu Reeves), who manages the dive where Jesse crashes. As Jesse’s star rises, even she herself falls under her own spell.

True to form for Refn, there are some unforgettably unsettling shots in the film that will have the audience squirming in their seats. There’s an epileptic-unfriendly nightclub sequence where Jesse witnesses the most bizarre performance-art this side of Lost River. There’s a teeth-gritting sexual assault with a deadly weapon that leads to a chilling—and mostly auditory—climax. There’s buckets of blood and body parts, and that’s not even getting to the necrophilia. I’d go so far as to say it’s easily Refn’s most disturbing film, even over the likes of Only God Forgives, as well as the one that relies most heavily on his fetishistic eye. It’s so heavy with his trademark energy that the film opens with his initials stamped right on the screen.

Yet, as said before, the film bears a distinct feminine touch: noted playwrights Polly Stenham and Mary Laws both took cracks at the script, and the film was lensed by Natasha Breier (who shot the superb post-apocalyptic chase flick The Rover). Bathed in bloody reds and blue hues, The Neon Demon’s ever-shifting aesthetic makes it almost like a cinematic mood ring. Meanwhile, composer Cliff Martinez’s intoxicating score acts as the lifeblood to Refn’s poisonous meditation on beauty.

I had the pleasure of seeing The Neon Demon in London a few weeks prior to its general release, which was followed by a Q&A by Refn and his leading lady. Refn discussed how the film was meant to be a melange of a dozen or so different genres, ranging from giallo horror to sci-fi to comedy. And certainly the film shifts in and out of these conventions with startling regularity, often without warning. How often can a film go from a shot of impromptu hara-kiri to a facial reaction that is damn near stitch-inducing—and still it works? I asked Refn about how I noticed that his last four films charted a progression from violent savage (Bronson) to noble martyr (Valhalla Rising) to superhero (Drive) to, well, God (Only God Forgives). After seeing it, I think The Neon Demon consecrates the pattern.

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When a film has a troubled production, it usually goes one of two ways. Either the finished picture mirrors the behind-the-scenes drama and comes out a curdled mess, or—in the rarest of cases—you get something like Apocalypse Now, which somehow transcended (or perhaps embraced) the insanity of its own shoot to become something astonishing. Rarely does the latter happen.

But almost as rare is the film whose production hardships are even more interesting than the final product. Take Jane Got a Gun, for instance. The Natalie Portman-anchored Western shoot-‘em-up has been marred from the very beginning by crippling setbacks. First, director Lynne Ramsay ducked out of sight just as shooting was going to begin (with seemingly no reason given beyond “artistic differences”). Then, right after they found a new helmsman in Gavin O’Connor, several actors bowed out in quick succession. Once they managed to fill the gaps with stalwart replacements (seemingly culled from Portman’s Star Wars days), there was some controversy about writing credits. And then, the studio ended up delaying the film’s release not once, but twice. It was a fascinating series of unfortunate events that plagued a seemingly innocuous outlaw movie.

Unfortunately, the film we get is nowhere near as intriguing as the effort it took to bring this story to the screen. It’s a basic frontier revenge tale, full of every single Western trope in the book. Portman—the one constant throughout the production—plays the title character, a stoic mother who witnesses her husband’s horse trotting toward their homestead, with said husband (Noah Emmerich) slouched in the saddle with a few extra holes in his body. While Jane tends to his wounds, he mutters that he ran afoul of the “Bishop Boys,” of whom the mere mention immediately sets Jane to plan for war.

But she can’t do it alone. She rides out to a neighboring homestead, where her old flame (Joel Edgerton, who also did some script doctoring along the way) reluctantly offers his assistance. There is some bad blood between Edgerton’s Dan Frost and Portman’s Jane, and O’Connor offers us glimpses through successive flashbacks. He also uses this tool to show Jane’s history with the outlaw gang coming for her family, including the sadistic John Bishop (Ewan McGregor, who looks to have swiped his get-up from The Sears & Roebuck Western Badman Collection). As Jane and Dan prepare for a siege against the merciless outlaw gang, we get more and more insight into how everything came to such an explosive head.

Unfortunately, what should be an apocalyptic showdown results in little more than a couple of damp squibs. There is no sense of dread for the battle that is coming, and when it does, it’s over much too quick and without any sort of memorable flair. A good Western showdown is only as good as the villain, and as much as Portman and Edgerton try and convince me that these men should be feared, McGregor’s Snidely Whiplash-esque dastard just comes off a few shades off from ludicrous. It also doesn’t help that I just don’t really care about Jane’s plight, and that’s largely due to the bored work her actress provides. Portman’s performance is little more than steely glances and various settings of her jaw (save for one moment where her character has to break down that is one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of any film in the last few years). Portman seemed devoted to making this film come hell or high water, but the finished performance doesn’t shed any light as to why. Even Edgerton comes off as seemingly unsure of what he’s supposed to bring to the project other than act as a stoic masculine figure for Jane to interact with. Even the director is seemingly at sea; O’Connor tries to infuse the film with a grungy, sepia-soaked aesthetic that makes every frame look like it’s been drowned in iodine.

There is potential to be had in a story about a woman in a lawless environment who has to take matters into her own hands. But what we end up with isn’t even a film that feels so blatantly scarred by its fearsome creation, like a deformed freak in a jar that we can gawk at in a carnival tent. Instead, Jane Got a Gun feels like surrender from everyone involved, where they decided to eschew any sort of real thematic potential in the story to just crank it out and get it away from them as fast as possible.