"12 Years a Slave" won the Best Picture Oscar two years ago. It also felt like a homework assignment at times.
That’s not a knock on its craft. It’s a confession that watching the slavery saga felt like being back in school again. Scenes involving Brad Pitt’s wise beyond his era character didn’t help.
“The Birth of a Nation” covers similar ground. It never, not for a single frame, conjures the sense you’re enveloped in a high-minded history class.
It’s riveting, and horrifying, an Oscar season feature worthy of the pre-release hype. Simply put, it’s both a better film than “Slave” and the early favorite to snare a Best Picture Oscar of its own.
Director/co-writer Nate Parker stars as Nat Turner, an educated slave who works for a master with a modicum of heart. Nat’s still a slave, of course, but he’s allowed to preach to his fellow slaves without the casual beatings others endure. Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) even confides in Nat like work colleague.
When the plantation’s financial fortunes dip, Samuel leans on Nat’s preaching skills to earn extra cash. A shady man of faith (“Sons of Anarchy’s” Mark Boone Junior) wants Nat to teach other slaves not to rebel, using select Bible versus as a balm of sorts.
Nat does as he’s told, but his gigs let him explore the lives of other slaves, ones tortured for disobeying.
His own reality can’t maintain its modest pleasures. Even the one unbridled joy in Nat’s life, his courtship with a fellow slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King), succumbs to the peculiar institution.
Slowly, with a delicacy that’s remarkable from a movie created by a first-time director, Nat realizes he must fight back.
“The Birth of a Nation” doesn’t reveal much that we didn’t already know about slavery. What’s integral to Nat’s arc is his faith journey. The actor conveys it with righteous fury, one that builds in wholly convincing ways.
It might be the faith-based movie of the year, but the marketing campaign likely won’t embrace that label.
We see glimmers of decency throughout the saga. Hammer’s character isn’t the prototypical master. Penelope Ann Miller plays a plantation matriarch whose kindness doesn’t curdle with time.
Slavery is slavery all the same, and a mindset that views blacks as animals is monstrous no matter the trappings.
FAST FACT: The 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith was hailed as a cinematic masterpiece and an unbridled blast of racist propaganda. It was shown in President Woodrow Wilson’s White House during its initial release window.
Parker’s camera lingers on the violence, the depravity, in a way that hurts the film’s momentum. We need to see it, but the repetition borders on a torture porn horror romp. The film’s final moments are similarly bloated, with the young director leaning too heavily on symbolism when a gentle fade would have worked far better.
Parker’s off-screen behavior – he was acquitted on sexual abuse charges for a 1999 incident involving the film’s screenwriter – doesn’t invade the screen unless viewers let it.
What’s impossible to miss, though, is one politically loaded phrase late in the film.
One of the slaves says, and this paraphrase is very close to the literal quote, “They’re killing us for the color of our skin.”
It’s a jarring moment in a film that makes few missteps. Given Nat’s eventual revolt, it also could be incendiary given the tenor of our times.
HiT or Miss: “The Birth of a Nation” lives up to its festival buzz, thanks to a magnetic lead performance and a beautifully crafted faith journey.
“THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN”
Emily Blunt’s Rachel is one gone girl.
Sure, you can see her taking the train to and from …. somewhere … each day. She’s lost all the same. That makes “The Girl on the Train” a fascinating character study, the kind we rarely see outside of the best TV shows today.
The movie’s last stop, alas, is Pulpville. That’s a cozy little hamlet where lurid twists await. You’ll see a few coming a mile away, but “Train’s” sturdy backstory makes them more palatable.
Occasionally, they’re even riveting even if you hate yourself for enjoying them.
Blunt’s Rachel is a mess. She can’t get over her ex-husband and stalks him both in person and via text messages. She drinks, and drinks, to the point where she can’t remember how many times she’s made a scene in public.
Her only solace is watching a beautiful woman from the window of her morning train commute. This woman looks … happy. She has a handsome man in her life, and to Rachel it’s exactly what she wishes was waiting for her at the end of the day.
Only the woman in question soon disappears. Rachel can’t help but insert herself into the drama. The missing woman lives in her old neighborhood, which allows her to stalk her ex AND pry into an unsolved mystery.
Or is Rachel directly responsible for the woman’s disappearance?
Blunt hasn’t ascended to the A-list quite yet, but the big screen adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller could change that. It’s a bravura turn – complicated, nuanced and consistently intriguing. Her Rachel is falling apart, and yet Blunt makes every mistake feel fresh, not recycled from countless other stories.
Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) won’t let her go off the rails, if you’ll excuse the horrendous pun. We need Rachel to cling to some shred of sanity, at least until the story’s missing pieces fall into place.
They include Rachel’s ex-husband (Justin Theroux), a man who seems incapable of cutting her out of his life for good. Why?
FAST FACT: Paula Hawkins, the author of “The Girl on the Train,” was working as a financial journalist before her debut novel spent 20 straight weeks atop the bestseller list.
Haley Bennett, fresh from a small but potent part in “The Magnificent Seven,” is nearly as good as the missing Megan. She’s a tortured soul, too, even if her exterior looks so sensual, so conniving. If Blunt’s career ascends after this “Train,” so should Bennett’s.
When the pulp fiction arrives, it’s at gale force velocity. It’s like another film got edited into the third act almost by accident. Much of what transpires makes sense on a certain narrative level, but it reveals some storytelling trickery that feels like a con game.
The movie’s feminist themes arrive along with the plot surprises. We’re still intimately invested in Rachel’s plight, but you can see the screenwriter’s mind at work for the first time.
HiT or Miss: “The Girl on the Train” is part pulp, part character study. Those two sides clash in the third act, but what’s left behind is engrossing all the same.