Marshall: Movie Man Jackson

Justice isn’t guaranteed, it’s earned. Young Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) makes his living fighting injustices. He’s a traveling lawman for the NAACP, defending people of color who have been wrongfully accused of crimes they never committed. His latest assignment brings him to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend a Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who’s been charged with the rape and attempted murder of his provider, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Things take a turn when Marshall isn’t allowed to take the lead. Rather, the defense lead is given to the man who briefed him on the situation, Jewish insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who is reluctant to take the responsibility for fear it’ll tarnish his business. With Friedman having no experience in the criminal realm, Marshall has to lead from the side while Sam takes point, navigating a slanted judge and jury while being the only hope an innocent man has in avoiding life behind bars.

The latest biographical movie, Marshall, follows the trend of late for Hollywood biographical movies and/or events. That trend being, to focus on a specific period and/or event instead of the overarching life and/or story. This approach does streamline things and allows a sometimes-staid genre to be less conventional. At the same time, there’s a little missing in the way of character building when going about a “biography” this way. Marshall sees both ends of this double-edged sword, but the good largely outweighs the bad.

There’s a reason “biography” was put in quotations, not because of loose facts, but what the idea of a biography conjures up; i.e. a relatively deep and possibly somber dive into a subject. Director Reginald Hudlin (The Great White Hype) and writers Michael (real life Bridgeport attorney) and Jacob Koskoff choose to place much of the focus not on the meat of the lead characters, but the trial that they are a part of. Marshall is great as a courtroom drama, which happens to be most of the movie’s runtime. To spoil bits of it would be a disservice, as the case being one of Marshall’s first ones makes it likely (at least for this viewer) that only the history nuts will know of the verdict and all the twists and turns. Watching this with a bit of uncertainty makes for a relatively gripping finale.

The case that the writers have selected from Marshall’s catalog is an intriguing one that places all attention on the legal proceedings, but in the process, does marginalize Marshall the man to an extent for a few reasons. This serves as a very surface level—almost Disney-like—look at Thurgood; those expecting great depths into the man’s everyday life and character will be very disappointed.

There’s a running joke going around many parts of the Internet that the film’s title should be Marshall & Friedman (aptly sounding), but it serves the point that Marshall is really a co-star and even a secondary player at times in a production named after him. The film itself takes on more of a buddy cop feel than foreseen, especially in tone, and the light one can be problematic. The levity is appreciated in spots, yet simultaneously undermines some serious moments, as does the mostly hokey score. Certain jokes simply do not need to be here. Whether delivery or timing, some dialogue is a bit odd-sounding and juxtaposes the noir-like recounts told by people on the stand.

After playing notable African-American individuals in Jackie Robinson and James Brown in 42 and Get on Up, it’s no surprise that Chadwick Boseman can carry the acting responsibility of portraying one of the greatest lawyers in history. The difference in his role, however, is that it seems to rely more on Boseman’s natural charisma and screen presence than those other two. He gets a lot of reign to show swagger and confidence that makes Marshall more of a dynamic watch than a history lesson. The dynamic he shares with Josh Gad is again an odd one in spots, but it works. Gad isn’t the strongest comedy guy turned serious actor, but he’s largely solid and better as the movie goes on. Rest of the cast is filled out by steady talent in Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Roger Guenveur Smith, Dan Stevens, and James Cromwell. A few characters can border on caricature, however; by and large the cast grounds them into enough realism.

The jury (of one) ruling on Marshall? Not a definitive introspective look at the man who would become the first African-American Supreme Court judge, but, a lighter-toned, relatively solid entertaining courtroom drama.

B-

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American Made: Movie Man Jackson

Stuff is only illegal if you get caught doing it. Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) makes his living as a TWA pilot in the late 1970’s, raising a family along with wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Always something of a free spirit, Barry’s one of the best in the world but deep down desires more.

Enter Monty Schaefer (Domhnall Gleason), a CIA agent who offers Seal the opportunity to fill that wild spirit void—and to make solid coin—by taking airborne pictures of Central America for reconnaissance purposes. It doesn’t take long for Seal to attract the attention of the locals, particularly the powerful Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia), who quickly approach Seal and ask him to smuggle their product into the U.S. With the CIA looking the other way, Barry is allowed to live large while increasingly taking on more improbable and dangerous missions.

There’s always those few movies that come out around the fall movie season that feel more like light summer fare. Director Doug Liman’s (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) latest in American Made is one of those movies. Despite the traditionally dark and gritty treatment the subject matter often generates in cinema, Liman and star Tom Cruise go the other way, opting for a telling that is breezier and fun—if empty.

Honestly, the term “movie” barely fits American Made. That’s not a complete negative or indictment as some of it is intentional. Liman goes for a documentary-esque approach in even the most elementary of scenes, and the narrative framing relies on voiceover from Cruise done through grainy videotape to spur the on-screen events forward and add the occasional necessary exposition. It works solidly enough, the ol’ “style over substance” approach.

Emphasis on style. Because, American Made has little in the way of meat to chew on. Even compared to similar-minded, relatively light films based on unbelievable and/or embellished real-life individuals in War Dogs and The Wolf of Wall Street, American Made kind of makes those films look like thought-provoking works. Perhaps it’s due to the telling of the story, which comes off as a series of increasingly insane events stitched and put together rather than real story cohesion. No real pronounced act structure exists; the time frame of the events will often jump years ahead without warning. Maybe it’s just representative of it’s whimsical main character, a dude living for the thrills without thought given to anything else.

Sometimes being a mega-star is a bad thing that renders a viewing audience unable to distinguish the star from the part they’re playing. This is one of the reasons The Mummy 2017, starring mega-star Tom Cruise, failed. Whereas some roles and films benefit from a lesser name, others depend on it.

Resembling in no way, shape, or form Barry Seal, it doesn’t matter much because Tom Cruise gets across Doug Liman’s vision of him. It’s hard to see many deliver the charisma, swagger, and “don’t go away because you might miss something outrageous” feeling Tom does here. Seal’s a guy with questionable morals at best, yet hard to despise significantly. Obviously, he’s not the only performer that appears in American Made; Domhnall Gleason and Sarah Wright are perfectly fine, but they’re definitively overshadowed by Cruise. Love or hate him, the man still has the undeniable “it” factor.

Firmly in the group of biopics made to entertain first and educate second (if at all), American Made is a middling romp, but a romp raised in quality by Cruise.

C+

Photo credits go to slashfilm.com, laineygossip.com, and gq.com.

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Stronger: Movie Man Jackson

Pain endures. But determination is everlasting. Disaster strikes the city of Boston, Massachusetts on the date of April 15th, 2013 during one of the city’s most cherished celebrations in the Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon bombing leads to loss of life and for many, injuries and lost limbs. One of those people falling in the latter category is Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was attending the race to get back in good with his on-again, off again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).

A day after being amputated and treated for his lost legs, Jeff describes the people who committed the act, and becomes a hero in the process after their capture/death. But, as Jeff soon realizes, it’s a long road back to not only walking again, but general normalcy. Being a symbol can be a burden, and nothing can ever truly be the same as it once was. Physically and emotionally, Jeff and everyone around him will have to get Stronger to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt.

Stronger is not the movie I expected. What did I expect? Something akin to Bleed for This, which is to say a formulaic biopic with a standard fall/rise story progression and a strong(er) lead performance. What I actually got? A biopic that bucks the usual biographical drama format and generates real emotional investment, along with one of the year’s best lead actor performances. Stronger emerges as the fall season’s first legitimate awards contender.

There’s an alternate universe where Stronger would be overly contrived and even exploitative, sort of like the actual movie poster. While a moment or two of forcedness or ill-timed levity exists, director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Joe) never approaches this story in that matter. The act of the bombing isn’t played up for shock value, neither is the removal of Jeff’s bandages. Even the requisite moment that many of these movies have when the seminal “recovery” act is performed by the lead character accompanied by a swelling orchestral piece is thankfully absent. Directing-wise, Green has a way of putting the camera in the right places and focused on the right things while rightfully defocusing and/or obscuring what is too excessive. Stronger likely will not garner any technical merit, but DGG shows respect for the story and subject by going about it in this fashion.

And going about it in this fashion allows Stronger to truly tug at the heartstrings, but not entirely for the reasons expected. Stronger is a moving watch partly due to the tragedy of the Boston Bombing and what it did to Bauman, but that is only a part of the entire story. Similar movies would tell their stories and lead character in A to B form, with their lead characters only being defined by “getting back what they lost.”

Gordon Green has no fear in delving into the uncomfortable depths of Jeff Bauman and those around him, particularly his family and mother, Patty, played by an opportunistic and disheveled Miranda Richardson. For long stretches, Jeff can be unlikable and his mother insufferable. But, Green and screenplay writer John Pollono give reasons for them being as such. The exploration of symbols and even overnight celebrity allow the main characters to be that much more three-dimensional than initially envisioned at first glance.

Impressive writing does a lot for Stronger, but so does Jake Gyllenhaal, yet again adding another impressive role to his resume. Like his director, his performance never feels exploitative or in bad taste. But, he lets us in on the tortuous anguish. The most basic of tasks and PTSD flashbacks are excruciating to watch at times, as are the flaws in his character, leading to standout second and third act scenes. Remains to be seen if this is the one that finally gets him that elusive Best Actor nom (very early), but he should be in the conversation. His chemistry with Tatiana Maslany is outstanding, herself delivering work that goes well beyond the supportive girlfriend role. Their evolving relationship never gets old and is hardly ever sappy. It feels real and in the moment.

Stronger is a biopic that rarely feels as such. On the back of a great direction and brilliantly acted lead work, there’s a strong base that makes this real-life story every bit as resonant as it should be.

A-

Photo credits go to bbcamerica.com, cinemavine.com, and themoviemylife.com.

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All Eyez on Me: Movie Man Jackson

There will never be another. At an early age, Tupac Amaru Shakur (Demetrius Shipp, Jr) is exposed to a lot—both good and bad—that would eventually shape him into the man he would become. The son of Black Panther party members, Tupac was always given an honest depiction of the world from his mother, Afeni (Danai Gurira). Afeni encouraged her son to get into the arts, which included acting, poetry, and music.

His move from inner-city Baltimore into inner-city Bay Area, California sparks his foray into rap music, first as a member of Digital Underground, then as a solo act. As 2pac, he quickly becomes one of the greatest and most influential artists ever. But his rise isn’t without controversy, nor does it end without an untimely demise.

Most, if not all rapheads, would agree that 2pac is forever entrenched as one of the top five emcees of all time, if not the greatest one to ever do it. His 25 years on this Earth, short as they were, were filled with momentous incidents and cultural significance that hit at the many layers of the legendary rapper. All of that should make for at least a solid, if not fascinating, biographical drama, correct? Some of the moments in All Eyez on Me are there, but the overall total execution often isn’t.

From a narrative perspective in All Eyez on Me, ‘Pac’s life is told to an interviewer (Hill Harper) while in prison, from his birth until his eventual bailout by Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight (played by Dominic L. Santana, in a role written with little subtlety). This takes up about a half or so of the movie, but it is not a bad way for director Benny Boom to tell the rapper’s story. Every now and then, there are small hints to the depths and duality that made up Shakur’s character, portrayed pretty well by Demetrius Shipp, Jr.

In what amounts to his first ever role in film, Shipp looks the part and generally displays good chops. Perfect? No, but there’s something there. Outside of a Tupac hologram assuming the position, probably the best we could hope for. However, he’s the one bright spot in a cast that does itself in with overacting. Pac was certainly a real one, but everyone around him here feels fake. An aside: If Jamal Woolard can reprise his role as The Notorious B.I.G from a movie released over seven years ago, why couldn’t some small agreement come to fruition to bring back those who starred as characters in Straight Outta Compton who also make appearances in Tupac’s biopic? Every studio’s making shared universes, why not a multi-studio spanning “Rapverse” beginning with SOC and AEoM?

The talent or lack thereof in All Eyez on Me is an issue, but the lackluster writing and general technical direction serve as bigger weights on the biography. Despite the semi-linear approach described previously for much of the movie, the film is poorly paced, often spending too little time on transformative moments, or too much time on inconsequential ones (a prison stabbing and a 10-second focus on a woman’s buttocks are examples of this). In about 10-15 minutes, ‘Pac goes from neighborhood poetry club contributor to Digital Underground roadie to signing with Interscope and releasing 2Pacalypse Now. The progression is jarring, and it ends up marring the rapper’s rise to stardom.

There are two words I didn’t think would ever describe this movie. However, after viewing All Eyez on Me, much of the events and more accurately how they’re shown and told are rather cheesy and corny. Made for a reported 40 million, what’s here is on par with those straight-to-BET movies the station used to carry. At times, what occurs is unintentionally funny and/or just eye-rolling, with an odd reliance on slow-motion shaky shots. The ending is simply horrid. Benny Boom is a great music video director, but one does have to wonder if the directorial responsibility for a movie of this level would have been better in more experienced hands, as opposed to a man whose only directorial film credits are Next Day Air and S.W.AT: Firefight.

For such a massive icon, Tupac deserves a better tribute in All Eyez on Me. Shed so many tears, indeed.

D

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Hidden Figures: Movie Man Jackson

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Numbers are indiscriminate. Relatively speaking. The year is 1961. The United States of America is in a race with Russia to put an astronaut into space. But, they are hitting quite a few snags in the process. They simply do not have the manpower, or possibly the mindpower, to break through.

Three brilliant African-American females mathematicians in Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are assigned to various departments to helm Langley’s efforts to launch one of its own into the stratosphere. All are qualified, but each face difficulties in getting their peers to accept them as equals. But the mission takes precedence, and hitting its intended target means putting aside any hate and coming together as a unit.

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Needing for a Disney-live movie that isn’t made by Disney? Hidden Figures does the trick, a true story that pays good tribute to amazing women. Well, relatively true. It’s sound in all areas without being extraordinary in any, either. Nothing wrong with playing it safe and filling a purpose.

The title of Hidden Figures serves as a double meaning. The movie’s core plot revolves around finding the math that doesn’t yet exist to propel a shuttle into space. But on a more figurative sense, for myself, I sadly had never heard of these women, but I suspect a good deal have not, either, effectively making these women almost ghost-like in the annals of history. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) takes the quarterback manager approach here. There’s little that catches the eye cinematically, but it’s certainly competent. Producer Pharrell Williams provides a few high spots with original songs that fit the 1960’s setting perfectly.

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Melfi lets the story of Hidden Figures, adapted from the nonfiction book with the same name, tell itself. However, there are obvious embellishments and prints of Hollywood that are left on the production. Hidden Figures does a good job at showcasing the institutional racism that permeated the time period, the small things that made life difficult for African-Americans, and women in a male-dominated field. But, Hidden Figures becomes hokey at times with specific moments and certain characters who didn’t exist. This is not the film to get hyper-accurate history from.

Still, the lead characters of Hidden Figures provide some insight into these troubling times, and though they all work towards the same mission, all three women have their own storylines that the film addresses. It helps that each of the three actresses pull off great performances to make their characters likable and believable. Taraji P. Henson is the standout of the entire picture, and now seeing the list, it is a little disappointing to not see her get a Best Actress nomination; she’s that good with the requisite award scene that plays for a nominee that feels completely natural in the movie. The surprise is Janelle Monáe, who was good in Moonlight but has more to do here, and might be more deserving of the supporting nod than the über-consistent Octavia Spencer who did receive the nod.

As for the rest of the supporting cast, most end up playing the evil white person or misguided white person who thinks they mean well but actually do not. At least for many of the central characters at Langley, this applies. As such, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are playing parts and not so much characters to give life to, though Dunst is a little more impressive with what she is given. On the other side of the spectrum of characters at Langley lies Kevin Costner’s (no one’s going to accuse him of having questionable views in Hollywood!), just a guy who’s about the job regardless of skin color. Costner’s character is good, even if a scene borders on being the aforementioned hokey. Aldis Hodge and Mahershala Ali provide solid yet unspectacular work as stock husband/love interest. But, it’s nice to see these up and coming actors of color in a high-profile movie.

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Hidden Figures is the sum of great lead performances to tell the stories of three women who didn’t get the recognition they deserve until now. Everything else in the film, facts included, is secondary, but it does end up equaling a feel-good watch.

B-

Photo credits go to aceshowbiz.com, denofgeek.com, and filmandnow.com.

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Jackie: Movie Man Jackson

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It’s tough to pick up the pieces. The assassination of John F. Kennedy has left the first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) all alone.

Always the portrait of cool to the American public, behind the scenes, Jackie is struggling to keep it together. But this tragedy allows Jackie to dig deeper, and to continue what her husband left behind.

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Know that awards movie you want to fall head over heels for but just can’t? That movie would be Jackie, solidly functional in most areas, exceptional in one area. But as a complete package that is supposed to be moving and emotional, it can be rather dull and lacking in poignancy.

Where Jackie impresses is its overall commitment level to its central character. Unlike a good deal of biopics which are almost always criticized for “not exploring the feature character deep enough,” writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín make Jackie Kennedy the Alpha and the Omega of this movie. How they go about it isn’t in the most successful of ways, however. As Kevin mentions in his thoughts over on Polarbearstv.com, the narrative is rather jumbled, and it never really settles into a groove. The more I think about it, there’s really not much of a story to be found.

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As the film goes on, its narrative issues undermine most of the intended emotional moments. It is a shame, because the technical aspects are very strong. Composed by Mica Levi (Under the Skin), the score, though turned up a bit high sometimes, is always compelling. The direction, albeit unspectacular at times, is astonishing at others, particularly during the moments which Jackie is being broadcast to the world. They legitimately look like 60’s stock reels.

Back to commitment, Natalie Portman immerses herself as the widow of JFK. All of her extensive research in videotapes, audiotapes, and books as it pertains to Jackie Kennedy pays off to create a character that goes deeper than the surface. In the hands of a less capable actress this role could become a little bit of a caricature, but under Portman’s grip, the character feels real. Her work here is up there as her career best, but one wishes that there were that one or two scenes that imprint themselves on the memory. It’s no fault of her’s, the script and middling direction lets her down.

It would be wrong to not acknowledge the other members of the cast, but they ultimately are just serviceable. If there were a relative standout, Billy Crudup plays nicely off of Portman as Theodore H. White, the famous journalist who was called to write about the legacy of Jackie’s husband. This itself feels like it could have been its own true piece in the movie, instead of being used as a framing device where momentum becomes scattershot.

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In the classic (made up) category of “superb performance(s) in a forgettable good film” lies Jackie. Expect an intriguing character, and an unmoving story.

B-

Photo credits go to ew.com, usatoday.com, ramascreen.com, and deadline.com.

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Bleed for This: Movie Man Jackson

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Only a matter of time before we get the Butterbean silver screen treatment. Boxer Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) has amassed much fame and fortune as a fighter. What he doesn’t have in pure skill he has in pure heart. That heart has led him to hold two belts across two different weight classes.

Shortly after winning the junior middleweight world title, Pazienza is on the receiving end of a vicious car accident, rendering him bedridden and his spine in a bad place. “The Pazmanian Devil” is unlikely to fight again, and walking again is a 50/50 proposition with the procedure he goes under. However, this procedure, which requires him to wear a bulky steel device called a Halo screwed into his head, is a procedure that could bring Paz back into the ring, despite everyone’s insistence that he give up these dreams. But he’s a fighter, and it is impossible to keep a fighter down for a 10 count.

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OK, so maybe we are still a ways away from the Butterbean biopic. But it is quite clear that even if the sport of boxing is in a steady popularity decline, Hollywood’s is still very interested in making movies about the sweet science. Outside of a slim few, one knows what they’re going to get when viewing a boxing movie. Bleed for This clinches to the well-worn boxing movie formula.

Rise, fall, adversity, rise. Flip the order in whichever way; as long as it ends with rise, that is the general plot of boxing movie, whether fictional or true. No different is done in Bleed for This. However, the script, penned by director Ben Younger (Boiler Room) does benefit from this actually happening. Though conventional, it does it does resonate a little simply because it was real life, an actual individual went through this and persevered through it. And albeit rushed in a few spots, the script feels pretty true to life, respecting and not embellishing Paz’s story.

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There are many ways for boxing judges to score rounds. One way is to look at the round in three parts, as it consists of three minutes most often. That’s how yours truly looked at Bleed for This. It’s got a solid, if unspectacular, start with a decent fight between Paz and Roger Mayweather. The final act features some good heartfelt moments and a well-staged boxing bout between Roberto Duran (how cool would it have been if Hands of Stone somehow connected with this?) and Pazienza. But a good chunk in the middle is a little of a slog to get through once Vinny comes home from the surgery up until he decides to go against doctor’s orders. Another issue of the screenplay is that Paz isn’t all that distinguishable from other fighters, from a character level, pretty one note. He’s got a fighting, never say no spirit…but so do the bulk of fighters.

The criticism of Paz’s slim character isn’t an indictment on the job Miles Teller does here. Rather it just makes one wish that there was more Teller could explore of the famed boxer’s character. From what he is given, Teller looks the part as a fighter and sells the physical pain and the dogged resolve it took to come back from this career and life-threatening injury. Aaron Eckhart is fun to watch, simultaneously offering a dash of levity along with with sincerity for the well-being of his boxer. Steady hands in Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, and Ted Levine are present and support the feature when asked to.

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Bleed for This sports a few good jabs and straights, but not enough of a sustained combination to contend for the top spot of boxing film heavyweights. Don’t expect knockout power.

C+

Photo credits go to awfulannouncing.com, boxingnewsandviews.com, and soafanatic.com

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Hacksaw Ridge: Movie Man Jackson

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Going to need a strong drink after this one. Maybe four or five. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) has long been a God-fearing Christian, and all-around good guy, who’s seen a few things growing up that has shaped him to be who he is. Who he is happens to be a pacifist; he doesn’t believe in killing people or even handling a firearm.

Being a pacifist isn’t an issue…except when Doss decides to join the Army as a medic in an effort to serve his country during its most important time in World War II. Even carrying the status of a conscientious objector, many in his squadron don’t believe Doss will be there when the chips are down and bully him into quitting. But a man of such strong conviction is one people should want on their side when the going gets tough, and it gets no tougher than Hacksaw Ridge, a battleground on the island of Okinawa that could turn the tide of the war if won.

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There’s really no point in comparing the two, but I can’t help it, as it is something that has stuck with me since early in the movie. Isn’t Hacksaw Ridge sort of like The Birth of a Nation? Not story-wise or anything, but both movies arrived in theaters with biographical subject matter, as well as controversial actions done by their directors. It can be argued (even likely) that Mel Gibson, director of Hacksaw Ridge, is much more controversial than director Nat Turner, for the simple fact that he’s been in the limelight longer for his actions to be unfurled. But like many things in life, winning cures a lot of ill will, and the same goes in cinema. Mel Gibson has a winner in Hacksaw Ridge.

How does he do it? A multitude of ways, but it starts with the writing. Gibson’s not a writer in this, but co-writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan are. Together, they pen a compelling story about being convicted in one’s beliefs. Though Christianity is an important characteristic of the main character Desmond, this isn’t a film that pushes that, it pushes more the strength of the human spirit, and how anything can be done with the right determination. Granted, it isn’t a groundbreaking story, but it feels very authentic. Know how true stories and stories about biographical historical figures can be very Hollywoodized? Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t really feel as such, maybe because for all intents and purposes, this is a screenplay that is not exactly original, but by no means adapted, either.

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This does not mean that Hacksaw Ridge‘s screenplay is perfect, however. Some of the first third of the movie is a little too clunky for my personal liking. And though this is clearly a story about Doss, the second act of the movie (if ever so briefly but still) seems to want to explore a few other characters in the squadron, but the third act comes and hardly anything is known about any of them aside from some endearing nicknames. Otherwise, they are somewhat faceless entities.

So not every character gets a lot of meat. But character shortcomings are not due to any fault of the cast. As Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield turns in the work of his career, and it comes across so effortless. Okay, his accent isn’t completely on point, but it is more than passable and after a while, you stop listening to vocal oddities because he just sinks into the role. Every other actor/actress around him is firmly of the support fashion, but all stand out in whatever screentime they possess. Teresa Palmer can do so much more, yet she very captivating the moment she steps on screen, and Hugo Weaving could have an entire film anchored by his character, he’s that good here.

One has to give it to Gibson to coaxing great performances from guys who aren’t known for dramatic work. The troika of Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, and Luke Bracey all fit in perfectly. Out of the three, Bracey is the only other character in the entire feature who gets somewhat solid development.

But being honest here, as great as the acting and as good as the overall story is, Hacksaw Ridge is going to be remembered for its unrelenting war action ultraviolence that dominates the 3rd act. It comes so sudden and doesn’t let up once it does. The Hacksaw Ridge battleground itself is extremely frightening, a mix of uneven geography, perpetual haze, and depressing grey. Gibson gets a little too slo-mo happy in the final moments, but otherwise, the comparisons to Saving Private Ryan are warranted.

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10 years is a long time to be away from the directing chair, but it’s clear Gibson hasn’t lost much, if anything. Succeeding as first a stirring drama and then a visceral wartime action, Hacksaw Ridge isn’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon.

A-

Photo credits go to metro.co.uk, theplaylist.net, and screencrush.com

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The Birth of a Nation: Movie Man Jackson

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Looking for a happy ending? Not going to find it here. Southampton County, Virginia, the year 1831. Slavery has been in full effect for quite some time now. Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was born into it. Unlike most, he’s actually been taught on how to read, in particular, The Bible. While still not being seen as an equal, the white man does see Nat as a valued commodity who gets treated “better” as such, compared to his brethren.

Fearing rumors of a slave revolt which would be devastating during drought season, plantation owners such as Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) decide to use Nat as a tool to quell any revolution. Surely slaves hearing about how they should remain docile from a fellow slave would do the trick, right? Over time, however, Nat sees his people suffer horrible atrocities, and begins to question what he is doing. The stage becomes set for a revolution that promises to be just as bloody as the one fought between the Patriots and the Loyalists.

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The real talking point leading up to The Birth of a Nation (no relation to the 1915 KKK propaganda version, but its title was selected very deliberately), is the controversy that happens to surround star, producer, and director Nate Parker back when he was in college. It is a point that is sure to be brought up relentlessly from now until February 26. 2017, the date of the Oscars. But things deserve to be looked at as objectively as can be. Objectively as yours truly can be, The Birth of a Nation is a bold way to launch a feature directing career. The good outweighs the bad, but like most debuts, everything doesn’t hum perfectly.

The narrative isn’t the issue with The Birth of a Nation. It is actually a pretty thorough screenplay that goes beyond the “slavery is wrong” aspect by introducing religion and the identity that one has to themselves and their social group, especially in times of turmoil, which resonates today. Nat Turner the historical character has a lot of meat. Honestly, Parker doesn’t seem to get into all of it. But for what he does present to the audience, he does do an impressive job as the lead character.

Not a performance that immediately grabs the viewer, and starting out, it does feel a little suspect. But by the middle and into the end, Parker truly sells not just the physical anguish Nat experiences, but the mental anguish and internal crisis that Nat is exposed to. It is the latter that truly hits home, more so than the physical depictions of slavery. He’s firmly on the Best Actor nominee list.

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However, the cast as a whole isn’t an undeniable strength of The Birth of a Nation; for every strong performance, there is a role that lacks gravitas and even realism, which whips the movie down a few notches on the emotional scale. Armie Hammer does lose himself in his slave owner character Samuel Turner. Yes, he is a bad man, but there’s still a shred of humanity that makes one care for him if only because you know he could be a good person. And in a smaller role, Roger Guenvier Smith (Dope, Deep Cover) excels.

Most of the rest suffer from having too little to do (i.e. the women in the cast, either damsels in distress or conveniently written love interests), or from being a little too caricature-y to be taken seriously (Jackie Earle Haley, especially Mark Boone Jr.). The Birth of a Nation is also weirdly inconsistent in tone in places. While no one is going to confuse this for a fluffy watch, some of the moments of lightness are endearing, but others undercut the seriousness of what’s at hand.

Directing a feature film for the first time, Parker shows good raw skill. Not many shots truly stand out, but a few do in the latter half. He certainly takes inspiration from works such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan during the impressive climax. If there were a noticeable flaw, I’d say that scenes which show Nat’s destiny as a leader come off as a little pretentious and overly artsy for the sake of being so. While there may be some symbolism there that flew over my head, it doesn’t really add anything to the film, at least on first view.

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The Birth of a Nation doesn’t rise up to classic biography status. But all controversy aside, The Birth of a Nation is an imperfect, yet still overall compelling biography movie about a very intriguing character and moment in history.

B-

Photo credits go to IGN.com, armiehammerfans.com, and indiewire.com

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Snowden: Movie Man Jackson

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Is freedom worth it if it’s obtained at any cost? American Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants so much to protect and serve the country he loves. A medical discharge forces him from the Army, but his brilliant intellect lands him in the CIA, where his love for computers and technology can be harnessed.

He’s put on the fast track to advancement right away. In the process, he meets the beautiful Lindsey (Shailine Woodley), who eventually becomes his girlfriend. While being exposed to many key players and bold new technologies, Snowden begins to see that who he works may not have the same idea of how to go about preserving freedom. He’s compelled to say something about how the government abuses the privacy of everyone, but the secrecy of his job makes this impossible to do so, even to Lindsey. If he goes public, some may see him as a traitor. Others may see him as a hero.

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Saturation is very much a real thing. When you see an idea, a person, a whatever so much and so often, any intended effect that subject would normally have is somewhat dulled. I think that is the real issue with Snowden, director Oliver Stone’s take on one of the most fascinating men and events of the 21st century. Much like Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which came fairly quickly after a 2013 biopic of the Apple founder, Snowden comes fairly quickly after Laura Poitrus’ documentary Citizenfour, and only three years after the real life leaks that Snowden did.

Some takes have painted Stone’s latest take to be awfully safe, as the director has made a name for taking on some of the most controversial and intriguing events/people and making them into a film. Snowden is safe in the sense that anyone looking for a screenplay to show both sides and viewpoints in the same light will not find that here, as there is a crystal delineation between the good guy(s) and the bad guys. However, Snowden isn’t a boring film to look at,  Stone’s always had a unique flair and style. The film isn’t as notable as some of his others in a cinematography aspect, but biopics certainly have looked more mundane than this.

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I’ve never actually seen Citizenfour. But over the last few years since Snowden did what he did, his actions have clearly been used as allusions and/or flat out referenced directly in many television shows and movies. Hell, Jason Bourne has a whole sidestory about shady government surveillance (We’ve just been hacked…Could be worse than Snowden“). All of this is to say that Oliver Stone’s Snowden, even with a not-always-smooth-way-of-storytelling, is functional enough in its screenplay to get by. However, the emotional impact does lack somewhat, and the build to the big moment is a little more anticlimactic than anticipated. In turn, this makes Snowden drag during specific times in its runtime.

Though he is supported by a talented cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries the Snowden movie as the titular title character. Concerns about his voice are extremely overblown; he is spot on with the vocal inflections. He does sell the conflict of being a layered person, being about his country but not blindingly so. It helps that he shares a sound physical resemble. The end with an appearance by the real Edward only solidifies the JGL casting.

Good chemistry is had with Shailine Woodley in what has to probably be her most mature role if since The Spectacular Now. The fighting the two have becomes a little rote, but their romance is believable and dare I say even cute. They are opposites but share a real connection. You want them to work out. The rest are bit characters but all carry importance in lifting the veil. Nicolas Cage is very subdued as what Edward could become, dropping hints that the government isn’t exactly what Snowden imagines; one wonders why he can’t always be like this in productions. It’s clear what role Rhys Ifans is going to be playing, no surprises and he plays it well. Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo, and Zachary Quinto have little to ultimately do, but they’re pros pros and don’t draw any more attention to themselves than needed.

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Snowden ends with the common “where are they now/what happened” slides and text at the end of most biographies, and it is a little weird only because most know about this. While I do think that Snowden is getting somewhat of a worse rap than deserved, and the acting absolutely raises the film overall, I do wonder whether it would have been best to hold off on this project if only because it is still ongoing and a true ending hasn’t been reached yet. Perhaps then, the full gravitas of Snowden and his actions would have been realized.

B-

Photo credits go to themillimetre.com, theguardian.com, and moviefone.com.

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