Review of reviews: Film
The Birth of a Nation
Directed by Nate Parker (R)
A Virginia slave ignites a violent revolt.
“What do we do with The Birth of a Nation?” asked Stephen Marche in Esquire.com. This powerful dramatization of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, which was hailed as a landmark and Oscar front-runner when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, is now arriving in theaters in a storm of controversy tied to its star and director, Nate Parker. Seventeen years ago, Parker was accused of raping a fellow Penn State student, and though he was acquitted and maintains he was falsely accused, the matter resurfaced dramatically this summer when reporters learned that his accuser later killed herself. The troubling full story makes Parker harder to root for. But his Birth of a Nation remains “one of the best films of the past several years,” and “the world needs to see it.” It relates an important chapter in U.S. history, and “the teller doesn’t matter enough to reject it.”
Unfortunately, the movie isn’t the masterful work early reviews promised; it’s “hardly even a good one,” said Stephanie Zacharek in Time.com. Parker turns in a “grounded and thoughtful” lead performance, but as a director, he’s “bluntly effective,” little more. His Nat Turner is a student of the Bible engaged in a battle of good versus evil, complete with a “sadistic supervillain” on the slaveholder side, said David Edelstein in NYMag.com. There are moments when this retelling of Turner’s story is “worthy of its subject,” including in the bloody rebellion sequence, when the cinematography evokes Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. But too many other passages are pedestrian or heavy-handed, said Todd VanDerWerff in Vox.com. “Parker doesn’t want you to think Turner was a good or even great man; he wants you to think he was the best man, an American icon who deserves more attention than he’s gotten.” And the controversy surrounding Parker heightens the problem. When the camera treats Turner as a borderline deity, it’s hard to escape the “very human, very flawed” person up there on screen. “It’s impossible to look at Turner’s presentation as a Christ figure and not think about all the other things you know about the man playing him.”
The Girl on the Train
Directed by Tate Taylor (R)
A lonely alcoholic pieces together a blackout.
Anyone who’s read Paula Hawkins’The Girl on the Train will be disappointed with the adaptation, said Cath Clarke in Time Out London. No longer is the story set in suburban London, nor is the alcoholic title character overweight. “But the real felony here” is how “ungripping” Hawkins’ psychological thriller has become. Though Emily Blunt is a convincing enough mess to make you forget her slimness, the movie “doesn’t feel chilly enough” to make its dark turns convincing. Of course, it couldn’t have been easy to adapt Hawkins’ puzzle-box narrative, said Robert Abele in TheWrap.com. Blunt’s Rachel Watson eventually takes an interest in her ex’s picture-perfect neighbor, and when that woman goes missing—and Rachel wakes from a booze-induced blackout covered in blood—director Tate Taylor proves “woefully incapable” of keeping the multiple plotlines on track. The result is “a suspense-free jumble.” Even so, Blunt’s performance is “reason alone to see it,” said Tim Robey in The Telegraph(U.K.). “Terrifically broken,” the British actress “throws every stray ounce of feeling and insight she can at the role.” Rachel is better than everything around her, and “there are moments when you wish this raddled stalker had simply been allowed to direct her own film.”
Directed by Andrea Arnold (R)
A teenager hits the road with a van of misfits.
This uncommonly astute roadtrip movie should be required viewing, said David Sims in The Atlantic. A “bold, often abrasive statement about life on the fringes of society,” it follows a group of young drifters who travel the country selling magazines door-to-door, and the wandering odyssey we’re invited to join is “worth every minute of its nearly three-hour running time.” Newcomer Sasha Lane proves brilliant as Star, a Texas teen who escapes an abusive home when she happens upon the crew at a Kmart, and Shia LaBeouf lends the crew’s ponytailed sales champ “the kind of freaky, charismatic volatility you can’t take your eyes off.”
As Star learns the tricks of the dishonest trade and hooks up with LaBeouf’s Jake, “you can’t help feeling for her,” said Stephanie Zacharek in Time. But “there’s something belligerent” in the way the movie presents American poverty, as if its British director thinks we need to be hectored into caring. Somehow, though, these youthful magazine hawkers look past their exploitation and “find a fierce joy in the bohemian gig,” said Sara Stewart in the New York Post. At 162 minutes, American Honey often feels like a long road trip, complete with the need for a pee break. The payoff, though, is “an unflinching portrait of middle America.”