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Movie Review: ‘Birth of a Nation’ Shouts with Shock and Cliché

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The Birth of a Nation Movie Review MovieSpoon.com

Is The Birth of a Nation the influential film it aims to be? Read our movie review to find out:

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here are few times when I find myself uneasily frustrated with a movie such as The Birth of a Nation on so many levels. For every quintessential moment of disturbing racism from America’s slavery era, there’s a disappointing cliché where the music must swell and bland dialogue must be spoken. For every moment that evokes a dark sense of drama, there’s another that borders on being unintentionally comical.

The Birth of a Nation Movie Review MovieSpoon.com

One of the intense moments in ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

Directed and written by Nate Parker, it is a movie that deals with racism, violence, religion and revenge, never settling on one topic or tone.

But maybe that’s the point of Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which could play to a number of different notes. We could examine it from the religious angle in which slave/preacher Nat Turner (Nate Parker) cherishes the word of God, arriving at the decision for a massacre of slave owners through his own faith. We could look at it from a war aspect of how violence begets more violence with no morality to such an ugly world of racial division.

The Birth of a Nation Movie Review MovieSpoon.com

Armie Hammer appears alongside Nate Parker.

Or we could view it as a simple revenge story in which Nat leads a rebellion seeking bloody justice on those evil white folks. In a moment where Nat drives a knife into the throat of a white man that beat his wife, there was a rousing applause from the screening audience. This was the same clapping I heard during Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen and The Magnificent Seven; the clapping brought forth at the moment when the noble hero finally slays his cartoonishly evil villain.

My initial reaction to such a sequence was disgust, the way such brutality came packaged as a crowd-pleaser. But I thought more about the entire movie over a few days and eventually came to the conclusion that Parker’s picture is more-or-less a mirror for the audience.

One person will look at The Birth of a Nation and see it as a unique commentary on racial relations turning ugly to the point of graphic violence. Another will see a thrilling picture where a black hero kills all the ignorant white folks. Another will interpret its message as encouraging racial violence or commenting on pointlessness of faith. And another will see the exact opposite.

The Birth of a Nation Movie Review MovieSpoon.com

The tense moments are often outweighed by the melodramatic.

There’s enough in the movie to warrant several views, but in a most scattershot method. When one slave slays his master in the night, he chases him out of his house, corners him with his militia of black slaves and proceeds to chop off his head. To drive home a point about the grisly violence, the scene ends with the slave holding up the severed head as if he were a serial killer in a slasher picture, admiring his kill. The audience erupted with gasps, laughter, scoffs and ewws.

It’d be easy for me to simply dismiss the movie as a kill-all-white-folks movie, especially the way every single white character is portrayed as either a mustache-twirling redneck or a standoffish wimpy loser. This could all be part of Parker’s master plan though.

Perhaps he wants the audience to confront such heavy subjects and not in the manner we expect. He can shift in an instant from the light-hearted romance of Nat meeting his true love to the vulgarity of a slave getting his teeth chipped out. It’s as if Parker cannot decide between making a safe historical drama or a gritty depiction of white-hot racial tensions.

Read more to get the rest of our movie review for Birth of a Nation:

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Review: “Skyscraper” Lumbers With Thrills Pulsating and Passive

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Dwayne Johnson can work wonders on a lackluster script, but there’s only so much he can do in a Die Hard retread. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking from such an iconic source and weave something thrilling out of that foundation. But when that irresistible Johnson charm can’t break through the towering theatrics, all we’re left with is a spectacle that is more big and loud than bright and exhilarating, never fully embracing the silliness of scaling a ludicrously built tower.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer with a unique backstory but little personality. He was once an FBI agent that lost his leg in a hideous hostage situation. Now he has taken a safer job as a safety inspector for China’s most massive towers due to open upper residential floors, bringing along his family for a working vacation. Johnson’s brighter smile and warm presence don’t come through as well this time, due in part to his character having a darker past and a tougher time getting around with an artificial leg. Fair enough, but when the tower is set aflame by gun-toting terrorists, I really wished that giddier Dwayne could come out and play, past some pleasing pulsations of his muscles jumping great distances and fighting the bad guys.

The setup to the grand showpiece of Dwayne clinging to windows and narrowly escaping explosions is fairly pedestrian, casually concocting all the elements and never harping on them too long, lest we be drowned in cliches. Chin Han plays the wealthy builder of the structure, concealing a secret and a MacGuffin that the villain want so badly they’ll cause a public scene to get it. The lead terrorist is played by Roland Møller with a sinister look and a Scandinavian accent, so blandly conceived it’s no wonder he works for someone higher up. Even more bland is his female cohort (Hannah Quinlivan), kicked to the curb of the tower excitement with her tight black outfit and sexy looking hair dangling off the side of her face. There’s also a cowardly English investor (Noah Taylor) and a long-time pal of Will played by Pablo Schreiber to fill out the twist fodder.

This is a film that really does require your brain to be shut off given how much lost potential and generic action-movie-isms crowd the screen. The first act is the biggest slog, holding the hand of the audience for everything that will follow. Will stresses to his wife that the easiest way to fix a smartphone is to turn it off and on again. I fully expected this to play a role in the climax but hoped Neve Campbell wouldn’t literally say those words. Chris Han shows off his holographic room that is little more than a hall of mirrors; seems like a good place for a disorienting shootout. As Hannah Quinlivan watches a hired hacker sabotage the tower’s fire suppression systems, the hacker states boastfully that only he can shut it down from that point forward. Take a wild guess what Quinlivan will do next when she hears this information.

Okay, but that’s all the plotty stuff and, let’s be honest, nobody is watching this picture for a stirring thriller about criminal bank accounts and tracking software. They want to Dwayne do stunts, and he delivers plenty, from jumping off a crane to swinging like Tarzan to escape a blaze. That’s all well and good, but we know Johnson is capable of these impressive theatrics, including some brutal fights that lead to much smashing. We also know he can be charming and has a great personality. So why is he strangely silent during these sequences? He seems to only talk when he has some forgettable one-liner to sling, making commentary on fixability with duct tape and telling himself he’s crazy for crawling along windows. This role feels as though it would be better suited for a beefy actor with more muscle than speech; not someone who can exude enthusiasm with more than enough wit to match his strength.

Neve Campbell surprisingly gets to do quite a bit more than cowering in corners with the kids. She takes charge in scenes where’s she’ll stab terrorists, smack them with car doors, and get in some good kicks and punches. While it’s fun watching Campbell take charge, I questioned where she learned all these stellar fighting skills for having previously been a surgeon. Perhaps Johnson inducted her in his action hero training program, coming standard with their marriage.

Skyscraper is sufficient as mindless summer entertainment but it does little more than that when I know it could do more. Johnson has the smarts to be a more charming hero than a mindless brute that can hoist himself across a building or literally hold up a crumbling bridge with little more than his buff arms. A massive tower with thousands of technological features could lead to an array of astonishing action sequences, but the most we see is a gripping dash through a burning wildlife enclosure. If there only a few more fun bits of dialogue, more outlandish stunts, and a braver embrace of the dumb, this big blockbuster could have been more audacious than obligatory.


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Incredibles 2 Blast Box Office Records of Animated Film

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It may have been 14 years since the first Incredibles movie, but its impression has remained. The appeal was strong enough to make its sequel not only the #1 movie of the weekend but one of the most profitable animated film on its debut. For its premiere weekend, Incredibles 2 ranked in an astounding $180 million. This makes it one of Pixar’s best openings, easily dwarfing the previous film’s opening take of $70 million. With a considerable lack of family films in the next few weeks, expect Incredibles 2 to linger for quite some time for boasting such a powerful opening.

The rest of the debut films were left in the dust. Tag, an ensemble comedy based on a never-ending game of tag, only made $14 million, coming in at #3. The modern remake of blaxploitation classic Superfly premiered to a low $6 million debut. And falling outside the top 10 at #12 is Gotti, the based on true events drama starring John Travolta that made headlines for ridiculously low critic scores.

The drops for the weekend were somewhat predictable, with the superhero epic Avengers: Infinity War descending the least with a 26% drop. It’s also sitting at a total domestic gross of $664 million, edging closer to toppling Black Panther’s immense numbers of $699 million. It’s going to come down to the last few days in theaters to see if Black Panther will finally reach $700 million, considering its home video release and quickly-descending theater count. And, unfortunately, Hotel Artemis is pretty much a dud, descending 70% to place it well out of the top 10.

View the full top 10 below:

Incredibles 2 ($180,000,000)
Ocean’s 8 ($19,555,000)
Tag ($14,600,000)
Solo: A Star Wars Story ($9,081,000)
Deadpool 2 ($8,800,000)
Hereditary ($7,026,000)
Superfly ($6,300,000)
Avengers: Infinity War ($5,296,000)
Adrift ($2,100,000)
Book Club ($1,850,000)

Next weekend will find superheroes battling dinosaurs as Incredibles 2 weathers the storm of the upcoming summer blockbuster, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. The sequel to Jurassic World, starring Chris Pratt and Jeff Goldblum, will be premiering in the same amount of theaters as Incredibles 2. And considering how insanely profitable Jurassic World ended up being, it’ll be interesting to see who takes the weekend and by how much.


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Review: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is Lost in its World

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The tagline for Fallen Kingdom revises the previous film’s tagline of “the park is open” to “the park is gone.” Okay, now what? With the global public now fearful of dinosaurs after the massacre at the park, it’s a whole new world of possibilities. Some activists want to preserve dino life, tycoons who want to buy them for military purposes, and governments that shrug in confusion at what to do next. All these aspects give the movie plenty to do with its prehistoric showcase; so much that it forgets to put a little heart and brain in with its dinosaur romp.

There’s an even greater distance from the human characters this time, lost in their doubling plot arcs and love of dinosaurs. Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) return from the last film but are now on a break in their relationship. Why they split up is briefly addressed, and their inevitable rekindling is even more rushed as they race towards the action. Clearly, Owen’s more defined relationship is with the raptor Blue, this time given even more background and tenderness. There’s rarely a moment of romantic tension between Pratt and Howard but place Pratt next to a wounded raptor, and you have some emotion fit for a blockbuster too tedious for tears.

In the battle between good dino doctors versus bad dino doctors, and eventually good dinos versus bad dinos, there are supporting characters that provide little support past quips and kills. There’s an intern duo of the meek screamer Franklin (Justice Smith) and the wise and snarky Doctor Zia (Daniella Pineda). They’re not quite young enough to fill that Amblin brand requirement, so there’s an English orphan of an aged, sage, and wealthy businessman (James Cromwell). There’s the cold Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) that is trying to build an empire off dinosaurs. You can probably guess his fate. And you certainly don’t need a crystal ball to see things are not going to work out for the violent poacher (Ted Levine) who can’t resist pulling the teeth out of captured dinosaurs.

If that seems like too many humans in a film about dinosaur action, worry not. Director J. A. Bayona crowds the screen with many species romping, stomping and chomping about. Too many that there’s a scene of prehistoric creatures crammed into a tight space, fighting for screen time. When they’re not caught in stampedes, there are a few impressive moments of adventure and terror. Easily my favorite sequence features the human heroes fleeing from a hungry dinosaur that corners them in a room flooding with lava, a shimmering wall of red and orange separating the two species. Another stellar shot is one where a newly bred hybrid dino slowly extends its claws to a girl cowering in her bed, horror movie style.

Part of what made the first Jurassic World so engaging was the simplicity of its adventure. A park full of dinosaurs goes awry, and there’s a mad dash for the exits, with some military involvement and cloning controversy peppered into the run. Fallen Kingdom has far too much going on that none it resonates enough to make Pratt’s tender touch during raptor surgery stick. There’s commentary on everything from government silence to environmentalism to war-hungry investors to cloning gone too far. But it’s all so rushed that several of these twists come crashing in at the last minute and struggle to strike with shock and excitement. The movie doesn’t have time to slow down for everything, leaving the secret villain of Doctor Wu (B.D. Wong) and the experienced Doctor Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in the dust.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has its moments of thrills that resonate enough to be pleasing popcorn entertainment, as with Chris Pratt narrowly avoiding a volcanic flood and a rich snob that gets a deserving munch by two dinosaurs. Sadly, it’s all so muddled and forced into theatrics that even Pratt’s reliable charm can barely make a dent in a script too dense with set pieces and cliches. I remember I enjoyed Jurassic World for being a pleasing throwback to Jurassic Park, returning that same wonder I had as a child. Fallen Kingdom replicates the familiar disappointing sensation of Park’s sequel The Lost World. It’s a mistake that I’m sure Doctor Malcolm would criticize for the producers who were so preoccupied with making a blockbuster sequel to the profitable Jurassic World, asking if they could rather than if they should.


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