The Birth of a Nation(4 / 5)
Reclaiming the title of D.W. Griffith’s feverishly racist silent epic, this ardent biography of conciliatory preacher turned revolutionary firebrand Nat Turner — written, directed by, and starring Nate Parker — makes a case for bloody retribution as the necessary, even inevitable, response to institutionalized evil. Turner’s transformation is given remarkable internality by Parker, whose gaze reveals the growing moral agony he cannot vocalize and which gradually hardens into righteous anger in the face of cruelty and indifference.
Visionary sequences of bleeding corn and midday eclipses out in the cotton fields — given a mythic, blue-tinted mistiness by cinematographer Elliot Davis — present Turner’s role as predestined; even, in the film’s dying moments, Messianic. More compelling, though, is his growing realization of the religious hypocrisy of the masters, who use Biblical doctrine to serve their own ends, and his complicity in imparting that message: “For every verse that justifies our bondage, there’s another that demands our freedom.”
The Birth of a Nation is clearly an important piece of film-making —especially given the current state of racial politics in the US — but its impact is blunted by 12 Years a Slave or even Free State of Jones; recent works that, while subscribing in their own ways, however historically accurately, to the white savior complex, document many of the same atrocities; albeit less provocatively. One such event the film depicts, though historically believable, is also troubling in light of the allegations leveled against Parker.
The Birth of a Nation is certainly powerful, but, its immediate topicality aside, it may have been more impactful five years ago.
Dog Eat Dog(2 / 5)
Dog Eat Dog reunites writer-director Paul Schrader with actors Willem Dafoe & Nicholas Cage for a bizarre crime comedy that plays fast and loose with genre conventions but skews so anarchic as to verge on the narratively incoherent.
The opening scene sets a pace and tone akin to narcotic delirium, leaping from a screen-popping televised arms control debate to intravenous drug use, homemade cupcakes to Asian-themed online pornography, before splattering blood all over the kitschy pink wallpaper under the gaze of a row of twitchily nodding bobbleheads. It’s certainly lively and serves to introduce us to the most vibrant member of the cast — for his sins — the sleazy, needy Mad Dog (Dafoe). It’s just the first in Schrader’s grab-bag of stylistic tricks.
The garishly attired Troy (Nicholas Cage) and half-smart lug-nut Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) form the other two-thirds of this criminal trio, who, recently united after separate stints behind bars, are desperate to make than just spending money. When Grecco the Greek (Schrader himself in an offhanded cameo) charges them with kidnapping a baby, a scheme they all admit is likely to end badly, they agree on a strict policy of death before imprisonment — like the Samurai, or, as Mad Dog sagely puts it, “Jackie Chan”.
Throw in Mad Dog’s desperation to redeem himself, Diesel’s struggles to make a connection, and Troy’s concerns about being the money man and it sounds like you might have a competent, if somewhat by-the-numbers bit of pulp. All of these issues, though, are only ever addressed in single scenes. Instead, Dog Eat Dog relies on an uneven series of gags to carry it through some otherwise rote scenarios: the early knocking off of a stash house is given a comedic edge, for instance, by the world’s least convincing police cruiser.
While there’s a light touch of sordid authenticity, presumably carried over from the source novel, written by Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue from Reservoir Dogs), Schrader is so determined not to be boring1, it refuses to commit to anything. It all concludes with a neon-misted dream sequence; a car-bound Bogart homage complete with drawling Cage and hijacked couple. The film seems to be offering an obscure meta-comment on simpler times, honor among thieves, etc., but it feels like a Hail Mary after the preceding lack of discipline.
If the generally indifferent Dying of the Light is what you get when Schrader is forced to compromise on his vision then it would seem a worthwhile trade-off. Sure, you have to eat humble pie, but it prevents a dog’s dinner like this.
I Am Not A Serial Killer(3.5 / 5)
Where Dexter had us rooting for a mass murderer for almost a decade— or at till the show became almost unwatchable — Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not A Serial Killer makes the comparatively modest proposal that we care about a teenage sociopath for a mere 103 minutes. To his credit, he’s not even the one who’s killing people.
Based on the first in a YA series by Dan Wells, the film takes place in a snowy Midwestern town; a slightly isolated, rundown settlement of the sort you’d believe might encourage juvenile delinquency. The ominously named John Wayne Cleaver (Where The Wild Things Are’s Max Records, now 19) is trying very hard not to give in to his delinquent tendencies; more specifically, he’s trying very hard not to kill anyone.
A diagnosed sociopath with a supportive therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary), he’s oblivious to the attentions of a friendly schoolmate Brooke (Lucile Lawton) and remarkably self-controlled when it comes to sneering bully Rob (Vincent Russo). He even helps out his elderly neighbour Mr. Crowley (a remarkable Christopher Lloyd). That is when he’s not helping out his fraying mother April (Laura Fraser) in the basement of their funeral home.
Lanky and long-haired, with eager eyes and a thinly stretched smile, Records nevertheless manages to make the antisocial, death-obsessed John winsomely engaging. His fascination with the evisceration taking place all over town — and ability to get around seemingly unnoticed — lead him to discover the killer for himself. To say more would spoil how the killer’s identity and motive reflect on John’s own condition.
O’Brien finds the offbeat humor in gory evisceration and social awkwardness — a scene where John calmly explains to Rob why he’s always so nice to him is both chilling and very funny. There’s also real emotion as he struggles with those urges.
I Am Not A Serial Killer is a new-ish take on an old thing and that’s pretty, pretty good.