THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, and some brief Nudity

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Directed by: Nate Parker

Written by: Nate Parker

Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller & Jackie Earle Haley

THE BIRTH OF A NATION has been making headlines since it premiered at Sundance. This Nat Turner biopic was the 2016 festival’s hot ticket, received tons of praise, broke a Sundance record (Fox Searchlight paid over 17 million for distribution) and was already in talks to be an Academy Award heavyweight (despite it being friggin’ January). The film sounded interesting from the get-go because we haven’t seen the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion on film before and it was a passion project for triple-threat Nate Parker (directing, writing, and acting). Though BIRTH OF A NATION seems to be dividing audiences and critics alike, I found it to be mixed bag Oscar bait. There are undeniably powerful scenes in this film, but almost an equal amount of mistakes from a first-time filmmaker.

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Set in the early 1800’s, THE BIRTH OF A NATION tells the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker). Being literate and knowledgeable in the Bible, Nat becomes a slave preacher and his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) realizes that he can cash in on his unusual slave. Though he was mostly content with his existence on the Turner plantation, Nat soon travels to rundown farms with horrible conditions for their “workers.” Seeing the ugly, brutal, and awful truths of slavery, Nat plans a rebellion…one that will show no mercy and will put his name in history books.

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Despite being an amateur director and a so-so writer, Nate Parker is one hell of an actor. His performance as Nat Turner has many powerful moments and the raw emotion on his face speaks greater volumes than any line of dialogue ever could. The viewer is shown many pieces of Nat’s life leading up to his rebellion to fully understand his background (some of it has been altered, this is a movie after all) and to watch his progressive determination to rise up against an inhumane period of history. Though other slave characters pop in and out, the only two stand-out supporting black actors are Aja Naomi King as Nat’s wife Cherry and Aunjanue Ellis as Nat’s mother Nancy.

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While the slave-owners are mostly villainous means to an end, a handful of white cast members stick out. Armie Hammer delivers the second-best performance in the film as Samuel. We see his gradual transformation from a kindly friend to Nat into an abusive alcoholic who’s totally fine with exploiting and abusing his former friend as property. Jackie Earle Haley is fantastically evil as the central antagonist leader of a militia. Mark Boone Junior is solid as a scumbag preacher who believes that certain holy deeds cannot be performed by black men and gets into a scripture quote-off with a well-versed Nat in one of the film’s best scenes.

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For the most part, BIRTH OF A NATION doesn’t reflect its small budget. The cinematography is professional and slick. The story feels told on a larger scale, especially as Nat goes on his preaching tour to other plantations. It’s worth noting that BIRTH also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of slavery. This movie is hard to watch in places, especially when Nat preaches at one particularly rundown plantation with a sadistic owner. The camera doesn’t turn away from terrible tortures, corpses strewn on the road, and powerful images that need no violence to get their point across.

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Where BIRTH OF A NATION falters is in its depiction of Nat’s rebellion. This event takes up about twenty minutes of screen time and feels like it should have been a significantly bigger portion of the two-hour movie. We see Nat’s planning in advance as well as the beginning of the bloody uprising, then a quick montage that conveniently cuts out women and children being slaughtered, and then the militia eventually putting a stop to it. It feels like this portion of the film should have felt bigger and longer. Also, Nate Parker doesn’t seem interested in delivering a fully fleshed out depiction of Nat in the climax. This film would have been more powerful, brave and honest if it had shown that the rebellion had its ugly side.

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Besides glossing over some inconvenient history, BIRTH OF A NATION feels like it’s simply going through the motions at points. This mainly comes in Nat’s relationship with Cherry. Though they have a few touching scenes together, the focus is mainly on Nat…which leaves Cherry as a background character who only comes back when she’s needed to emotionally move the plot forward. This movie also uses other overly manipulative filmmaking techniques that make it appear as if Nate Parker doesn’t trust his audience to follow along. One irritating bit of editing includes shots of horrible atrocities as Nat plots his rebellion, because apparently slavery wasn’t enough of a reason to fight back and the viewer needed reminding of a scene that happened less than an hour ago. Steven Spielberg didn’t need constant flashbacks to show why Oskar Schindler was trying to save the Jews during the Holocaust.

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NATION’s most aggravating aspect is its over-the-top music. There are potentially great scenes that are completely ruined by music that tells the viewer how to feel. Properly utilized, music can aid a scene or put the final touches on a moody/emotional moment. It helps the scene along. However, BIRTH OF A NATION’s music practically becomes the scene and overshadows what’s occurring on the screen. The aftermath of a whipping and Nat’s defiance of sadistic authority would have been amazing…if this scene had been left completely silent, but a big orchestral number rises to let us know that we should be feeling bad and rooting for Nat to stand up. Scenes like these give the term “Oscar bait” a bad name. There are also dream sequences that throw nothing of real value into the narrative and seem to exist purely for adding a pretentiously artsy vibe to the feature.

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THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a movie that could have been powerful, challenging, and amazing. That might have been the case if it had been directed and written by someone else. Nate Parker’s intentions were good, but he fumbles this movie into being merely serviceable at best. There are great qualities in this film. The meager budget isn’t apparent in the production values and cinematography. The performances are rock solid from everyone involved. Certain scenes are hard to watch, historically accurate and won’t leave your head after you’ve seen them. The film is also manipulative in many ways: glossing over the darker inconvenient parts of its true story, frequently reminding us about Nat’s motivations with flashbacks, and using cheesy music that tells the viewer how to feel. As a whole, BIRTH OF A NATION is a mixed bag big-screen version of a great historical story!

Grade: B-

PREACHER Season 1 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 7 hours 51 minutes

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Starring: Dominic Cooper, Joseph Gilgun, Ruth Negga, Lucy Griffiths, W. Earl Brown, Derek Wilson, Ian Colletti, Tom Brooke, Anatol Yusef, Graham McTavish, Jackie Earle Haley & Ricky Mabe

With the huge success of THE WALKING DEAD, it was only a matter of time before other horror comics made their way to the small screen. Even so, PREACHER seemed like an unlikely bet due to the sheer absurdity and controversial nature of its plot. Yet Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg prevailed against the odds and we now have one of the most creative genre shows in quite some time. Longtime fans of the source material will find lots of things to love as this first season is basically a prequel to the comics, while newcomers will be gently guided into a bizarre world of demonic possession, gun-toting angels, demon bounty hunters, and a hard-drinking Irish vampire. The first season of PREACHER isn’t perfect, but it’s an absolute blast from start to finish!

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Criminal-turned-preacher Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) has returned to his hometown of Annville, Texas. Running from a shady past, Jesse is a mediocre preacher at best. As time passes and he witnesses how corrupt the world truly is, Jesse begins to doubt the existence of God entirely, until he gets possessed by a mysterious entity called “Genesis.” This strange force gives Jesse the power of “the voice,” meaning that when Jesse makes commands or gives instructions in this “voice,” whoever is on the receiving end is forced to obey…even if the consequences might prove fatal.

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As if being possessed by a mysterious force and having a god-like power wasn’t enough, Jesse’s life becomes even more complicated when his psycho ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) comes to town and he makes a newfound best friend in Irish vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun). Meanwhile, Heaven and Hell have noticed Genesis and both sides want to repossess the strange entity from Jessie (see what I did there?). Heaven has sent two bumbling angels (Tom Brooke and Anatol Yusef) and Hell is in the process of sending a gun-wielding bounty hunter (Graham McTavish). Jesse must learn how to control Genesis before it leads to the death of him and those he holds dear.

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PREACHER effortlessly blends a variety of genres. Concerning Tulip and Jesse’s relationship and history together, the series is a crime thriller. When it comes to the quirky residents of Annville, the show is an oddball comedy. Showcasing a drunken vampire and a highly unusual demonic possession, the series is a gory horror romp. Meanwhile, the Saint of Killers (Hell’s bounty hunter) flashbacks come off as a darker than dark western. The mix of these genres combined with frequent chaos and action make for one hell of an entertaining and interesting series!

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The characters are colorful and memorable across the board. The trio of Jesse, Cassidy and Tulip all have great chemistry with one-another and make for three captivating protagonists. The side characters are equally as fascinating in their own subplots. There’s meat-obsessed tycoon Odin Quinncannon (played to scummy perfection by Jackie Earle Haley), who is given a tragic backstory that motivates his cruel deeds. The comic relief angels Fiore and DeBlanc seem like they were transported straight out of FX’s FARGO series. Meanwhile, Donny Scheck (Quinncannon’s right-hand man) serves as an intimidating antagonist who begins to suspect Jesse’s mysterious power. The most emotional subplot comes from Arseface, a disfigured teenager with a complicated past, who becomes a major player as the main story movies along.

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Even though the story is gory as hell, there’s a distinctly toned-down execution to the show’s supernatural elements. The angels look like normal people, even though they can be killed numerous times (making for a few great scenes that feature literal piles of bodies). Genesis looks like a gust of smoke and doesn’t make a visual appearance for 98% of the series, mostly being delivered in Jesse’s deep-voiced ability to make others obey his commands. Speaking of which, the effects that Genesis has on the townsfolk range from heartwarming to intense to downright horrifying. His first command results in one of the most unexpectedly shocking gore gags I’ve seen on TV in a long time.

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The show frequently gets gore-soaked. With Cassidy arguably overshadowing Jesse in most of his scenes, this Irish vampire sheds more than a few gallons of the red stuff and has a number of show-stopping moments. His confrontations with the angels early on stand out as simultaneously hilarious and twisted. This show indulges in exploding bodies, chainsaw mayhem, and a certain piece of the male anatomy being shot off. What’s not to love when it’s all executed with an oddball, quirky, and hilarious style.

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The first season of PREACHER is violent, twisted, strange, and lots of fun. There are slower episodes in which the plot occasionally drags in order to fuel the craziness surrounding it, but this is simply the kind of show that PREACHER is. The first season builds mayhem as it goes along, preparing the viewer for a stellar finale that opens the door for plenty of madness to follow in the second season. Can it be 2017 already? Because I need more PREACHER in my life.

Grade: A-

SEMI-PRO (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Kent Alterman

Written by: Scot Armstrong

Starring: Will Ferrell, Andre Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Andrew Daly, Will Arnett, David Koechner, Rob Corddry, Jackie Earle Haley, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Ed Helms

It seems like you either dig Will Ferrell or you don’t. He’s got his fair share of misfires, but the man knows how to bring a goofy sense of humor. After tackling news anchors, race car drivers, and figure skaters, Ferrell brought an R-rated basketball comedy to the screen in February 2008. At this point, it seemed like a lot of people were fed up with him essentially playing the same idiot over and over, because SEMI-PRO bombed at the box office. It’s not highly regarded by critics or the general public. This is one of those times where I have to heartily disagree. SEMI-PRO isn’t Ferrell’s best film and it’s far from his funniest, but this is a very entertaining sports comedy that frequently ventures into ridiculous areas. It made me laugh and I don’t understand the unwarranted hatred this film brings out in people. SEMI-PRO is one of the reasons I go back and watch older films that weren’t necessarily big hits upon their releases. This is an underrated flick.

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The year is 1976 and basketball is still evolving into what it is today. One hit wonder Jackie Moon, whose single “Love Me Sexy” made him rich, owns, coaches, and plays in ABA Flint Tropics. As the times are changing, the ABA is merging into the NBA and only the best teams will be taken, while the rest just disappear. The Flint Tropics are not a good team, far from it. They suck and Jackie Moon brings desperate publicity stunts to put the asses in the seats. With the newly arrived star player Ed Monix joining the Tropics, the team gets a drastic makeover in the gameplay and Jackie takes even crazier measures to try to ensure that they will be absorbed into the NBA.

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The comically exaggerated 70’s style, lingo, and references are merely a backdrop to this film that deserves a place just below TALLADEGA NIGHTS. SEMI-PRO is ludicrous and frequently funny. It’s a good sign when you can point out only a couple of jokes that fell flat. I laughed out loud a lot during SEMI-PRO. Even the lesser gags still got some chuckles out of me. However, the film almost plays out in episodic fashion. This is usually the downfall of plenty comedies, but SEMI-PRO still keeps things vaguely held together with the glue of this team trying to take the long, hard road to success.

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Familiar faces from other Ferrell movies show up, specifically in Will Arnett as a chain-smoking, easily angered sports commentator. A lot of people who I haven’t seen paired with Ferrell make appearances too. Woody Harrelson being the obvious one and he’s more of a straight-man to all the shenanigans happening around him, but does get in some solid material. Rob Corddry was the show-stealer for me though. I love Corddry in other movies (he’s the best part of HOT TUB TIME MACHINE without a doubt), but he’s hysterical as the boyfriend to Ed Monix’s former flame. He got huge laughs out of me for an unconventional approach to a familiar type of character.

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SEMI-PRO follows a conventional sports-comedy formula of the underdog team trying to beat seemingly insurmountable odds, but this is actually glanced over in a lot of areas. The progression is mainly seen in a typical montage. A couple of unexpected turns also pop up in the final third and I enjoyed this approach to a well-worn type of story. Ferrell and his wacky antics are the main focus, as they should be in a film like this. Also, some might argue that the movie doesn’t go far enough with its R rating (mainly consisting of a ton of creative profanity and one sexually explicit funny moment). Not all comedies need to step as far over the line as they possibly can though. Not everything needs to push the envelope. Sometimes, a purely enjoyable flick like SEMI-PRO can hit the spot just fine.

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At a brisk 91 minutes, nothing is ever allowed enough time to drag. It’s yet another bit of praise for a severely overlooked comedy that seemed to blend into a sea of Will Ferrell flicks. SEMI-PRO is definitely better than both ANCHORMAN films. It’s better than BLADES OF GLORY. I wouldn’t say it’s better than TALLADEGA NIGHTS (which might be my favorite Ferrell comedy), but it’s a damn entertaining film that satisfies for what it is. Like a good basketball game will entertain sports fans, SEMI-PRO will entertain the fans of Will Ferrell.

Grade: B

ROBOCOP (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action including Frenetic Gun Violence Throughout, brief Strong Language, Sensuality and some Drug Material

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Directed by: Jose Padilha

Written by: Joshua Zetumer

Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel & Aimee Garcia

Very much in the same situation as the TOTAL RECALL remake, ROBOCOP is a reboot of a cheesy action sci-fi film that was directed by Paul Verhoeven. In the exact same marketing tactic, the studio took what was once a gratuitously violent R-rated film and remade it as a PG-13 flick to attract the widest possible demographic. What was stripped out of the already ridiculous premise is the insane level of gore and in its place is a much more rushed pace of storytelling that attempts to add something new to the mix, but winds up being treated as a mere afterthought. ROBOCOP is not a good film or even a tolerable time-waster. This is a remake that sports a big budget, but feels like it belongs as a Saturday night movie on the Syfy Channel.

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In the near future, technology has advanced a point where robots aren’t out of the ordinary. OmniCorp is the company behind the design of robotic soldiers that identifies threats and neutralize them. The robots are stationed in plenty of other countries (as seen by an entirely pointless prologue set in the Middle East), but the USA has made it illegal for a robot to patrol the streets of any city in America. The marketing department and president of OmniCorp are desperate for anything to fight this law, which in turn would make them extremely rich.

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Enter Alex Murphy, a clichéd cop stereotype in the disguise of a real character with a name. Not surprisingly, his last mission went terribly wrong and landed his partner in the hospital. The drug lord that he attempted to bust plants a car bomb. It explodes and leaves Alex with very few options of living. OmniCorp takes Alex and rebuilds him. Keeping only his head, a set of organs, and a single hand, Alex is becomes a machine. He’s a Robocop (for lack of a better word) and patrolling the streets to keep citizens safe. The drug dealer may not be the only one that Alex must be wary of, because OmniCorp has some sinister dealings behind closed doors.

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Allow me to address the good things about this movie before diving headlong into what sucks about it. The effects are pretty stellar in most scenes. The character of Robocop looks badass and some of the other machines are equally cool. There was an element added (which I won’t spoil) that tries to take the remake in a bit of a new direction for a while. It succeeds on some levels, but there simply wasn’t enough time dedicated to telling this piece of the story. Some of the cast members are familiar and do well in their roles. Gary Oldman is quite good as the scientist who builds Alex’s robotic body. Samuel L. Jackson plays a Bill O’Reilly-esque figure and is fun to watch. Abbie Cornish is decent as Alex’s wife. Then there’s Jackie Earle Haley playing one of the villains and he’s the best performer in the entire film. He oozes bad guy and seems to be having a lot of fun.

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On the other side of the coin, the character of Alex isn’t compelling at all. It could be attributed to writing, but Joel Kinnaman isn’t charismatic and seems to be basing his acting off stuff he’s seen in many other police thrillers. The rest of the cops are walking and talking clichés. To be fair to Kinnaman, the scenes with him training to be Robocop and adjusting to his new life are where he really shines. Otherwise, I could care less about if he lives, dies, and becomes a robot. Michael Keaton (once known for playing Batman) seems to slumming it here. The villain is tired and (again) basing his performance on other villain roles in better movies. The usually hilarious Jay Baruchel is grossly miscast here. If you want to see Jay in a good serious performance, watch GOOD NEIGHBORS. He’s out of his element in the ROBOCOP remake!

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Since the story has been adjusted from a hard R-rated 80’s flick to a modern PG-13 would-be summer blockbuster, some changes were obviously made to the original’s material. The most notable of which come in Alex being blown up by a car bomb (instead of shot up by a gang), Robocop’s black armor (as opposed to silver), and a significant lack of good action sequences. There aren’t a lot of action scenes in this ROBOCOP movie (already a bad sign) and two stand out for horrible reasons. An early flashback is shot with such off-the-wall shaky camera work that I couldn’t make out who was shooting at what. Then what could have been the film’s highlight is ruined by being shot in the dark (making for confusion with various gun blasts from unseen foes) and split between two different night-vision lenses. The problem with the latter is that these looked like a visuals from Super Nintendo video game.

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ROBOCOP is a remake of a silly 80’s action flick, but never captures what made that original film so entertaining. The characters range from enjoyable to downright one-dimensional (especially in the case of Robocop himself). Most of the action scenes are downright incomprehensibly messy with obscured or shaky visuals, instead of bloody violence. The soundtrack is mighty annoying. Rushed pacing is engaged on the more interesting parts of the film, but way too much time in spent in the boring moments. At one point, Jackie Earle Haley’s character refers to Robocop as “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar.” The same can be said about this film. Some good things aside, ROBOCOP isn’t worth a cent of your hard-earned cash. Wait for late night cable and prepare for it to put you to sleep. That’s where this tired remake belongs.

Grade: D+

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