Sunday, October 16, 2016

Reviews from gulag: Tom and the Holograms

2016 keeps rolling along, despite our best efforts!  Here's three more for the pyre: The Birth of a Nation, De Palma, and A Hologram For the King.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Nate Parker, 2016)
In the early 19th century, Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is born on a slave plantation in Virginia.  He grows up, and comes to seize ahold of a grandiose, annihilating vision of racial justice: the eradication of the slaveholding class of the American South.  With a band of followers, he pursues his dream to its foregone conclusion, namely his own execution, but in the process he manages to shock the system he despised, and his name and his fame (or, perhaps, his infamy) live on.

Probably the single best thing about The Birth of a Nation—and I've got to warn you, this is pretty unfortunate—is still just its title.  That title is the cleverest fucking thing, but when it's also the cleverest thing Nate Parker ever gets up to here, it really must register as an estimable pity that it didn't get to be the title for a much better movie—one that, you know, actually managed to earn the subversive force of it.

Instead, Nation turns out to be Nate Parker's one man show: a somewhat aimless, even somewhat artless exercise in building in his own brand.  Perhaps needless to say, that doesn't really do the material much justice, social or otherwise.  It is certainly insufficient to overcome one's feeling that Parker himself is a very bad person, and this goes double when something like one-third of Parker's movie is devoted to a slavery-was-an-American-rape-camp narrative, giving Nation the same extraordinarily bitter flavor of a picture like (for example) Polanski's Repulsion—wherein your response is unavoidably conditioned by your extrinsic knowledge that the man bringing you this tale is, himself, far too deeply compromised to have the moral right to tell it.  (Shucks.  And after I promised myself I wouldn't mention any of that business, too.)

The fundamental problem with Nation isn't just that it was helmed by Nate Parker, the Bad Man, however.  For one thing, there are more people involved in a movie than just its director, even if there are somewhat fewer in this case than there usually would be, once you take Parker's position as Nation's writer-director-producer-star-and-scenarist into account.

But even then, let's be crystal clear: the fact that Parker is the star of his own movie is definitely a problem, and not for any external reason on this count, either.  Rather, it's because whatever acting prowess the man might possess—I rather enjoyed his supporting turn in Beyond the Lights—it has very obviously not been honed to the level it needs to be at for this particular role.  Thus does Parker provide his presumably-complicated hero, a man decried by many as an actual madperson, with roughly one single note per any given scene throughout the picture; and, because Parker evidently lacks much in the way of imagination, that note is almost permanently set to "theatrically angry at the world," except in the scenes where that note is "noble martyr"; and, of course, there is a smattering other scenes, wherein there aren't any notes to speak of at all.  Finally, there is always a certain lack of the heavenly fire you'd hope for, even in the notes Parker gets right.

So, seriously, I can't even tell anymore: should I be annoyed that the best performance in Nation comes either from noted white boy Armie Hammer, as Turner's master who thinks himself kind, or from Roger Guenveur Smith, as the Turner plantation's senior house negro who thinks himself wise?  You know, as opposed to the deeply, deeply backgrounded ensemble of abused and desperate field slaves, not to mention the film's protagonist?

The point is, whatever cosmetic indications of hubris that Nation no doubt displays—e.g., the filmmaker's name showing up in the credits roughly eighty times, and that's before you even get to the smaller print—the most glaring overreach of all is when he decided that Nate Parker was the man destined to portray Nat Turner.  (And this was clearly meant to be.  I mean, gosh, they share the same Christian name and everything.)

But, as I was saying: the fundamental problem with Nation isn't Parker, the Bad Man, it's Parker, the Mediocre Director.  He has no solid idea what his film ought to be, and it inevitably becomes something of a slurry (probably not intentionally), sometimes a very gripping slurry based on the content alone.  However, it just as often invites comparisons that it cannot easily survive: very unfortunately, Nation spends almost all of its two hour runtime laboring in the shadow of its immediate predecessor in bondage, McQueen's grim, methodical portrait of a human being being broken, 12 Years a Slave; and then, once Turner's rebellion has (finally) arrived, it leaves McQueen's shadow only to cross over into the penumbra of the other big slavery movie of recent years—namely, Tarantino's unhinged, borderline-pornographic historical revenge fantasy, Django Unchained.

Well, in the end, Nation splits the difference between those two extraordinarily different movies, and that's just no place for any film to be, unless "resolutely middle-of-the-road" was, in fact, always Parker's goal.  Indeed, Nation escapes a serious competition with Tarantino's picture solely because it appears to have no opinion to share about the Nat Turner Rebellion in the first place, except that a rebellion of some sort was justified, which is not necessarily something anyone needs a movie to tell them.

Therefore it cannot simply be a joyous explosion of rage, leavened with tragedy thanks to our foreknowledge that Turner's rebellion shall not succeed; nor can it be a troubled examination of the wisdom and morality of what Turner actually did (namely, annihilate families, including children—though, interestingly, not always!).  In fact, once Nation arrives at the Rebellion itself, it starts to come perilously close to refusing to function on the level of basic storytelling, presenting the events of Turner's 48-hour war as a rushed-through montage that keeps getting more and more elliptical as it goes on—and never to much of any cognizable purpose, either.  It is a baffling choice; and, ultimately, the story of the Rebellion shatters entirely in the editing room.  It is something of a surprise, given that the rest of the film has been nothing much more than a sturdy progression of things-that-happened; it is not much of a surprise, however, that in very short order Parker's quotidian direction reasserts itself, and Turner gets his Braveheart finale.

The result, sadly, is a film that is possibly already a little too long for the mere thing that it winds up being—a competent but never compelling biography (and not a terribly accurate one, if I'm not mistaken)—and which is also vastly too short for what that written-in-blood title advertises it as—namely, an epic historical fiction that actually has something subversive and edgy to say about race, either then or now.

So why does Nation not grapple more forcefully with its questions of tactics and morality?  Indeed, why does it do so precious little with what it does have?  Is it because it is, effectively, Oscarsploitation, assuming itself to be important because of its subject matter, rather than on its merits?  Possibly so.  Another explanation presents itself, however.  That's because it's Parker's very first feature length film as a director—and first-time directors don't typically cut their teeth on politically-charged prestige films about difficult characters for a good reason.  Parker acquits himself well enough behind the camera—he certainly has a halfway-decent eye for the tableau, if not for how to place them within a sequence to make them truly land—but he has no idea what to focus on.  Thus we get furtive glimpses of Turner's visions, when the full Ken Russell Freakout might have sold us on Turner's unerring certainty that he was on a bona fide mission from God.  We get all the ugly interstitial scenes of slavery we could want, in order to give us all the old time holocaustal catharsis we could need, but Parker tends to shy away from letting his film truly absorb the violence inherent in his scenario.  And we get the vague sensation that Parker is setting up Turner as the man who fired the first shots in the great war of liberation to come, yet, somewhat curiously—given the climate of 2016—there is not a whole lot of suggestion that this was a struggle that concluded without the fullest possible satisfaction.

Even so, the most redemptively cinematic moment in Nation's whole two hour span is its very final image: a match-dissolve from a black child to a black man, wearing the Union blue thirty years down the line.  It is the littlest bit trite—though it is perhaps somewhat less trite, when you know precisely who is growing up to be whom.  Either way, it does have a legitimate power to it—the kind of power the rest of the movie doesn't actually seem that interested in wielding.

But even then, if that's where this is all heading—"isn't it nice that the Civil War happened?" (and, yes, it was!)—then what we have is just about the safest movie about Nat Turner a man could possibly make.  And, sure, a pretty decent one, at that.

So, if I have regrettably done very little but complain about the thing, it's only because the substantial good that Nation offers is just not very interesting to talk about.  That's because—let's say it again—it's so fucking safe: from the way it redacts its chosen subject matter, to the way Parker services his vision of a bloody rebellion, even to the way that it characterizes Turner's breaking point.  It is scarcely good enough to be safe, I'm afraid, and in its essential tidiness, you almost wish it were a grasping, stupid, ambitious mess, instead of being safe and just okay.  Given its cool reception, I wouldn't be surprised if Parker himself wishes that, too.

Score:  6/10

DE PALMA (Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, 2016)
Brian De Palma (Brian De Palma) yammers at a camera for two hours about his career.  Take it or leave it.

I am not sure what I expected, exactly, from De Palma.  But now that I've seen it, I am damned sure of one thing, and that's this: nobody who isn't already a huge fan of the director  could (or should) care the slightest bit about it.

But I am a huge De Palma fan.  And therefore I found De Palma—the somewhat-documentaryish object, in which Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow permit their aging idol to ramble on about his life's work—to be an enjoyable time.

Nonetheless, it's still entirely possible to be disappointed with it, for De Palma doesn't, you know, do anything else.  De Palma unveils no real thesis statement for his career over the course of these 110 minutes, other than all the stuff we already knew.  He finds women more interesting than men; his films tend to take on the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock, mixed up with his own personal weirdnesses; and, above all, he has always been a deeply intuitive director, who tended to take his obsessions to their logical and practical limits with every chance he got, even when his intuition and obsessiveness wound up punished, by his critics and by his audiences, rather more often than it was ever rewarded.  So: it's a really nice Criterion disc supplement, which I apparently paid four American dollars to watch.  That's what De Palma is.

It is arranged, naturally enough I suppose, as a chronological rundown of the director's filmography.  But as you go through it—from his early art films and through his commercial decades, right up to his most recent, European Period work—you begin to realize that the actual structure of De Palma can be boiled down to this:

"I did Movie X, and here are between one and four anecdotes about it.  My anecdotes are always at least a little bit interesting, and none of them shall unveil any particularly closely-guarded secrets, nor shall any of them shed any particularly new light on any decision I ever made, either behind the camera, or in life generally."

Thus the most technically-fascinating discussion he ever gets into is a brief tangent upon splitscreen, its strengths and its pitfalls, and why he used it, and how he thinks it ought to be used.  I'll concede this: there is a certain anger, or a frustration, to the man.  This is bound to be a tiny bit compelling, especially if you think that BDP got an unfair shake from those audiences and critics who punished him for being awesome.  The anger and frustration leak out in somewhat nasty asides regarding several of his former collaborators, although perhaps it should be noted that most of the people that De Palma slams are also dead.  And thus do Cliff Robertson and Orson Welles take it on the chin for being shitheads on the set of Obsession and Get to Know Your Rabbit, respectively; and we learn that De Palma is angry at Sidney Lumet over kind-of-stealing Prince of the City from him; and it is revealed, to the surprise of absolutely no one who ever saw Mission: Impossible 2, that screenwriter Robert Towne was more-or-less useless when it came to helping pen the first one.  But there is nothing very scandalous here, nor even particularly acidic.  (Those possibly-tall tales about Tom Cruise and De Palma almost getting into an actual fistfight are not even addressed, even though they really ought to be.)  Anyway, there is surely nothing to justify that ridiculously overreaching "no fucks left to give" pullquote.  The closest the film gets to anything controversial, I think, is when BDP demonstrates that he still doesn't have the foggiest notion why his turn-of-the-80s near-masterpiece, Dressed to Kill, is terrifically and ridiculously offensive.  Which, somehow, kind of makes it more offensive, and definitely not in any kind of fun way, because this is 2016, man.

But who knows what BDP really thinks about any of this?  There is simply not enough room, within this structure and within this runtime, to deeply examine anything at all.  There is no interrogation, either—nothing to propel De Palma down more profitable paths of inquiry than his own recollections.  Or, if there was, it is totally invisible, and I don't mean in an Errol Morris, "let 'im talk" sense.  Nope: as it stands, De Palma seems like it might've been the easiest movie anybody ever directed in history.  It's literally just De Palma going on about his movies, for about five minutes at a time.  And that's fine; but fine is all it is, and probably all it could be.  I daresay you are far better served watching De Palma than De Palma.

Score:  6/10

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Tom Tykwer, 2016)
Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is a desperate businessman with an ex-wife and a needy daughter, and presently he has been tasked with the sale of a newfangled communications system to the King of Saudi Arabia.  To this end, he travels to Jeddah, and from there makes a daily commute to a tent set up in the King's Metropolis of Economy and Trade, which is (as you might expect from such a clearly ironic name) a more-or-less empty wasteland with one office building that his team is not allowed to enter, and a block or two of high-rise luxury condominiums, which are completely empty except for the construction workers working on them, who are of course basically slaves.  Anyway, Alan makes the acquaintance of natives and expatriates alike, including his driver Yousef (Alexander Black), who fears car bombs and hit squads, though he emphatically wants you to know it's not terrorism-related, Hanne (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), a horny Danish businesswoman, and, most importantly of all, Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), a doctor who enters his confidence, as he enters hers.

A Hologram For the King could be much more boring than it is, and that's not an insight, just a fact: it's yet another Sad Old White Man story coupled with a Stranger In a Strange Land story, who discovers in another country a meaningful relationship that he never could have found if he'd stayed at home.  And if that reminds you of Lost in Translation, it probably should, and that movie is never going to be everybody's cup of tea, mainly on account of its being so excruciatingly dull that water couldn't boil, and even paint on the wall would refuse to dry, if you merely happened to be watching it in the same room.

Hologram is a lot more gregarious than tired old Translation, and that's bound to be a great relief.  In fact, it opens with a blast of self-consciously gonzo nonsense—this being our star, Tom Hanks, plopped right into the midst of a full-on musical number (doubling as character exposition, even!), in which Hanks' particular sad old white man, Alan Clay, mangles the crap out of that on-the-nose Talking Heads standard, "Once in Lifetime."

I can only assume that director Tom Tykwer did this in order to dispel any possible impression that what you're about to watch was going to be one more dime-a-dozen realist dramedy—because even though Hologram kind of still is one more dime-a-dozen realist dramedy, you won't easily forget that it can veer off, very suddenly, into deep subjectivity.  And so, to its abiding credit, its drama is heightened; its comedy is wryly funny.  Often they're both the same thing: even Alan freaking the hell out about the cancerous lump on his back is humorous in its own, dark-minded way.

The film is, in some sense, the sum of its setting: the story of the lost and lonely man cast adrift in a sea of strangers, finding unlikely connections where he can, is a story as old as time, but it is not typically given such a precisely metaphorical form as the empty vanity cities of the Arabian peninsula, and the hollow metropolis of the Saudi king presents itself as a singularly bleak and uncanny backdrop for Alan's personal unraveling.  Hologram rides a narrow line here, criticizing without completely condemning—it is a film where the marginalia is full of angry scribblings about the state of Saudi Arabia—but, if it takes the Saudi regime as one target, the other is (after all) Alan himself.  It pays to remember that Alan is the vile international capitalist in this scenario—now a glorified traveling salesmen, he fell from a greater height, an executive who accidentally destroyed an American bicycle company by moving it to China.  But in the same way that Hologram cares a whole heck of a lot about the humanity of the people who live in Saudi Arabia, it cares also about the humanity of this inveterate globalizer, who's exactly the kind of blithe jerk who got all of us here in the Western world to where we are today.  What we have, then, is something of a neoliberal fantasy that works much better than that phrase makes it sound.

Yet the signal qualities of the piece are its kindness and its gentleness; and it remains kind and gentle despite its repeated stabs at commentary, and despite the feet of clay it has grafted upon its sadsack characters.  And in the end, the film goes almost completely squishy, but only in the best possible way, when Alan finds succor in a fragile and stately romance—a romance that is very mature, and very reserved, yet is also very, very sweet.

Bound to Alan as we are, it is not too much to say that this film lives or dies based on Hanks' performance: one wrong move, and Alan becomes an entitled whiner, and you could easily grow to dislike this rich man who wants a new life in a new world, simply because his old one just wasn't doing it for him any more.  But Hanks is Hanks; and Hanks has scarcely made one wrong move in the past thirty damn years.

Moreover, if there has ever been any Tom Hanks character who more completely fits our idea of Tom Hanks—that sweetness, that sincerity, and, yes, that wonderful squareness—I sure as hell can't name that Tom Hanks character.  After all, if you actually look at Hanks' roles, or even Hanks' specific performances, rather than let yourself get distracted by the persona that attaches to the man like an invincible halo, you'll actually find a lot of somewhat-snappish assholes.  Most Hanks characters only ever wind up redeemed as good, likeable guys by the irreducible fact that, hey, they're being played by Hanks, so they kind of have to be.

And so Hologram pulls a very neat trick: despite the man's economic treason, Alan Clay is just about as close to Tom Hanks Unplugged as we'll probably ever get again.  The Hanks turn here is, pretty simply, the Hanks persona distilled to its essence; and that, as they say, is that.  (The competitor, I suppose, must be The Terminal; but even that infinitely-genial performance was still a much more complicated exercise in the actor's craft, for in addition to that film's higher-impact physical comedy, Hanks must also force his charming guilelessness through the labyrinth of Victor Navorski's utterly phony Kerplakistan accent, which you'll know is no mean feat.)

Anyway, whether you personally find Diet Crystal Hanks to be an appealing flavor is probably somewhat of a matter of taste; but I can say, without a hint of shame, that I certainly do.  If A Hologram For the King winds up being somewhat minor Hanks, it is nonetheless adorable for being minor Hanks; and I must confess I kind of straight-up loved his movie, along with all the airy, weightless enchantment it somehow conjures out of a whole lot of what initially appears to be some reasonably serious shit.  (But, I know: with Ron Howard preparing to drop yet a third adventure in the life of Robert Langdon down upon us, let's please not overwork that rare but sometimes very-useful phrase, "minor Hanks," until we really need to throw it at the actor's head.)

Of course, if I'm being completely, totally honest, I guess I'd probably be forced to call Hologram "adorably minor Tykwer" too.  But, then again, with something as grindingly mediocre as Perfume still in this director's comparatively recent past, we certainly don't need the man getting too cocky, right?

Score:  8/10


  1. Birth of a Nation is "resolutely middle of the road?" I smell an Oscar win!

    1. If Parker wasn't drowning in controversy (and, let's just say it, if Parker wasn't black, and if 12 Years hadn't already won an Oscar three years ago), I'd have no hesitation in betting a few dollars on exactly that.

      As it stands, it looks to me like an open field; I doubt Nation will even get nominated, and, in point of fact, I can't name a movie that's come out so far this year that *is* likely to get a Best Picture nod.

      Indeed, the likeliest contender that *has* been released so far this year, I suppose, has got be The freaking Lobster.

      ...Which means we're doomed.

    2. I refuse to believe that The Lobster will get any play at the Oscars. I feel like it's too weird for the Academy. But then again, what else do we even have? I'm nervous, Hunter, I really am.

  2. You know what, I'm gonna call it right now. Sully's walking home with the big prize.

  3. I hadn't realized that anyone else on the planet had seen Hologram for the King, which I caught during my COVID Hanks binge (for which I'm still catching up on writing reviews). Agreed on most counts -- hadn't made the Lost in Translation connection, but I see it.

    What I most admired was the film's multi-genre versatility -- some romance, some satire, some fish-out-of-water, some hangout, etc.

    I still ended up slightly less positive than you -- the overall Nutrisweet, low-substance tang of it overwhelmed me a bit. But I'm there with you that Hanks is the best possible vehicle for this type of stuff.

    1. I'm curious as to what I'd think of it on a rewatch, but I remember it being a real low-key charmer at the time.

      "Emigrating to Saudi Arabia" is still a weird happy ending for any movie.