This is the one everyone’s talking about. TIFF fave Birth of a Nation is a sprawling historical epic about a little known slave uprising that took place over two days in which a small band of slaves killed 63 landowners in Virginia in 1831. Writer director and star Nate Parker, who made headlines with his own chequered history, stars as Nat Turner the rebel leader, an educated preacher whose charisma allows him to plot and carry out the bloody, if short-lived massacre. The strong cast includes Gabrielle Union in a heart rending silent performance, Armie Hammer as a morally hamstrung plantation and slave owner, Aunjanue Ellis as a slave and Jackie Earle Haley as a wicked enforcer. Female characters are front and centre in this reminder of how things were. It’s a powerful film that should be judged separately from other considerations.
The film adaptation of the bestselling novel The Girl on the Train has finally pulled into the station. Emily Blunt is an alcoholic divorcee unable to cope. On her train ride into the city each day she passes her ex-husbands house and sees inside his happy new home with the happy new baby and it’s too much to bear. In order to distract herself form the pain of that, she focuses on an attractive couple who can’t keep their hands off each other. She sees what they have as “real love”. Btw – it’s amazing how much detail she can see inside people’s homes along the track! Her drinking is having a serious effect on her mental health and begins to hear and see things. Then one night something happens to her in a tunnel near the tracks that she can’t explain – she can’t remember but she’s bloody, beaten and disoriented. Haley Bennett and Jennifer Aniston’s husband Justin Theroux co-star. She stalks her ex- and his wife and child and obeying an impulse one day, she takes the child. It’s true that I didn’t read the book and had zero expectations and found it to be interesting on a few levels. For instance, three women drive the film – Blunt, Haley Bennett’s young ideal lover and Rebecca Ferguson as her ex- new wife. It’s a potboiler, an old fashioned melodrama with elements of horror and psychological tension. It was fun and twisty and at times silly but give me a woman positive film over a superhero any day.
Timothy Spall is so thoroughly evil he’s brilliant in the fact-based Holocaust legal thriller Denial. He plays David Irving, a renowned English academic whose narrow focus was his belief that horrific events under the Third Reich never happened. He toured the world lecturing that more women died in Ted Kennedy’s back seat than in Nazi ovens and had followers. American writer and historian Deborah E. Lipstadt played by Rachel Weisz challenges him publically and he sues her for libel. Because he sues in an English court, her character has the burden of proving herself innocent, not “innocent until proven guilty”. Because of the nature of the suit it also becomes her duty to prove that the Holocaust actually took place. Precise German documentation aside, Lipstadt had a tough time finding concrete proof that anyone died in the camps. It’s difficult subject matter emotionally and legally, and could have been a great story. Weisz role wasn’t pro-active enough; her job was to react to information. Still it’s compelling and the events actually happened. Irving’s Toronto-based co-conspirator, the late Ernst Zündel is mentioned. There’s a bittersweet sequence worth the price of admission in which Weisz prays over a grave site on the site of an actual concentration camp during her research travels to Germany.
Canada’s first best dramatic actress Emmy award winner Tatiana Maslany is the beating heart of the dark northern romance that I call Nunavut Noir Two Lovers and a Bear. She and Dane De Haan’s characters fall in crazy mad love, so passionate it threatens to destroy them. Their ups and downs are extreme and followed by drinking, drugging and fighting. Still their bond is strong and they look to move forward. Help comes in the shape of a polar bear – voices by Gordon Pinsent! – that advises them to get out of Nunavut and start afresh down south. So they make a run for it – in the depths of winter and all that can be seen is vast whiteness. Their journey is harrowing but their spirits are strong. The kids are so believable it hurts great performance. It is truly an Arctic Romeo and Juliet and the beautiful setting can’t be matched.
Epix is a new US streaming service that is currently unavailable in Canada except via a Roku HD Streaming Stick for $39.99 http://www.radioshack.com/roku.
Nick Nolte is Graves, a former US president who twenty years later runs for the presidency again and wins. He’s determined to fix all his mistakes and right the wrongs of his initial terms following a personal awakening. He didn’t know he was considered the worst president in US history. A visit to his official library fills him with shame; he must clear his conscience. It’s a dark comedy with some terrific writing, imaginative scenarios and a colourful supporting cast. But this is all Nolte’s game (with shades of Ronald Reagan and George Bush) added to his charming, larger than life bluster.
Berlin Station also on Epix stars Richard Armitage who is called to the CIA foreign office in Berlin Germany. He’s assigned to find whoever leaked information to a whistleblower by the name Thomas Shaw (read: Edward Snowden). Spy dramas are terrific entertainment, they engage the brain and heart if they’re good and take us inside worlds we will never know, where thigs happen that can change lives. Berlin Station is highly cinematic for TV, has a terrific cast and it’s interesting, if dense.
Comedian Tig Notaro stars in the semi-autobiographical comedy series One Mississippi on Amazon Prime. A Los Angeles based, openly gay comedienne comes home to the Deep South as her mother’s dying but she dies before she arrives. Tig’s gutted, even as she recovers from a double mastectomy and other illnesses. Her lover surprises her by flying in to support her and helps her navigate these terrible losses, small town USA, rocky relations with her rigid stepfather and sharp memories of her adored mother. Its tone is gentle but the wit is sharp and well observed. Love it.
Beyond Glory is a one man show by stage veteran Stephen Lang (Avatar, Public Enemies) in which he plays eight American Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Since 2003, he’s it has played over four hundred times to civilian and military audiences across the globe. Lang plays these men in US installations around the world in the conflicts of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He invited filmmakers to join him in 2014 in the Middle East and heartland of America where scenes for the film were shot and combined with newsreel footage and CGI. The performance is startling, bold and sometimes frightening and allows us inside the military mind.