Christopher Llewellyn Reed's Profile - Rotten Tomatoes

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Rating History

The Birth of a Nation
19 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

A fiery mix of Haile Gerima's 1993 cinematic bloodbath "Sankofa," which profiles a West Indian slave uprising, and Steve McQueen's 2013 meditative "12 Years a Slave," which contemplates the toll wrought by slavery on all involved in its implementation, Nate Parker's rousing "The Birth of a Nation," a dramatized retelling of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion, has much to recommend it, in spite of its director's well-publicized past allegation of rape. As a first feature from Parker, however, it suffers from not insignificant screenplay issues and a tendency on the novice helmer's part to emphasize each dramatic beat with soaring chords from composer Henry Jackman's often overly sentimental score. Still, despite these problems, "The Birth of a Nation" deserves to be seen for what it does right. McQueen's own Oscar-winning film was a beautiful work of art that shed needed light on our nation's disgraceful past; Parker's film, though far less accomplished, grants its African-American characters agency in their own liberation, an important upgrade, no matter how clumsily handled. In addition, any film that reappropriates the title of D.W. Griffith's virulently racist 1915 epic and gives it new meaning is OK in my book, whatever its weaknesses.

In a bit of historical irony, the film opens with a quote from slave owner Thomas Jefferson: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." We then segue directly into a premonitory prologue where little-boy Nat Turner is declared a prophet by what looks to be an African-American shaman of some sort. Corny as this device may be, it has the effect of moving us away from an established authority - Jefferson - to the more militant point of view of those who will rise up. We then follow young Nat to his plantation, where he catches the eye of the mistress (a fine Penelope Ann Miller, "Saving Lincoln"), who teachers him to read, setting in motion his own future intellectual emancipation. Unfortunately, when the master dies, he wills that Nat be sent back into the fields. The transition from house to field slave is not easy for the boy, but it does allow for a quick montage of cotton picking that transforms the child into the adult actor who plays him: Parker ("Beyond the Lights"), himself. In the passage of time, Nat's childhood playmate, Samuel, has now become lord of the manor, and the two have developed as easy a rapport as can be expected, given the disparity in their status. As played by Armie Hammer ("The Lone Ranger"), Samuel is spoiled and lazy, but not unkind, even sticking up for Nat when he is assaulted by another white man. That will all change, later in the film, once alcohol, boredom, and the institution of slavery work their ugly charm. No one can survive something as ugly as enforced bondage, not even those in charge.

As a character study in these early scenes, the film is at its strongest. Parker and Hammer work well together, and their false intimacy speaks volumes about the fraught relationship between master and slave on which much of our early history was built. There's a strong cast of supporting players, including Aja Naomi King ("How to Get Away with Murder"), Roger Guenveur Smith ("Dope"),  Gabrielle Union (Think Like a Man Too) and Chiké Okonkwo ("Paradox"), among others, as fellow slaves; Jackie Earle Haley ("Preacher") as a wicked slave hunter; and Mark Boone Junior ("Sons of Anarchy") as a white minister who views Nat as an especial existential threat. Little by little, the more we spend time with all involved, the clearer it becomes that no system built on cruelty and exploitation can or should last. Nat, now a preacher (thanks to Samuel's mother's early teachings), finds himself used to pacify other local slaves, earning money for Samuel in the process. Eventually, Nat loses faith, as the brutal treatment of his brothers and sisters (including, unfortunately, given Parker's own personal history, a rape) prove too much to bear. Rebellion awaits.

When it comes, though, it's disappointing. Having done a solid job of set-up, Parker can't quite handle the payoff with the same level of craft. Instead, he dwells on images of extreme violence to the point of fetishizing them, and cannot resist the temptation to lean on the musical score as overwrought accompaniment. That said, he does pull off one tragically powerful sequence at the end, once the revolt is defeated, where we see hanging bodies of martyred slaves hanging from trees while Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit" on the soundtrack. Is it the most original artistic choice? No. Does it work as effective document of the sins of our past? Yes. And so the movie goes, torn between Parker's competing impulses towards sentiment and harsh realism, sometimes evocative, sometimes less so. Not a perfect movie, but as necessary, in its own way, as its artistically superior cousin of a few years ago. If Parker survives his newfound scrutiny, it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Snowden (2016)
20 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Despite a prolific filmmaking career that began in the 1970s, picked up in the 1980s and then really kicked into high gear with the one-two-three knockout blow of "Platoon" (1986, for which he won the Best Director Oscar), "Wall Street" (1987) and "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989, for which he again won the Best Director Oscar), Oliver Stone slacked off in intensity some time in the 1990s, after making both "JFK" (1992) and "Natural Born Killers" (1994), powerfully righteous (some might say self-righteous) screeds against a system that takes its citizens for dupes. Even when tackling political subjects in subsequent movies like "Nixon" (1995) and "W." (2008), Stone pulled his punches and let his characters escape what earlier would have been a fiery font of principled wrath. Well, that old Stone is back, and though his new movie, Snowden - about the NSA whistleblower previously profiled in Laura Poitras's brilliant Oscar-winning documentary "Citizenfour" (2014) - is far from perfect, it is mostly a welcome return to form from the man who last gave us the underwhelming "Savages" (2012). Perhaps it's the influence of his Showtime documentary series "The Untold History of the United States" (2012-2013), or maybe it's the current state of politics in our country, or maybe it's legitimate outrage at both the government overreach that led Snowden to divulge his secrets and the ensuing government attempts to discredit and prosecute Snowden that just drove Stone crazy enough to wake the sleeping troublemaker within. Whatever the reason, Mr. Stone, it's good to see you in truculent trim once more.

Right away, before the movie even begins, you notice the change in the director's mien. With a cynical twinkle in his eye, he addresses the audience directly in a pre-screening PSA against cell-phone use in theaters that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and unsettling. It's the perfect opening, setting the tone for all that follows, warning you not just about annoying the viewers in your row, but about the inherent dangers in all smartphone technologies, which allow "them" to track you. Shortly thereafter, we will meet "them," and understand his alarm.

But first, we meet Snowden. As played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("The Walk"), he's a bundle of nerves hiding beneath a seemingly calm exterior. We're in Hong Kong in June of 2013, and Poitras (Melissa Leo, "Prisoners") and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, "Margin Call") are meeting him - without yet knowing who he is - at the airport. They go back to his hotel room, and if you've seen Poitras's film, much of what follows is familiar. Fortunately, Stone does far more than dramatize the events in the documentary. Shortly after the opening, he takes us back to 2004 and Snowden's failed army training (injuries prevented him from serving), which in turn led him to the CIA. The Snowden of that time is not just a young and unquestioning patriot, but also a conservative one. Much like the journey of Jack Lemmon's character in Costa-Gavras's 1982 blistering critique of U.S. involvement in Chile, "Missing"), Snowden starts out believing only the good about his country, and ends up completely disillusioned. Helping him along in this journey is his liberal girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley, "Divergent"), who challenges him on his first date to question the reasons we went to war in Iraq. Still, it's the dirt on government snooping that Snowden will uncover that really leads to his conversion, especially once Obama is elected and the mining of personal information only gets worse.

However you feel about Snowden's actions - and, for the record, I believe we should pardon him, since the government misdeeds he uncovered were criminal - the strength of Stone's film is the way he cuts back and forth between the conversations with journalists in 2013 and the evolution of Snowden's career and beliefs. At first timid as he begins his CIA training, he later gains enough in confidence to speak out and resign when he sees things he doesn't like. Rhys Ifans ("The Amazing Spider-Man"), as Corbin O'Brien, a shadowy spymaster-cum-mentor who first admits Snowden into the CIA and then tracks his progress over the years, bringing him back into the fold  even after he grows disillusioned, becomes this movie's face of evil, pushing his ends-justifying-means agenda at all costs. And why this obsession with Snowden? According to the script, co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald ("The Homesman") and based on two separate books - one by Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena and the other by British journalist Luke Harding - Snowden, though a high-school dropout, is unusually gifted in the art and technology of programming and hacking. His talent, once it's noticed by O'Brien, is coveted as a necessary tool in our fight against terrorism, which makes his ultimate defection sting all the more (witness our congress's recent report on why Snowden should not be treated as whistleblower). It's a complicated story, to say the least.

But a well-told one. Whatever the truths of various elements of the plot, Stone does an excellent job cutting between times and keeping the characters clear in our minds. Sadly, what he doesn't do so well is handle the relationship parts of the story, throwing in soggy sentiment - and even a sex scene - to humanize his protagonist. He also inexplicably adds Nicolas Cage ("Joe") - who can be quite fine when he decides to give an actual performance - to the mix, and allows him full range to overact. Fortunately, he's not in the movie for that long. Poor Woodely, though, does her best to make her underwritten girlfriend part meaningful, yet isn't given enough to work with. These problems aside, as a gripping dramatic thriller made by a master visualist, "Snowden" delivers the cinematic goods. Even an over-the-top video call towards the end, where Ifans's giant head towers over the diminutive Gordon-Levitt, though perhaps a little too obvious in its direct visualization of the power differential between the two men, is still effective. Speaking of Gordon-Levitt, he is wonderful in the part, bringing a troubled intensity and integrity to Snowden's moral dilemma. Given how much Snowden, the man, is still very much a part of our national conversation, the movie, despite some flaws, deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Welcome back to the fight, Mr. Stone!

Hands of Stone
21 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez ("Carlos") stars as famed Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán in "Hands of Stone," a new biopic from Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz ("Secuestro Express"). Cuban actress Ana de Armas ("War Dogs") comes along for the ride as Durán's long-suffering wife, Felicidad, along with Panamanian actor Rubén Blades ("Cradle Will Rock"), as Carlos Eleta, Durán's long-suffering manager/promoter. All of these good folks bring a certain authenticity to the project, especially Ramírez who, though a little bigger than the real deal, completely inhabits the title role, portraying Durán in his all his physical glory, manic intensity and depressive vindictiveness. As played by Ramírez, Durán is not a particularly nice man, but certainly one with a compelling life story.

Joining our Latin-American friends are the former "Raging Bull" himself, Robert De Niro, as legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel; Ellen Barkin ("The Chameleon," and many a terrific 1980s film), as Arcel's (also long-suffering) wife; John Turturro ("Fading Gigolo") as a New-York mafioso; and pop star Usher as the great Sugar Ray Leonard, Durán's erstwhile rival in the ring. All are fine actors and deliver solid work here (perhaps Usher could have smiled a little less, though I understand that Leonard was and is a stand-up guy), and make for an engaging ensemble. Why, then, does the movie ultimately feel a little flat? Maybe it's the nature of the biopic, constrained by the actual facts of the story and the limitations of chronology; maybe it's the mise-en-scène, which at times veers from melodrama to melodrama; or maybe it's the occasional expositional voiceover, spoken by De Niro, which tells us what we can already see on screen. Whatever the reason, the movie is eminently watchable, if deeply imperfect.

We start in 1971, which is the first time Arcel lays eyes on Durán. He's fresh out of Panama, poised for the big time, and carries a huge chip on his shoulder, having grown up in a country occupied by the U.S. military, and born of a union between such a North-American soldier and a teenage Panamanian gal, the soldier abandoning mother and infant son and hightailing it back to the States. Durán uses that rage as fuel for his punches, and as Arcel watches, he knocks out his opponent in 66 seconds. Soon, though Arcel has been banned, by the mob, from receiving income as a trainer, he's down in Panama, working for free, determined to make Durán a champion. Which, over the course of the ensuing decade, he does. Until Leonard.

Along the way, Durán settles down, has many a child - all named Roberto - with Felicidad (who manages to never lose her girlish figure, looking cinematically, if unbelievably, splendid throughout), and becomes something of a local philanthropist back home. But as Euripides would say, "whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad," and so we know that Durán will have to hit bottom before he can become the man he was always supposed to be. Perhaps that's the real problem here. Maybe the facts were odd enough that a truly unusual retelling might have worked; instead, the trajectory ends up feeling conventional, without surprises. Despite these flaws, "Hands of Stone" is worth watching for Ramirez, alone.

Hell or High Water
21 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It's early morning in West Texas. The camera drifts lazily over and through the low-rise buildings of a small town, nondescript and empty in the morning. A patch of graffiti reads "3 Tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us." We travel through a parking lot and come to rest on a bank entrance, where a lone woman approaches the door, pulling out her keys. She's the first employee of the day. Suddenly, from behind, come two masked men, who push her roughly inside. And so begins "Hell or High Water," where riches will be sought, Robin Hood-style, from those who have stolen them. Our protagonists may be bank robbers, but the villains here are the forces of society that steal from the poor to make the rich richer. That graffiti we passed by is more than just a random happenstance: it's the theme of the film.

The truth of who's right and who's wrong is, fortunately, a lot more complicated than that - and of what importance is right or wrong in a good narrative, anyway, as long as the characters believe in what they're doing? - or we'd have a movie far too simple for its own good. Instead, what we get, courtesy of director David Mackenzie ("Starred Up") and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario") is a morally complex tale of economic and existential survival masquerading as a damn fine bank-heist thriller. Brothers Tanner (Ben Foster, "Lone Survivor") and Toby (Chris Pine, "Star Trek Beyond") need a lot of money quickly, for reasons soon to be explained. Tanner is the wild card, just out of prison; Toby's a divorced father of two, calmer and brighter than his older sibling, but in need of his ruthlessness. As they make their way through a series of attacks on banks, which go off with varying degrees of success, they attract the attention of a pair of Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges ("True Grit") and Gil Birmingham ("California Indian"). The Rangers are yin to the brothers' yang, patiently tracking them down, trading (mostly affectionate) barbs as they go; two sets of partners with whom we spend almost equal time, dividing our loyalties. It's Birmingham's Alberto - of Native-American descent - who seems to most understand the brothers' motivation, as he likens their plight to that of all conquered people. If it's not the White Man putting you down, it's the banks, who go after all the poor, regardless of race.

It's a deeply satisfying film that mixes genres - crime, Western, epic drama - in a brilliant combination that keeps us guessing how it will all turn out until the very end. There are great - if also devastating - surprises in store and, most importantly, a wonderful sense of plot and character development that is often missing in some of the bigger movies of our day: unlike in, say, the last Marvel movie, here we care deeply about the fate of all involved. Foster and Pine are both terrific, as are Bridges (doing his old-man thing, but doing it well) and, especially, Birmingham, an underused actor (perhaps best known to most viewers as Billy Black in the "Twilight" films) who here gets a chance to shine. A deceptively small movie, set in vast and desolate landscapes, "Hell or High Water" deals with important themes relevant to our day and age, all the while entertaining the "hell" out of you. Go see it.