THE UPSIDE (2019)

January 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Frequent movie goers often complain about the lack of originality in American movies. It sometimes seems as if most are sequels, remakes or reboots, or simply pulled from the panels of a comic book. There is another source that is particularly irksome to yours truly, and that’s the Americanization of an outstanding film from another country – World Cinema, if you will. Seven plus years ago, while watching the crowd-pleasing (though not so critically acclaimed) and exceptionally performed 2011 French film THE INTOUCHABLES, there was little doubt that it would, at some point, be subjected to an American “enhancement”. Sure enough, director Neil Burger (THE ILLUSIONIST) perfectly captures why this transition is sometimes so painful to see.

Based on a true story, filthy rich quadriplegic widower Phillip Lacasse is played by Bryan Cranston, while Nicole Kidman (her 4th film in 8 weeks) plays Yvonne, Phillip’s wound-too-tight, ultra-loyal chief of staff (she handles his many business affairs and calendar) with an obvious ulterior motive. Kevin Hart (he of recent Oscar-hosting drama) plays Dell, an unemployed ex-con street hustler. While searching for employment to appease his Parole Officer, Dell stumbles into a Park Avenue penthouse where Phillip and Yvonne are conducting interviews for a full-time caregiver to Phillip. Though he is woefully unqualified, and Yvonne protests mightily, Phillip chooses Dell. The undercurrent here is that Dell’s self-centeredness corresponds nicely to Phillip’s DNR and lack of will to live since his wife’s death from cancer.

The opening sequence has Dell racing through downtown, evading police, while driving a Ferrari with Phillip in the passenger seat. This is followed by a promising “6 months earlier” flashback introducing us to Dell’s ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) and their teenage son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), both of whom are fed up with the lack of support and trustworthiness of Dell. Basically, Dell is a deadbeat dad with little ambition – other than to avoid returning to prison.

The tone of the film changes once Dell has the job as Phillip’s carer. The bulk of the remaining run time (which is 20 minutes too long) becomes a comedy skit showcasing the punchlines of Kevin Hart. Mind you, the full house I watched the screening with seemed to love every bit, as laughter filled the theatre. For me, I could only long for the soul and spirit of that beloved French film from years ago … and the amazing chemistry between the charismatic Omar Sy and the talented Francois Cluzet. This version isn’t about chemistry – it’s about comic timing. The only real exception to that is a terrific and psychologically deep scene with Julianna Margulies playing Phillip’s pen pal, as they meet for the first time over lunch. The scene is played beautifully, but is a complete tonal change from what comes before and after. Contrasting this scene with Kevin Hart’s over-the-top antics in the high-tech shower, magnifies the contrast in concepts.

Jon Hartmere is credited with the screenplay based on the original film’s screenplay by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. For some reason, Phillip Pozzo di Borgo’s autobiography doesn’t make the credits for this version. A bit more attention to Dell’s ex and son could have worked to humanize him, and soften the caricature on display. This comes across as an interracial odd-fellow buddy flick, where yet another black man (often in a subservient role) rescues an entitled white person (even if they’re disabled) from lack of hope and leads them to a life worth living. Is it possible to make a movie based on race and class, and even romance, and still offer no real insight? Apparently the answer is yes, if one chooses to go for easy laughs. Perhaps you’ll join the audience in rolling along with Dell’s first trip to the opera, or the disrespect to art collectors – or that seemingly never-ending catheter scene. Or perhaps you can be persuaded to track down THE INTOUCHABLES for a more emotional and inspirational telling of this story.

***NOTE: I should also mention that one of my Top 5 movies of 2018 has already been targeted for an American remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal.  Boo. Hiss.

watch the trailer:

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THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)

October 6, 2016

birth-of-a-nation Greetings again from the darkness. Rarely is a director’s feature film debut one that has historical and societal relevance … and certainly few first-timers would dare “borrow” the title of one of the most iconic films in cinematic history (regardless of the irony). But it seems Nate Parker may be no ordinary filmmaker. His 7 year passion project is well made, well acted and worthy of discussion.

Though the films share the title card (right down to the font), there are almost no similarities between Mr. Parker’s film and the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie. Griffith’s movie (set 30-40 years later) is known as the first blockbuster and historical epic, was the first film screened at The White House (by Woodrow Wilson), and has been studied for its advanced filmmaking techniques. It’s also notorious for the despicable portrayal of racism, and has even been credited/blamed for re-energizing the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Parker’s film is neither a remake nor a historical epic – it’s more of a biographical portrait of the most famous figure in the 1931 Southampton, Virginia uprising … Nat Turner.

This is the story of Nat Turner, but it’s clearly Nate Parker’s film. He is producer, co-writer (with Jean Celestin), director and lead actor (as Turner). Previously recognized for his acting (The Great Debaters, 2007), Parker’s passion for the story is evident. He takes creative license in some key elements (Turner’s marriage, the interracial baptism, the armory battle), but the fundamental truth that Turner was driven by his religious beliefs and visions to fight in order to free slaves is profound and ingrained in each scene.

Supporting work is solid and comes from Armie Hammer as Nat’s plantation owner and master, Penelope Ann Miller (The Shadow, 1994) as the plantation matriarch who teaches young Nat to read the bible (not the white man books), Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, 1976) as the villainous slave hunting ranch hand, Mark Boone Junior as the scheming Reverend, Gabrielle Union as a rape victim, and Aja Naomi King (“How to Get Away with Murder”) as Cherry (Turner’s wife).

Nat Turner’s uprising lasted a mere 48 hours, and resulted in the slaughtering of dozens of slave owners and their families. Of course, many slaves were also killed and the fallout was that slave owners became more wary of the possible actions of slaves … while it also provided a glimmer of hope, and generational stories, for those who remained enslaved.

Religion was a driving force in Turner’s actions, and it’s fascinating to see a movie acknowledge conflicting bible verses, and how support can be found for most any action … in this case, slavery AND the battle against it. Turner’s sermons to slaves evolve over time from a message of “obey your master” to the point where he is inspiring the uprising – all with words directly from the scripture.

The end for Nat Turner provides the end of the movie, but of course, it’s not the end of the story. One need only check today’s headlines to know that racial tensions are prevalent and that society still has a ways to go for equality and humanity for all. Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is one of the more haunting songs one will ever hear in a movie (originally recorded in 1939 by Billie Holliday), but it’s spot-on in its inclusion. A detailed song about lynching grabs our attention amongst the whippings, force-feedings, rape and other torturous mistreatments.

Slavery has been portrayed on screen in such films as 12 Years a Slave, “Roots”, Django Unchained, and Amistad. Nate Parker’s film deserves to be mentioned among these projects, and there is little doubt we will hear and see even more from Parker as a filmmaker (and actor). As a final benefit, the film reminds us to never bring a hatchet to a canon fight.

**NOTE: for those who follow the NBA, you’ll notice Michael Finley and Tony Parker are Executive Producers for the film.

**NOTE TO AMC NorthPark: my movie buddy was not pleased with his $7.03 small popcorn. Being one of the few who pays with cash, he questions why you can’t make 3 cents less per bag rather than load down your customers with 97 cents change … to say nothing of the inefficiencies in having your concession workers count out the 3 quarters, 2 dimes, 2 pennies