With the holiday season kicking into high gear, we can expect our fair share of holiday-themed movies. If you’re not the type who enjoys this kind of fare, it may be best for you to turn away now. Black Nativity is unabashedly a Christmas musical, written and directed by Kasi Lemmons and adapted from the play by Langston Hughes. There’s a lot to like here: it has a ton of heart, and the music performed has passion and soul. However, it’s not a perfect film—it falls for many of the traps that come with the genre. We’re in that strange area where a film balances between two opposite ends: it’s impossible to hate, but really tough to love.
Alexander Payne‘s filmography is akin to Wes Anderson‘s in that it’s instantly recognizable as being his own unique style. You could have plopped me in a theater seat and showed this to me sans opening credits and I like to think I could have nailed it in five. Nebraska may not share much in common with Election or Sideways aesthetically, but Payne is an unequivocal master of squirmy family dynamics and delicate poking of hometown sensibilities. He’s sometimes accused of making fun or having no sympathy for his subjects, and, while I’ve personally never agreed with such assessments, I’d challenge even the most hard-nosed naysayers to stake that claim here.
The Hunger Games was a huge box office success, the only young adult novel adaptation since Twilight to achieve that title. I read the trilogy by Suzanne Collins before seeing the film, and I really enjoyed it. Like many others, I was excited to see the first adaptation, but something happened. I came away with a “meh” feeling. It did not grab me emotionally in any way, unlike the novel.
An ensemble of talented, well-known actors has always been a worry for me. When that much talent is thrown together, it can mean pretty much one of two things: first, the material is really good and it has gotten the interest of several people who want to be a part of it; or second, the material is weak and the filmmakers hope that name recognition and talent can cover that up. The second option is what we have in the new film August: Osage County.
“…for better or worse, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part…”
How often do people focus on the “better” and “health” portion of their marriage vows, and ignore the “worse,” “sickness,” and “death” parts? That’s the true test of a relationship. It’s all flowers and butterflies when things are going well, but what happens when crap hits the fan? Some couples cut their losses and go their separate ways, while others try to stick together through the thick and thin. Writer/director Laurie Collyer’s Sunlight Jr. attempts to look at two lovers put through the ultimate test, and then pushes it just a little further to see where their breaking point is. Somber and desperate, it’s a narrative stripped so far to the bone it becomes difficult to watch during certain stretches. I can’t deny the qualities it exhibits, but I’m not so sure this is an experience I want to revisit anytime soon.
Under the category “Sequels That Never Needed To Exist But Here It Is Anyway” comes The Best Man Holiday, the follow-up to The Best Man (1999). The first film didn’t change the world by any stretch of the imagination, but I did appreciate it for its entertainment value and strong chemistry among the main cast. A lot of that translated into this latest entry, with all the actors returning and Malcolm D. Lee once again taking writing and directing duties. It’s clear everyone involved had a good time, but does that make for an effective movie? There are parts where it really gets going, especially when the cast gets to play off one another. But while the first film knew what it was going for, this one juggles a number of different elements, creating an uneven tone it never fully recovers from.
Sex, drugs, adventure, murder, and poetry? John Krokidas’s new film, Kill Your Darlings, uses the murder of professor-turned-janitor David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) to show how the Beat poets first came together. (This film is based on a “true story.” Which is all good and fine, but the spin on some of the events differs greatly from some of the official accounts, so I am going to treat it as though it were purely fiction.) The film centers on a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), who is looking to escape his mentally ill mother and her constant demands by attending Columbia University and living on campus. His father (David Cross) is a poet, and Allen’s love for the written word has him well on the way to becoming a writer himself. Soon after starting classes, Ginsberg meets the mesmerizing Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who introduces him to William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and thus a movement is born.
Dallas Buyers Club benefited publicity-wise from pre-filming photos of Matthew McConaughey wasting away as he lost weight to play Ron Woodruff, the main character. Basically, everyone knows by this point that this is that film where McConaughey is skinny. Why did he lose the weight? He plays a man struggling with HIV, getting treatment, and dealing with the stigma attached to the disease.
There is a formula for the disease-of-the-week movies I used to watch back in the ’90s: Flawed hero/heroine (usually heroine because this movie genre is a staple of the Lifetime channel) discovers he or she has contracted a terminal illness and has a short time to live. At first, the protagonist is disbelieving, then desperate, and then finally determined to find a way to live beyond their projected lifespan. He or she searches for a cure, while at the same time deciding to live life to the fullest—eventually surviving against all odds or dying a most noble death. Also, life lessons are learned and characters improved. It’s a well-used formula, but still satisfying because it manages to hit all of the right plot points to get the viewer where they expect to be. Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film, Dallas Buyers Club, manages to adhere exactly to the formula, which makes it both emotionally satisfying and slightly disappointing, considering its edgier subject matter. It’s exactly like a Lifetime movie of the week, but with more sex and homophobia.
In school, we learned about slavery in our U.S. History class. We read the textbooks, we wrote reports, and we gave presentations on it. Besides perhaps the Holocaust, it is one of the worst crimes against humanity in recorded history, and it happened in this very country. Yes, we’ve been taught the horrors that came from selling black people to southern plantation owners, but there is something different between reading about it in a book and seeing it happen in a film. Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a brutal examination of this time period. He does not hold back; he reveals all the cruelty, nastiness, and evil this institution held. This is one of the more difficult filmgoing experiences of the year, but it is also one of the best. People from all walks of life should see this.