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Rapid Reviews: The Birth of a Nation and Deepwater Horizon

The Sundance Film Festival has turned into a gold mine for major studios looking to profit off of reasonably budgeted works. And when one movie hits the trifecta of earning the Audience Award, the Grand Jury Prize and a record-setting $17.5 million deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures, in the famous words of Ron Burgundy, it's "kind of a big deal". Writer, director and star Nate Parker's debut feature, The Birth of a Nation, accomplished the difficult feat and leaves us all wondering, what exactly are the film's Oscar chances?

Prior to the Civil War, Nat Turner (Parker) is a literate slave and preacher who's spent his entire life on the plantation of inherited owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Considering the times, Samuel provides his workers with a more desirable lifestyle as he entrusts Nat to keep morale high. But as a drought strikes the area and finances grow tight, Samuel sells Nat's preaching services to nearby slave owners where Nat discovers terrible atrocities that ultimately push him into leading a violent uprising in Virginia.

Much has been written and discussed regarding director Nate Parker's 1999 rape case, but I'll choose to redirect my focus to his artistic expression in question. The Birth of a Nation is a mightily flawed film that struggles to tell a nuanced story or address any form of character development other than the movie's main protagonist. Parker's effort falls flat by failing to shed any new light on the slave-era genre. Instead, it relies on stereotypical white southern villains and abrasive imagery as an exploitative device to capture the audience's attention. This is neither constructive nor beneficial to the grand scope of storytelling. Yet, I imagine the tactics will end up successful in some instances among a general audience. On the flip side, Nate Parker does prove to be a strong actor who's capable of carrying a film. His passion for the subject matter pours through his veins in countless onscreen moments. However, a prolonged cookie-cutter introduction to the main character dilutes the emotional finale of a violent slave uprising. The Birth of a Nation was able to keep me engaged in the film all while unveiling its many faults. The blood-soaked closing sequence didn't disappoint, but the hour and 45 minute build-up certainly did.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

I've been a longtime fan of actor and director Peter Berg. He's demonstrated admirable diversity between his anti-hero comedy, Hancock, and the more dramatic covert ops film, Lone Survivor. And since the 2013 release of the latter film, Berg has seemingly shifted his storytelling focus to the narrow direction of true events, as evident by his latest release Deepwater Horizon. Next on the docket for him is a drama circling around the events of the Boston Marathon bombing. This predictable transformation has me growing more skeptical of the filmmaker than I've ever been before.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, the Chief Electrical Engineer on the massive Deepwater Horizon oil rig nestled in the Gulf of Mexico. With deadlines passing and profits being effected every day, the BP oil company sends executives to the rig to trim down site inspections and improve the delayed timeline. However, system failures culminate in a tragic series of explosions that put the lives of all these workers at risk.

Following a successful string of early reviews, I was rather excited for the opportunity to catch Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon. Unfortunately, the film trades well-crafted and multi-dimensional characters for cheap sentiments and gaudy pyrotechnics. Offering very little more than a bare-bones story that plays second fiddle to a punishingly long sequence of explosions and special effects that suffocates what little emotion the film has managed to develop. Similar to my response in the review above, Deepwater Horizon only devotes its energy to one real character. Thankfully, Mark Wahlberg delivers a stellar performance that uses a pleasant blend of comedy and drama to generate a strong character. Yet, outside of any rooting interest for Wahlberg's lead character, Deepwater Horizon is a hollow story that never earns the sentiment it so desperately craves.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C


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