Stacy and Stern: The Girl on the Train, The Birth of a Nation, Denial
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    The Girl on the Train Review - Andrew Stern

    Watching The Girl on the Train is a lot like riding a real train: initially very intriguing, then frustratingly tedious, but ultimately providing a rewarding payoff.

    Based on the best-selling Paula Hawkins novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train almost begs for a film adaptation. The movie opens on Rachel (Emily Blunt riding the train – I guess she’s the girl) and talking about the "perfect" couple she stares at every day. Her narration is somber and straightforward, almost...blunt. Her relationship through voyeurism to this couple she’s never met directly mirrors the audience’s relationship to the characters they watch on screen.

    Of course, the whole movie doesn’t take place on a train (though wouldn’t it be cool if it did?). As the first act progresses, the audience is exposed to the perspectives of two other women: Megan (Haley Bennett) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). The rest of the film is spent exploring how these women are all connected. And like all good thrillers, these relationships dramatically change as the movie progresses. Even as you start to think you know what’s going on, there are sure to be a few more twists to keep you guessing.

    However, as The Girl on the Train enters its second act, the storyline starts to drag. Around this time, the characters are just putting together what the audience has already dissected. It’s during this time that the dreary dramatics and monotone mechanics become apparently clear to the audience. The combination of vague anger, sadness and poorly filmed slow-motion creates a sense of heightened melodramatics that numbs the audience. It’s certainly higher-quality than the often ridiculed Lifetime Channel, but also certainly reminiscent.

    And as The Girl on the Train walks the tightrope between trashy and intense, the question arises: is the film’s use of relationship abuse exploitative or therapeutic? There are several characters in the film who are not-so-awesome people. This use of traumatic experience to add drama to the plot may prove effective for many, but is certainly an important thing to make yourself aware of before seeing the film.

    It’s also probably for this reason that there have been a few Gone Girl comparisons floating around, both for the book and the movie. While narratively there are some similarities, The Girl on the Train is not nearly the movie that Gone Girl is. Stylistically, there is not a ton of nuance here. Similarly, any commentary that The Girl on the Train has is non-existent, or not terribly relevant.

    Still, the ultimate conclusion that The Girl on the Train comes to is a satisfying one. The movie is a nicely packed thriller with lots of intense moments throughout. It’s not a strong enough film to be truly memorable, or warrant multiple viewings, but for a movie night with your friends, this movie is the ticket.

    The Birth of a Nation Review - Stacy Tsai

    The fathers may soar

    And the children may know their names

    This epigraph precedes Toni Morrison’s critically-acclaimed novel Song of Solomon. Despite being set in different time periods, Morrison’s work and Nate Parker’s much-anticipated film The Birth of a Nation both preoccupy themselves with freedom – the promise, the possibility of it for the Black subject and the costs of its pursuit.

    The Birth of a Nation centers on one “father” of sorts – Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher that eventually leads the largest slave uprising recorded in U.S. history. The film is not the first to cast an unflinching lens on the brutal reality of American slavery (nor will it likely be the last, considering mainstream Hollywood’s pseudo-progressive fascination with Black suffering (see: 12 Years a Slave, The Color Purple, Django Unchained; 3 of the 6 Black-produced Oscar Best Picture nominees) and its adjoined white guilt).

    Nevertheless, the importance of “[knowing] their name” cannot be downplayed – time and time again we see that historical memory is abysmal, especially history as traumatic and damning as that of slavery. To have filmic representation of resistance - specifically, its validation of anger in the face brutality and subordination - resonates most powerfully.

    The invocation, then, of Morrison’s epigraph is to understand what images Parker’s “passion project” uses to achieve this. The portrayal of Turner as a noble, morally righteous leader, coupled with shots of the pious protagonist with his arms outstretched invoking very clear biblical imagery, invokes the hero’s journey, the triumphant comeuppance and revenge of the redeemed of holy proportions.

    But the cinematography’s myopia averts our attention away from “the children” – in this case, not merely referring to the youth, but also to the women left behind to tend to the aftermath of the uprising; to the slaves that remained in the fields and sustained the brunt of White retaliation; and to the subsequent generation of Black people who were unjustly persecuted, dehumanized and denied education in the wake of Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

    Particularly with the now-widely publicized rape trial against Nate Parker, his treatment of those on the periphery of The Birth of a Nation’s focus on “fathers” that “soar” – namely, the women – warrants scrutiny. Women in the film are either used for their symbolic, invisible suffering (which is always viewed through the lens of its effects on a male character) or as mere catalysts for epiphany. For example, it is the rape of one slave’s wife that compels him to encourage Nat’s uprising. This depiction, more than any other aspect of the movie, was most troubling to me. While the movie reveals an overlooked history of organized resistance, it subordinates the history of Black women, who not only faced oppression of multiple dimensions, but also anchored Black families and provided strength, both physical and emotional, in the face of abuse.

    Despite its tongue-in-cheek title, The Birth of a Nation does not encourage an altogether revisionist history – like slavery films before it, it relies solely on images of black suffering, particularly Black female suffering, to arouse indignation and righteousness from its audience. But in today’s image-saturated society, the pictures of black suffering are rendered disturbingly commonplace. The subversiveness of The Birth of a Nation, and its climatic insurrection, are blunted by a reliance on violence as its main narrative propulsion. In Hollywood’s collective imagination, images of justice, of “fathers” (and mothers and daughters and sisters) that “may soar”, must extend beyond violent uprising to include moments of normalized love, of joy, of resilience.

    For a film about seizing freedom in the face of hatred and exploitation, the imperative question is not if Nat Turner’s actions were morally permissible. More importantly, the audience must ask what form this freedom take, for whom this freedom is serving and how this seizure of freedom paves the way for future generations. The Birth of a Nation gestures at these questions; it lays bare the fundamental tensions underlying the slavery era, but falls short of compelling the audience’s criticality.

    Denial Review - Andrew Stern

    Considering all of the horrifying political rhetoric that has surrounded this 2016 election, it seems like now would be the perfect time for a movie like Denial. However, there is a significant lack of self-awareness within Denial that prevents its timing from seeming like anything more than a coincidence.

    Denial is a movie about the Holocaust, but it takes place closer to modern day than it does the WWII tragedy. The story of Denial follows Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weiss) as she fights full-force against a libel lawsuit from infamous Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). The film then aspires to prove the Holocaust happened, retell a real-life courtroom drama and grapple with modern-day anti-Semitism. In actuality, it touches on all three notes, but doesn’t do anything interesting enough to make itself memorable.

    A big reason for this is the lack of structure within the screenplay. The movie takes place over the course of five years, and these time jumps occur abruptly and without large justification, leading to the film feeling like it is missing significant portions of itself. What is more, as the movie enters the courtroom, the screenplay replaces character growth and genuine drama with a tedious game of tennis as the two sides trade shots. The result is a story that seems to lose its drive and motivation throughout.

    Rachel Weiss does a great job here, accent and all, but her character doesn’t seem to have much to do. Sure, her character is at the center of the lawsuit, but her role during the trial is incredibly passive. The movie compensates for this by creating a few subplots for the character to obsess over. However, these subplots end up having very little effect on the overall story.

    The real star of the film is Timothy Spall. He creates a dynamic and compelling character out of what could have been a (justifiably) evil character. The inherent opposition between Spall and Weiss’s characters gives the audience something to latch onto throughout.

    Written by David Hare and directed by Mick Jackson, Denial is by no means bad, but it’s certainly lacking in potential. Taking place just two decades ago, the screenplay is missing the inherent cause of the anti-Semitism that makes the movie still relevant today. Without this, the film ends up being a competently made yet narratively irrelevant meditation that ultimately denies the audience what they came to see in the first place.


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