In Southampton County, Virginia, August 21, 1831 Nat Turner led a roughly 48-hour rebellion of an estimated seventy enslaved and free African-American men. Using their farm implements, axes, knives and swords, they killed approximately 60 white men, women and children. White slave owners, local militias, and federal troops retaliated, targeting blacks whether involved in the uprising or not. pa

Over two hundred black men and women of all ages were casualties: executed outright, tried and hanged, beaten and tortured, traded to owners in other regions or states. Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation dramatizes plantation slave Nat Turner's experiences leading to this uprising. Director, writer/producer and star, Parker purposely invokes D.W. Griffith's 1913 racist film of the same title which glorified the KKK's formation. Showing restraint himself, Parker prefers suggesting rather than explicitly depicting most of the horrific barbarity against the slaves, though there's no question about inhumane treatment, including rapes, whippings, beatings, and pervasive humiliation. Proving less can be more, one of the most haunting, chilling images shows a white girl running out of the front door of her beautiful home with a black girl running behind her at the end of a loosely held rope, a noose around her neck.

While Nat was literate and an effective preacher, Parker uses poetic license, as almost any historical drama does. In the film, Nat's owner Sam Turner is paid for Nat to deliver sermons to rein in disgruntled slaves. Parker imagines hallucinatory nightmares for Nat and includes scenes of African shamanic activity. Contrary to history, Parker shows Turner nobly surrendering when he learns of unmerited attacks on innocent blacks. In fact, Turner was captured when a farmer accidentally stumbled upon him. Along those lines, except for Nat's ineffective owner, a composite of several he had, the white men come off as malevolent caricatures. To Parker's credit, the slaves' lives show the complexity seldom granted them. Similarly, though the romance is completely traditional, it's also fresh in that it's granted to slaves.

On balance, in a powerful, rousing film, The Birth of a Nation tells an important story, one too often ignored in history. Let's hope its plea for humanity and peace for all impacts and improves on today's injustices. Check local listings.

Footnote: Nate Parker has himself has been the subject of controversy. In 1999, as a student at Penn State, he was charged with rape but was subsequently found not guilty in court. The woman who charged Parker and his friend committed suicide at age 30. Because this has received attention from 60 Minutes, among other places, I add this in the interest of clarification should readers hear about the controversy and want to pursue more information.

 

 

For years, the Holocaust produced films filled with its horror as history. Recently, however, two films based on the Holocaust extend knowledge of history. If the excellent film Denial is compared to The People v. Fritz Bauer, the past would be well-served into the now.

Fritz Bauer considers the German who pursued his country's war criminals in the Fifties. Denial pursues Holocaust deniers in the 1990s. One of the deniers, David Irving, sues Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta for libel. As Irving is British, he takes her to court in England, a country where one is guilty until proven innocent.

That is the first of the many hard contrasts Denial must picture. Lipstadt, a brilliant historian, must hush her mouth as her solicitors and barristers plead the case: that Irving had an anti-semitic agenda, period. To effect their case, Lipstadt's lawyers do not call Holocaust survivors or even Lipstadt to the stand; they comb through Irving's voluminous diaries until they find their proof against him. They ask for a judge, not a jury, to rule, and when the judge rules, Irving immediately begins to lie loudly, again and again, reminding sentient Americans of the Republican candidate for president.

Poor Timothy Spall has to play Irving, a blow-hard and bloviator, and excellent actor that he is, Spall nails it. Tom Wilkinson performs well as the hyper-focused lawyer. Alex Jennings, also in The Queen, plays the judge, with few but significant lines. Unfortunately, Rachel Weisz gives a spotty performance as Lipstadt.

That may be due to playwright David Hare's script, based on Lipstadt's book, History on Trial. Exposition gets in the way of real conversation, and the movie often reads like a staged play. But it is awfully good, brilliantly edited, and successfully provocative. "Denial" demands intelligence.

 

 

 

Made in 1982 by German director Wolf Gremm, Kamikaze 89 opens with narration boasting a perfect 1989 Federal Republic of Germany. Richest country in the world, West German industry has solved all problems: everything is green, no pollution, no inflation or unemployment, no harmful drugs, and all entertainment and information is formulated and transmitted by one single combine. 

The ruthless president, known as "The Blue Panther," has only one enemy, Krysmopampos, a.k.a. the "spirit of evil." This state nemesis and other intellectuals worry that citizens have lost the ability to think and need their minds stimulated. Blue Panther calls in detective lieutenant Jansen and his assistant Anton.

Based on Per Wahlöö's 1964 novel Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, Kamikaze 89 stars the prolific New German Cinema director, writer and actor Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in his last acting role. As Jansen, he and Anton, Fassbinder's real-life companion Günter Kaufmann, pursue the emerging corporate conspiracy behind bomb threats and murders, learning of a thirty-first floor secret department that hunts evil conspirators for the totalitarian, family owned conglomerate. 

Kamikaze 89 dramatizes a dystopian, camp future. Through exaggerated stylization it satirizes a dysfunctional, oppressive society. Co-screenplay writer and director Gremm uses deliberate, highly theatrical artifice to make his points, using all elements of art direction: costumes, décor, and lighting. Some scenes are bathed in red, blue or green light; Jansen wears a faux leopard skin suit throughout the film, and assassins cross dress in black lingerie. Anyone expecting a conventional narrative will have to look elsewhere, not this punk-inspired world. At an hour 45 minutes, the story does drags on too long, but it is also striking that the satire hits home even today. 

In German with English subtitles. Kamikaze 89 screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, October 14 through Sunday, October 16 at 7:30 p.m. each evening. 

 

The mockumentary Operation Avalanche asks and answers the question, "What if the CIA in the 1960s felt so driven to beat the Soviet Union to the moon that they aided two unhinged, fake documentary filmmakers in staging scenes for NASA?" Director, co-writer/actor Matt Johnson invents exactly this convoluted scenario with two Ivy League students recruited to find a NASA mole. 

Beginning in 1965, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams infiltrate the Apollo mission projects, surreptitiously hear that NASA fears they will lose the moon race, and plot and produce phony moon footage for Apollo 11 to transmit faking an astronaut walking on the moon. Several threatening developments add intrigue and danger, with another layer of complexity using shots from Georges Méliès' 1902 A Trip to the Moon, archival footage from the '60s, including of President Kennedy and Walter Cronkite, among others, and a subplot focused on Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." This mockumentary borrows unabashedly from a hodgepodge of sources, all in the service of a rather lackluster presentation indulging the conspiracy theories we've all heard.

Technically, Operation Avalanche opts for the now passé, immensely annoying handheld style. The camera zooms in to out of focus shots, then regains focus, think Blair Witch Project. The jittery camera pans and tilts past nothing of any interest. Numerous reaction shots quickly become grating instead of cute, with Matt Johnson in particular mugging to the audience, so reminiscent of television's The Office. All I wanted to do was insist cinematographers Andrew Appelle and Jared Raab get a tripod and keep the shots sharp and solid instead of headache-inducing movement.

Shot on grainy 16-mm film to imitate the 60s time period, this self-conscious style weakens the story's momentum. I must also add that imdb information describes director Johnson contacting NASA as a real documentary filmmaker and being allowed to shoot footage in the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and then included the film. This is completely unethical and an affront to honest documentarians. Operation Avalanche is a one-trick pony. At a Landmark Theatre.

 

 

The title of Werner Herzog's latest documentary is the most romantic aspect of it, but it reveals Herzog's approach. Unlike in most of his documentaries, such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog stays on his side of the camera, insinuating himself but rarely. And that's a good thing.

Lo and Behold begins with October 29, 1969, when the first connection to the world wide web was made from the Stanford Research Institute. The word "lo" appeared instead of "log," thus, Herzog's Biblical allusion in his title. He calls the nicked word "succinct" and "prophetic" and likens this instant in tech history to when sailors on Columbus' ships glimpsed land. 

According to scientists who remember, such as Ted Nelson and Danny Hillis, the message was sent when the directory of members was slim as onion skin. Today, a director of everyone on the Internet would be 72 miles thick.

Herzog covers the connections of the Internet by chapters, including "The Dark Side," a story of the Catsouras family, who had to endure seeing a picture of their daughter and sister go viral after she was decapitated by her own hand. Her mother calls the Internet the antiChrist, bearing the spirit of evil. Herzog also interviews people who are allergic to the Internet and must move to places without cell towers or live in a Faraday Cage. He covers computer addiction with survivors and artificial intelligence with practitioners.

He considers, too, "The End of the Net" and "Earthly Invaders," that is, hackers. Hacker King Kevin Milnick proclaims that people are the weakest link in security systems. He proves it with his own anecdotes.

Lo and Behold, a geek flick, approaches incomprehensibility at times for the un-nerdy, but it raises good questions, like why obsession with sci-fi in the 1950s included flying cars but not a hint of the Internet?

 

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