THE BIRTH OF A NATION and 13TH

Call it a coincidence, a stratagem, a not-entirely-accidental feat of synchronized scheduling, or, for conspiracy theorists, a deliberate act of Hollywood-liberal aggression intended for political gain and societal upheaval. But whatever you call it, this past Friday not only saw the nationwide release of writer/director/star Nate Parker’s historical slave-revolt drama The Birth of a Nation, but also the Netflix debut of 13th, Selma director Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the escalating incarceration, and “lawful” killing, of African-American men. Both films boast many moments of startling clarity and power. Both films, as you might expect, explicitly state that black lives matter. But one of them also argues, to its occasional detriment, that one particular life may have mattered more than others.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

Given how much fiction I get in my weekly movie-going, home-video, and streaming intake, I’m generally – make that awfully – negligent about getting it from books. Last fall, however, I made an exception for author Paula Hawkins’ bestselling mystery/thriller The Girl on the Train, and now that Tate Taylor has directed a film version, I can (for once!) share a reasonably educated opinion on the inevitable “Which was better?” query: They’re pretty much the same. By which I mean both works are ludicrously plotted, overly reliant on convenience and cliché, and, despite their considerable flaws, sometimes trashily entertaining.

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

In the past, and on more than a couple occasions, my editor has referred to me as “a Tim Burton apologist,” a moniker that I think came about after I had the temerity to enjoy 2001’s Planet of the Apes. But even though I’ve had more fun than most at releases including 1999’s Sleepy Hollow and 2012’s Dark Shadows, I’m a little surprised the sobriquet has stuck, considering how so much of the filmmaker’s oeuvre should require apologies from Burton himself. Big Eyes? Charlie & the Chocolate Factory? Alice in freaking Wonderland?! These are titles I’m hoping never to sit through again, and would be equally happy to go the rest of my life without repeat visits to Big Fish and Sweeney Todd and the 1989 Batman.

DEEPWATER HORIZON

Aside from both being based on real-life 21st Century events, you wouldn’t think that Deepwater Horizon – director Peter Berg’s disaster thriller about the devastating BP oil spill of 2010 – would have much in common with Clint Eastwood’s current “Miracle on the Hudson” hit Sully. The former finds cost-cutting recklessness leading to the deaths of 11 men; the latter details a heroic landing that resulted in zero fatalities. The horrific accident of the former lasted for months; the calamity of the latter was over in minutes. The tone of the former is tragic; the latter’s is triumphant. Yet all throughout Deepwater Horizon, and especially during its vividly detailed scenes of mass destruction, I kept thinking the same thing I thought through the whole of Sully: Why exactly was this movie even made?

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

Antoine Fuqua’s remake of 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akira Kurusawa’s Seven Samurai, isn’t a very good movie. If you’re able to ignore that, however, you can still have a very good time; given the assembled talent, this vengeance-minded Western is practically a triumph of screen charisma and the fine art of iconic posing over middling concerns such as depth of character and historical realism. You may not believe a minute of it, but you may be grinning too hard to care.

SNOWDEN

When his identity first became public in June of 2013, former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden resembled the real-life hero of a real-life Oliver Stone movie – a well-scrubbed, nerdishly handsome government opponent and champion of truth in the vein of JFK’s Jim Garrison. It seems somehow inevitable, then, that the famed whistleblower would indeed find himself the focus of a Stone-directed bio-pic, and the chief pleasures of Snowden lie in the beautiful match-up of subject matter and creative force; this truly feels like a movie Oliver Stone was born to make. Perhaps it would’ve felt like even more of one had the film not already been made – in 2014, as Laura Poitras’ exceptional documentary Citizenfour. But as unnecessary movies go, this new work is a strong and sober one, with the added benefit of revealing Joseph Gordon-Levitt to be a surprisingly uncanny mimic.

SULLY

Sully is a well-crafted, touching, feel-good movie whose existence, for the life of me, I can’t comprehend.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS

Romantic dramas for adults have been so infrequent this millennium that it sometimes seems they appear only when studios feel the need for another generally laughable Nicholas Sparks adaptation, which makes it hard, in The Light Between Oceans, to know whether to swoon or chortle when – honest to God – a woman accepts a marriage proposal by saying, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!” (I was sure that line had been put out to pasture after the demise of vaudeville.) Yet writer/director Derek Cianfrance is nothing if not sincere, occasionally to his detriment, and his take on novelist M.L. Stedman’s period romance is serious-minded, thematically resonant, and, at times, emotionally devastating in ways that the Sparks oeuvre almost never is. It’s the film’s second-half plot contrivances, and the unfortunate arm-twisting that accompanies them, that routinely bring Sparks to mind.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

Jeff Bridges has given so many fantastically lived-in, and just plain fantastic, screen performances over nearly a half-century that picking out his best is a true fool’s errand. Yet if pressed for his most entertaining one, I’d be tempted to go with Bridges’ drunken sharpshooter Rooster Cogburn in 2010’s True Grit, which would make his portrayal of Hell or High Water’s Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton – more sober than Rooster but equally funny, marble-mouthed, and moving – a close second.

DON’T BREATHE

A few weeks ago, in the creepy and clever horror film Lights Out, our protagonists were at the mercy of a nightmarish figure they couldn’t see. In writer/director Fede Alvarez’s new horror film Don’t Breathe, our protagonists are at the mercy of a nightmarish figure who can’t see them. You’d presume these particular protagonists would have an easier time of things. But Alvarez, to his credit, doesn’t appear interested in making things easy for anybody – not for the “heroes,” not for the “villain,” and not for audiences accustomed to those tags presented without quotation marks. You may find your stomach in knots during much of this brutally effective shocker. You may also find that part of your discomfort stems from sensing that the traumatized characters here are getting just what they deserve.

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