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Movies: 'Black Nativity,' 'Out of the Furnace' & 'The Armstrong Lie'

Published 6:03 pm, Friday, December 13, 2013

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  • "Black Nativity," a movie adaptation of Langston Hughesí 1961 gospel music oratorio, is playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed
    "Black Nativity," a movie adaptation of Langston Hughesí 1961 gospel music oratorio, is playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:

"BLACK NATIVITY"

In a bold, contemporary adaptation of Langston Hughes' 1961 gospel music oratorio, this holiday musical/melodrama follows Langston (R&B pop star Jacob Latimore), a wary, street-wise teen from inner-city Baltimore, who has been raised by his embittered single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson).

Faced with eviction, recently laid-off Naima puts Langston on a bus to New York City so that he can celebrate the holidays with the grandparents he's never met: proud, eloquent Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his supportive wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett). Led into temptations in Harlem, rebellious, conflicted Langston connects with Loot (Tyrese Gibson), a local hustler whom he meets in jail, and embarks on a revelatory, redemptive journey during which, along with new friends and a little divine intervention, he discovers the true meaning of family, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Writer/director Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou," Talk to Me") was working on this project as she was grieving over the death of her beloved sister, so she says the theme about questioning faith was particularly apt for her.

Drawing from the black experience with quotations from Hughes' poetry, the story recasts the classic Nativity tale with black performers who sing traditional hymns and folk spirituals like "Go Tell It On the Mountain," along with original songs like Hudson's "Test of Faith."

In a dream sequence set in Times Square, Lemmons envisions Mary and Joseph as a homeless, pregnant couple (Grace Gibson, Luke James) singing "Silent Night." Nasir Jones (a.k.a. rapper Nas) plays the street prophet Isiah, Vondie Curtis-Hall is a streetwise pawnbroker who says he knew Langston's dad, and Mary J. Blige is an angelic parishioner at Cobbs' Holy Resurrection Baptist Church.

This African-American interpretation is punctuated by hip-hop riffs, composed by Raphael Saadiq, who wrote the score with Laura Karpman, choreographed by Otis Sallid, costumed by Gersha Phillips, and photographed by Anastos Michos.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Black Nativity" is an inspirational, sincerely spiritual 6, turning the movie theater into a church and preaching to the choir.

"OUT OF THE FURNACE"

From the opening scene in which psychopathic Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) abuses his distraught date at a drive-in movie, you're just waiting for someone to kill him.

Set in 2008 in blue-collar Braddock, Pa., the story revolves around hard-working Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a welder at the local steel mill, who has a girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), and dutifully visits his terminally ill father whenever he can. Russell is concerned about his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who has just returned from four tours of duty with the Army in Iraq and is obviously suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.

When drunk driving in a fatal automobile accident sends Russell to prison for manslaughter, Lena strays and Rodney turns to bare-knuckle boxing, falling under the influence of the local bookie, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), which leads him into notoriously volatile Harlan DeGroat's hillbilly crime ring in New Jersey's Ramapo Mountains.

Despite realistic performances from an impressive, A-list cast that also includes Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard, the violent, hard-boiled drama is slow-paced and meandering, while the archetypal characters are sketchily drawn.

So when calm, rational Russell suddenly turns vigilante, it feels false. In addition, since the complex concept raises timely themes about economic inequity and veterans' issues without saying anything of substance about them, it all seems a bit pretentious.

Originally scripted by Brad Ingelsby and co-written by director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart"), it's aesthetically ambitious with a hollow homage to Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" (1978), also set in rural Pennsylvania, in a scene in which Bale is hunting in the forest and unable to shoot, mirroring Robert DeNiro's reaction to taking the life of a living creature. This sequence is juxtaposed with another that exploits human brutality. But adroit editing seems wasted here, along with Masanobu Takayanagi's stark cinematography and Dickon Hinchliffe's evocative score.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Out of the Furnace" is a dark, tedious, dour 4, a melancholy, depressing dirge centered on the contemporary decay and decline of the American Dream.

"THE ARMSTRONG LIE"

The story of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong follows along the lines of classic Greek tragedy: Hubris (the sin of pride and arrogance) to Ate (moral blindness or madness) to Nemesis (inevitable destruction). Among the ancients, after calamity occurs, the protagonist usually regrets his hubris. Here, a somewhat chastened Armstrong finally admits, "I didn't live a lot of lies, but I lived a big one."

In 2008, Alex Gibney started filming a celebratory documentary about Lance Armstrong's comeback to cycling after a three-year retirement. The project was shelved when the doping scandal erupted, and reopened after Armstrong's confession. Using Armstrong's televised interview with Oprah Winfrey to set the stage, Gibney recalls Armstrong's trials and tribulations -- from his battle with testicular cancer in 1996 to his seven consecutive Tour de France victories (1999-2005).

Widely acclaimed as one of the world's greatest athletes, Armstrong would have retained that glory had he not desired to bask once again in public adoration. But by this time, many professional cyclists had been busted for doping. His former teammates knew how duplicitously Armstrong had used EPO (the drug prescribed by his Italian doctor), testosterone, cortisone, the human growth hormone, even blood transfusions to enhance his performance over the years. Resentful, they were ready to testify.

While Gibney intercuts these revelatory interviews with clips of Armstrong vehemently denying drug use and viciously lashing out at his critics and detractors, the narrative lacks the insight that Gibney has brought to previous subjects in "We Steal Secrets," "Catching Hell" and "Taxi to the Dark Side." Perhaps because Gibney, too, was dazzled by Armstrong's mystique, he never delves into what drove the Texas competitor to be so brazen -- other than a desperate desire to win.

After far too much 2009 Tour de France footage, eventually, Armstrong concedes, "It's very hard to control the truth forever. This has been my downfall."

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Armstrong Lie" is a scalding 6, revealing how the fear of humiliation is one of the greatest motivators in human behavior.