Pop Culture Roundup: This Week

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New film about Nat Turner heading to Sundance

Whenever Hollywood releases a film or TV project about slavery, inevitably a chorus of critics chime in wanting to know when a movie about Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, or Toussaint L’Ouverture will be released. Well, folks have gotten their wish.

Beyond the Lights star Nate Parker’s film The Birth of A Nation, which tells the story of Nat Turner, will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

The film, which Parker wrote and directed himself is “set against the antebellum South, this story follows Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. After witnessing countless atrocities against fellow slaves, Nat devises a plan to lead his people to freedom.”

As PBS' 'Downton Abbey' Begins Its Final Season, The 'Wheels Of History' Are Turning

The TV demise of “Downton Abbey,” the sixth and final season of which begins in the U.S. on Sunday (Jan. 3), closes a chapter of PBS history as well.  A coproduction of Britain’s Carnival Films and PBS’ “Masterpiece,” “Downton” is the most-watched drama in the network’s history, averaging nearly 13 million weekly viewers in its most recent season.

The farewell season’s theme was foretold in the first line of stage direction in the first “Downton Abbey” script, according to Gareth Neame, one of the show’s executive producers, speaking at the 2013 Summer TV Tour in Los Angeles. “A wonderful house, a stately home in this beautiful parkland,” read the line, as written by creator Julian Fellowes. “It looks as though it will stand for 1,000 years. It won’t.”

A Hundred Years Later, “The Birth of a Nation” Hasn’t Gone Away

A hundred years ago, on February 8, 1915, D. W. Griffith released “The Birth of a Nation.” The movie became the fledgling film industry’s first blockbuster. It ran for over three hours at a time when most films were not longer than ten minutes. It had employed eighteen thousand people and used three thousand horses during filming, and the finished product had five thousand discrete scenes. It was the first film to allocate money for an advertising campaign. Griffith wanted his film to resemble the high art of theater, so he hired a full orchestra to play the film’s soundtrack in certain movie houses. Griffith succeeded. “The Birth of a Nation” was a landmark in motion picture history—full of technological innovations and new storytelling techniques, including flashbacks, crosscutting, dissolves, closeups, panoramic filming, and color tinting, all of which heightened the dramatic and emotional effects. The film grossed somewhere between thirteen and eighteen million dollars (roughly three hundred to four hundred and fifty million dollars today). In March, 1915, under President Woodrow Wilson, “The Birth of a Nation” became the first film to be screened at the White House.

How ‘Star Wars’ Shaped the U.S. Military

Now that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars original trilogy remix The Force Awakens has been unleashed, transforming a new generation of cinemagoers into Nick Winters at The Powder Room, fanboys have begun to dissect its myriad inspirations. We know, for instance, that like George Lucas’s initial journey to a galaxy far, far away, with its stormtroopers, Werhmacht-esque Imperial officers, and Triumph of the Will ending, the evil First Order of Abrams’s film was heavily influenced by the Nazis. So it’s a bit ironic then that Adam Driver, the actor who plays Awakens’ volumized villain Kylo Ren, is a former U.S. Marine. Nevertheless, the link between Star Wars and America’s Armed Forces extends much further than that.

While the Star Wars movies have invaded every corner of popular culture, they also had an indelible impact on the U.S. military. This October, we learned that Lockheed Martin had flown 60 test flights outfitting jets with a tactical laser turret able to fire Tactical High-Energy Lasers (THELs) 360 degrees, taking out targets from all directions. It’s called the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) turret, and if it sounds at all familiar, it’s because it brings to mind the AG-2G quad laser cannon on the Millennium Falcon—you know, the one Finn operated. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is predicting that a working laser weapon will be on a U.S. warplane by 2020. Scientists are also exploring whether these ABC turrets may also be able to create a 360 degree laser shield, in the form of a bubble, around a U.S. plane.

America’s Most Electable Fictional Presidents

From Selina Meyer to Francis J. Underwood, who is best equipped for the White House?

Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, The West Wing (Martin Sheen)

Pros: He’s really smart and really good at holding witty and sharp conversations while walking at an extremely brisk pace. A brilliant orator, even if some of the speeches are a little heavy-handed and self-important and overrun with obscure bible verses. Literally orchestrated peace in the Middle East, which included a country that wasn’t even real. Picked a brilliant staff and was good at communicating with them...

Cons: ...except for when he lied about an illness for nearly four years. So, there’s that. Also, everyone around him has horrible things happen to them. Pretty much everyone he touches dies, gets shot, gets kidnapped, or has to live through years of uncomfortable sexual tension in the workplace. Doesn’t seem to be the best father or husband. Tucks shirts into his jeans.

Alternative history is the rage this season

Last month suddenly put alternative (World War II) history at the center of the nation’s public discourse — and in a way that makes me want to share a book recommendation, dear reader.

Near the end of the month Amazon released its original series The Man in the High Castle. It turned out to be a drab rendition of Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name about a world in which the Axis powers won World War II. The makers of the show had cunningly tricked viewers into demanding and then watching a full season with a few clever Riefenstahl-style shots in the pilot.

In the realm of Holocaust dramas, László Nemes’s first feature, “Son of Saul,” is ambitious and provocative but nearly superfluous.

To the extent that it’s a gloss on ideas from Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and his later films, László Nemes’s first feature, “Son of Saul” (which opened December 25th), is a revealing alignment of symbolic gestures. To the extent that it’s an immediate cinematic experience, it’s a daring but tasteless jumble of stylistic flourishes and dramatic intentions.

“Son of Saul” takes place almost entirely in Auschwitz-Birkenau, late in the Second World War—and that timing matters. Its protagonist is Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig), a Jew who has been deported from his native Hungary, from which the mass deportation of Jews only occurred in 1944. It was when Hungarian Jews arrived that the pace of murder in Auschwitz greatly accelerated—and when the Soviet Army was rumored to be approaching. In the camp—which is both a concentration camp for slave labor and an extermination camp—Saul is a member of a Sonderkommando, a squad of Jews ordered by the German overlords to facilitate the killing of other Jews. At the start of the film, Saul, with this group, ushers Jews from the dressing (or, rather, undressing) rooms where they leave their clothing and valuables, into what are called showers and are actually gas chambers. Then the Sonderkommando collects their valuables for the Germans, discards the clothing, and removes the corpses (called “pieces” by the Germans) from the gas chambers.

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