The debate over whether the worth of the art can ever be separated from the misdeeds of the artist — or whether those misdeeds should disqualify the artist from making their art in the first place — is one that has been spoken about for decades. It’s one that has been circling American Skin since the beginning, because of writer-director-star Nate Parker’s past rape trial that ultimately saw him acquitted and, years later, his accuser committing suicide. It’s understandable for those to want to avoid the film because of those issues. It’s also understandable to avoid the film, because the art here isn’t exactly worth the time.
The movie opens with a mix of cellphone and body-camera footage showing a black Marine veteran, the none-too-subtly named Lincoln Jefferson (Parker), and his teenage Kijani (Toby Espinosa), getting pulled over while driving home one night. The traffic stop quickly turns heated and violent, ending in the death of Kijani. Quite quickly we jump to a year later, where a student filmmaker named Jordin (Shane Paul McGhie) shows up at Lincoln’s door, asking permission to make his graduate thesis film about Kijani’s death. From the get-go, we are watching Jordin’s student documentary, or a rather clumsy facsimile of it. The cameras are still rolling when Lincoln and his allies, frustrated that police officer Randall (Beau Knapp) was neither indicted nor disciplined for shooting Kijani, take the extraordinary step of arming themselves, storming the police station and subjecting Randall to their own mock trial. Standing as the most unorthodox of prosecutors, Lincoln insists on letting everyone — Randall and his angry colleagues, the bystanders and inmates that Lincoln enlists to form a jury — have a voice in the matter. As a result, American Skin packs quite a range of talking points into the film’s eighty-nine minute runtime: The characters engaging in a heated, urgent social discussions.
Yet even as you may find yourself agreeing with some of the points brought up, you’ll assuredly wince in distaste at the utter clumsiness with which they’re delivered. The movie strives to be a vérité thriller, all restless handheld camerawork and rapid editing, and it turns out to be an abysmal choice for a script so inelegant and contrived as this one. The found-footage aesthetic imposes an awfully difficult standard of believability, and from beginning to end, American Skin is a jagged mess. To be honest, I didn’t really spend a lot of time thinking about Parker’s personal and professional woes while watching American Skin. Sometimes suspending one’s preconceived notions of a filmmaker is easier than it seems: It’s hard to seriously consider a movie being a comeback bid when it falls so completely flat. Reducing important issues to stilted, incompetent histrionics, American Skin feels like a ragged orchestra of false notes, slowly beating their instruments into heavy-handed pieces.
American Skin is available on VOD
Shadow in the Cloud
Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud opens with an amusing Looney Toons-esque cartoon about a lazy, drunken WWII pilot blaming “gremlins” for all his problems. It’s cheeky and hints at something with possibility. Something that never comes. After that animated intro we meet Maude (Chloë Grace Moretz), a member of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) on a dark foggy runway where she hops on board a bomber where she’s immediately met with hostility. All the men on the plane are cruel, vile creeps and they immediately begin yelling at Maude. One of them even tries to physically push her off the plane; many displeased with even having a woman anywhere in their vicinity. But Maude has a direct order from the top to transport a mysterious case, and while the men don’t like it, orders are orders. So they let Maude on their plane and then force her in a rickety ball turret at the bottom of the plane. From here, Shadow in the Cloud turns into almost a radio drama. For nearly a full hour we stay with Maude, alone in that turret, as she bickers back and forth with the prickish men over the intercom. The guys don’t hold back, and they’re prone to go on long, rambling rants about how much they’d like to sexually violate Maude.
Clearly these men are terrible people, which isn’t a bad thing from a storytelling standpoint, but they’re still gratingly uncompelling, motormouths who spew atrocious dialogue every millisecond of the movie. Nearly every moment of the first hour is devoted to the unseen characters shouting blandly crude things over and over and over again. It’s insufferable in how dully one-note it is. Eventually, things pick up when both a monster and a Japanese plane show up to torment Maude and company, yet things then still are unconvincingly blustering with flat images. Some may get a kick out of how over-the-top and pulpy Shadow in the Cloud gets, but, for me, it’s so abrasively ear-splitting and cut-rate visually that I checked out rather quickly. Zany to the point of shrillness, Shadow in the Cloud is so frenetic and bombastic that it turns into putrid tedium.
Shadow in the Cloud is available on VOD