BlacKkKlansman

Release: Friday, August 10, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Spike Lee; Charlie Wachtel; David Rabinowitz; Kevin Willmott

Directed by: Spike Lee

BlacKkKlansman is one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounts the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proves to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

In 1979* Ron Stallworth made waves by becoming the first black officer hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the film he’s portrayed by an unflappable John David Washington (son of action superstar Denzel Washington), sporting a classic 70s ‘fro and an earnest face that has commitment to duty written all over it. It wasn’t a smooth transition of course. Not all members on the force wanted him around, like Master Patrolman/Major Asshat Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), who’s introduced as a kind of primer to the pleasantries we can expect later on.

Having the good fortune of working for Robert John Burke’s open-minded station chief, he eventually gets handed more meaningful work when he’s assigned to observe a rally that is to take place at Colorado College, where prominent civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, powerful) is set to deliver a speech addressing the escalating tensions between black citizens and police officers nationwide. There, he runs into a Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union. Harrier creates in this fictitious character a headstrong young woman, someone in whom Stallworth finds a reliable source of information and possibly something more. Spurred into action due to the harassment she and her peers have had to contend with on a daily basis at the hands of bigoted cops, Dumas is a staunch believer in retribution, rather than the more “diplomatic” tactics her newfound brother is trying to engage in. If only she knew.

The story of Ron Stallworth is one of dueling identities, not so much metaphorically but in an actual physical sense. The overarching reality is that he’s an officer sworn to protect and serve, but in order to do those things he will also become a rising star within the ranks of the white brotherhood. When he makes detective, it becomes his mission to pull out the weeds of hatred by their roots. To beat the Klan, he’ll have to join ’em. Finding a recruitment ad in the paper, Stallworth calls up Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the president of the Colorado Springs chapter, and in a profanity-laced rant, pitches himself as the next-in-line to help “make America great again.” Watch as the heads in the precinct turn, including those of his soon-to-be inside man Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver — I love this guy) and underling Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi).

Breachway wants a face-to-face, but there are obvious complications — a major one being the fact that the newbie detective used his actual name over the phone. (He is, however, mindful enough to disguise his “black voice.”) So Stallworth will send Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew, into the field as him. Two Stallworths, one ballsy mission, absolutely zero fuck-ups allowed. The newly-minted White Stallworth is swiftly integrated as one of them good old boys, with standouts being Finnish actor Jasper Pääkönen as the intensely suspicious Felix and Paul Walter Hauser’s dumber-than-a-box-of-bent-nails Ivanhoe.

From here, strap in and hold on for dear life as we stroll into the living rooms and basements of some of the most hateful people imaginable. As Zimmerman gets in deeper, finding himself doing and saying things he never imagined, the morality of the mission becomes further complicated. The writing team envisions Stallworth as a force for good but stops short of painting him an out-and-out hero. Occasionally he seems reckless in the pursuit of justice — perhaps more so than if it were actually him being threatened to take a lie detector test. As Zimmerman puts it after a close call, is this really anything more than a personal vendetta? Meanwhile, the threat of something big about to go down, as vaguely hinted at by Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), makes it pretty clear the composited Stallworth has little option but to continue apace.

As BlacKkKlansman is a film largely informed by attitude and ideology, you expect Lee’s righteous anger to be ever present, and it is — that real-life coda at the end leaves little doubt as to how the writer/director feels about the progress we have made since the days of the Civil Rights marches. What you might not expect is for the film to also be amusing. If it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there are moments of such gratifying uplift that feel just as good as a fit of the giggles. The comparatively calming presence of producer Jordan Peele is undoubtedly responsible, and nowhere is that felt more than in a scene of glorious comeuppance, wherein an accomplished Stallworth finally gets to stick it to the man (“the man” in this case being KKK grand wizard David Duke, played by a very good Topher Grace). It’s a real team effort as far as realizing that tonal sweet spot, pinning you somewhere between being entertained and plain horrified.

* the film takes several dramatic liberties with its content, but the biggest edit is the timeline on which the events take place. In the film, Ron Stallworth joined the force seven years prior, in 1972. this was done in observance of the re-election of president richard nixon.

“Yo, what’s good man?”

Recommendation: Spike Lee’s latest is a bombshell that arguably saves its actual drama for the final few frames. While the events of the film are sent up for entertainment purposes, what’s also clear is that this is one of the outspoken director’s most urgent and unmissable works. Powerful stuff. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “With the right white man, we can do anything.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.collider.com

Moonlight

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Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

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5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Birth of a Nation

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Release: Friday, October 7, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nate Parker

Directed by: Nate Parker

It’s all but inevitable making comparisons between Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir and the debut feature from Nate Parker. Some have even gone as far as to regard the latter’s work as the 12 Years a Slave of 2016, which, in hindsight, seems a little hasty.

There is plenty of evidence that supports the notion the two films are cut from the same cloth. Both pieces center on fairly young, literate black males who endure uniquely brutal circumstances in the antebellum South. 12 Years may be more notorious for its unflinching depiction of violence, but The Birth of a Nation is no slouch, offering up a similarly sweeping, damning indictment of society by channeling the greater travesty of institutionalized racism through a singular perspective. Nation even compares favorably to its spiritual predecessor in terms of emotional heft and the authority it carries — these are very serious films with conviction to match and an unusual ability to break your spirit through sheer force of realism.

They are also deeply personal works, helmed by capable filmmakers whose vision and whose commitment to that vision seem to go unquestioned. Parker proves himself an indispensable asset, serving not only as Nation‘s director, writer and producer, but fulfilling a substantial lead role as Nat Turner, an enslaved man who inspired a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Unlike McQueen’s third effort, one that followed a free man’s descent into hell having been abducted and sold into slavery, Parker’s debut begins in the muck, gradually building toward a rebellion that caused the deaths of an estimated 65 whites, while retaliatory action on behalf of white militias and mobs cost the lives of roughly 200 African Americans, both freed and enslaved and many of whom had never so much as raised a pitchfork in (righteous) anger. There’s an appalling reality we must face come the end credits, too. A brief title card lets us know just how barbaric life would become in this region in the aftermath. And after being captured we’re told Nat was hanged, beheaded and then quartered, and parts of his corpse were “repurposed” in an effort to eliminate any trace of his existence.

Appropriately, a sense of martyrdom permeates the drama, though this is also the very rough, blunt edge that comes to define the blade of justice Parker is attempting to wield. That the portrait desperately wants to be at least something like The Passion of the Christ when it grows up — Parker clearly regards the figure as more Jesus Christ than Dr. Martin Luther King — doesn’t necessarily make the film profound. It does make it rather clumsy and pretentious though. His introduction, The Birth of a Leader as it were, is far from being a stroke of subtlety, and it’s a moment that we’ll frequently return to during the longer paces of the second and third acts. There’s a mystical quality to the way we’re introduced to Nat as a young boy running from something (presumably violent) through the thick, dark woods. He stumbles upon a small gathering of prophets (as one does) who see the boy growing into a man of considerable influence and power. The only thing they don’t say is specifically how the plot is going to develop.

Nation is a beautifully realized production, from its musty yellow/gray/brown wardrobe to the McQueen-esque shots of a southern landscape that stays still as a painting, hauntingly indifferent to the passage of time. Set against this backdrop are universally committed performances, with Parker offering one of the year’s more morally and emotionally complex protagonists. As a black preacher afforded certain luxuries (you might call them), like maintaining a borderline friendly relationship with the proprietors of this particular plantation to which he has drifted and for whom he picks not-so-endless supplies of cotton, Nat is an immediately empathetic character even if his saintly aura feels awkward. Armie Hammer, who plays Samuel Turner, also turns in strong work, managing to effect a slave owner whose humanity may still lie dormant but is constantly being ignored in favor of simpler, more immediate solutions — getting drunk as a way to deal with his economic woes, and taking out his problems on what he calls his property. Yes, it’s all very Edwin Epps-ian.

Like many plantation owners Samuel and his wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) are enduring very harsh economic times and they are looking for other ways to raise money. A local reverend (Mark Boone Jr.) suggests they employ Nat’s gift to help suppress unruly slaves elsewhere. Sure enough, as we travel with him and Samuel to various plantations and experience the atrocities ongoing there, it becomes clear the young man has a certain power that can pay dividends. But it comes at a hefty price for Nat as the psychological torment of remaining obedient spreads like a cancer throughout his soul, while the contradictory, physical act of standing before his people while he suppresses them with scripture hurts him as much, if not more. It’s a perfectly twisted nightmare, one that comes to life powerfully and memorably via the conviction of a freshman director.

The narrative swells almost ungainly to encompass Nat’s budding romance with the newly arrived Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a quiet but beautiful woman who is taken by Nat’s kindness and confidence. And so we’ve reached a point where the more predictable stuff starts to happen: as Nat’s preaching continues he finds his popularity growing, but also finds his fiery sermons are only inflaming wounds rather than healing them. Violence is visited upon Nat’s home as Cherry, now his wife, barely survives an assault from three men, one of whom is Jackie Earle Haley’s detestable Raymond Cobb, the same man who had years ago murdered Nat’s father right in front of him. Tacked on for good measure are the moments of suffering that now feel de rigueur for the genre — an off-screen rape, the whipping at the post, lynchings. Not that these moments are ineffective or that we once think about dismissing them, but the bluntness with which Parker inserts these moments of torture overrides the film’s more compelling epiphanies, like him discovering that for every verse in the Bible that supports strict obedience to a higher power, there is one condemning man for his violent and hateful behavior.

It’s also unfortunate the road to rebellion isn’t realized as fully as one might expect from a film so provocatively titled. There’s a sense of unity in a few of the ending scenes, but it feels rushed and secondary to the personal stakes that have been ratcheted up by each act of cruelty Nat witnesses; nevertheless it’s not a stretch to imagine these quiet rumblings later erupting into full-fledged war as the country tears itself apart from civil unrest. And Parker even directly addresses those connections by depicting a young boy briefly glimpsed sitting by becoming a soldier on the front lines. While compelling in its own right, transitions like these have little nuance and feel clunky, evidence of a director still finding his style.

In spite of its clumsiness and familiarity Nation feels weighty and you can sense the rage steaming off the pages of this script. You can smell the ink, taste the sweat and the tears that were poured into this labor of love. Yes, the film left me feeling profoundly sad, and I would be lying if I said I wanted to see it again. Yes, the narrative could have (and probably should have) been more subtle with its paralleling of Nat’s suffering to the final hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, I am aware that the director’s public image as of present isn’t exactly of the sort you want to tout during awards season. (I find the latter tidbit interesting insofar as it is curiously poor timing for Parker.) Still, there’s enough here to distinguish the film as a unique vision, and one that gains some points for poignancy as nationwide protests continue to dominate headlines as more and more black athletes take a knee. That Colin Kaepernick felt he had to do something symbolic during the National Anthem is evidence that not much has really changed. Meanwhile the red on the flag continues to run.

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Recommendation: Hard-hitting, violent and downright nasty at times, The Birth of a Nation is not an easy watch but it is an important film. It’s an interesting one to watch given its pronounced spiritual roots, even though I personally think the Jesus Christ parallel is a bit much. I am not ready to proclaim this a must-see; it’s not quite as masterfully created as Steve McQueen’s film but at the same time I also get the comparisons. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Submit yourselves to your Masters, not only to those who are good and considerate. But also to those who are harsh.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Queen of Katwe

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Release: Friday, September 23, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: William Wheeler

Directed by: Mira Nair

Despite the illusion of diversity and the notion that films are now being tailor-made for niched audiences, director Mira Nair’s latest feels like a rarity, one that’s not only good for the soul, but good for Disney. Here is a work of substance that is going to satisfy, dare I say move, those seeking a more refreshing point of view. Better yet, themes of poverty and desperation are never overwrought, the drama working comfortably within the PG rating to effect one of the year’s feel-great experiences.

The film was shot entirely on location in Uganda and in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it features a Ugandan director in Nair, who was born in India but presently lives in the country and it is her vision and her choice cast that earns the film a refreshingly authentic African vibe. Though it does visit some dark places, the narrative chooses to forego any sort of political commentary in favor of celebrating what makes African culture so distinct; rich in personality and heart, warm in spirit and color — much of which is reflected in the stunning wardrobe courtesy of Mobolaji Dawodu.

With Disney of course you’re never short of a few doses of cloying sentimentality but in Queen of Katwe the feel-goodness feels really good and it feels earned. It’s also not that simple, as you’ll likely feel on more than one occasion, really, really bad.  It doesn’t hurt that the picture features two of the year’s finest performances and a star-making turn from Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Incidentally, Nalwanga has experienced considerable changes of fortune in her own life having afforded an education subsidized by the dance company she performs with. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it was the second time she had ever seen a film in a theater, and this time she was the star.

The story tells of Phiona Mutesi, a 10-year-old chess prodigy from the slum village of Katwe — a region within Kampala, Uganda’s capital — who manages to transform her life by competing in major chess tournaments. The movie traces her rise to prominence while delineating the tension between the gifted Phiona and her mother, who doesn’t want to see her daughter’s dreams crushed. Phiona comes from an especially impoverished family of five — she has two younger brothers and an older sister. Her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is the glue that holds everything together, working tirelessly to keep the family under a roof and to keep her children fed. She often goes hungry and works long hours selling vegetables on the streets. Life’s desperate and Phiona’s sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has already had enough, having become infatuated with the city life after meeting a man of some wealth.

One day she comes across a group of kids playing chess in a tent. They’re being mentored by a man named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who also happens to be working for the town ministry. After quickly learning the basics, Phiona shows promise as a player, often beating her fellow competitors, which stirs up quite the fuss as no girl should be allowed to beat a boy. It’s not long before Katende realizes her quick wit and intellect separates her and he finds himself jumping through hoops to encourage her mother to allow Phiona to pursue this. There are cash prizes awarded at these tournaments, he says. But Nakku pushes back, concerned that exposure to an altogether unattainable life will ruin Phiona.

Queen of Katwe falls upon familiar underdog story constructs but Nair employs them such that they’re necessary plot propellants. The most familiar of the obstacles manifest themselves in the competition scenes. When the youngsters travel to their first competition nerves are high, the opponents are well-dressed and contemptuous. Perceptions of inferiority and illegitimacy can be traced back to the moment Katende advocates for Phiona’s inclusion in competitive chess to members of the Katwe school council. Bureaucrats tell him bluntly that those from the slum should not intermix with people of another class. Additionally, the constant degradation on the home front as the family find themselves temporarily evicted isn’t anything we haven’t experienced before but there’s a rawness to these developments that just can’t be ignored.

The resolution is far from unpredictable, even given the oppressive circumstances into which this bright young girl has been born. Phiona is obviously an anomaly. We know she’s going all the way to the top, and we know she’s going to ultimately succeed. It’s the journey getting there, and getting to experience her family’s struggles and their perseverance that ultimately rewards. And when the film is so handsomely mounted and beautifully acted, particularly by Nyong’o and Oyelowo who offer powerful resilience and unwavering support respectively, that makes the culmination of all things positive and predictable that much more acceptable. Queen of Katwe is a Disney film that reminds us of the power of perseverance and the importance of intellect, one that creatively parallels the complexities of chess with the decisions one has to make in life, whether the end game is elevating one’s social standing or finding a way just to make ends meet. This is a born winner.

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Recommendation: Powerful performances allow Queen of Katwe to transcend cliché and they also help the film speak to a larger human experience of rising above circumstance and overcoming serious odds. It’s nice that the film focuses on a part of the world that doesn’t get the big screen treatment very often. And as to the sport that lies at the heart of the film — I concede I don’t find chess altogether exciting but the way the director and the screenplay works it in to the story actually makes it pretty compelling. I personally have no idea what’s going on on a chess board but I had no problem believing that this brilliant girl did. That’s the mark of a good actor.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong. Where is that for you?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Race

'Race' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joe Shrapnel; Anna Waterhouse

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

No sports film is strictly a celebration of athleticism. Tethered to that name or group of names is the burden of understanding, not of themselves — the athlete knows specifically what he or she is — but rather that their actions represent a broader community even beyond family. Some names simply become associated with significant social, cultural or political shifts because of who, what and when they are. Timing certainly factors into the story of Jesse Owens.

It took 40 years before the White House officially recognized Owens’ accomplishments, before President Gerald Ford in 1976 bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and another 14 years (and several more presidents) before he earned the Congressional Gold Medal. Just as his accomplishments took far too long to become engrained into American culture, the wait for the definitive movie about the man is going to last a little longer.

The bluntly-titled Race is a film that dutifully serves as a highlight reel of an extraordinary figure, but its movements are a far cry from the elegance and power of this sprinter/long-jumper. As a dramatic reenactment of two key moments on the track — Owens’ record-setting performance at the Big Ten meet during which he broke three world records and tied a fourth and his four-time gold medal appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the film is a decent watch. Even though these insights come so infrequently as to threaten the film’s status as a sports film, at least the action looks good.

Race is thoroughly burdened by the weight of its champion on its back. Unfortunately it couldn’t even make that aspect entirely captivating either. Stephan James is nice enough as the mild-mannered and gifted young track star but this is a forgettable performance. Quiet power is actually a thing, but that’s not what we get with the 22-year-old Canadian actor, whose stoicism often teeters on the edge of being boring. Who knows though; if meeting the icon in real life were still possible perhaps the moment would be surprisingly innocuous. But boring?

The film opens as a baby-faced Owens is preparing to leave behind the grayish-blue of his Cleveland community, the first in his family to board the bus to college. The scene is as expected: mother hurries through a few last-minute words of wisdom while father, who has been out of work for some time, sits silent. The burden’s on us to interpret what he’s feeling. The departure happens with little fanfare. So far, so good. Race is clearly born out of a deep respect for the athlete’s humble beginnings. It’s unfortunately once he steps foot on Ohio State campus where the film starts stumbling over its feet uncontrollably.

Owens finds himself immediately embroiled in the racial tensions of the day, a major state university seemingly serving as the epicenter for hatred. (“But just you wait,” the film seems to caution us. “Wait until you get to Germany . . .”) Not even the locker room is safe. It’s not long before he’s summoned by Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), and the ensuing Obligatory Scene In A Coach’s Office deals with business as matter-of-factly as possible: “Your life is now mine. I don’t care about the girl you have back home, you have to prove to me how serious you are about winning. Blah, blah, blah.”

Sudeikis’ first lines are a literal check list of sports coaching clichés. Like a timid Owens we kind of just sit there, accepting them as they’re forced upon us. Sudeikis, typically a source of hilarity, takes on a seriousness that’s hard to take seriously. Lines that are meant to resonate prophetically, such as his dreaming of becoming an Olympic-bound coach once more, fall surprisingly flat. As it turns out, his hard-ass demeanor is just a front for a much more amenable, softer personality, one that’s even easier to access than the end of the 100 meter dash.

Less difficult to believe is Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, President of the United States Olympic Committee. Irons exudes the kind of intensity suited to a role of this magnitude, as a man who finds himself in an uncomfortable position negotiating with Hitler’s close associate and Olympic overseer Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), telling him America is prepared to withdraw their competitors given the ongoing persecution of the Jews and the German government’s exclusive list of who they want competing in the Games. Brundage may have to sell his soul if he is to get what he wants out of these talks.

Irons may stand out as the only Olympic Committee member worth talking about — heck, one of the only characters in the film worth talking about — but not even he is immune to awkwardness in a story that’s written with such a sense of conformity. Race is a passionless affair, so obliging to the typical structure it’s hard to reconcile the unique brilliance of Owens the racer with Owens the cinematically bland inspiration.

At least the moral conundrum is presented clearly. In that way, it’s even more frustrating that it’s the less tangible stuff that the film actually juggles better than anything. There are a few scenes where hostility is truly palpable and the way the political climate is taken into consideration is well-handled. The Americans believed withdrawing would show solidarity with the oppressed while participating would carry with it the burden of winning, for the alternative would mean allowing the Nazis to keep thinking their Aryan competitors — their RACE — are superior. In big open rooms surrounded by his stuffy-looking peers Irons commands attention. And he must, because this is by design.

As is everything else here, including our desire to connect with Owens on a personal level. Nothing is executed with emotion, it’s all mechanical. Hagiographic may be one word to describe Stephen Hopkins’ big screen treatment of an American icon, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, but definitive it definitely is not. It’s more of a burden to have to watch it.

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Recommendation: Utterly mechanical, obligatory, routine, predictable and any other adjective you might necessarily associate with a sports film, Race falls well short of the potential it had to tell the definitive story about Jesse Owens not just as a competitor but as a member of Ohio State’s elite team and as a citizen of the United States. Only those with almost no knowledge of Owens at all might stand to benefit from this thoroughly uninspired telling. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins. 

Quoted: “You can run. And boy, can you jump. What I want to know is — can you win?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Men in Black (1997)

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I can’t really expect to cover Will Smith for a month and get away without including the one thing he did with Tommy Lee Jones that had aliens in it. So we turn again away from Smith’s more serious side and return to a role where he gets to be a “little” bit more at ease. The very first time I saw this film was amazing. After that, the movie really retains its wonders and is a real nice flashback to being the age I was when first seeing it. Watching it now I get more of a kick out of the interplay between Smith and Jones; it’s such a well-cast movie that it’s hard to pick another with Smith that is this much fun (because of the cast, let alone great set pieces). 

Today’s food for thought: Men in Black

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Release: July 2, 1997

[VHS]

Here come the men in black, galaxy defenders. I actually don’t know which became a bigger hit — the movie, or the song. Every time I so much as think about this flick the song/melody is right behind that thought and I begin humming (or worse, singing) it and pretty much get to those lyrics used above before I realize what I’m doing and stop. But whatever the cause may be, we know that the chicken (in this case, this sci-fi smash hit) came before the egg (one particularly catchy song on Big Willie Style).

In 1997 Barry Sonnenfeld delivered this intergalactic cinematic wonder to the masses, and to say he received a positive response would be the understatement of the century. Men in Black was a phenomenal success (an estimated budget of $90,000,000 yielded a gross of $250,000,000 by January ’98). At the center of this very popular sci-fi comedy is an effective meshing of concept and costume, which is mainly what I’d like to discuss with this movie.

The Concept: Aliens have inhabited our planet — some are good, some are not (like the roaches) — and it is up to this secretive agency (M.I.B.) to protect the human race from any danger caused by their presence. The agency’s overseen by Rip Torn’s “Zed,” and whose main agent, at least for the purpose of this movie, is Agent “Kay” (Jones) is one with several doubts on his mind, the forefront of which being should he have chosen this life over a life with his wife. With technology that supersedes even today’s weaponry (the Neuralizer is one of my all-time favorite movie weapons, right behind the light saber), agents go out into the field and eliminate pests at the same time as clearing the slates of any person who has had contact with aliens. As Will Smith’s Agent “Jay” comes to understand, protecting the public from alien interference is a lifelong servitude. Quitting this job means getting your memory wiped clean so your knowledge of such classified information is no longer a threat to anyone else. It’s not a high-brow concept by any means, but it’s certainly strong enough to make for a thoroughly entertaining flick.

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The Costumes: First of all, the good guys dress in black — remember that. (Another lyric.) The agents themselves are certainly quite stylish — a simple black suit with white collared shirts here truly make a statement. But beyond that, it’s really the aliens and the designs of the many types/classifications of the alien race. Starting with the main “villain” here, a massive and angry roach that invades the body of a redneck farmer  (Vincent D’Onofrio), given the computer graphics of the late 90s, the creature doesn’t look all that bad. In fact, it’s rather creepy and disturbing — and D’Onofrio gives a spectacular performance considering what he had to do to sell the fact he’s a 9-something-foot alien in a 6-foot human body. This undoubtedly is the centerpiece and best asset of the original Men In Black; as the movie progresses, the hostile extraterrestrial bug becomes more a part of the storyline. Too, it becomes increasingly nasty-looking, as the film finally culminates in a crazy, if not slimy, climax near the New York State Pavilion viewing towers in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Aside from this temperamental guy, a host of other aliens we encounter along the way all possess interesting, fun designs that are likely burned into everyone’s brains for long after (how about “Mikey” in the introductory scene with Kay in the desert?). These designs alone may set apart the movie from all other movies involving aliens, friendly or hostile.

one of the great comedic bits of the film is that, apparently, coffee ain't a foreign concept to aliens.

one of the great comedic bits of the film is that, apparently, coffee ain’t a foreign concept to aliens.

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Mikey. Probably my favorite.

The graphics may lend a certain credence to the idea that the planet has been invaded by aliens and the fact that some of them come in peace while others do not. When we are presented all these different characters, most of them are a likable bunch of cousins of E.T., but the finishing touches come in the form of the human element. The acting in M.I.B. helps propel the film from “great” to “classic.”

At the time of M.I.B.‘s first release, we did not know where the story was going to take us — only where we were currently going. Case in point, I have not cared to see the next installments just because I feel like the first story was where the rapport between Old Veteran (which would be TLJ) and the Young Gun (Smith) is likely to be the strongest. Despite having heard positive reviews of M.I.B. 3, I realize that I need to go through 2 to get there — a movie which did not, apparently, live up to its own hype. I want to keep the movie as a gem of its own, therefore I don’t think I’ll see anything other than the first. The banter between Jones and Smith here is both hilarious and purposeful: how would a former member of the public react to gaining classified, Top Secret information? This movie is a colorful version of what it must be like entering into the CIA or Secret Service or something.

The movie does have its weaknesses, though they are easily overlooked due to the novelty of the concept. Aliens being placed among us, living in human form and subsequently evaluated by a shadowy organization of suited men to determine their purposes on Earth — that’s a pretty radical, cool concept if you ask me. And it seems well-adapted from the novel. It is a blockbuster type of film, however, and it will occasionally sink into cliches and platitudes, but again, these come about relatively infrequently and are more likely to become the observations one makes during a second or third viewing. The first time you get to see this film, I bet it’ll be hard for even the most cynical of moviegoers to say “nay” to this intergalactic keggar.

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“Your breath stinks, pal.”

4-0Recommendation: If you haven’t seen Men In Black, first of all, shame on you. Secondly, go rent it, pronto. If you enjoy having a good time with a movie, I think this one has got you covered.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com