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

Get Out

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Release: Friday, February 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele announces himself as a talent to keep an eye on with his surprisingly enlightening and even more entertaining directorial debut, the horror-comedy Get Out. His first try proves an early candidate for sleeper hit of the year, a film that manages to balance provocative themes, an interesting premise and a handful of solid performances in a way that’s rare even for seasoned filmmakers.

Get Out centers around a young mixed-race couple, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who visit the former’s parents for a weekend. While Rose feels they’ve reached that point in their relationship, Chris isn’t sure how her parents are going to respond to him being black. She hasn’t told them because she’s adamant the only thing he needs to worry about is how uncool they are.

When the two arrive, awkwardness wastes no time setting in. Rose’s father Dean (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon who immediately sets out on a crusade to impress Chris with aggressive politeness and generally overcompensatory behavior. He takes “[his] man” on a tour of the house, making sure to let Chris know he’s not one of those ignorant types. After all, he has great appreciation for Jesse Owens and if he could, he would have voted for a third term for former President Obama.

His wife Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist whose hypnotherapy may not come free of charge but it sometimes does without patient consent. I’ve never really liked Catherine Keener, even while acknowledging the knack she has for portraying emotionally unstable weirdos. In Get Out her eccentricity functions as more than a character trait. Missy is actually more a plot device than a character, which isn’t nearly as disappointing as it sounds. Rose has a younger brother too, Caleb Landry Jones’ wild card Jeremy, whose domineering albeit brief presence threatens to undermine the film’s subtle strategizing. He’s a bit harder to take seriously.

As are the numerous black servants on the premises. They’re all so goofy they inadvertently become beacons of comedic relief rather than legitimate concerns. And this is the issue I have with the hybrid genre: knowing which reaction is appropriate can prove frustrating at best. Even if their behavior is intended to be funny, it’s not quite funny enough to be convincing in that way either. I chuckled at a couple of the interactions, particularly with maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but felt bad when I did. It was awkward. Luckily there are other instances where the humor succeeds and actually enhances the experience — see Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ security guard friend, for example.

As Chris wanders the grounds snapping photos and asking seemingly innocuous questions of the staff, wafts of institutionalized racism become stronger. It has become evident Chris’ discomfort isn’t just personal. There’s a larger, more sinister dynamic at play, suggested by the servants’ unnatural mannerisms and body language. And the discomfort only grows as more of Rose’s family unexpectedly show up for the reunion she forgot to tell Chris about.

Peele, no stranger to skewering the politically correct in his successful and often controversial Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele (and whose co-host you can find starring alongside him in 2016’s hit action-comedy Keanu), has found a way to expand his observations about the American society in which we live today into a full-length feature presentation. And he does so without falling back on a blueprint that has treated him very well thus far. He also avoids overtly politicizing his message.

Get Out could have manifested as a series of skits all building toward some unifying theme. It could have been, like Logan to some degree, a specific jab at a specific American president putting into effect specific policies. Instead the fiction is broader, more immune to current political trends. Peele legitimizes his cause with insightful commentary and an effortlessly likable lead — a seriousness of purpose only moderately undercut by a few emotionally confused cues and a truth-revealing climax that doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the movie that preceded it.

Recommendation: Get Out is a movie that has gotten people talking. It’s going to be one of the surprise hits of the year and the hype is pretty much justified as Jordan Peele very clearly has his finger on the pulse of what not only the typical moviegoer wants to see in their movies, but that of film critics and skeptics as well.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”

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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

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

Nelson Mandela. Now there’s a name that has ‘Hollywood movie’ written all over it.

With the passing of such an extraordinary figure a mere month ago, the moment doesn’t seem to be any riper for a major motion picture about him to be sweeping across the globe. While it’s pretty difficult to conceive of this international release date being any more strategic than just being a ‘Christmas Day release’ (that’s a profitable enough decision to begin with), some of the more pessimistic of us are inclined to speculate that perhaps someone on the inside knew about certain developments in their subject’s health, on a medical level, on a level most of us wouldn’t care to know or recognize as being true. With the saddening foresight that this man might not be around for much longer, why not use that as leverage to potentially gain an even bigger audience?

That is, of course, to suggest: what would the box office turn-out be if this film was released, say this past summer? Next summer? Two Septembers from now? Would a later release date help the film fulfill its potential to move audiences?

Most people probably don’t think of movie releases being manipulative. And yet reality dictates that, with a time frame such as this (Mandela dying twenty days prior to the release), the subject would suddenly become more relevant; the potential for emotional connectivity would become much greater. If we didn’t have to come to terms with Nelson Mandela no longer being with us, this Christmas release would otherwise seem a little arbitrary.

Unfortunately, all of that is pure speculation. Some readers are probably shaking their heads at the level of cynicism on display. I don’t blame those people for thinking I’m overanalyzing the situation, but I think I’m going to stand by my conviction that Hollywood’s suits (i.e. some of the happiest people on Earth) really dug the idea of this suddenly becoming a much more timely tribute to Mandela. Especially when the film’s screenplay seems to support my perhaps off-kilter views.

At two hours and twenty minutes in length, Long Walk to Freedom is really a long sit. It overstays its welcome, a concept that must be difficult to believe if you have yet to see this, because it deals with one of the world’s most influential human rights activists. How, pray, does a topic like this wear thin?

Oh, how it does. . .

Written more as a thoroughly-detailed biography special on the History channel, director Justin Chadwick’s ambition isn’t to blame, entirely. As one can imagine, he had to sift through a tremendous wealth of information about the subject and the climate of South African politics of the time, so perhaps the condescendingly low-brow style of the film should be forgiven. Though this too often has the feel of a history class lecture, there’s ultimately nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not the film most are going to be expecting when it features one of the most rapidly-rising British stars at this moment.

The film is almost saved by London-native Idris Elba’s authentic portrayal of Mr. Mandela. Naomie Harris vies for some potential nominations as well, as she steps inside the role of Winnie Madikizela, Nelson’s second wife, an extremely frustrated woman who turned to more radical and violent measures of fighting for her fellow oppressed people. With both leads clearly committed to giving the film some gravity — Elba’s heavily-covered-in-make-up facial expressions are on multiple occasions heartbreaking and are effective in visually demonstrating the burden the real life figured carried with him for his long, long life — Long Walk can’t be dismissed completely as a ‘bad’ film.

Perhaps a more accurate description of the experience is underwhelming, which is a crime unto itself. Chadwick makes sure he maintains a reasonable number of inspirational quotes from the man himself, but it looks like we, the folks who were hoping to learn something about this iconic figure, might have to wait a few more years before being treated to the proper Mandela biopic. With absolutely no offense to the two lead performers — since they are virtually the only reason this film bears significance at all — Long Walk feels much too rushed, another sign this was a product of emphatic marketing to the public.

Elba and Harris do all they can with the material, but even their own personal, strong convictions about who their characters were drown in a sea of mediocrity and obligatory sentimentality.

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2-5Recommendation: It’s hardly an offensive film, even considering how middling the end results are. If you know literally nothing about the man (if that’s the case, shame on you) you will come away with a newfound respect for the struggles of these people and this man in particular. But if you’ve done any research whatsoever about this troubling bit of history, you’re not likely to be as moved by his dramatized on-screen plight. And to me, that just ain’t right.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “No person is ever born hating another person because of the color of their skin. People learn to hate. They are taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

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