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

Truth

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: James Vanderbilt

Directed by: James Vanderbilt

Truth be told, a movie featuring household names like Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, one propped up on real-world events of this magnitude shouldn’t feel like a chore to get through. Yet, here we are.

To clear the air first: don’t think of this as the definitive Dan Rather biopic; think of it as a drama that calls upon his iconic red suspenders and larger-than-life personality when convenient. If anything, this is the story of Mary Mapes, the 60 Minutes producer who believed she had unearthed some new documents alleging then-President George W. Bush had not met the minimal standards required of fighter pilots at the time of the Vietnam War (thus affording him a loophole from joining in the fight) and had been protected politically, rendering his hypothetical AWOL status one of the most well-kept secrets in recent American history.

Okay, so we’ve been misled a little bit. Of course, that might be on us since it’s easier to associate this shameful chapter in broadcast journalism with a certain face. And it’s easier to recall Rather’s final farewell with teary-eyed reverence than anything Mapes may have said or done as she watched her career collapse like the Hindenburg.

With that in mind, Blanchett is far from a bad alternative as she impetuously fights a losing battle in an effort to exonerate herself and her good friend from this now infamous ethical debacle. The argument she presents? The authenticity of said documents — which turned out to be forgeries created in Microsoft Word and which she gained after a brief meeting with Stacy Keach’s Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett — isn’t the big picture. Finding out precisely what happened with Bush’s involvement in the armed forces in the early ’70s is.

This is almost verbatim what she tells a panel of hard-nosed, ultra-conservative lawyers — some of whom fought on behalf of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove prior to his 2007 resignation — in the film’s spectacularly unspectacular final scenes. The big, bad showdown, as it were. This, after being cautioned by her own lawyer to simply keep her head down and try hard not to fight back. Old habits die hard I guess.

Truth is, of course, very well-acted. Blanchett settles in to yet another tough female lead who’s difficult to get along with, introduced as someone whose chip-on-their-shoulder couldn’t be any more apparent. In her lowest moments we see her popping Xanex and chasing it down with white wine, behavior reminiscent of her troubled Jasmine. Her performance is reason enough to see the picture. Redford, inhabiting the undoubtedly challenging role as the iconic CBS anchor, delivers a subtler and more emotionally reserved performance and is thoroughly likable, despite minimal screen time. Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss round out the team working under Mapes but they don’t register at all, in terms of performance or their contributions to the drama.

Truth is, writer/director James Vanderbilt, who penned the screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, forces empathy for Rather and his pseudo-surrogate daughter — I can’t think of a better way to describe the pair’s relationship, at least as it’s presented here — as they journey down the gauntlet of shame and humiliation. The feeling hardly eventuates naturally. This is the Salem Witch Trial sans witches and torches. The American people feel it’s well within their right to take down these journalists as hard as they damn well can, their argument being these people make a living out of digging into other people’s lives. Those not in the business are painted as villainous and bloodthirsty.

Truth is, no matter how you slice it, the innate complexities of the matter make the drama a tough sell to anyone who is unable to look past the political motivations of Hollywood interpreting these events. The liberal slant is far from subtle. The package is too neatly contained to be real life. Despite several sizzling moments of dialogue (mostly spat by a righteously indignant Blanchett) was there any good reason this didn’t materialize in the form of a thoroughly revealing documentary . . . . maybe on 60 Minutes?

That’s the kind of irony that will never be, seeing as this film’s trailers were blacklisted from CBS. It’s an even harder sell when the events depicted in Vanderbilt’s feature film debut are laced with such contriteness you have but one option come the film’s end: feel bad for the people who failed to uphold one of the major pillars of good journalism.

Recommendation: Truth is a strange experience. On one hand it’s well-performed and suitably emotional as we experience the catalytic events that ended Mary Mapes’ and Dan Rather’s careers in shame. On the other, there’s no denying this has an agenda all its own, which is a little frustrating as there is a better movie in here somewhere underneath the moral indignation (for both the American people and the ones getting done in). I don’t want to get into the politics of what constitutes good journalism, I’d rather get into the politics of good acting and Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford indeed make a good team. They’re very strong cogs in a relatively weak engine.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Our story is about whether the President fulfilled his service. Nobody wants to talk about that, they want to talk about fonts and forgeries and they hope to God the truth gets lost in the scrum.”

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

Interstellar

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Release: Friday, November 7, 2014

[RPX Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Nolan; Christopher Nolan 

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Interstellar is a fascinating adventure, even if its credibility is trumped by spectacle.

And somewhere throughout this epic excursion to the far reaches of our universe I half expected Matthew McConaughey to make the pithy observation that Dorothy is not in Kansas anymore. Alas, that moment never came.

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

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There has been a healthy dose of speculation about the latest Christopher Nolan spectacular, on both ends of the spectrum — hype surrounding the fact that Nolan’s grandiose vision would now sync up with quite literally the most grandiose thing ever, space exploration, and caution against the inevitable: against getting hopes up too high (you know, in case Mr. Nolan isn’t actually infallible), and that the science needed to truly pull a feat like this off would likely not gel with the blockbuster formula. At least, not without alienating the majority of theater attendees.

Turns out, and in the wake of the dizzying height of such hype this last week, the cautioners were more accurate than they were naysaying; the positivity has been running a little unchecked. Try as I might to remain level-headed, I got swept up in it too. I for several months felt like a child after chugging an entire box of Pixy Stix. There was no way Christopher Nolan was going to disappoint. Not with this material, not with this cast, and particularly, not when he’s this experienced.

To that end, Interstellar is poised to represent a new standard to which audiences are going to forever hold Nolan accountable. In the build-up to the release, it was all we had to just assume the best of an intergalactic voyage through a never-ending web of stardust and dark matter. I’ve always thought it’s easier (and less scary) to imagine the size of the universe rather than to sit there and calculate its dimensions. Similarly, being ignorant to what the movie actually presents seems to provide a sense of innocence. It’s only in this moment the conditions might seem perfect, that we might have a truly comprehensive look at our place in the universe.

Interstellar is a movie that works best when not questioning, at least too deeply, the very heady developments taking place in the clutches of deep space. Contrary to Nolan’s ambitious hiring of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as the film’s chief scientific consultant and executive producer, there isn’t a significant moment in the extraterrestrial portion of the narrative that passes without some level of suspension of disbelief. In fact, this happens more frequently than Thorne and any physicist are going to admit.

I don’t want to damn the science part of the fiction. I’d rather grin and go along with the logical gaps, because this film is a lot of fun for being about a very real end of a very real world. This is the most confidently something as technical as physics has been handled in a major motion picture event in some time. Possibly ever. The theory of relativity exists as a recurring theme and quantum physics crops up on more than a couple of occasions. Although reading textbooks isn’t required before sitting down to watch this, some scenes are sure to throw viewers for some exciting but head-scratching loops. Credit most assuredly needs to be given to Nolan for reaching out to field experts like Thorne who could give his film an immediate legitimacy a single filmmaker otherwise could not.

OLD AGE SHOULD BURN AND RAVE AT CLOSE OF DAY

INTERSTELLAR

Nolan once again reaches out to his brother Jonathan for the tall task of penning the script. This was a smart move. Good thing in an industry like entertainment nepotism doesn’t really count for much. He isn’t playing favorites, he just knows what he likes and knows how to get it.

It’s been proven on multiple occasions that the dramatic overtones of Christopher’s directing fall into a blissful matrimony with Jonathan’s perception of human nature. His script suggests a viable endpoint for a species that has for far too long remained ignorant to their impacts on their global environment. Culturally, we no longer exist. We are just a physical collection of individuals still surviving on the surface of this tired planet. In whatever year this is we aren’t exactly in denial but we also have not changed a great deal between present-day (in reality) and the present-day in the film, some near-future where the only food source we have left is corn. Jonathan can see how much trouble we are in today and extrapolates that, say, fifty years into the future with Nostradamian confidence.

The space epic is seated deeply in reality, which is what is most remarkable about a film that also features black holes (a relatively recent scientific discovery), rips in the space-time continuum, and a grab-bag of other assorted mind-bending phenomena. So easily the intellectual reach of Nolan’s direction could tip the proceedings into the realm of the ridiculous — and once or twice it does — but the performances he extracts from the likes of McConaughey, Jessica Chastain (who plays a fully-grown version of Murph, the daughter McConaughey’s Cooper leaves behind on Earth), and Mackenzie Foy (the younger Murph) ensure that we are distracted enough from some of the more obvious offenses.

Getting away from some of the more practical considerations, the production on a creative level is a thing of beauty. I’ll touch back on the practical for just a second: once we get into space the first thing that should be taken notice of, just like in Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant Gravity of last year, is the deafening silence outside the space vessel. In a second we realize we are in a place we don’t naturally find ourselves. Unlike Gravity, the curvature of the Earth outside the Endurance’s windows is as close to familiar ground as we will be for the remainder of the film.

Hans Zimmer once again reminds the world of why he has a job scoring films. His work here is mesmeric, haunting, truly the stuff of science fiction and space exploration. Melancholic vibes are quickly supplanted by a racing pulse of optimism, determination. Where concerns grow about the convenience of certain plot developments, Zimmer steps in and whisks us to a galaxy far, far away. The musical composition of Interstellar is fantastical as much as it is fantastic.

I suppose in some ways Nolan’s latest was going to be a predictable affair. There was almost no way this concept could work perfectly. After all, what he is attempting is something no other filmmaker has really sought out, save for perhaps Stanley Kubrick. In Nolan’s vision we are shrunken to the size of worker ants. We have an enormous task ahead of us and it’s more weight upon our backs than we ought to be carrying, but we have no choice. A lot of things happen within this nearly three-hour runtime. But to credit the film editors, the running time almost seems insufficient. Arguably this is Christopher Nolan reaching for the stars while only managing to strike a new crater on the moon.

But even if it isn’t top-shelf Christopher Nolan, it still sits up higher than most films of its ilk in the last 30 years. Interstellar is a trip worth taking for the views and some reminders of how far scientific discovery actually has come if nothing else.

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4-0Recommendation: If it were any more serious, this film could be considered the most bombastic thing Nolan has ever undertaken. Fortunately he sprinkles in some much-needed humor to provide levity to this desperate search for another Earth-like planet. I highly doubt I need to recommend this film, but in case you are having any questions regarding the hype and whether it’s too much, it is a little overblown but certainly not enough to warrant skipping it at the theaters. This is a film, much like Cuarón’s Oscar-sweeper of yesteryear, that demands the big-screen treatment. It will lose so much if you wait for a rental. I also have to recommend seeing this on the largest screen possible, though you might save a few extra bucks by not going for the 3D. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 169 mins.

Quoted: “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

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