Friday, August 17, 2018

Fight the Power: Spike Lee Proves He Still Got Game With the Humorous and Compelling “BlacKkKlansman”

There is no arguing that Spike Lee is one of the most provocative and inventive directors to come out of the late 80s/early 90s indie film scene. Sure some of his films are “controversial” but he’s making more than sheer entertainment. He has a distinct voice and I appreciate that. The latter half of his career hasn’t been as successful as some of his great early works but he’s back with the fantastic “BlacKkKlansman.” Only Spike Lee could get away with having KKK in his movie title. And only Spike Lee could tell the outrageous true story of a Black police officer successfully infiltrating a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the type of story that can only be based on fact otherwise no one would ever buy it. This brilliant filmmaker has returned to his provocateur roots and has fashioned a heartbreaking, but humorous look at racism in small town 70s America and the implications that it has on modern society.

America was and continues to be a racist nation. We’re a country that was founded on racist ideals. Sure our Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal” but that has been a fallacy for centuries. To this day certain groups of people are still trying to get the rights and privileges of others. And this is extremely relevant to the movie-going experience that “BlacKkKlansman” provides.

Set in the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first Black man hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. He goes undercover at Black Student Union rally where he meets a riled up local woman named Patrice (Laura Harrier). Ron finds a recruiting ad for the KKK and decides to call them up. He pretends to be white and arranges to meet Walter (Ryan Eggold) the head of the group. Ron sends his white, Jewish co-worker Flip (Adam Driver) to pose as Ron and meet the group. As you could imagine, these people are the epitome of evil hatred. You will hear racial slurs up the wazoo and at some point you’ll literally become numb to them. Eventually Flip and Ron suspect the group may be planning some kind of attack.

To say the film is enthralling is an understatement. First of all, from a filmmaking perspective, the film has a delightfully grungy 70s vibe. The music from Spike regular Terrance Blanchard is bluesy and fun. Lee employs some of his fun camera trickery that was so groundbreaking early in his career and remains a significant part of his oeuvre. The film’s script is arguably much more “commercial” than many of Lee’s previous films. It feels like a film that those unfamiliar with the auteur could easily climb on board with. That’s probably because the film started from a spec script from Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz. And then Spike put his fingerprint all over it. So the film works as a thrilling police procedural and a provoking statement about American racism and hate. In other words, it’s a fascinating thriller with something important to say.

Everything is masterful in “BlacKkKlansman” including the amazing performances. If I didn’t know any better I would of thought Spike found real white supremacists to play themselves. These characters are truly vile and disgusting and he rightfully portrays them that way because they are. The actors really make them feel like real people especially Jasper Pääkkönen who creates one of the year’s truly scariest villains.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a transcendent film. It’s important, it’s entertaining, it’s incendiary. It makes you sad about where this country came from and ends in a way that makes the film shocking relevant today. It will make you laugh and it will break your heart. The entire cast is outstanding and Spike Lee has truly made something special that will be remembered for quite some time. It’s a truly rewarding and visceral experience.  GRADE: A

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Girlhood: The Funny and Truthful “Eighth Grade” is Head of the Class

Somehow comedian/filmmaker Bo Burnham, in his feature film directorial debut, has managed to put his audience in the shoes of a 13 year-old girl. It’s equal parts uncomfortable and relatable and is a testament to the power of great filmmaking. Employing a surprisingly fun visual style, interesting music choices including an offbeat score, the contemporary “Eighth Grade” manages to be one of the most fascinating films of the year about the mundanity of life and the repugnance of adolescence. Elsie Fisher gives a fearless performance in the central role of an introverted girl trying to get through the final days of eighth grade while dealing with her social awkwardness. The film takes an interesting look at the role of social media and finds unconventional ways to turn ordinary situations into gripping drama and uncomfortable comedy.

Kayla (Fisher) is an average, quiet 14th year old. Though like kids today, they have to grow up in the presensce of practically being connected to the internet all day long. As an adult it’s convenient. As a child enter ting adolescence I’d have to imagine it would horrible. Sure it’s nice to be able to stick your nose into your phone, play games and music at the touch of a button but kids can be cruel. Thankfully, the film doesn’t go the route of “kids are assholes online” and finds other ways to make clever use of smart devices and social media. Kayla makes online videos where she gives advice on how to be confidence and be cool. These short videos sort of set up how Kayla rarely follows her own advice and puts out a personal she really only wishes she could have.

So how exactly is a film about a 13 year-old girl making YouTube videos all that special? Burnham makes some fascinating, almos avant-garde directorial choices. The way his camera moves, what it selects to show, etc really helps to sell that we’re seeing things fom Kayla’s point-of-view. At several moments in the film the camera dares to slowly gaze Kayla’s crush Aiden (Luke Prael) and we’re forced to literally identify with our main character. When Kayla gets invited to a popular girl’s pool party because the girl’s mother forced her to, Burbham shoots the sequence as if we’re watching a thriller. You can literally feel the anxiety and tension. And Anna Meredith’s synthesized music score is an unconventional knockout that heightens everything.

The film certainly isn’t the first film to tell the story of a young person or the anxieties of growing up, but “Eighth Grade” feels extremely modern and of its time. Todd Solondz has made several colorful movies about the terror of adolescence but his films are almost always a bit wacky. Then there’s something like “Boyhood” which was a different kind of experiment, and this film isn’t dissimilar, though “Boyhood” relied too heavily on young actors who felt a bit amateurish. The performances in “Eighth Grade” are sublime and realistic. Josh Hamilton, easily the most recognizable person in the cast, is perfect as Kayla’s awkward single dad who tries everything to communicate with his quiet daughter.

“Eighth Grade” will certainly take you back to a certain age. I gather for most people it’ll most likely bring up BAD memories but the movie has plenty of humor to help balance the terrors many faced as middle school ended. Bo Burnham and his leading lady are really great finds and this will hopefully lead to even more extraordinary work. I’m truly in awe how everyone involved took such a simple, seemingly insignificant story, for what I assume was made rather cheaply, look and feel so innovative. The film doesn’t judge it’s young characters; they’re people too even if they spend most of their time “plugged-in.” It’s a truly rewarding experience; “Eighth Grade” passes with flying colors.  GRADE: A

Sunday, August 12, 2018

10,994 Meters Down: “The Meg” Sort of Bites

Let’s get to the point: “The Meg” is a middle-tier shark movie. If “Jaws” is the epitome of shark movie greatness, and “Jaws the Revenge” is the bottom of the barrel, then “The Meg” is about a “Jaws III.” In other words, it’s not quite so-bad-it’s-good, and it’s not even so-bad-it’s-bad. But is there anything worse than a sort of middle of the road shark movie? To be fair, there is at least half of a good shark movie in “The Meg.” The film’s second half is filled with some pretty fun in-jokes and enough ridiculous moments to make it worth it, but it’s sort of a slog to get through. It doesn’t help that everything about the film, from its visual style to its bland cast and uninteresting story, is merely mediocre. The film feels like it isn't ok with just playing it safe but it’s too afraid to go too over-the-top.

Jason Statham plays a disgraced underwater rescuer and now he’s retired, drinking beers somewhere in Thailand. And we have to sit there for nearly half the movie before anything exciting happens involving a giant prehistoric shark. Sure, “Jaws” took an hour to show the shark but at least everything leading up to that moment was scary, funny, and/or interesting. Not that one should be comparing “The Meg” to “Jaws” obviously. Though there are a few fun references to that horror classic.

Like “Deep Blue Sea” this flick is set mostly in and around an underwater research facility in the middle of the ocean. The scientists are trying to breach the bottom of the Mariana Trench; it turns out it’s not actually the ocean floor and a layer of gases has actually sealed off a whole other part of the ocean. Cue the prehistoric maneater. Not quite. First we have to briefly deal with a giant squid that attacks oceanographer Suyin’s (Li Bingbing) diving vessel and her limited emotional range doesn’t quite realistically depict how one might react if they were about to be crushed to death by a giant squid on the bottom of the ocean. THEN the shark obviously shows up to kills the squid and saves her. Eventually the shark escapes the bottom of the trench and for some reason sticks around in the middle of the ocean when it can go any damn well place it pleases.

Eventually the shark tires of the boring characters we’ve been introduced to and makes its way to a coastal Chinese resort where there’s literally hundreds of people bathing and swimming. The PG-13 rating limits the carnage, though that’s not really too much of an issue here. It’d just be nicer if there was even a modicum of suspense or tension but the sequence is fun enough. What can we really expect from the director of “While You Were Sleeping?” We finally get a couple genuinely clever and funny nods to “Jaws” essentially reenacted with Asian characters. In fact, the entire film (which was a Chinese-American co-production) feels as if it was made for an entirely different audience.

“The Meg” was one of the movies I was looking forward to the most this summer. I’m a sucker for a killer fish movie, but the movie has a hard time distinguishing between whether it wants to be silly or whether it wants to be serious. A movie like the brilliantly over-the-top “Piranha” remake knew exactly what it was doing. At least it’s better than last years snooze-fest “47 Meters Down.” The forced romance between Statham and Bingbing is terrible and fluffy (not to mention the forced, unearned sentimentality) and the film takes way too long to get to the good stuff. And Rainn Wilson feels wasted in yet another meaningless role. Chalk this one up as a meg-a disappointment.  GRADE: C+