Friday, August 10, 2018

BLACKKKLANSMAN: An Instant Classic That's One Of Spike Lee's Best Films

Opening today at an art house near me:

BLACKKKLANSMAN (Dir. Spike Lee, 2018) 



Believe the hype – Spike Lee’s newest joint is an instant classic and among his best films including DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, 25TH HOUR, and INSIDE MAN.

It’s been quite a while since he’s made a truly relevant movie, but this true story adaptation of former police detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 book about infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan in the ‘70s may be his most relevant movie ever.

Stallworth, sharply portrayed by John David Washington (son of Denzel), was the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and we follow his rise in the ranks to the Intelligence Unit. Stallworth’s first assignment is to go undercover to observe the crowd reaction to a speech by ex-Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture.

At the event Stallworth has a meet cute with student activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), and asks Ture (Corey Hawkins) if he really thinks a race war is coming. “Arm yourself, brother, ‘cause the revolution is comin,’” Ture strongly stresses.

Stallworth comes upon an ad for the KKK in the newspaper, and calls the number on a classic black rotary phone that gets some dramatic close-ups to find himself talking to a recruiter saying that he hates blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Irish, Italians, and Chinese, “but my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats, and anyone else really that doesn’t have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.”

This hate speech gets him invited to meet with members of the local charter, but, of course, he can’t go himself so he gets a fellow cop, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go in his place and use his name (Stallworth used his real name when calling them because he didn’t know at the time that there would be an investigation).

Zimmerman or Stallworth #2 meets with some scary redneck types played by Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Pääkkönen, who suspects that their new recruit might be Jewish, and even tries to get him to take a lie detector test.

There are a number of likewise close scrapes where the detectives’ covers almost get blown including one riveting segment in which Washington’s Stallworth is assigned to be security for KKK Grand Wizard David Duke played with polished smarm by Topher Grace.

While the love interest was fabricated – the character Harrier plays is fictitious – what went down is reportedly accurate in this excellent film that’s part tense thriller, part powerful drama, and part history lesson. Being a Spike Lee Joint it has its fair share of well placed humor, but it’s too serious minded to get very silly.

It’s striking but not surprising that much of the rhetoric used by Duke and the other Klansmen is largely identical to the racist utterings of our current commander-in-chief, and his slogans such as “America first,” and “Make America Great Again” are also spouted. There’s even a moment where Stallworth is confounded by the idea that someone with this bigoted ideology could someday be elected President.

Lee arranged for this film to be released on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the tragic Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counter protester, Heather Heyer, was killed. The movie ends as a tribute to Heyer, and we’re left with the horrifying thought that this shit is still happening with the flames being fanned by the asshole in the highest office in the land.

Lee knows that this story doesn’t need any flashy stylistic touches so he mostly plays it straight via cinematographer Chayse Irvin
s solid camerawork, but he does include some titled angle split screens, and he busts out one of his trademarked moves – the dolly shot - towards the end and it kills. He also employs his trusty longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard to provide the films often stirring score.

BLACKKKLANSMAN is a vital, piercing piece of work that is one of the best films of the year. With hope it will get some awards season action, especially since Lee really deserves to get something more than that Honorary Oscar he got a few years back.


But more importantly this movie deserves big audiences and to be in the national conversation. I know he doesn’t want to call it a comeback, but, dammit, I’m really glad that Lee has returned with the goods.

More later...

Friday, August 03, 2018

A Tale Of Triplets With Tons Of Twists And Turns

Now playing at an art house near me:
 
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS

(Dir. Tim Wardle, 2018) 


It’s been a great summer for documentaries. On the heels of the excellent Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers docs, comes this terrific tale of triplets that were separated at birth in 1961, had no idea of the others’ existence, and, by chance, found each other when they were 19 in 1980.

It started when Robert Shafran, on his first day at Sullivan County College in upstate New York was warmly greeted by many fellow students who he had never seen before who called him Eddy. Eddy Galland had attended the school the previous year. One of Eddy’s friends, Michael Domnitz, deduced that they were brothers, and they contacted Eddy and arranged a meeting.

The story of the re-united brothers makes national headlines, and a third twin, Queens College student David Gellman, sees their picture in the newspaper and gets in touch with them. The trio become fast friends, they make the talk show rounds (clips of them on Donahue and being interviewed by Tom Brokaw are prominently featured), have a cameo in a Madonna movie (DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN), and even open a New York restaurant together named Triplets.

But after the feel good montage of the brothers partying it up in the Big Apple set to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” (of course) fades, things get a bit dark. Turns out that none of the respective adoptive parents knew that their children had siblings, and we learn that the triplets were part of a psychological experiment in which they were filmed, monitored, and documented under the guise of a child development study.

This revelation causes another pair of twins to find one another – two sisters who were both film students when they met among other similarities.

Shafran and Gellman appear in newly filmed interviews conducted by director Wardle alongside family members, friends, and New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, whose research provides insights into the case, despite the study on the brothers having never been published, and the files are sealed until 2066.

It may be a spoiler to tell what happened to the third brother, Galland, even if it’s well reported online, so I’ll just cease my description of the narrative right here in case you want to go in unspoiled.

The endlessly fascinating THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS that takes one on a highly emotional ride. It’s a well constructed work via Michael Harte’s fluid editing, and how its subjects guide the viewer through the testimonials without narration.

Containing more twists and turns than most thrillers, this is a must see documentary that deserves big audiences.

More later...

Monday, July 30, 2018

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT: The Film Babble Blog Review

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT
(Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2018) 


Once again, Joaquin Phoenix puts in an outstanding performance in a film very few people are likely to see.

This touching, and funny adaptation of the memoir of controversial cartoonist John Callahan is only playing at a handful of theaters in my area (the Triangle in N.C.) so it’ll probably come and go under most moviegoers’ noses and that’s a shame.

Callahan (1951-2010) was a Portland, Oregon-based hippy who became a quadriplegic after a drunken automobile accident in 1972. We learn about his life via an array of different threads including Phoenix’s Callahan as the speaker at a college event, giving a confessional at a AA meeting, and showing his ink-drawn cartoons to a group of kids who come to his aid when he falls out of his wheelchair in the street.

The film flashes back to the 21-year old Callahan’s last day when he could walk before the accident in Los Angeles, in which he parties hard with a mustached, side-burned Jack Black as Dexter, a guy he had just met at a party.

They leave that party to head to what Dexter says is a better party, stopping at a bar along the way to get even more wasted. The drunk duo drive around aimlessly, ride a rollercoaster at an amusement park, puke, and pass out – well, Callahan passes out while Dexter at the wheel of Callahan’s Volkswagen Bug smashes into a light pole at 90 mph.

Callahan comes to and is told by a doctor that he’s possibly paralyzed for life, and he goes through the various stages of his physical recovery in which a blonde, short-haired Rooney Mara with a Swedish accent shows up for some reason – she might be his massage therapist, I dunno - to tell him he’s very good looking.

Then we’ve got a slimmed-down Jonah Hill with long blonde hair who’s great as Callahan’s sponsor, Donnie, who lives in a lavish mansion he inherited where he holds support group meeting. In a few of the movie’s best scenes, Callahan gets to know his fellow recovering alcoholics like Beth Ditto as the outspoken Reba, Mark Webber as the angry Mike, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as the acerbic Corky (another indie rock icon, Sleater Kinney and Portandia’s Carrie Brownstein appears as Callahan’s case worker).

But despite Donnie and the group, Callahan still drinks, but around the film’s halfway mark he has an epiphany where he has a vision of his mother (Mireille Enos) that had abandoned him when he was a kid and this inspires him to change his ways.

Callahan starts to scribble crude cartoons with edgy captions, and, as he later tells his audience at the aforementioned speaking engagement, he realized that he “should’ve been a cartoonist, a gag man, all along.” Throughout the narrative, Callahan’s black and white cartoons, one of which the title of the film comes from, get a bit of the animation treatment, but it doesn’t come off as too gimmicky. 


Rooney, now a flight attendant, pops up again for some romance with Phoenix’s Callahan, but the rest of the film mostly concerns his getting recognition for his cartoons when they are published by such notable outlets as the New Yorker, Penthouse, and Playboy, and many newspapers. Some folks don’t take too kindly to the taboo teasing nature of his work, so they are many complaint letters and people telling him off in public but he develops a thick skin and perseveres.

And that’s what this fine film, one of Gus Van Sant’s most personal works, is about – persevering. It could have been a cheesy inspirational biodoc – Robin Williams was originally slated to play Callahan and it could’ve been another PATCH ADAMS - but with Phoenix’s invested performance, its excellent cast, and its sincere, unpretentious approach via Van Sant
s very thoughtful screenplay, DONT WORRY, HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT is a strong drama dealing with addiction and overcoming disabilities while finding oneself in the process. The laughs that come through Callahan's cartoons are the icing on the cake.

More later...