BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – Effective Essay on Race Relations in the U.S.

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Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018).

Believe it or not, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), Spike Lee’s latest movie which tells the tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is based on a true story, chronicled in the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth in 2014.

But Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN is less a bio pic of Ron Stallworth and more an essay about race, and that’s what ultimately makes this all-too-often-over-the-top tale a success. From its opening shot from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to its closing news footage of the horrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film is structured as a treatise on race relations in the United States, and sadly shows that rather than progressing to a better place, we’ve largely stayed the same, or worse, as judging from the emboldened unmasked faces of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, we may have gone backwards.

It’s 1972, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His dream is to become an undercover detective, and he sets out to do just that as he phones the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a racist white American male. When he’s invited to join the KKK, he arranges for a white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him, and the ruse is on.

Together, and with the full support of their superiors, Ron and Flip infiltrate the KKK’s inner circle and move to take down its more prominent members. Their investigation even leads them to the KKK’s grand master, David Duke (Topher Grace).

This in a nutshell is the plot of BLACKKKLANSMAN, but as I said, what’s more important and impressive about this movie is what it has to say about race relations. On that note, there’s a lot to digest.

BLACKKKLANSMAN makes the case that we haven’t gotten anywhere with race relations, that we’ve actually gone backwards. At the height of Ron’s and Flip’s success, late in the movie, they are informed that their unit is being disbanded due to budget cuts, the symbolic meaning being that here was a moment in time when racism was being driven back, and we took our foot off the pedal and allowed it to return unchecked to the point where it is now, as chronicled in the film’s final few minutes with the footage from Charlottesville.

Early on, there’s a speech by a former Black Panther member to a college crowd where he speaks about his childhood love of Tarzan and how he used to root for Tarzan to beat the black Natives, until he realized those Natives were him. This, along with the footage from GONE WITH THE WIND, speaks to how ingrained racism has been in our culture, even in our movies.

Later, in one of the best sequences of the movie, the film jumps back and forth between two events. A speech by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) who recounts in explicit and painful detail his eyewitness account of a brutal lynching of a black boy, watched by a crowd of white onlookers behaving as if they were at a sporting event, is intercut with David Duke and other KKK members watching THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). This is the closest the film comes to making its audience weep at the horrors of race relations in our country.

One of the things that doesn’t work in BLACKKKLANSMAN is Spike Lee’s lack of subtlety. Too often his in-your-face style backfires with the unintended result of giving credence to the opposite side. Some of the KKK members, for example, seem like walking clichés for what racist people should be like. The same with some of the police officers. The white racist officer, for example, seems to have walked off the set of last year’s THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) as if he’s Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon’s long-lost cousin, but with far less realistic results.

The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, gets an A for its race relations content but scores far less when it comes to its characterizations and plot points. The characters struggle to remain real and the story doesn’t hit all the right notes. There are times when it feels like an awkward “special” episode of Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79).

On the other hand, one thing Spike Lee does well is take advantage of our knowledge and feelings of present day issues.  There are several uncomfortable scenes of police brutality, for example, in this story which takes place in 1972, but by and large they pale in comparison to real events which have happened in the here and now, again showing how things are worse here in 2018.

John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is solid as Ron Stallworth, but strangely the character isn’t developed as thoroughly as he should be. We know that he always wanted to be a cop, and that he likewise wanted to fight for his people, but we know this because he says this.  We don’t really see or experience his passion or his pain.

Adam Driver fares better than Washington, and his Flip Zimmerman character is actually better developed than Ron Stallworth. Zimmerman is a Jew who at first doesn’t mind hearing all the KKK’s insults, but later in another of the movie’s better scenes, he tells Ron that the reason he didn’t mind the slurs is that although he is Jewish he wasn’t raised Jewish, and so his heritage meant nothing to him. He just saw himself as an average white American, but after hearing all the KKK members’ derogatory remarks, he says now for the first time in his life he can’t stop thinking about his heritage.

He also has a key scene where he responds to Ron’s question of why he doesn’t do anything about the racist cop in their midst, as he tells Ron that although the cop in question is a bad cop, they won’t do anything about it because they are a family and they must look after their own, to which Ron says “that sounds like another group I know about.”

Two of the better performances belong to the supporting players. I loved Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumars, the college student who leads the black movement on campus and who Ron falls for. Harrier possesses a strength and energy that oddly is missing from both Washington’s and Driver’s characters. The movie picks up in intensity every time she’s on-screen. Harrier was similarly successful in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

And Topher Grace is excellent as David Duke. His matter of fact businesslike style showing how Duke tried to intellectualize the KKK and make it mainstream, doing everything in his power to make it more acceptable, is unlike the rest of the movie, subtle and chilling. And when we see the real David Duke in 2017 footage, you can see how well Grace nailed the role.

Some of BLACKKKLANSMAN works. Some of it doesn’t. For example, the conversation where it’s explained that the role of the KKK in the 1970s was to legitimize racism to the point where it’s accepted in U.S. politics in the hope that one day someone with similar views is elected U.S. President, works on the one hand because here in 2018 that appears to be the case, but on the other hand seems too convenient and trite, the perfect ammunition for those arguing the opposite point that such talk is “fake news.”

That being said, I liked BLACKKKLANSMAN a lot, but I didn’t love it. What it has to say about race is absolutely required viewing. We still have a race relations problem in the United States and right now it’s not even close to getting better. But in terms of how it tells its story, I liked it less so.  Its characters struggled to draw me in, its story often seemed too blatant, as if Lee’s emotions about this topic were so strong he couldn’t see to it to tell it through a more nuanced lens, and its comedy rarely struck a chord and drew nary a chuckle.

Strangely, I was more emotionally moved regarding race by Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2018) earlier this year.

However, I may be in the minority. The film received a hearty round of applause from its full audience as the end credits rolled.

I do agree, however, that it’s Lee’s best film in years. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Spike Lee movie that I’ve really liked. You probably have to go all the way back to MALCOLM X (1992).

The strength of BLACKKKLANSMAN is not in its storytelling but in its unabashed openness to look at issues of race. As such, it makes for a highly successful and effective essay on the history of race relations in the United States.

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Luke Skywalker is Back in Action in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

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At long last, Luke Skywalker speaks!

As much as I liked STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015),  I was left disappointed by the fact that after characters spent the entire film searching for the elusive Luke Skywalker, he shows up for a mere half-second in the final reel and doesn’t utter a word.

Hey, it’s Luke Skywalker!  Cue end credits.

So, for me, the thing I was most looking forward to about STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017), the latest chapter in the STAR WARS saga, was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action. And since he finally gets to speak some dialogue and then some, his presence here was easily my favorite part of the movie.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI picks up immediately where its predecessor, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) left off.  And so we find the Resistance fighters led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) battling the evil First Order led by Leia’s and the now deceased Han Solo’s son Ben, who goes by the bad-guy moniker Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Yup, you might say the current STAR WARS battles are more of a domestic dispute!

Actually, the villain who is calling the shots is the supremely evil Snoke (Andy Serkis), as Kylo Ren works for him, but any acute viewer can spot the writing on the wall a mile away, that the real villain in this new trilogy is no doubt the conflicted Kylo Ren.

Things are not looking good for our merry band of Resistance fighters.  They are outgunned and outmanned by the superior First Order forces, even with the presence of young new heroes Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

And so it’s up to young Rey (Daisy Ridley) to convince the Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to come out of retirement and help their cause, which is no easy task since Luke is a cranky old man now, disillusioned with the world, and he wants no part in any more of its conflicts.

It takes old friend R2D2 to point out that years earlier it was another old Jedi who was asked to help the cause, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Kenobi said yes.  And when Luke still hesitates, the spirit of Yoda arrives to set him straight.

In spite of the box office records that STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is currently setting, the film really is a mixed bag.

For me, the best part of this film was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action on the big screen. His scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Just as interesting are the scenes with newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley).  Her scenes with Luke resonate.  As she tries to convince Luke to join the Resistance, she’s also trying to learn more about who she is, and just why it is that the Force is so strong with her.

And as much as I enjoyed Luke in this movie, and most of this is due in large part ot Mark Hamill’s performance, the two most interesting characters in the film are Rey and villain Kylo Ren. As Rey searches for answers to her identity, she becomes increasingly connected to Kylo Ren, as their strength with the Force allows them to communicate with each over vast distances, and each wants to convert the other. Rey wants to turn Kylo Ren from the Dark Side, while Kylo Ren wants Rey to join him in his ambitious plot to pretty much take over the galaxy.

And Kylo Ren is also connected to Luke Skywalker, since Luke had tried to train his nephew years earlier, but failed when Ren turned to the Dark Side.

Kylo Ren is a very interesting character, with some pretty neat conflicts.  He sees himself as the next Darth Vader, but he continually falls short, and part of this is he’s the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, and their connection is also strong with him.  Yet, to shut them down, he murdered his own father in the last movie, and this time around he promises the same fate to his uncle, Luke Skywalker.

All these parts of the movie work and work well, and the good news is these three characters do make up the bigger portion of this movie.  However, the other stories, the ones involving the Resistance led by Leia, and featuring subplots with Finn and Poe Dameron, pretty much fall flat.  They suffer largely from a “been there, done that” situation. We’ve been down this road before in previous STAR WARS films.

The First Order’s pursuit of the small Resistance fleet which takes up the entire movie is rather boring, and the smaller plot where Finn and Poe try to incapacitate the Rebel ship chasing them is rather redundant and could have appeared in any STAR WARS movie.

I found myself only interested in the story which featured the triangle of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, known for his science fiction thriller LOOPER (2012) starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a film I liked a lot, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI looks as amazing as you would expect.  The special effects are all top-notch, and it does contain some decent scenes.  When Luke and Kylo Ren finally face each other, the moment is up there with some of the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the series.

But running at 152 minutes, making it the longest STAR WARS movie, it does tend to be a bit overlong and does struggle somewhat with the pacing.  Let’s put it this way.  It felt like 152 minutes.

It was great seeing Mark Hamill back on the big screen as Luke Skywalker.  Hamill is a very good actor who has been missed in the movies over the years, as his career took a different path which saw him do more voice-over roles in animated features.  For those of us who grew up watching young Luke Skywalker take on the Death Star and eventually become a Jedi to confront his own father Darth Vader, it’s a special experience to watch him here as an older man once again drawn into another conflict, but this time as the older, wiser force. If there’s any downside here, it’s that the film doesn’t include enough Luke Skywalker.

That being said, both Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are strong enough performers that they appear more than up to the task to take on the next movie on their own. I like Daisy Ridley a lot, and I enjoyed her here every bit as much as I enjoyed Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

I was lukewarm to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in the previous movie, but he really has grown into the role, and he’s much more of a formidable presence here.  Even better, his inner conflict does not appear forced, and so he’s that rare villain who isn’t just flat-out dark and evil. It’s a neat performance.  He also gets rid of his silly mask in this movie, and that’s definitely a plus.

The rest of the actors are all okay. Of course, Carrie Fisher passed away shortly after filming her scenes for this one.  She’s fine here as Leia, but honestly, the character doesn’t fare as well as Luke Skywalker does in this movie or as Han Solo did in the last.  She’s simply not as interesting a character, nor does she have a whole lot to do in either film.  Still, it was sad to watch her in this film, knowing that in real life, she’s gone, and the character will not appear again.

Both John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron are fine in their roles, but they’re stuck in storylines that aren’t so interesting.

Andy Serkis is on hand doing what does best, performing as a CGI/motion capture character, this time playing the villain Snoke, and when he’s on-screen he’s sufficiently menacing, but he’s not onscreen all that much.  I enjoyed Kelly Marie Tran as newcomer Rose Tico, who helps Finn here, and it was also fun to see Domhnall Gleeson return as General Hux, who constantly operates in the shadow of the bigger evil villains.

And the amazing John Williams returns once again to score yet another STAR WARS movie, and once more, the music is excellent.

The screenplay by director Johnson is okay.  Again, the Luke/Rey/Kylo Ren arc is the best part, while the rest seems like a rehash of previous STAR WARS movies.

Also, in general, the whole conflict in these “star wars” just isn’t all that interesting.  In fact, it’s pretty darn boring because the writing in these films has never been good enough to spark interest in its larger universe.  The best stories have been the small ones, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, Vader’s conflict between the Dark Side and the good, and here the conflicts with Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke.

Whenever the stories revert to the larger conflict at hand, which is what a lot of the second trilogy did and is largely why those three films were so lifeless, the tales fall flat. I don’t really care about the Rebellion, or the Resistance, or the politics of these worlds because, again, the writing has never been good enough to make me care.

So, every time characters and events in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI dealt with the ongoing conflict between the First Order and the Resistance, I yawned, but when it focused on the very specific conflicts between Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker, I was all in.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI will not be the last STAR WARS movie, but with Rey and Kylo Ren poised as the future of the STAR WARS universe, it may be the last one to look so keenly on its past.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

LOGAN LUCKY (2017) – Light and Fun but Short on Laughter

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Director Steven Soderbergh has enjoyed a long and varied career.  He’s made dramas [SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)], comedies [MAGIC MIKE (2012), science fiction [SOLARIS (2002), thrillers [SIDE EFFECTS (2013), and of course the George Clooney OCEAN 11 movies.

With LOGAN LUCKY (2017), Soderbergh returns to comedy in this lighthearted tale about two brothers planning an improbable heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. And while it appears that everyone involved is having a great time, it doesn’t always translate to full-throated laughter.

Things are not going well for Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum).  He loses his construction job because of a bad leg, and his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) is about to move out-of-state with her new husband, which will make it more difficult for the out-of-work Jimmy to see his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) on a regular basis.

So, Jimmy plots with his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He chooses the race track because he had been working there on the construction crew repairing sink holes, and he had seen firsthand the vault underneath the stadium which holds the cash from the concession stands.

To pull off the heist, Jimmy and Clyde turn to the their friend Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is an expert at blowing open safes. Trouble is, Bang is in jail, and so Jimmy and Clyde concoct a plan to break Bang out of prison so he can do the job and then get him back inside again without anyone noticing. To do this, they employ the help of Bang’s two oddball brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), as well as their own sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough).

Then it’s off to the races, or so they hope.

LOGAN LUCKY reminded me a lot of a Coen brothers movie, only without the dark edges. It features quirky characters, puts them in some ridiculous situations, and lets things fly. The only difference is with a Coen brothers movie you expect something bad to happen, some bloodshed perhaps, while here, the loose ends are all tied together nicely, perhaps a bit too nicely.

Incredibly, the story manages to remain grounded in reality. In spite of how wildly inane the plot becomes, it all remains believable, and the characters in spite of their eccentricities remain real. It’s a smart script by Rebecca Blunt.

That being said, I wouldn’t have minded more zaniness, as the film isn’t as funny as it should be.  More laughs, and sharper ones, would have definitely made things better.

The story jumps back and forth between Jimmy’s West Virginia home and the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and the whole film is steeped in southern country atmosphere, helped along by Jimmy’s favorite song, John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Director Soderbergh also gets the most out of his strong cast in LOGAN LUCKY.

I’m not a Channing Tatum fan, but he’s excellent here as Jimmy Logan.  He’s pretty much the straight man in the story, and while he’s surrounded by oddball characters and takes part in a ridiculous scheme, his character remains pretty real.  This might be my favorite Channing Tatum movie performance, mostly because it reminds me of nothing he has done before.

Likewise, Adam Driver excels as Jimmy’s brother Clyde.  Seriously, all Driver has to do in this movie is stand there and he gets laughs.  It’s a much more satisfying performance than his troubled Kylo Ren in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  I enjoyed Driver much more here.

And then there’s Daniel Craig as safe cracker Joe Bang, looking as far removed from James Bond here as ever, with his southern accent and quirky personality.  It’s probably the most fun performance by Craig- who always looks so serious- to date.  The scenes where Tatum, Driver, and Craig appear together are very funny, and the film soars during these moments, like the sequence where Joe Bang explains to Jimmy and Clyde the chemical formula for his bomb, writing the formula on the wall of the motor speedway tunnel and speaking to them as if he’s a classroom chemistry teacher.  But sadly there aren’t as many scenes with all three actors together as you might expect.

I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Riley Keough.  I first noticed her in the excellent horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).  She’s superb again here as Jimmy’s and Clyde’s sister Mellie.  She’s wonderfully real, and terribly sexy at the same time.

Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are also very good in smaller roles as Joe’s brothers Fish and Sam. Katie Holmes’ role as Jimmy’s ex-wife Bobbie Jo is pretty standard.

Two other stars appear in smaller roles.  Seth MacFarlane is unrecognizable with his long hair, mustache, and a beard in a thankless role as a NASCAR promoter and TV personality Max Chilblain. And Hilary Swank shows up late in the game as FBI Agent Sarah Grayson who investigates the heist.

When Swank’s FBI agent shows up to investigate the robbery, it’s at a point in the film where it naturally seems to be winding down, but it doesn’t, and it continues to go on for some time, a bit too long. The final reel of the film seems tacked on and unnecessary.

Other than this, LOGAN LUCKY is a well-made, well-directed, well-acted, and smartly written comedy that is light and enjoyable. The only thing missing, and it’s a big thing, is the laughter.  While I chuckled here and there, the comedy simply isn’t as sharp as it needs to be.

Granted, the film has its moments, but for a movie that feels like a screwball comedy, the limited laughter came as a surprise.  That being said, LOGAN LUCKY has an intelligent script that keeps things believable throughout, and with a solid cast delivering exceptional performances, it’s a hard movie to dislike.

I just wished I had laughed more.

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