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.

—-END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TAG (2018) – Uneven Comedy Actually Based on True Story

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The craziest thing about the new comedy TAG (2018) is that it’s actually based on a true story.

So, as much as I want to say that the plot point of a group of adults still playing tag is rather ridiculous, it actually happened. There really were a group of childhood friends who continued to play tag well into adulthood.

As a famous sports announcer used to say, how about that!

And that’s exactly the story that TAG has to tell.

Hogan (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Kevin (Hannibal Buress), Chilli (Jake Johnson), and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) have been friends since childhood, and now as adults, they continue to play the game of tag which they used to play as kids. It’s their way of both keeping young and keeping in touch, literally. Once a year, during the month of May, regardless of where they are, they find each other and play tag, and no one wants to be stuck being “it” for a year once the month ends.

And the one friend who has never been “it” is Jerry. He’s so good at the game that he’s never been tagged. Not once. And so the other four friends gang up on him with the plan of finally making Jerry “it.”

I have to admit, watching adult males doing whatever it takes to tag their friend and make him “it,” whether it be by taking fake jobs to get close to their target, wearing an old lady disguise, breaking into homes, and even crashing AA meetings, is fairly amusing. Up to a point.

I judge comedies by how much I laugh, and watching TAG, I laughed fairly often, but most of these laughs came during the first half of the movie. For the most part it’s a likable enough comedy, but it never becomes a laugh-to-you-cry type of experience. And that’s because even though this is based on a true story, the novelty of watching adult males playing tag only goes so far.

The jokes and situations needed to be sharper. The screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen is okay.  It does a nice job showing the lengths these guys go to in order to win the game, but during the film’s second half it’s just begging for things to get over the top and completely out of control, but this doesn’t happen, as the story goes for some sentimentality instead.

The recent comedy GAME NIGHT (2018), another “friends” comedy with a different contrivance -friends playing a murder/mystery game that unknown to them was in fact real— I thought had a stronger screenplay, with more jokes that worked and much funnier situations.  TAG has its moments, but it doesn’t stay consistently funny throughout.

The cast is fine. Ed Helms sort of has the lead role, as his character Hogan seems to try the hardest to win the game. Helms can do this sort of thing in his sleep, which is part of the problem. It’s nothing we haven’t seen Helms do before. I enjoyed him much more cast against type in a dramatic role in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2017).

I’m a big Jon Hamm fan, and he kinda plays it straight here. He spends most of the time reacting to what his other friends are doing.  I would have preferred to have seen Hamm stretch his acting chops and go for some comedic timing.

The guy who is really funny is Hannibal Buress as Kevin.  He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Jake Johnson is okay as Chilli, but the character is rather annoying and is certainly the least likable of the friends, which is saying a lot since Jeremy Renner’s character Jerry isn’t likable either.  I enjoyed Johnson much more on the TV show NEW GIRL (2011-18).

I can’t say that I enjoyed Jeremy Renner all that much either. His character Jerry spends most of the film talking down to his friends and acting superior to them. I get that he’s supposed to the tag champion, but the writing here does the character and the story no favors by making him a very unlikable guy.

And even though this is based on a true story, I doubt the game included the intricately choreographed stunts and fight moves that Jerry uses to elude his friends. Strangely, these CGI enhanced scenes, which reminded me a lot of the action scenes in the movie KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014) were among the least funny scenes in the film.

On the other hand, some of the earlier scenes of physical comedy, scenes where Chilli tries to leap from a fire escape and where Jon Hamm’s Bob tries to smash through some unbreakable glass, for example, are funny.  Much of the film relies on the use of heavy slapstick rather than verbal jokes, but with mixed results, as a lot of those polished staged action scenes just don’t tickle the funny bone.

The women in the cast actually score a bit higher than the men.  Isla Fisher is hilarious as Hogan’s wife Anna. She makes Anna an over the top intense character, and it’s the type of thing that’s missing from her male co-stars’ performances. As such, it’s my favorite performance in the movie

I’m also a fan of Annabelle Wallis, a talented actress who is still waiting for her break-out film role.  She’s been in such movies as ANNABELLE (2014), KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017), and, ugh, THE MUMMY (2017), and she was also on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-2016). She plays it straight here as the newspaper reporter who decides to tell the guys’ story, but she’s very good in what otherwise could have been a forgettable role. She’s someone to watch going forward.

Director Jeff Tomsic gets mixed results with this one. I thought the plot was a good one. It was fun to watch how far these guys would go to play tag, and early on the physical comedy was pretty uproarious, but the film actually becomes less funny as it goes along because the concept of adults playing tag gets old quick without a strong script to add depth and keep things going.

I also never got the feel for how close these guys were. They said they were friends, but we don’t really see it other than in the context of the silly game of tag.

And I didn’t really like the Jeremy Renner “action” scenes at all. I thought they were the most phony and unfunny parts of the film.

TAG has its moments, and these moments were good enough to make me laugh here and there, but taken as a whole, it’s not quite the solid comedy it starts out to be. Like most games of tag, it kinda fizzles out after a while.

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CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) – Recounts Tragic Ted Kennedy Car Crash and Subsequent Cover-up

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) tells the tragic tale of a young woman who lost her life when the car she was riding in crashed off a rickety wooden bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into the water below where, trapped inside the car, she drowned, while the drunk man at the wheel swam to safety.

The man, of course, was Senator Ted Kennedy.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells this true story through the prism of what the Kennedy name meant to the United States in 1969. It had been just over one year since Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just six years before, and all eyes were on young Ted Kennedy as the heir apparent.  JFK’s work was left unfinished, and when Robert Kennedy attempted to take up the mantle, he too was cut down.  The feeling in 1969 wasn’t so much that the Kennedys were entitled, but that their vision for the United States— one of optimism and promise— was desperately needed.  People wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president.

The problem was Ted himself wasn’t all that interested. He had lived in the shadows of his older brothers his whole life and felt the sting of a strict father who seemed to view him as much less of a man than his older brothers.  And then there was his safety to consider.  We see Ted wearing a bullet proof vest at one point.  The Ted Kennedy we see in CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a sad, somber soul, a lost soul, trying to make his way in the world, feeling unbelievable pressure to do something he didn’t really want to do, and pretty much behaving in a way that suggested he wanted to get away from it all.

And on this particular weekend in 1969 his brother John’s legacy was on full display as Neil Armstrong was about to set foot on the moon, and all the newscasts were hearkening back to JFK’s inspiring words which had propelled the space program forward in the early 1960s.

So, when the accident happened, there was a prevalent feeling to protect Ted Kennedy, not because he was wealthy and privileged, but because he was needed to continue the work of his brothers and keep the nation on a positive path.  This view was shared by both those in power on Kennedy’s side and a large portion of the general public who even after the story broke still said they would vote for him, and of course in reality they actually did.

But still, a young woman lay dead in a car submerged underwater.

Early in CHAPPAQUIDDICK, young Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) set up a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, located near Martha’s Vineyard, for the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.  It was meant to be a reunion and celebration of the work these women had done on Robert Kennedy’s behalf.

Kennedy chats with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and asks her to join his staff in Washington, D.C., but she declines, saying she doesn’t think she can handle another presidential campaign, to which Kennedy replies that she won’t have to, the implication being that he’s not going to run for president. Later in the evening, the two leave the party and take a drive into the night where they continue to chat, and as they attempt to travel to a secluded beach, the drunken Kennedy drives off the infamous bridge into the water.

He somehow manages to escape the car, and he makes his way back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe what happened.  They return to the scene of the accident, along with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they attempt unsuccessfully to extract Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle. Joe tells Ted that he must report the accident, the sooner the better, and Ted agrees. However, Ted does not report it.  Instead, he returns to his hotel room in Edgartown, and he calls his ailing father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who can barely speak, but the Kennedy patriarch does say one word to his son: alibi.

It takes ten hours before the conflicted Ted Kennedy finally decides to report the incident, and after going back and forth with what to say, admits that he was indeed the driver of the vehicle.  What follows is the tale of the cover up, the powerful advisors on one side, who are doing everything in their power to create a false narrative to save Ted’s political career, and Ted’s cousin Joe on the other side, imploring him to remember that a young woman is dead and for him to tell the truth. In the middle is a confused young Senator who seems lost throughout these events, pulled in multiple directions, conflicted between doing the right thing for himself, for his family, for his country, and for Mary Jo Kopechne. In short, he doesn’t have a clue.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells a somber story that portrays Ted Kennedy as a conflicted, confused figure. At times he comes off as sympathetic because he seems to want to do the right thing, but more often than not he’s seen as a massively frustrating figure who completely and continually botches the situation, and if not for his famous name could and most likely should have easily gone to jail for manslaughter.

But the best part of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is it tells its tale with Mary Jo Kopechne at its forefront.  Never does the movie allow its audience to forget that Mary Jo Kopechne, a promising young woman with a bright future ahead of her, lost her life that night. Worse yet, it’s quite possible she died not only because of Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving, but because he didn’t call for help immediately.  The film intimates that she survived for a while inside the vehicle before ultimately passing away.

Jason Clarke delivers a grave performance as Ted Kennedy. He portrays Kennedy with a “deer in the headlights” expression throughout.  He makes Kennedy a man who seemed completely lost and overwhelmed by the events around him. Should he listen to his father and lie? Or to his cousin Joe and tell the truth? He portrays Kennedy as a man who knows what’s expected of him because of his family name, yet seems to want to carve out his own path in life, and when this tragedy occurs, at his own hands, he goes back and forth between owning up and saving his political hide for the sake of a nation. One thing that Kennedy is not portrayed as is a cold-hearted manipulator.

Jason Clarke has delivered some fine performances in the past, in films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), but this might be his finest work yet. He captures the essense of the conflicted Kennedy so perfectly you almost can feel a migraine coming on while watching him.

I’m a huge fan of Kate Mara, and I’m still waiting for her breakout role. With very limited screen time here, this isn’t it, but she’s still excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne. In her brief time on-screen, Mara makes Mary Jo a three-dimensional character, one whose presence is felt throughout the film, even after she has drowned.

Ed Helms gives the most memorable performance in the film as Kennedy cousin and “fixer” Joe Gargan. Normally a comedic actor, Helms more than holds his own in this dramatic role. He’s the voice of reason in this story and its conscience, the voice audiences hope Ted Kennedy listens to, but ultimately that’s not what happened.

Bruce Dern also makes an impact as the gravely ill and very harsh Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy, who would die a few months after the Chappaquiddick incident. At this time, Joe Kennedy could barely speak, and as such Dern’s performance is pretty much sans dialogue.  He does manage to utter that one cold calculating word to his son over the phone, “alibi,” and later when Ted opens his heart to his father and says he’s unsure of who he is and where he’s going, but he does know he wants to be a great man, his father responds, “you’ll never be great.” Ted hugs him anyway.

Clancy Brown is memorable as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense called in to “fix” the Chappaquiddick incident.  As is Olivia Thirlby as fellow “Boiler Girl” and Mary Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff who utters the prophetic line to Ted that even Mary Jo’s parents didn’t blame him for her death, so why should America?

The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pretty much tells two stories. On the one hand, there’s the ugly tale of Kennedy’s cowardly negligence which led to the tragic death of a young woman and the subsequent cover up by the rich and powerful powers that be to save the political career of a young senator with a famous name. But there’s also the story of a nation still mourning the loss of its beloved Kennedy brothers, and how the voting public was willing to turn a blind eye on the actions of the man who they hoped would be the successor to these leaders, the younger brother, Ted Kennedy.

And in the middle of both stories, a conflicted, sad, confused, and for one fateful evening completely irresponsible Senator Ted Kennedy, who if not for his name, should have gone to jail for both his actions and inactions. Instead, he served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for over 40 years.

Director John Curran captures the salty feel of a Massachusetts island to the point where you can smell the unpleasant odor of the ocean, and it smells like death, ugly incompetence, and the vulgar actions of a political cover-up.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. 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

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

DETROIT (2017) – Powerful Portrait of 1967 Detroit Race Riots

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The best part about DETROIT (2017), director Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit, is that it doesn’t play like a movie at all.  It comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the horror which occurred during that time.  It’s based on a true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit.

In DETROIT, you won’t find traditional characterizations, main characters with background stories and depth, a plot with a neat and tidy story arc, or anything else that makes you think you are watching a movie.  You will find horror and revulsion.

The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside a hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  This wince-inducing sequence takes up a sizable chunk of the movie.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat, wishing it would just end, but it doesn’t end.  It goes on, and as such, it’s one of the more riveting sequences in a movie I’ve seen in a long while.  Not only are the Detroit police tactics disturbing, but the fact that everyone else on the scene— the State Police, the National Guard soldiers— look the other way is equally sickening.

DETROIT opens at the outset of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, and then follows a group of characters whose fate becomes connected when they cross paths at the Algiers Motel. When someone shoots a toy gun in the vicinity of the National Guard soldiers on the street, it’s mistaken for sniper fire.  The Detroit police descend upon the hotel with the soldiers, and the police interrogation begins.

Top-billed John Boyega plays a young black man named Dismukes who’s working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  One of the jobs he holds is as a security officer in a building across the street from the Algiers Motel.  Dismukes has a good head on his shoulders, and early on he brings coffee to the National Guard soldiers, alerting them that he’s across the street guarding the building, letting them know that if things go down, he’s on their side, which is exactly what happens when the “sniper fire” draws the authorities to the Algiers Motel.

Dismukes is on the scene as well.  He views it as his duty to keep as many people alive as possible, and so he goes out of his way to play level-headed peacemaker, which in this case, since he also allows the police violence to continue, may not have been the best idea.  Dismukes is accused later by his black brethren of being an “Uncle Tom.”

Since there aren’t any lead roles here, fans of John Boyega might be disappointed that he’s not in this one more, but it’s still a much meatier role than when we saw Boyega last, in THE CIRCLE (2017), which really wasted Boyega’s talent.  He does a nice job here as Dismukes.  I found Boyega’s performance reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington.

The other big name in the cast is Anthony Mackie, who plays a former soldier recently home from Vietnam named Greene who finds himself among the interrogated.  It’s a good performance by Mackie, and the scene where he decides he won’t lay down for the police is a potent moment.  It’s also jarring to watch this character, someone who fought in Vietnam and survived, beaten back home in the United States by officers of the Detroit police department.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Algee Smith as Larry, a young singer whose group’s performance was cancelled by the riots.  The group becomes separated, and Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel. Smith nails the emotions, from fear to disillusionment to eventually anger.  Likewise, Jacob Latimore is very good as Fred, who like the rest of the black men forced against the wall during the interrogation, becomes more and more terrified as the night goes on.

But the most memorable performance in the film just might belong to Will Poulter as the racist Detroit police officer Krauss. You can’t take your eyes off this guy.  He’s that despicable.  This might be a break-out role for Poulter, who starred in THE MAZE RUNNER (2014) and was in THE REVENANT (2015), but I remember Poulter most for his role as Jennifer Aniston’s and Jason Sudekis’ son in the comedy WE’RE THE MILLERS (2013).  Poulter’s work here is about as far removed from his comic work in WE’RE THE MILLERS as you can get.

Likewise, Ben O’Toole is nearly as chilling as Krauss’ partner Flynn.  They’re the epitome of racist police officers.

And while DETROIT doesn’t paint a positive picture of the Detroit police, it does show that these two officers did not represent the entire department.  During the movie, we see other white officers helping black people, and we see other white officers chastising Krauss’ motivations.  The problem is, and this is where the film remains true to life, that while most did not share Krauss’ views towards blacks, no one felt strong enough to do anything about it.  This film is every bit as much about those who turned a blind eye on the proceedings as those like Krauss who instigated them.

There are also two strong performances by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as two white women, Julie and Karen, staying at the motel.  When they are found with the black men, they are accused by the police as being whores.  They endure both verbal abuse and in Julie’s case physical abuse, as the police strip her top from her.

The screenplay by Mark Boal is first-rate, which is no surprise, since Boal also wrote the screenplays to the two other critically acclaimed movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).  The dialogue is superb, the situations tense, and the characters while not fleshed out in the traditional way are all very real.

Director Kathryn Bigelow makes full use of her camera, from painful close-ups to terse hand-held camera work during chase scenes.  She also captures the race riot streets of 1967 Detroit.  I really felt as if I had been transported back to this volatile time.

I would imagine Bigelow will receive some backlash regarding this movie, as it’s a rather one-sided interpretation, and the police are not on the bright side of this one.  But the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

DETROIT is a superior movie, a powerful movie, and one that is even more disturbing because it takes place in a country that is known for its freedom and its rights, but as shown in this movie, those freedom and rights don’t extend to everybody.

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Little Boy Lost In LION (2016)

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LION (2016) tells the incredible true story of a five year-old boy named Saroo who became lost on the streets of Calcutta in 1986 and found himself alone thousand of miles from home.

The movie opens with little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) enjoying a simple life with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and baby sister.  When Guddu allows Saroo to join him on a long trip to go to work, it proves too much for Saroo, and the young boy falls asleep.  Guddu leaves Saroo at the train station and tells him to stay and wait for him to return.

When Saroo awakes, the train station is empty and Guddu is gone.  In search of his older brother, Saroo enters a stationary train where he again falls asleep.  When he awakes, the train is moving, whisking him miles away from his home.  When Saroo finally gets off the train, he finds himself on the dangerous streets of Calcutta, lost and alone.  He meets other homeless children, but their time together is cut short as a group of men descend upon them, rounding them up, but Saroo escapes.

Eventually Saroo is taken in by an orphanage.  He doesn’t speak the same language as the people in Calcutta, and he doesn’t know where he lives, and so the officials have no way of knowing where he came from or how to bring him back home.

Saroo is later adopted by an Australian couple, John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman).  He moves to Australia where he learns English and grows up.

The movie then jumps ahead to 2010, where we meet the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) who eventually makes it his mission to finally find out where he came from and to return back home to India to find the family he left behind.

LION is an agreeable movie that draws you in right away with its vibrant and colorful shots of India as seen through the innocent eyes of young Saroo.  The story grows more compelling when Saroo is lost on the streets of Calcutta,and this first half of the movie is definitely its best part.  The latter half which follows the adult Saroo’s quest to find his home is a tad slow and far less interesting. But it does set up the film’s emotional and very satisfying conclusion.  You’d better keep those tissues handy.

While I liked LION a lot, I didn’t love it.

I really enjoyed young Sunny Pawar as the five year-old Saroo and almost wish the entire movie had been about him.  The young actor pretty much steals the movie.

Not to take anything away from Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, but his storyline is never as interesting as the story told through the eyes of the five year-old Saroo.  That being said, Dev Patel is still very good and has some effective scenes in this one.  Patel of course starred in the Oscar-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), as well as the recent THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (2015).

Patel enjoys some nice chemistry with Rooney Mara who plays Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy.  He also shares a moving scene with Nicole Kidman, where the adopted son and mother open up about their relationship, and she tells Saroo of a dream she once had, and why it was that she and her husband, even though they could have children, decided it would be better to adopt instead.  It’s Kidman’s best moment in the film.

Under Garth Davis’ direction, the film moves at a deliberate pace.  It’s well-photographed, especially the first half of the movie, which captures a world as seen through the eyes of a five year-old.

The screenplay by the real Saroo Brierley and Luke Davies, based on Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home” is excellent.

LION has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and while I liked it very much, I did enjoy some of the other Oscar contenders more, films like LA LA LAND, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and HIDDEN FIGURES.

That being said, LION is still worth a trip to the theater.

By the way, the film gets its title from Saroo’s name.  Saroo learns when he returns home that he had been mispronouncing and misspelling his name.  It was not Saroo but Sheru, which means “Lion.”

—END—

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.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 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.  

 

 

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) Struggles to Stay Afloat

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deepwater-horizon

There’s a fine line between having a compelling story to tell, and telling a compelling story.

The recent movie SULLY (2016) is a perfect example of the latter.  It had a compelling story to tell, and director Clint Eastwood knew how to tell it.

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016), on the other hand, tells the story of the 2010 explosion on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, an event that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  It’s a memorable story, but the movie struggles to tell it.

The film opens with Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) at home with his family, getting ready to say farewell to them for a few weeks while he returns to work on the Deepwater Horizon.  He’s enjoying time with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and their daughter, and if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you’ve seen the cute conversation they all share over their breakfast table.  It actually made for a very effective trailer, but here in the film it only adds to a rather slow beginning.

The purpose of these early family scenes is to personalize the story.  Rather than follow the lives of many people on the rig, the film chooses to follow mostly Mike, and to juxtapose his scenes with those of the panicked Felicia back home.  This really isn’t all that effective, and sadly reduces Kate Hudson to being in a series of reaction shots where she doesn’t do much more than look worried.

So Mike goes off to work and meets up with his boss Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez).  Once on the rig, Jimmy immediately butts heads with members of the company that owns Deepwater Horizon led by a man named Vidrine (John Malkovich) who has been cutting costs by skimping on routine safety checks because he believes the Deepwater Horizon will work fine without them.  Jimmy, of course, is protective of his crew and refuses to proceed without the necessary precautionary tests.

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s tests are too little too late, as the company had let things slide so badly, that in the middle of one of the tests, the equipment is compromised and there is a gush of mud which overheats the engines and leads to a catastrophic explosion.

DEEPWATER HORIZON gets off to a sluggish start, and even though I was interested in this story, because I knew what it was about, the film didn’t grab my attention.  The early scenes with Mike and his family were okay, and the ensuing arguments between Jimmy and the company were certainly interesting, but there’s a whole rig full of people, and we don’t really get to know many of the characters at all.  Before the explosion, most of the exposition was simple and dull.

Once the explosion occurs, things pick up, but that being said, for a disaster movie, none of the scenes really wowed me.  Most of the action occurs at a rapid fire pace, and the camera is in close, making it very difficult to see what’s going on.  It also doesn’t help that the only character we’ve really gotten to know is Mike, so when the camera is on him, things are captivating, but whenever the action follows someone else, it’s like following a random red shirt on an episode of STAR TREK.

Director Peter Berg does an undistinguished job capturing the action.  The film is begging for an establishing shot, seeing the scene unfold from a distance so we can have a sense of the scope of the tragedy.  While there are some shots of Deepwater Horizon burning, for the bulk of the action, the camera is in way too close and it’s difficult to discern just what exactly is happening.  There’s plenty of mud shooting around, plenty of men slipping and sliding, explosions, fire everywhere, people scrambling, but left out of the whole thing were my emotions.  I didn’t know the people in this tragedy, and the movie suffered for it.

The film also does little with the actual Coast Guard rescue of these folks.  We hardly see what happens at all.  In SULLY, the rescue was one of the movie’s high points.  Not so here.

The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand was meh.  I didn’t really like the background story of Mike and his family, as it didn’t add anything here.  Again, to compare to SULLY, in that film, Tom Hanks’ character converses with his worried wife over the phone on several occasions, but those conversations moved the plot forward, as they gave Hanks’ character opportunities to question his actions.  The scenes here between Mike and his wife Felicia do not move the plot forward.  They only stall the story.

The dialogue was flat and uninspiring, very generic, except for the one sequence where Mike gets in Andrea’s face and really lays it on her as to why they are going to survive.  It’s also Wahlberg’s best moment in the movie.  The best dialogue belongs to Kurt Russell’s Jimmy, but once the explosion hits, Jimmy takes a back seat to Mike in the story.

Matthew Michael Carnahan was also one of the screenwriters on WORLD WAR Z (2013), a film I liked a bit more than DEEPWATER HORIZON.

Mark Wahlberg is fine here as Mike.  It’s the type of role Wahlberg can play in his sleep, at this point.  His performance is good enough to carry this movie, except that he really doesn’t have a lot of potent scenes in this one.  His best scene comes near the end when he pushes the panicked Andrea to survive.

Actually, my favorite performance in the movie belonged to Kurt Russell as Jimmy.  He really brings Jimmy to life, and you feel from the get-go that Jimmy takes his job seriously and that he will not compromise the lives of his crew.  We’ve been seeing more of Russell in the movies lately, and I hope this trend continues.  The only drawback is that most of Russell’s screen time here occurs before the explosion.

Kate Hudson is largely wasted in a throwaway role as Mike’s wife Felicia.  John Malkovich is okay as one of the cost-cutting meanies from the company, but he’s not really in this one a whole lot.

On the contrary, Gina Rodriguez is very good as Andrea Fleytas, the woman who helms the controls on Deepwater Horizon.  The rest of the cast are little more than interchangeable cardboard cutouts.

The strongest thing DEEPWATER HORIZON has to offer is the true story on which it is based.  This is reiterated during the movie’s end credits, when we see the names and photographs of the men killed during the explosion.

But source material alone isn’t enough to make a powerful movie.  A film needs a strong storytelling component, generated by creative directing and a sharp script. DEEPWATER HORIZON has neither.

As such, in spite of its gripping story, it struggles to stay afloat.

—END—