The Lurid Humanism of BlacKkKlansman and Sharp Objects

Spike Lee uses D. W. Griffin’s incendiary Birth of a Nation in quasi-meta fashion in his masterful comeback film about racists getting their comeuppance, the wildly entertaining yet sobering BlacKkKlansman.  If the former film was “history written by lightning,” then the latter might be “satire written by thunder.”  But while Lee and his screenwriters are thunderous in their political leanings, the filmmakers are most effective in delivery of the message because of how taut, understated and meticulous they are in the weaving of their storytelling craft.

BlacKkKlansman is a procedural undercover cop jawn about Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington in a “star is born” type performance and a chip off the old block of his dad Denzel) who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK (almost on a lark, in prank-phone call style) in the 1970’s.  When the KKK agrees to meet him in person for the purpose of initiation, he convinces his sergeant to let him use his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, shockingly good) to pose as the eager new racist recruit.  Thus we end up with Jewish cop pretending to be a black cop pretending to be a white supremacist…and getting away with it…and stopping a terrorist bombing to boot.  It would all be ludicrous if it wasn’t true (though apparently some of the details of the actual case are played with loosely here for the purpose of entertainment and message delivery).  There’s a lot more going on in the film, and it’s tonally played to expert effect flipping between a satirical comedy of manners and a cop thriller about the worst kind of criminals.

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From Whence Did This Beast Spring?

On the isle of Jersey, a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley – a revelation) emotionally enslaved by her manipulative and unforgiving family (headed by her posh, cruel, ice-queen of a mother played perfectly by Geraldine James) has a chance encounter with a guy from the wrong side of the sand dunes named Pascal (Johnny Flynn) that leads to a dangerous romance amidst the frenzied summer of a serial killer on the loose in Michael Pearce’s electrifying and disturbing directorial debut, Beast.

Beast is a classic sleeper film, having come presumably out of nowhere, and confounds all expectations of its tried and true “doomed romance” genre, here presented through the lenses of neo-noir and modern gothic.  The less you know about the film going in the better.  The complex psychological disturbances it displays (and transmitted exceptionally well by the cast, and most of all, by Buckley) need to be wrestled with, unpacked…not unlike the work one would do in therapy to better understand their past trauma and current motivations.  For Moll, who is introduced to us through her own voice-over about the tragic fates of killer whales isolated in captivity (a chilling metaphor for what is about to unfold), being ostracized is clearly a trigger, but what the film accomplishes so brilliantly is confusion in the mind of the viewer.  What are the true motives behind Moll and Pascal’s behavior?  They compel us to sympathize with them even as we watch them careen into emotional and criminal mind-fields.  Continue reading

The Heart of the Matter in Beirut

There’s a great scene in Brad Anderson’s latest film, Beirut, where a former party-diplomat turned washed-up labor contract negotiator Mason Skiles (a frazzled-yet-still-dapper-perfect Jon Hamm) settles into his Beirut highrise hotel after returning to the city for the first time in a decade and after finding it a hostile, gunshots-outside-of-the-airport-and-checkpoint-riddled mess, pours himself a drink and walks to the window to take in the bitter, shattered view of a stooping, bombed-out skyline.  Anderson’s camera then shifts POV’s to that of the bombed out skyline as it pans out and we see Mason staring out his window, the hotel itself one of those battered buildings, a shell-hole and tentacled crack blighting its side just a few windows away from Mason’s own.

You can imagine a late-era Graham Greene having written the scene, but it’s Tony Gilroy who penned the screenplay instead.  Gilroy adroitly uses the civil war-torn era Beirut of the 70’s and early 80’s the same way Greene used WWII blitzkrieg era London (in The End of the Affair) and post-WWII era Vienna (in The Third Man).  It’s a cluster **** of diplomatic nightmares, crumbling buildings, intrigue and perils (of both the heart and the body).  Continue reading

Shhh Will You Please Be A Quiet Place?

*SPOILERS CONTAINED IN THIS REVIEW*

Apparently marrying Emily Blunt can give a guy an ego the size of Will Smith’s.  Case in point: John “Jim from The Office” Krasinski, who has the nerve to star and direct in his own horror allegory vanity project, A Quiet Place, and cast himself next to his wife (the future Mary Poppins) who is quite frankly pretty amazing in anything…no exception here.  Krasinski (a usually amiable goofball) is pretty terrible as a serious actor, but he’s a decent little workmanlike director, and his wife and the two kid actors (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) give compelling performances that allow their characters and the action to rise above Krasinki’s and the screenwriters’ shortcomings.  The film, though far from original in either theme (shhh…you gotta stay quiet to survive this post apocalyptic horror show run by marauding blind monsters who hunt by sound) or design (haven’t we seen these clicking gawky body-ripping creatures before…like, in everything…oh wait, they have really nifty ears here), ends up being above average for the genre.

The whole thing is overtly an allegory about parenting…but you know, the “parents need to be martyrs” and “father knows best” over-protective “the world is a dangerous place” patriarchal kind of parenting.  Continue reading

Is The Death of Stalin Funny?

Seriously.  Is the Death of Stalin funny?  Not the actual event of Joseph Stalin’s historical death (no death, not even that of a mass-murdering dictator is funny…right?) but the movie, The Death of Stalin…is it funny?  I’m asking for a friend.

Can a film that ends with a central character being shot dead, and his body then burned, being placed literally into the ash heap of history, be funny?

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Steve Buscemi…as Nickita Khrushchev!  He’s brilliant, as per usual.  Buscemi deftly goes from neurotic joke-man to cold-blooded power-grabber (oh, that’s so Buscemi).  But is the performance…funny?  I mean, yes…it is (as is Jeffrey Tambor as an air-headed and feckless Georgy Malekov)…but funny how?  Funny how it looks?  How it sounds…Steve Buscemi…as Khrushchev?  Funny ha-ha?

Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame) has become the modern master of the politic satire (usually aimed at current events), but here is a historical period-piece.  What’s his end-game?  A correlation to Putin’s Russia?  Trump’s America?  Any cult of personality that innately leads to gas-lighting the public and internal chaos?  Is this a cautionary tale? Continue reading

To Serve the Governed not the Governors in The Post

Could it be more a more timely moment than now for Hollywood to remind the public (and Washington) of the purpose of the free press?

The first hour of The Post is a rather hum-drum by the numbers affair about the lead up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, first by the New York Times (who instantly get sued by the Nixon administration) and then by the Washington Post.  But hey, it’s Steven Spielberg directing…and Meryl Streep as the “I can’t believe I got into this mess but by golly am I gonna make something of myself by leading with my gut here!” owner of the titular Post…and Tom Hanks as chief editor Ben Bradlee (previously featured in All The President’s Men, to which this film cannily sets itself up as a prequel in the final moments)…and just look at all those TV stars in supporting roles (Carrie Coon!  Bob Odenkirk!  His comedy pal David Cross!  Bradley Whitford!).  So what the heck, the humming looks and sounds great, even if it’s all a bit dry.

But then, thanks to Spielberg’s midstream change of pacing (and the work of excellent editors), and John Williams’ score that hums like that of a great thriller, all of a sudden this little bit of “history we already knew” plays like a cracker-jack suspense flick as reporters feverishly try to meet the printing deadline working out of Bradlee’s drawing-room, and lawyers and whatnot weigh in on the implications of publishing the top-secret stuff. Continue reading

The Spin’s Cinema Rewind: 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2017:

  1. Phantom Thread – d. Paul Thomas Anderson
  2. Wind River – d. Taylor Sheridan
  3. Dunkirk – d. Christopher Nolan
  4. Blade Runner 2049 – d. Denis Villeneuve
  5. Personal Shopper -d. Olivier Assayas
  6. Mudbound – d. Dee Rees
  7. The Beguiled – d. Sofia Coppola
  8. Get Out – d. Jordan Peele
  9. Wonder Woman – d. Patty Jenkins
  10. Lady Bird – d. Greta Gerwig

Honorable Mentions:

Notable Omissions (films I’ve yet to see that are showing up on a many Top Ten lists):

Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, I Tonya, The Post, All the Money in the World

Most Overrated:

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – d. Martin McDonagh
  • The Big Sickd. Michael Showalter

Worst Films of the Year:

Tell us what your pick was for Best Film of 2017.

What movies would make your Top Ten List?

Speak your mind and join the discussion by leaving a comment!

If you’re a fellow film blogger with your own awards, top ten list or 2016 wrap-up, share your links in the comment form.

Every Little Stitch of Alma and Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread opens with a simple, stately title card and the emerging sound of a crackling fire.  Soon, a moodily lit young woman (an impeccably unpredictable Vicky Krieps) is providing the introductory voice-over to our cinematic affair.  Right there, Anderson upends our expectations, as this being a Daniel Day Lewis film (and purportedly his last!), one expected if anyone would be narrating this tale, it would have been him.

Daniel Day Lewis is indeed the main focus of attention, a classic Andersonian archetype, the tortured artist/mad genius…a true narcissist who is also somehow sympathetic, likely a result of Lewis’ and Anderson’s own symbiotic genius.  Their finely stitched designer Reynolds Woodcock is the toast of the 1950’s London fashion scene, and his art, those costumes, are to die for.  But the story is told mostly from the point of view of his new love interest, the enigmatic Alma (Krieps), an initially demure waitress he picked up in the British countryside…both actress and environ exquisitely photographed, as is every single thing, by Anderson’s camera lens.

We know there’s more to Alma because of how Anderson frames the story, but we’re never given any exposition on her (and only a modicum of backstory – mostly surrounding his mother – for Reynolds) and thus we’re forced to judge her (and ultimately Reynolds) only by what unfolds on-screen.  We slowly see how Alma takes hold and upends Reynolds’ structured life enmeshed with his sister Cyril (a perfectly reserved but commanding Lesley Manville).  Alma is far more than the typical girl Reynolds and Cyril routinely toss aside like an off-season dress.  In fact, she emerges from her cocoon as another Andersonian archetype…the person willing to do anything to fit into, and keep together, their new makeshift family, no matter how dysfunctional (in ways both comic and tragic) that family becomes. Continue reading

Movies I’ve seen this year that I didn’t review because they were just totally Meh or Eww but now at the end of the year I want to tell you about them

The Big Sick – Meh.  It wasn’t funny.  At all.  Deadly serious, actually.  But it was an okay relationship drama.

Darkest Hour – Meh.  It was actually quite good (especially Gary Oldman’s impersonation of Winston Churchill, and some of those cool “views from above planes” pan-over shots)…but after Dunkirk, this “behind the scenes” political game came across as perfunctory.

Personal Shopper – WOW!  I tricked you, just like director Olivier Assayas did to the audience here!  This one (though horribly ineptly titled) is actually a minor masterpiece likely to make my top ten list for the year.  As I proclaimed on the Facebooks after watching it, “So like seriously, we just watched a Kristen Stewart movie where she was texting with a stranger on the Paris-to-London Chunnel for 20-30 minutes, and it was scary as hell.  Personal Shopper is a truly modern ghost story that will perplex, unnerve, and move you.”

The Dinner – Eww.  Do yourself a favor and just have an actual dinner.  Skip this tripe about the 1% all together.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Eww.  Double Eww.  Triple Eww.  Vile bougie trash that’s not even worth being set on fire.

What if this is the Best Version in Lady Bird?

When her mother (Laurie Metcalf) states that all she wants is for her daughter to be the best possible version of herself she can be, our titular anti-hero (Saoirse Ronan) delivers that biting and heartbreaking line that’s been playing in all the trailers for Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age tale, “What if this is the best version?”

It leaves one to wonder if this film is the best version of the writer-director?  The story of a Catholic school senior in Sacramento, California finding her way while dreaming of going to college in NYC is highly autobiographical.  And while it brings out the best in Gerwig as an artist, I can’t help but hope (like Metcalf’s character) for more from her that will surprise and delight us in the years to come.  Many of the quirks people have come to love or loathe in Gerwig (mostly from her work with Noah Baumbach) are present here, but distilled through the amazing Ronan they become more palpable and endearing to the masses (and I write this as a fan of Gerwig in all her faults and glories as an actress).  Likewise, Lady Bird longs for acceptance of her whole self, warts and all, from those around her, especially her mother. Continue reading