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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Well, He’s No Solomon…in Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship

Mild-mannered, well-groomed, high-stakes, period-piece social satire reigns supreme in Whit Stillman’s sharp film adaptation of a “lost” and incomplete Jane Austen novella.  Austen simply titled it after her conniving, widowed but still lively anti-heroine Lady Susan (played with perfectly vivacious high-brow snark by Kate Beckinsale), but Stillman plays on Austen’s “Blank & Blank” template and renames it Love & Friendship.  The title itself a rouse, much like the import of debutante season in Stillman’s Metropolitan.

As in the most superior of Austen or Stillman works, high society types are on display in all of their entertaining mannerisms and foibles.  The two authors separated by centuries seem a perfect marriage, as humor both scathing and dry, bites and blows across the posh manners, country estates and London townhouses where Susan plots to find both her and her daughter (Morfydd Clark) rich husbands to secure their futures.  Never do the characters seem aware of their preposterousness, as if all of life is a parlor game, and their scruples (or lack thereof) never are challenged even as gossip and innuendos challenge their lot and plot. Continue reading

Nightcrawler or How to Start Your Own Business

Nightcrawler

Wow…what a scathing satire Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler would’ve been in say…1994 or 1995 on the heels of the OJ Simpson “White Bronco Chase” that was ushering in a new age of television reporting.  What a horrific view of what was to come…a prescient prediction of how bad it could get (and did get) if we continued down that road.  Instead, it’s 2014, and Nightcrawler crashes into screens, oddly anachronistic, taking place in some bizarro-world where local nightly news still matters and no one seems to be aware of YouTube and social media.  Honestly, who was this film made for?  Scared senior citizens without computers who still watch the nightly news?

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man with no back story who claims to have learned everything on the internet (this, along with his use of the GPS on his phone are the only things that hint at this being a present-day set story), happens by accident upon an accident late one night on the LA streets and is mesmerized by the free-lance film crew (headed by Bill Paxton) capturing video they plan to sell to Channel 6 (whose cool red-lit antenna atop their studios evokes 666…wow…subtle).  Very quickly Lou applies all of that self-help, business 101, go-getter bullshit he read on the internet and begins to crawl the nights searching for anything that bleeds to sell to the Channel 6 news director (Rene Russo).  It’s not long before things escalate and Lou begins to take drastic measures, where he skirts the law and common decency to turn the stories and events he captures into more sensationalistic leads.

Jake Gyllenhaal, thankfully, takes full control of the film.  His performance is what makes Nightcrawler worth watching.  Continue reading

Is Gone Girl the Greatest or the Worst Hate Story Ever Told?

Gone Girl Rosamund Pike

I’m drinking a glass of wine as I write this review of Gone Girl, as I imagine this is how many fans of the book enjoyed reading Gillian Flynn’s twisted and twisty tale of the worst marriage ever.  I didn’t read the book, so the twists came as genuine surprises to me, and I credit my fellow critics for not really spoiling much in their reviews when the book and film are so damn spoilable.

But the thing you have to know about David Fincher’s film adaptation (spun for the screen from Ms. Flynn’s own hands) is that EVERYTHING about it (okay, and maybe this is a spoiler, so sue me)…is a ruse. Continue reading

Intimacy, Technology and Social Media in The Circle and Her

Dave Eggers The Circle

In Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle, young, impressionable and lonely Mae Holland lands a dream job with a utopian posh social media tech company thanks to nepotism.  There she becomes fully immersed in her new work, which turns out to be so much more than just another job, it’s a way of life…and Eggers’ quasi-futuristic look at a corporation-as-religion is both humorous and horrifying.  The Circle, like some parasitic mash-up of Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook is hell-bent on creating a world of complete transparency where cameras monitor everything, and every thought or notion that pops into someone’s head is shared ad nauseum on its social network.  The intentions seem noble – education through access to every piece of information available, surveillance as a way to deter crime, and transparency of governments to create a true global democracy.  But The Circle soon becomes a monopoly bending the populace and world governments to its will under the guise of this being the will of the people who champion The Circle’s causes through “Likes” and sharing.  It quickly becomes obvious that not everything should be known.  Eggers seems to be saying with this cautionary tale that there’s value in mystery and privacy is still a right.

Mae, unfortunately, falls head over heels for The Circle, and her connection to the corporation goes from whirlwind romance to abusive relationship.  She can’t seem to break herself from this way of life even as she witnesses the destruction of friends and family.  Eggers describes moments where Mae gets a certain “high” from posting, pinging, and liking across The Circle, where there’s a feeling of euphoria mixed with exhaustion.  Yet in the corner of her mind she sees a tear in the universe opening up that seems poised to swallow her into utter darkness.  And that’s what all this interconnectedness is…a black hole where synthetic moments take the place a real emotions and connections.

Her Joaquin Phoenix

Eggers’ vision could take place in the same universe as Spike Jonze’s latest and Academy Award nominated film, Her.  His protagonist, Theodore (an awkwardly charming and sad-sack Joaquin Phoenix), seems like the type of guy Mae Holland would date, and The Circle the type of place he might work.  But in Jonze’s universe, Theodore works at a company where he ghost-writes handwritten letters – synthetic pages of falsified emotions – and he’s fallen in love with his new state-of-the-art and self-evolving Operating System named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who gives a breathy and compelling performance without ever appearing on-screen – something that I initially thought of as a crime on Jonze’s part but actually works quite well).  Continue reading

My Rage Against Mandatory Reading

Rat in a Cage Lyrics

…reading the books THEY told me to read!

Sure, I’ll never forget reading Elie Wiesel’s Night or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore honors English class in high school.  Damn shit changed my life.  Even my mopey, proto-goth, depressed sniveling brat self at the “all-knowing” and “all the world sucks” age of fifteen could see this stuff was da bomb and preaching the truth.

But, damn, the OTHER shit we were forced to read in high school scarred me for me life and left me with a counter-productive psychological aversion to anything labeled as mandatory reading…to the point that it took nearly fifteen years before I got over the mandatory reading stigma and finally devoured Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (so clearly one of the greatest novels of all time).  However, despite years of literary therapy and my successful relationship with those wrathful wine pellets, I still to this day absolutely REFUSE to read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  Yes, I still have the nerve to refuse to read Salinger!  S-A-L-I-N-G-E-R!!! (But I might go see that doc about him.)  These classics of mandatory reading somehow slipped through the cracks at my high school, but because they have been mandatory reading for just about every other teen in America over the past sixty odd years, I’ve avoided them unfairly in my adult years.

Why you ask?  Because the following were mandatory reading during my teenage years…and I’ll never forget the pain these books put me through.

Behold, the king of them all, the most egregious piece of mandatory reading I suffered through in my days of delicate youth, a book that almost ruined my love for reading:

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Continue reading

The Quick Spin on Pi, Sugar Man, America and Sleaze

Ah, to dine on filmlandia’s smorgasbord and taste the world!  Behold, the treasures and the trash recently uncovered by the Spin that took us to India, the High Seas, South Africa, Detroit, Middle America and the backwoods swamps of the Deep South.

In Theaters:

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Salty Sweet Pi: I was finally able to catch a screening of the much ballyhooed Life of Pi (in 3D no less, which no joke, is used brilliantly in this film and rises far above its typical gimmick status) which means Haneke’s sure to depress Amour is the only Best Picture Oscar nominee I have yet to see.  Adapted from an international best-seller I never bothered with, Ang Lee’s film is a sure-fire visual stunner featuring some of the best use of 3D ever (I especially loved the opening credits and the sinking of the ship sequences).  You’d have to be blind not be enthralled for two hours, but sadly the film is left adrift by surface level discussions on religion and an all too twee “parable/fable” ending.  Continue reading

America, Jesus and Freedom in The Campaign

If this isn’t the funniest movie of the summer I will punch you in the face!

Like clockwork every two years near the end of summer a Will Ferrell vehicle arrives on the scene to make a case for the title of funniest movie of the year.  In 2004 it was Anchorman, in 2006 it was Talladega Nights, in 2008 it was Step Brothers and in 2010 it was The Other Guys.  Pretty much everything the SNL funny man has done in between these films (spare for the underrated dramedy Stranger than Fiction) has been crap.  Now, in 2012, here comes The Campaign.

Similarly like clockwork every year as we near November (and even more so in presidential election years) we are overwhelmed by negative campaign ads, increasingly absurd political wrangling and non-stop nattering idiots in the media.  It is this milieu that The Campaign wisely and broadly assails. 

In North Carolina’s Mayberry-esque 14th district, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell, doing a great riff on his previous Dubya impersonation crossed with the perfectly coifed sleaziness of John Edwards) has run uncontested for years on three simple words – America, Jesus and Freedom.  But that’s all about to change when the billionaire corporatist Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) see an opportunity to put up a puppet candidate who will help them bring Chinese slave labor to American shores.  In walks the incompetent Marty Huggins (Zack Galifianakis, perfectly embodying the oddly effeminate weirdo Southern mamma’s boy archetype) to run against Brady. Continue reading

The Spin’s Top 60 Comedies of All Time

“You put WHAT on your top comedy list?”

I was recently asked by the film blogger extraordinaires at Wonders in the Dark to submit a ballot for the Top 60 Comedies of All-Time in preparation for their next feature which will tabulate the ballots and produce a definitive list later in the summer.  At first I found the task daunting – as many will remember guest-blogger Nicky D’s hotly contested and wildly popular Top 47 Comedies of All-Time that graced The Spin not so long ago.  For me, comedy is the most subjective and generational-based of genres – and it’s hard to judge films on personal tastes in humor.  However, the always generous Sam Juliano at WitD invited balloters to adopt an “anything goes” policy – meaning – if it’s a comedy to you! – put it on the list.  This opened up the door for me to include some of my favorite accidental comedies as well as satires and dark comedies that many would judge as dramas.  One will see my love for the darker side of comedy in this list, as well as my love for Woody Allen and those rascally kids that had me in stitches when I was a kid – yup – short films are allowed – hence the love for Our Gang.  At any rate…let the debate that started with Nicky D’s list continue as  I present to you my official rebuttal and ballot for the Wonders in the Dark polling.  I will provide no additional commentary and let the list speak for itself… Continue reading

The Cabin in the Woods

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - who do you think is gonna survive?

There’s an interesting moment about twenty minutes into Drew Goddard’s debut film, The Cabin in the Woods (co-scripted by Joss Whedon) where an inanely bad CGI bird comes gliding down into the open space outside a mountain tunnel and crashes into some kind of invisible electrified grid imprisoning any living thing that travels through the tunnel.  As if the weirdly mundane pre-credit sequence featuring Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford wasn’t enough to clue viewers in…this moment reminds us that something conspiratorially massive is afoot.  Is this “snarky and attractive college kids are about to get stalked and killed in the woods” flick really just some sadistic reality show?  Is it all just an overly elaborate set-up for a modern-day spin on yee olde human sacrifice game? 

But the bad CGI bird hitting the electrified grid is deliberately misleading because it doesn’t prepare you at all for Goddard’s gleefully bonkers denoument…a rollicking special-effects laden and gore-strewn twenty minutes of balls-to-the-walls horror show fun.  I don’t know how else to describe it but to say it’s as if the “Imaginationland” episodes of South Park went live-action meta-horror.  The whole thing is wonderfully paced to lull you into thinking it’s going through the genre motions only to defy every expectation you have of a modern horror film. Continue reading