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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Everybody’s Hustling Hustling American Style

American Hustle - Cast

Some of this actually happened.  In 1978.

Irving Rosenfeld (an overweight and badly combed-over Christian Bale in total method mode) is a con man with a heart of gold from the Bronx.  He got into the con game as a kid as a way to help his dad’s glass business by breaking windows to drum up customers (awww).  He runs a series of dry cleaners while selling fraudulent knock-off art and running loan schemes.  He fell hard for a young passive aggressive sassy lass named Rosalyn (a delightfully scenery-chewing Jennifer Lawrence with full-on Long Island accent and big hair), married her and adopted her cute baseball card loving little boy (double awww).   But Irving can never show his true self and feels trapped emotionally and financially to his overbearing wife who uses the kid as collateral against Irving jetting off to fantasy land with his new red-headed saucy mistress, Sydney (a never sexier Amy Adams).  You see, Sydney is like Irving’s soul mate or something, a woman who reinvents herself to survive and is now his fully fledged partner in crime posing as a British Lady with banking ties to take the loan schemes to the next level.  This set-up is presented to the audience in crisscrossing voice-overs full of lies, back-handed insults and memoir-esque longing between Irving and Sydney, whose beautiful dry cleaning chemical soaked romance comes to a screeching halt when curly-haired hot-shot FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, hilariously pent-up) entraps them.

And then the fun starts.  To get immunity, our lovers are forced to bring in more marks for take down to the feds.  And what starts out as “just take down four more guys” explodes with DiMaso’s wacky ambitions and crooked nice-guy Camden Mayor Carmine Polito’s (Jeremy Renner, doing a great South Jersey Italian accent) connections into…you guessed it!  ABSCAM! Continue reading

Revisiting Network – The Best Film of the 1970’s

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” – Peter Finch as Howard Beale

The 1970’s – what is there left to say?  I mean, damn, this was it, right?  This was the defining decade for modern cinema.  In the words of Robert Duvall’s character from Network, this was the decade of “big-titted hits.”

If the 2000’s were where my generation came of age with film, the 1970’s were where my father’s generation came of age with film.  I arrived just in the nick of time to be able to claim I was born in this decade of wonder and transformation where the first generation of film school graduates took cinema by storm.

Here is where many of my favorite directors working today first made a name for themselves – visionaries like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.  This was the decade where the prolific Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet reached their pinnacles with Manhattan and NetworkContinue reading