Bohemian Rhapsody(1/12/2019)

Sometimes I think it’s important to lay one’s biases right out when they start to talk about movies, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have some biases about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  I certainly wasn’t opposed to the very idea of a Queen biopic, I like that band as much as the next guy and I’m not completely allergic to musical biopics like some people are but when the movie came out in late October it was completely panned by the critics and I had much more important things to see and I felt pretty comfortable skipping it.  Then it just kind of never went away.  The thing became a ginormous hit at the box office despite everyone in the film world having nothing nice to say about it and it somehow managed to become a big awards contender and despite having not seen it I sort of went along with my critical brethren in trashing each and every organization that thought it appropriate to treat this thing like one of the year’s best.  That instinct probably reached its pinnacle on the night of the Golden Globes when the movie shockingly won the Best Motion Picture Drama award and I responded with some rather rude tweets including “they must have straight up been smoking crack” and “The #HFPA is basic as fuck.” I don’t exactly regret the tone of those tweets so much as the fact that I was talking about a movie without having seen it (for the record, both sentiments also apply to the night’s other big winner Green Book, which I had seen).  So, with the not at all loaded mission of wanting to be able to trash something with more credibility I used my newly acquired AMC Stubs A-List membership to go see the damn movie, and while I certainly had my biases against it I also kind of had a sinking suspicion that with expectations so low I might have ended up pleasantly surprised.

The story of Queen begins when a young baggage handler named Farrokh Bulsara, who would soon come to be known as Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), caught up with a bar band called Smile right as their bassist/lead singer had given up and quit the band.  Seeing the potential in the group he convinces the remaining guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Tayler (Ben Hardy) to let him join them as the new lead singer.  After hiring a new bassist named John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) and touring extensively the group decides to make an album.  Meanwhile Mercury has been starting a relationship with a woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) who he seems to have a deep and abiding love for but there always seems to be something between them keeping the relationship from completely working, what could that possibly be?

The element at the center of this film is of course Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury, which has gotten a lot of acclaim even from people who dislike the film.  He does indeed to a pretty good job of looking like Mercury for most of the movie and he can certainly lip-sych like a pro (the singing is provided by archival recordings), but I wasn’t overly impressed by the speaking voice he mustered for most of the movie.  If you look up some old Freddie Mercury interviews you find he didn’t really sound that much like what Malek is trying to sell here and even if he did Malek just generally seems to be struggling with trying to perform while using the voice and there are some questionable line readings in the movie.  The rest of the cast is serviceable.  This is clearly a movie that’s primarily about Mercury for obvious reasons, though you do get the impression that the surviving band members are calling some of the shots as there is a suspiciously large focus on making the audience very aware of the fact that some of the other band members are responsible for writing a lot of the band’s hits.

The central sin of Bohemian Rhapsody is that it is absolutely slavish to the rock biopic formula as lampooned by the movie Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story.  You’ve got the “I’m going to think back on my life before a performance” trope, the pop psychology about the artist’s childhood, the record exec who doesn’t get what they’re doing because they’re so ahead of their time, the record studio montages, and of course the “it used to be about the music, man!” segment.  To some extent a lot of this stuff is unavoidable in a biopic which isn’t doing some sort of avant garde I’m Not There experiment and I don’t expect every movie like this to subvert all of them but this movie really shamelessly leans into the formula without doing anything to bring any originality to the proceedings.  The film also really distorts a lot of facts about the band in order to fit this formula.  Much of the film’s second (and weakest) half revolves around Freddie Mercury’s supposed abandonment of the band in the early 80s to pursue a solo career and to pursue hedonism.  This version of the narrative rather conveniently ignores the fact that this supposed hiatus only lasted two years, that Brian May and Roger Taylor both released solo projects before Mercury did, and that the band had already reunited, released an album, and gone on a tour before they performed at Live Aid.

Of course all movies based on true events take some creative license but there are ways to use creative license for good and ways to use it for bad.  Here the liberties they take generally just served the purpose of making the movie more clichéd and predictable.  There is of course also the matter of how the film depicts Mercury’s sexuality.  Now, the film doesn’t necessarily hesitate in depicting Mercury as a gay man, something it might have done if it had been made some twenty years earlier, but in some ways what it does do is more insidious.  As I mentioned this movie follows the rock biopic formula to a T and these rock biopics almost always reach a point where the lead singer becomes full of himself and starts destroying the band, usually by falling into drugs and alcohol.  That happens here too, but instead of drug addiction the thing that starts happening to Mercury at this point in the story is that he starts fully embracing his sexuality and engaging with the gay community.  Yes, he’s also said to be taking drugs during this section but that is deemphasized here and it almost feels like the movie is equating homosexuality itself with self-destruction to the point where all the references to gayness in the script could have been replaced with references to drugs and the story would have basically been unaltered.  The presence of Jim Hutton, Mercury’s boyfriend in his later years mitigates this a little, but if they’d been more honest about this relatively healthy relationship which began long before Live-Aid and before Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis the structure and framing would have been a lot less problematic.

So did I hate Bohemian Rhapsody?  Nah, it plays things a little too safe to really become something worth hating.  It also has one major and rather obvious asset: it has a lot of Queen music in it.  It will be a surprise to no one that Queen was a pretty damn good rock band and even knowing that it’s just a lip-synch show there is obvious entertainment value in seeing the scenes of the band performing these songs, especially if you’re watching them on a very large screen and with a really aggressive sound system.  Aside from a stretch leading up to the Live Aid performance at the end the movie is mostly pretty well paced ad often has a sense of humor about itself.  What I’m trying to say is that as corny as the film is at times there are worse ways to spend two hours in a theater, and while I don’t respect the movie at all I don’t have much ill-will for it either… at least I wouldn’t if not for the fact that some people have apparently blown the film’s positive qualities way out of proportion and are trying to give it a bunch of awards it plainly doesn’t deserve, but when you have low expectations like I did and you keep things in perspective there is guilty pleasure to be derived from this thing.

**1/2 out of Five

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Burning(12/16/2018)

Let’s talk about platform distribution.  In theory movies on this track are supposed to open in New York and L.A. for about a week, and then expand outwards into the other large markets until hopefully you’ve opened wide.  It usually works out pretty well for me because I’m in a large enough market that I pretty reliably get most independent/foreign movies a couple weeks after they debut or at least know when they are coming out.  However some sort of monkey wrench got thrown in the gears when it came to acclaimed new South Korea drama Burning, which got picked up by some strange company called Well-Go-USA which usually focuses on Asian cinema of the martial arts variety and seems to have some bad ideas about how to release art house movies because from where I sit they’ve really botched this one.  When the film first expanded they skipped over the Twin Cities entirely and opened in places like Dallas, then the next week in places like Albuquerque.  My city wasn’t entirely alone in this suspense.  The damn thing opened Columbus Ohio before it opened in Seattle, it opened in Omaha before it opened in Denver, and in Salt Lake City before it opened in Detroit.   And to this date it still hasn’t opened in Minneapolis and there’s no indication as to when or if it will.  Color me pissed.  Fortunately I was still able to catch a screening of the movie while on a trip to Chicago, or else I may have missed out on one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, and if that had happened I may well boycotted the damn company for life.

Burning is set in modern South Korea and focuses on Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer who lives on his father’s run-down old farm in the town of Paju, which is located a little bit outside of Seoul.  One day while visiting Seoul he runs into a woman named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who was a neighbor of his back in Paju while they were kids.  The two form something of a friendship, one that Jong-su is never quite sure is venturing towards the romantic, and Hae-mi recruits him to feed her cat for her while she takes a sort of “spirit journey” to Africa.  When she returns from this trip she’s accompanied by a guy named Ben (Steven Yeun) who was the only other Korean where she was, causing the two to form a bond that Jong-su is never quite sure was or is romantic.  From there Jong-su has to navigate whether or not he’s been put into the “friend-zone” by Hae-mi and whether or not he should be jealous of whatever bond she has with Ben and how that makes him feel, at least before things start to take a different and altogether more sinister turn in the film’s second half.

Burning is the work of Lee Chang-dong, an important but not overly prolific Korean auteur who has largely eschewed the more extreme genre tendencies of some of his most famous countryman to instead make realist dramas, usually about ordinary people at crossroads in life trying to cope with where they find themselves in life. His signature film, Secret Sunshine, remains one of the finest examinations of the concept of forgiveness in all its complexity and his follow-up Poetry is an excellent meditation on justice and legacy but it’s been a long eight year wait for his latest film.  Burning is a little more playful than his previous films in that it doesn’t burden the audience with super heavy themes right away and generally operates on a more cinematic logic than strict realism.  That said, “playful” is a bit of a relative term given that this is a film that still very clearly addressing its themes seriously and the film does end up going to some pretty dark places in its second half.

There’s a scene in the film where the protagonist casually watching a news report of Donald Trump giving a speech.  Jong-su doesn’t seem terribly enamored by what he’s watching and the scene feels superfluous but it isn’t.  Lee Chang-dong isn’t trying to suggest that Jong-su would have any particular affinity for Trump himself or his xenophobic nonsense but he is trying to sort of establish him as something of the Korean equivalent of the prototypical “Trump voter” that outlets like the New York Times can’t help but profile.  He’s a rural guy who’s been given the short end of the wealth inequality stick and has kind of been left behind by the modern world and that this outlook does not lead him to make the healthiest choices in life.  He also seems to be in way over his head in dealing with Hae-mi, who may have come from his village but who has become quite the free spirit in Seoul and Jong-su spends a lot of the film’s second act trying to determine whether or not their single hook-up was something that was more casual to her than it was to him and trying to play cool around her.  His jealousy toward Ben is readily apparent and it certainly has at least a little bit to do with class resentment.  This is all helped quite a bit by the fact that Jeon Jong-seo manages to create a character who is in fact quite captivating and seems to be worthy of all the investment that Jong-su makes in her.

Of course there’s also the sinking suspicion in the back of both his mind and the audiences’ mind that he’s being played from the very beginning either by Ben or by Hae-mi or both of them.  That third act is very much about obsession and paranoia and it keeps the audience guessing throughout.  As a whole this is a film that doesn’t really follow the usual formulas you expect movies to follow, but it also isn’t trying to be radically strange or avant-garde either.  That is in part what sets it apart from Lee Chang-dong’s earlier movies, which certainly weren’t formulaic but they were less noticeably meta and were generally heavier exercises.  Does this then mark a new chapter in his auteur style?  We’ll have to see, though I must hope his next movie comes a bit faster than this one, because Chang-dong is too fascinating a filmmaker to keep operating on a “two movie per decade” pace.

****1/2 out of Five

Beautiful Boy(11/29/2018)/Boy Erased(12/1/2018)

At the 2018 Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals two movies premiered that will likely be forever linked: Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased or the “white boys in trouble” movies, as they were dubbed by certain personalities on Twitter.  Are these movies really comparable?  Well, in essence one is about drug abuse and the other is about gay conversion therepy, those are fairly unrelated topics.  One wonders if they’re both simply being linked because they came out around the same time and have the word “boy” in the title.  Maybe, but then again there are some other similarities.  Both films are set in the early 2000s, both are based on memoirs written by journalists, both end with title cards giving statistics about their respective issues, and both ultimately end up being more about the relationships between their respective white boys and their families.  Whether or not the connection is ultimately forced and whether or not it’s fair to either film I think I’m going to run with it anyway, partly because I’d rather not write full reviews of both films, and partly because this link has been pretty well forged in my head whether it’s fair or not.

Beautiful Boy is based on the memoir of the same name by David Sheff (Steve Carell) and another memoir written by his son Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) and focuses in on the elder Sheff as well as his ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan) and current wife Karen (Maura Tierney) as they try to help the younger Sheff through a debilitating addiction to crystal meth that he has fallen into.  Boy Erased on the other hand is told more from the perspective of its titular boy, an eighteen year old named Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) who lives in a particularly conservative area of Arkansas and is the son of a Baptist preacher named Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman).  Shortly after Eamons goes to some sort of Christian college events transpire which result in him admitting to his parents that he might be gay, which they do not respond to well and enroll him with an organization called Love in Action run by a guy named Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) which seems to want to pray away the gay.

Let’s start with Beautiful Boy, which is probably the film of the two I was anticipating more in part because it was directed by Felix Van Groeningen, who made the 2012 Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown which managed to really bring a lot of pathos to the lives of a pair of really interesting people.  I certainly wouldn’t call his latest film poorly directed but I’m not really sure he was able to bring the same magic to this movie.  What he does do well here is give a pretty good sense of what these characters lives have been like over the years.  Little touches like the way he decorates Nic’s room and the way he picks locations do paint a bit of a picture and the occasional flashback scenes are done pretty effectively.  He also does a pretty good job of directing his ensemble.  Timothée Chalamet gives a fairly strong follow-up performance to his work in last year’s Call Me By Your Name and his general cherubic demeanor makes for an interesting contrast to the rather gritty situation he finds himself in.  Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are also quite good as his maternal figures.  I’d say the weak link is actually probably the star, Steve Carell, who is an actor who I’m frankly starting to wonder might not have range to be a dramatic actor.  His casting makes perfect sense on paper but something about the guy’s voice just makes it very hard for him to blend into a roll and I just really didn’t care for his presence here.

The bigger problem with this movie is just that it tells a very very familiar story.  There isn’t really much of a novel hook to Nic Sheff’s addiction narrative, its patterns of recovery and relapse and recovery and relapse is more or less the same one you hear from most stories like this both in movies and in real life.  The one and only reason why Nic’s story is being brought to the screen and not the several other stories like it is that Nic’s father is a freelance journalist who’s in a position to write a book about his experiences trying to get him help.  That point of view is perhaps something that sets the movie apart just a little given that most movies about his subject matter would be told primarily from the point of view of the addict rather than the parent, but it’s still fundamentally the same story.  Frankly I probably would have liked to see a bit more from Nic’s point of view, particularly early on because the movie never really delves into what drove him to start using meth in the first place.  The film does suggest that David was a little too tolerant when he first found out that Nic was “experimenting” and that treating Kurt Cobain like a hero might not have been in Nic’s best interest, but outside of some vague talk about “filling a void” the movie really sidesteps that aspect of his journey.

Boy Erased is another case where the story being told might not be the ideal test case.  There was a movie earlier this year about gay conversion therapy called The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which certainly had its merits but which I thought was sort of fundamentally flawed because it was being told from the perspective of a girl who was kind of aloof and never really believed in the ideas behind the camp she was sent to and that made her immune from the worst of what this kind of therapy had to offer.  Boy Erased at least seems to be avoiding the same mistake at first, Eamons does seem to be a lot more at risk of being affected by the toxic philosophy at play, but his stay at this camp ends up being surprisingly brief and he ultimately sees through it all and comes out of the experience relatively unharmed.  The focus seems to be less on the camp’s psychological torture and misguided worldview than on their general incompetence, namely their strange fixation on inherited family traits and at one point on the spelling errors in their manuals.  Where The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes gay conversion therapy seem like little more than a rather lame summer camp, this makes it look like a poorly run night school.  I wouldn’t have expected it at the time but somehow Deadpool 2 has managed to be the angriest movie about this subject despite only tackling the topic allegorically.

One of the commonalities between the two films is that both seem to be about as interested in the respective boys’ relationship to their family as much as they are in the boys’ actual problems.  In the case of Boy Erased this sort of makes sense insomuch as being forced into a situation like this would almost certainly strain familial relations, but the movie is also a little unfocused on this front.  The real Jared Eamons (whose real name is Garrard Conley) clearly has fairly mixed feelings about his parents and vice versa but the film might have benefited if it had taken a stronger stance on the subject on his behalf because you’re really not feeling a whole lot by the end.  It doesn’t help that neither Russell Crowe nor Nicole Kidman seem to really understand the characters they’re playing, frankly neither actor has felt more Australian than they do here trying to play Arkansas Baptists.  The focus on familial relationships is even more central to Beautiful Boy and is perhaps more problematic.  The decision to have the whole story minus a handful of scenes be told from the father’s point of view rather than the son’s seems like a bold idea on paper but I don’t think it really leads to any overly unique insights and it also kind of just means the more passive character is given the stage for most of the movie.  Parents love to think they’re more important to their grown children than they really are and there’s a certain narcissism in taking a story about someone else’s pain and making it all about yourself, which is kind of what happened with Beautiful Boy.

So were these movies really all that comparable in the end?  Well when I started this I felt like it was a bit of a stretch, and in some ways it was, but ultimately I don’t think it was to off-base.  The fact that they’re both based on memoirs is probably the bigger link than the fact that they’re both about “white boys with problems.”  So if they are comparable which one is better?  Well, that’s a little trickier.  On a fundamental level I think Beautiful Boy is the better made movie.  It has a cleaner narrative and overall it probably develops its characters better and is generally more competently made.  Boy Erased by contrast is a lot messier and is less effective in bringing you on its central journey, but it’s also less familiar and brings up issues that feel less like total clichés.  That movie is trying to say something even if it’s saying it clumsily while Beautiful Boy just feels like a sort of glorified after-school special without much to really say beyond “drug addiction really sucks for all involved.”  That having been said I find both of these movies to be pretty inessential and I wouldn’t recommend either.  These aren’t offensively bad movies but they also don’t really do anything to really set themselves apart and really work.

Beautiful Boy: ** out of Five
Boy Erased: ** out of Five

 

Border(11/17/2018)

About ten years ago a film came into the culture called Let the Right One In.  That movie, about a young boy who befriends a girl who turns out to be a vampire, was widely acclaimed at the time and has managed to hold up quite well over the course of the following decade.  At the time liking the film felt like an act of defiance.  This was going on during the Twilight phenomenon and liking this Swedish vampire movie that seemed to cover similar-ish subject matter in a smarter and more adult way felt like a necessity to defend the honor of vampire fiction, which is an attitude that feels a bit overly dramatic in retrospect.  Ten years later that movie still works as a sort of dark modern fairy tale, which is a form that’s become increasingly popular with the rise of Guillermo del Toro.  That movie was directed by Tomas Alfredson, who went on to various highs and lows in Hollywood, but it was written by a guy named John Ajvide Lindqvist and based on his own novel of the same name.  That was actually his first published novel and he’s written a number of books since then without having really had the same kind of crossover success, but now he has found another set of collaborators and has come out with another film has emerged based on one of his short stories called Border.

The film is set in modern Sweden and follows a woman named Tina (Eva Melander) who works as a customs agent at the airport trying to thwart smugglers and the like.  Tina has a bit of an unusual look to her, one that almost looks like a physical deformity of sorts.  She has kind of a puffy face and some oddly shaped features like her nose and chin.  At one point it’s suggested that she believes she has some sort of chromosomal abnormality but it’s increasingly clear that what’s going on with her is different from any real world disability as she seems to have a sort of sixth sense that allows her to “smell” people’s feelings and fears, a trait that makes her rather talented as a border guard but which can alienate her from others.  She seems to be living a rather quite life until one day a guy named Vore (Eero Milonoff) walks past her customs desk who seems to have similar facial features including a large nose and a weird looking smile that kind of makes him look like Aphex Twin in the “Windowlicker” video.  Immediately Tina finds herself drawn to this guy, in part because she thinks he may have a better understanding of whatever she is, but Vore seems to have a couple of secrets of his own that he’s hiding.

The bones of the story here are not unlike that of Let the Right One In: both end up putting the supernatural into a modern context and both focus on two people who find something of a kindred spirit in one another even if it maybe isn’t good for both of them.  Border will perhaps be a harder sell to audiences for a few reasons, one of them being that unlike Let the Right One In this isn’t really a horror movie and it also can be a little alienating watching these two rather strange looking people interacting.  The film’s makeup effects are impressive, but not entirely seamless, you can see the prosthetics if you’re looking but at the same time the movie does a pretty good job of making these people look just weird enough to stand out but not so weird that they couldn’t live more or less normal lives if they wanted to.  There are also sexual elements in the film that emerge later on that will alienate audiences that don’t go in with a pretty open mind and other little touches that will frankly come off as rather gross.

As the film goes on it does become clear that this is meant to be something of an allegory for “otherness” within society, whether in terms of race, sexual orientation, or disability.  Specifically I think the film is supposed to tap into sexual orientation and gender identity given that the main character lives in society but feels different and isolated from everyone until she meets one of “her own” and starts to have everything snap into place.  The film also deals with some of the darker aspects of being and outsider given that Vore turns out to have something of a Magneto-like view of “normal” people.  That what the movie ultimately has to say about these themes is never quite as original as the weird trappings might suggest.  All in all this is not the easiest movie to recommend except to a very specific kind of audience that looking for something weird.  I don’t see this finding the relatively wide audience of Let the Right One In, but people who really loved that or the dark fairy tale aesthetic that Guillermo del Toro should probably give it a chance.

*** out of Five

Blackkklansman(8/12/2018)

Warning: Review Contains Some Spoilers

More than any other filmmaker I can think of Spike Lee is a guy you want to see tackle as many issues as possible to the point where his filmography becomes a sort of unified exploration of every debate about the black experience in America (along with some side conversations about New York).  He’s often talked about as a filmmaker who rails against white racism, and that’s certainly something he does, but if you just look at his first six movies and you’ll see statements about historically black universities (School Daze), jazz (Mo Better Blues), interracial relationships (Jungle Fever), and drug use (Jungle Fever again) alongside movies about more conventional race relations both in the past (Malcolm X) and in contemporary times (Do the Right Thing).  One aspect of American racial strife that he has not up to now spent a lot of time looking into up to now are the actions of organized hate groups of the neo-nazi and Ku Klux Klan variety.  His reasons for not focusing on groups like this are many.  For one thing, these groups have often been seen as something of an easy target.  They were viewed as a small group of extremists that the intellectual whites who go to Spike Lee movies aren’t going to see a lot of themselves in.  Additionally movies about hate groups like American History X and This is England tend to be in the rather queasy position of being movies told largely from the perspective of white people about an issue that ultimately causes a lot of black pain.  Of course in the era of Trump these groups are as relevant as ever and far more powerful than they’ve been in decades and Lee has found the perfect solution for telling the story of an all-white group from a black perspective through the true story told in his new movie Blackkklansman.

The film is set in the 70s and begins with a young black man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joining the Colorado Springs Police Department as their first black officer.  Officially his hiring is applauded and encouraged by the department but it’s never quite clear where the police chief (Robert John Burke) stands and he occasionally needs to deal with sneers from other officers.  Stallworth is not exactly a black power rebel however, despite his rather large afro, and even volunteers to go undercover at a speech by former Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) where he meets a woman named Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) who is very decidedly “down with the cause.”  With that assignment complete Stallworth is given a more permanent position as an undercover narcotics cop.  While in that assignment Stallworth comes up with the idea of using these same undercover tactics to go after the Ku Klux Klan after he sees a recruitment ad for them in the newspaper.  Stallworth calls the number in the ad and begins to infiltrate them over the phone and then convinces his superiors to hatch an undercover operation in which a white cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) will assume the cover and meet them in person to find out if they’re hatching any plots.

Ron Stallworth is a bit of a curious character to put at the center of a film like this.  He, like the real police officer he’s based on, is a black man who is more or less proud of his association with the police department and shows a degree of ambivalence about the black power movement and is even willing to wear a wire to the Ture speech even if only to advance his career.  The movie does not, however, dismiss Stallworth as some sort of “Uncle Tom.”  Stallworth proudly wears a large afro (a decision that I doubt Lee made casually), he fights back in his own ways against fellow officers who are abusive or racist, and of course he spends most of the movie trying to bring down the Klan.  His girlfriend in the film is in some ways supposed to stand in as a voice for a more radical approach to the issues in the film and she occasionally sort of acts as his conscience as a black man, though I must say that she at times feels a bit too much like a symbol for certain themes rather than a true character and her relationship with Stallworth occasionally feels like a setup for one of those clichéd rom-com “you lied to me!” twists in the second act.

The undercover operation in the film is a bit odd.  The plan in the film is to have Stallworth talk on the phone with the KKK members and set up meetings and for Zimmerman then show up in person.  I’ve looked up the fact checking articles and this does appear to be how the operation was conducted in real life but it still isn’t clear to me why.  Would it not be easier to just have Zimmerman maintain his cover both on the phone and in the field?  Wouldn’t that ensure that the voices match and that the two would never find themselves contradicting each other?  In the long run this is probably a quibble that just needs to be set aside, especially given that it’s apparently accurate and it goes to the whole “black klansman” concept, but it was still a bit odd.  Much of the investigation into this local branch of the klan is disturbing as you might expect but also comical in how stupid these guys seem to be.  The main white klansman we spend time with sort of represent different strains of hatred: there’s a guy who seems to be just filled with uncontrolled rage, another guy who seems to blame others for his failures in life, and one guy who’s just stupid to the point where you half expect him to forget to breathe.

The fact that this is set in the 70s is also a bit curious as that was probably the decade when the Ku Klux Klan was at its absolute lowest point.  It had already lost the civil rights clashes of the 60s and hadn’t yet reinvented itself through the use of the internet yet or found a sympathetic president either.  We do get introduced to David Duke who is played here by Topher Grace and comes off as a kind of Ned Flanders from hell.  Today Duke is a well-known boogieman whose name is supposed to be synonymous with the worst kinds of racism but the movie explains that his ultimate goal was to make hatred mainstream through politics and to replace cross burnings with rhetoric about “white rights” and the like.  Here though that is not explored too deeply as the klan members we spend most of the time with are rednecks who do not seem to have gotten the memo about dog whistling.  Instead the film ends with them engaging in a pretty traditional KKK hate crime and with our heroes chasing them down to stop them in a finale that cleverly mirrors D.W. Griffith’s infamous classic The Birth of a Nation but which also feels rushed and a bit too easy.  In the true story this was based on there was no bombing incident that the police could easily stop and arrest people for.  The film’s final shot before its postscript does at least acknowledge that hate can’t be so easily stamped out but there are still places here where this feels like a slightly more conventional thriller that’s been seasoned by Spike Lee rather than the undiluted goods.

Overall though I think Blackkklansman is a pretty good romp even if it’s a bit messy around the edges and isn’t quite able to tie up all its loose ends by the end.  In some ways I do think seeing the Spike Lee name on it and viewing the film within his body of work helps the movie.  The film finds a solid means of exploring some really rough territory in a way that feels accessible, almost fun in a way, and manages to connect it to some of the more disturbing aspects of our modern times.  It’s hard not to like that even if I think there are an abundance of rough edges that Lee maybe didn’t have the time to sand out in his rush to get the product out in time.

**** out of Five

Blindspotting(8/7/2018)

With increasingly becoming America’s “second city” it is perhaps interesting that their Harlem, Oakland, has been going through something of a renaissance of African American filmmaking in the last few years.  This perhaps goes as far back as the 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy, an early Barry Jenkins effort about two African Americans living in neighboring San Francisco who spend a great deal of time talking about gentrification in the bay area.  But the tread really seems to have taken off with Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station, about a real life case of police violence that occurred on a BART station in Oakland.  By necessity Coogler’s follow-up films (Creed and Black Panther) have been primarily set in Philadelphia and Africa respectively but given that he went out of his way to set parts of Black Panther in Oakland I think it’s fair to say that his roots still grow strong in the East Bay.  This year has perhaps where we have gotten our three points to make a trend because within a span of a couple of months we’ve gotten two movies that make a point of being set in Bump City.  One was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which is admittedly a film so strange that it’s setting somewhat secondary, but it was nonetheless largely shot on location in Oakland.  The next and latest film set in that city is even more vocally about its setting, the new film covering both police violence and gentrification called Blindspotting.

Blindspotting begins with a man named Colin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs) being released from prison after a short but painful sentence and then flashes forward to the last three days of his probation.  While Hoskins is living in a halfway home he has a job as a mover and works with his best friend from childhood Miles (Rafael Casal).  Miles is a white guy but he’s Oakland born and raised and talks in the black vernacular.  He could be described using a word that is a racial slur that has had an “N” replaced by a “W.”  Neither Colin nor Miles appear to have ever been professional criminals but they are streetwise and can hold their own in a fight.  As the film begins Hoskins has only a couple of days left on his probation when he suddenly finds himself the sole witness to a police shooting of a seemingly unarmed man.  In many cases that would be the setup to a thriller with Hoskins acting as a sort of Serpico who acts as a bold witness to bring down the killer cop, but that kind of heroism isn’t going to happen here.  When asked if he’s going to go to the police with this information he simply says something along the lines of “what am I going to do, report the police to themselves.”  The tension here is instead about how witnessing something like that effects Hoskins’ psyche as well as the various other conflicts in his life coming to a fore.

Blindspotting is a movie with a certain theatricality to it in that it’s the kind of story where a lifetime’s worth of tensions all come to a head over the course of three days’ worth of conversations and things all just kind of come together according to theme rather than conventional plausibility.  The film was written by its stars, making it something of a throwback to the era of independent films like Swingers and The Brothers McMullen where writers would make very personal projects and wear a lot of hats in getting them made.  The downside of this is that this is that the script written by first time screenwriters who began their work while they were in their 20s and at times this really shows.  The film wants to tackle a number of themes and it does so in a really on the nose fashion when it didn’t necessarily have to.  For example, the film is largely about gentrification, which it tackles by having its characters explicitly talking about the subject and occasionally run into situations that illustrate the theme right on cue.  The film also reaches something of a nadir in its climactic scene which is something so stupid that I thought (hoped) it would turn out to be a fantasy sequence, but no, it’s supposed to be real and the film had not done nearly enough to set a tone that would make such a moment work as some sort of surreal touch.

Having said that, there’s still a lot I like about Blindspotting.  For one thing I thought the two main performances in the movie were quite good.  Daveed Diggs is an actor who’s primarily known for his stage work (he was in the original cast of “Hamilton”) so I wasn’t terribly familiar with him but he does have screen presence and clearly connects a lot with this character he’s created for himself.  Rafael Casal on the other hand was a complete nobody before making this, to the point where he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and yet he’s able to make this character who could have easily come off as a rather pathetic stereotype seem plausible and even understandable.  I also found myself rather liking the way the film shoots Oakland even though obsessions with local geography can often be a rather cringey aspect of indies like this.  Blindspotting is ultimately a pretty good little movie that’s bogged down a bit by a couple of misguided flights of fancy and a couple of moments that just seem really on the nose in a slightly sophomoric way.  Certainly worth checking out but not exactly one for the ages.

*** out of Five