BLACKKKLANSMAN***** Brilliant


THIS BRILLIANT MOVIE is the successful result of some wild directorial risk taking. Essentially, Spike Lee manages to effortlessly combine laugh out a loud black comedy, cum buddy movie with news footage and fierce, passionate anger. It really shouldn’t work. But it does, quite spectacularly. So that even though you know in the few feel good moments that the director is going to pull the rug from under you, when it happens it’s both shocking and cliché busting.

The story centres on the (real life) undercover penetration of the KKK by a black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his White (Jewish) doppelgänger Flip (Adam Driver). Ron is the smooth, white sounding voice on the phone that insinuates himself into the local KKK chapter; Flip is the public face to the voice (and, ironically, the one in the face of clear and present danger from the White Supremacists he’s forced to cosy up to)

It’s a wildly ludicrous story that’s so far fetched it could only be true.

The narrative is bracketed by two powerful vignettes: It begins with a scene from Gone With the Wind. We see that movie’s final shot of Scarlett O’Hara searching for her lover among the serried rows of the war wounded and dead. The scene slowly pans to a flapping, torn Confederate flag (an icon that punctuates many of the scenes). This image was meant to suggest the passing of an era.

Not so fast, Lee suggests. The militant nostalgia for the all-white values of an antebellum South are alive and well in the seething, cross-burning Klan, an organisation as antiemetic as it is racist.

BlacKKKlansman’s closing vignettes replay news footage from the recent Charleston riots when Nazi Supremacists (Let’s just call them what they are: terrorists) attacked a crowd and were exonerated by their White supremacist President.
Lee is suggesting that the race issues that sparked the Civil War have never gone away.

The past is the present… the grim reality of USA circa 2018.

The story is strategically set in the late sixties, the mid point between Emancipation and today; the point when post Civil war anger finally began to manifest itself, just as Black pride and Black resistance, stoked by a charismatic Stokley Carmichael began to rise.

It was a time… of Afros, Vietnam, Blaxploitation movies, David Duke, the Black Panthers, cross burning and of course racist police harassment. It’s presented as a neat foreshadowing of today…this recent past viewed through the prism of a sort of seeding ground for today’s mainstream MAGA racism. But it was also a time when the integrationist dream of Black and White cops working together like Ron and Flip and their entire department – an oasis of togetherness in a desert of institutional racism – could have become a reality. At a meta level this is the director’s own moment of nostalgic yearning.

The careful balance in this absurdist serio-comic take between the political and the personal is made to work because Lee allows his characters their full scope to develop as people, not mere symbols or expressions of a theme.

John David Washington (The US TV series, Ballers) is almost as charismatic an actor as his father (Denzil). His Ron Stallworth is an earnest, naive, super-confident man with the endearing swagger of someone who’s as proud of his job (as the Colorado PD’s first “coloured officer”) as of his well manicured ‘fro.

As his sidekick, Adam Driver gives one of his better (understated) performances as a person forced to reluctantly come to terms with his Jewishness. Even the miscellany of Klansmen are also nicely sketched, from the ever suspicious, slightly manic Fritz (Jasper Paakkonen from Vikings) and his adoring wife (Ashlie Atkinson) desperate to prove her Supremacist loyalty. There is a chilling scene in which the two of them are nuzzling each other lovingly while they make plans to blow up a Black gathering.

In one of the final scenes, the Klansmen have gathered, under the auspices of David Duke, to anoint the new recruits. Part of the anointment ceremony is a cathartic viewing of the bilious Birth of a Nation.

“The horror, the horror” of US race relations is its dangerous offspring.

BLACKKKLANSMAN. Dir: Spike Lee. With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Alec Baldwin. Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee. Cinematographer: Chayse Irvin (Hannah). Composer: Terence Blanchard (Inside Man)

 

 

 

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THE CHILDREN ACT*** Theatrical


EMMA THOMPSON’S FIONA May is Oscar worthy brilliant in this thought provoking if overly literary tale. She is an imperious, dedicated, workaholic senior magistrate, with little time for her patient, long suffering husband. And, critically, little time for sex. Her one indulgence is the piano. There, she can crack open the door to what little passion still animates her law constrained soul. Jack, her husband (Stanley Tucci, in the thankless role of man as wimp) clearly thinks the world of her, as he constantly reminds her. But, as he also reminds her, eleven months of sexual abstinence is, love notwithstanding, just too much to bear.

And he’s a good looking man with someone literally waiting in the wings; no need to hunt for the release he so needs. But he’s also an honest upfront man who feels it his moral duty to warn her of his temptations.

She’s unmoved by his “plight”. An affair, to her, would mean the end of the relationship; or as Jack notes: “You won’t have sex with me and you won’t tolerate me having sex with anyone else”

Here’s a marriage without a spark…a bloodless marriage where love and fidelity is expected to substitute for passion. It’s not so much a loveless marriage as a sexless one. Marriage without sex. What’s the point really?

The symbolism of blood as life and vitality is played out in a judgment she must rule on. A young man (Fionn Whitehead from Dunkirk) is dying and in need of a transfusion. But his express wish, in keeping with his (or at least his parents’) religion, forbids it. She – or the law- must choose between the gift of blood and life or fidelity to faith (They’re Jehovah Witnesses) and certain death.

Adam – the young man- is seventeen and thus, still legally a minor. And the eponymous Children Act makes the decision clear: the State must protect the life of a minor. But, in an unexpected twist, and against what would be her better judgment, she visits the sick boy in his hospice bed. Between them – this seventeen year old boy and this fifty plus year old woman – a spark is ignited.

Perhaps he is a reminder of the child she never had; or a living proof of the meaningfulness of her profession. Or, symbolically, of the human need for feeling to give life to…life.

Thompson’s tremendous portrayal of this deeply unsympathetic character fights against authorial intrusiveness to make her feel almost real. We become privy to the confusions that beset a life so well calibrated and controlled when unexpected emotion sneaks in.

Justice May is the central actor in the lives of three men: her husband, Adam, the young man and her assistant (Brilliant Nigel Pauling as a cringe-worthy servant). All three of these are subservient to her; supplicants to her –bloodless- God-like approbation. Even as Adam becomes more and more obsessed with her (She saved his life after all), she seems blissfully unaware – or indifferent – of her influence on “her men”.

It’s all too messy. For her, the dispassionate law is a much more controllable environment.

The problem with the story is that its narrative arc is too mannered…feels very self consciously literary. It unfolds via a series of contrived parallels and contrasts:
Justice May’s unexpected passion for the boy is balanced by and contrasted with her husband’s very expected passion for another woman. Her’s is maternal and asexual. His is less so.
Her judicial eloquence is paralleled by her interpersonal muteness.
Her self-protective armory of the gown, her robes, her carefully coiffured grooming comes apart symbolically in a night of drenching rain and emotional collapse.
The literary conceit of the blood as literal (Jehovah Witness) carrier of the soul v blood as emotional carrier of passion is clever but pat.

In the end, the story’s thematic meditation on the nature of relationships is often insightful, but marred by its contrived glibness. There’s a paint by numbers feel to the whole enterprise.

And despite Emma, her character feels more like a layering of attitudes in service to an idea, than a “flesh and blood” person. And, as my wife has pointed out to me, herein may lie the crux of the matter: it’s simply poor writing. It’s a question of and understanding of the dynamics of empathy. Justice May is deeply empathetic to the cases she supervises; she’s simply indifferent to the reality of the others around her. Has her judicial empathy exhausted her interpersonal empathy? Her lack of a sexual relationship with her long suffering husband is one of the core narrative pillars of the story. But there is no attempt to explore this vital dimension. Why has their sexual relationship collapsed?

Jack’s character is a mere passing anecdote. He supposedly represents the antithesis of her bloodlessness: a man of great love and enduring moral probity animated by necessary passion. But he’s a dull and boring character…a neutered man essentially as sexless as her. Perhaps the story would have been better told from his POV. Author Ian McEwan seems to understand men better than women

Or perhaps the big flaw in the production was simply to have the author (The story is from Ian McEwan’s book of the same name) adapt his own book. It’s a good story that needed reinterpretation for and not simply transliteration to the screen.

 

THE CHILDREN ACT. With: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Nigel Pauling. Dir: Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal). Writer: Ian McEwan. Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn (Bridget Jones’s Baby; The Lady in the Van)

 

 

MAMA MIA!: HERE WE GO AGAIN*** Joyous


WHEN TANYA (CHRISTINE Baranski) first sees the new hotel manager (Andy Garcia), her immediate response is, “Be still my beating vagina”. This has got to be one of the better penned lines in a movie this year…that’s also one of the year’s most smile-inducing and spirit-uplifting (in a good way) ones.

It’s a clever enough story (OK, it’s gob-smackingly silly. But what-the-hell, it’s ABBA) that parallels the lives and hopes of the original dancing queen, Donna (Meryl Streep) and her pregnant daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). You no doubt remember that when we first met Donna (in Mama Mia 1), she was anxiously awaiting the arrival of her three ex-lovers, any of whom could be the father of Sophie. In Here We Go Again, we’re introduced to Donna as a young woman (Lily James) who has impulsively escaped the US for the sunnier shores of an idyllic Greek island that she falls in love with (along with that trio of lovers). The story cuts from this past to the present when we meet Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) deep in the throes of a celebratory re-launch of her (now recently deceased) mom’s dream hotel.

Got that?

The idea that holds the enterprise together centres around the debate about free spiritedness and existential abandon v control, conformity and caution. Guess which side wins?

Baby Driver’s Lily James (the young Donna) and First Reform’s Amanda Seyfried (the daughter) are wonderful. They’re both golden haired, lively company with surprisingly good voices. And incredibly, they both manage to inject some verisimilitude and transcend the blonde ditziness of their roles, not to mention the befuddled hamminess of their more celebrated co-stars, the co-fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) with verve and zest.

The past/present back and forth is buoyed up by the presence of BFF’s Rosie (Alexa Davis) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn). The here and now version of these are English comedian Julie Waters and The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski (she of the “beating vagina” whose comic turn almost steals the movie as the unbridled spirit of middle aged horniness).

Meryl makes a cameo performance as the singing ghost of her former self (don’t ask) and Cher as Sophie’s grandmother, herself a face-lifted Botox-blighted ghost of a real person who comes face to face with her own former lover, Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia) who, of all gin joints of all the towns in the world, is the new hotel’s suave manager. It’s a 90 minute set up for Cher’s love song to him. Yep, he’s Abba’s famous Fernando (the words of which song make no sense at all. But who’s complaining)

The scenery is stunning, the acting is spirited, the dancing is (nicely) Bollywood-esque. But mainly the music’s the thing…that, like it or not, turns us all into dancing queens.

Sort of anyway

 

MAMA MIA!: HERE WE GO AGAIN. Dir: Ol Parker (Imagine Me and You). With: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Cher, Andy Garcia, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard. Writers: Ol Parker with a story by the brilliant Richard Curtis (War Horse, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Love Actually). Cinematographer: Robert Yeoman (The Grand Budapest Hotel. Bridesmaids). Composers: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus