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

 

APOSTASY****Dogma deconstructed


NEWCOMER DANIEL KOKATAJILO’s slow, deliberate and thoughtful examination of religious intolerance is both engaging and intellectually stimulating. It’s just not particularly emotionally compelling. Though his characters – mainly a mother (There is no reference to the husband) and her two daughters – are nicely sketched, the – deliberately – understated arc of the storyline never offers the kind of punch you’d expect.

The story focuses on a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oldham, north-west England. The oldest daughter, Luisa is the apostate: pregnant and rebelling at what she sees as the meaningless ideology of the “Witnesses” (“There’s nothing in the Bible,” she notes “that makes these laws…just old men who change their minds from time to time”). She has been disfellowshipped. The youngest, Alex is physically dying as a result of this meaningless ideology. Her health is failing and in dire need of blood transfusions (which are against God’s law). The mother, Ivanna, has been forbidden by the Elders to visit her oldest disfellowshipped daughter and, (later on) to even hold and lover her granddaughter.

These three have all made conscious choices. For the oldest, Luisa, despite the hardships she faces, it’s a choice for liberation against dogma and the directives of a group of -to her- heartless elders. For the youngest, it’s a choice for death based on the belief that death is just a stage to a better life, where there’s almost the childish belief that marriage awaits. For the mother, seemingly lobotomized by her ideology, (and perhaps the stand-in for all the Witnesses) it’s a life without her children.

Dogma has kidnapped all human and maternal sentiment.

All three actors are superb. Molly Wright (a few episodes of the TV series, Our Girl) is Alex, the youngest. She’s believably earnest, innocent and as far away from the rebellious spirit of her sister as its possible to be. We really hope for the best for her, but know all that is to come. Siobhan Finneran (the stern figure of the law in Happy Valley) exudes a curious mix of desperation and longing along with slack jawed almost imbecile docility. And as the rebel with a cause, Sacha Parkinson (Mr. Selfridge) also allows us to feel for a character that is both steely strong (It’s no easy task walking away from the Community you’ve been born into) and on the verge of emotional collapse.

Daniel (who also wrote the movie) who was a part of the faith and is himself now an apostate, lets the story and his characters lead the way without ever overtly tipping the scale in the direction of outrage. The Witnesses he shows us are ‘just’ like everyone else: they enjoy partying, they’re part of a strong community; there’s no hypocrisy to their beliefs. And there’s no doubt as to the insider veracity of the world he’s portraying.

The Witnesses are happy. So long as they do exactly as they’re told and so long as they keep the outside world of non-Witnesses at arm’s length.

But Daniel’s efforts to minimize over dramatizing what is inherently a deeply sad, deeply ‘dramatic’ story results in movie that, like the mother, often feels bloodless. He allows us to see the absurdities of a life lived through ideology… which of course opens the theme of the story way beyond an examination of religion to an insight into the way our secular ideologies are equally lobotomizing its faithful.

But perhaps, old loyalties persuaded him to pull his punches.
And this fine movie is all the poorer for it.

 

APOSTASY. Dir/Writer: Daniel Kokotajilo. With: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Robert Evans, Molly Wright. Cinematographer: Adam Scarth

 

 

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE:FALLOUT*** Non Stop


IN WHAT IS, essentially, a single long chase sequence, Mission Impossible: Fallout is, hands down, the most adrenaline pumping action movie for the last few years. From a no-holds barred fight in a Men’s Room to a wild motorcycle chase against the flow in busy downtown traffic to a demented helicopter shootout, Director/writer and ex-detective Chris McQuarrie (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation; Jack Reacher and the writer of Edge of Tomorrow) has dramatically upped the ante on great action set pieces.

As he always does in these – very varied – M.I stories, Tom Cruise, looking none of his 55+ years (There must be a Dorian Grey picture of him in some Scientology vault) throws himself into the maelstrom with gung-ho abandon. He runs, leaps tall buildings, scales un-scalable cliffs and whizzes through some of Europe’s most scenic locations, all seen in a heart-pounding blur.

The relentless pulse of kinetic drive is made all the more thrilling by Lorne Balfe’s (The Crown, Pacific Rim) outstanding sound track and his gorgeous reinterpretation of Lalo Schifrin’s well-known melody.

The convoluted story of multiple deceptions and untrustworthy allies doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But then, if you came to a M.I movie expecting “sense”, you’re in the wrong place. The basic plot follows Ethan and his trusty crew (Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg) as they track down some stolen nuclear devices and a mysterious arch criminal, John Lane. Along the way, they run into a “fixer” – the White Widow – underplayed by an underused Vanessa Kerby (Princess Margaret from The Crown), a CIA hit man (Henry Cavill. far more convincing than he ever was as Superman), multiple anonymous thugs and his fellow M.I BFF, Rebecca Ferguson.

(Of that lot, only Ving is American. Even the villain –Sean Harris- in a Brit. Than you Tom. We’ll need to like of you even more after Brexit)

There are no damsels in distress here. These women all kick-ass in ways that would make most macho men shrivel.
It is reported that Cruise does all (most?) of his stunts. And in the filming of this movie, he broke his ankle (and shut down production for three months). This craziness/mania on his part certainly pays off: nothing looks fake. You really feel that Cruise/Ethan Hunt is genuinely fighting against the wind and clambering aboard a flying helicopter. Because (no doubt with “strings” attached) he probably was.
Can’t wait for M.I. 7. Or is it 17?

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT. Dir: Christopher McQuarrie. With: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kerby. Cinematographer: Rob Hardy (Annihilation). Composer: Lorne Balfe (Churchill. Ghost in the Shell) Production designer: Peter Wenham (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

 

INCREDIBLES 2**** Simply…incredible


JOYOUS. HYSTERICAL. BRILLIANTLY well written. Gloriously well directed. The real world sharply observed. All that from a cartoon. It’s the incredible Incredibles 2, a movie about superheroes with more real world insights that most other movies and definitely more than any other superhero movie. Ever.

The action starts pretty much where the last one (waaay back in 2004) ended. Like the X Men, the superheroes have been outlawed. And even though they’re just thwarted the nasty Underminer, it’s not because they’re a danger to society or even because they’re different. The problem, as pointed out by the sharp suited, sweet talking Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk), is that they don’t offer a compelling enough narrative to woo and win the hearts of people (and lawmakers). It’s not a failure of substance, it’s simply a failure of PR.

Which pretty much sums up our world.

So, for a user-friendly, appealing icon of superhero repositioning, PR guru Winston focuses on the sympathetic, sexy mom, Mrs. Incredible aka Elastigirl, aka Helen Parr (Holly Hunter).

This is much to the chagrin of Mr. Incredible, Bob (Craig T Nelson), her newly downgraded – to babysitter in chief – husband. After a few PR friendly battles, in full throttle with her version of the Batmobile, Helen must take on a far more malevolent foe, Screenslaver. This villain has hacked into the screens and brains of others to create a fake, if believably false narrative…all intending to subvert the truth and doom the heroes.

And in other news of Brexit…

The real battle though is at home where dad must deal with his bruised ego, his daughter’s puppy love agonies, his son’s maths test and the gob-smacking explosion of baby Jack Jack’s emerging and unchecked superpowers. JJ can not only teleport through dimensions, but has machine gun laser beam eyes, can multiply herself and turns into a ferocious flaming demon when angered (mainly thru lack of cookies).

Mom doesn’t think dad can do it without her (typical!). But he does (typical dad superheroism!)

This wild, exuberant romp, amped up by Michael Giacchino’s Bond-esque score, is peopled with the people we all recognize: the gawky, gushing teenage fan, Voyd (who can also bounce people through portals in space), the haughty designer diva, Edna (turned babysitter), the emasculated superman, the petulant daughter etc. And it whooshes by a smorgasbord of hot off the news themes: female empowerment, the power of branding, unemployment, political lobbying, opinion manipulation the rule and misrule of the law. For starters.

This is a kids’ movie?

Holly Hunter (such a distinctive voice) heads up a strong cast of characters (including Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini and Samuel. L. Jackson). And is only outshone by Sophia Bush (Mainly Chicago Fire and Chicago PD) as the blushing, self-conscious, shy, gawky teenager, Voyd. In her, Pixar’s fabulous cartoonists’ skills, spearheaded by Art Director Josh Holtsclaw (Cars 3) and Production Designer Ralph Eggleston (Inside Out, Wall-E) simply take your breath away…all under the superb conductor’s baton of director/writer Brad Bird. Mr. Bird (who is also the voice of the fashion diva Edna) helmed the last decent MI outing (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) as well as the original Incredibles.

I say Oscars all round

 

INCREDIBLES 2. Dir. and writer: Brad Bird. With: Craig T Nelson (Gold, Book Club), Holly Hunter (Top of the Lake, Saving Grace), Catherine Keener (Sicarion2: Soldado), Bob Odenkirk (The Post), Samuel L Jackson, Sophia Bush. Cinematographer: Mahyar Abousaeedi (The Good Dinosaur). Composer: Michael Giacchino (Jurassic Word; Fallen Kingdom). Production Designer: Ralph Eggleston (Finding Nemo). Art Director: Josh Holtsclaw (Cars 3)