BlacKkKlansman

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* * * * (out of five)

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is a major event. It signals the return to the mainstream for one of America’s finest, most distinctive and important filmmakers. Lee has never stopped making films, but, for whatever reasons, they’ve been quieter, in release and audience reach, in recent years. Films such as 2014’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, 2015’s Chi-Raq and this year’s Pass Over haven’t even been released in Australian cinemas, tied up in a notion that films centred on the black American experience don’t “play overseas.”

BlacKkKlansman is gonna play. While continuing Lee’s grand theme of addressing race in America, it is undeniably ‘accessible’, thanks in large part to its enormous comedic entertainment value. Lee has always been a comedic filmmaker, and always combined righteous anger with comedy – look at Do The Right Thing – but sometimes his comedy isn’t foregrounded by the people selling his films. This time around, if Lee’s people can’t sell the humour here, they should all lose their jobs. Black KKKlansman is funny.

It’s also deft, surprising, strange and revelatory. The buy-in – a black cop, in 1979, working out of an otherwise all-white precinct in Colorado Springs, manages to ‘infiltrate’ the local Ku Klux Klan chapter when they assume, speaking to him on the telephone, that he’s white – is enough of an extraordinary, and very true, story to carry a film, but the intricacies of the telling, let alone the impactful modern resonances Lee draws, make the film very special. Just one intriguing layer among many: in order to actually meet the Klan members he’s fooling, agent Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) has to enlist one of his white colleagues, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to ‘be’ him for face-to-face meetings. This is bizarre enough – two cops going undercover as one – but what gets really interesting is that Zimmerman thus discovers the Klan hates Jews as much as black people, leading him down his own path of self-realisation, as he takes his own Jewishness seriously for the first time.

In many ways, it’s a straightforward (true) story, very well told, but Lee nevertheless allows his formidable cinematic imagination to bloom in intriguing and satisfying ways. One of the most powerful scenes is early on, when Stallworth goes, as his very first undercover assignment, to a speech at the college campus given by Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). Lee not only allows the excellent Hawkins to deliver a massive chunk of the actual speech – possibly six or seven minutes’ worth! – he stylistically manipulates the image of the students’ faces receiving Carmichael’s words, most powerfully when Carmichael talks of ‘black beauty’, and frames the ‘African-ness’ of their features against a deep black background (along the lines of the famous cover of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody LP). It is a bold sequence whichever way you look at it, and it absolutely works.

The Klansman of the local chapter are depicted as a combination of ignorant and stupid (Paul Walter Hauser, so brilliant in I, Tonya), ignorant and scary (Jasper Pääkkönen, a Finnish movie star doing amazing work as a Coloradan) and unnervingly appealing (Ryan Eggold). Then there’s David Duke, played by Topher Grace. He doesn’t arrive into the picture until the second act, and when he does, everything shifts. Suddenly, Stallworth has the biggest fish on the end of his line, and when Duke announces he’s coming to Colorado Springs for a Klan convention, the already too-good-to-be-true plot lifts into cosmic excellence, propelling Stallworth and Duke towards a head-to-head confrontation. (Don’t forget, this really is a true story, and very, very faithful to real events; as such, the confrontation, when it comes, features a truly truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist you’d never dream up in screenwriting class.) Grace’s performance is excellent, portraying Duke as smooth, charming, well-spoken and glacially calm, which makes him, of course, the most dangerous Klansman in the room even without his position as the Klan’s ‘Grand Wizard’.

Early critical response to the film seems slightly more enthusiastic outside of the US than within, which isn’t surprising. Lee has always been a global player – She’s Gotta Have It was at Cannes – standing on the rooftops urging us to comprehend the deeply troubled relationship his country has with itself. Perhaps, when you’re on the inside, his message can be too tough to bear. BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes this year. Let’s see how it fares at the Oscars, where it deserves, but may not get, nominations across the board, including best director and best film. This is American filmmaking at its best: urgent, angry, innovative, loud and funny.

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On Chesil Beach

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* * * * (out of five)

Ian McEwan is one of my favourite novelists, and Saoirse Ronan is hands down the actor exciting me most these days. Ronan in a McEwan adaptation, therefore, is catnip to me; thrillingly, On Chesil Beach is worthy of its stellar ingredients. It is sublime.

It no doubt helps that McEwan wrote the screenplay himself; he is admirably loyal to his own material. But so, too are director Dominic Cooke and production designer Suzie Davies; this is one of those blessed adaptations – the television version of Patrick Melrose is another – that looks and feels just like the book did in your head.

Ronan is typically magnificent as Florence Ponting, an upper-class young woman whom we meet on the afternoon of her wedding. Crucially, we are in England, and it is 1962. Her young groom is Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle); he is of a different class, from a different area, and, therefore, might as well be from another country. Luckily, the two are very much in love; tragically, neither are particularly experienced in the sexual arts, and the wedding bed, sitting metres away in the hotel room they’ve taken on Chesil Beach, waits for them like an electric chair.

McEwan uses this rather slight premise, which takes place over two hours at most, to expose the British condition in the early sixties as cripplingly class conscious, rigid and as bland as the horrendous plate of overcooked beef, potatoes and veg the young newlyweds are served, “silver service”, in their suite. That’s not a new trope in literature, nor in cinema, and the film is hardly revelatory. It’s all in the execution, which is sublime. Cooke is making his feature film debut after an acclaimed career in the theatre, and he proves masterly at tone, composition and pace. Literary adaptations, particularly of books like this one, featuring flashbacks and occasionally flashbacks-within-flashbacks, are notoriously tricky, and most, frankly, fail. This one soars, lifted ever skyward on the back of Ronan’s impeccably modulated performance. She is modern cinema’s truest star.

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Summer 1993

* * * (out of five)

Last year Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird concluded with the lead character offering her mother two of the most basic, important and simple words we have as a species. The film was known to be semi-autobiographical, and, despite its immense value as easily accessible entertainment, those final words revealed it to be, essentially, incredibly direct. It was the movie equivalent of a personal message from one person to another via social media: simultaneously intimate and completely public.

Now, Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 does a similar thing, but this time the story, characters and scenes are acknowledged to be not just ‘semi’ but directly autobiographical, and, therefore, the film lacks Lady Bird’s advantage of dramatic license. The events of Summer 93 are interesting and affecting, but they can’t possibly be as meaningful to anyone as they must be to Simón, nor the stakes as high. Gerwig’s film achieved some general appeal, but Simón’s is inherently specific.

In the summer of 1993, following the death of her parents, Simón went to live in the Catalonian countryside with her uncle, his wife, and their daughter, and not for the short term. It was obviously a summer that changed everything for Simón, an elongated reckoning with a cataclysmic event, and her film’s greatest ambition and, to a fair extent, achievement is portraying the unique and fascinating way a six year old deals with grief, loss and change. She has to recall how her young brain processed such heavy materials, interpret it, and present it in a way that we – adults, assumedly – can relate.

It’s a tough (self-)assignment, and Simón doesn’t make it any easier on herself by restricting her shooting style to the basic elements of script, cast and location. She barely uses music and completely eschews any flourishes of camera or post-production, limiting herself to handheld coverage of her actors’ naturalistic performances. Luckily, her entire small ensemble are exceptional and, vitally for a film like this, feel completely real.

Of course, the whole enterprise rests entirely on Simón’s star, and avatar, Laia Artigas; she’s the director’s only special effect. She’s excellent, but in relying on her so strongly – much of the film is spent in close-up on her small face – Simón perhaps expects too much. There’s only so much interior pain, confusion, suffering and acceptance a little girl can show.

This is a slow, quiet film of gentle revelation. It is unutterably sad throughout, and it concludes movingly. You’ll need to be in the right mood for it, and it’s probably best approached as cinema to be appreciated rather than a story to be enjoyed. Come to see the debut feature of a promising filmmaker, armed with patience, a sense of discovery, and, if possible, your own inner child.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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* * * *

In 1996, auteur Brian De Palma and superstar Tom Cruise teemed to deliver a franchise-birthing action movie that seems even more ripe, strange, bold and unlikely twenty-two years on. Featuring a screenplay from powerhouses Robert Towne – yes, Chinatown’s Towne – and David Koepp, Mission: Impossible, based on the 1966-1973 TV series, featured idiosyncratic, at times excellent, dialogue; Bond-like Europe-trotting; and superb set-pieces. It was also unmistakably a Brian De Palma joint, featuring many of his themes and obsessions and jam-packed, as is his wont, with cinematic references; indeed, the film’s classic set-piece, the “Langley heist”, was a direct homage to a similar scene in Jules Dassin’s 1954 French heist thriller Rififi.

Perhaps it was precisely because the film was such a ‘director’s piece’ that Cruise decided to embark, for the next four installments, on a bold and admirable experiment. He hired different directors for each, and told them not to make their franchise entries in the style of the first film, but to actively depart from it, to make their episodes in their own styles. This flew radically against the entire history of sequels and franchises; continuity had always ruled in television and film series, so that Irvin Kershner’s Empire Strikes Back felt like George Lucas’ Star Wars and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky II felt like John G. Avildsen’s Rocky. John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) felt nothing like a Brian De Palma film nor a J.J. Abrams film; he contributed Mission: Impossible 3 in 2006. The Incredibles director Brad Bird’s 2011 entry dropped the numerical tally in the title – it was called Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, and then in 2015 Christopher McQuarrie, best known and admired for writing The Usual Suspects, kind of re-booted the franchise with Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation. It was the best entry since De Palma’s original, primarily because it introduced a female character, Ilsa Faust, played impeccably by Rebecca Ferguson, who was a rich, intriguing character, vital to the plot and, increasingly, to Cruise’s character Ethan Hunt. The series had always featured high-stakes stunts, but with Faust, we finally got stakes of the heart. The series had a human scale again, and felt fresh.

McQuarrie’s success with Rogue Nation has caused Cruise to break his own rule; he gave McQuarrie another go, and the result is Fallout, which continues to utilize Faust – and why wouldn’t you? – as well as its villain, Solomon Lane, played by gaunt, evil-eyed Brit Sean Harris. We’re still stuck with Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, a kind of Statler and Waldorf at this point, along with Alec Baldwin, and there are two major new characters of note, played by Henry Cavill and Vanessa Kirby. They’re both almost supernaturally attractive, and each delivers a one-note, almost comically bad performance; next to Ferguson and Harris, they feel like amateurs, or, worse, models given lines to say. It’s a shame, too, because it is the jovial ensemble of these films that is their primary distinction; that, and great action.

And this film has great action. The final act, in particular, is mind-blowing. I long ago gave up letting action sequences make me tense, so why was I clutching my armrest? McQuarrie’s massive tornadoes of bodies, steel and space are visceral, energetic, exhilarating, and at least give the very convincing impression of being entirely ‘practical’ – that is, utilizing stunt work and props rather than digital effects. (Of course, the sequences use both techniques, but the digital effects are so well hidden as to be generally undetectable). As an action movie, it is remarkable, up there with the very best.

As a spy movie, it’s lightweight, but very, very fun, and the established ensemble, Ferguson, Baldwin and Harris included, are comfy to be around. Indeed, it’s strange, to me, what a warm and fuzzy feeling this franchise – or at least these last two installments of it – gives me. The humor, delivered entirely by Pegg and Rhames, doesn’t work, but it doesn’t seem to matter; the very fact these two not-very-fit-looking aging codgers are at least trying to crack wise is enough. And they’ve got Cruise, fit as ever (though very puffy of face – Botox?), to gee them up. He isn’t the centre of the vortex, he is the vortex, but he’s generous with screentime, lines and energy. He doesn’t need to prove that he’s the star, because he is is so the star.

Rogue Nation’s strongest asset – Ferguson – doesn’t get enough to do; the complexity of Faust’s relationship with Cruise’s Hunt is jettisoned for a similarly complicated one between Hunt and Cavill’s August Walker, which is hindered by Cavill’s unroadworthy performance. Thus that spark of magic – an old-fashioned European untrustworthy romance, in the fine tradition of Casablanca – isn’t present. But action is, and this movie, more than any in the series, maybe more than any in history, is all action. And, like Hunt, like Cruise, it is very good at the single thing it does best.

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The Wife

* * (out of five)

Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is a seriously heavyweight American literary novelist, the kind that lives in America’s North East, outside of New York – think a Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. One morning, in a call that he and his wife Joan (Glenn Close) were expecting with baited breath and bitten fingernails, he finds out that he has, indeed, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In a marvellous, truthful moment, Joe and Joan jump up and down on their bed, him squealing “I won the No-Bel! I won the No-Bel!”

It’s the best moment in the movie, which starts deteriorating as they head to Stockholm to collect the prize, and reaches a nadir at the prize-giving rehearsal, in a scene so atrociously directed that you’d be forgiven thinking director Björn Runge had shot his rehearsal and accidentally put it in the final cut.

Never mind that Scotland stands in for Sweden, and multiple British actors stand badly in for Americans and Swedes (Pryce’s Jewish Brooklyn – oy vey!) The film’s jarring artifice runs much deeper than such surface concerns. Ostensibly a realistic drama, the tone clangs and clashes against itself, juggling bad performances (Christian Slater, as a rapacious wannabe biographer) with terrible ones (Max Irons, as Joe and Joan’s son). The dialogue would suit a telenovela, the lighting a daytime soap, and the blocking… well, when something as basic as the blocking is this horrendous, what hope do you have for the story, characterisations, catharsis?

Everything is played as though we, the audience, were dummies. Subtle this film is not. The duality of Joe and Joan’s names – say them a couple times… geddit? – are indicative of both the film’s self-importance and its actual immaturity. It wants to swim in the waters of literary and intellectual greatness, but assumes we’ve come from the screening of Transformers next door and need our hands held. Nowhere is this more apparent than the aforementioned rehearsal scene, which is where the film not only lost me completely but began to truly bug me. Joe has been assigned an unbelievably beautiful young female photographer for the duration of his time in Stockholm, who proceeds to follow him everywhere. She stares at him like a lion at a gazelle, he hides his own carnivorous stolen glances at her, Joan sees it all – duh! – and we see Joan seeing it all, repeatedly, insultingly. This would all be only so much spoon-feeding were it not for the rehearsal, when the photographer obsessively snaps photos of Joe constantly, millimetres from his face, while none of the other prize recipients even have assigned photographers. Everything about the scene is off, wrong, unbelievable, stupendously idiotic. It’s the worst scene I’ve seen in years, and emblematic of the film’s slapdash laziness.

Somehow, Glenn Close – always a great screen actor – survives, and when big arguments between Joe and Joan come, they’re well played. To both their credits, Pryce and Close manage to portray something close to a real relationship in this most unreal film. To paraphrase what someone clever said about Trump: it’s the kind of movie a dumb person thinks is smart.

The Breaker-Upperers

* 1/2 (out of five)

Oh, in the preview screening, how we all laughed at the first scene of this eighty-one minute New Zealand comedy! And oh, how it made the silence to come, for the next seventy-eight minutes, all the more deafening.

Mel and Jen run an agency providing a service we all could have used at some point in our lives: they end your relationship for you, taking your place in the “break-up” conversation. They break hearts and face the tears; beyond that, they go to certain lengths, when deemed necessary, to add a fictional spin on the cause of the relationship’s end. In the very funny opening scene, they’re dressed up as cops, bringing the sad news of their client’s (fake) demise to his girlfriend. Deadpan, simple and elegant, it’s a good gag, well shot and played, expertly utilizing a simple prop – a small plate of cookies – to maximum effect.

Unfortunately the rest of the film completely lacks the discipline, rigor and structure of this first scene, instead going completely in the opposite direction, becoming as slap-dash, loose and slack as a mediocre stand-up’s totally improvised set. Criminally, the basic, excellent concept of the film – the Break-Up business – is jettisoned almost immediately for a third-rate RomCom plot, whereby Mel falls for one of their clients and Jen tries to deal with potentially losing her exclusive hold on her friend and business partner.

To call the script “shaggy” would be far too generous. It’s baggy and flat, and at its worst falls back into extremely tired (and insulting) tropes: the girlfriend of the object of Mel’s affection is a super-tough, super-aggressive Maori girl-gang leader whose ongoing, endless gag is, well, being aggressive. I’m not au fait enough with New Zealand culture to truly comment, but the character sure smells like an offensive stereotype to me.

At eighty-one minutes, this film is far too long. That funny first scene, about three minutes long, should have been the whole movie: a simple, successful sketch, rather than a waste of everyone’s time.

Ideal Home

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* * 1/2

There’s something uncomfortable, now, of watching famous straight actors play gay. It used to be the norm, then it was considered acceptable if “necessary”, but things have definitively shifted and times have defiantly changed. It’s taken over a decade for Andy Fleming’s screenplay Ideal Home to make it to the screen, and, ironically and challengingly, this most politically correct of stories has erred badly in the light of current political correctness.

Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd have been attached to the film for a long time, but they – and Fleming, and everyone involved – should have noticed the winds changing and stepped down before rolling camera. It’s not like their performances justify their position – that is, there’s no way anyone can say they give performances better than any gay actors could have given (can you imagine if anyone did!) Coogan gives a typically wry comedic reading, Rudd a typically warm-hearted one, but both of them, frankly, look, act and sound very uncomfortable – and wrong – whenever they’re playing it “gay” (which both do, often, Coogan the most).

They play a set-in-their-ways couple living a very urbane and privileged life in Santa Fe, where Coogan’s Erasmus is a celebrity TV chef and Rudd’s Paul his TV show’s producer. They shoot the show on their own ranch and retire to sophisticated, adult dinners on their patio with Santa Fe’s elite, gay and otherwise (the mayor plays himself). Then Erasmus’s grandson shows up, needing a place to live, and the boys have to parent up.

The film is a heartfelt plea for tolerance that simply pushes too much heart. There are some very, very funny moments – I laughed out loud at least four times, always thanks to Coogan – but the second and third acts are plagued by overt sentimentality. It feels very much like Fleming was worried we wouldn’t “get it”, so he bludgeons us with it, shooting himself in the artistic foot but subverting his humour with schmaltz. What could have been zippy is drippy, and what should have been gay is fey. Oy vey.

Foxtrot

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* * * 1/2

Zero Motivation, from 2014, was a light, frothy comedy about the boredom facing young Jewish Israeli women during their two years of military service. Now Foxtrot, a true satire rather than a comedy, examines issues around young men doing their service, but the humor is much, much darker.

Tonally, Foxtrot is extremely ambitious. Using a simple set of characters and locations but laser-sharp mise-en-scene, director Samuel Maoz takes tight control of our minds and emotions, leading us purposefully to look where he wants us to look and feel what he wants us to feel. It’s a magic act, a set of deceptions, manipulations and reveals, and it works.

It could easily not have; the twists and reversals in Maoz’s screenplay are bold enough to alienate or even anger. But his cast and crew are all on the same page, in on the same joke, and the strange engine hums. In particular, cinematographer Giora Bejach uses precise, formal framing and audacious – but always controlled – camera moves to play with our brains. He’ll show us one thing, then, with a subtle push in and pan, reveal something new that totally upends our expectations, and he does it again and again, the magician daring us to figure out his next move when he’s actually two moves ahead.

Likewise, the cast, headed by the suburb Lior Ashkenazi, nail every quiet, meaningful beat, dancing between comedy and tragedy eloquently and at times virtuosically. There are simple shots of Ashkenazi in silent repose that are some of the most heart-rending and memorable images of the cinematic year thus far. Indeed, even as the story – which is undeniably manipulative – fades in your memory, Ashkenazi’s performance, and his silent visage, will grow.

Upgrade

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* * (out of five)

Leigh Whannell hit the jackpot as a very young man when he and James Wan created Saw, and, subsequently, the Saw franchise, which has been very, very lucrative. Wan, who directed the first Saw, has become a highly successful director and producer of low-budget, high-profit horror genre fare, the kind of stuff that sells big on Friday nights (including the Annabelle and Conjuring franchises). Meanwhile, Whannell has pursued a less obviously successful acting career, and, prior to this, wrote and directed Insidious 3 (having written the original Insidious for Wan to direct). Now he makes his first non-sequel as a feature writer-director, with Upgrade, an Australian – American co-production shot in Melbourne, starring an American, Logan Marshall-Green, set in the United States, but utilizing a predominantly Australian cast.

The most generous reading of Upgrade is of a film lovingly paying homage to the original RoboCop and Terminator. The least is of a film blatantly ripping those films off. Whannell’s intentionality probably lies somewhere in between, but the result is a pastiche of other people’s good ideas while offering next to none of its own.

Marshall-Green plays a man in the near-ish future who, after an accident, receives tremendously heightened physical prowess due to a cyborgian operation, and uses it to pursue justice tinged with vengeance – a la RoboCop. Meanwhile, the low-budget design elements, tarted up with maximum stylised lighting and an intense, thumping, synthy soundtrack, honour the aesthetic of The Terminator, which was, lest we forget, a (relatively) cheap genre flick that outshone its constraints thanks to excellent craftsmanship (and Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Marshall-Green, a good actor, does his best, and, like Arnie in The Terminator and Peter Weller in RoboCop, manages to wring intriguing physical humour from the cyborg motif. But the rest of the film – particularly the dialogue – is juvenile; at times it really sounds like something a fifteen year old (male) would write. Some scenes, such as that at an “off-the-grid” bar for badass types, are depressingly, pathologically imitative – copies of copies of copies of copies, sad in their desperate lack of imagination. And one of the major characters, an Elon Musk type – called Eron! – is horrendously conceived and cast (I’ll spare the actor by not mentioning his name; I don’t think he stood a chance, given his dialogue, his blocking, the sets and props he had to work with, and the fact that he looks ludicrously too young).

On the plus side, there are some decent fight sequences, a couple of interesting design choices, and a story so simple you can easily have a big Friday afternoon at the pub first, or a few joints, and not miss a thing. It’s not too long, either; you’ll easily be able to get a Friday night meal afterward, and forget all about it.

Ocean’s 8

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“Well, this is boring.”

* * (out of five)

Unfunny, unexciting and unsuspenseful, Ocean’s 8 is an embarrassing and obvious misfire. Despite the much-hyped collection of A-List actresses, only one of them – Anne Hathaway – manages to capture your attention, let alone possibly bring a smile to your dial. Every other character is underwritten – how can Mindy Kaling deliver a performance when her scripted character does nothing? – in a lifeless, hand-me-down script featuring a dull, uninspired heist.

Gary Ross, who co-wrote the cookie-cutter (using the 2001 Ocean’s 11 template) screenplay with Olivia Milch, directs in the style of Steven Soderbergh – literally, using the exact same film grammar Soderbergh used for his Ocean’s movies – but without the magic. It’s an odd experience, watching a formula that has worked so well before not working at all. Somehow, and sadly, there is no chemistry between leading ladies Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett (who delivers her most charisma-free performance, like, ever) and almost each of the other “8” are simply bodies in a room. Again, one can’t blame these poor actors, for they have no material to play, or worth playing.

There’s a scene at about the beginning of act two where Helena Bonham-Carter gets one over on a Cartier representative, convincing him to go against his logical position and his professional expertise, simply by revealing that she speaks French. It is neither funny nor logical, but it’s there in the movie, inert, non-sensical, dumb, and emblematic of the whole film, which is composed, simply, of a whole string of similar scenes. When your comedy heist movie lacks comedy and an acceptable heist, you’re just left with a movie, and nothing else; a hundred and ten minutes of light on a screen.