BlacKkKlansman (2018)

2019 #86
Spike Lee | 135 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

BlacKkKlansman

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 1 win

Won: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Editing, Best Original Score.

“A black man infiltrates the KKK.” Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? Or possibly some outrageous blaxploitation movie. But it’s something that actually happened, and here co-writer/director Spike Lee tells the story of the guy who did it.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After seeing a small advert in the local paper for information on the Ku Klux Klan, Ron phones the number and pretends to be an angry white racist. The ruse works and he’s invited to meet them, which obviously he can’t, so the department agrees to send intelligence officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his place. So begins an undercover operation where Zimmerman pretends to be Ron in person, and Ron pretends to be white on the phone.

Although the premise sounds comical, the fact it’s a true story concerning an organisation as inhumane and pernicious as the KKK made me worried the film would be serious, grim, and heavy-going. In actuality, it’s lively, funny, and fast-paced. Humour is woven throughout the story in a way that is neither incongruous nor forced, and it doesn’t undermine the stakes when things get serious. And there remain parts that remind you of the true horrors of racism in America, in particular a sequence that intercuts a Klan initiation with an old black man remembering the stomach-churning details of a lynching he witnessed in his youth. It’s horrific; it’s sad; it’s enraging.

Spot the black man

The same could be said of the film’s final few minutes, which powerfully connect these events from decades ago to what’s going on in the US right now. The effect is hair-raising. Some have accused this finale of being exploitative or disconnected to the rest of the movie, but I don’t hold with that. On a literal level, a certain real-life figure turns up in the news footage to provide a very concrete link to the film’s main narrative. Even without that, the whole content of the film is incredibly timely, which is depressing and terrifying, really. It doesn’t have to bash you round the head with echoes of the present state of things in the US, because those parallels are unavoidably there.

If I have a criticism, it’d be that there’s inadequate follow-up on the internal conflict of Driver’s character. Lee made him Jewish to raise the stakes (the real-life guy wasn’t Jewish; and, if you didn’t know, the Klan hates Jews too), and so we get a beginning and middle for his personal narrative: at first he’s just doing his job, and he doesn’t care about his heritage because it wasn’t part of his upbringing; but then, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, he says he never used to think about being Jewish but now he thinks about it all the time. It feels like some kind of reconciliation of that internal conflict is needed later on, but it doesn’t come. A counter argument is that that’s the point — that he’s been subsumed as just a “White American”, but he is a Jew, and having to handle that dichotomy is something he’s never grappled with before. Still, if that’s the point where his character arc was intended to end, maybe reaching it halfway through the film wasn’t the best idea.

Black power

I’d still say it’s a relatively minor concern in a film that does so much else right as to render it more or less trivial. The film’s real triumph lies in how it tackles a very serious, concerning, and timely issue: luring you in with a “too good to be true” premise, engaging you with the entertaining way it’s told, thrilling you with some tense undercover-cop sequences, and finally delivering some gut punches of truth. You’ll have a good time, but also leave incensed at the state of the world — or, perhaps, of one particular country. Not many filmmakers could naturally pull off both of those opposing emotional states within the same movie, but Lee’s cracked it.

5 out of 5

BlacKkKlansman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

It placed 8th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

Midnight Special (2016)

2016 #145
Jeff Nichols | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Greece / English | 12 / PG-13

Midnight SpecialI’m not sure I’d even heard the name Jeff Nichols before Midnight Special came along, at which point most of the gushing reviews that followed seemed to mention him with cult-like reverence. He’s the writer and director, by the way, for anyone still in the dark, and unbeknownst to me (and, I rather suspect, most people outside certain cinephile circles) he’d amassed something of a following over his first three movies (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, two of which I’d at least heard of). It’s kind of odd to feel like everyone else loves this guy and has been eagerly anticipating his next work and is now discussing how it chimes with his existing canon, when you’ve not even heard of him.

Anyway, his latest film* has a plot that makes me want to dub it Starman: A World Beyond… though that might indicate something about the ending, so, uh, shh! Anyway, the story concerns a dad (Michael Shannon) who’s kidnapped his son (Jaeden Lieberher) from some kind of cult, and is now on the run from both the authorities and the cultists who want the kid back. All the furore stems from the fact that the kid has some kind of special abilities, one of which has given them a destination to head for and time to be there…

The story’s style has made a comparison to Spielberg the go-to, not only for reviewers but for the writer-director himself, who’s labelled the film an homage to E.T. and Close Encounters. You can see that influence, certainly, but it lacks the effortless charm that Spielberg brings to his movies. If this is Spielberg, it’s by way of more indie arthouse fare. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. You could argue that it’s more refreshing than any of the I want to believestraight-up Spielberg rehashes we’ve seen over the past four decades; conversely, a strand of wilful obscurity means it may be ultimately less satisfying. Again, some people derive satisfaction explicitly from that lack of resolution or explanation, while others will find it damagingly frustrating. Even more than Spielberg, I felt the thing most evoked by this structure was The X Files: intriguing sci-fi mysteries that eventually lead to semi-reveals which don’t quite satisfy in themselves in part because they’re trying very hard to remain open-ended.

In that regard, it’s arguably a little too woolly on its sci-fi elements, and executes the chase-thriller aspect of its plot too slowly, to be fully considered a genre movie; but it’s also too indistinct on its cast to fully convince as a character-driven drama. You can certainly begin to infer some things about what their exact motivations are, what they’re thinking and feeling and why they’re doing what they do, but I’m not sure if it’s actually there or if I’m endeavouring to build something out of the little that we’re given. That said, if I’m prepared to do Zack Snyder the courtesy of reading something into his work that may or may not be there (cf. Sucker Punch), then Jeff Nichols deserves at least the same level of kindness. But for the kind of movie whose style makes it seem like it should be about Character or Theme over more genre- and/or narrative-focused concerns, it feels there’s an awful lot of attention paid to plot over anything else. Speaking as a fan of sci-fi and high-concepts and B-thrillers and blockbusters, I actually think I’d’ve liked it more if it toned down the sci-fi and the plot, and instead focused on the characters’ soul-searching and the unusual family dynamics.

That said, there’s some great imagery. Mainly the sci-fi stuff at the end — I don’t think it’s unfair to describe most of the movie as looking solidly unremarkable, but the climax is pretty darn good. However, I’ve read many reviews that criticise the effects. Are we not past that yet? Especially when it comes to a film of this budget and scale. Nuclear familyI thought they perfectly conveyed what they were intending to convey — usually, just a kind of otherworldly light. It’s not like it’s even over-stretching its means, like so many network TV series or Sharknado-esque movies do when they try to emulate a $200 million blockbuster on a TV budget. If you’re expecting some grand CGI, maybe go watch one of those $200 million blockbusters instead of an $18 million drama.

Midnight Special seems to provoke a wide range of responses — I mean, you can say that about most films, ultimately; but some more so than others, and skimming across reviews and comments online, this is definitely one of them. Fans of American indie-ish drama-driven semi-genre movies, or of more thoughtful science-fiction, will surely want to give it a go, but how much you’ll connect with its characters or its ideas seems to be a roll of the dice. I liked it well enough, but I don’t remember seeing any particular indication of what’s inspired the notion that we should all be fawning over Jeff Nichols as the best auteur to happen to cinema since sliced bread. (Sliced bread’s early movies were great, weren’t they?)

3 out of 5

Midnight Special is on Sky Cinema from today.

* In a coincidental similarity to when I started viewing the work of another much-hailed star-to-be indie director (Ben Wheatley), I’m beginning with his fourth film. ^

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.