Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who likes to dabble across genres and put his high-concept stamp on them. His debut film, 2006’s Brick, was a moody noir-flavored mystery set in a modern high school. His next film, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was a whimsical con artist movie with cons-within-cons, and then Looper took time travel and twisted it into knots. From there the man was tapped to not only direct a new Star Wars movie but write one, and 2017’s The Last Jedi proved so divisive that Russia literally created robotic accounts to exploit raw feelings to better sow discord among Americans and undermine democracy. Johnson must have needed a detox from that galaxy far far away, and Knives Out is his version of an Agatha Christie-styled parlor mystery. Once again Johnson has taken an older genre, subverted its form, and made it his own in a way that feels reverent while also fresh, fun, and thoroughly entertaining.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a world-renowned mystery writer with a publishing empire in the millions. Then on the night of his birthday party, Harlan is found dead and every family member is a suspect. Could it be Marta Cabreara (Ana de Armas), the nurse who was last seen taking care of the old man? Could it be the daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), eager to get out of her marriage to a cheating husband (Don Johnson, having a moment this fall)? Could it be the son Walt (Michael Shannon) who was going to lose his position of power in control of the family publishing empire? Could it be grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) who didn’t show up on time for the party but showed up early for the will reading? The local police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is doing his best to navigate the many suspects. And then there’s the famed private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), hired by an unknown benefactor to discover foul play, who interrogates each family member, investigates the corners of the estate, and uncovers the truth.
Knives Out is an incredibly fun movie to watch fly by for its extended 130-minute running time. The guessing game is enjoyable and there is a plethora of suspects and red herrings. Johnson is clearly a fan of the genre and doing his best to send it up in his own way while still staying true to its roots. Just look at the silly, Dickensian names and you can tell Johnson is enjoying himself (there’s a character named “Ransom”). The mystery is clever but it becomes something more than a whodunnit (more on that below) and that’s when Knives Out becomes special. Johnson has been repeatedly accused of being too clever by half, looking to produce some meta gymnastics to subvert audience expectations but to what end? This was an issue with the very end of Brothers Bloom and many had this same complaint with The Last Jedi. It’s not enough to subvert expectations if the alternative isn’t as compelling. Still, the choices that Johnson makes with Knives Out best serve to improve the emotional involvement in the story. That quality seems like a rarity when it comes to murder mysteries, because it’s all about solving the crime and not necessarily how it affects the people on a more human level. It’s a problem to be solved, an equation on the board, and the process eliminates the variables systematically. Except with Knives Out, Johnson opens up the central figure of Marta in such a way that she becomes a symbolic figure for the immigrant experience in this country, fighting for dignity and recognition. The political commentary isn’t deep, and some of the shots feel a little cheap, but where Johnson succeeds is treating Marta as an empathetic stand-in for an often-invisible class.
A half-hour or so into the proceedings, Johnson makes a very conscious choice that changes how we understand the mystery and especially how we’re involved. I’ll be careful about spoilers but suffice to say we get some very crucial information that makes us look at the murder differently. For the first act it feels like it’s heading into a whodunnit with our clan of suspicious relatives, but it does something else, and I would argue something better. The problem with an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit is that the film is structured toward solving one central mystery and other important dramatic elements can fall by the wayside. Once you know who the killer is, was the journey to unmask them worth the twists and turns? Johnson instead lets the audience in on crucial information so that Knives Out alters, and the “who” is less important than how this information affects our relationship with a set of characters. It becomes less who is the killer and more will this culprit get caught and how will they beat the encroaching investigation. It transforms the entire structure, where instead of everything leading to one reveal, now it becomes a series of mini-panics and scrambles to stay ahead of a trap. This made me that much more personally involved and Johnson doubled the dramatic irony and tension of scenes. It becomes more a series of obfuscation where we’re involved, remembering what clues might be the ones that ultimately prove too inescapable. There is a downside to this approach, letting out some big reveals early also serves to downplay the vast majority of the supporting players. These people are all given motives and suspicions early on, but once Johnson unloads his twists too many of these same characters just fade into the background, their story use extinguished.
Another cheerful aspect of Knives Out is simply how much fun its cast is having, none more so than Craig (Spectre). I never really gave much thought to Craig as a comedic actor until 2017’s Logan Lucky, where he seemed to be unleashed, digging full bore into a charming and kooky supporting character, and it was downright joyful to watch him cut it up onscreen. He’s given such serious, macho roles but he really excels in the right comedic role, and he just has the time of his life playing Blanc. His southern-fried accent, penchant for theatricality, and garrulous nature all contribute to both tweak the idea of the clever inspector while playing into those clichés as well, steering into the fun we have with them. There were several moments I was left breathlessly cackling because of how Craig was delivering his lines with such relish. His explanation of the mystery being “a donut hole inside a donut hole” might be one of the best film scenes of the year. It also helps that Blanc has an affectionate working relationship with Marta, the heart of our movie, which makes this eccentric even more endearing to the audience. Just as Kenneth Branagh is continuing the adventures of his mustachioed private eye, I would happily watch another murder mystery featuring Blanc if Rian Johnson felt so inclined (pretty please).
The other actors do fine work even if many of them end up being underwritten figures either meant to be threatening suspects or cartoonish buffoons. Armas (Blade Runner 2047) is the lead actress and often the contrast for our rich elites and their out-of-touch perspectives; she’s the sounding board for their pettiness, acrimony, entitlement, and thinly-veiled racism. Armas just shines in the role as this figure who routinely makes the right choice even when it costs her. She’s a relatable, hard-working, kind character trying to keep her moral bearing in this high-stakes contest. Evans (Avengers: Endgame) is enjoyably smug and a welcome force to antagonize and puncture the egos of his fellow family members. Shannon (The Current War) has his effective moments of conveying menace and being laughably impotent. Every other actor does good work but too many of them barely make a blip. I forgot Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel and Oates) was in this movie from scene to scene. It’s a big cast so the goal is to make the most of their moments, and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, though some are far more broad.
Knives Out is a fun experience and further proof that when Rian Johnson really sets his mind on a certain genre, good and clever entertainments sprout. I want this man to tell the stories that excite him because there are still many more genres that could use the Rian Johnson stamp.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international best-selling trilogy that gave way to three hit Swedish movies, one Hollywood remake that netted a Best Actress nomination, and millions in worldwide revenue. The problem was that its author, Stieg Larsson, died of a heart attack in 2004, before the publication of any of the original novels. The property was too valuable to simply collect dust and thus a new author came aboard to tell further adventures of Lisbeth Salander, the pint-sized Gothic avenger. A new set of novels began being published in 2015, and after David Fincher’s 2011 version underperformed at the box-office, it seemed expected to reboot the franchise with a new big screen story that had yet to be adapted. In steps a new director, a new dragon-tattooed lady for The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Unfortunately, my fears have come true and the eventual reckoning has happened: they have made Lisbeth Salander boring.
Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is thrown into another criminal conspiracy with shadowy forces at play. A network of high-powered assassins, known as “spiders,” has stolen a dangerous technology that will allow the user control of nuclear arsenals. Lisbeth is hired to retrieve this tech, betrayed, and then on the run from Swedish authorities, professional killers, a dogged NSA operative (Laketih Stanfield), and the head of this cabal, Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks, Blade Runner 2049), her long lost sister Lisbeth left behind years ago.
In her first 2010 outing, Salander was presented as a complex, emotionally withdrawn figure, eminently capable but flawed, hurt, and looking to punish others from her fraught history with terrible men. Strip away all the Gothic trinkets and camouflage, her assertions of identity, and she’s still a deeply intriguing human being. However, even the latter Swedish films started veering in this more derivative direction. As I wrote presciently with the second Swedish Dragon Tattoo movie back in 2010: “We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.” With Spider’s Web, Lisbeth Salander has become a Gothic Jason Bourne spy figure, and as anyone who has seen the Bourne movies can attest, he’s the most boring character in his own movies, which is why he needs to be kept constantly on the move and hunted. He’s only interesting when he’s getting out of jams, and Lisbeth is now sadly in that realm.
Lisbeth has been reduced to her most essential, and most superficial, characteristics, which also go for the film as a whole. The Dragon Tattoo series began as a twisty investigative procedural with a litany of suspects and dark secrets worth killing over. From there, the Swedish films turned Lisbeth into an indestructible Terminator capable of getting the drop on anyone and axe-fighting oversized men. The Swedish series began more grounded as a mystery/thriller and suddenly, and regrettably, transformed into a preposterous Hollywood-style action-thriller, following the edict of bigger being better. That same mentality has carried over past Larsson’s contributions, and now Lisbeth has become an action superhero and the series has become trashy fun, high-calorie junk food, a safe excursion to a seedy underbelly. The Girl in the Spider’s Web still provides a consistent degree of entertainment, but it’s not playing at a higher level, content to hand-wave away its story for cool chases and fights. It’s the kind of movie where, to escape an encroaching fireball, Lisbeth dives into a bathtub of water. It makes for a visually interesting shot but it’s pretty cliché 90s action movie stuff. Director Fede Alvarez has a slick handle with visuals and evidenced real talent at sustaining and developing tension with 2016’s Don’t Breathe. He has obvious visual talent. There are some engaging fights, like a close-quarter struggle in a bathroom, and some nifty chase scenes, like a motorcycle chase over a frozen lake. I would have liked even more action if Spider’s Web was going to brush aside narrative and moral complexity for stylish set pieces.
The story of The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like a lukewarm repackaging of spy clichés, and the film does little to make any of it feel important or relevant. There’s a super powerful technology that everyone wants, which falls into the wrong hands, and now it’s about retrieving this device and saving the world. That’s like the plot of just about every James Bond movie. It’s a formula, but where Spider’s Web missteps are that it doesn’t add anything else to this staid foundation. There are scenes but it’s usually about this group going after this group, or this group now going after this group, and without wider relevance it becomes redundant plot placeholders, something meant to distract long enough to get our characters from Point A to Point B. With a mystery, there’s a natural momentum that builds as the case builds coherency and the investigation focuses the direction. With action thriller mode, Spider’s Web just has a bunch of guys that occasionally interact until the movie needs some of them dead. This model by itself can work but it requires concerted effort, and that just isn’t present here.
The most interesting aspect of Spider’s Web is the further examination on Salander’s troubled upbringing, this time introducing a sister that has been plotting vengeance. Salander is, first and foremost, the selling point of this franchise; she is, after all, the titular girl with that particular tattoo. She is what separates this from any other paperback thriller. The Swedish sequels opened up her past traumas with her Soviet-defected father. He was the Big Bad Man behind the scenes trying to institutionalize and neutralize her. While skirting into the above-stated dangerous territory, the Swedish sequels still knew that Lisbeth Salander’s complicated history was the real mystery the audience craved, and it set up a series of antagonists ready to be foiled for years-in-the-making payback. I don’t really know how the events of Spider’s Web gibe with the overall series. I had to look up whether the evil father in the opening was the same evil father in the other films (both are listed as Alexander Zalachenko, so I think so). But the established history has Lisbeth committed after trying to set dear old dad on fire to save her abused mother. I don’t see how any of that is likely if she escapes her father’s clutches as a pre-teen and is supposedly on the run. The secret Salander sister revelation also impacts little. She was the one left behind, whose continued abuse and degradation are strongly referenced. It doesn’t feel like Lisbeth harbors great guilt over leaving her sister behind. During their final face-to-face, Camilla actually poses a worthy question: “Why did the woman who hurts men who hurt women never come back and save her own abused sister?” Because this storyline is flagrantly underdeveloped, the evil sister angle is a cheap twist. There’s nothing to the Camilla character, so she serves as a symbol of shame, and yet the movie doesn’t seem to capitalize on this in the slightest, which is a puzzling disservice.
Foy (Netflix’s The Crown, First Man) is having a big year for herself but feels slightly miscast. She never really gets an opportunity to show off her range, which is a byproduct of the streamlined, reductionist screenplay emphasizing bare plot mechanics. She is missing the intensity or fire that we’ve seen in prior Salanders, breakout-star Noomi Rapace and the Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara. When Foy tries for glower you see the effort. She’s more grumpy than tortured, like maybe she skipped a meal. Even with the requisite piercings, tattoos, and black leather wardrobe, Foy seems a bit too clean-cut for the part. Personal admission: Foy with her sharp bangs, saucer-eyes, facial shape, and Gothic accessories, looks remarkably like an ex-girlfriend of mine from the early 2000s. That was something that kept sneaking into my mind throughout the film, which made the experience a tad stranger as if I was imagining an ex engaged in action heroics. Even excusing that personal connection, Foy ranks a distant third place for the Girls With.
The new Dragon Tattoo movie will likely also be its last. I can’t imagine fans getting too much pleasure out of a streamlined, underdeveloped spy thriller that sands away the edge and complexity of its characters for rote action movie chases. It’s not a bad movie and it does carry moments of excitement and entertainment, but it’s also become a standard Hollywood thriller, no different than a dozen other high-tech, junky hacker thrillers. The Girl in the Spider’s Web gets caught in its own formulaic web. If Lisbeth Salander has been transformed into a standard action hero, then we don’t deserve more adventures.
Nate’s Grade: C
Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
After years as a brilliant sketch comedian, Get Out is Jordan Peele’s first foray into horror, and if this gifted comic mind only wanted to make suspense thrillers from now on, that would be mighty fine. This is the first horror movie in years that left me buzzing, feeling charged and anxious, anxious to share with others so they too can feel the full effect of this live wire of a movie. It may be my favorite theatrical horror film since 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, and what they both have in common is a knowing understanding of their genres and expectations, a delicately balanced sense of tone, and a funhouse of darkly clever surprises. This is a movie rich with commentary, suspense, payoffs, and it all begins by exploring the dread-filled everyday existence of African-American men in this country as a waking horror movie that cannot be escaped.
Before even going further, I advise most readers to go into Get Out with as little knowledge as possible, which I understand means delaying reading this review. I can accept the loss of eyeballs knowing that more people will go in with an even greater ability to be surprised (I’ll avoid significant spoilers below, so fear not, dear reader).
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time. He’s worried that Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) hasn’t mentioned that he’s black. She assures him that her rich, wealthy, and liberal family won’t care in the slightest. Rose swears her parents are the least racist people she can think of. Dean (Bradley Whitford) is a retired brain surgeon, Missy (Catherine Keener) is a hypnotherapist who volunteers to help Chris stop smoking, and Rose’s younger brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is obsessed with martial arts and lacrosse. They also have black housekeepers, which Dean says he hates how it looks. It isn’t long before Chris’ sense of unease starts to make him rethink this weekend getaway and whether or not something sinister is under the surface.
Early on, Peele tips his hand to the sharp social and genre criticism. In the opening scene we watch Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man, walking around lost in a tony suburban neighborhood. He checks his phone for an address when a lone car drives past him, stops, and turns around, pulling up next to Andrew and idling, blasting the old song “Run Rabbit Run.” He takes one look at the situation and immediately turns around, heading in the opposite direction. “Not today,” he says to himself, clearly providing voice to the audience’s apprehension. And yet, he’s incapacitated, and abducted by masked assailants. Even self-awareness and avoidance will not be enough for this man to survive if captured within the crosshairs of modern White America. He becomes another horror victim just like we might see splashed across the news all too often.
Peele’s biting social commentary is ever-present but it never outpaces the genuine fun and entertainment from his genre storytelling. It’s a condemnation of the fallacy of a post-racial society and an exploration of the uncomfortable burdens African-Americans are disproportionately expected to bear in general. Rose’s family is all too happy to show off how seemingly inclusive they are. Rose’s father confesses, with no legitimate conversational prompting, that he would have voted for Obama a third time (trust me, there’s a lot of people in the camp, Dean). Yet he seems to enjoy awkwardly inserting recitations of “my man” while also trying to openly explain why he has eerily subservient black housekeepers. Rose’s antic brother seems to hungrily size Chris up as a physical challenge to battle, openly admiring his “genetic gifts.” Despite their self-styled liberalism and protests to the contrary that race doesn’t matter, the family can’t help but treat Chris like an other. Race “doesn’t matter” to people who have the position where it might not matter, the same going for those who elect to be “color blind.”
This stifling sense of condescension and pandering is best exemplified in a deeply awkward sequence where Chris is introduced at a party to the whole older majority-white neighborhood. One man informs him he likes Tiger Woods. Another says being black is hip. A woman squeezes his muscles in transparent lust. Another asks what the “African-American experience” is like and whether Chris feels being born black is an advantage. All through this meet-and-greet gauntlet, Chris is holding his carefully crafted smile, trying to shrug off the mounting discomfort, and being told not to make a big deal out of it. After all, these are well-educated liberals, the “good ones.” They can’t be racist too.
Get Out is also an excellent example of a movie that straddles a precise tone to perfection. Peele has a carefully refined comedy sensibility, but I was genuinely awed in his ability to go from sardonically funny to creepy funny to just plain creepy. There’s an increasingly heightened sense of dread from the get-go. It’s like any other horror premise where our protagonist goes into the house they shouldn’t and combats a host of horrors be they supernatural or superhuman. In this case, the scary scenario is white people. There’s a general off feeling about the Armitage estate and this is best encapsulated with their hired help, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel). They seem to be in a robotic daze, smiles plastered to their faces, their tone of voice disquietingly calm and meticulous. Even the antiquated and culturally incongruous vocabulary they employ contributes to their unsettling vibes. Something is wrong here. There is a remarkable scene where Chris speaks with Georgina, and she hovers closer to him to apologize. Peele keeps the camera locked on his actor’s faces in extreme close-ups and he has a damn good reason for it. Gabriel (The Purge: Election Year) tries to reassure him all is normal and in one mesmerizing moment the camera fixates on her as she repeats “no,” each time a different reflection, her eyes tearing up as she tries to fight back subverted emotions. It feels like you’re watching twenty emotions and impulses fighting for dominance behind an impassive mask of compliance. Peele magnificently finds ways to keep his elements intensely upsetting while still finding room to laugh and break tension and increase tension.
While more a suspense thriller than a traditional horror film, Peele proves himself shockingly adept at a genre that I would have assumed outside his comfort zone. The shot arrangements and the natural development of tension shows clear knowledge and affinity for the horror genre; Peele knows when to hold onto a moment for extra suspense, when to pull back, and especially when to litter the camera frame with something to draw the eye. Peele has a great eye for his troubling, surreal visuals. When Chris is hypnotized and instructed to “sink into the floor” it’s like he’s falling into an inky void while his consciousness plays out on a square, like his life is a movie only he can watch from a distance. You feel the helplessness but it’s also a beautiful and beautifully unnerving image. There are a few jump scares accompanied by loud musical stings but the far majority of the movie is the overwhelming discomfort and dread marvelously kept at a continual simmer. I was squirming in my seat for long stretches and started backpedaling in others, and I can’t remember another movie in years affecting me that well. It’s partly the terrific execution of his genre elements but also partly because I liked the protagonist and had no idea what would happen to him next, which is the foundation of all horror. The last act cranks up the genre elements but Peele has brilliantly structured his script, laying out all the pieces he’ll need that provide an array of payoffs when we’re breaking for the finish line. This is a movie that knows how to satisfy all audiences, rest assured.
The actors are pitch-perfect and Kaluuya (Sicario, Black Mirror) delivers a star-making performance. He has to wear his own mask to deal with the small and large iniquities of whether or not these people are sinister or whether they’re just oblivious cretins. Chris is a black man expected to mind his manners and to laugh away the casual ignorance afforded by the oblivious privilege of others. He can never be unaware as the lone black man in a sea of white faces. It’s a position I think many people in the audience will be able to relate to and hopefully others can empathize with. Kaluuya has some standout emotional sequences where he digs deep to show the real depth of a character others fetishize or dismiss. Kaluuya is also British and you’d never know it. The Armitage family clan are each their own slice of weird. Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) is exploding with thinly veiled smarm and great comic awkwardness. Keener (Capote) is chilling in her icy WASP den mother role with her weapon of choice, and hypnotic aid, being a literal silver spoon. Williams is like her blithely privileged character stepped out of HBO’s Girls, and her flippant attitude to Chris’s perspective belies something familiar and darker. The other best actor in the movie is LilRel Howrey (The Carmichael Show) who play’s a friend to Chris that works for the TSA. He’s a reliable and reliable crude source of comic relief but he’s also our ally on the outside, and he behaves like an intelligent investigator trying to save him. I was actually applauding his sensible steps to see through the sinister conspiracy.
It’s been hours since I saw Get Out and I’m still buzzing from the experience. I was unprepared for how genuinely unnerving and invigorating the movie was as a horror thriller, character piece, but also as a trenchant social satire on race. Jordan Peele has established himself as an immediate visionary in the world of horror, taking the black protagonist who might usually be the first to get killed in a Hollywood slasher flick and widening the boundaries of horror. The real-lie horror film is day-to-day existence in the United States as a person of color. Get Out was conceived in the Obama era but has even more renewed resonance under the beginnings of the Age of Trump. I remember people saying that America now existed in a post-racial world, but we live in the kind of world that takes a call for innocent black lives to stop being executed by police officers and transforms it into All Lives Matter. It’s a hazardous world and Peele has created a marvelous movie where the insidious, ever-present force that cannot be escaped is not a maniac with a chainsaw or some cranky ghost, it’s white society itself. As the news has indicated, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland and numerous others, there isn’t exactly a safe territory to escape to. Danger and death can come at any moment as long as a larger society perceives black skin as a threat first and a person second. Get Out is a timely movie but also timeless, thanks to how brilliantly conceived, developed, and executed Peel’s movie performs. This will make my top ten list for the year. Simply put, stop whatever you’re doing and go out to go see Get Out as soon as possible.
Nate’s Grade: A
There’s quite a difference when director Oliver Stone actually gives a damn with a movie, and you can tell with Snowden that he is passionate about making a compelling and accessible movie for American audiences to understand why they should be angry. He wants to lead the righteous civil liberties mob against the right perpetrators while providing an appreciative moral context to the actions of Edward Snowden, America’s most famous fugitive. That sense of purpose and drive animates Stone in a way that his recent films have not, and even though it’s far less gonzo and experimental as Stone’s quintessential catalogue, the storytelling skill is still consistently engaging and the resulting 134 minutes inform as well as entertain.
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country and his expertise in computers landed him in various jobs working for U.S. agencies. He discovered the abuse of surveillance over everyday citizens rubber-stamped by a FISA court meant to provide oversight. Callous private contractors would surf through thousands of collected data points, and if pressed, could justify through terrorism connections, as it seems anyone in the world is perhaps three connections away from a person of interest (consider is the really unfortunate version of the Kevin Bacon game). Snowden risks everything to reach out to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson) to tell his story and make sure the larger public will know these abuses of power.
The best compliment I can give Stone as a screenwriter and director of Snowden is that he took a thoroughly challenging scenario with few cut-and-dry answers and made an accessible movie experience that effectively conveys moral outrage and dismay. It feels like Stone the educator is leading you by the hand, taking time out to explain some of the more delicate intricacies of the murky stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I won’t exactly declare it to be an intelligent examination on the moral implications of the material, but it’s certainly a movie that lands its goal of clarity. It produces a sense of clarity for the subject and a sense of clarity for why Snowden made the decisions he did. Gordon-Levitt delivers a steadily engrossing performance, even if it takes several minutes to adjust to his distracting speaking voice. Maybe my ears are just broken but it doesn’t sound like Snowden. Fortunately, my ears did adjust accordingly. Gordon-Levitt and Stone effectively kept my attention throughout the film. I was surprised how much I found myself enjoying long stretches of this movie, even if my own stance on Snowden is less clearly defined. He talks a good talk but the reality is messy.
Given Stone’s conspiratorial history, the plot definitely comes with a distinctive point of view over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I don’t think inherent bias in a movie or the angle taken in storytelling is inherently misguided and that all stories should be as objective as possible. Sometimes the circumstances don’t permit objectivity. Stone’s film is clearly biased but it doesn’t fall into a hagiographical hero worship of its titular figure. This is a complicated subject and deserves a proper analysis to place the real-life people in the meaningful morally ambiguous context. Snowden ultimately makes the decision to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower for what he felt were systematic abuses of government surveillance, but before that climactic decision he comes across less than a spotless martyr. His character arc is a fairly recognizable awakening of alarm and horror at the great abuses of power in the name of security. He does start off as a lifelong Republican with family members who have served in the military and different governmental bodies. He’s devastated to be medically discharged from the Army and hungry to serve his country. He’s a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the system, but he’s also rather self-involved and excuses ego with civic duty. I didn’t know how gifted Snowden was in his field, and the movie has some amusement with the wunderkind training sequences where Snowden delivers shock and awe to his stunned superiors. However, the second act becomes more than a bit protracted because Snowden keeps quitting but eventually going back to government surveillance, whether CIA or private subcontracting. This is because of the pay, sure, but it’s mainly because nobody can do what he can do. He feels important. He feels needed. He convinces himself he’s making a difference in the War on Terror, but eventually the reality of the widening peripheral of the war zone is too much to ignore for him.
This is further epitomized through the romantic subplot with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal firebrand, photographer, and exotic exercise instructor. Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) does her best infusing a warm personality into what is too often the underappreciated yet overly agreeable girlfriend role. It’s a storyline meant to further humanize Snowden as well as personalize the encroaching invasions of privacy and subsequent paranoia. After he discovers that the government can activate laptops and watch oblivious citizens through webcams, Snowden can’t help but stare down his open laptop during an almost laughably forced sex scene. My reaction as Lindsay climbed aboard Snowden was exactly this: “Oh, I guess this is happening now.” She would have a greater impact if the movie did more with her character, as she is the long-suffering girlfriend who keeps accommodating his life choices. They move three times across the country for his jobs and Snowden is always unable to fully explain why he feels the pull to these tech occupations, which further frustrates a woman who just wants trust and stability. There is one interesting conversation that Lindsay offers, typifying the blasé response to spying with a “well I have nothing to hide, so who cares” rationale. Snowden is quick to admonish this line of thinking, an opinion that many still share. The other regrettable reality is that the romance is inevitably going to be the least interesting facet of this story. By going behind the curtain of American secret surveillance, we’re indulging in our collective curiosity at how exactly all these moving parts operate. To then go home and watch a couple squabble is a consistent letdown of drama.
There are a few other artistic miscues that weigh down Snowden, mostly Stone’s penchant for heavy-handed symbolism. The same instincts that allow Stone to carefully thread a knotty story are the same impulses that tell him that subtlety is for cowards. There doesn’t need to be a frame story here. I understand that select media outlets trying to break this story naturally allows for a question-and-answer framing system of flashbacks. However, very little is added besides a skeletal structure. The media members act as reactionary acolytes. It was all captured much more credibly in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. There’s no earthly reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie except for drawing financing. He plays an old CIA code-breaker and admirer of outdated technology, but really he’s there to serve as an institutional nod to Snowden. At the conclusion, when Snowden’s identity and message becomes public, there’s a scene where Cage’s character literally toasts his pupil’s actions. I would say it’s a bit much but the character is a bit much for an actor that hasn’t generally been known for restraint. When Snowden is leaving the CIA offices in Hawaii for the last time, he steps out into the light (get it? get it?) and the scene is practically rendered in slow motion as the enveloping white light fills the screen and bathes Snowden (get it? get it?). He smiles bigger than we’ve ever seen. Lastly, Stone can’t just help himself during the very end and has Gordon-Levitt replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to deliver the closure of an interview. I don’t think we needed a reminder that Snowden is an actual living person.
Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, wanted to shake up an ignorant and apathetic American public about the dangers of unchecked power in a surveillance state, but was the mission a qualified success? Years later and Snowden living in exile in Russia, the charitable answer would be inconclusive, though the pessimist in goes further. It very well seems that the majority of the American public simply doesn’t care (out of sight out of mind). The trial over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor seems a little moot perhaps when the larger public shrugs at the revelations of security overreach. Does a movie about a Great Man have as much resonant cultural cache if that defining act of greatness produces a shrug? I’m by no means saying we should apply a polling system to accurately measure a person’s value and accomplishments to the larger cultural and political landscape. Snowden wanted to wake the public up but we hit the snooze button. In the meantime, the movie about his exploits is fairly entertaining, so at least he has that.
Nate’s Grade: B
In 1987 in Compton, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was selling drugs, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was spinning records in a club, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is writing lyrics in the back of a school bus (the movie significantly downplays DJ Yella and MC Ren). The guys have grown up in an environment of suspicions and harassment by the Los Angeles police. Their response was to compose angry and defiant songs illuminating their world. After a few early performances, the group is approached by record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to get them signed and touring. Their music and their perspective catches on and soon NWA is awash in big shows and groupies. Heller puts more of his efforts onto Eazy-E, and Dre and Cube feel marginalized and doubtful that Heller has their best interest at heart.
It’s hard to reconcile the brash and challenging men responsible for NWA and this sanitized and rather rote rags-to-riches biopic that asks curiously little of its subjects when it comes to depth or reflection. Not every biopic needs to be as faithful as the most excoriating documentary on its subject, but we have become accustomed over the last decade to the warts-and-all approach, where the central biographical figures are celebrated for their achievements but care is taken to tell their lives with measured accuracy, not to hide anything that challenges our concept of who these people were. Imagine if Walk the Line had sanitized its portrayal of Johnny Cash, or worse, devoted most of its running time to his stint as a revivalist Christian musician? What if Ray had eliminated his womanzing? What if The Aviator said that Howard Hughes was the model of human sanity? A biopic doesn’t need to tell us every facet of its subject’s life because that is an impossible demand that only the densest of books can truly achieve, however, a biopic must instill the spirit of its subject in an honest representation, because that’s at best what you’re going to get when you apply a human life to the realm of narrative. Straight Outta Compton comes across as far too gentle with its core subjects, portraying them as underdog anti-heroes who were pushed around by those trying to exploit them and their message. Of course this would be the approach when Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the widow of Eazy-E produce the film. At this point it’s about protecting the legacy, protecting the brand, and so the members of NWA become far less interesting.
Nobody probably gets the biggest revision than Dr. Dre, especially his violent history with women. As depicted in the film, Dre is a talented and frustrated music producer who is trying to do his best to live up to his dreams but falling short and feeling the pressure of not being the support system for his brother, his girlfriend, his daughter. When the money starts rolling in, Dre embarks on a successful solo career and reconciles with Eazy-E. That’s about all there is to his character arc, a series of creative struggles and trusting the wrong people. There is one very brief moment that hints at Dre’s history with women, when his girlfriend expresses caution about getting too involved with Dre because she doesn’t want anything negative to happen to her young son. This woman doesn’t appear to be Michel’le Toussaint, a best-selling Ruthless Records artist who was with Dre for seven years and gave birth to their son in 1991. Toussaint has spoken about consistent physical abuse, including an incident where Dre shot at her through a bathroom door. Then there’s the glaring omission of Dee Barnes, a journalist who Dre brutally beat inside a nightclub in 1990 (Dre has finally come forward and apologized for this incident but only after the Apple overlords or Universal execs probably applied some pressure to make the bad PR from the press tamp down). Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Law Abiding Citizen) has gone on record saying they had to focus on the “story that was pertinent to our main characters.” About that…
Straight Outta Compton has a renewed relevancy due to the increased attention in the news concerning police brutality, profiling, and harassment. It was from this combination of oppression and negativity that NWA honed their provocative message. The lyrics of gangster rap reflected the reality of their living conditions, and so they were bleak, angry, violent, and they spurred a sense of relatability across the country from others. It was a reaction against a system that had cataloged them as suspects from birth. The story structure of Straight Outta Compton shows the birth of gangster rap through a select sample of personal experiences. From there we see the rise, the backlash, and I suppose a “we told you so” moment with the aggravation over the Rodney King case turning into the volcanic anger and destruction of the L.A. riots. The aside highlighting the L.A. riots only really serves to underline the idea that NWA’s message of the beaten-down growing increasingly weary of their denigrated treatment. After that, the greater message of what NWA meant to the world of music and culture is lost midst the squabbles of the former friends. This is a missed opportunity at creating a stronger message and adding needed complexity to the main characters. What if Straight Outta Compton had explored the violent life of its stars after they had achieved their dreams? It creates a more damning theme about the consequences of a life under oppression; Dre grew up being harassed and antagonized, which is reflected in their music, but even when they escape that environment the consequences can still follow and entrap them. As it plays, the guys strike it rich, get waylaid by outsiders, and eventually find their footing again. It’s a narrative structure that places all the problems as external threats, be it Heller or Knight or HIV itself, and strips the main characters of their own agency. The movie doesn’t let them account for their own action and finds excuses when able. An incident where they brandish high-powered guns to chase off an angry boyfriend is treated as an unearned and questionable moment of levity. Gray said they could only focus on the “pertinent” stories, but I don’t see anything more pertinent than exploring the psychological trauma of brutality and oppression and how, even as an adult with seemingly the world at your fingertips, it still manifests in your life and personal relationships.
As a standard rags-to-riches biopic, Straight Outta Compton is consistently entertaining and well acted, though it can’t help but feel like we’re rushing through the events. A significant disappointment is the underdeveloped nature of the friendship of Dre, Eazy-E and Cube. There’s an early scene where they’re teasing one another and working out the beginnings of “Boys in the Hood” and this is the lone moment where we feel the dynamic of the trio. The early glimpse at the creative process is a high-point. After that, sadly, the only examination the movie affords on the relationships of the three is the jealousies and divisions. Strangely, the most interesting character relationship is between Eazy-E and Heller, which despite the predictable dissolution is the most heartfelt relationship on screen. Think about that: the most involving relationship depicted in the movie is between a former drug dealer-turned-musician and a Jewish music producer. It’s their opposites-attract dynamic that helps to make them so much more intriguing to watch.
Straight Outta Compton treats Heller as a greedy predator who was cheating NWA out of their rightful earnings, though I’m still a bit skeptical as to these accusations. The movie even gives me a reason to support my skepticism. Once Cube goes solo, a record producer (Tate Ellington) promises to support him on his next record if the first is successful. Obviously Cube is a hit and he comes back to this producer, who explains that he can’t simply just write a check then and there and that it’s more complicated. Cube responds by trashing the guy’s office and the moment is treated as a strangely triumphant moment that the exec even awkwardly jokes about later when Cube returns. This moment made me think maybe, just maybe, the people in the industry weren’t explicitly cheating out NWA but the margins of the recording industry are a bit harder to explain.
While the characters themselves can be a tad boring, the actors do everything in their power to make them feel fully felt. The three lead actors impressed me. Mitchell especially wows in his greater emotional moments, like the discovery of being HIV-positive and only having a few reaming months to live. Jackson Jr. gives an eerily accurate portrayal of his father, and Hawkins (Non-Stop) hits his stride when Dre is most ambitious. The three of them have an easy-going camaraderie that adds to the authenticity. The actors are so good that the deficiencies in characterization are all the more frustrating. The talent was there but the characterization was not. I also want to single out R. Marcos Taylor for his strikingly imposing portrayal of Suge Knight. As soon as Taylor starts eating up more screen time, I couldn’t help but wish the movie’s focus jumped ship to the ruthless Death Row Records impresario.
Straight Outta Compton is already the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time, so surely the wider moviegoing public greeted its safe approach to its subjects with some level of approval. Enough time has passed to add a layer of nostalgia to the early days of gangster rap, as well as political relevancy with the increased media spotlight on overzealous police provocations and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. The time was ripe for this movie and it’s an undeniable hit. I was entertained throughout and found the performances to be involving, but I can’t shake off the feeling about what is being left out. It’s by no means a biopic’s requirement to include everything about its subject, but with the living members of NWA aboard and approving their movie versions, the sanitization of a complicated and contradictory reality is the best we’re going to get. The film doesn’t hold the band up for their behavior, whether it’s promiscuous sex that leads Eazy-E to getting infected (a plot point with no setup beyond some movie-friendly knowing coughs) or Dre’s violent history with women. The move doesn’t have to portray the members of NWA as villains but by treating them as misunderstood underdogs who were exploited by outside forces feels like a (forgive the term) cop-out. These guys didn’t ask to become spokemen for a generation of antagonized and discredited black men, but surely there’s something more interesting and deeper to explore than band in-fighting. Straight Outta Compton is a slick and entertaining film but ultimately just another product.
Nate’s Grade: B-
There’s a reason that race is regarded as the “third rail” when it comes to American politics. A half-century after the marches and protests, chief among them the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., the world feels just as fractious as ever when it comes to race relations. The inauguration of America’s first black president was seen as a significant touchstone, but optimism has faded and recent headline-grabbing criminal cases, and the absence of indictments, have prompted thousands to voice their protest from assembly to street corner. Race relations are one of the thorniest issues today and will be for some time. Two recent films take two very different approaches to discussing race relations, and they’re clearly made for two very different audiences. Selma is an invigorating, moving, and exceptional film showcasing bravery and dignity. Where Selma is complex, Black or White is a simplified and misguided sitcom writ large.
In 1965, Alabama was the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) has his sights set on organizing a march from Selma to the sate capital in Montgomery. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), is worried about the safety of their children, as death threats are sadly common for MLK. He needs to turn the tide of public perception to light a fire under President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to get him to prioritize legislation that would protect every citizen’s right to vote.
Without question, Selma is one of the finest films of 2014. It is powerful, resonant, nuanced, political, immediate, and generally excellent on all fronts. It’s a rarity in Hollywood, namely a movie about the Civil Rights movement without a prominent white savior. This is a film about the ordinary and famous black faces on the ground fighting in the trenches for their freedoms. There are compassionate white people who heed the call, don’t get me wrong, but this is a movie told from the black perspective. I suspect the portrayal of President Johnson had something to do with Selma’s poor showing with the Oscars, though I can’t fully comprehend why. Yes, Johnson is portrayed as a man who has to be won over, but he’s on MLK’s side from the beginning. He is not opposed to legislation to protect voting rights; he’s just hesitant about the timing. Johnson says, “You got one issue, I got 100,” and the pragmatic reality of pushing forward legislation through a divided Congress was real. Johnson was not opposed to MLK’s wishes; he just wanted him to wait until the political process would be easier. In fact, in my eyes, Johnson comes across as compassionate, politically savvy, and he clearly makes his stakes on which side of history he’s going to be associated when he has a sit-down with the obstinate Alabama governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth). Like the rest of the varied characters in Selma, it’s a nuanced portrayal of a man in the moment.
The march in Selma is a moment that seems like an afterthought in the narrative of the Civil Rights movement, dwarfed by the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. The movie does a great job of re-examining why this moment in history is as significant, an eye-opening moment for the nation to the brutal reality of oppression. The opposition is entrenched, thanks to a stagnant system that wants to hold onto its “way of life.” It just so happens that way of life meant very different things for black people. The movie is politically sharp, with dissenting perspectives arguing over the next course of action in Selma and the national stage. Selma is another in the current crop of biopics eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave approach to highlight a significant moment that highlights exactly who their central figure is (Lincoln, Invictus). With Selma, we get a battleground that allows us to explore in both micro and macro MLK, the man. The courage of ordinary citizens in the face of violent beatdowns and police bullying is effortlessly moving and often heartbreaking. There is a moment when an elderly man, reflecting upon a recent family tragedy, cannot find words to express his grief, and my heart just ached right then and there. I teared up at several points, I don’t mind saying.
There isn’t a moment where I didn’t feel that director Anna DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) was taking the easy road or pulling her punches. The screenplay respects the intelligence of the audience to sift through the politics and the arguments, to recognize when MLK is igniting a spark, and just how complicated and fragile the Selma situation was back then. Here’s a movie ostensibly about MLK but spends much of its time on the lesser known individuals like James Bevel and Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside the man, taking time to flesh them out as people rather than plot points. MLK’s wife is also given an important part to play and she’s much more than just being the Wife of Great Man. DuVernay’s direction is impeccable; you feel like she has command over every frame. The sun-dappled cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) makes great use of shadows, often bathing its subjects in low-light settings. The score is rousing without being overpowering, just like every other technical aspect. This is a prime example of Hollywood filmmaking with vision and drive.
With respect to the Academy, it’s hard for me to imagine there being five better performances than the one Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) delivers as the indomitable Martin Luther King Jr. It is rare to see an actor inhabit his or her character so completely, and Oyelowo just sinks into the skin of this man. You never feel like you’re watching an actor but the living embodiment of history made flesh. This is a complex performance that shows refreshing degrees of humanity for a figure sanctified. He was a man first and foremost, and one prone to doubts and weaknesses as well. An excellent scene with top-notch tension and peak emotion involves MLK and Coretta listening to a supposed tape of Martin’s infidelity. In the ensuing tense conversation, both parties acknowledge the reality of his affairs. It’s a scene that’s underplayed, letting the audience know she knows, and he knows she knows, but not having to rely upon large histrionics and confrontations. It’s the behind-the-scenes moments with King that brought him to life for me, watching him coordinate and plan where to go with the movement. Oyelowo perfectly captures his fiery inspirational side, knocking out every single speech with ease. It’s a performance of great nuance and grace, where you see the fear in the man’s eyes as he steps forward, hoping he’s making the best decision possible for those in desperation.
There isn’t one bad performance in the entire film, and this is a deep supporting cast including Wendell Pierce (HBO’s The Wire), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Lorraine Toussaint (Netflix’s Orange is the New Black), Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jeremy Strong, and Oprah Winfrey.
It’s been weeks now since I watched Selma but there are still many moments that I can recall that still have a tremendous power on me even in mere recollection. The opening sequence of the Birmingham bombing, a moment of horror frozen in chaos and debris, is a gut punch of a way to begin a movie about human beings fighting for equality. The sheer brutality of the response from the Selma police force and associates is horrifying, and a true pivot point for the movement in the eyes of the public. More so than anything else, Selma brilliantly and beautifully recreates the suffocating reality of injustice that was so prevalent for many African-American citizens, especially in the South. This is an era where people are being lynched with impunity just for being “uppity.” There was a supreme danger in simply standing up for equal rights, and many suffered as a result. The movie recreates this mood, this permeating feeling of dread and outrage and sorrow, so expertly and so artfully. From an early scene with a middle-aged black woman jumping through hoop after arbitrary hoop just to register to vote, you quickly realize that this vehemently hostile environment was never going to settle things on their “own time,” as apologists are prone to citing in lieu of federal intervention. Selma makes it abundantly clear why MLK felt the movement just could not wait, as Johnson requested. People are senselessly dying and being beaten all for the right to fairly vote. You feel the same sense of urgency with every scene, whether it’s cold-blooded murder, noxious intimidation, or reciprocation that goes above and beyond any sense of responsibility, you understand exactly the terror it was to be black in the South during this time period.
Another potent point of acclaim for Selma is how relevant it is to our own world today. While 12 Years a Slave was an often stirring and very professionally made biopic that exposed the ugly reality of slavery, it was not a film that screamed “immediacy.” Slavery ended in this country over 150 years ago, and while we’re still dealing with the repercussions of treating other human beings as property, it’s an easy film to dismiss in a backhanded, “Well, that was so long ago, and we’ve come so far” manner. The actions of Selma and MLK are still being felt to this day. We live in a world where many feel the justice system has its own separate-but-equal division, and the recent controversial grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner cannot be ignored. The reality for many black men in this country is statistically far more dangerous than others, fueled by a culture of entrenched racial bias that assumes the worst at first. The transit officer who executed Oscar Grant (detailed in the harrowing 2013 film Fruitvale Station) served eleven months in prison for a crime that had scads of witnesses. Garner’s death is captured on video, and yet even the Staten Island coroner’s report of “homicide” wasn’t enough to convince a grand jury that there was sufficient cause to at least go to trial. It’s been noted that prosecutors could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 30,000 cases that were not prosecuted in this country, only 11 were because a grand jury did not return an indictment (.0004%). However, grand juries rarely indict when a police officer is accused (In Dallas between 2008 and 2012, there were 81 grand jury investigations of officer shootings and only one actual indictment). It’s hard not to feel like these things don’t add up.
Then there’s the all-important struggle of voting, central to Selma and the plight of African-Americans in the South. You would think with Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act that we wouldn’t be litigating the same issues of the past, but the Supreme Court determined that this country is far different then it was in the 1960s and there was no need for the Voting Rights Act today. Within hours of striking it down, scads of new legislation appeared in the (primarily Southern) states that had been limited beforehand because of their past history of discrimination. The right to vote is just as relevant as it was during MLK’s time and there are forces trying to stifle that right, to throw up new obstacles, new hoops, new challenges, all in the name of “polling security,” never mind that the cases of in-person voter fraud are so rare as to be one in every 15 million voters. It’s a solution without a cause, and it’s why many see it as a disingenuous political ploy. It’s the twentieth-century, and yet the struggle for equality frustratingly repeats too many of the same battles. It’s this historical and contemporary context that gives Selma its extra surge of relevancy, reminding how far we still have to go, reminding the world that MLK’s work is by no means complete and that it is up to the rest of the populace to fight for the kind of country that he spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It is this complex, complicated, and dire reality that hobbles another movie that tackles modern-day race relations, Mike Binder’s imprudent Black or White. The plot of the film, inspired by a true story reportedly, centers on Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a rich lawyer who has custody over his biracial granddaughter Eloise (the angelically adorable Jillian Estell). Now that Elliot has lost his wife, Eloise’s other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), wants joint custody so Eloise can spend time around “her own people.” The two of them push and pull and lock horns over what’s best for their grandchild, which gets more complicated when her biological father (Andre Holland, who is actually in Selma as well) comes back into the picture.
Right away you can tell very early on that there will not be anything approaching subtlety in the world of Black or White, its own title serving as the first clue. The characters are sketched broad and the premise feels like a weird mishmash of Archie Bunker appearing in a court drama. It’s a preachy movie that doesn’t have a deft hand when it comes to crafting a message that rises above easy observations disguised as something deeper. Eloise’s father, Reggie, is so poorly underwritten that he feels like he stepped off the set of some after school special. He’s addicted to crack, a lifelong screw-up, and a general disappointment that has never been present for his daughter’s life. He even smokes crack out in the open on the front porch across the street from where his mother lives. At one point, Anthony Mackie’s character berates Reggie for being a walking stereotype. Just because Binder calls attention to it doesn’t excuse it. But he’s not alone, because Spencer’s sassy black matriarch character and Costner’s gruff and frequently soused character are right there with him. The frequent arguments feel like they should be punctuated by studio audience hoots and applause, that is, if you could hear them over Terrence Blanchard’s relentlessly overpowering musical score instructing the audience exactly how to feel with every clunky moment.
In a way, the overbearing musical score gets at the major problem of Black or White, which is that a complicated case is being told from the safest point of view. Elliot is more akin to Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino then, say, Archie Bunker. He’s irritable and prejudiced and old-fashioned and wary but balks if you call him a bigot. I mean he’s polite to his Hispanic housekeeper. The more you examine the character the more you realize this is a movie designed to coddle an older generation (my tiny theater was packed with patrons over 60). The movie doesn’t challenge anybody and actually rewards Costner’s character and his outdated viewpoints. The opening conflict over his refusal to share custody with Rowena makes no sense. She’s an excellent grandmother, caring, nurturing, a fine role model as well for her perseverance and starting several small businesses out of her home. Not only that but Rowena is surrounded by a large family of relatives that adore Eloise. It’s contrived that these two could not agree on shared custody when they both have much to offer the girl. The only way any of this works is if Reggie is somehow responsible for the death of Eloise’s mom. Perhaps he introduced her to crack and she overdosed. Unfortunately, it’s never explained in the slightest, and so Elliot’s hostility for the entire Jeffers clan seems petulant, especially with the happiness of his granddaughter in the balance. Without better context, his rampant anger seems to be guilt-by-association overkill. To his credit, Rowena has a major and annoying blind spot when it comes to Reggie’s stability as a parent. In fact he’s so obviously still on drugs that her ongoing refusal to accept reality harms her character irreparably.
In the end, Black or White isn’t so much a film that about race relations as it is about privilege. Costner’s would-be bigot doesn’t have a problem with black people, just as long as those black people abide by his rules of conduct and expectation. It’s the same kind of qualification he’s never had to consider for himself, and one the intended audience will likewise miss. He comes from a wealthy position and Rowena and her family are likely lower middle class at best. He has a world of class privilege at his disposal that the loving Jeffers family does not, and because of that he feels they are less suited to raising little Eloise. Perhaps he’s worried about Reggie re-entering her life, but what animates Elliot Anderson is spite. He’s consumed with the overriding assumption that he must be right in all things. While the film draws many heavy-handed parallels between Reggie’s drug abuse and Elliot’s alcoholism, it clearly presents the both of them on completely different planes of judgment. One of them is ultimately redeemable and the other less so. Elliot’s perspective is essentially he can provide more and therefore more has to be better, but his definition of more is a private school, a housekeeper, a tutor who is treated as a caricature of initiative. Rowena provides a large and loving support system, but apparently they are less valued in the eyes of Elliot. And if you needed any more of a clue that Elliot and his sense of privilege are the unbeknownst star of the movie, he gets to deliver the big speech at the end that Says Something Meaningful. It feels a bit odd that the one character that uses the N-word in the film (albeit there is context) is the one telling lower-class black families how to live.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger); I don’t think he purposely made a film to make older, primarily white Americans feel better about thinking what they do about these troublesome times. It’s not a nefarious movie but it is misguided and will provide cover for a certain selection of audience members who wonder why nobody is asking the old white guys their opinions on modern race relations. Even overlooking this charge, Black or White is just overblown melodrama that has to constantly explain everything to you at all times and guide you through every strained point. Selma and Black or White are both aiming at hearts and minds, looking to add to the conversation on contemporary race relations, but only one of them works as both an eye-opening message of empathy and as an exceptionally made film itself.
Black or White: C
Short Term 12 follows the inhabitants of a small foster care center in Middle America. Many of the kids have been taken from their biological parents because of abuse, neglect, imprisonment, or death. Many have never known a stable home life. And many will age out of the system at 18 and be trusted to make something on the outside by their lonesome. Grace (Brie Larson) is the lead counselor for the center. She’s dating a co-worker, Mason (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) and pregnant, unsure of where to go from here. As the center prepares for Marcus’ (Keith Stanfield) age-out departure, they welcome Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) to their abode. Jayden’s well-connected father is getting his life in order for full custody, but it also becomes clear that her home life is a danger to her well-being. Grace fights to get Jayden to open up, then she fights to keep her safe, all the while forcing Grace to deal with her own long hidden pain.
It’s so easy to get engaged in this movie. The very setting calls for plenty of drama and pain to be explored, and it will be, but that doesn’t mean that the film goes overboard with histrionics. The characters are written with such naturalistic ease, allowing an audience to understand them without judgment. These people, be they the foster kids or the counselors, feel refreshingly, exceedingly, magnificently like flesh-and-blood people. The characters feel lived in, their struggles feel real, and their responses are sincere. The foster care system in this country is grueling. A counselor needs a big heart, thick skin, and an immeasurable supply of patience. There are a lot of abused kids in the system, just hoping to find an adult who wishes to love them, to nurture them, to care. The kids don’t want pity; they are perturbed when they’re referred to as “underprivileged youth.” What they really want is respect and sincerity. Highly charged emotions are a given considering the circumstances of the characters, but what makes Short Term 12 exceptional is that they are fully earned. We don’t just feel for these kids because they’ve suffered, we feel for them because they are presented as characters instead of martyrs. I was emotionally moved throughout, tearing up several times, feeling heartbroken at turns and then brimming with buoyant hope at others. It’s a balancing act the movie masters.
Writer/director Destin Cretin (actually remaking his 2008 short film of the same name) explores these characters in gentle waves, allowing the characters to open up in ways that don’t feel forced. You learn about these characters and their history bit by bit, sometimes through creative expression where one must read between the lines. Marcus might seem to be one character, then his rap song he writes reveals an aching degree of personal pain, and then the revelation for why he wants to shave his head, which at first just seems like an average teenage compulsion, will break your heart all over again. You yearn for these kids beyond measure, wanting them to taste delayed happiness in this world, but you also understand why they’re so guarded, why the system grinds together as it does. This is no polemic overburdened with speechifying and soapboxes. It doesn’t really make any larger points about foster reform or the people who run the system. Instead Cretin gives every participant in the film complexity, empathy, and humanity. Even Grace’s supervisor, easily set up for quick blame about decision-making, is allowed empathy. You feel the man’s plight as he tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which is exactly what the counselors are trying to do themselves with their charges. Cretin’s emphasis is on his characters and not necessarily on making overt political attacks. I knew within minutes that I was in for something special. You can feel it with the dialogue, how easily Cretin is shaping character without splurging on exposition. These people come alive under Cretin’s watch, and you’ll be pulled in within mere moments.
This is also fundamentally a star-making performance for Larson. The young actress has had visible roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street, and TV’s The United States of Tara, but nothing prepared me for the power of her performance. Larson’s character has plenty of personal pain and secrets and a gnawing sense of futility, but she pushes forward, trying to make a difference somehow in this world. You feel her intensity and determination but you also feel her setbacks and uncertainty. Larson never strays outside the emotional bounds of her character, staying true to her aims. Grace is no saintly and selfless figure. She’s paying a real price keeping her own pain bottled up, focusing completely on others so that she doesn’t have to assess her own damage, but Jayden forces her to examine her own history. Larson serves as the dependable emotional anchor of some very choppy waters. In a just world, Larson’s name would be bandied about come awards season, but the overall small, understated nature of Short Term 12 and its limited release leaves me in doubt. However, there is no doubt that Larson gives a deeply humane, gripping, heartfelt and marvelous performance.
The character relationships are just as compelling and provide a rich texture to this world. The dynamics within the foster center are interesting, nothing as simplistic as slotting kids into staid high school types. There are divisions within the home, chiefly between Marcus and an antagonistic Luis, but it’s also invigorating when you witness the various kids come together in solidarity and community, when they look out for one another. Jayden is surly at first but won’t let on how truly hurt she is that her father missed her birthday. Marcus leads the other kids and they all make a slew of birthday cards to cheer her up, make her feel that someone out there cares. It’s a small gesture, and yet when it plays out it hits with a wallop. The relationship between Grace and Mason is sweet and frustrating, representing a romantic coupling of two people with an obvious connection but also enough baggage to derail potential long-term success. Gallagher Jr. is a nice fit for the part. I really enjoyed how Mason is developed as the film progresses. Initially he seems like a pseudo-cool authority figure, then a scruffy screw-up, then a sincere and grateful individual worried about Grace and aggravated by his inability to help her.
There are movies that feel true in a broad sense but clumsy with the fine details, and vice versa, but Short Term 12 is that rare movie that feels so authentic that it could have been a documentary. Sure there is convenient plot developments and a tidiness that life just doesn’t want to provide, but the overall impression is remarkably genuine. The characters feel like actual people, their world feels recognizable, and their struggles feel familiar and relatable and raw. Short Term 12 doesn’t glorify the counselors, nor does it demonize or sanctify the kids under their care. Here is an unblinking look at the sheer weight of the work of trying to provide for those in need. The movie is a potent drama with several heartbreaking incidents, but I don’t want to scare people off with the impression that Short Term 12 is all artsy doom and gloom. On the contrary, the film is resolutely hopeful in the face of such dire adversity. The perseverance of the counselors, as well as the kids striving for independent lives, is what I walk away with. Not the abuse, not the systematic neglect, but the indomitable perseverance of the human spirit to transcend damage and to succeed anew. This is the long-lasting impact of this superb movie. It’s not about the pain inflicted, rather the human connections forged and the optimism of recovery. Not everything will get its happy ending, but it is inspiring to watch people put it all on the line, thanklessly. Short Term 12 is the kind of movie you bug your friends until they finally watch it. Ladies and gents, commence bugging.
Nate’s Grade: A