The Christmas holiday brings Oscar contenders and family fare to a local theater near you. I’ll likely see and review at least one of these features:
Spies in Disguise–
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In 1972, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) became the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After a short stint in the file room, Stallworth is moved to the intelligence division to spy on a speech by Stokley Carmichael, who took the African name Kwame Ture, hosted by the Black Student Union at the local college. He meets the president of the Black Student Union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), at the speech and is smitten. His partner in the surveillance is Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). While flipping through the newspaper at his desk, Stallworth sees an ad for the Ku Klux Klan with a phone number to get more information. He calls and is immediately called back by Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) and invited to meet the rest of the guys. Since Stallworth is black he convinces Zimmerman, a Jew, to meet with the Klan. He goes to a bar and is picked up by Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen), who quickly impresses Zimmerman as a full-blown psychopath. Zimmerman, using Stallworth’s name, can’t participate in any Klan events, like cross burning, until he gets his official membership card. The real Stallworth calls Klan headquarters and speaks with the Grand Wizard and national director of the Klan David Duke (Topher Grace) who will be coming to Colorado Springs to give a speech and officially certify the local chapter. Kendrickson is suspicious of the man he knows as Stallworth while also coming up with a plan to make a very public and deadly statement about the presence of the Klan.
“BlacKkKlansman” is a Spike Lee joint. It is sprinkled with humor, anger, intelligence, ignorance and bliss. It is a damning indictment of America and how it deals with race in the past, present and sadly, the future. As a white man I cannot begin to understand what it’s like to be hated for the color of my skin and for just existing. Much of Lee’s obvious anger is difficult for me to comprehend as I have no basis for it in my life. What I do understand is the film will make thinking white people very uncomfortable as it possibly energizes a second Civil Rights movement that will make the people that like the way things are also very uncomfortable.
There are many uncomfortable moments in the film but there are also some tremendous performances. First and foremost is John David Washington as Ron Stallworth. His performance is nuanced and perfect. Stallworth is learning about himself and how he feels about and lives the life of a black man. He’s a cop which automatically makes him suspect in his community, tearing him between two worlds. He is challenged by everyone in both worlds for either what he is or what he does. The pressures must be tremendous on African-American police officers and that pressure is well represented in Washington’s performance. The conflict plays out across his face in certain scenes such as during the speech he’s sent to infiltrate. There’s guilt, recognition and acceptance playing across his face during this scene and the character is never the same after. Washington can also handle the lighter, more comedic moments as well such as during his calls with David Duke and some of the choices the character makes while backing up Zimmerman while he’s undercover. Washington, son of Denzel Washington, has the beginnings of a very good career under his belt with a regular role on the HBO series “Ballers” and he has a significant role in the last film of Robert Redford’s career coming out next month.
Adam Driver is better known for his role on HBO’s “Girls” and as Kylo Ren in the current “Star Wars” trilogy but he his a very versatile and talented actor. His work as Zimmerman shows that. He also is torn in dealing with his identity as a Jew. As the film says, he “passes” as white and he hasn’t given it much thought until the hatred of his religion and heritage is shoved in his face by interacting with the Klan. He also has an awakening that triggers guilt and anger. Driver’s performance is painful to watch but in a good way as he spews hate for minorities and homosexuals. The vitriol takes a personal toll on Zimmerman as his self-deception about his identity is presented front and center to him. Driver blossoms in the role and could be considered for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
It’s difficult to praise an actor’s performance when he’s playing such a despicable character but Jasper Paakkonen is frightening and brilliant as the deranged Felix Kendrickson. His hatred oozes from every oily pore as he gets wide-eyed, relishing every derogatory word. Felix is described as a general looking for an army and, if his passions were aimed in a positive direction, would be an effective leader of a group. Felix has a feeling of superiority over not only minorities but of his fellow Klansmen as well. He wants to lead them to earn the respect he feels he’s due. Paakkonen is possessed by the character and is a perfect villain on whom to focus all the audience’s rage.
Director Spike Lee’s direction is best described in this film as poetic. During the speech given by Carmichael there are individual shots of people enraptured by his words. Each is shot alone with a black background, isolating them from the group. Then Lee groups these faces in twos and threes making each unique face part of a tableau that adds to the power of the scene. Lee also pops back and forth between meetings of Klan members and a lecture being given by a black man that witnessed his friend lynched by a white crowd decades earlier. He also lets the hate run free and gives it lots of time to expose itself during planning sessions and get-togethers by Klansmen. These scenes are difficult to watch as the language of hate flows so thickly it nearly suffocates the viewer. That’s what Lee is trying to do: Bury the audience in the hate and make it so awful that it cannot be ignored. Lee is a master at rubbing our noses in societal hypocrisy. Maybe one day we’ll learn the lesson.
“BlacKkKlansman” is rated R for racial epithets, language throughout, disturbing/violent material and some sexual references. Horrendous racial epithets are common throughout the film. There is also homophobic language. Large photos of a lynched and burned man are shown. While these are grainy and it’s difficult to make out any details there is a graphic description of what was done. There’s a scene of police officers beating up a black man. A bomb explodes destroying a couple of cars. The sexual references are two men suggesting one wants to perform oral sex on the other. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.
Based on the book “Black Klansman” by the real Ron Stallworth, Spike Lee’s film messes with a few of the facts, adds a couple of characters and punches everyone that sees the film in the gut. Perhaps the hardest part to watch is the final few minutes that uses archive footage from a recent event to drive home to the point we have a long way to go. I feel certain the film will be in the running for the next Academy Awards in several categories and it will deserve to win them all. It is a powerful film that needs to be seen.
“BlacKkKlansman” gets five stars.
Billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) is funding an underwater research facility. It is doing cutting edge science and is about to possibly make a big discovery. The leaders of the facility are Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing). The facility sends down a deep-water sub with a crew of three on board. They are investigating whether the bottom of the Marianas Trench is actually the bottom. Their theory is its a layer of gas and the trench is deeper. The sub breaks through the layer of gas and discovers the ocean floor is covered with hydrothermal vents called black smokers. There are many unique lifeforms that are unknown to science waiting to be discovered. Then, something rams their sub, disabling it. The subs pilot, Lori (Jessica McNamee) sends out a last desperate message saying, “Jonas was right!” Jonas is her ex-husband Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a former Navy rescue diver specializing in deep-water rescues. Five years earlier while on a rescue of crewmen from a nuclear submarine, something was ramming the sub, causing it to implode. Jonas decided to release his rescue vehicle from the sub, saving 11 men but leaving two of his own behind. In the investigation that followed Jonas was found to have panicked causing the deaths of two of his men. He was thrown out of the Navy and the stress led to his divorce from Lori. Now, Dr. Zhang and an old buddy, James “Mac” Mackreides (Cliff Curtis) who works for Dr. Zhang, approach Jonas to try a rescue of Lori’s sub. Jonas is reluctant, but he attempts the rescue. Once he’s on the bottom Jonas finally learns what damaged Lori’s sub and likely destroyed the nuclear vessel: A massive variety of shark thought to have been extinct for millions of years, a megalodon.
“The Meg” is a big, dumb action movie. It has no more value than to be a pleasant diversion from the doom and gloom of the real world. That isn’t a complaint as “The Meg” is one of the better diversions of the summer so far.
What struck me most about the film is the look. The technology on display is impressive even if it is all fake. The screens, the panels, the design of the subs are all futuristic and practical at the same time. It’s a triumph of production design that might get some attention come awards season.
There’s also the general impression of the script. While you won’t walk out of the theater feeling smarter, you might remember a couple of lines or how all the characters (with the exception of Rainn Wilson’s billionaire) sound intelligently written. Wilson’s Jack Morris is clearly intelligent but with an edge of arrogance and self-importance. The rest of the characters know their jobs and perform them efficiently. It’s only when things start to go sideways that their personalities are differentiated.
Jason Statham delivers his usual tough-guy character but with a touch of humanity. While he starts the film as a bit of a jackass and he’s the hero in almost every situation thereafter, the script gives his character a bit of warmth and charm that’s sometimes missing from his usual roles. He even gets the beginnings of a love story with one character, something you don’t always see in Statham-led films.
The rest of the cast is good but there is one standout: Sophia Shuya Cai as Meiying, the daughter of Suyin. This little firecracker has most of the best lines in the movie. She has surprisingly strong chemistry with Statham and holds her own with the adults in the cast. Anyone that’s in a movie with this young lady in the future had better bring their A game as she is as much a shark as the title monster.
“The Meg” is rated PG-13 for bloody images, action/peril and some language. We see a severed arm after a meg attack. There are also sea creatures that are bitten into (or in half). A diver in a shark cage is nearly swallowed cage and all by the meg. Another diver is chased as he’s being dragged through the water by a moving boat. Swimmers are attacked and eaten by the meg. Foul language is infrequent and mild.
“The Meg” has plenty of action and thrills, it looks great and the megalodon is a fearsome creature that I’m very happy is extinct. I’m not a huge fan of getting in the ocean anyway and if a 90-foot shark with a mouth that could open as much as 10 feet wide was still swimming around you couldn’t get me to stick my toes in the sand, much less the water. I don’t mind going to a theater to see the beast as there’s air conditioning and I won’t get any sand in places that don’t like it. What I’m saying is, it’s a fun movie.
“The Meg” gets five stars.
This week I’ll be reviewing “Mile 22” for WIMZ.com.
If there’s time I’ll review one of the following for this webpage:
Crazy Rich Asians—
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After taking out a First Order dreadnaught with heavy Resistance forces losses, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is demoted by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) for failing to follow orders. Finn (John Boyega) finally wakes up after nearly dying from his encounter with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on the Starkiller base. His first words are to ask about Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the planet Ahch-To where he’s been in self-imposed exile since Ben Solo turned to the dark side of the Force and took the name Kylo Ren. Luke fears his failure with Ben will be repeated with Rey once he feels just how strong she is with the Force and he refuses to teach her the ways of the Jedi. When the Resistance lead ship drops out of hyperspace the First Order cruiser is right behind. The First Order has figured out how to track them in hyperspace and with their ship low on fuel making another jump is impossible. The First Order attacks and Leia is injured and unconscious. Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes command of the Resistance but Poe is unsatisfied with her seemingly cautious strategy. A young maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn come up with a plan to disable the First Order’s tracking of the Resistance in hyperspace but have to do it from onboard their lead ship and they need an expert code hacker. Contacting Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), she tells them to go to the casino on the planet Canto Bight and look for the man with the red flower pin on his chest. Meanwhile Luke relents and begins teaching Rey the ways of the Force. Rey starts having long distance chats via the Force with Kylo Ren. She believes he can be turned from the dark side and help the resistance win but Luke is dubious.
As I sit at my keyboard I mimic a scene from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” where Luke encourages Rey to reach out with her feelings. I try to do the same when it comes to how I feel about this movie. It’s a mishmash of joy, sadness and yearning for the next two years to hurry up and go by so I can see how the sequel trilogy ends. There is also a scene in the film where a character is encouraged to pay attention to what’s happening now and not look ahead to the future. So I am going to focus on what I feel from what I saw in the two and a half hours of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and share it with you here. The short version can be summed up in one word: Wow!
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a brave bit of filmmaking. It takes a beloved franchise and turns it on its head with character choices and character deaths that come out of nowhere while still feeling grounded in the universe in which many of us have invested decades of fandom. Director and writer Rian Johnson has essentially given the franchise a clean slate from which to create whole new stories that don’t rely on Luke, Han and Leia while also giving the long-time fans plenty of nostalgia to soothe any fears that history will be set aside for the newer characters.
While Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac get the majority of screen time, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are likely to be the most remembered performances of this film. While only sharing the screen once, Hamill and Fisher bring it alive whenever they are shown. Hamill is an angry and disillusioned Skywalker, hiding on an island that houses an ancient Jedi temple while refusing Rey’s pleadings to return to join and lead the new Rebellion. Skywalker is something we haven’t seen much of in any “Star Wars” film: Truly afraid. Hamill gives Luke a brief glimmer of the boyish enthusiasm of old while also showing us a mature and more measured man. Hamill is able, despite Luke’s reluctance, to show there is still some of the old fighter left in the Jedi master.
Despite what happens in the story we know this is the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. Media reports from not long after her death state Disney and Lucasfilm won’t use old, repurposed footage of Fisher nor will they digitally recreate her as was done in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” That makes her performance in this film all the more powerful. Fisher is mesmerizing as Leia. Her regal yet down-to-Earth countenance makes Leia a born leader and her leadership is desperately needed if the Rebellion is to survive the events of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Fisher’s ability to be both tough and motherly is what makes her an appealing character as Leia. It makes me wish for the ability to turn back time and take whatever precautions are necessary so she survives the heart attack that took her away too soon. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is dedicated to her memory.
I enjoyed all the twists and turns of the film immensely; however, there are a few things that with more time to reflect stand out to me as issues. There are primarily three underdeveloped story threads through both this and “The Force Awakens” that seem to be unimportant to Lucasfilm and Disney. First, who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Where did he come from and who trained him in the ways of the Force? How did he accumulate the resources to establish the First Order? While secondary characters in the “Star Wars” universe have been largely unexplored (i.e. Jabba, the Sand People, Jawas, Boba Fett and others) none has been as major a player as Snoke. He’s responsible for blowing up most of the New Republic and that kind of power and influence attracts attention. Why is so little known about him? Second, what/who are the Knights of Ren? Other than Kylo we know of no other members of this mysterious order. Sith Lords from the original and prequel films aren’t as well regulated a group as the Jedi Knights but they do have some known history and a reason for being so what’s the story with the Knights of Ren? Third, who is Captain Phasma? While her chrome armor makes her stand out from the rest of the Storm Troopers we don’t know anything else about her. Before only a patch that was a different color designated any kind of rank but Phasma looks like she must spend hours keeping her armor shiny. She’s also a woman in an organization whose members had been exclusively male. There must be a reason for this and it must be somewhat interesting so why hasn’t it ever been mentioned? I would prefer to not have to read every extended universe novel and comic book to find out some backstory on these aspects of the story. It doesn’t have to be extensive, just a couple of lines of dialog between characters to flesh out people that are apparently very important to the events in these films.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. People are shot by blasters and stabbed by light sabers. One character is cut in half while another is stabbed through the head. Two characters are threatened with beheading. The Force is used to torture a character while they float in midair. Other characters are picked up and thrown around by the Force. There is only the mildest foul language.
There is some complaining on the Internet (imagine that) about the film. How some characters are used or underused and that it tries to copy “The Empire Strikes Back” (didn’t see that at all) along with other complaints. It may be a tad too long, sending characters off on side missions that don’t make a great deal of sense and ignoring the backstories of several important players, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” also gives a needed creative boost to the franchise and wipes the slate clean for the characters introduced in “The Force Awakens.” And it cannot be argued against that there are moments in the film that are jaw-dropping. There are an infinite number of directions the story can take and I for one look forward to going along on the ride.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” gets five supernova stars.
This week your choices include getting small, chasing after a wayward dad and hitting a high note one more aca-time. I’ll see and review one of the following:
Pitch Perfect 3—
Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast available wherever you get your podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to email@example.com.