BlacKkKlansman

August 16, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace
Directed by: Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”)
Written by: Spike Lee (“Bamboozled”), Kevin Willmott (“Chi-Raq”), Charlie Wachtel (debut) and David Rabinowitz (debut)

Filmmaker Spike Lee is angry. Actually, he’s seething. His ire for the Trump administration was evident this past May at the Cannes Film Festival where he repeatedly called the U.S. President a “motherfucker” for his weak response to the white nationalism seen during the protests in Charlottesville last summer. Lee’s rage is more than evident in his newest film, “BlacKkKlansman” – a cinematic return-to-form for Lee and his most significant and politically-jarring work since his 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.”

Directed, produced and co-written by Lee, this true-life joint stars John David Washington (TV’s “Ballers”) as Detective Ron Stallworth, an ambitious, black rookie cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. In 1979, Ron saw a newspaper ad looking for men to join a local Klu Klux Klan chapter and decided to call up the number and pose as a racist white man interested in the organization.

Once he set up a line of communication, Stallworth teamed up with one of his white fellow detectives, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to be the face of his invented bigot and infiltrate the group when they invite him out to meet. While Flip poses as Ron and collects intel on the KKK, Ron continues to speak over the phone to the group’s leaders, including KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). Not long after, Ron (and Flip posing as Ron) are named head of the chapter.

In real life, Stallworth kept the undercover investigation a secret for almost 30 years, until 2006, when he revealed it to a reporter, and then, eight years later, released his book “Black Klansman.” Now, Lee has taken full control of Stallworth’s story as an activist filmmaker and uses it as an indictment on the president, his administration and the shameless, racially-divisive hotbed America has become since Trump started campaigning more than three years ago. Lee punches, and he punches hard.

It is obvious he has an agenda, so if you’re part of the Trump base, you’re not going to like what the Honorary Oscar winner has to say and how he parallels the current racial tension in this country to what Stallworth uncovered during his own daring mission. As apparent as it is, however, Lee’s intent doesn’t take away from the craftsmanship of his direction and the convincing tonal shifts that make “BlacKkKlansman” pivot from intriguing crime caper to biting contemporary satire so fluidly.

Also noteworthy is that during the more humorous scenes, Lee never steps outside the real-world situation in which “BlacKkKlansman” lives, unlike filmmaker Quentin Tarantino does with his hilarious KKK scenes in 2012’s “Django Unchained.” Lee keeps things grounded and seems to know when to jab and when to let the disturbing narrative speak for itself.

Truth

November 3, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews, Uncategorized

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace
Directed by: James Vanderbilt (debut)
Written by: James Vanderbilt (“White House Down”)

In 2004, CBS aired a 60 Minutes report led by Dan Rather that investigated the military record of then president George W. Bush. When it was revealed that some of the facts may have not been entirely accurate, Rather and his producer Mary Mapes face a firestorm of criticism and are investigated journalistic political bias.

As an ensemble piece, performances are pretty solid across the board. As Mapes, Blanchett continues her streak of fiery performances with another dominant leading role. Since the film’s main focus is on Mapes, it gives Blanchett plenty of screentime to work with and create easily the most nuanced character in the film. Other supporting actors like Stacy Keach and perhaps most surprising, Topher Grace make fine contributions, with Keach especially adding a fantastic sense of vulnerability.

Any time you have a film that is based on “recent” history featuring people who are still in the consciousness of the general population, you run the risk of being thrown off by dissimilarities between the figure and the actor. Even though Robert Redford is solid as Rather, he strikes no physical resemblances to him, nor does he make an attempt to do a Rather impression, which can be distracting for those who are looking for that sort of thing.

The entire treatment of Rather, in fact, is a little odd. He’s essentially a background player, and mostly deified when he’s not on screen. It’s an interesting way to treat the character, especially considering his career was deeply affected by the investigation. It’s clear from the get-go that this is Mapes’ story, though one can’t help that Rather’s perspective may have been a more interesting one.

One of the main issues that plagues “Truth” is that it spends an enormous chunk of time in hero worship mode, almost as if it is trying to protect the legacy of Rather. While it isn’t doing that, it’s showing the investigation into Mapes, which somehow fails to strongly hammer the point that Mapes and her team (Rather included) are being investigated for allowing political bias to influence reporting, rather than just merely going to air too quickly.

“Truth” is at its best when it digs into the details, procedures and tough decisions that go into investigative TV journalism. The on-the-fly edits, the deal brokering, the mid-interview changes are all among the best moments of the film. Where the film falters, however, is keeping all of this interesting over the span of two hours. Losing much of its storytelling steam, “Truth” can’t quite make the grade, even with a very good Redford and Blanchett.

American Ultra

August 21, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”)
Written by: Max Landis (“Chronicle”)

As part of a marketing campaign for “American Ultra” at Comic-Con, convention-goers who happened to be holders of a prescription for medical marijuana were able to be hand delivered branded weed and paraphernalia from the film. Gaining headlines and controversy, this stunt-marketing ploy was a dream scenario for Lionsgate; they got the word out, distracted audiences and got them interested into a movie that has nothing else going for it.

One night while working in a convience store, a stoner, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), is visited by a woman who utters a secret code phrase to him. Unbeknownst to Mike, he is a trained CIA sleeper agent and when his life is threatened, ends up killing two guys with skills he was not aware he possessed. As he meets up with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), Mike must figure out why people are trying to kill him and why his own skills as an assassin are second to none.

Reuniting the principle cast from 2009’s “Adventureland,” Eisenberg and Stewart are once again paired together as a romantic couple. For Eisenberg, it’s a return to the type of frazzled, awkward, one-note performances he has displayed in the past. It isn’t entirely his fault, but his drug-induced paranoia that the humor relies upon isn’t sold well enough to get laughs. Stewart, who has been on a nice little run of solid performances with films like “Camp X-Ray” and “Clouds of Sils Maria” is fine, if not unspectacular. While the lead performances can at least be stomached, a few of the supporting ones are unforgivable. Most notable of those are Topher Grace, who should really stop attempting to play a bad guy, and Walton Goggins whose character of “The Laugher” feels like an interpretation of The Joker from a straight-to-video Asylum movie.

The script from Max Landis is perhaps the most troublesome element of a very troubled movie. Starting off with a thud, “American Ultra” has an almost instantaneous lack of energy. As it desperately searches for a tone, jokes miss left and right and anything character driven goes nowhere. When the actual plot of the film kicks in, it becomes painfully generic, feeling like an extended and rehashed version of a superhero film where a seemingly normal person realizes they have powers.

It’s the least of its problems compared to the muddy narrative. When it is revealed that Mike was part of a CIA project, everything that follows is unclear. The motives of characters make no sense and the plot twists are lame and more importantly, riddled with holes. With gunshots, stabbings, explosions and more, Landis and director Nima Nourizadah introduce a violent streak as the plot continues. It’s an odd turn, especially considering the violence is almost always meaningless (and made worse by really bad CGI blood spatter) and makes for a confusing, conflicting tone.

Flat-lined from the get-go, “American Ultra” is a poorly conceived disaster. It’s hard to tell where exactly Landis and Nourizadah went wrong, but the film sleepwalks for 90 minutes, throwing in obligatory plot contrivances just for the hell of it. There isn’t one single element of the film that works and its very existence, especially given the talent involved, is baffling.

Valentine’s Day

February 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Jamie Foxx
Directed by: Garry Marshall (“Georgia Rule”)
Written by: Katherine Fugate (“The Prince and Me”)

Doing a shameless impersonation of director/writer Richard Curtis’ 2003 witty and warm romantic comedy “Love Actually,” the Hollywood-star-laden “Valentine’s Day” is a movie that’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Flashing an attractive cast of audience favorites including Julia Roberts (“Duplicity”), Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”), and Taylor Lautner (“New Moon”) – among a laundry list of others – director Garry Marshall (“Georgia Rule”) takes a poorly-written multi-narrative penned by Katherine Fugate (“The Prince and Me”) and hauls it through the same cliché and predictable plot points usually reserved for this type of cinematic fluff. It’s no wonder sensitive women everywhere have to drag their significant others to the movies for date night. When a feature is as contrived as “Valentine’s Day,” not even a pajama party with Jessica Alba, Jennifer Garner, and Jessica Biel is reason enough for anyone to endure over two hours (and yes, it feels like it) of unbearable schmaltz.

Without going into too much detail with the storylines – which all somehow connect in the most absurd ways – “Valentine’s Day” spends much of its runtime with Ashton Kutcher on screen as Reed Bennett, the owner of a popular flower shop in L.A. who has just proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Alba) and is ready to settle down and start a family. But like all these sad-sack characters, love is not in the air for Reed and he is left all alone with only his employee (George Lopez) to help mend his broken heart.

More lovesick vignettes follow that are just as sparse on romance and narrative appeal. Jamie Foxx plays a sportscaster who hates V-Day, but is assigned to produce a story by his boss (Kathy Bates); Biel plays a publicist whose client (Eric Dane) is contemplating retirement from pro-football; Patrick Dempsey flexes his acting range to play a cheating cardiologist having an affair with Garner; Cooper and Roberts play strangers who meet on an airplane and make small talk; Bryce Robinson plays a kid in love; Emma Roberts and Carter Jenkins play teens in love; Topher Grace and Anne Hathaway play young adults in love; Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine play old people in love; and Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift dole out so much cuteness, you don’t know how the word “cute” even existed before this movie.

The “aww” moments are aplenty for moviegoers who don’t necessarily care about story, character or genuine heartfelt moments that don’t feel like they were mass produced like overstuffed Build-A-Bears. Like an open box of Walgreen’s chocolates in an office break room, gluttons for this type of cheap, faux-holiday filler will eat it up without much thought. For those who want their rom coms to have a bit more taste, it’s easy to pass on the flavorless eye candy.