Friday, September 14, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: BlacKkKlansman


Three decades ago, we watched as Mookie threw a trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria in "Do the Right Thing". It was Spike Lee's 3rd feature film and it became one of the most talked about and defining moments in the film and in some regards, Lee's career as a whole. Many years later, audiences are still split as to whether, to use the film's own title, Mookie did the right thing. But whichever side you landed on, this scene of heightened racial tensions established Lee as a filmmaker unafraid to confront the unsavory legacy of America's checkered past.

Fast forward to 2018 and I couldn't help but think of "Do the Right Thing" as another character breaks a window in his latest film "BlacKkKlansman". In this scene, the men involved are a black detective named Ron Stallworth and his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman, who is being interrogated by a vehemently racist member of the Ku Klux Klan. The detectives are working undercover on a daring mission to infiltrate the KKK, with Stallworth impersonating a white-sounding man over the phone, who is presented as Zimmerman in the field. With their true identities under threat of being revealed, the scene sees Stallworth breaking a window to dissipate the tension. But this won't be the only nerve-wracking moment in the film, as the men put their lives in danger in a race against the clock to stop the KKK's next terrorist attack.

The inherent miracle of the story and the protagonists' bravery are indeed what makes "BlacKkKlansman" compelling. The script - a surefire Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay - effectively balances some anxiety-inducing close calls with frequent humorous scenes inspired by the sheer audacity of the mission and the narrow-minded psychology of the antagonists. As such, it functions as both an amusing satire and a stirring period piece (with all the cool threads and afros to match).

Dealing with such sensitive subject matter as the notoriously evil KKK is a risky gamble and admittedly, Lee does falter with a few excessively comic moments. Thankfully, John David Washington's confident performance always keeps the film afloat. Displaying much of his father Denzel's charisma, he could potentially follow in his footsteps as an Oscar nominee for Best Actor. Furthermore, Adam Driver should be in the discussion for Best Supporting Actor, as his character adds thought-provoking dimensions to the film. His reckoning with this Jewish identity is one of the film's highlights.

Overall, "BlacKkKlansman" represents one of Lee's most restrained directorial efforts. But that's not to say that he's getting soft with age. Indeed, his confrontational voice is unmistakable in the film's prologue and conclusion. The former shows Alec Baldwin spewing propagandist hate speech as a character clearly intended as a parody of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the closing moments are true masterstroke that will likely seal long overdue Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture.Using sobering real-life footage of the present-day KKK to hit home the film's themes, it proves that Spike Lee remains one of the most essential voices in cinema, sticking it to the man like only he can.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

REVIEW: Hereditary


If there's one movie this year that will have you turning to God in prayer, it won't be a faith-based movie like " but rather Ari
Aster's extraordinarily creepy "Hereditary". With one of the most striking debuts in recent memory, Aster proves to be a new mastermind of the horror genre. Scaring audiences through both supernatural and worldly terrors, it's a film that won't leave your mind any time soon.

"Hereditary" tells the story of a deeply troubled family, made up of a teen son, his younger sister and their parents. At the beginning of the film, the family has just buried the grandmother, a woman who passed on her internalized trauma to her daughter Annie. As the new matriarch of the family, Annie (played by Toni Collette) tries to keep the family strong through this latest tragedy. But forces from within and without threaten to break their already tenuous family bond forever.

When "Hereditary" was released earlier this summer, audiences didn't quite know what to make of it. Despite strong reviews from critics, the film scored a paltry D+ CinemaScore, indicating general audience dissatisfaction. I was therefore genuinely surprised when I finally watched the film and found it to be one of the most effectively terrifying horror films I've ever seen.

Though the marketing promised a standard issue haunting/possession narrative, Aster arrives at that place from a more indirect angle. He brilliantly incorporates the idea of metaphorical inner demons with literal ones and then unleashes them all on this vulnerable family, wreaking havoc on their lives.

Indeed, one early therapy scene is quite telling, as Annie explains the mixed emotions she feels after the death of her estranged mother. Harboring inexplicable guilt and blame for all her misfortunes, it's hardly surprising when we realize the brittle tensions within the intra-family relationships. That underlying malice within the family is viscerally felt, thanks to some go-for-broke, raw performances from the cast.

At the center of it all is Toni Collette, who all but turns herself inside out for her role. As her character endures unimaginable tragedy and inescapable anguish, she is a whirlwind that stirs up her co-stars and brings out the best in them. Most notably, the scenes she shares with Alex Wolff are absolutely searing as they unravel this fraught mother-son relationship.

Even if it didn't have the traditional horror elements of disturbing images and creepy sounds - and contrary to popular belief, this film has more than enough of them - the film's central conceit of the effects of damaged families would be haunting on its own. Indeed, if you can't feel safe around your own family, then where do you run to? I can hardly think of anything more traumatizing.