Tuesday, August 21, 2018

[Review] BlacKkKlansman

Prolific and provocative filmmaker Spike Lee returns with BlacKkKlansman, and it's easily one of his most focused, intently cinematic, and thematically-sound efforts in a long time.

Set in the 1970s. We meet Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black cop who is tasked with going undercover in order to infiltrate a local faction of the Ku Klux Klan. Along for the risky ride is Ron's Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), so they both have some personal stakes in the mission. What ensues is an enthralling, maddening, and fist-bumping tale that almost seems too good to be true.

Despite its entangled nature and chunks of nuances, BlacKkKlansman's plot is very straightforward, which is a welcome return to form for Spike Lee after his last few Joints, which have ranged from the bloated Red Hook Summer, to the sloggy Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, to the muddled and painstakingly operatic Chi-Raq. The tight, momentous narrative here carries a great sense of suspense and intensity, especially as Ron and Flip find themselves getting deeper and deeper. Each scene unfolds with a patient yet substantial crackle of energy, examining racial tensions and injustices on both micro and macro levels. The script is full of scathing humor, incendiary dialogue, and hard-hitting points all at once. There are even some jabs that reflect exactly what's going on in our current sociopolitical climate. "Who would ever elect someone like that?"

John David Washington does an impressive job in the central role, and if you think his voice and line deliveries sound very reminiscent of a guy named Denzel -- welp, that's his dad. Adam Driver is solid as well. I'm convinced that you can pop him into any setting and he'll be great. Also amusing is the curiously cast Topher Grace ("That '70s Show"), who plays KKK leader David Duke with a decidedly foolish, almost cartoonish, weak-willed, and undoubtedly despicable tone. This film also has a remarkable visual flair. It's just so well-shot and it prominently exhibits some of Spike Lee's more artful and aesthetically striking tendencies. Even the few fourth wall breaks are executed in a crafty manner.

It's been noted that Spike Lee has taken plenty of liberties and a sort of revisionist angle with this based-on-true-events story, but there's still significant power and potent relevance in BlacKkKlansman, which is further driven home by the film's ending note of real-life footage of Black Lives Matter marches and Charlottesville riots. Its messages of stopping hate, dismantling white supremacy, and rallying together for the greater good are definitely apparent, and what's even more clear is that there's still a lot more work to be done.

* 9/10 *

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Thursday, August 16, 2018

[Review] Blindspotting

Blindspotting is such an exuberant, operatic, multi-dimensional, diverse, and commendably urgent tale that it feels like it should have a title that's more memorable and punchier than Blindspotting. It's part buddy comedy, and part topical (and harrowing) look at inner city chaos, race relations, gentrification, and police brutality.

Set in the heart of Oakland, California, we meet Collin (Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame) as he's freshly released from a prison sentence (well, for the most part). It's not long before he hits up the party scene with his best friend Miles (Rafael Casal). Everything is all good until Collin witnesses an unarmed black man get shot and killed by a cop. From there, Collin wrestles with his aching conscience and ponders his newfound perspective as he tries to move forward with his life.

Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, Blindspotting is as funny and entertaining as at is potent and tragic. There's shades of 2015's frenetic Dope here, echoes of Ryan Coogler's similar-themed Fruitvale Station, as well as a dose of this year's layered and head-scratching hybrid Sorry to Bother You (of course not quite as bonkers). The film's colorful visual flair and vibrant lighting of the settings greatly captures the liveliness of the city, and there's something very poetic about the narrative -- it gets darker and darker as it goes, especially as Collin's trauma comes to the surface. The film's two stars, Diggs and Casal, also penned the screenplay together, so there's a remarkable sense of investment and chemistry within their roles. Diggs in particular gives a tour de force performance. It's spunky, highly emotional, and full of turmoil (the film's climactic scene is one for the ages). And yes, he does get to show off some of his rapping skills.

Blindspotting is a rich experience that will make you laugh, make you think, and make your heart sink along the way. So don't let this film slip past you.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

[Review] Eighth Grade

Web sensation turned acclaimed standup comedian Bo Burnham makes his feature directorial debut with Eighth Grade, a funny a sharply observed coming-of-age gem for the YouTube era that places focus on, yes -- the eighth grade.

The 8th grader here is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher). She's quiet, and somewhat of an outcast (let's just say the popular kids don't pay her much attention). In her spare time she uploads videos to her channel where she talks about topics such as self-confidence and growing up. It's never quite clear how many subscribers she has, but we get the impression that there aren't many. Anyway, the film follows her as she navigates her last days through the ups and downs of the all-so-pivotal 8th grade.

The film sticks tightly to a low-key, almost restrained tone -- but it's so real, so raw, and yes - so relatable. And it's heavier on the more serious and dramatic stuff, but it also contains plenty of humorous moments (my favorite is the ongoing bit of the kid randomly shouting "LeBron James" in the background). There are some almost unbearably squirmy scenes along the way, like the birthday-present-opening scene where Kayla is reluctantly invited to the pool party of one of her stuck-up classmates, and well, you can imagine how it goes (I'm turning red just thinking about it). Elsie Fisher plays the part well, consistently exhibiting a believable air of socially awkward clumsiness. Also impressive is Josh Hamilton, who plays Kayla's single father. It's a likable and well-developed character, as he's caught in a strange space between being "cool dad" and genuinely concerned about the well-being of his daughter. In turn, the film functions in two nuanced ways, because it explores what it's like to be an 8th grader, as well as what it's like to raise one.

Bo Burnham also serves as the writer here, and his script keenly dives into themes about self-esteem, what it means to "be yourself", and how different platforms of social media affect each generation. 8th grade brings changes we want, and changes we don't want. Some things that we want to stay the same...don't, and some things that we don't want to stay the same...do. Confusing? That's a pretty good summation of eighth grade.

* 9/10 *

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Thursday, August 2, 2018

[Review] Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again comes ashore as a 10-years-later sequel to its predecessor Mamma Mia!, and it's a breezy and delightful slice of summer romance and song.

This one takes place during two different time periods. The present - where Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is planning the grand re-opening of her mother Donna's hotel in Greece. And the past - where a young Donna (played by Lily James) attempts to get her music career off the ground, embarks on a few romantic endeavors, and contemplates her future.

First of all this is a beautifully-set film with its sun-kissed and picturesque backdrop of quaint little towns, sprawling cliff sides, and gorgeous coastlines. The expansive cast is charming, too. Amanda Seyfried and Lily James are wonderful as the co-leads, and the supporting cast really brings it, including the likes of: Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Dominic Cooper, Colin Firth, Andy Garcia, Stellan Skarsgard, Julie Walters, and *psst* Cher. Everyone does a lovely job bringing the funny and sugary script to life. The plot is actually quite similar to 2017's surprisingly great many-years-later sequel Bridget Jones's Baby (Colin Firth also appeared in that), hitting many bittersweet emotional beats, as well as diving into agreeable themes of family and friendship.

And of course, there's the crowd-pleasing musical and dance sequences. They're all so catchy and elaborately choreographed. Hooks for days. And honestly, you just can't go wrong with ABBA songs. Some of them are reprises from the first film ("Dancing Queen" and the title track to name a couple), but it's not like they won't still put a smile on your face the second time around. Here We Go Again.

( 7.5/10 )

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