BlacKKKlansman


A different kind of hoodie.

(2018) True Life Drama (Focus) John David Washington Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alec Baldwin, Frederick Weller, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Nicholas Turturro, Harry Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson, Ato Blankson-Wood, Robert John Burke, Arthur Nascarella, Ken Garito, Damaris Lewis. Directed by Spike Lee

 

Spike Lee is the kind of director who tends to be ahead of his time; he has the uncanny ability to read the writing on the wall, particularly when it comes to race relations in America. His treatise on American racism in 2018 is cleverly couched in a based-on-actual-events dramedy set in the early 70s (although the actual events occurred in 1978).

Spike Lee is also the kind of director who doesn’t really care much about subtlety. Consequently, his films tend to make their points with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Here, Ron Stallworth (Washington), the first black cop in the history of Colorado Springs, has been chafing at a desk job. He longs to get out into the field and make a difference. He is assigned to go undercover at a black student rally at nearby Colorado College. There, he falls for the fiery, passionate president of the chapter, Patrice (Harrier).

His assignment goes well so he joins the Intelligence Division of the CSPD. He decides to call the Ku Klux Klan and see if he can get a membership card – which to his bemusement, he does. But after repeated phone conversations with KKK head David Duke (Grace), he is given the opportunity to infiltrate the local KKK chapter. Knowing that his physical presence is impossible, he gets a surrogate; Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman (Driver).

Lee doesn’t miss an opportunity to draw parallels between the 1970s and now, as in having the KKK members shouting in unison “America First!” or a racist cop opining that a racist President will get into office by masking his racism in policies about immigration and taxation. And if you still don’t get the connection, Lee appended a coda showing the tragic events of Charlottesville that took place almost a year to the day of the film’s release but after the film was completed.

This is one of Lee’s best films ever. While I’m not so sure that making white extremists out to be ignorant buffoons is a wise choice – that’s how we ended up with our current President – there is plenty of humor to balance out the seriousness of the message. Lee also does an excellent job of capturing the era, from the outstanding score and soundtrack to the wonderfully awful fashions and massive Afros.

Lee also benefits from outstanding performances from Washington and Driver, as well as to a lesser extent Topher Grace as the clueless David Duke. The message is certainly one that bears repeating – that in nearly half a century we still haven’t made much headway. I don’t know that the people who need to get that message will necessarily be flocking to see BlacKKKlansman but even if the movie ends up preaching to the converted it is still well worth the effort to check it out.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the era to near-perfection, thanks largely to a terrific score. Great performances by Washington and Driver.
REASONS TO AVOID: Heavy handed and lacks finesse.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including racial epithets, a fair amount of violence (including sexual violence) and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Uncut Gems

From Shock to Awe


In brotherhood there are battles.

(2018) Documentary (Self-Released) Mike Cooley, Matt Kahl, Chris Young, Ryan LeCompte, Brooke Cooley, Aimee Kahl.  Directed by Luc Côtė

 

Every day in America, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s more than have been killed in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure that’s not a statistic that recruiting officers feel free to share with potential recruits.

Mike Cooley and Matt Kahl are both former soldiers living in the Colorado Springs area. Both are married with children (Cooley’s wife is also a combat veteran). Both are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both have been prescribed an enormous number of pharmaceuticals (over 90, according to Kahl who shows a medicine cabinet stuffed to the gills with pills) and both have found their treatments ineffective. Both describe an endless list of seemingly innocuous triggers, from people talking on cell phones, to being tailgated while driving to school (Cooley is attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) to flashes of light in a dark room.

Both men have been severely crippled by their disease. Their family lives have suffered; their wives feel helpless to ease the suffering of their husbands, who often take their frustrations out on their families or worse yet, shut down completely around them. They’ve tried all sorts of different forms of psychotherapy; none of them have worked.

In desperation, they have flown to Orlando to meet Chris Young, founder of the Soul Quest organization. He proposes using an Amazonian concoction called ayahuasca which is a powerful psychotropic drug that is currently banned in the United States (Young gets around it by using the drug in religious ceremonies and is a shaman with the Ayahuasca Church of the Mother Earth. He prefaces the ceremony by telling the men (who are accompanied by their buddy Ryan LeCompte) that they will experience a deep connection with the natural world.

The change in the men, after several ceremonies both daylight and night time, is remarkable. They are smiling again, able to reconnect with their families. The change is so remarkable that Brooke Cooley, herself suffering from PTSD but unable to tend to her own needs because of the severity of her husband’s condition, undergoes therapy utilizing MDMA, the psychotropic found in Ecstasy. She also experiences remarkable change.

Most documentaries these days tend to favor an non-objective point of view and that is certainly the case here. Although there is a warning that ayahuasca can be dangerous and should only be administered by those experienced with the drug, for the most part we are told that it is a miracle cure based solely on anecdotal evidence. There have been very few serious scientific studies of the plant-based drug and while the website does have some experts discussing the drug, none of that appears in the final film and quite frankly it could have used some. Also, like any other drug, ayahuasca doesn’t work the same way for everybody and it isn’t always helpful.

In fact, there are almost no talking heads other then Cooley, Kahl and their wives. Military footage from the Middle East is often interspersed into the film, forming a cinematic equivalent to the flashbacks the vets often suffer through – thankfully, however, Côtė doesn’t use animation or CGI to mimic the psychedelic experience of the ayahuasca.

There certainly is enough anecdotal evidence to mount a serious medical study of the drug, but the United States is reluctant to look into any sort of psychoactive substance with any seriousness, perhaps due to the disastrous LSD studies of the 50s and 60s. Big Pharma is also unwilling to allow such studies to be taken; they earn far more in treating the symptoms than they would from finding a cure. This is why capitalism and medicine shouldn’t mix.

Still, the problem that vets face with PTSD, depression and suicide is very real and the current means of dealing with it are woefully inadequate. Our veterans do deserve better and this movie at least makes that salient point. I only wish they’d gone about it with a little more research and skepticism; our veterans also deserve to see every side to a potential life-changing cure. There is no vetting of a drug that can admittedly be dangerous, and that in and of itself is also dangerous.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark portrayal of how our system fails veterans. Shows the effects of PTSD not only on the returning soldiers but on their families as well.
REASONS TO AVOID: Shows little objectivity when it comes to alternative treatments.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of salty language, depictions of drug use and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly 20% of all combat veterans who have returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Cop Car


The beginning of a bad idea.

The beginning of a bad idea.

(2015) Thriller (Focus World) Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Sean Hartley, Kyra Sedgwick (voice), Loi Nguyen, Sit Lenh, Chuck Kull, Thomas Coates, Justin Barr, Adam Barr, Kathleen Bentley. Directed by Jon Watts

Actions have consequences. We learn this at an early age, usually because we’ve done something foolish or wrong. The consequences are almost always some form of punishment; having a favorite toy or device taken away, being grounded, made to stand in a corner (if we are very young) or maybe being sent to bed early without desert (horrors!). Of course, the more egregious the offense, the worse the punishment.

Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) are a couple of nine or ten year old kids who have decided to run away from their Colorado Springs subdivision. They are traipsing along a vast prairie (being kids, they haven’t particularly thought this through, having only a Slim Jim to sustain them and no water), Travis saying an expletive and Harrison repeating them. It’s all fun and games until they get to a specific word which Harrison is loathe to repeat. Even kids have their limits.

Then they come across something cooler than an F-bomb – an abandoned cop car. At first, the boys timidly run up to the car and having touched it, scurry back fearfully. like some bizarre ritual of counting coup. Eventually they work up the courage to get inside and of course at first it’s all play acting and fun…but then they find the keys.

Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon) is not so amused when he returns to find his car gone. You see, he was in the midst of burying a body and had come to fetch a second from the trunk of his car. Having his homicidal activities discovered just would not do. So he goes out to find the pilferers of his official vehicle, while the kids, blissfully ignorant of what’s going on, go on the joy ride of a lifetime.

Watts, who on the strength of his efforts here won himself the director’s seat for the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, takes a story that’s been essentially told before, strips it down to its essence, and gives us one taut, well-made thriller. The boys’ ignorance of how things work – they have no clue how to operate a car and make some pretty significant mistakes because of their inexperience – helps keep the tension level high. There’s a sequence when they’re trying to figure out how to fire the guns, peering down the barrels of the firearms and you are absolutely certain that one of the kids is going to get their heads blown off. Da Queen was literally viewing that sequence through her clenched fingers. She wasn’t the only one, either.

It helps that the two juvenile actors he cast are completely natural. They are full of bravado, crazy naive, and bonded together like only little boys can be. They are out on an adventure and are very much, as little boys are, shoot first ask questions later sorts. As I mentioned earlier, thinking things through is not their strong suit. While Travis is clearly the ringleader, the true strength belongs to Harrison – again, as is often the case with little boys. They’re like any little boy you might meet in your neighborhood; a little less supervised, a little wilder, but nonetheless recognizable. That helps the movie a great deal the longer it goes on and is one of the strengths of the film overall.

Bacon is a reliable presence. This is the kind of role he’s done before. The actions of the sheriff are never fully explained; we see him at one point flushing an impressive amount of cocaine down the toilet so we assume that it’s a drug thing, but why he has the two men set for a dirtnap is anybody’s guess. We do know that he’s a vicious and clever sort, not above putting a civilian in the line of fire if it is to his advantage; we are used to our policemen being concerned with our own safety so it never occurs to us that the orders we are getting are not given with that in mind. In some ways, this movie mirrors the public’s changing perception of the police. It’s not that there haven’t been bad cops in the movies – there have been bad cops in the movies as long as there have been movies – but it’s the way we look at this bad cop that’s different.

A couple of times during the movie it did feel like some of the sequences felt a little bit forced in order to advance the story; that happens a lot in these sorts of films although in fairness less often here than in other examples of the genre. There’s an encounter with a motorcycle cop that is very well-written from a tension point of view, but it seems to exist in the story only to show us how clever the Sheriff is. A good rule of thumb for filmmakers is that if a scene isn’t germane to the overall story other than to illustrate a character’s personality trait, it probably doesn’t belong in the movie.

Sure, some of the plot points are a bit contrived but for the most part this is a movie that feels like it could happen and maybe it already has. As thrillers go this one is well done, not quite to the level of last year’s Blue Ruin but certainly in the same ballpark. This is a well-constructed, well-executed edge of your seat entertainment that deserves a spot on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Nice tension. Good performances by the kids who behave like kids.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit contrived in places. Bacon has played this role before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence, a scene of drug usage and kid peril throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the dispatcher is done by Kyra Sedgwick. In addition, the Quinlan County on the side of the cop car doesn’t exist in Colorado or any other state.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your cable or satellite provider), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Evidence
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Grandma