In almost all his films, Spike Lee has tackled various issues of American racism. Yet in recent years, his attempts have slipped into boorish proselytizing, losing his audience and his point.
I hoped that working from a true story in his latest picture would rein in Lee's instinct to preach, but even when handed an incredulous story on a platter, the director takes a chainsaw to the issue rather than a more appropriate well-sharpened scissors.
Lee's heavy hand kicks off the film, as he presents, confusingly, the filming of a propaganda newsreel narrated by a nerdy bigot named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin). He spews the usual racist diatribe of the 1950s, but why it's in the film I have no idea--it plays like something straight out of "Saturday Night Live," only pointlessly delaying the film's central story.
Once the actual story begins, the film is riveting. It's the early 1970s and the Colorado Springs police department hires Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel's son) as its "Jackie Robinson," integrating the force.
He's stuck in the records room until the chief needs a black man to work undercover at a local appearance by Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael (a very memorable Corey Hawkins). Wearing a wire, with veteran investigators Flip (Adam Driver) and Jimmy (Michael Buscemi, Steve's younger brother), listening from the car, he makes friends with the attractive leader of the Black Student Union and then listens to Carmichael's rousing speech.
But Lee isn't satisfied with showing the entirety of the speech; he intercuts a collage of the faces of the audience as Carmichael (then known as Kwame Ture) glorifies the uniqueness of African Americans. Is he making a motion picture or an instructional documentary for an African-American studies class?
The result for Stallworth is a spot on the undercover unit, which means he gets to sit around and do nothing. At least until he notices an advertisement in the paper seeking members for the KKK. He calls, spouting hatred for blacks, Jews and Mexicans and soon has a meeting with the local chapter president.
But, of course, he can't go. That's when Flip becomes the white version of Ron Stallworth. They work in concert to determine what this small group of white supremacists are planning. As Ron sarcastically tells his chief, "With the right white man, we can do anything."
Eventually, a few rogue members of the group plan to bomb a meeting of the Black Student Union, where a civil rights veteran (played by 91-year-old actor-singer-activist Harry Belafonte) is speaking.
This all happens during a visit from the Klan's Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), who has developed a friendship with Ron through their phone conversations in which they share stories about the horrors of dealing with minorities. Yes, there is plenty of sarcastic humor, especially in depicting Duke.
The once KKK leader is now an outspoken supporter of President Trump and in the film Duke is given plenty of lines that make him sound like the godfather of Trump's "Make America Great" strategy. (I don't believe they will be screening this at the White House any time soon.)
The best performance in the film is delivered by Driver, who keeps showing up in interesting films such as Martin Scorsese's "Silence" and Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson" and of course is a key figure in the recent "Star Wars" trilogy. Here, his character tries to minimize his Jewish background and maintain his professionalism, as he faces the rabid hatred of the Klan members.
Washington is fine, but doesn't display the acting chops to really dig into the complex situation Stallworth faces. I hate to label it nepotism--Denzel was the star of two of Lee's best films, "Malcolm X" and "Mo' Better Blues"--but I would have liked to have seen Michael B. Jordan or Chadwick Boseman in the role.
Bringing some humanity to the white supremacist is Ryan Eggold as the Colorado Springs leader who knows he's losing control of his group. Unlike most of these KKK stooges, his character shows some sense of intelligence, which makes his racism that much more frightening.
Overall, though, neither side is presented with much complexity. The Black Student Union doesn't seem to have any plans other than to meet and reaffirm each other's opinions, while the KKK members seem to exist only to hate minorities. And Lee keeps throwing ideas on the screen that again seem like history lessons rather than filmmaking (like flashing on screen the posters of blaxploitation films as Ron and his girlfriend walk in a park.)
The end of the movie feels disconnect, almost improvised in the offhanded, confusing manner it was shot. And I really didn't buy a scene in which the Klan and their wives hoot and holler as they watch "The Birth of a Nation" to celebrate the visit by Duke.
I really have a hard time believing that a bunch of semi-literate men in white hoods sat in a room and watched a three-hour silent movie, even if it does glorify the Klan. It's used as contrast to Belafonte's talk about a lynching in the aftermath of the 1915 film's success, but, like so much of what fills the corners of this movie, it undercuts the seriousness of the story.
And just in case the audience didn't catch on to the connection between 1972 and 2018, Lee ends the film with extended clips of last year's Virginia clashes between neo-Nazis and protesters that ended with the death of a young woman.
There is so much to appreciate about this film that it's a shame Lee failed to turn it into a proper bookend to "Do the Right Thing," amazingly, released almost 30 years ago. The director was aiming for greatness, but he got in his own way.
He can't help but become Professor Spike, determined to win our hearts and minds while connecting all the dots. It's not necessary. Anyone who goes to this film is already in the choir and knows the songs. Treat us like adults and maybe a great film will emerge.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018)
If an ethnic group's idea of advancement involves appearing in its own poorly acted, over-produced, cliché-riddled and laughably shallow romantic comedy then congratulations. As long as it makes lots of money, right?
Based on Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel, the story is as ancient as the city of Singapore: a woman of humble upbringing unknowingly stumbles into her boyfriend's world of unhinged wealth and disapproving mother (it's always the mother...), all of which she will overcome by closing credits. Just in case that wasn't obvious enough, the film also provides a wacky best friend and her loopy family, an amusing gay man to upgrade her look and wardrobe and a crushing downturn at the moment she seems to have triumphed against the harsh judgment of old money.
Most disappointing in director Jon M. Chu's shiny object of a movie (like the "Sex and the City" movies, "Crazy Rich Asians" never stops admiring the bounty of wealth) is its leading man Henry Golding. Though saddled with a character, Nick, whose only attribute is his looks, Golding, whose previous "acting" experience was hosting TV shows, doesn't even try to bring this man to life.
He cluelessly smiles through every scene. I was baffling why Rachel (Constance Wu of "Fresh Off the Boat"), a New York economics professor, had any interest in him at all, let alone be willing to face insults and humiliation from his family to keep his love. If this is such an important breakthrough for Asian actors, why couldn't the producers find an experienced actor for the lead?
Though Wu doesn't have the screen charisma to carry a big-budget romcom either, her deer-in-the-headlights acting style works as her naive character struggles through hell week in Singapore.
Like so many American films filled with non-English speakers, it can be painful to watch fine performers (like Michelle Yeoh) look stiff and uncomfortable speaking English. (But, according to my wife, some of attempts to speak Mandarin were also pretty bad.)
The only reason to see this oppressive picture is for the high-wire performance of hip-hop musician Awkwafina, who plays Rachel's college pal Peik Lin Goh. With a gravelly voice and an off-the-wall attitude that reminded me of Joan Blondell, Awkwafina provides the only real humor to the movie and steals every scene she's in.
HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)
Not having seen this all-star schlocky horror film since I was a kid, I was more than a bit surprised how entertaining this goofball picture remains.
As the great-grandfather of the Marvel films that bring all the superheroes together, "House of Frankenstein" collects Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, a mad scientist (played by Boris Karloff, the original Frankenstein's monster in the 1931 horror masterpiece) and his loyal, murderous hunchback assistant.
The thread that pulls it all together is Karloff's Dr. Niemann, who escape from prison with his sidekick Dennis (who in their right mind names a horror film hunchback Dennis?) after an earthquake destroys the ancient prison.
Neimann and Dennis (J. Carrol Naish, bringing some dignity to the role) hitch a ride with a travelling sideshow that claims to have the skeleton remains of Dracula and then, after dispatching the owner and his driver, take over the carney attraction.
Neimann scheme is to travel to the village of Frankenstein and discover the legendary doctor's secret formula for creating life. Along the way, he sends out a now human Dracula (a dashing John Carradine, replacing Bela Lugosi) to do some revenge killing and picks up a gypsy girl who dazzles Dennis and prompts his dreams of having his brain transferred to a more attractive body (there's something very 21st Century about that concept).
Anyway, they finally arrive back at Doctor F's destroyed castle and proceed to unfreeze (don't even ask...) the monster (Glenn Strange, who played the same role four years later in another childhood fav, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein") and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr. repeating his role from the original).
All heck breaks loose, especially when the locals get their torches lit and head for the castle.
As harebrained as all this is, the actors take it very seriously, led by Karloff, who could be an extraordinary actor in the right role and Naish, one of the era's top supporting players. The cast also includes Lionel Atwill, Sig Ruman, George Zucco and Elena Verdugo as the alluring gypsy. A few decades later she played Robert Young's assistant on the TV hit "Marcus Welby M.D."
Erle C. Kenton, a director of little note who had been cranking them out since the silent era--probably his best work was "Island of Lost Souls" (1932)--does a first-rate job of keeping things moving and, with some inventive camera placement, adds some stylish touches.
One of the problems with many of these old horror films is the lumbering pacing, but in "House of Frankenstein," the mayhem and crazed science stuff keep coming nonstop, creating a high-energy Universal classic clocking in at a tidy 71 minutes.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)
There's a movement afoot, the natural follow-up to the #OscarsSoWhite revolution, to integrate the community of film reviewers. Of course, I wholeheartedly support working toward adding minority voices to movie reviewing and the media in general. (Newspaper, if not all media, have made concerted efforts for decades to attract minorities and women.)
Yet there are two points that must be made clear in the rush to democratize the profession:
1) Despite what many readers believe, writing a positive review of a film isn't about supporting the product or the actors or the director or for the purpose of offering alternative viewpoints into the market. Good intentions are a great place to start, but it always comes down to execution.
A bad film is a bad film, whether it's about rich white people's romantic entanglements or a poor Latino's struggle to put food on the table. The reviewer's job is to evaluate the film's message and aesthetics, but one can't cancel out the other.
2) My race or ethnicity does not disqualify me from evaluate a film about Koreans or African-Americans in the same way that a black critic can judge a Martin Scorsese film about Italian mobsters or a Chinese critic can rate an Iranian drama. That I'm an old, straight white man who may not be as open to a film about a gay, African American drug dealer or a transsexual with identity questions doesn't make my opinion any less valuable.
As long as I go into every film with no expectations, open to all worlds, all lifestyles, all stories, then I am doing my job. What the reviewing community really needs are more writers who have seen thousands of films from all eras and understand the ebb and flow of cinematic history.
In today's world, created by the internet, in which expertise has lost its cache and all opinions are just numbers on a board (the abominable Rotten Tomatoes), it's more important than ever to make it clear that just because everyone has an opinion doesn't mean every opinion should hold equal weight.
But I understand what's going on: If I had spent most of my film-going life watching film after film of another race or ethnicity depicting its highs and lows, its laughs and tears, its story, I would be chomping at the bit to promote a movie that shows my people living their lives.
In fact, I seriously doubt that I would have devoted so much of my life watching, reading and writing about motion pictures if I wasn't a white male. It's sad to say, but 120 years into the art form and you can count on one hand the number of great films made by African-American or women filmmakers. They just haven't had the opportunities.
So here's the thing: the more people who write about films the better, whether it's for the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker or a little-seen blog (thank you for reading), but being a critic isn't about promotion or representing; it's about judging art and guiding your readers to films that stand out among the nonstop mediocrity Hollywood spews out each week.
By now you're wondering why I attached this rant to my review of "Sorry to Bother You." Not because I'm unqualified to critique this satire centering around a poor young black man, but because this poorly made and acted film with a script that resembles a college student's first effort, played nationwide after overwhelmingly positive reviews from a collection of reviewers apparently in need of diversity.
Just as #OscarSoWhite conveniently ignored "12 Years a Slave," 2013 best picture winner, those looking for more attention for non-mainstream pictures haven't been paying attention. The current gatekeepers are doing a fine job of making sure indie films telling stories about underrepresented lives are given props--sometimes even when they don't deserve it.
"Sorry" starts off with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield of "Get Out" and "Crown Heights") landing a call-center job by lying about his previous work and accomplishments (he makes his own employee of the month plaque). After advice from a fellow caller (Danny Glover, of all people) he starts using his "white voice" when he makes his "cold" calls.
But instead of having the actor imitate a "white voice," which would have been amusing, the filmmakers dub in as high-pitched nerdy white voice (David Cross). The film lost me at that point and only got worse. Cassius does so well that he's promoted to the "Power Caller" sales floor at the same time that his fellow workers are pushing for higher wages.
What he finds upstairs is institutionalized corporate slavery being sold as a comfortable, stable life--all run by a fast-talking B.S. artist (Armie Hammer). The message seems to be that working in white, corporate America is like selling your soul to the devil and that only among the working class can you retain your integrity. Yet at every point, the film pushes the satire into absurdity, requiring a deft touch that director doesn't deliver.
It's an admirable effort and Stanfield displays a winning personality, but like an amateur effort, it moves from one awkward scene to another.
THE HUMAN FACTOR (1979)
Usually, the reason moviegoers lament that "it wasn't as good as the book" is that the film doesn't follow the exact plot points of the novel. But, as anyone who cares about literature knows, the source of a book's greatness is only marginally connected to the plot.
This lifeless adaptation of Graham Greene's brilliantly written story of British intelligence and double agents covers the plot as if it was brought down from the mountain etched in stone. What veteran director Otto Preminger ("Laura," "Anatomy of a Murder")--in his final film--and esteemed screenwriter Tom Stoppard ("Brazil," "Shakespeare in Love") fail to communicate is the psychological angst and unrelenting paranoia that those in the service live with every hour of the day.
No writer was ever better in exploring the wounds left by class, work status and lifestyle choices of mid-century Englishmen. Greene's ability to search a character's heart and mind to show how that translates into the choices that determine fate has rarely been matched.
The film's primary deficit is lead actor Nicol Williamson, one of Britain's top stage performers of the 1960s and '70s who never seemed to grasp acting for the camera (his best film role was as Merlin in "Excalibur").
Here he plays Maurice Castle, a middle-age, rather bland desk worker in London whose previous undercover work in South Africa makes him valuable as Britain and other Western powers are working with the white Afrikaners to stop the black anti-apartheid movement.
At the height of the Cold War, the cause was seen as being too closely connected to communism and the Soviet Union. It wasn't until Nelson Mandela became a worldwide hero that the West woke up and recognized the brutal racism of the regime.
When a leak in the spy network is discovered, new security chief (Richard Attenborough) suspects Castle's office mate Davis (Derek Jacobi), a younger, unmarried man who drinks too much. Before the issue is settled, a rather treacherous company doctor (Robert Morley) takes matters into his own hands and poisons the suspected traitor.
That's when the real intrigue begins, complicated by the presence of Castle's black South African wife, played by Iman, a famous model of the era (and David Bowie's longtime wife) whose acting skills are almost non-existent.
The film--and more so the book--is a powerful reminder that the West's self-styled reputation as supporters of freedom is a lie perpetuated to cover less-than-admirable maneuvering behind the scenes. Across Africa, Britain and other European powers could have cared less about the fate of the natives, just as we ignored the will of the people in Latin America. More important was stopping any hint of Communist influence.
While Greene expresses so much through his few characters and simple plot, Preminger, in his final film, tells us little beyond the characters' tragic fate.
Attenborough and Morley bring some intrigue in their supporting roles, as does Jacobi as an innocent victim, but Williamson never comes close to capturing Castle's internal struggles as he makes life-altering decisions in the blink of an eye.
THE VIETNAM WAR (2017, TV)
After experiencing Ken Burns' examinations of "Baseball," "Jazz" and "The Civil War," it is very easy to tire of his style: the repetitive, power point-like stills, the over-dramatic narrative, interviews with the same historical experts and sentimental use of pop music. Not that I didn't enjoy them, but I always felt like I was watching a compilation about a subject, rather than a thorough documentary.
But "The Vietnam War" is something very different. Making use of the hundreds of hours of video filmed by television networks during the war and interviewing dozens of veterans of the war on both sides of the conflict, Burns and co-director Lynn Novick have created one of the most complete, compelling and emotionally powerful documentaries ever made on an important event.
Over 10 episodes and 16 hours, this massive, PBS-produced undertaking brilliantly dissects the most divisive American conflict since the Civil War, offering plenty of evidence that the fault lines formed during the war have never really healed. The divide that is being played out in full-force in 2018 started when young people first hit the streets in protest against the Vietnam War.
The most eye-opening aspect of "The Vietnam War" is the historical video of the North Vietnamese during the war and the contemporary interviews with those who fought for 10 long years against the United States. The viewpoint of America's enemy, offering a perspective rarely seen in war documentary, not only helps explain the thinking behind strategies and counter-attacks, but makes the enemy real.
Burns and his longtime writing partner Geoffrey C. Ward do a thorough job of explaining the involvement of the French, the weak and corrupt leadership of South Vietnam and the inner workings of the Communist North, under the revered rule of Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan, who essential ran the North's war effort during American involvement.
And then there are the interviews with U.S. veterans. Offering the narration and emotions to the gunfire of the black-and-white newsreels, the doc presents the stories of individuals who survive and those who didn't; those who remain true believers and those who despise our government for lying to them; even those who returned to America and turned into protesters. It's damned complicated.
There wasn't an episode that I didn't tear up multiple times, moved by both the tragedy and the heroics of our involvement as seamlessly narrated by Peter Coyote. I was very lucky to have avoided the draft, missing it by just a few years, but that doesn't mean the war isn't part of my DNA; living through it on television every night as a teen; hearing of local kids killed; arguing with my parents over the rights of protesters; questioning the decisions of Washington; revolted by the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, it was the defining event of my youth. And it continues to influence my politics, my trust in government, my feelings toward warfare.
One thing I had forgotten--because it seems almost surreal--was that even into the 1970s, after Richard Nixon had taken office, most Americas still supported the war. To hear, 40 years later, the anger of working-class America toward young protesters they saw as unpatriotic, makes today's politics more understandable. It never stops amazing me how much the status quo hates the basic America right to protest.
Equally sad, is hearing the conversations of President Johnson with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in which the hopelessness of the war is acknowledge and that saving face is reason enough to keep sending more young men to die.
Eventually, even 18-year-old draftees began questioning why dozens of their friends had to die to take a hill that the U.S. retreated from the next day.
And then there's the great pop-rock score, music from the 1960s and early '70s that has become intertwined with the war and the times, superbly programmed into the clips by rockers Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross. Each episode ends on a cathartic note, whether it's Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio' after the Kent State shootings are recounted or The Beatles' "Let It Be" after the final American evacuation.
I know not many of you are going to watch a 16-hour documentary about a event that began over a half-century ago, but, especially for a generation that lived through it--either there or here--it's worth every minute. Stop binging another paranoia-filled government conspiracy series and re-experience the real thing. It should not be missed.