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Blackkklansman

I look for it to be a front runner when the Oscar nominations roll around

Mike Smith

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klansman
Director:

Spike Lee

Cast:

Adam Driver, John David Washington, Laura Harrier

Run time:

2 hr 15 mins

Rating:

The movie theatre I managed in Baltimore was in an urban area. I proudly showed “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze.” I was (and still am) angry that “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and I was thrilled to meet him and speak for a few minutes in Washington D.C. while he very graciously signed my “Malcolm X” script. I should also mention that I silently cursed him when he shot a reel of his film “Crooklyn” in the widescreen format but intentionally didn’t adjust it, giving the film a look that caused many customer complaints and passes given out. He’s made more good movies than bad and this week he’s here with one of his best.

It’s the 1970s. Ron Stallworth (Washington) is a black police officer in a time where, if you’re the first one on the scene of a crime, your fellow officers may think YOU are the perp. One day, while reading the newspaper, Ron comes across an ad for the local chapter of the KKK. As a joke, he sends in for his membership card and is delighted to get it. When Ron is invited to meet the membership, he agrees, sending fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Driver) in his place. Zimmerman is Jewish and has to learn to keep his emotions to himself when surrounded by the idiot gang he finds himself a part of. As Ron/Flip get deeper into the group, they soon find themselves chatting up David Duke, then the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, today pretty much a punchline. When Duke is scheduled to come to Ron’s town, things go from comical to serious as the groups true goals are announced.

Powerful and pertinent, “Blackkklansman” is a film that deals with both the past and the present. Director Lee and co-writers Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz have created a world that anyone over 21 will recognize. There is humor but then there is horror. Not violent horror, but the horror at the spoken word. Can people truly be this vile? Sadly, yes.

As with many of Lee’s films, a great cast has been assembled. I was surprised to learn that leading man Washington is the son of Denzel. If this performance is any indication, Pop better keep an eye on the rear view mirror. He plays Stallworth with the dignity required, something that wasn’t easy to display in the early 1970s. Driver is equally good here. This is the first thing I’ve seen him in since the last two “Star Wars” films and – SPOILER ALERT – though as a filmgoer I will never forgive him for killing Han Solo, I will continue to recognize him as an actor to watch. As David Duke, Grace is pitch perfect. He doesn’t scream out his hatred, like his dimwit followers. He oozes it, like the politician he would later become.

“Blackkklansman” took home the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and I look for it to be a front runner when the Oscar nominations roll around. Do you hear that, Academy? I don’t won’t to get angry again!

Blu-ray : Poor. A featurette and trailer.

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DVD Reviews

JT Leroy review : great performances by Dern and Stewart

Check out Drew’s review

Drew Turney

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If there are two things movie producers, screenwriters and directors love, it’s 1) writers and 2) con artists who go much farther than they imagined in having the whole world fooled.

There are more movies about writers than you can shake a stick at, but the latter is a top-heavy list as well with “Catch Me If You Can”, “The Informant!”, “The Wizard of Lies”, “Margin Call”, “The Big Short”, “Big Eyes” and Orson Welles’ quasi-documentary “F for Fake” to name a few. Mark Wahlberg is even producing a movie based on the true story of a security guard’s McDonald’s Monopoly game slips racket where he defrauded millions for himself and his friends.

So it’s no wonder the genre that brings writers and fraudsters together is a thing. The most recent example was Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “A Million Little Pieces”, an adaptation of James Frey’s notorious memoir which the author had to admit was made up – on Oprah, no less.

But the standout is Hoax, the 2006 drama about Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), the author who produced a 1972 autobiography of then-recluse Howard Hughes, commanding a huge advance and a wave of public interest before Hughes took part in a telephone press conference to tell the media he’d never met Irving, exposing the fact that Irving had made the whole thing up.

For any producer or production company who wants to make a literary fraud drama, there are rich pickings. The infamous “Hitler Diaries” published in 1983 were proven to be fake, and British/Australian author Helen Darville caused a literary scandal in 1995 when her Miles Franklin-winning book “The Hand That Signed the Paper”, which she’d said was based on her Ukrainian family amid Stalin’s purges, was exposed as a fake.

Amid those more famous cases you might not know is the story of JT Leroy, the teenage wunderkind who wrote about his childhood of poverty and abuse in the 1990s. Invented by ditzy, hippyish Laura (Laura Dern), Leroy was actually Savannah Knoop, the younger sister of Albert’s musician boyfriend Geoff (Jim Sturgess), dressed in heavy disguise for public appearances.

When Savannah arrives in Bohemian San Francisco, she falls in love with the radical and alternative culture and puts down roots. Pretty soon, Laura finally realises literary success writing under the pseudonym JT Leroy, a persona she made up calling suicide hotlines as a kid just so she had someone to talk to about her own history of abuse and abandonment.

The problem is that as JT gets more famous, the public and press demand to see and talk to him more, so on a lark, Savannah agrees to don a wig and dark glasses and pose as the author for the odd appearance, Laura herself adopting the character of JT’s prickly, officious British assistant and publicist.

If you’ve seen any movie about a con artist you’ll know things go waaaaay too far. Laura doesn’t want the bubble of adulation to burst as JT is invited to bigger and better places – including being flown to Hollywood to meet with a producer who wants to make the movie of his life (Courtney Love). But Savannah is increasingly nervous. For awhile all she needs to do is stand behind a microphone and mumble a few things at an audience, playing the painfully shy neophyte. But soon big international press conferences beckon, and Savannah’s not sure she can keep it up.

But while Laura is riding a gravy train to money and fame, one thing keeps Savannah hooked on the scam, and that’s the presence of beautiful actress Eva (Diane Kruger), in the mix to direct the story of JT’s life. Drawn to the glamourous movie star, the shy young gay woman is entranced, wanting and not wanting the sham to end in equal measure.

But it can only go one way, and that’s to crash badly. With Geoff as the voice of reason in one ear and the increasingly shrill and needy Laura in the other, Savannah doesn’t know which way to turn.

While it’s an interesting tale, if it wasn’t a true story you’d think it was a bit of a stretch. Would nobody really figure out it’s a 20-something woman rather than a teenage boy in all those public appearances and photo spreads, no matter how under wraps Savannah is kept?

And because Eva responds to JT as much as the other way around only without the dark glasses and silly hats, she obviously knows Savannah is no teenage boy. Is she supposed to be in on the scam somehow, or is she the only one who doesn’t know JT Leroy was supposed to be male? In portraying their relationship, the script by writer/director Justin Kelly doesn’t make enough sense.

Dern can do this kind of thing standing on her head (although her cockney accent wobbles badly), and even though the 60s child character of Laura is frankly irritating for half of the movie, Dern is too smart an actor to simply stay there, letting Laura’s everything-is-beautiful countenance slip just enough when her self-centeredness is threatened. Dern’s performance gives the character real development and her monologue in the final few minutes at a bookstore reading when the whole thing has been exposed and blown over are sublime.

Kristen Stewart, by contrast, has never been a great actor, but she more than makes up for it by the way she’s parleyed her “Twilight” cachet into a series of interesting role choices, whether it’s a soldier who finds her soul in the enemy in “Camp X Ray” or the put-upon assistant to a famous actress in “The Clouds of Sils Maria”. Even though you can see Stewart aiming above her abilities, she’s constantly trying to stretch herself.

If you’re looking for deeper themes you might spot (or project) some about the way we all play roles for the benefit society or about how most of us fantasise about being someone else but rarely get the chance, maybe about how ready we are to buy into tall tales if they enrapture us sufficiently, but on the surface it’s just the biopic of the incident.

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DVD Reviews

Charlie Says review : an incisive, wonderfully-acted story

Drew reviews Charlie Manson flick “Charlie Says”

Drew Turney

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With “Avengers: Endgame” tearing up every box office record there is at the moment, an email has turned up in many film journalist’s inboxes recently advertising a shlocky B movie action flick called “Avengement”, certain to raise many a wry smile. In an industry where any recognition is currency, no producer should consider him or herself above a name that’s so gimmicky it’s almost a joke.

In the same way, with Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” on the near horizon, a cottage industry of Manson movies has sprung up – first “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” and now this, the story of some of the Manson women and where they ended up. All were condemned to death for the murders of Tate, her friends, supermarket mogul Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary, but capital punishment was abolished in California soon after, so Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins’s sentences were commuted to life.

Played respectively by Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon and Marianne Rendón, the three women share adjacent cells in prison – befriending the guard, whispering soothing words through the bars to each other when one of them has a nightmare, seeming a million miles away from the deranged murderers Manson is supposed to have groomed and unleashed.

That’s how it appears to Karlene Faith (Merrit Weaver), the anthropologist and human rights activist given access to the three women in a series of workshops where she tries to get inside their heads. Played with steely, quiet, dignified determination by the quite brilliant Weaver, Faith knows she’s dealing with three young women who are just like any other apart from their seeming inability to fully accept they did anything wrong in butchering several people over two unforgettable 1969 nights.

The framing device of Faith interviewing the three Manson women is our way into the story of how so many people ended up in such thrall to a madman, and the story concentrates most on newest recruit Leslie, who learns the ways of the Manson commune lifestyle at Spahn Ranch along with the audience.

As Manson, former Dr Who Matt Smith is as transcendent as the character is nuanced. Knowing what we do know, you imagine he’s a kind of 1960s California hippie Hitler, ruling over a terrified populace with an iron fist. But the soft-spoken Smith teases out the monster slowly. When he orders one of the female family members to strip naked by the bonfire one night in front of everyone the air of sexual threat is palpable. Instead, he has everyone embrace her and tell how her beautiful she is in her imperfections.

You fear the worst kind of abuse when he sets about having sex with the naive young van Houten – because you’re waiting for the sexual predator who insists on sleeping with all the female acolytes – but when she freezes up Manson couldn’t be more attentive and sensitive, assuring her they’ll wait until she’s ready if she’d rather.

But the monster slowly emerges nevertheless. In his excitement at the prospect of finally becoming a rock star when producer Terry Melcher agrees to come to Spahn Ranch and see him play (Tate and her friends lived in the house Melcher had recently vacated – it’s debated to this day whether Manson didn’t realise and was targeting Melcher as revenge), he issues ridiculous orders to get a deerskin outfit in time for the performance, telling the various Family women to dance around topless or naked for Melcher to enhance the performance.

Alone in a dark corner later on after he’s been rejected, Manson throws a fit, smashing his guitar in rage even though he’s told everyone the meeting went well. He doesn’t tolerate any dissent or challenge to his authority among the Family, Tex Watson (Chace Crawford) jumping ship in disillusionment at one point – Watson ultimately came back to the Family and was the ringleader at the Tate killings.

We see van Houten fall further under the spell of a group of people who represent everything a 60s kid would aspire to – free love, music, drugs and the wholesale rejection of their establishment parents. It’s not nearly as big a leap as you imagine when she goes from being a good suburban kid to a screaming, blood-slicked psychopath who stabbed Rosemary LaBianca’s already-dead body over 40 times.

The chronology and storytelling device of the prison interviews stop “Charlie Says” being a straight biopic of the events, but they don’t add a real lot to the proceedings other than the assertion that the Manson women were just kids in thrall to a dangerous egotist rather than subhuman demons.

But Weaver elevates it just like Smith does his scenes of the Family commune and killings. It works better as a document that portrays the details that led to the Manson killings than a deep dive into criminal psychology, but it’s great to see someone give Mary Harron (“American Psycho”) a movie again.

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DVD Reviews

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile review : leaves viewers wanting more

Emily reviews Netflix’s latest Ted Bundy flick

Emily

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Ted Bundy seems to be everywhere these days. Featured in podcasts, TV shows and films, the infamous serial killer has become a favorite of True Crime fans. Known for his good looks and his frighteningly charismatic persona, countless storytellers have longed to take their own stab at understanding more about the motivations of one of America’s most notorious and frightening murderers.

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is Netflix’s latest Bundy release (the documentary “The Bundy Tapes” was released earlier this year). Both titles were directed by Joe Berlinger who is no stranger to True Crime having made documentaries like “Paradise Lost” and “Brother’s Keeper”. This film, starring Zac Efron as Bundy, attempts to provide a wider look at those affected by his murder spree, with a strong focus on his long time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins). “Extremely Wicked” features some intriguing character and acting moments, but ultimately misses its mark by not even attempting to convey the horrifying nature of Bundy’s crimes and not remotely living up to the description in the title.

The film opens on a heavily guarded jail, where Bundy is being held. Liz has come to meet him, but is obviously reserved about the encounter. Sensing her hesitation, Bundy asks her to remember when they first met. A flashback reveals a time when the pair were deeply in love. He was patient, kind and unlike any man she had ever met. As a single mother, she wasn’t used to men accepting her or her life, but Bundy was different. These opening scenes offer us a look at a Bundy we don’t often see, one who was gentle and could be trusted with caring for Liz’s young daughter. It’s easy to see why so many women would’ve been attracted to the law student and how they might miss the warning signs of the danger lurking inside.

The couple seem almost unstoppable and without a care in the world until one day, Bundy is pulled over and subsequently arrested for the assault of a young woman. This arrest and conviction leads to his name being tied to a series of other serious crimes, all of which he claims to have no part in, but would eventually lead to his demise by electric chair in Florida in 1989.

The source material for the film is “The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy” written by his real-life girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer. At the start of the film, we believe that the script will follow the book and tell the story from Liz’s perspective, but as the film proceeds, Liz’s character becomes increasingly passive until she all but disappears. She is replaced by Bundy’s 1979 murder trial (one of the first to be nationally televised) during which Bundy’s antics sparked a media frenzy and earned him a large following of female groupies.

Zac Efron’s portrayal of Bundy is more self-assured than menacing. Efron certainly gives the role his best effort, but the film is far too fragmented for its own good, moving from one plot point to the next without fully realizing the characters’ emotional arcs. Even in his darkest moments, we fail to feel the real weight caused by Bundy’s reign of terror because we never hold onto one dark moment long enough. Efron’s best scenes are instead seen when he portrays the love that Bundy felt for Liz and the heartbreak he feels after being locked away from her forever. Unfortunately, we see Liz’s primary response to his betrayal as a refusal to answer his phone calls or numbing herself with alcohol, giving us very little insight into her perspective or emotional state.

The film has its moments, but in the end is certainly hurt by the decision to not adequately portray Bundy’s crimes (many of which happened before his initial arrest). While many would argue that showing these moments would be exploitative, without them it’s difficult for the audience to fully comprehend the psychological profile of a killer that the filmmaker wanted to craft. “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” leaves most, if not all, of those descriptors out of the film and leaves viewers wishing that more of Bundy’s nightmare inducing life had actually been explored.

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