by Philip Price
I liked “Sausage Party.” I feel like I should say that up front because I don't want to seem like I'm easily offended or that I can't take a dirty joke when I say that “The Happytime Murders” is a pile of shit. Also, while I haven't seen Peter Jackson's 1989 comedy/musical/parody “Meet the Feebles” which in and of itself seems to have been exactly what “The Happytime Murders” purports to be, I have seen “Team America: World Police” and after now having seen Brian Henson's (son of Jim and a director in his own right having made “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island”) twist on what it might be like if the puppets he grew up with grew up with him I feel rather confident in saying that I don't need another example of how funny it can be when bedrocks of childhood suddenly come to possess the most adult of behaviors with the crudest of takes on those behaviors. I say this because 1) ‘Team America’ accomplished as much in balancing tone, humor, substance, and conveying it all through these objects not typically intended to be taken seriously with the sly genius of it hidden in the fact it had something to say and 2) because “The Happytime Murders” is rarely if ever actually funny. And I mean that not in the way that there are a few chuckles to be had here and there throughout the slim 90-minute runtime, but rather that I didn't laugh once the entire time. The most pleasure to come out of sitting through this one-note joke of a "movie" is the small, sporadic flourishes of creativity that comes in adapting these puppets who know they're puppets into the real world and the humorous ways in which Henson, his team, and screenwriter Todd Berger integrate them. That said, there are maybe two moments in which the creativity of such integrations are funny enough to garner a smirk, but beyond this “The Happytime Murders” functions as an uninteresting whodunit that doesn't attempt to add weight to its narrative or not-so-subtle allegory dealing in prejudice and discrimination as it hangs its hat solely on the joke of kid toys being dirty-except it isn't a funny joke.
“The Happytime Murders” deals with the puppet cast of an '80s children's TV show that begins to be picked off one by one the likes of which includes the brother of a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye who takes on the case. PI puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) was once the only puppet on the police force, but after a criminal took his human partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), hostage and Phillips failed to shoot the puppet perp committing the crime he was removed from the force and sentenced to a life lived via the tropes of film noir. Phillips is given a new case to work by the sultry and sex-obsessed puppet, Sandra (Dorien Davies), who claims to be getting anonymous letters threatening to expose a secret if she doesn't do one thing or another by a certain time, but as Phillips begins to follow nonsensical clues that would seem to have no bearing on actually catching a culprit the murders of the "The Happytime Gang" members begin-and begin conveniently where Phillips just so happens to be investigating (an adult entertainment store, in case you were wondering). Because of a murder taking place, Phillips being a witness, and the police showing up Phillips' former Lieutenant, Banning (Leslie David Baker), decides to assign McCarthy's Edwards to work the case pairing her up with Phillips who will work as an advisor on the case given his connections to "The Happytime Gang". This is all well and good and I'd be lying if I said there weren't a few moments of genuine intrigue via the murder/mystery aspect of it all as Phillips and Edwards begin to track down the surviving members of the TV show's cast in order to find out why someone might be killing them, but while the intrigue is there Berger and his screenplay never utilize anything about their concept to enhance these buddy-cop tropes we've seen play out before. One might imagine that with the conceit of the movie being what is essentially a film noir, but with puppets that they might use the puppets in ways that not only make such conventions of the genre funnier, but that they might also use the puppets to upend certain conventions. “The Happytime Murders” often decides to do neither and so the movie just sits there with so much potential to take off in a certain, more satisfying direction, but never does.
Believe it or not, “The Happytime Murders” also shares a common thread with “Black Panther” from earlier this year as it decides to also employ what is an empathetic villain. That though, is where the comparisons come to an end. Ryan Coogler's film created an empathetic villain out of Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger by giving him a perspective the audience could relate to and one that essentially forces the hero of that story to change his beliefs. Of course, it's how far Killmonger takes things through his perspective and not solely his perspective that make him a villain and the same can be said for who turns out to be the antagonist in “The Happytime Murders” with the difference being that this individual teaches Phillips little more than the fact he can unload-in more ways than one. There is an insane amount of sympathy to be had for the antagonist in terms of both from the audience and from the characters on screen-namely the assigned protagonists-but the layers of complicated dynamics between the two and where the screenwriter could have delved into giving Phillips this kind of moral dilemma that explored having to pay for his sins through the death of his brother or enacting justice for his brother on an individual whose life and innocence were stolen from them only to have that loss morph into a thirst for revenge is wasted. And so, not only do “The Happytime Murders” not capitalize on its outwardly funny and undeniably intriguing premise, but it doesn't even take advantage of its own juicy drama that it sets up for itself; there is no desire to explore the depths of the characters-human or puppet-and by extension no effort given to developing this world where puppets and humans have come to co-exist, but still harbor enough resentment towards one another so as to claim a light allegorical comment on real world issues of hate and discrimination. At this point in the review it's likely to be thought that the movie wasn't intended to be anything more than a light comedy where puppets were employed to do vulgar things because puppets are typically associated with children and children's entertainment re-purposed for adults is inherently funny and maybe all of these character and dramatic shortcomings could be forgiven were the movie actually humorous, but Berger seemingly put as much effort into the comedy of his "comedy" as he did everything else leaving it all to fail.
In all honesty it feels as if more time and effort have gone into my writing of this review than it feels went into the writing of this screenplay and that's ultimately not as frustrating because of the loss of my own time or dedicated thought on the subject, but rather because I was initially excited to see “The Happytime Murders” and what Henson might do with this concept of taking cues from his and his father's past work, mixing them with something like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and then pushing the boundaries of both into the realm of an R-rated comedy, but to see such empty and joyless fruit be born from that initial idea is not only disappointing, but indeed frustrating. All of that said, it should be noted in some capacity that the human players here are largely wasted, but ironically come to be the best parts of the overall experience. Whatever your opinions of McCarthy might be I think she's a genuinely funny comedian and a gifted actor to boot who-when paired with the right material and co-stars-can really elevate a comedy to another level. She and husband/director Ben Falcone (who has a brief cameo here providing one of the few genuine laughs) accomplished as much earlier this summer with “Life of the Party,” but McCarthy's role of Edwards literally could have been filled by anyone else who might have brought the same fervor (or lack thereof) and comedic timing that McCarthy puts on display here. As seen in “Bridesmaids” and the just mentioned “Life of the Party” McCarthy and Maya Rudolph clearly have great affection and appreciation for one another and I would love to see the two of them in a buddy comedy of their own with a premise they could rally around and a strong script that would serve to flourish mountains of golden improv, but the fact the conceit of this film is centered around the puppets and it is the McCarthy/Rudolph moments that prove to have the better track record in terms of laughs doesn't bode well for what “The Happytime Murders” were intended to be. And that sucks, it really does, because it's clear people like Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale and Michael McDonald are here because they were intrigued by the idea of what this movie could be despite this reality not measuring up to what those initial ideas or ambitions might have been. I understand that “The Happytime Murders” is supposed to be a stupid comedy if that is one’s defense for it, but there is "stupid" and there is "stupid funny" and ‘Happytime’ is just stupid.
by Philip Price
"Crazy Rich Asians" is, for the most part, your standard run of the mill rom-com, but it bears the distinct responsibility of carrying a fair amount of cultural significance. "Crazy Rich Asians" is also about 20 minutes too long and a little less focused for it, but those last 20 minutes are so damn good and make so much of the groundwork that has come before them so meaningful it's hard to hold much against this endearing, predictable, yet wholly individual piece of work.
When I say the film is your "standard run of the mill rom-com" that is to say it follows a similar structure and borrows familiar tropes from the genre in which it squarely exists (yes, climactic airport scene and all), but the silver lining is what it does with those clichés to underline a story that is being told to really emphasize the character dynamics and this core conflict of passion versus obligation and how these clash due to a firm belief in tradition over conceit and the cultural differences within a group of people too often lumped together. This was maybe the most interesting aspect of the film given my complete outsider perspective; seeing both how an outside country views the lifestyle of many Americans as well as the judgment and degrees of difference that exist within this culture that is completely different than my own.
Rachel (Constance Wu) is Chinese American while her boyfriend Nick (newcomer Henry Golding) is Chinese, but raised in Singapore and attended a British boarding school. It's easy to pick up on the class differences as it is this plot point that sets everything in motion, but director Jon M. Chu ("Step Up 2: The Streets") guides this to more fertile story ground when it becomes not only a question of class, but of ideals and the importance placed upon those ideals. It also doesn't hurt that Wu and Golding have phenomenal chemistry and with Rachel as the audience surrogate we are both impressed and intimidated by the level of wealth and opulence on display. Michelle Yeoh absolutely owns the role of the hard-nosed matriarch, Gemma Chan's cousin to Nick and empowered businesswoman in her own right, Astrid, is immensely compelling to the point you wish the movie spent more time with her, and Awkwafina steals every scene she's in like it's nothing playing Rachel's college friend and resident "happy to be invited to the party" by-stander.
So sure, it would be impossible to argue "Crazy Rich Asians" does anything you haven't technically seen before, but it certainly can say it does it in a way you've never actually seen before. The all-Asian ensemble works flawlessly together, the costumes, sets, and locations are all magnificent, and the script manages to be fresh and fun while ultimately pulling off what was always going to be the biggest challenge for a film with "Rich" in the title: that being to elicit sympathy for these crazy rich individuals no matter if they were black, white, Cuban, or-as is in this case-Asian.
by Philip Price
Per “The Meg,” the rather exceptional marketing ("opening wide" and "pleased to eat you" are just classic) is something of a misrepresentation, but only slightly as the film is still very much aware it is a silly shark movie even if it ultimately holds itself to a higher standard than that of your typical B-movie fare while certainly taking itself more seriously than the ‘Sharknado’ movies (of which I haven't seen a single one). Could “The Meg” have been a little campier and, in turn, a little more fun with an uptick in the level of self-awareness? Absolutely, but is there enough fun mined from the outrageous premise to leave audiences happy with what they received versus what the marketing led them to expect? It seems this will largely be the deciding factor in how much enjoyment each individual party will take away from the flick, but for this viewer in particular (as well as my wife and countless others in our rather crowded 9:15 pm IMAX showing) “The Meg” balances itself well between allowing Jason Statham to do his bit while giving the supporting players enough to do so as to endear us to the characters and their plight and playing up the corny elements to the point it's impossible to take anything “The Meg” does too seriously which only makes Statham's stern turn as Jonas all the more hilarious. “The Meg” is most certainly dumb and it knows it, but it never shows that full hand and one kind of has to respect the movie for that; the story is ludicrous and it knows you know that, but it kind of hopes you take the action beats seriously and by executing them in such a manner we're both in on the joke of and thrilled at the titular monster whenever they decide to show up. What more does one want from a movie about a prehistoric shark emerging from extinction to engage with Jason Statham in a rage-fueled brawl? Exactly. Nothing.
In “The Meg,” there is a shark. A shark that is awakened if you will and it just so happens Statham's Jonas is the only person on the planet with the skills and experience to even attempt to go toe to toe with this thing. Jonas is a deep sea diver who has given up the life because of a dark past that consists of making a snap decision on a previous dive that cost the lives of two of his best friends, but that he is still questioned about to this day by members of the crew who were rescued and thus has had to learn to live and deal with survivor's guilt. Jonas is as retired as one can be when the likes of old friend Mac (Cliff Curtis) and Mac's latest employer, Zhang (Winston Chao), show up to try and recruit Jonas to help them rescue a crew they've left stranded on the lowest level of the ocean floor to ever be reached by explorers. Jonas is initially adamant about his desire to remain uninvolved, but when he learns his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee), is among those stranded it seems to be enough to get the chrome-domed star to agree to come back for one last rescue mission. You see, Zhang, a well-respected and regarded marine biologist, has set up an underwater research facility called Mana One that has been funded by billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson). Morris has arrived on site to bear witness to what could potentially be his team's big breakthrough as they're attempting that deepest dive on record which will see them test if there is an even deeper section to the Marianas Trench that has been concealed by a cloud of hydrogen sulfide. Lori, The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), and Toshi (Masi Oka) have tested the hypothesis that there is more ocean underneath the Trench and proved it correct, but what Zhang and his team-which includes his oceanographer daughter Suyin (Li Bongbing) and eight year-old granddaughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), the tech chick (Ruby Rose), the equipment expert and comic relief (Page Kennedy), and the doctor/crew member from Jonas' last mission that still blames him for leaving men behind (Robert Taylor)-failed to have predicted is that of the existence of a megalodon. Who would have thought, right? Jonas is quickly ushered in to rescue the crew from beneath the Trench, but by doing so opens a whole other can of fish when the megalodon breaks through the thermocline and discovers a brand new world of open waters.
“The Meg” is well-made schlock. That said, it's admittedly generic in every beat that it hits, but spins these beats in an entertaining enough fashion that the song still sounds fresh. It would seem the main discussion around “The Meg” will continue to come back around to should the film have leaned more into the camp elements of itself or does it lean too far into the more serious tone it demonstrates in certain moments throughout. There has been some discussion over this being due to the PG-13 rating, but it doesn't really feel like the movie needed to necessarily be any gorier than it is or even that much “dumber” than it is to be a better movie. Yes, Jason Statham is playing another version of who we know Jason Statham to be from his many screen performances, but there is also the fact the actor wears a slight smirk in most of his scenes which seems to be a substitute for him outright winking at the camera. The man knows what kind of movie he signed up for and even if he initially signed on to a script that was indeed gorier and more outlandish than what Warner Bros. ultimately decided to release the irony of his own presence isn't lost on Statham. He may not be going full Rick Ford a la his character in Paul Feig's “SPY,” but he is using the level of seriousness with which he plays things as a way of emphasizing the ridiculous nature of the circumstances his character has found himself in. This is a different course of action than other people in the movie, namely Wilson, who is playing an outlandish character through and through (we know this from the shot of his shoes when he first steps off his private helicopter). This tells us Morris' outlandish tendencies are bigger and more obvious and are by default more in line with the kind of movie the marketing led audiences to believe “The Meg” was. And so, in this regard, “The Meg” is in fact that kind of movie. Morris acts as if his life is a movie-cheering when the shark attacks and being disappointed when the explorers don't find what they were looking for; literally not feeling as if he got his money's worth. Both Statham and Wilson are playing their characters in ways that acknowledge the absurdity of the story they're in, but they are playing them to two different degrees. This goes for much of the cast as Kennedy's character solely exists to try and garner laughs whereas Rose's tough, "take no crap from no one" is a stock character in and of itself that she's supposed to be putting her own spin on. While Rose's Jaxx (of course) may not have a whole lot to do and/or doesn't do much with what she has there are enough moments of merit to reassure what I assume will be the vast majority of audience members that what they're seeing on screen is just about in line with what they were sold if not a little better and a little more credible than they were expecting.
What it boils down to, for this reviewer, is the fact I was never disappointed in what fun I wasn't having because I was having a fun enough time and enjoying myself enough to the point that I wasn't bothered by or considering what could have been. Of course, this movie was never really supposed to be about the humans, but more about this giant shark. It is in this regard-meaning, does it pay enough attention to the creature in which the movie takes its name-could it do more? For sure. The first half hour of the movie is completely dedicated to establishing the characters and character dynamics that will follow throughlines from one act to the next (this is what I mean about the movie being better than it must be). No one expects a movie like “The Meg” to have character arcs other than our scorned hero overcoming his past and redeeming himself by defeating the new baddie on the block, but “The Meg” first defines that Jonas is exceptional at his job while having maintained friends (Mac) as well as having made plenty of enemies (Taylor's Dr. Heller) all while maintaining a functional relationship with his ex-wife. That's all well and good and works fine enough to integrate the exiled hero back into the ranks of this new group of deep sea divers, but the movie doesn't stop there as it feels it necessary for Jonas to first strike up an (albeit charming) relationship with the adorable Meiying only to have that affection blossom into something romantic with her mother, Suyin. Of course, Suyin only becomes interested in Jonas after seeing him with his shirt off, so despite the effort here there is still only so much depth to be explored. During the initial rescue mission what we see of the megalodon is little more than a quick swim-by or that of the interiors of submarines becoming indented. There isn't anything wrong with hiding the monster for large chunks of the movie-we all know how effective “Jaws” was in doing just that-and while some of the moments garner a fair amount of tension and evoke a jump scare here or there they most of the time feel like the scares and tension could have been executed with greater effect. This brings us back around to the generic ways director John Turteltaub and/or the studio approached the material with rather than choosing to lean into one specific direction wholeheartedly. There are certainly shortcomings with “The Meg” and its broad tone can certainly be taken as one, but for as generic as it can be “The Meg” never feels bland. When it counts, “The Meg” comes through and the film does enough to, at least in the theater I experienced it in, elicit the gasps, cheers, laughs, and jumps while recognizing viewers showed up to see Jason Statham fly through the air to stab a giant shark in the eye. And that's not to say there aren't missed opportunities, but hey-maybe they're waiting to capitalize on those for the likely sequels as, in case you were unaware, “The Meg” is based on a 1997 novel that spawned a series of at least six books that no doubt contain plenty more creative shark kills and monster mayhem to allow this likely new franchise to last as long as Statham desires.
by Philip Price
I watched an interview with Elsie Fisher on Jimmy Kimmel where she said she was reading Letterboxd reviews and now I’m as anxious as Kayla was at that pool party; wondering what I should say and how much I should divulge so as to not stick out, but not be completely invisible either.
Honestly though, what Kayla does at that pool party is braver than any thought I would have even pondered at her age. Kayla, if you’re wondering, is the mostly balanced if not sometimes age-appropriately dramatic teen at the center of comedian and all-around genius Bo Burnham’s directorial debut. Kayla is shy and possesses very little confidence. She lives in a modest home with her single father (played so lovingly by Josh Hamilton) and yearns only to be accepted for the version of herself she is able to project on her YouTube channel.
For all intents and purposes, “Eighth Grade” doesn’t stick out for any one particular reason as it could easily be described as a millennial’s most accurate coming of age story, but that would be to dismiss all the small, but vital attributes (LeBron James!) that make its heart beat in earnest. For example, did anyone else who’s far removed from the middle school/junior high experience forget how anxiety-inducing it was when you went to a friend’s birthday party and had to wait on them to open presents all the while hoping that your present will be deemed cool not only by the birthday girl or boy, but by everyone else in attendance? Yeah, me too, but “Eighth Grade” does a beautifully haunting job of capturing such an experience in all its dreaded glory.
First time writer/director Burnham packs so much into each shot. There are so many layers happening, so many things going on, and the majesty of Kayla’s audio from one of her YouTube clips playing over the visuals of her walking into the token popular girl’s birthday party (a party she was only invited to because the girl’s mom knows Kayla’s dad and made her invite her, but ultimately seems a little disappointed when her dad doesn’t come with her) as Anna Meredith’s effervescent score (which expertly and consistently adds to the humor of the piece) pulses underneath culminating in an orchestra of anxiety that perfectly encapsulates what Burnham is going for. He’s going for the cringe factor in all its open and honest magnificence and he finely tunes every minute of his 93-minute feature to this frequency of completely cringe-inducing but wholly endearing. We know because most of us have been there and we hold equal amounts of fear for how the world might react to something not up to its societal standards as we hope that the world will embrace this precious soul whose biggest goal in life is to exude more confidence. A confidence she knows she already possesses but must convince others of.
One can’t say enough good things about Fisher in her lead role either. She fearlessly exposes her face, fresh with real teenage acne, to the big screen as well as her adorably crooked teeth that lend her a smile that will have you tearing up by the end of it. Her walk is more than perfect and not a false note is played. The “umms”, the “likes”, and the pauses all feel natural. Not to mention, she has some fantastic comic timing. In a scene where she comes face to face with her crush, Aiden (a hilariously aloof Luke Prael), for the first time her reaction to the realization of what was happening around her was laugh-out-loud funny. Belly-laugh inducing, even. The same goes for Hamilton’s Mark who is nothing short of fantastic. Hamilton is saddled with what is the movie’s most “movie-like” moment in a big speech he must deliver in the film’s final act and it is nothing short of the definition of purity. Also, of note is Emily Robinson as a high schooler who Kayla shadows one day as the film takes place during Kayla's final week of eighth grade. Robinson’s Olivia is so positive and encouraging it almost feels as if Burnham is trying a little too hard to upend expectations, but what Olivia is able to offer Kayla is priceless and the bond they form, as surface-level as it might be, along with the wonderful chemistry Fisher and Hamilton have with one another only serve the truly moving nature of the film overall.
The real magic of “Eighth Grade” though is how it so effortlessly and in such an understated fashion combines these really dark truths with the irreverence of how we feel day to day. How we all kind of naturally feel these individual days won’t really impact our overall lives or add up to much and yet the broad strokes of what certain periods of our lives amount to or are marked by come from these small, individual moments that could happen on any given day. Burnham is smart in addressing the likes of the effects of social media in our everyday lives, the hyper-awareness of it all, and how it can lead to lowly lows as much as it can manufacture certain highs. The joy Kayla gets out of taking a new Instagram profile pic is a certain kind of high and Burnham captures the optimism that comes with being able to set a new, flattering picture of yourself as the reference point for how everyone you know will recognize you online in a beyond genuine fashion. That doesn’t mean he shies away from the meaner aspects of junior high though, as Burnham works in the normality of school shootings without making it a focal point and while the movie never feels mean-spirited and very clearly loves its characters it never gives them a pass either. In a world where people are always buried in their phones and feelings are both heightened and accelerated due to that hyper-awareness combined with the fact you’re already at a point where things are always awkward, feelings mostly consist of being insecure, and you’re just trying to figure out exactly who you want to be this environment of extreme consciousness can only be helpful in a limited number of ways, but can detract in countless scenarios.
“I didn’t do anything-I just watched you.”
It takes a lot for an eighth grader to be as introspective as Kayla becomes. To realize it’s best to take it slow and embrace the innocence of life for as long as possible when the allure of high school and coolness is so close, but “just cause things are happening right now doesn’t mean they’re always gonna happen.”
by Philip Price
A history lesson and galvanizing procedural all in one, Spike Lee's “BlacKkKlansman” is one for the ages. An incredibly heavy, effectively powerful film that drenches you in the world in which it operates, pulls absolutely no punches, and delivers a film from a focused filmmaker who is not only presenting a timely conversation that needs to happen, but conveying his side of the conversation with style, eloquence, and immense profundity.
Spike Lee has always been something of an enigma of a filmmaker for me. Having been born in 1987 and only two years-old when Lee broke onto the scene with the film he’s now seemed to be chasing his entire career, “Do the Right Thing,” I didn’t really come to know who Lee was until realizing he directed Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” music video. I was too young to see the much heralded 25th Hour when it was released, but Lee’s one-two punch of more accessible films in the mid-2000’s with “Inside Man” and “Miracle at St. Anna” allowed me my first, full experiences with the filmmaker while being something of a misdirect as many of his smaller, less mainstream films don’t follow the clean structure and story beats familiar to most audiences. Rather, most of Lee’s films are pointedly about what they’re about, but when Lee has a story to work his themes through he can create more fulfilling and profound experiences. This is what makes “BlacKkKlansman” the perfect story for Lee to tell. The true life events the film is based on provide an entertaining template to discuss the politics Lee desires to discuss while that true story is at the same time entrenched in the racially charged dilemmas of the late ’70s (and unfortunately, of today as well). It’s a perfect melding of artist and material.
In “BlacKkKlansman” we meet Ron Stallworth as played by John David Washington (Denzel’s son who you may have also seen on HBO’s “Ballers”) as a rookie police officer and the first black man on the payroll of the Colorado Springs police force. Stallworth is quickly upgraded to detective status not because of anything he’s done to prove himself (his Chief swiftly stuck him in records where he has to let out his anger and frustration by practicing karate chops into the air), but rather it is when political activist and Civil Rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) is asked to come speak by local college activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) that the local police force sees the need for a young black man in their ranks so that they might successfully infiltrate the gathering at which Ture will speak; ensuring he doesn’t rile up the locals to the point the police have something to worry about. It is in this ask that we begin to see the balance and struggles Stallworth must deal with when considering his personal, professional, and cultural aspirations. Stallworth seems to (maybe somewhat naively) believe in the beginning of the film that he will be able to institute clean change by working from the inside out. What Stallworth comes to realize is that not only will he still face discrimination from his peers within the force despite the fact his superiors have granted him entry, but that not all black folks see what he’s doing as a righteous act, but one that could be considered “selling-out”. When Stallworth meets and quickly falls for Harrier’s Patrice it becomes apparent that Stallworth and by default Washington in his performance must figure out how best to justify the choices they are making in their lives and just how much they believe in those justifications. Stallworth firmly believes in the need for police or he wouldn’t have applied for the job, but that he has to also be awake to the fact there are those within the same profession as he that want to use this power of authority to take advantage of people who look like him adds a multitude of layers to Stallworth’s psychological state as well as the number of layers the film is speaking to its audience on.
This is all without even getting into the fact Lee and his screenwriting partner Kevin Willmott have what is a "too good to be true" true story on which to play off. It is this unbelievable aspect to the basic story that allows for “BlacKkKlansman” to at once be riotously funny while at other times be the sobering experience of the moment that it comes to be. In being able to chase a more traditional three-act structure than Lee might typically adhere to, “BlacKkKlansman” is able to garner a lot of laughs out of how big of and how easily Stallworth is able to make these racist, horrible human beings look like the monsters they truly are. To get to see Washington as Stallworth sit at his desk and shoot the shit in his "white voice" with someone like David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan at the time, spouting racist and demoralizing remarks as Grace's Duke eats up every word on the other end of the line and Stallworth's co-worker's listen in disbelief provides an immeasurably satisfying entertainment factor to it all. Also funny is the fact that after Stallworth establishes contact with the President of his local KKK chapter, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and sets up a meeting with him is that of the fact he realizes he'd used his real name in the exchange. This prompts Ron to suggest that his fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), be used as the face of Stallworth while he would continue to hold discussions over the phone. It is as the movie digs into laying out how exactly the real Stallworth and Zimmerman combined their identities to create a unified persona to infiltrate the KKK and learn of potential threats to their community that the film really begins to take off. Not simply because of the entertainment factor and levels of tension this situation inherently carries, but also since Driver's Zimmerman is Jewish and the KKK isn't particularly fond of the Jewish community either. Speaking of the layers “BlacKkKlansman” carries, what the initiation of this investigation instigates is not only that of Stallworth helping to justify his choice to become a police officer and re-instill the trust of the African-American community in the organization intended to protect all people in each community, but that of Zimmerman's wrestling with how much his heritage means to him. It's an interesting role and one that could have easily served as much more of a second-string narrative to Stallworth's (it still does and needs to), but Driver's performance of this man whose seemingly not had to stand for much in his life being put in this position where despite not being particularly passionate about having been raised Jewish he can't help but to feel enraged by the way the members of the KKK regard a group of people he clearly has a connection to.
More than just the incredible true story and the phenomenal performances that bring it to life though, there is so much else going on in “BlacKkKlansman” it's difficult to feel as if everything that needs to be discussed about the film can be filtered down into a single piece of writing. There is the fantastic Terence Blanchard score that is both retro when necessary while remaining faithful to the style in which Lee is crafting his film throughout and speaking to Lee's filmmaking style, the auteur is very much both in and out of his element here as the film is largely gorgeously photographed and pieced together while at the same time feeling as if it has less of an impression from Lee's stamp than some of the director's other films. “BlacKkKlansman” still contains some signature Lee-isms such as that title screen text promising the audience some "fo real, fo real shit" as well as the dolly shot late in the film as Stallworth and Patrice glide seamlessly down a hallway where they see a burning cross outside their window. More effective here though is Lee and Editor Barry Alexander Brown's tendencies to intercut certain scenes. Most notably is the one in which Duke comes to Colorado Springs for an initiation ceremony of that chapter's newest members in which Driver's version of Stallworth is included while Washington's real Stallworth is assigned security detail to the Grand Wizard of the KKK during the visit. As Duke, and it should be mentioned that Grace is fantastic in this role even if such compliments are the most uncomfortable of adulation the actor has ever received; Grace lends Duke the charisma, clean-cut appearance, and overall charm that allows for who Duke truly is to become that much more insidious. As Duke conducts this initiation ceremony though, in full KKK garb and going through these religious-like motions, Lee and Brown cut back and forth between it and a group of black students at a nearby campus rally who have gathered to hear Jerome Turner (the legendary Harry Belafonte) tell the story of the horrific 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington. This all culminates as the newly appointed Klan members shout "white power" with their fists raised high in the air as the college students mourn Turner's story and promise themselves a better tomorrow by raising their own fists in the air to shout "black power"; the juxtaposition of it all very clearly meant to both parallel the passion each side finds in their beliefs while echoing the idea of balance and it being a key to peace.
On something of a more personal note, as a white male in his early 30s sitting next to an older black couple most certainly of a generation that saw what was happening on screen occur in their real lives, I had something of a knot in the pit of my stomach the entirety of the runtime of this movie. Not only was this due to the sense of sorrow and disbelief that reverberated from much of what was occurring on screen, but also because there was this fear given the state of our current world that we weren't completely safe sitting there watching this type of movie, a movie that more or less mocked an organization for believing one set of people are superior to another based on nothing more than the tint of their skin, in the Southern region of the U.S. I'm as guilty as anyone else for judging books by their covers and when I saw people who looked closer to that of Jasper Pääkkönen's neo-Nazi Felix Kendrickson and/or Paul Walter Hauser's ignorant Ivanhoe walk into the theater in what was the first showing of the film in the state of Arkansas I admit I was more suspicious than I was open-minded about why they were so interested in the latest Spike Lee joint. Now, I don't know who these people were, and I don't know what had or had not happened in their lives that led them to this point, but I made assumptions based on their appearance and thankfully those assumptions were wrong. Nothing out of the ordinary happened at my screening of “BlacKkKlansman,” but I can't help but to think it would have also been ignorant to not be a little suspicious. That is the sad state of the world we live in: that often we must believe in the stereotypes assigned to the way we look because the people who live up to those stereotypes are the ones who get the most attention. It is those in which such stereotypes owe their origins that most of the unsuspecting society must pay the price. All this uneasiness comes to be accentuated by the end of the film when Lee integrates a Klan rally taking place within the narrative into real footage of last year’s Charlottesville rallies to emphasize that despite the fact we’d like to believe things have changed that-more than ever-they are still very much the same.
by Philip Price
There is a moment within the opening credits of Disney's latest attempt to turn one of their classic animated properties into a live action ATM that hints at the devastating nature of our lives. It is fleeting and it, if only for a moment, says all it needs to say about what this movie aspires to be. As it passes though and as it becomes more and more apparent the film doesn't really know how to accomplish what its initial ambitions intended the film instead becomes all the broader and all the safer. This moment is one in which a young Christopher Robin (Orton O'Brien) comes to the Hundred Acre Wood for the last time. He is going off to boarding school, you see, and won't be able to visit his friends as often anymore. His friends being his stuffed toys, which include that silly ol' bear named Pooh (voice of Jim Cummings), the perpetually petrified Piglet (voice of Nick Mohammed), the ever-exuberant Tigger (also Cummings), the steadily gloomy Eeyore (voice of Brad Garrett), as well as Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), her little Roo (Sara Sheen), and of course Owl (Toby Jones). Robin's toys know change is afoot and are throwing Christopher a farewell party of sorts in which treats-ranging from pots of honey to carrots, of course-are served and where even Eeyore is moved to make a speech. It is considering the depressed donkey's surprisingly apathetic speech that Rabbit reacts to accordingly that we hear Cummings as Winnie the Pooh whisper a soft, "I would've liked for it to go on a bit longer." And just as fleeting as the moment itself is it simultaneously felt as if I'd been knocked over by a half ton barrage of scattered thoughts and emotions that reminded me just how fleeting time itself is. It's the one thing we can't get more of no matter how much wealth we possess or the circumstance of our lives; we all have a finite amount of time and “Christopher Robin,” in its first five minutes, exists to remind you that your children will grow and change just as you did and even though you feel you're different, that you're special, and that despite knowing it was a fact of life all along you were never really meant to grow old and become like your parents before you. Time truly waits for no man. This affected me to the point I wondered why I was sitting in a theater watching a movie when I should have been at home snuggling my three year-old daughter. In short, that would have been the more entertaining option of the two and certainly the more fulfilling one as it is only in this moment that “Christopher Robin” was able to pull any genuine feeling out of me. And might I remind you, this is a movie wholly designed to pull on the heart and nostalgia strings. One moment.
Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, this fictional land inhabited by Pooh and his friends, is where we initially meet the cast of well-known characters in director Marc Forster's (“Finding Neverland”) film, but we don't spend much time here over the course of the next ninety or so minutes as “Christopher Robin” quickly enters the real world first showing us in montage how our titular character comes to stray so far from the childhood that has seemingly brought so much joy to so many other's childhoods. Beginning with boarding school-and a very telling shot in which Robin's father turns his back to walk away as soon as he's hugged and told his son goodbye while his mother stands for a moment longer, watching her son walk away-onto having to become the man of the house at a younger age than most, into the fact this young boy who we've always pictured as something of a Peter Pan-like touchstone actually served overseas in the war for several years away from his pregnant wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), therefore missing the birth and early years of his daughter's life. It's a lot to take in especially given the amount of time in which the film delivers it, but more interesting is the fact any point in these events would have made for a more satisfying experience in terms of what the movie wants to do, but instead of having Robin hit rock bottom-losing his sense of childlike wonder completely-during the war the screenplay from Alex Ross Perry (writer/director of such indie darlings as “Listen Up Philip” and “Queen of Earth”), Tom McCarthy (writer and director of the Best Picture-winning “Spotlight”), and Allison Schroeder (whose first feature screenplay made into a film was “Hidden Figures”) instead decide that the film's namesake will have this crisis of identity post-war when he's stuck in an office doing mundane, day to day tasks because "Hey! At least the war was unpredictable!" This may be the most "movie" thing this movie does, but this has a lasting effect on the film as the biggest issue “Christopher Robin” runs into is being a movie about the purity and preciousness of childhood and yet it never feels authentic. Everything about from how the scenes are stitched together to the very example-like nature that each of the situations possess lend the overall impression of a series of contrivances rather than a genuine truth that conveys the thesis of the pitch that adults too easily lose sight of a child's perspective including the multitude of joys that can be found in the world if we alter how we look at it.
Forster is a diverse director, but in less and less of his more recent efforts has he seemed to be able to find his own sense of footing or who he is as a filmmaker. It's admittedly been some time since I've seen either “Monster's Ball” or “Finding Neverland” though he will always have my favor and optimism thanks to “Stranger than Fiction” but while it was those early films that marked Forster's arrival on the scene and as something of a formidable force to be reckoned with he was then snatched up by the studios to direct pre-destined tentpoles such as the next James Bond. It's easy to see how his career trajectory went astray after this, but with “Christopher Robin” it seems he might have landed on a project that would allow that footing to once again be surer of itself. And while there are components, arguably the most critical of components, that work well and bring the aimlessness of the plotting and the lack of efficiency (ironically enough) in the pacing up to levels of charming and more consistently funny than expected after the slog the first act turns into the movie itself ultimately never has any stakes that are worth getting involved in, has a message and main idea that should be fairly obvious to the main character, but that he doesn't fully give into until the third act when he's supposed to give into his epiphany despite long-since realizing the lesson he's intended to learn. Worse, none of these actions ever truly gel with what the movie really wants to say. There is this line that is repeated often by Pooh that goes something like, "doing nothing often leads to the very best something," and though there is certainly flaws to be found with this nugget of wisdom it might have been beneficial had Forster taken cues from his characters. “Christopher Robin” is aimless because it tries to do so much at once, throwing multiple character arcs and conflicts at the wall, but never giving any of it enough weight to the point it amounts to anything. There is a bit with the Robin's weird neighbor who keeps insisting he and Robin have a game of gin rummy, but this goes nowhere and is ultimately nothing more than something thrown in to get a laugh. The likes of Atwell and Bronte Carmichael who plays their daughter, Madeline, are wasted and serve simply as reminders of how much Robin is messing up and how much he is missing. “Christopher Robin” is oddly paced because it largely wraps up its core story in an hour and then must go on for another 40 minutes so that the title character can repeat his arc and Madeline can fill in the role once played by her father regarding his toy friends. Oddly enough, this redundant final act is the only time the movie possesses some forward momentum. Essentially, should Forster's “Christopher Robin” have less distractions filtered through it the characters themselves might have been more in tune with the film's very visible heart.
Being a story about how Christopher Robin becomes so lost to the point it is difficult for his own child to imagine him as a child though, the most critical of elements that would need to be pulled off in order for even the single most innocent member of the audience to buy into the fact Robin could make the realizations he needs to make in order for viewers to feel as if they've been taken on a journey is that of the credibility and connections of those inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. We needed to care about Winnie the Pooh and his make-believe friends and believe in their ability to serve as not just reminders of who Christopher Robin once was, but as symbols of what he'd lost during growing up. It is in this course of action that Forster and “Christopher Robin” succeed the most. This is a very handsome film, a gorgeously rendered film, if you will, as each of the characters we all know and love are depicted as something of a balance between the animated incarnations most will associate them with and the real-life dolls of the real-life Christopher Robin and his father, author A.A. Milne. Forster and cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser create this warm and comfortable aura with a soft sun luminescence within the Hundred Acre Wood that lends the realm something of an ethereal element whereas Robin's London-based job and home life couldn't be drearier or more drained of color. The aesthetics of these dolls come to life in truly tangible ways and their interactions with both real-world environments as well as, when Pooh makes his way to London, real-world people are what give the film a much needed vibrancy. Pooh will rattle off little sayings like, "It's always a sunny day when Christopher Robin comes to play," but in the case of this movie it is more the opposite for it is when we get to see cute little Piglet try to hide, but be tempted by the thought of acorns, or Eeyore float down a river with no hope of being saved, or even when the movie blatantly pays fan service by having Tigger perform his trademark song that the most joy comes off the screen and we, the viewer, are ourselves reminded of what made our childhood so magical. This isn't to say Ewan McGregor isn't fine enough as the titular character, but he's simply strapped with so much of the dour material that he can't help but to pull down both the energy and the tone. The challenge with “Christopher Robin” was always going to be how to make it more than just a nostalgia trip though, and while it might have yielded a better, more insightful movie better in tune with its feelings and ambitions had Disney maybe allowed Perry to direct a script he wrote by himself based on the given premise what Forster has crafted here is a very nice, very quaint film that hits its necessary marks, but is far too slight to ever reach the emotional heights it's scaling.