“BlacKkKlansman”

“BlacKkKlansman” is another film to remind us that “Reconstruction” after the Civil War was never completed, and that our current President is pushing the other way and deconstructing any progress made in thwarting racism.

Director Spike Lee uses the storyboard foundation of a true tale. Ron Stallworth was a black cop in the 1970’s in Colorado Springs. Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington plays Ron, and he is easy to identify with as he joins with a  white, Jewish policeman ( Adam Driver) to infiltrate the KKK.

The 1970 garb of safari jackets, the “air karate”, and the put-downs like, “You think you are hot shit, but you are a cold fart” are fringe worthy, period details. Ditto for “I can dig it.” Funny for some; embarrassing  for others. The music like “Happy Days” , both ironic and loud, is used to drive emotional points; but, it can be overpowering. Subtle is not the tone used  in this film. And why should it be!

I love the large portraits of black student union members being moved by Stokely Carmichael’s speech. The young need to know that Kwame Ture ( Carmichael’s name choice) was the philosopher who coined the term “black power”. This is black power that does not need white help.

Topher Grace plays a smarmy David Duke that hits the mark. He speaks of the “ real America” and “America First” in direct correlation to D. Trump. Felix and Connie are Duke followers and so full of hate that their  “take America back” connotes lynchings.

The last two minutes of the film is tear producing as Lee shows real  footage from  current 2017 white supremacy activism. The screen frame of “Heather Hegel: Rest in Power” and the upside down flag are images that dampen any hyperbole that Spike Lee used to make viewers laugh earlier in the film.

This is a righteously angry film that I hope will get more than the African metal targets running to the polls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Black Mass”

Any film that begins with a tape recorder sputtering out  ” I am not a rat” and goes on to tell the story of the biggest informant -FBI -scandal in U.S. history lets you presume that codes of honor can be tricky. Based on the Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill’s NYT’s best seller, ” Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI, and  A Devil’s Deal”, Director Scott Cooper does his best with a great cast and a weak,understated screenplay.

Shot in South Boston, this film is full of dark bars, grimy alleyways and industrial river sites. “There is trouble outside” becomes visceral. “Throw the first two punches” the street mantra. The music is heavy-handed and evocative of other crime-ridden films. See “Black Mass” for the acting not  for the cinematography. Though there are two exceptional camera shots: one an overhead pan of Jimmy reclining with his hands behind his head. We long to get into that psyche; yet, we really never do. The other memorable  photo still captures Joel Edgerton as Jimmie’s FBI friend, John Connolly. His headshot photographed against six-inch -flowered, kitchen wallpaper highlights his personal allegiances. His wife loses. And as that wife, Juliette Nicolson is amazing. Her Marianne is full of depth. I wish the screenplay gave her more time. When Jimmie knocks on her locked bedroom door and creepily puts his hands around her neck. We can feel that touch. We can understand her wish to scream. Her control is lost only in her brimming eyes. Depp, Nicolson, and Edgerton all give Oscar-worthy performances. It is in this threatening scene where “Whitey’s” evil is best portrayed. Marianne knows Jimmie has changed her husband. That “southie -kid” loyalty never leaves John Connolly. He goes to prison for forty years without testifying against his psychopathic childhood friend.

Johnny Depp’s transformation as James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of The Winter Hill Gang is make-up-award worthy,too. The honed nose,the blue eyes and the balding-scalp-overlay give a mesmerizing effect. Only in one scene did I catch a glimpse of a rubber-neckline give away. Depp’s acting is a stunner,yet the viewers get no real insight into this crime boss who kills with bare-handed abandon in broad daylight,once in front of a full recess playground. Depp’s voice is raspy,deep, and cool. When he instructs his five -year -old son, it is to say,” It is not what you do, but where and when. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

This is the man who becomes a top echelon FBI informant,code named “Charlie”. Jimmie,with friend Connolly’s aid, is in alliance with the Feds to bring down the Angiulo Brothers,a Mafia family. This is the “Devil’s Deal”: the FBI allows Whitey Bulger ,small time gangster, to become a crime kingpin to “bring down the Italians”. With two sympathetic notes shown after his son’s Reye Syndrome death and in his gin rummy card game with his mother, Bulger goes on to become the crime lord of Boston and Miami rackets. His admonition to “never hand me a bag full of money in public. I’ll whack anyone, anywhere” is proven true in ghastly car -window -blood splatter over and over again. Bulger uses some of his filthy lucre to buy weapons for the IRA. Our FBI’s “professional criminal consultant” lives by getting and giving loyalty to his friends until they do something he considers stupid.

One telling scene has Jimmie parading his power as “cock of the walk”.He asks for the recipe of a particularly pleasing steak marinade; and though it is described as a secret family recipe, it  is given to him anyway. Bulger chides that “just saying can get you buried real fucking quick”.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Jimmie’s brother and U.S. Senator, and former Chancellor of The University of Massachusetts. Kevin Bacon is John Connolly’s (Joel Edgerton) FBI boss. Again,the cast of “Black Mass” could not have been better. The movie should have been. It seems incongruous that a man known for extortion,racketeering and murder, a man who utters dictates of “pull out his fucking teeth and bury him next to the whore” would be last filmed in a candlelit church with no more insight into his mind.

“Jimmy’s Hall”

See this film for its lovely cinematography of Joss Barratt,a mixture of sepia, blue-dust shuttered haze, and fresh and verdant Irish-green countryside. See it as an Irish history lesson (1922-23), when the pro-treaty Irish forces backed by the British caused a Civil War, and see “Jimmy’s Hall” for a bitter-sweet story of a lesser-known Irish icon,Jimmy Gralton, played charmingly by Barry Ward. Most of all, see it for the passionate “confessional box” scene where the maverick Jimmy berates Father Sheridian (Jim Norton) for never listening but when people are on their knees.

Richard Wright,one of America’s famous ex-pat novelists, wrote that “literature is protest”.The same can be said of film. Plus, injustice fires the pen. Certainly, the Scott’s-Irish lawyer and screenwriter Paul Laverty knows how to frame Jimmy’s story. Much of the dialogue pits the Communist Jimmy against the estate owners and the powerful Catholic Church hierarchy with their “hand in the till”. In one stunning set -piece Gralton makes his point to the parish priest, ” (you think)..the interests are the same? Do you think the system seeped in allusion and avarice works for need and not for greed.?”

This working-class film begins with Jimmy’s return to his thatched-roofed home and to his lonely mother after the death of his brother Charlie. He has been in America,in New York City- far from the peat bogs and wet ash pits. We learn from his mother that ” scars on the heart take a long time to heal”. The Church is given a balanced reading in the addition of the younger Father Seamus (Andrew Scott). He fears that the Church will lose the youth of the parish if Fr.Sheridian keeps haranguing with his question,”What is this obsession with pleasure?!”


The Patrick Pearse and James Connelly Community Center draws a bigger crowd than the parish dances. Gaelic song,Yeat’s poetry,and art and boxing lessons and the introduction of Jazz to the traditional clogging beat Jimmy sees as working for the common good of the people. The fact that the Hall is named for two heroes of the 1916 Easter Uprising against the British plays into the opposition’s venom. “The venom in their hearts for all they can’t control” are Jimmy’s words. He is gaining too much influence and is seen as “the cock of the walk” in the political unrest.

In flashback, we learn that Jimmy had been deported from Ireland ten years ago.He never was given a trial. His exile cost him the love of his life. Simone Kirby plays that love,Oonaugh Dempsey. She is calm,understated and clearly -though married and the mother of two children-still in love with Jimmy Gralton.In a beautifully atmospheric scene,they dance alone in the hall. The sexual tension is heart-breaking. To borrow a line from the film their attraction is more of a moth to the flame than a dog to a post.His “I wish we had another life to lead” says it all.

Director Ken Loach has kept the film lengthy;but on review,I don’t know what I would have taken out.I loved the detail of Yeats being read,and JMJ heading the students’ papers and art work. The pulpit lecture with the reading-out of the names of the “debased” was humorous as was Fr. Sheridian’s lament of evil hatching in the hall “starting with feet and working toward the brain”. Earls commandeering land,brown-wool-vested gangs,cottage evictions,fiddles and fathers lashing their violins and their daughters all added to the aura.

In the end, Jimmy’s mam (Aileen Henry) says it best “I might lose a child,but Ireland loses much,much more”. I felt this way when Jimmy Gralton went to the rectory and said “Come to have my devil horns put on”, and then asked Fr. Sheridian to join the Community Center’s Board. When Jimmy accuses the old priest of “having more hate in your heart than love”, his words sting. Father admits that Jimmy can’t be bought and that he has courage and decency.We smile and don’t smirk as we see the priest listen to a jazz record as he has a wee dram before bed.

Enjoy the effective use of stop action as “the pied piper” is led away and the young promise to keep dancing and dreaming. Jimmy died on December 29th in 1945 in New York City. He was forbidden to ever return to his birthplace Effrinagh or to his Mother Ireland.

“Testament Of Youth”

What did young voices sound like in 1917 ? Before women were given their voting rights what did “head-strong” girls do ? Loyalty to their homelands and loyalty to their friends anchored them, but so did nature and love. The film “Testament Of Youth” is full of heartsong and birdsong. Director James Kent’s long,British period piece is also filled with the muck of war. Camera pans of field-loads of canvas-blanketed pallets, hundreds of glazed-eyed wounded, and a smattering of white-scarfed nurses set the scene.We hear the sounds of war while the screen remains black. Making her way through flag-waving citizens, the rosewood bereted Vera pushes through 1917 Armistice Day revelers. It is an engaging opening: a girl on the move. This is  young woman of purpose. She enters a church sanctuary to give thanks,and we see other women fingering rosary beads. An art work of shipwrecked souls floundering in water has Vera floating backward to four years earlier. It is a lovely start.

There is nothing new or surprising in this film. The director James Kent does not give us the historical scope,but more of an intimate telling of war’s effects. We see a teasing brother,provincial parents,tantrums,tearful train goodbyes and notes slide under doors.

Emily Watson, playing Vera’s mother,wails that:”We have a suffragette on our hands”! You can tell she is proud of her. Her father is a pushover and easy to please.Vera’s parents are indulgent and financially privileged. They love their children,and do not stand in the way of their dreams. Circumstances of war do not change this.

The aftermath of any war decimates families and deals out grief. This film is a pacifist tract and a feminist treatise couched as a romance. Based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain,”Testament Of Youth” is a film that reminds the filmgoer that World War I was like all war: a destroyer. Especially, on a personal level we see a young woman lose a brother, a fiancée and for a while, her mind. Actress Alicia Vikander, the synthetic woman in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (reviewed 4/29/15), portrays Vera. Vera is intelligent,rebellious, willful and easy to admire. Vikander does her justice in her passionate pleas for a try at Oxford, a chance to help on the Front, and peace in the World. One of Vikander’s most beautifully done scenes is when she is begging her fiancée Roland to not lose the best part of himself in the horrors of war. Vera is most of all perceptive. The scene reminds us how unprepared soldiers are for the psychological onslaughts of the battlefield and in returning from it.

“Testament Of Youth” meshes the provincial and privileged class with “Masterpiece Theater-like” sentiments that hold the viewers’emotions at bay. We are always aware that this is personal history. The events have already happened. Somehow this knowledge deadens the desired effect of any immediacy of tragedy.

Visually,the film is a stunner. Verdant estate walks,pooled and mossy retreats, coastal waters and silvered strands are all here. Juxtaposed against mildewed barracks and tented surgeries, the camera plays up the idyllic. This is a film for the romantic idealist. Poetry plays a major part. Nursing and self-sacrifice a close second. I particularly enjoyed the close-ups of clothes pins, and lace curtains airing, burnished-leather books and library tables. The “fallen in combat” list is movingly shot. World War I trenches with the barbed wire and rain-soaked misery visually confront the real. Images seem to overtake dialogue.Yet,the words spoken are memorable. When Vera apologizes for her “Masonic secret” jibe and for being “caught up with myself” in her angst over her Oxford entrance exam,Roland ( Kit Harrington ) responds with “I worked it out for myself.” To this our feminist precursor states,”And so will I!”

Always fully chaperoned,usually by Aunt Belle, Roland and Vera both wishing to become writers use poetry to awaken their emotions. Roland pens “errant hair had sunbeams in it/There shone all/April in your eyes”. Their romance begins.

Vera’s later pleadings of “I want to know the truth”, and “Talk to me or how can I understand.” leads to her volunteering for the Front. With thirty men to a hut,Vera nurses the enemy prisoners of war. She speaks German and comforts;she closes the dead’s eyes;she bandages her brother and sends him off again to battle. This is a long film.

Furloughed for three days, Roland, battle-fatigued, heartlessly pushes Vera to the sand. She stands and dramatically pleads as she touches her heart, “This part of you,don’t destroy it”. Roland’s “It might be gone already.” is the film’s saddest line, even sadder than “All of us are surrounded by ghosts. We need to learn to live with them.” Vera goes on to give rousting anti-war speeches, “No more the endless cycle of revenge”, I say, “No More”.

Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson,as mother and teacher respectively, play their types well. The four men in Vera’s early life, brother,father, fiancée and family friend highlight “coming of age” traits like impatience,dutifulness, and playfulness. The endnote tells us Vera later marries George Catlin, the pacifist,and they have two children. Could this mean a sequel is in the offing. I’ll no doubt see it,but maybe at home as the episodes roll by.

“Amy”

Asif Kapadia’s documentary on British jazz singer Amy Winehouse is heartbreakingly powerful. Seeing such talent consumed by bad choices and bad circumstances moves one to tears. Whether Winehouse is belting out tunes,licking lollipops or hazed in cigarette smoke,her fixations make one wish to set her straight. At least straight out of the arms of creepy boyfriend and later husband,Blake Fielder. Their three-year marriage was a disaster, as were the outfits he encouraged Amy to prance around in. One wants to shout into the screen “lose the loser” even as one views the footage of their marriage soiled in heroin and crack cocaine.

The documentary does a great job of meshing celebrity culture with its hanger-ons, greedy family members, and retreating friends. Amy with her ugly tats and blond streak in her dark hair is reckless and tasteless,vulnerable yet mouthy.  Shown as “a force of nature” with lots of attitude and charisma, she is fun to be around, but snarky and cutting when she needs attention. An over abundance of headshots shows her in back seats, under pink kitty-printed blankets and being interviewed on late night tv. Such raw talent, sincere and sultry is what moves us. Seeing her slide into bulimia and drugs is painful. This viewer kept mouthing the words: “somebody help her!” Having a daughter born just three months before Amy in 1983, I was more than touched that Amy did not live long enough to make it to her twenty-eighth birthday. If Winehouse was an “old soul” with her jazz phrasing and soulful rasp, she was a toddler in playing with risky choices. The need for direction was not there from her parents,her Jewish religion or her more loyal friends. Michael Jackson was her brother-in-death.

Born in 1983, dead in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, Amy Winehouse’s story is a celebration of her big, tempestuous sound. Listen to her North London “Moon River” and be astounded. Amy’s story is beautifully structured through her own lyrics. Having her words on-screen is moving and enlightening.You want to immediately download her  “I can still taste better days” so it will  not leave you. “Rehab”, “Stronger Than Me”, “You Know I’m No Good”,and “Back To Black”,a slang term for heroin, moves listeners emotionally. The documentary lifts Amy Winehouse out of the muck and stills the late night jokes. It makes you want to hug James Taylor, Carole King and Tony Bennett. Amy, your story makes us what to bring out the strings.

“Saint Laurent”

“Yves St. Laurent Slips Away” may have been the headline in Paris’s “Le Monde” in 1977, but in this 2014 biopic, it is St. Laurent’s character that slides. The self-destructive couturier and self-indulgent 33 year old is superbly played by actor Pierre Niney. Niney looks like YSL and has his mannerisms,as well as,actually dressing in his clothes and luxuriating in Yves St. Laurent’s apartments. We learn of St.Laurent’s work rituals like his wearing of white lab coats and his penchant for classical music. We also learn of his substance abuse and his passion for risky sex and chocolate mousse. The film makes it clear that he was the artistic genius who had no interest in the scheduling or in the business transactions. As his assistant prattles on about the day’s line-up of appointments,he rebuffs her with,”Let me listen to my music,please.” As he draws and sketches,selects fabrics and models,and attends fittings,his partner Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne) runs the fashion house’s financial side. Laurent complains of Pierre to his girl pals Lou Lou and Betty,”You can vanish here–only power and money interest him,the monster!”

Berge was more than cooperative in getting the film “St. Laurent” made. He comes off as the stabilizing factor in Yves’ life. He puts up with temper tantrums,infidelity, boozy clubbing,and St. Laurent’s easy boredom. We,in turn, see Laurent locked in his quarters and managed like a child. Laurent’s own mother tells her son that he has”left the world” and can not change a light bulb. Pierre can and will was his response. It is Pierre that picks up Yves passed out and dumped body at a construction site. It is Pierre who tries to avert a scandal by halting an interview from being published. And it is Pierre Berge who amassed 350 million dollars after St. Laurent’s death. More than Michael Jackson’s or Elvis Presley’s estates earned by comparison.

One scene has a drug addled YSL pick up a Roman bust and attempt to smash Berge’s head in as he slept. Most of this drama stems from the real villain of the film,the debauched socialite,Jacques de Bascher. Introduced to St.Laurent by fashion rival Karl Langerfeld,Jacques (Xavier Lafitte)has no limits on kinky sex or on heavy acid dropping. His most yucky line is ,”why not step into the bushes?” With Jacques,fear and ugliness enter like the cobras YSL hallucinates. Still in this eighteen year relationship with Laurent,Berge begs “Don’t let him destroy us.” St. Laurent responded with,”I love bodies without souls.” Berge later gives St.Laurent a painting of Proust’s bedroom,staid and 19thc safe.

The film’s director Jalil Lespert uses flashbacks inordinately. Beginning in 1974 where YSL books a Parisian room under the name Mr.Swann (a toast to Proust, maybe) to the Algerian home where he dresses dolls for his sisters,the scenes and atmospheres jump back and forth.This is effective for the “untold story”, but not so much for the actual factual one. One really needs to already know that St. Laurent was the first living artist to have a solo exhibit at the Met. or that he ushered in “men’s clothing for women” in the form of tuxedos and trousers, and that he pushed the borders of couture  with the sheer blouse. That he was a protégée of Christian Dior or the that he retired in Marrakesh was not broached. What was shown was his love of music,Maria Callas in particular. His goals of art acquisitions like Matisse, Mondrian and Rothko;his wish to please his mother,his early hobby of collecting y- shaped sticks for good luck,his cameo collection in later life and his Buddha altar were all interesting.

I enjoyed seeing the actual seamstress work and appreciated the pressure they were often under. “Tell Mr. Laurent that I am not Houdini’s wife” was a telling line. How to keep satin-backed organza simple was refreshing, as was watching gigantic scissors slicing through patterns. The collections and the runway shows entranced. The scenes with girl pals Lou Lou and model Betty were fun. My favorite line being St. Laurent’s, “Let’s go in disguise and terrorize everyone” would have a different take today.

I did not enjoy the 1971 disco clubbing or the four year old French bulldog Moujik’s demise from spilled pills. The fancy granite headstone and box of white lilies hardly made up for the pet’s panting,drooling and suffering. I disliked the pseudo-frontal nudity and the genital jewelry. Somehow,”you dress the world” does not include these. The film left me feeling sad for YSL’s shallowness. His “fashion passes like a train” will be want I hope to remember.