Review: BlacKkKlansman

Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold
Released: August 16, 2018
Grade: B+

Enjoy a good true story?  If so, you’ll likely to be stunned by the latest from writer-director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) which is, according to the opening titles, based on some “fo’ real shit.”  The screenplay is drawn from the autobiography of retired police detective Ron Stallworth and chronicles one of his first assignments while working in Colorado in the late 1970s.

Stallworth had already made his mark by becoming the first African American police officer in the town of Colorado Springs.  That didn’t sit too well with some of his racist colleagues who were happy to see him posted in the dreadfully dull records department.  Determined to prove his value and break into the undercover detective ranks, Stallworth’s big break began with a phone call.  He saw a curious advertisement looking to recruit people for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and he decided to give the phone number a call to learn more.

Over the coming weeks, Stallworth was able to put together a substantial file of information about the KKK and their secretive get-togethers in the area.  He’d call the chapter leader, Walter Breachway (Eggold) and was able to earn his trust by pretending to be an incredibly racist white guy.  When the time came to meet the KKK in person, Stallworth couldn’t go (for obvious reasons) and so he enlisted the services of the white Flip Zimmerman (Driver), his friend and fellow officer.  You’d think someone might catch on but those in this KKK chapter weren’t the brightest bunch.

Framing it both as a comedy and a drama, Spike Lee has created an uncomfortable ride.  The actors who play the KKK guys are scarily convincing and you won’t know how to react to their bigoted conversations.  Some will find humour in the absurdity of the situation as Zimmerman, skilfully played by Adam Driver, switches persona and takes racism to a scary level.  Others will be horrified by these people and their twisted view on the world.  As an example, Ashlie Atkinson will stun audiences with her portrayal as the wife of a KKK member.  There’s no adjective strong enough to describe her words and actions.

BlacKkKlansman also serves as a breakout movie for star John David Washington, a 34-year-old with an interesting background.  He grew up in Los Angeles, played both college and professional football, and is now transitioning into acting.  I guess it also helps to be the oldest son of two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington!  He brings both a coolness and likeability to the lead role.  I certainly didn’t want to see him get caught at the stakes are raised in the second and third acts.

A few of the subplots lack impact.  Stallworth has mixed luck winning the affections of a young black student rights advocate (Harrier).  Their romantic, getting-to-know-each-other scenes are more formulaic and less interesting than the main show.  The sequences with the KKK members also get a touch repetitive but the introduction of infamous leader David Duke (Grace) adds a necessary dose of humour and momentum.

Likely to spark debate about how much America has changed… and not changed over the past few decades, BlacKkKlansman is a winning black comedy.


Review: On Chesil Beach

Directed by: Dominic Cooke
Written by: Ian McEwan
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough
Released: August 9, 2018
Grade: B+

On Chesil Beach
Having not read the source material from award winning author Ian McEwan (Atonement), I was surprised to discover that On Chesil Beach is an unorthodox love story.  The year is 1962 and Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Mayhew) are celebrating their first night as a married couple.  He’s rented a room at a quiet, seaside town in Southern England and after a stroll along the beach and a simple roast dinner, the pair head off to the bedroom to consummate the marriage.

They’re a likeable, young couple but it’s clear that both are lacking when it comes to self-esteem.  They talk to each other in a rigid, polite manner and it’s as if they’re in constant fear of saying the wrong thing and offending the other.  It may seem laughable in today’s age but this was a very different period of history where self-help books and the internet didn’t exist.  The bottom line is that these two people are in love but they have no idea how to behave as a married couple.  She’s described as the “squarest person in all of civilisation” and he’s just a “country bumpkin”.

The film is littered with flashbacks but the focus isn’t so much on the relationship between Florence and Edward but rather, it delves into their upbringing and their families.  These scenes are designed to show why our two leading characters have such timid, reluctant personalities.  Florence is a well-educated violin player from rich, posh family.  Edward comes from a poorer background and has to deal with a sick mother suffering from the effects of a freak train accident.

This may sound like a strange premise for a movie but the crux of On Chesil Beach is watching these two harness the courage to have sex for the first time.  They’re both virgins and they’re both horribly inexperienced.  It’s hard to articulate exactly what is going through their heads but it’s a mix of nerves, excitement and reluctance.  Both love the idea of being together and starting a family (Florence has already picked out a name for their first child) but it’s clear they have a phobia when it comes to intimacy.

There’s an unnecessary epilogue but On Chesil Beach is still a moving character study about two people who struggle to express emotion.  Newcomer Billy Howle and three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, Lady Bird) both deliver exquisitely awkward performances that illustrate their character’s respective insecurities.  We may not all relate to their problems but it is hard not to feel sympathetic given their situation.

Dominic Cooke has made a name for himself in London’s West End and over the past two decades by directing a string of award winning productions such as The Crucible, Clybourne Park and Follies.  He’d always had a love of cinema but was waiting for the right script to come along before making the plunge into this particular medium.

With On Chesil Beach, he was lured in by the era (just prior to the cultural revolution of the late 1960s) and the compassion he felt towards these characters.  Also deserving praise is cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) who highlights the expansive beauty of the location (it was shot at the actual Chesil Beach in Dorsett) while also using tight close-ups to capture the anxious facial expressions of both Howle and Ronan.

Receiving a limited release in Australia almost a full year after its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, On Chesil Beach is quality cinema.


Review: RBG

Directed by: Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Released: July 26, 2018
Grade: A-

When the United States constitution was created in 1787, those responsible made sure to separate power into three distinct groups.  The Legislative branch comprises the Senate and House of Representatives.  The Executive branch comprises the President, Vice-President and government departments.  The Judicial branch comprises the federal and Supreme Courts.  The rationale behind this structure was to ensure an appropriate system of “checks and balances”.

The role played by the Supreme Court in the United States cannot be under-emphasized.  It consists of 9 judges who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the 100-person Senate.  Throughout its history, the court has made landmark decisions on items including discrimination, abortion, euthanasia, civil rights, capital punishment, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  Their decisions have played a major role in shaping the current day United States.

She still finds it hard to believe but over the past few years, the oldest of the Supreme Court judges has developed a cult-like following with young lawyers and progressive libertarians.  85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and confirmed by an almost unanimous margin in the Senate.  Since that time, she has presided over important decisions such as the outcome of the 2000 election (George Bush v Al Gore), the rights of citizens to possess firearms at home for self-defence, and the validity of same-sex marriage.

In recent times, she has become known as a “bad-ass dissenter”.  Ginsburg has always taken a stand against discrimination and inequality but those views are not shared by the increasing number of conservative judges which sit on the Court.  Despite her old age, soft voice and frail disposition, she still churns out beautifully articulate legal opinions that are soaked up by budding lawyers, civil rights activists and other progressive individuals.

RBG is an insightful documentary that takes us inside of the world of this iconic figure.  It features interviews with Ginsburg’s family and friends where they talk about her ridiculous work ethic.  There was a part of her life where she’d get 2 hours sleep each night during the week and then catch up by sleeping all weekend.  The film also delves into her upbringing and introduction to the law.  When she studied law at Harvard in the 1950s, just 2% of her students were female and despite her exceptional grades, she struggled to land a job after graduating.

There’s so much material to cover but for me, the emotional highlight was seeing Ginsburg interrogated and subsequently confirmed by the Senate.  It’s hard to believe that someone so shy and quiet could win the approval of President Clinton at a time when many other names were being thrown around.  There’s a great interview in the film with Clinton where he talks about his thought process and the influence of Ginsburg’s passionate husband.

In bringing the film together, RBG is the creation of two skilful directors.  Betsy West spent 20 years working as a producer for ABC News in the United States and became a senior vice president at CBS News.  Julie Cohen has made a number of documentaries which have screened at film festivals across the globe.  It’s clear they have a love for their subject matter.  It’s also a nice touch that an all-female crew has pulled this film together.  I’m speaking of not just the directors but also the producers, editors, cinematographer and composer.

There’s a great line at the start where Ginsburg humorously remarks that “I’m 84 and everybody wants to take a picture with me.”  This film will only add to her notoriety and I’d predict that many more people will be after photos in the years to come.


Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me

Directed by: Susanna Fogel
Written by: Susanna Fogel, David Iserson
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Sam Heughan, Gillian Anderson, Ivanna Sakhno
Released: August 9, 2018
Grade: B

The Spy Who Dumped Me
I’ve always wondered about people who work for organisations such as the CIA, MI6 or ASIO.  How much knowledge of their work do they share with spouses and family members?  In this fictitious comedy from writers Susanna Fogel and David Iserson, it’s apparent that Audrey (Kunis) is completely in the dark about her boyfriend, Drew (Theroux).  She thought he made jazz podcasts for National Public Radio.  It turns out he’s an undercover spy for the CIA who travels around the world, gathers intelligence, and stops bad guys.

Having not heard from him in several weeks, Audrey assumed she’d be unceremoniously dumped but the truth is soon revealed from two different sources.  Firstly, she is kidnapped and interrogated by two fellow spies who reveal Drew’s true identity and seek information as to his whereabouts.  Secondly, Drew rocks up at her apartment unexpectedly and before he has a chance to apologise and explain himself, a group of heavily armed men storm the place.

Things get a little complicated after that but we end up at a point where Audrey teams up with her best friend, Morgan (McKinnon), to become de facto spies and help Drew with an important mission.  They must travel to a café in Austria and deliver a package to an individual named Verne.  They have no idea what’s in the package but it’s clearly of value given the number of people who come after them – some trying to negotiate its exchange while others resort directly to violence.

The Spy Who Dumped Me may look like a silly comedy from the trailers and advertisements but it’s a film that mixes genres and does offer a few surprises.  There are some well-choreographed action sequences including a car chase (complete with an adrenalin-seeking Uber driver) and a restaurant shoot-out.  There’s a thriller-mystery element to the storyline given that Audrey and Morgan have no idea who they’re working for and who they can ultimately trust.  There’s also a dark undertone given its heavy violence (it’s rated MA in Australia) and a few unexpectedly deaths.  It’s offering a bit of everything.

The comedic elements are hit and miss.  Audrey and Morgan have no experience when it comes to international espionage and so the film finds humour in watching them bumble their way through each situation and rely on extreme good fortune.  As she did in Rough Night and Ghostbusters, Kate McKinnon has created a silly, not-so-bright character who wins laughs but making bizarre, head scratching comments.  Mila Kunis plays the more sensible member of the duo but gets to share in the one-liners by refuting her partner’s crazy ideas.  The pick of the supporting cast is Ivanna Sakhno who plays a former Russian gymnast who is now a part-time supermodel, part-time assassin.

The Spy Who Dumped Me could have been funnier but it’s prepared to take a few chances and so deserves a look.   


Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Directed by: Ol Parker
Written by: Ol Parker, Richard Curtis, Catherine Johnson
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Andy Garcia, Dominic Cooper, Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth
Released: July 19, 2018
Grade: C+

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
It’s hard to believe that 10 years has passed since the original film was first released in cinemas.  The time has flown.  Expensive Hollywood musicals have been seen as risky ventures in recent decades but Mamma Mia! was a fairly safe bet.  It was based on the popular stage show that debuted on West End in 1999 and had been performed countless times across the globe.  It also featured iconic songs from ABBA which had been sung and celebrated since the 1970s.  The movie grossed over $600 million USD at the world wide box-office – a record for a live-action musical (until Beauty and the Beast came along last year).

A little more effort was required to bring this new film to life.  For starters, there was no source material.  Playwright Catherine Johnson, who created the original stage musical, teamed up with screenwriters Richard Curtis (Love Actually) and Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) to craft a fresh tale that could be interwoven with other well-known ABBA songs.

The end result is something that’s both a prequel and a sequel.  Part of the movie is set in the past.  We go back to the year 1979 and learn how a young Donna (James), fresh out of college, built an adventurous, carefree life for herself on an idyllic Greek island.  It was at this same time that she had flings with three very different suitors looking to win her heart – Sam, Harry and Bill.  Oh, and of course she gave birth to Sophie, the daughter who is central to the whole story.

The other part of the movie is set several years after the events of Mamma Mia!  We sadly discover that Donna has passed away and to honour her memory, Sophie has taken her mother’s rundown Greek home, given it a fresh lick of paint, and transformed it into a holiday resort.  It’s aptly named the Hotel Bella Donna and Sophie has brought in a polite, well-groomed gentleman (Garcia) to help run it.  As the film begins, preparations are underway for the grand opening.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again brings back all of the original cast members (a tricky feat given their busy schedules) with one major addition that has been much hyped in the trailer.  Cher plays Sophie’s grandmother and she arrives during the final act like a refreshing summer breeze.  She provides a much-needed spark (I’d grown tired of the other characters by this point) and her beautiful rendition of the song ‘Fernando’ is the film’s most memorable music number.  It’s a shame she didn’t arrive sooner.

The narrative can be best be described as “choppy”.  Unnecessary detours have been thrown in as an excuse to sing particular ABBA songs such as the use of ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’ during the opening scene.  It also struggles in balancing up the two timeframes.  We continually jump back and forth to highlight the similarities between Sophie and her mother but the technique is overused.  The biggest head-scratcher are two bizarre sequences that take place in Tokyo and Stockholm.

The film does have its highlights.  It’s a rare movie where the supporting characters are more interesting than the leads.  British stand-up comedian Omid Djalili steals several scenes with his cameo as a Greek customs officer who is quick to dish out beauty advice.  He even gets a chance to sing but you’ll have to wait until the end of the closing credits.  Maria Vacratsis (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) also wins big laughs as the opinionated barwoman at a run-down drinking establishment.

I love musicals and I was a big fan of Mamma Mia! but I’ve got to be honest – this is a letdown.  


Review: The Breaker Upperers

Directed by: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek
Written by: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek
Starring: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek, James Rolleston, Celia Pacquola, Ana Scotney
Released: July 26, 2018
Grade: B+

The Breaker Upperers
Writer-director Jackie van Beek has shared many conversations with friends about the difficulties of breaking up with someone.  It was those chats that inspired The Breaker Upperers – a warped New Zealand comedy put together by van Beek and her good friend, Madeleine Sami.  Iconic New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is also on board as an executive producer and that’s no surprise given his love for this style of comedy.

I’m the first to admit this is a farcical scenario but Sami and van Beek still generate maximum laughs.  They play Mel and Jen – two middle aged women who make a living by helping customers break up with their partners.  You could try the “other woman package” for $1,000 where they’ll rock up out of the blue and pretend they’ve been having an affair.  Or, you could go with something more elaborate.  There’s an early scene where they impersonate police officers and tell a woman that her husband is missing and presumed dead.

Mel and Jen justify their bizarre business model by saying that they’re not breaking any laws and are simply “guiding two souls to inevitability.”  Let’s not beat around the bush though.  They’re awful people doing awful things.  Perhaps the heaviest moment sees them tell a husband and kids that their mother has died (which of course is not true). 

The Breaker Upperers is a dark, dark comedy and many scenes will leave you with the conflicting emotions of laughter and shock.  Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek deliver the jokes with precision and it’s hard to believe they can keep a straight face.  The good news is that these two characters, without giving too much away, are required to seek redemption for their sins in the film’s interesting second half.  The narrative moves away from their flawed business model and becomes a tale of love and friendship.

As good our leading ladies are, the film’s star performance comes from James Rolleston (Boy) as an 18-year-old who ends up in a relationship with the 37-year-old Jen.  He deserves an Oscar nomination for creating one of the dumbest characters we’ve ever seen in the history of cinema.  As an example, he continually thinks that “Mel” is short for “Melon” and not “Melanie”.  You’ll fall in love with his cute innocence while also laughing at his head-scratching comments.

The film is probably a bit too ridiculous in places (such as a scene where they impersonate strippers) but The Breaker Upperers is a great choice for fans of edgy, outlandish comedy and it’s all wrapped up inside of a tight 90 minutes.  Celine Dion would love it.