There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing when Señor Love Daddy, the neighborhood DJ on We Love Radio played by Samuel L. Jackson, reads out a litany of the names of great African-American musicians —””WE LOVE ROLL CALL, Y’ALL! Boogie Down Productions, Rob Base, Dana Dane, Marley Marl, Olatunji, Chuck D, Ray Charles, EPMD, EU, Alberta Hunter, Run-D.M.C., Stetsasonic, Sugar Bear, John Coltrane,…”— that stands as a declarative paean to Black musical culture.
Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, the true story of a black police detective in Colorado Springs who in the 1970s infiltrates the KKK, has a number of such tributes. It’s in the soundtrack, of course, and the dancing. It’s in the clothing, the hair, the jewelry, but most powerfully, Lee focuses in on the faces, sometimes filling the screen with collages of faces, loving and lingering images of beautiful young African-American faces, as they listen and learn from their elders and leaders as they talk of the struggle for rights and dignity.
That is one of tones in this film.
There’s another scene in Do the Right Thing where the bigotry and hatred is at the boiling point and Lee cuts from character to character as each spews racist slurs at their particular object of prejudice and bile, (Italians, Koreans, Blacks, Jews, Puerto Ricans) until finally Señor Love Daddy, once again, jumps in and tells them, “Ya need to cool that shit out!”
That’s another tone in this film. There is lots of verbal hate in BlacKkKlansman. Lots. As you would imagine nearly all of it is directed at African-Americans, though the Jews get their fair share, as well. It’s ugly language, vicious and violent, and it never loses its dehumanizing impact; dehumanizing the speaker, that is.
Did I mention that BlacKkKlansman is a comedy?
It is indeed a comedy. And a campy homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 70s. And a true crime story. And a political diatribe. And like nearly all films that try to be so many disparate things, it does some better than others; and in the end, the combination of it all weakens the film. It feels more scattershot and uneven than it needed to be.
As a comedy, the laughs don’t come easy. And at the same time, they come way too easy. The humor arises from the display of prejudice, but given the film’s embrace of the campiness of Blaxploitation genre, many of the characters … several of the Klansmen, the racist cop, the Klan wife … are so over-the-top that the humor doesn’t have enough solid ground to bounce. And when the talk turns serious, like the conversations between Ron (John David Washington) and Patrice (Laura Harrier), the black student leader/loveinterest, it’s so jargon and rhetoric heavy that it often sinks.
But really this movie is about rhetoric, about persuasion and figures of speech; it’s an argument that the troubles of today, both the vile racism that is so public and the insidious racism that lies barely hidden in contemporary slogans and rallying cries, is the latest manifestation of the historical snake of racism that is wrapped around the heart of America.
Lee leaves no doubt what he’s getting at. Nor should he.
There’s an early scene where former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael (who changed his name to Kwame Ture) is giving a rousing speech. It’s full of the turns of phrases and powerful exclamations that characterizes an effective rallying cry to action. As a speech, though, it stands apart in a narrative. It gives a context to the action and characterization, but it engages in a different way than a story. This film is filled with speeches, formal and informal. Sometimes when the characters speak, it’s as if they’re giving speeches. In-between there’s a story, but it plays second fiddle to the rhetoric. With the exception of Adam Driver’s character, Flip Zimmerman, who sometimes seems like he’s acting in a different movie, a realistic drama, nearly all the characters seem like rhetorical devices fashioned to drive a point home.
Adam Gobnick pointed out recently that “mockery cleanses cliches, then restores emotion.” For me, the mocking tone in the film, directed at the Klansmen, particularly at David Duke, who is comically captured by Topher Grace, was too diluted by all the other tones Lee was pitching.
To be honest, I found that by the end, when Spike Lee caps the film with contemporary footage from the White Power rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, that I was stuffed numb from the cornucopia of Blaxploitation campiness, hate speech, earnest appeals, and heavy-handed treatment that had proceeded it. I understood it politically and intellectually, but the film’s hopping from tone to tone had so emotionally disengaged me that I didn’t feel the gut kick like I should have. Perhaps that is Lee’s point: When one is constantly hammered by hate and prejudice, even if done “in jest”, that ultimately we lose the ability to feel.
But it was clear that Lee was going for something more than illustrating the deadening effect of racism. He wants us to wake up.
Midnight Mass: The Blood of Life
The isolated island community of Crockett receives a mysterious new head priest, full of secrets and a brand new testament under a very unusual Messenger of God.
Meet poor Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), freshly released from prison and wracked with guilt over what got him there, a stupid drinking accident that caused the death of his ex-girlfriend. The last thing he wants to do is go back to Crockett and the judgment of the mostly religious community there, his disappointed family, and the nightmares of his ex’s death that plague him. But where else would have him? Resignedly on the ferry, he goes.
Riley’s dad Ed (Henry Thomas) isn’t the kind of man who talks very much at all, much less about his feelings, or his very real disappointment in his elder son. Riley’s teen brother Warren (Igby Rigney) has no idea what to say to him either, and just generally keeps mum. Riley’s mom Annie (Kristin Lehman) is accepting and loving, hesitant in how to help her eldest son but never wavering in her faith in the help of our lord Jesus. Mom seems to think a good heaping dose of the Church would set Riley right but is surprised to learn that the old priest of the Parish, Pruitt, has taken an extended leave of absence from the island, and his newcomer replacement Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is young, charismatic, and bursting at the seams to tell the whole island about the gifts he brought them, most especially what he claims as a new testament under a messenger of God.
We’ll get back to that whole ball of issues in a moment, the other interesting characters of Crockett Island. Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) is the nightmarish overly polite and gently, almost lovingly condescending neighbor Christian woman you’ve ever loathed, the kind of person who explains away every last thing her Church may do wrong or contradictory because, after all, God works in mysterious ways. Pfft. Of course, Bev immediately ingratiates herself as the second to the new Father Paul in their services and is the first to start covering up his transgressions as they become more rampant.
Newcomers to Crockett Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) present a burgeoning problem to the plans of Father Paul and his shadowy companion, for they are both practicing Muslims. The practical side of investigating these so-called ‘miracles’ and strange happenings falls on Hassan’s shoulders, as he already struggles with barely-concealed racism and suspicion from his fellow islanders, and of course his son is being wooed away from him by the promise of actual, tangible miracles, but from a different whole faith and God. Father Paul definitely does not practice a traditional Christian faith and relies far too much on making use of the eucharist, the ceremony of the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ turning into bread and wine and, well, consumed.
Wade (Michael Trucco) and his wife Dolly (Crystal Balint) are lifers of the island and both in general interested in one thing, the advancement of their own family, specifically their daughter Leeza (Annarah Cymone), who happens to be in a wheelchair. And that happens to be the canny Father Paul’s first real miracle-with-a-cost that he demonstrates to the astonishment of the parishioners, after a heartfelt and rousing sermon, Father Paul commands Leeza to rise, to stand, and to walk. And lo, she does. What parents wouldn’t wholly dedicate themselves to a cause after seeing this happen to their beloved precious daughter? The fringe benefits of healing, and power, the ones that come at a mighty, currently unnamed, cost, are simply a nice bonus.
Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) is the town drunk, and while his reasons for drowning his sorrows in the sauce might be understandable, absolution wears a very different face when it comes from Father Paul. While Leeza might be willing to forgive Joe, and even as Joe begins attending the newly-formed Al-Anon meetings on the island of course hosted by Father Paul, redemption might’ve been better sought from medical professionals, and not this newfound method of religious worship.
Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) is the islands’ kind of all-around medic, and this is how she and Riley’s old friend Erin (Kate Siegel), also newly returned to the island, a few months pregnant but traveling quietly alone, met when Erin comes to the Doc for obstetrics. Sarah’s older mother Mildred Gunning (Alexandra Essoe) has many medical and mental issues, and Sarah struggles in their shared home, to take care of her addled mom and balance her own life. Then Father Paul takes it upon himself to visit one of his oldest parishioners, bringing the sacred host and wine with him to give directly to Mildred, who starts looking and acting so much better under his loving care.
The show is very much a slow slow burn, with a lot of the actual action taking place in the last two episodes. Much of the beginning and middle episodes feature two people just sitting alone, having quiet and seriously in-depth conversations about heavy subjects – grief and repentance, what happens when we die, the disasters that come as a result of addictions, how our actions’ consequences reverberate to those we love around us, faith and the foibles of man, and of course, the giving of oneself over to a higher power, for strength, and guidance, and love.
Except, for the higher power that Father Paul brought back with him, to share with his beloved flock of Crockett Island, while it may be extremely powerful and full of what could be considered miraculous magic, everything comes at some kind of a cost. And when the Messenger of God is finally revealed to the shocked denizens of Crockett at Easter Mass, with Father Paul rapturing on about rebirth as the bloody massacre begins in earnest, it’s faith, not in any kind of God or religion, but faith in each other, that may save a few hardy souls.
Question the wisdom of your religious leaders along with the rest of us in a fine slow-burn addition to the Flanaverse, Midnight Mass is on Netflix now!
Saw X: It ain’t brain surgery!
Legendary executioner Jigsaw returns to exact revenge on a cadre of scam artists who promised him a bogus cure for his cancer!
First off, be aware, that this is what I call an interleaved sequel, a movie set between previous films in the franchise. In this case, Saw X occurs after the events of the very first Saw film, and before Saw II. Everybody got where we are? Good! Into the madness, we dive!
So, as we all know, John Kramer’s been diagnosed with cancer, very aggressive brain cancer, and likely doesn’t have much time left. And he’s tried everything under the sun, doing a ton of meticulous research, we’d expect nothing less from our master of the art of murder, and not one thing has worked. Yet one man from the support group for cancer sufferers, Henry (Michael Beach), offers an off-the-books supposed miracle cure, and John jumps at the chance.
Why does this nonsense always sound too good to be true? Because it is. Deleted scenes from the first Deadpool movie already told us why traveling to Mexico for any kind of medical cure is a sublimely stupid move, but Kramer is desperate. And while he might be sick and dying, John Kramer has never been what anyone could call stupid. So the villa out in the Mexican countryside, the affable cab driver Diego (Joshua Okamoto) professes surprise at Kramer being highjacked for his good, the nervous muttering from assistant Valentina (Paulette Hernandez), the side-eyeing from little housekeep Gabriela (Renata Vaca) and her tequila, and most especially the smooth and smarming reassurances of head “doctor” Cecilia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund), all leave a kind of sour taste in John’s mouth.
The whole cluex4 scene is done in the style that the Saw films are known for, where we the audience are treated to cut-together explanatory scenes in a flip-flash fashion of usually about two minutes, for poor John when he realizes he’s been hoodwinked and just how badly, seems a little contrived. But then it’s entirely possible that we the audience truly expected our genius mastermind of the infamous Jigsaw murders to have realized what was happening sooner, and got enraged along with Kramer. And cheered as he prepared to take his bloody and ultra-violent revenge!
First up in our grand guignol of executions is the return of Jigsaw’s first protégé, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). And despite her avowed reverence for Jigsaw and his proven “therapy”, Amanda does waver a bit when the scammers are put through the paces of their specially-made Saw traps, and they shriek and blubber and bleed out. The appearance of the ringer of the bunch, Parker (Steven Brand), doesn’t even slow our beloved engineer of the damned down, because we knew Jigsaw would have his other apprentice waiting just off stage, the deliciously vicious Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Even the monkeywrench of involving little-boy soccer fan Carlos (Jorge Briseno) in the traps, is just another cog in the machine that is the brilliantly plotting mind of John Kramer.
A fine addition to the Saw legends, showcasing a return to the beloved style and panache of the original Tobin Bell-starring Jigsaw films, Saw X is splashing gore and gallons of blood in theaters now!
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” Netflix’s latest series, is a rollicking journey through the world of video game culture, blending nostalgic references with a fresh narrative twist. Centered around Scott Pilgrim, portrayed with magnetic charisma by Michael Cera, the show skillfully integrates gaming elements into its storytelling, creating a delightful homage to the video game subculture.
The series cleverly employs pixelated graphics, power-up animations, and game-like sound effects to bring the virtual world to life. These visual cues, reminiscent of classic video games, enhance the storytelling and resonate with audiences familiar with the gaming landscape. The attention to detail in recreating iconic gaming moments is commendable, creating a visual and auditory treat for enthusiasts.
The exploration of video game culture goes beyond mere aesthetics; it becomes an integral part of the characters’ identities and interactions. The script intelligently weaves gaming terminology and tropes into the dialogue, effectively blending the real and virtual worlds. The series navigates the challenges and triumphs of the characters through the lens of gaming, making it a unique and engaging experience for both gamers and general audiences.
The ensemble cast, including standout performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, and Chris Evans embraces the gaming theme with infectious enthusiasm. The chemistry between the characters is palpable, adding emotional depth to the series.
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” successfully taps into the zeitgeist of video game culture, offering a nostalgic yet contemporary take on the gaming phenomenon. It’s a must-watch for those who cherish the pixelated roots of the gaming world while providing an accessible and entertaining narrative for a broader audience. The series takes off not only in its title but also in its ability to soar within the ever-expanding realm of Netflix originals.