Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Contrarian View: Blackkklansman, The Sisters Brothers, Shoplifters and Burning

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.

The following contains a spoiler for the film Shoplifters.
 
It’s always illuminating to read film critics’ year end best-of lists in specialty magazines like Film Comment and Sight & Sound as well as mainstream mags and newspapers like Time and The New York Times. Overall, the critical community tends to hew to a predictable pattern, extolling art-house films, both foreign and English-language movies, much more than accessible (but quality) American or Hollywood fare. I’m not referring to Alfonso Cuarón’s superb Roma, his semi-autobiographical tale of his family maid in the '70s, which is a masterpiece and deserves all its accolades, but to other films whose rave reviews leave me cold. Here are four movies that don’t deserve the love they’re getting from critics.

BlacKkKlansman:

I’m still not sure why director Spike Lee chose to begin BlacKkKlansman -- based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black cop who infiltrated the racist Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the '70s -- with a fictional white supremacist named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) fumbling his way through a racist speech while footage from D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation plays over his face. Lee has already made the point about the perniciousness of that movie, in several of his films, notably in Bamboozled, so there is really no point in reiterating it again. And by making Beauregard such a doofus, Lee risks undermining the serious danger posed by people like him, then and now. But also the scene really has nothing to do with the film (and story) that follows, except in a very loose fashion, so why put it there? I can’t answer that – Lee says he’s just reminding people of what Griffith’s movie did, in terms of giving righteous cachet to the KKK – but I do know that as a probe of race relations in the United States, BlacKkKlansman doesn’t have half the impact of Lee’s best (25th Hour, Inside Man) or most provocative (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever) films. This despite its relevance to today: the movie ends with real footage of the incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a far right neo-Nazi murdered a counter-protester.

The movie certainly belongs to the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category. Stallworth (John David Washington) stumbles upon an ad soliciting potential new recruits to the racist group, calls them up and makes plans to join, and then has to send a white cop in his stead to Klan meetings, all while conducting folksy phone conversations with the KKK’s head David Duke (an effective Topher Grace). And though it sticks to many (but not all) of the facts in Stallworth’s 2014 memoir, Black Klansman, which I have not read, it lacks the urgency and power that it should have. Part of the reason is Washington’s blandness in the title role.  But in addition, Lee really doesn’t have a proper hold on the movie’s time and place – it never feels like the 1970s even though it looks like it – and, for some reason, he underplays the danger that Stallworth and his fellow white cop, the Klan infiltrator Philip "Flip" Zimmerman (Adam Driver), are obviously in. It also makes the transition of Stallworth’s fellow white cops from resentful racists – he is the first black appointee to the Colorado Springs Police Department – to supportive buddies in undermining and entrapping an especially violent and murderous white officer a shade too quick and easy. This may be the first time Lee has painted an overly optimistic portrait of white attitudes towards blacks.

Ironically, the best part of the movie, Driver’s performance and his character, an assimilated Jewish cop who wasn't even Bar Mitzvahed but is reminded of his ethnicity when he deals with the Klan, is actually made up; the real cop who played the white Stallworth apparently wasn’t Jewish. It does work dramatically, though, and continues Lee’s welcome reversal from including anti-Semitic stereotypes and other unsympathetic Jewish tropes that marred such films as Mo’ Better Blues and Get on the Bus before he segued into positive Jewish portraits in 25th Hour and Inside Man. Otherwise, BlacKkKlansman doesn't leave much emotional impression.  (Lee also sticks in another fictional aspect to Stallworth’s experiences – a burgeoning romance with a militant black student Patrice (Laura Harrier), who doesn’t know he’s a cop -- which is more than a little didactic, a common failing of many of Lee’s movies.) Overall the film offers a been-there-done-that take by Lee on racism in America, though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences obviously disagrees, handing Lee his first-ever Oscar nomination for Best Director. The inclusion of the real-life Charlottesville footage only showcases how much more powerful and disturbing the reality was than anything depicted in this movie.

We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the 1989 release of Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing, which ends with an innocent black man, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), murdered by two cops and then the black community’s retaliatory destruction and looting of the Italian-owned pizzeria, which is the fulcrum of the film, an action instigated by the character of the pizzeria’s delivery employee Mookie, played by Lee himself. It was and is an over-the-top, dramatically problematic movie but its risk- taking is rare for any Hollywood movie. It boasts a provocative ending that, if nothing else, generates much discussion when I teach it and comes across as more prescient by the hour. The movie still stands out. In its wake, BlackKkKlansman seems like soft stuff indeed.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers:

With the one-two punch of two of his early French films, The Beat that My Heart Skipped (De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté) (2005) a superior remake of the 1978 American movie Fingers, and the political prison drama A Prophet (Un prophète) (2009), Jacques Audiard appeared to be of the most interesting of the new generation of French filmmakers. But his three features since, Rust and Bone (2012), Dheepan (2016) and The Sisters Brothers, his new film and his first in English, display a director who has lost his way, turning out movies that simply don’t hold together or – in the case of The Sister Brothers – never really get off the ground.

Based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name, and co-written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, who has collaborated on the director’s last four movies, The Sisters Brothers is a period Western, featuring John C. Reilly and Jaoquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters respectively, two hit men who work for a mysterious patron named The Commodore.

As they set out on their latest mission, to hunt down a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has ostensibly stolen from The Commodore, the two brothers bicker and fight, as it becomes apparent that Eli, a sentimental sort – he carries a keepsake from a lost love so he can inhale her scent – wants out of the killing business, while Charlie, essentially a mean, violent drunk like their late father, is content to keep going on the way they have for so long. On their long journey, they thus have to contend with each other as well as with another scout/killer named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is also after Warm. When they find their culprit they have to deal with the possibility that Warm, an inventor who claims he has a new way to pan for gold, may make them very rich.

It’s a promising tale but it falters because of the mostly paper-thin characterization on tap, which may or may not be the fault of the book. Admittedly, Reilly is very fine as the (relatively) sensitive Eli but Phoenix doesn’t have much to play in terms of depth of persona; it’s a marginally richer part than the one-note part he had in another 2018 film, You Were Never Really Here. As for Ahmed and Gyllenhaal , their protagonists show promise, including a hinted-at attraction between them, but their storylines really go nowhere. (Even Warm’s dream of setting up a Utopian agrarian society in Texas [!] doesn’t amount to much more than a conceit, perhaps an idea that the Coen Brothers might have come up with and dispensed with just as quickly.)

A bigger problem is Audiard’s direction. The Sisters Brothers has a pinched quality to it, no doubt his attempt to depict the circumscribed circumstances of their lives back in the Old West but the overuse of close-ups made me feel that this was a low-budget would-be extravaganza which, were it opened up, might reveal the modern anachronisms, overhead wires or fake sets, lurking around the corner. Even the movie’s jarring violence doesn’t have the impact it should since the storyline isn’t all that gripping. Audiard might want to revamp the Western à la Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic The Wild Bunch but unlike that incendiary masterpiece, The Sisters Brothers is merely a damp squib.

Lily Franky and Jyo Kairi in Shoplifters.

Shoplifters:

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Japanese drama Shoplifters, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar, ought to be a galvanizing film, the story of a makeshift family living on the margins of Japanese society, striving to stay alive while an alternately oblivious or overbearing world stymies their every effort to carve out a normal life for themselves. I say "ought" because the movie is so underplayed and unfolds so lackadaisically that it barely works up any cinematic sweat. When a tragic death occurs, it has no real emotional impact since the film is so nebulous. Even the main plot, focusing on the abused little girl Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) whose "rescue" by the family patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) sets in motion the events that will undo the unit, doesn’t have the power it should have. Moreover, her fate in the finale beggars belief: she is sent back to the same abusive parents who did not report her missing in the first place. And though the actors are all believable in their roles, the movie undoes their performances by smothering them under a blanket of flat, banal direction.

I should add that Shoplifters was awarded the Palme d'Or from the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. But truth to tell, the festival has often had a weakness for movies (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Amour) with deliberate pacing; I suspect that the festival equates that and avoidance of melodrama with art. Some great Japanese filmmakers (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Imamura) truly satisfy on that score. Shoplifters is, in comparison, barely a ripple on that county’s vibrant cinematic pond.

Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo and Steven Yeun in Burning.

Burning:

Shoplifters is, however, a zippy concoction compared to Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, a South Korean psychological thriller based on a short story by Harumi Murakami ("Barn Burning"). It centers on two men, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a disaffected and aimless young man, and Ben (an unrecognizable Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead), a South Korean yuppie who seemingly has it all, including the girl Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) Jong-Su fancies himself in love with. The complicated plot is set up so the audience has to figure out which one is a sociopath – Ben displays sociopathic qualities but Jong-su, who interprets his words and actions that way, may be an unreliable narrator – and whether Hae-mi is in danger from either or both of her suitors.

To its credit, Burning doesn’t spell out the answers and the trio give good performances. But the movie is so tedious in parts – and, at 2.5 hours, at least a half-hour too long – that I grew frustrated with it even as I admired its intelligence and provocative storyline (which the director co-wrote with Oh Jung-mi). Lee Chang-dong relies too much on South Korean group Mowg's jangly film score to propel the action; music should augment suspense, not substitute for it. Like a lot of smart foreign- language movies, Burning satisfies intellectually while missing the boat as a gripping, emotional film experience (in much the same way as Shoplifters does, though Burning boasts a better narrative). Watching it, I couldn’t help wishing that the late Alfred Hitchcock or Claude Chabrol could have taken a stab at this material, as it is certainly up their alley. Brian De Palma, who is still alive, could have aced it, too. But as it stands, Burning, despite its rave reviews, is hardly the artistic conflagration its title suggests. Not by a long shot.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching two courses, Altering Realities: As Society Evolves, So Do the Movies and American Cinema of the 70s: The Last Golden Age.

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