NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (2020)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Movies that put youngsters in peril can go one of two directions: the story can feel contrived to the point of manipulation, or it can be real and heartfelt with commentary on society. Filmmaker Eliza Hittman proved her mettle with BEACH RATS (2017), and she proves yet again, that her instincts translate to the screen in stories and characters that hit a nerve.

It’s stunning to discover that this is the first screen credit for Sidney Flanigan who plays 17 year old Autumn. We first see her onstage at her school talent show singing a soulful rendition of “He’s Got the Power”, a 1963 song by The Exciters. Her performance stands in contrast to the mostly generic acts from her classmates, though it’s our first hint at how she is perceived. Autumn is one of those teens who seems to be naturally burdened with more than she can carry. A bloated belly leads her to take a pregnancy test at the local clinic, where she is informed that “a positive is always a positive” – a brilliant line than doesn’t hold true for all interpretations.

The clinic worker shows Autumn an anti-abortion video, which leads her to Google do-it-yourself abortion, and finally to the realization that because of Pennsylvania’s requirement for parental consent, she’ll have to travel to New York City for the procedure. Fortunately for Autumn, she has a trusted and resourceful friend/cousin/co-worker in Skylar (Talia Ryder, who will appear in Spielberg’s upcoming WEST SIDE STORY remake). The girls skim from their cash registers at the grocery store they both work at, and then hop on the bus towards the city.

Their time in the city is an adventure unto itself. By this time we’ve seen some of the everyday obstacles faced by teenage girls, including thoughtless teenage boys, a loathsome stepfather (Ryan Eggold), and a sleazy store manager. All of this is in addition to the challenges brought on by being a sexually active minor. On the trip, they meet Jasper (Theodore Pellerin, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”), a fellow bus traveler who strikes up a conversation. Is he a good guy or not? Can he be trusted or not? Again, these are situations that the teens must navigate through instincts not yet fully developed.

A questionnaire administered at the Planned Parenthood clinic provides the film’s title, as well as one of its most powerful scenes. Ms. Flanigan is exceptional as this simple form requires her to face her situation and her life as she answers questions regarding her sexual and personal history. Ms. Ryder is also tremendous in making Skylar such a strong young woman and friend. This film and these actresses show more than they tell. The minimal dialogue contrasts to the many movies who portray gabby teens. Writer-director Hittman seems to make movies more appreciated by critics than mainstream audiences, but it seems her time is coming. She makes her political belief quite clear, but does so by focusing on the real world that teenage girls face. It’s a dramatic work of art with extraordinary camera work by Helene Louvart (the excellent INVISIBLE LIFE, 2019).

watch the trailer:


BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018)

August 9, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adam Driver impersonating John David Washington or vice versa … either way is comical, except that it’s also based on a true story where their characters existed and this chain of events actually occurred. The source material is the memoir by Ron Stallworth and it’s possible, given today’s social climate, that only director Spike Lee could pull off a film that so blatantly uses racism for comedic effect, yet also reminds us of its inherent danger.

Mr. Washington (Denzel’s son) plays Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs’ first black rookie police officer. His job interview is quite awkward and, of course, features a reference to Jackie Robinson. Quickly growing tired of his records room duty, Stallworth’s first field assignment is to infiltrate a local black activist group and report back on a Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) event. This leads to a much bigger and riskier plan of going after the KKK. Yes that’s right, no need to re-read the part about him being the first black police officer. This is the incredible story of how an African-American (with the help of his white partner) worked his way into the KKK, even speaking with David Duke on a few occasions, and ultimately prevented an attack on local black activists.

The adapted screenplay was a collaborative effort from Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and director Spike Lee. The film is simultaneously laugh outloud funny and provocative. The outlandish plan involves Ron Stallworth (and his white voice) being the telephone connection, and partner (and non-practicing Jew) Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) being the “white face” of Ron Stallworth at KKK meetings. There is extreme tension during Zimmerman’s undercover scenes, and much of the humor occurs during Stallworth’s phone conversations. Topher Grace is extremely effective as David Duke, a thankless role to say the least.

Superb support work is widespread in this film that runs 2 hour and 15 minutes. Robert John Burke plays a no-nonsense Chief Bridges; Frederick Weller is racist jackass patrolman Andy Landers; Laura Harrier is Patrice, the Angela Davis lookalike activist and love interest; Jasper Paakkonen plays skeptical and high-strung Klansman Felix; Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA) is the comical and unnerving Ivanhoe; and even Harry Belafonte makes a surprise big screen appearance. Other notables include Alec Baldwin (in an opening that sets the stage), Nicholas Turturro, Damaris Lewis, Ryan Eggold, Isiah Whitlock Jr, and Arthur J Nascarella. It’s a terrific and deep cast and they walk the fine line between entertainment and enlightenment. There is no shortage of Hollywood family genes and blending thanks to: Washington, Baldwin, Turturro, Buscemi, and Weller (it plays like 2 degrees of separation).

A low-budget look to the film gives it an authenticity and 1970’s vibe, and cinematographer Chayse Irvin works wonders with the camera in a multitude of situations where our attention should be on the dialogue of the characters rather than the colorfulness of set pieces. Black Ron running the show from a telephone (and a white voice) and White Ron face-first in the muck both have their burdens to bear, and much of the time, Zimmerman’s is the more interesting of the two – although as a whole, it’s an astonishing story.

Perhaps Spike Lee set out to make the polar opposite of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 most controversial film THE BIRTH OF A NATION, and he has certainly crafted one of the most effective films of his oeuvre. He also nails a few jabs at Trump and the current political climate, while the music from Terrence Blanchard perfectly complements the tone. Mr. Lee interjects some historic moments as well as some fictional ones – none more powerful than the back and forth chants of “White Power” “Black Power”. At the conclusion, Lee serves up footage of Charlottesville, reminding us that the racism that caused us chuckles over the past couple of hours, remains prevalent today … only that’s not the least bit funny.

watch the trailer:


BESIDE STILL WATERS (2013)

November 14, 2014

beside still waters Greetings again from the darkness. Director Chris Lowell co-wrote the story with Mohit Narang, and there is really no other way to describe it than a modern day redux of The Big Chill (1983). If you are familiar with that film from 30+ years ago, you remember the narcissism, strained friendships, and emotional turmoil that were offset by a best-selling soundtrack. Three decades later we witness narcissism run amok and a crumbled version of friendship, this time offset by the guzzling of alcohol.

Daniel (Ryan Eggold, TV’s “The Blacklist“) has organized a reunion of his childhood friends back at the cabin on the lake where they shared many a summer. Daniel’s parents recently died in a car accident, and none of his “friends” showed up for the funeral … hence, the crumbled version of friendship. As they begin arriving at the cabin, we immediately categorize each: Tom (Beck Bennett, “Saturday Night Live“) is the wise-cracking slacker, James (Brett Dalton) is the TV Reality Show celebrity, Martin (Will Brill) and Abby (Erin Drake) are the high school sweethearts stuck in a strained marriage, and Charley (Jessy Hodges) is the free-spirited chick with a lust-filled history. The arrival of Daniel’s old flame Olivia (Britt Lower) is offset by her fiancé Henry (Reid Scott). May the oddballs be ever in your favor.

Sounding like the old man I am quickly becoming, this generation of thirty-somethings left me quite saddened. What made The Big Chill work, was the actual bond that tied the group together. Remember, they all showed up for a funeral … rather than being summoned for skipping one. The original group had charm, personality and was interesting; whereas this group remains focused on their own problems – oblivious to the needs and feelings of others. They find the bottom of a bottle or drugging an adversary to be actual solutions, rather than resorting to the effort involved with intimacy or conversation. Yes, sad I am.

Despite my issues with the possibility of this being an accurate portrayal of this generation, there are plenty of positives with the film. Lovell truly has a photographer’s eye and uses it for much of the camera work … it’s beautifully shot. Also, each member of this ensemble jumps right in to their character and does a superb job (especially Reid Scott). There is also a terrific segment of three conversations edited together that play off each other like some kind of wonderful parlor game. It’s the highlight of the film.

While much of the film plays like a passive-aggressive expose’, the script leaves no room for interpretation or analysis … Daniel actually spells out his true misguided mission. Beginning a movie with references to Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway is often a good start. However, Hemingway’s theory that all generations are lost, doesn’t mean that some aren’t more lost than others. The game of Whisky Slaps works not just as a scene, but also as a metaphor for watching this movie.

watch the trailer: