Satire and Catharsis: BlacKkKlansman

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BlacKkKlansman is the true(ish) story of Ron Stallworth (a fantastic John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. He talks to the “organization” members (and even David Duke) on the phone, while fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (an excellently understated Adam Driver) goes in person to the meetings. This Spike Lee Joint is a little too long (clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes) but is entertaining and is an odyssey of different genres, moods, and political and social discussions.

BlacKkKlansman has a satiric undercurrent that, I’d argue, is not fully effective. The Klan members in the film here are not simply mocked for their supremacist ideologies. They are also mocked for things like being uneducated, southern, gun-loving, and fat. Things that, while they may describe some Klan members, are not directly tied to being racist. Making the KKK members caricatured and so removed from what we would like to think of ourselves (along with making the heroes more typical of Hollywood standard of beauty), removes white audiences from thinking too hard about whether they have anything in common with these Klan members. Instead, you can sit back and think, “Of course I’m not like that. I’m not racist. I’m not like them.”

This is why Jordan Peele’s Get Out was so effective- it asserted that white liberals can be racist (Peele produces here). It uses the language of white people assured of their innocence against them. BlacKkKlansman does not challenge in the same way.

Saying someone is racist or not needs to stop, because that halts productive conversation on race. Anyone is capable of saying racist things, and when a white person is told they are being racist, the response should not be, “I’m not racist so I can’t say racist things.” It should be, “What did I do and how can I stop?” Being so binary is unproductive, and yet it is what this movie deals in (there are some exceptions, like the character of Flip, but it is the overarching tone of the film).

But BlacKkKlansman does not just contain satire; it also contains catharsis. Ron gets the last laugh. He throws his arms around David Duke and mocks him. There are moments throughout the film that are meant to not only say, “we will overcome” to black audiences, but relieve anxious white audience members. Catharsis is a good thing, and film is an excellent medium to provide it.  But pairing it with satire is tricky, because satire is supposed to provoke conversation, and catharsis is about ending it, in a way that relieves the pressure of such a conversation and/or oppression to a person or group of people.

There is also the question of who this movie is intended for. It draws a direct comparison between the KKK and Donald Trump.

I am not opposed to politics in film. If you are, don’t see a Spike Lee film about the KKK. But by doing this in an overt way, the film makes less sense in who its intended audience is. The movie sure isn’t going to be watched by a KKK member, unless the trailer really confused them. It will make Trump supporters feel like they are being accused of being aligned with the KKK. It will make a white audience who are assured of their enlightenment feel smug. And I doubt black Americans need a reminder of how white supremacy and the ideals of the KKK, as shown in events like Charlottesville, are so prevalent today.

Making fun of the KKK could be an effective way to strip them of power, but doing it so that what is being made fun of includes attributes unrelated to the psychology of their hate is not effective satire. It may be cathartic, but it does not do what needs to be done, which is have people recognize these attributes in themselves. The more white audiences realize how they believe (whether they mean to or not) in aspects of KKK ideology, and how those ideologies are the foundation of America itself, the more an honest healing process can begin.

But here I have to admit my own prejudice. I’m white. I can talk about wanting nuance and complexity, because while I despise white supremacy and the KKK, I am not directly affected by it. I have never been on the receiving end of such violent, oppressive hate. So I will never be able to empathize fully. I will never be as angry as every black person in America has the right to be.

So while this wasn’t the movie I want, and I still think there are problems, this is Spike Lee’s movie. And he can be as angry as he wants, and can make a movie where the good guys win, black Americans have a victory, and he can call out President Trump as he likes. This movie is his prayer of lament. Of anger. Of despair. Of hope. So in that regard, I think others will find great comfort in this film, and if you watch it with discerning eyes, it should make you uncomfortable. Not just with others, but with yourself.

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There is one more thing I must add. The best part of the film, and one of the best scenes of the year, answers the question most white people have probably asked at some point: “why can black people say ‘black power’ but I can’t say ‘white power?’” Near the climax of the film, Lee cuts back and forth between a meeting of the KKK, and a black power meeting. The KKK is about looking backward, mythologizing and endorsing the violence of the past, and glorifying white-led oppression. It’s about securing lies about the white race. The black power meeting is about remembering the truth, and learning how to move forward. One is about honesty, the other is not. And Lee does challenge some of the black power movement’s more radical ideas, but in this case, it is clear that white power and black power do not share the same meaning, just for different races. The ability to say this, without words, through the narrative of the movie, is one of the best uses of cinema I have seen.

-Madeleine D

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Netflix’s Sci-Fi Duds: Extinction and How It Ends

Image result for extinction netflix movieImage result for how it ends netflix movie

Netflix has become not only our entertainment overlord, but also a relentless content factory. Their business model has become “throw it to the wall and see what sticks.” So while it takes more time to sift through the bad content to get to the good, an unexpected side-effect is that the company has been leaning hard into sci-fi, and has been turning out an impressive number of films. Altered Carbon, Mute, Lost in Space, Annihilation, Okja, The Cloverfield Paradox, Bright, and What Happened to Monday have all come out within the last year, and are a very mixed bag (Okja and Annihilation are the best of the bunch). I love the idea of Netflix becoming a patron of sci-fi, supporting smaller productions with up-and-coming talent. But with Netflix becoming the dumping ground for films that studios don’t think can make it on the big screen, I have to wonder if this is actually improving the genre. Unfortunately, Extinction and How It Ends, both newly-released Netflix fare, are not helping Netflix’s case.

Extinction was a movie I was very excited about. I like stars Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan, and the story of a dad who has visions about an apocalypse he will soon have to save his family from is familiar territory, but could be taken in a unique direction.

Alas, this film only has one goal in mind: get to the plot twist, which comes about thirty minutes from the end. So for at least an hour, we get a blasé, dull, and standard sci-fi alien invasion film. The twist doesn’t get enough time to fully develop, and it doesn’t impact the first hour of the film enough to make it worth watching. The lead-up to the twist is more filler than a compelling narrative.

Extinction tries to have a political undercurrent. For example, there’s a sign that says, “A Cyborg Took My Job.” But if you try to read the groups in the film as an allegory, the implications become a little concerning. Don’t think too hard about it. But if you take it for what it is in the film, the twist does attempt to add a different dimension to the are-robots-people question. It just comes so late in the film that it is kept from reaching its full potential.

So while I can see why Extinction was pulled from the Universal movie slate, it is still a passable two hours if you have Netflix. But with so much to see right now, passable isn’t enough. You’re worth more than that.

But Extinction is a Hitchcockian masterpiece compared to How it Ends, which is my new worst movie of the year. Congratulations! You took my favorite subgenre- the road trip- and made it a contender for the dullest two hours of my life.

Here’s why road trips paired with disaster films should work: road trips are an inevitable part of most of our lives. Pair it with something abnormal, and suddenly you’ve created the perfect dynamic in your movie. The macro-conflict can come from the disaster, zombies, robots, whatever. The micro-conflict that drives characters come from the road trip aspect. How we react in a disaster becomes framed by the normality of driving.

So what this film about a guy named Will (Theo James) and his prickly future father-in-law Tom (Forest Whitaker) driving across the country after something bad takes out all the power to get to his fiance should have had was Will and Tom arguing about where to take bathroom breaks, what kind of music to play, and exchanging stories about their daughter/fiance. It could be tense at times, sure, but not the lifeless sludge it ends up being. An endless repetition of being attacked by people on the road does not an exciting movie make.

I have no idea who these people are by the end of the film, and the “in-law road trip from hell” pitch is completely wasted in favor of the blandest War of the Worlds rip-off ever. There is no originality anywhere in this film. No clever solutions, no interesting dialogue, no real emotions, nothing of substance or that will be remembered. Theo James stares blankly at everyone he encounters and has the personality of a video-game shooter. Forest Whitaker solves every problem in the film by looking characters in the eyes and saying, “Trust me,” and if that doesn’t work, killing them.

I can’t recommend not seeing this film enough. It has the worst ending I’ve ever seen, a non-ending. Not to be too picky, but I feel pretty strongly that a movie called How It Ends should have an ending. My only explanation is that screenwriter Brook McLaren fell asleep before writing the ending, somehow hit his head, got amnesia, and forgot his idea for the ending. I too wish I could forget this film.

I’m not giving up on Netflix as a patron of science fiction. It has still given us good sci-fi films (again, Annihilation and Okja, people). But quality is better than quantity, and I don’t want flops like these to dilute and drag down such an exciting genre.

FILMING HOBBITS AND NARNIANS: FILM SETS IN NEW ZEALAND

Here at madeleinelovesmovies.com, we’re not just film critics, we’re also fans. And what do film fans do on their vacations? They go visit movie sets! So, we traveled halfway around the world to visit some of the sets and a studio where The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were filmed. Before we get into pictures, though, here are some observations:

  1. New Zealand is even more beautiful than the movies make it look. No kidding, Norway, Austria, and Alaska are gorgeous, but New Zealand might be the most beautiful place on earth.
  2. While The Lord of the Rings is beautifully shot, tracking down the sets lets you know that it was much more of a ‘backyard shoot’ than you might think. For instance, the awesome scene where the four hobbits hide from a Nazgul under a massive tree root? It was filmed in a little city park on the top of Mount Victoria about 15 minutes away from WETA Worship. The epic location for the Battle of Helm’s Deep? A little stone quarry just off the main highway outside of Wellington (see pics below).
  3. While we weren’t huge fans of the Chronicles of Narnia movies released in 2005, 2008, and 2010 (mainly because we love the books so much and didn’t feel like they represented the books well enough), some of the places where they filmed were definitely worth visiting.
  4. It is a shame that they didn’t keep more of the sets of The Lord of the Rings. Hobbiton is the obvious exception, although we learned that they destroyed the Shire after the first trilogy (that’s actually the film set being burned in the Shire-burning scene in Return of the King) and then they rebuilt the whole thing again for the 2nd trilogy. The 2nd time they left Hobbiton intact on the Alexander farm on the North island, and the tour is definitely worth doing.
  5. Visiting all of these places, and particularly the WETA Workshop (where they do a lot of the special effects as well as costumes and miniatures), is really a celebration of the craftsmanship and passion of the people who make these movies (thousands of people, not just Peter Jackson). Seeing and reading about the process adds to the enjoyment of the films and is a gratifying experience for anyone interested in the art of film.

Here are our pictures with corresponding film stills (note for future travelers: all locations are on the North Island except Castle Hill, which is on the South Island):

Cathedral Cove in Coromandel/ Prince Caspian

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Bag End in Hobbiton/ The Fellowship of the Ring

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The Green Dragon Inn in Hobbiton/ The Fellowship of the Ring

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Mount Doom (Mt. Ngauruhoe) in Tongariro National Park/ Return of the King

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Mangawhero Falls in Tongariro National Park/ The Two Towers

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WETA Worship in Wellington/ The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Narnia…

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Rock Quarry outside Wellington/ The Two Towers (gotta use your imagination here)

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Rivendell in Kaitoke Park outside Wellington/ The Fellowship of the Ring

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Castle Hill near Arthur’s Pass/ The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe

IMG_6228Castle Hill

-Madeleine D and Jonathan D

 

Just Say No To: Teen Titans GO! To the Movies

Image result for teen titan go to the movies*Major spoilers for Incredibles 2

Exactly 364 days before Teen Titans Go! To the Movies was released, The Emoji Movie was released. A film that was so disgusting, I offered to babysit any child for an hour and a half in exchange for them not to see the film.

While I cannot offer that currently, I wish I could, because Teen Titans Go! To the Movies isn’t deserving of your child’s affection.

Granted, it’s not the worst movie made for people who believe kid entertainment should lack any element of sophistication. And I’ll give it this- the songs are catchy. Most kid movie songs aren’t very catchy.

Now I want to stress that I actually like the TV show this movie is from. I have watched quite a few episodes on Cartoon Network of Teen Titans Go! while babysitting. I understand why it’s popular. The twenty-minute episodes are full of superhero deconstructionism, goofiness, creative visual gags, and appealing characters done by great voice actors. As someone who didn’t know who the Teen Titans were in DC comic lore before the show, I have a better appreciation for the characters and understand why this team has such staying power. If there was an eighteen-year-old sitting in that movie theater by herself that was ready to give this movie a fair shot, it was me.

But some things that are twenty minutes are not meant to be stretched to an hour and a half. Just like emojis are not meant to shoulder a full-length commercial, Teen Titans Go! was not meant to be both Deadpool for kids and a “we read your internet complaints” message from Warner Brothers.

The basic premise of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is that every superhero has a movie except Robin and the Teen Titans (consisting of Starfire, Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Raven). Robin, in particular, wants a movie and will do anything, even find a supervillain and abandon his friends, to do so.

And that’s the whole plot. And it’s stretched ttthhhhiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn. To be fair, it avoids feeling as episodic in structure as many TV shows-turned-into-movies are, but still. The only things moving this story forward to the inevitable moral conclusion are dance numbers and jokes about Batman V Superman. There are a few good gags, and excellent voicework all around, but it’s not enough.

While watching the third fart joke of the film, my mind started to wander, and I decided to reflect on the philosophical implications of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. The villain, Slade, has an evil plan that, not to spoil anything, basically involves using screens to mind control people, including other heroes like the Justice League. He gains control of people’s screens through superhero movies, and because superheroes are too busy staring in these movies, they aren’t around to save people.

That is actually an interesting idea, that we spend too much time consuming media about superheroes but not actually enacting the morals they are supposed to teach us. And at the end of the film, Robin decides that it is better to be a superhero with his friends than a movie star.

However that message is defeated by the fact that this is a movie, and half of the runtime is dedicated to selling how cool superhero movies are. So kids are probably not going to walk away thinking- I should consume less superhero media and instead live out the values I have learned from them so I may serve my neighbors and community. I’m pretty sure they’ll be thinking, Robin and the Teen Titans are so cool! I want to watch more of their show! I wish I could be a movie star!

But you know what other movie has a villain with this exact same plan? Incredibles 2. In that film, Screensaver/Evelyn Deavor uses screens to control superheroes. She believes the existence of superheroes makes the public weak and passive, believing someone else will save them. So she uses mind control to make the superhero’s fail publicly, and ruin their reputation forever. She believes this will force people to become active again.

The “who did it first” argument doesn’t really matter here, although I’m going to give it to Incredibles 2, considering that Teen Titan Go! To the Movies looks like a rush job. The point is, we have two children’s films where the main question is: do superheroes (and superhero movies) make us more passive, easier to mind-control? Teen Titans does very little with the premise, ultimately burying it under the goofiness and flippant style of the film. Incredibles 2 thinks through it more clearly and ultimately comes to the conclusion that it’s on us to be superheroes, although we should let superheroes share their gifts. Both films suffer by having only the superheroes save the day, when thematically it would probably be better to get some human people in there, but Incredibles 2 gets to the heart of both the problem and appeal of superheroes, even more than the meta-Teen Titans Go!

And plainly, Incredibles 2 is a much better film. It is for both kids and adults. So why not see that? Unless you are a strong Teen Titans Go! TV show fan, this movie will feel like a chore. It’s a bummer there aren’t more animated movies out this year, but there are plenty of classic family movies to rent or stream. In a world with so many movies, why pay to see this one? Or watch a few episodes of the TV show instead. The Teen Titans may be going to the movies, but you don’t have to.

-Madeleine D

You Never Really Escape: Eighth Grade

Image result for eighth grade

There has started to become a trend of there being a coming-of-age movie every year that garners awards and praise. Last year it was Lady Bird. Two years ago it was The Edge of Seventeen. Before that was Brooklyn, and before that Boyhood. Eighth Grade will probably be this year’s contender. But before you think “Oscar bait!” let me persuade you otherwise.

Eighth Grade doesn’t really have a plot, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film moves along at a good pace and ends satisfyingly, but it does feel more episodic than you might expect. The whole story takes place during thirteen-year-old Kayla Day’s last week in eighth grade.

The film is based on cringe humor and terrific performances. Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s dad is one of the best movie dads of all time. That’s it. No debate. This is almost as much a movie about parenting as it is teenagerhood. And Elsie Fisher is incredible as Kayla. While watching the film, you realize a large majority of it is focused on her face. Many directors wouldn’t trust such a young talent to carry the film exclusively on her shoulders and let the camera linger on her for long periods of time. But this film does, because Fisher can handle it. Most striking is her physicality- she slumps the whole movie, her eyes anxiously glancing back and forth, and on top of that, she actually looks like a real thirteen-year-old. It was realistic, sometimes I felt like I was watching old footage of myself.

That’s how I think most people will react. While some aspects of the film are going to be relatable primarily to women, I am positive that everyone will see parts of themselves in both Kayla and others. The universality of the awkwardness of that period- whatever age you are- overcomes the superficial differences.

But it’s not just enough to make a movie about how awkward teenagers are. All coming-of-age movies do that. What makes Eighth Grade different is its insight. It doesn’t it just say, “wow teens are so weird.” It understands why, and perfectly showcases its philosophy through the central framing device. Throughout the film, Kayla makes youtube videos. She does them on subjects such as “how to have confidence,” and “how to make friends.” Her advice is cliche-ridden, but it is good. She just struggles to live it out. The disconnect between what she says and does is evident.

This, the movie says, is why teenagers struggle so much. Unlike children, they realize they aren’t perfect. They have a hole in their heart, and they don’t know why they are incomplete. But unlike adults, they either don’t have the words and tools to start figuring out what is missing, or they don’t have a dependency on various coping mechanisms/idols yet. They know they are incomplete but cannot figure out what to do about it.

This hole, this sense of incompleteness, is sin. It’s our fallen nature and can only be filled by God. We all have it, and in that sense, we all understand the anxiety and fear of the teenage years. It simply looks different in adults.

Kayla knows the person she wants to become- that’s who her videos describe. She knows what she’s missing, but cannot get there. She says in the film, “I’m nervous, like I’m waiting in line for a roller coaster, (but) I never get the feeling you get after you ride the roller coaster.” Waiting for release, for everything to fall into place and seem whole, but never getting there. That is the curse teenagers are growing into.

I was introduced to writer/director Bo Burnham’s comedy about a year ago at the recommendation of a friend (you can find two of his specials on Netflix). I found his work to be incredibly clever, but also incredibly cynical. I was worried that his cynicism and snarky nihilism would be an element of this film.

Not so. Bo Burnham has created a hopeful film, one that teaches that what you feel in eighth grade will probably be temporary, and even if it’s not, there will always be people who will love you through it. But probably the best message of Eighth Grade comes simply from its existence. Seeing it, and knowing you are not alone, is the empathetic message of the film, and I can’t think of a better one to send to both real eighth graders, and the rest of us.

-Madeleine D