Opening wide this week:
BlacKkKlansman—The title of Spike Lee’s latest joint sounds like a “blaxploitation” flick from the ’70s, like 1975’s similarly incongruous Black Gestapo. And this isn’t by accident: The movie takes place in the ’70s, and this shows up not only in the period details, the “afro” hairstyles and the Chevy Novas, but also in the straightforward cop-buddy action-thriller style of Lee’s directing here. But, incredibly, this way-out tale is based on a true story.
The title character—well, half of the title character—is Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs, Colorado police department. Stallworth contacted a local chapter of the KKK by phone, using his own name but claiming to be a racist white guy. He was hoping to be sent some literature, but the Klansman he spoke to took a liking to him and soon he was invited to meet the boys.
Hence, the obvious need for the other half of the title character, a white fellow detective (Adam Driver) who went to these meetings in Stallworth’s place. Before the investigation was over, Stallworth got his very own KKK membership card, and had even chatted up David Duke (Topher Grace) on the phone.
Washington—who looks a little bit, and sounds exactly, like his father Denzel—internalizes the anger he feels, not only at the Klansmen but at the slights of his fellow officers. He’s told at the beginning that he’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs PD, and he seems proud to follow Robinson’s long-suffering model as a racial pioneer, but you can see in his eyes that it takes a toll on him. Driver is equally excellent as the partner, a decent guy who, though he’s Jewish, never quite recognized this struggle as his, and Grace underplays the role of the boyish, self-impressed Duke to comically repulsive effect.
Lee, working from a script he wrote with several other hands (based on Stallworth’s memoir) gives his hero a fictitious Angela-Davis-esque activist love interest (Laura Harrier) that he meets while undercover at a speech by Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). The character of the white partner (whose identity is protected in Stallworth’s book) is fleshed out, and some other elements are embellished in the name of good yarn-spinning. But the basic situation is one of those true-life episodes that are believable because they’re too bizarre to have been made up.
I loved Lee’s 2015 Chi-Raq, a wild version of Lysistrata set in blood-soaked contemporary Chicago. But I think BlacKkKlansman has a chance at a wider audience—it has a hero who’s impossible not to root for, villains who it’s impossible not to root against, and an accessible story.
Almost inevitably, much of the movie is played, very effectively, for laughs, as Stallworth and his colleagues make fools of the Klansmen. But this doesn’t soften its edge: Lee insists on the pervasiveness and persistence of this level of organized hatred, which for decades we have often been led to believe is rare and isolated. He shows us horrifying footage from Charlottesville that would suggest otherwise.
In the past, Lee has often seemed impatient with mainstream, liberal white America. But here he seems to set those criticisms aside, like many American artists did during WWII, and invite us all to make common cause, in a time of national crisis, against the overt racists.
The Meg—It’s a commonplace that Jaws is the greatest shark movie ever. But I would go farther, and say that, maybe apart from some documentaries, it’s the only truly good shark movie ever made. Its official sequels were silly, Deep Blue Sea had that one memorable scene with Samuel L. Jackson and little else, 2016’s The Shallows started off well and had Blake Lively going for it but descended into action-movie preposterousness, and last year’s 47 Meters Down was OK at best.
The streak continues with The Meg, based on a novel by Steve Alten. This international co-production, transparently designed to appeal to the Chinese and Australian markets, isn’t a particularly good movie either, but it has an old-school adventure-tale charm, and it’s kind of fun.
The title refers to the real-life megalodon, a gargantuan prehistoric shark that ate whales and supposedly died out a couple million years ago. Turns out reports of the creature’s extinction have been exaggerated, and a deep-sea rescue mission led by Jason Statham brings the species, which has been in hiding in the secret depths even below Davy Jones’ Locker, back into contact with humans, who presumably aren’t as appetizing as whales, but will do in a pinch.
Statham, whose character bears the sharks a grudge, stays admirably straight-faced. Rainn Wilson plays the obnoxious billionaire funding the offshore research station where much of the movie takes place. Winston Chao is the eminent scientist who runs the place, Li Bingbing is his spirited daughter, and Sophia Cai is her spirited daughter. New Zealander Cliff Curtis is Statham’s pal, Australian Robert Taylor (the one from TV’s Longmire, that is) plays a gruff doctor, and Ruby Rose is around as a techie.
The director is Jon Turtletaub, the journeyman behind stuff like Cool Runnings and National Treasure, and he wisely doesn’t take this material too seriously. In a different way from BlacKkKlansman, this movie also has a slightly ‘70s vibe, in this case something like a disaster movie of that era, with jocular bonding and noble self-sacrifices. The characters shake off tragedies and get back to bantering and flirting with unseemly speed, and nobody seems worried about the bends. Turtletaub even throws in an environmentalist message about shark overfishing, and a pretty clever homage or two to Jaws.
So why is it that Spielberg’s 1975 classic has been so unassailable by subsequent shark flicks? Well, Spielberg’s brilliance, no doubt, and the odd chemistry of the actors, but maybe one other factor: The shark was real. I mean, it was fake, a robot, a machine, and by all accounts a nightmare to work with, but it was really, physically there in a way that that no CGI phantom shark could be. Star performers can be difficult, but computers are no replacement for them yet.
Showing Monday at Alamo Drafthouse in Tempe and Chandler:
They Live—The late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays the hero of John Carpenter’s 1988 paranoid classic. He’s a drifter known as “Nada” who drifts into L.A. and, thanks to a pair of sunglasses with special viewing abilities, stumbles upon the knowledge that Earth was invaded by aliens years ago. Superior technology allows the skull-faced invaders not only to conceal their identities, but to embed subliminal consumerist messages everywhere we look: “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” “CONFORM,” “REPRODUCE” and, of course, “WATCH TV.”
Though not necessarily Carpenter’s best movie, it’s probably my favorite. It’s his most original and ambitious, and I’ve always preferred it to The Matrix, with its similar premise. Following a funny and unnervingly atmospheric start, however, They Live largely collapses in its third act, which features an extended, completely gratuitous brawl between Piper and Keith David. This seems to have been included as a bone thrown to fans of Piper the pro wrestler, who apparently ate it up.
But in spite of clumsy obligatory elements like this, there’s no denying the satirical punch of Carpenter’s view of the world as seen those magical bebop shades. If only he could get us all to look in the mirror while wearing them.