Here are our ratings and reviews for the movies of the week:
BlacKkKlansman: 3 ½ stars
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Summer 1993: 4 ½
Dog Days: 2
The Crescent: 2 ½
The Meg: --
Slender Man: --
BLACKkKLANSMAN: I never expect Spike Lee to be subtle in putting his thoughts across but this time he outdoes himself. The film is very good, and didn’t need as much rhetoric as he has injected into it. A bit would have been fine to point out that racism is alive in the U.S. He hammers it home, eventually with a sequence that I like a lot using clips from the Charlottesville violence (from a year ago Sunday) and Donald Trump’s outrageous words about it. They work well to remind us and put this film on a solid base of reality. But before that Lee can’t let a terrific true story about the modern Ku Klux Klan make its points on its own. He lets his didactic tendencies run loose.
The story, from a book by the man who lived it, is about a rookie cop, the first black on the force in Colorado Springs, who gets winds of a group forming a local KKK chapter. He (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s son) infiltrates them in a way. He sends a white cop (Adam Driver) to impersonate him but manages to talk himself on the phone to David Duke, the national leader, played by Topher Grace as a three-piece-suit, all-business type. Among the locals there’s a rabid black and Jew hater who is close to blowing the new recruit’s cover and plots to set up his wife to place a bomb in hopes of starting a race war. There’s also an Angela Davis-like student leader (played by Laura Harrier), a terrific fiery speech by Stokely Carmichael (played by Corey Hawkins) and a racist speech by a character played by Alex Baldwin. You might be shocked by the extended diatribes you hear throughout this film about Jewish and black people. But the kicker is a pair of scenes intercut, both about the impact of the classic film Birth of a Nation. It revived the KKK and the new crowd cheers. Meanwhile a character played by Harry Belafonte recounts in detail a lynching it led to. Unlike earlier scenes that were effective portrayals of racism, this was like shouting. Or maybe Lee was making sure we got what he was saying. We did. 3 ½ out of 5
McQUEEN: You’re going to be surprised, delighted maybe, how affecting this biographical portrait of a fashion industry rebel can be. You’ll hear Alexander McQueen’s story –taxi driver’s son, alerted by his mother to a Savile Row entry-level job, soaring to head designer at Givenchy and then to Gucci, four times named British Designer of the year, staging controversial fashion shows with titles like It’s a Jungle Out There, The Highland Rape (with models looking as if they’d been assaulted) and Taxi Driver, influenced by his love of movies. You see generous excerpts from these shows. And you’ll hear a great deal about his character from associates, a few relatives and fashion industry types like Tom Ford and Kate Moss (that’s her with him in the photo collage up above) and he himself in old interviews and many candid film clips.
You get a feel for the passion that drove him, although he’s usually seen joking that it was only for the money that he did it. Clearly not only so. Abuse as a child, domestic violence, anger about injustice in the world. They drove him, say to his friends. He talked about the sheer workload he took on, staging shows in both Paris and London, 10 a year. Then, when he became rich, paranoia set in and he started using drugs. And after a long-time supporter committed suicide and then his beloved mother died, he killed himself. The film by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui makes you feel the tragedy deeply. Still it’s as a factual biography that it works best. It’s light on scandal (which apparently there was) and on details of his business, but strong on the amazing story of the chubby kid who grew himself into an icon in high fashion. 4 out of 5
SUMMER 1993: Maybe it’s because Spanish director Carla Simón based this film on memories from her own early years, that it plays so true to life and captures the world of young children so well. We get a peek into how they see the world, how they relate to adults and we understand the fears they’re prey to. There are also scenes here that manage something almost impossible: to show real examples of how children play with each other.
Frida is six-years old and played absolutely naturally by Laia Artigas. Her parents have died; she’s sent to the countryside to live with her aunt and uncle and their 4-year-old daughter. She has trouble adjusting and has petulant moments. Life is much slower than Barcelona where she’s from. Visiting grandparents make mysterious allusions to the illness that killed her parents. Grandmother also pushes religion as a saving philosophy. Frida acts out, once in the car and in a scary sequence when she gets the younger girl lost in the woods. Just when you think some familiar bad-child or bad stepdad happenings are coming, the film refuses to go there. It remains a fresh look at childhood psychology created with compassion, not movie tropes. Things do get tense, but it remains one of the best films about children you’ll ever see. 4 ½ out of 5
PUZZLE: Women are sure to like this film. It speaks to them by addressing an ongoing issue with affection and modesty. Agnes is a housewife in Connecticut. She’s a homemaker who tends to her husband and two sons, never complains and in an early scene has baked her own birthday cake. One present she receives changes everything. It’s a 1000-piece jig saw puzzle which she puts together in short time and thereby discovers a skill she didn’t know she had. A trip to a New York specialty shop gets her more puzzles and a connection to a puzzle fan looking for a partner for a competition. (I didn’t know there were such things).
She’s played winningly by Kelly Macdonald (remember her from Trainspotting?) and he’s played by the distinguished Indian actor, Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire and many others). He’s self-assured from the first time they meet; she’s reticent and unsure out there on her own. The attractive thing about this film by Marc Turtletaub is how their relationship is developed and how precisely her self-realization is set out. She dares to lie at home about the two-days a week she goes away. She’s late with dinner at times and forgets items she’s been asked to buy at the grocery. Khan is a good teacher but slow to reveal his story. There’s a misstep though. The two end up in bed at one point. That feels out of character. Through most of this gentle and leisurely film they’re just two people learning from each other about the state of the world, family life and high-level competition. It’s a heart-warming tale and a re-make of a film from Argentina. 3 out of 5
DOG DAYS: That’s August alright, certainly this year, and it may just be the opportunity that was envisioned by the producers of this bland comedy. They don’t need much more to draw you into an air conditioned movie theatre. (Ah, hold it a second. If you’re a dog lover, and there are many of you, you might think this is turning too negative. You could easily love this film; the dogs are adorable, there are many types and they act on cue. It’d say the real creative stars are not the director Ken Marino, the two writers and the many recognizable human faces, but the five dog trainers. They’ve got these animals giving remarkable performances). It’s the stories they and the humans are telling that are lacking.
There are five them, somewhat interlinked and then conveniently connected at the end. Vanessa Hudgens, as a barista, volunteers at an animal shelter, where she’s hot for a hunky doctor not the nice-guy played by Jon Bass. A rock musician has to care for his sister’s dog while she’s off giving birth. A widower has lost his dog and the pizza delivery boy who helped cause the loss offers to search for him. That dog is now with a little girl recently adopted by a nice couple (Eva Longoria and Rob Corddry) and is helping her come out of her shell. An uptight TV personality (Nina Dobrev) is forced to work with a co-host (Tone Bell). It’s uncomfortable but they share a love of dogs and that helps. All of them come together at a fund raiser and the good vibes are laid on thick. It feels artificial though. 2 out of 5
THE CRESCENT: Here’s what can happen if you make a horror film like an art film. You might have difficulty grabbing the viewer who, instead of feeling chills, may be asking: what is going on here? Something like that happened to me. There’s an over-long sequence of brightly colored paint creations (paper marbling, it’s called) opening the film and then a long section where you’re not entirely sure what the story is. It delays your getting into it but eventually you understand that a woman who lost her husband in some unspecified way takes her two-year-old son to a seaside house in Nova Scotia to get over her grief. Unexplained things happen: noises at night, a nosy man visiting, people standing silently on the beach, a young woman gathering debris who says somebody is watching them and that the area used to be prone to shipwrecks.
Creepy scenes at night follow (and eventually a surprisingly bloody incident). But what’s going on? There’s an answer eventually, but it’s hardly worth waiting for. It’s been telegraphed all along. There are chills and the look of the film is stylish but there’s also a mood-breaking problem. Mom lets her boy out of her sight repeatedly, one time for an extended period. It breaks the spell but it does give the boy time to do some wonderful screen acting; amazing for a kid that young. But then Woodrow Graves is the son of the director, Seth A. Smith and his producer wife. They’d have the patience to work with him and get a good performance. Danika Vandersteen who plays the mother, is also good. They’re just trapped in a film of dream-like moods and not enough communication. 2 ½ out of 5
Also now playing …
THE MEG: The giant shark movie for this year. Jason Statham as a diver and naval captain can’t convince anyone that five years earlier he encountered a type of giant shark believed to be extinct. Well how surprising, he encounters another. I couldn’t get to the preview but have been reading unenthusiastic comments like “a brainless shark flick” and the less-than-promising observation that it doesn’t stir up much tension. That’s not what Steven Spielberg launched with Jaws. This one cost $150 million to make (much of it Chinese money) and is predicted to make a less than whopping $20 million this weekend.
SLENDER MAN: The back story is what’s interesting here. This is an urban legend that started as an internet game, has led to dozens of films already (most of them shorts) and now this full-length feature which has been delayed, argued over and sued about in court. The legend, of a man who steals children, has led to a real life murder attempt by two teens. They were trying to please him and the father of one of those would-be killers is calling it “extremely distasteful” that the movie has been made. I haven’t seen it. Sony didn’t preview it around here. Why? The usual suspicions apply. It’s playing in eight theatres around here.