Skip to content

CategoryPeriod Pieces

BlacKkKlansman

This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

Set in Colorado circa 1972, BlacKkKlansman follows the Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he navigates the racially charged atmosphere of his new job and community. Ron has a passion for police work but being the first black cop at his department means the odds are stacked against him. After he’s promoted to undercover work, he meets and becomes smitten with Patrice (Laura Harrier), a civil rights activist attending a Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) event. He’s then assigned to gather intelligence on a local chapter of the KKK. Caught between these two worlds, he devises a plan. He’ll inflitrate the KKK with the help of his white coworker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who will do undercover work in person while Ron speaks to key figures, including Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) on the phone. The tension in Colorado Springs escalates as the Black Panther activists increase their activity and the KKK devises a bomb plot to take out protestors. Ron and Flip must find a way to save their community and themselves before their true identities are revealed.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman makes a bold political statement about racism in an effective way. The film is based on the true story of undercover cop Ron Stallworth. Lee and his writing team used Stallworth’s memoir as the basis for the script but made some key changes including a shift in the timeline and the addition of the bomb plot. The final chapter of the film directly links the events in the story to those of the Unite the Right Rally  and the deadly car attack in Charlottesville, VA in 2017. By connecting the past and the present, Lee’s film is giving a clear warning to the future.

Stylistically BlacKkKlansman is stunning. It’s quite an achievement to make the 1970s, known for faded oranges, yellows and browns, look vibrant and colorful. I love how the film stayed true to the era but still finds a way to appeal to the modern eye. As a classic film enthusiast I’d be remiss not to point out how elated I was to see African-American performer and activist Harry Belafonte in the film. He has a small part as Jerome Turner, an elderly man who recounts his stories of witnessing atrocities. His scene is juxtaposed with a KKK initiation ceremony. That whole sequence packs a powerful punch.

BlacKkKlansman is nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (Spike Lee), Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver) and Best Film Editing. I highly recommend following up your viewing of BlacKkKlansman with the documentary Alt-Right: Age of Rage which I reviewed a few months back. 

As a DVD Nation Director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent BlacKkKlansman on DVD.com

Slamdance: The Vast of Night

“You are entering the realm of the clandestine and forgotten. A split screen caught between channels.”

Set in 1950s New Mexico, The Vast of Night follows two teens as they uncover a secret frequency that reveals an otherworldly presence in their small town. On the night of Cayuga High School’s basketball game, Everett (Jake Horowitz) the local radio DJ who has a knack for technologies, meets up with Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator. Fay asks Everett to teach her how to use a tape recorder. Fay hears a strange noise coming from one of the phone lines and she captures the sound on tape. When Everett plays it on the air, the two learn that something is amiss in their community. Billy (Bruce Davis), a retired military worker and Mabel (Gail Cronauer), a homebound widow, both reach out to Everett with their stories of secret military experiments and extraterrestrials. Everett and Fay are on the run to uncover the truth behind these stories and why the aliens are targeting their hometown. 

Directed by Andrew Patterson and written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, The Vast of Night is a dialogue driven drama. Rapid-fire chatter mixed with slow, methodical storytelling drive the plot forward. Not much happens in the way of action and the story’s tension comes from increased paranoia and the uncovering of a supernatural mystery.

“The Vast of Night an exercise in people telling stories to each other. Drawing you in detail by detail.”

director Andrew Patterson

While the dialogue is key to the film, I found there to be too much of it. Cut away 25% of the chatter, especially in the beginning of the film, and I wouldn’t have felt like I was drowning in dialogue. The real appeal for me was the science fiction element with an emphasis on mid-20th century technology: radios, tape recorders, audio reels, switchboards, telephones, etc. There is also retrofuturistic vibe with the discussion of the year 2000 and “electronic highway control.” All the characters wear period appropriate clothing and vintage glasses. Some of the scenes are filtered through a blue-tinted television screen adding to the retro vibe. McCormick and Horowitz were convincing as the curious, technology loving and seemed plucked right out of the 1950s.

The Vast of Night will appeal to fans of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Twilight Zone. The heavy dialogue can be exhausting but if you have the patience to get through it you’ll be rewarded at the end.

The Vast of Night had its world premiere at Slamdance 25.

First Man

First Man

FirstManPoster.jpg

 

We’ll never fully realize the level of courage and sacrifice required from the astronauts of those early NASA space missions. They put everything on the line, leaving behind their families and laying down their lives in the name of science and for love of country. It often came at a great cost. And if they were successful and lucky enough to survive their missions, they came back to earth as national heroes, their immortality secured.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Space exploration movies like The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) offer a glimpse into this world. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the latest in a line of space age dramas and it celebrates one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, the moon landing, through the story of one man, astronaut Neil Armstrong.

First Man follows the story of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the death of his young daughter, to his extensive training and his two biggest missions: Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The story is equally split between Armstrong’s time at NASA and his work with his fellow astronauts and engineers and his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two sons. The film is just as much a space exploration story as it is  a character study of a complicated man who suffered a tragic loss and struggles to connect with his family. Much time is given to Janet whom, one might be able to argue, is just as courageous as her husband. She has to deal with the stress of not only her husband’s dangerous missions but also his emotional unavailability. In addition she has to keep up her strength to raise her two boys while also being strong for the other astronaut’s wives who inevitably suffer great tragedies of their own.

Ryan Gosling does a marvelous job as the subdued and introspective Neil Armstrong. However I think Claire Foy has the breakout performance as his long-suffering wife Janet. She brings an intensity that not only matches beautifully with Gosling’s performance but also stands on its own. Technically the female parts are far outnumbered by the male but Foy’s performance claims so much of our attention that it feels more like its equally divided than one sided. I wouldn’t be surprised if come award season Foy will be recognized for her performance. Another counterbalance to Armstrong’s character is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. Buzz is the outspoken, opinionated and charismatic astronaut, the complete opposite of Neil. I love their scenes together. Jason Clarke, who plays the doomed astronaut Ed White, is very well suited for his character and for mid-20th century parts. He just has that look that works. I was happy to see one of my personal faves Ethan Embry in a small role as space engineer and astronaut Pete Conrad.

ClaireFoy.jpg

 

First Man must be seen on the big screen for the full impact. I watched it at my local IMAX theater after having missed an opportunity to see this at TIFF. The technical advancements in filmmaking contribute to powerful and awe inspiring depictions of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions. I love how the film lingers on the moon landing, providing the original audio for those first crucial and historic moments but we also spend time in Armstrong’s personal bubble as he takes in his surroundings and taps into some of the emotion he’s been trying to suppress. The Gemini 8 scene was my favorite. It felt so realistic, almost as if I was in the space shuttle with the astronauts. We get a sense of how much power is needed and how many things have to go exactly right to thrust these astronauts into space.

 

 

 

First Man is a technical marvel in filmmaking that puts the audience in the spacecraft and on the moon for a thrilling experience.  It’s also a reserved yet poignant character study of a man on the brink of a great achievement who is struggling with his own demons. It deals with an important subject seriously but never becomes cheesy or pretentious. A must see.

TIFF Review: Colette

Colette

by Raquel Stecher

Colette
dir. Wash Westmoreland
starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough,

Review:

Colette was a woman ahead of her time.

Wash Westmoreland’s biopic follows Colette (Keira Knightley) from the age of 18 to 34; the pivotal years when she was married to writer Henry Gauthier-Villars, also known by his nom de plume Willy (Dominic West). Colette starts her married life as a dutiful wife, helping Willy out with his business which involves hiring writers to create stories to be published under his name. Willy is a complete cad, spending the family finances on prostitutes, in gambling dens and treating others to expensive meals. When Colette tries her hand at some writing to help Willy out, the Claudine novels are born. Published under Willy’s name and not hers, these stories become the toast of Paris. As Colette begins to discover her authentic self, Willy finds himself losing control over her. We follow Colette’s trajectory from spunky country girl to fully realized woman and creator. She comes into her sexuality discovering her physical attraction to women. As Colette and Willy’s relationship falls apart, she falls for Missy (Denise Gough), a woman defying society by presenting as a man. Through her personal and professional relationship with Missy, Colette blossoms and finds the strength within herself to live courageously.

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

The first line of Claudine are repeated throughout the film as a declaration of identity. And that is what this film, a story about discovering your true self.  Colette is a superb character study exploring gender dynamics and politics within the confines of deeply entrenched double standards. The real life Colette challenged sexual norms while finding her agency. Her message of female empowerment is desperately needed today.

 

colette_02

colette_04

The idea to bringing Colette to the big screen came from Colette herself. In conversation at the Colette press conference at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Westmoreland said he and the late Richard Glatzer found Colette’s story to be  “a compelling narrative of a woman creating while a man was taking credit.”

As someone who loves a good period piece, Colette was rich in period detail. The cast wore real costumes of the era and scenes were shot in historic buildings. This imbued the film with a great sense of place and time. The part Colette fits Keira Knightley, no stranger to period pieces, like a glove. At the press conference she proclaimed, “I stood very tall when I played Colette. She was a maverick.” Colette is quite bold for a period piece. Comparing it with the relatively tame period pieces of previous decades, this movie demonstrates that you can still tell a story about the past that is provocative and interesting to contemporary viewers. Westmoreland went on to say, “for a long time period pieces have gotten a reputation for being a kind of safer genre. But I think at the moment there is something happening with period pieces that are radicalizing.”

Westmoreland found many parallels to Colette’s turn-of-the-century France with modern day. It was an era when people were questioning gender roles and women were demanding more access to power.  Westmoreland collaborated with screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who added the necessary female insights needed for the script. Actress Denise Gough called the casting one of the most progressive that she’d ever been involved with. Westmoreland went on to say:

 “With the casting we tried an approach that I don’t believe has really been tried before of having a very inclusive cast. We have trans men playing cisgender characters. We have trans women playing cisgender women. We have an out lesbian actor playing heterosexual. We have our gay actor playing someone who said he was heterosexual, we’re not quite sure. And we have Asian British actors playing characters who were historically white. We have a black actor playing someone who in history was white. And guess what? It all works. And these have been sacred rules for so long…. Colette broke a lot of rules so we though we should too.” – Wash Westmoreland

 

 

 

Colette is in select theaters starting today.

I attended a press and industry screening as well as the press conference for Colette at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF Review: Tell It to the Bees

by Raquel Stecher

Tell It to the Bees
dir. Annabel Jankel
starring Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger

“You should tell the bees your secrets. Then they won’t fly away.”

Set in 1950s Scotland, Tell It to the Bees is the story of two women who must face a society that isn’t ready or willing to accept them. Dr. Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) has returned home to her small town to take over her father’s practice. A secret about her past still lingers among the tight knit community. Jean meets Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), a curious young boy who is fascinated by the bee hives Jean keeps on her estate. Back at home, Charlie’s mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger) is going through a rough patch. Charlie’s father Robert (Emun Elliott) has abandoned the family, her sister-in-law Pam (Kate Dickie) is suspicious of Lydia’s every move and Lydia isn’t making enough money at the local mill and is facing eviction. When Charlie comes home with a bee-keeping journal and a novel Jean has gifted him, Lydia confronts Jean to discover the doctor is a kind woman and not a meddling man. The two quickly bond and when Lydia and Charlie are eventually evicted, Jean hires Lydia as her housekeeper. Behind the closed doors of the estate, Jean’s attraction for Lydia grows stronger and her desire to pull back weakens. As the two become intimate, whispers and rumors begin to circulate in the village. In an era where their relationship is not only frowned upon but illegal, can Lydia and Jean stay together? And what will happen to Charlie if they do?

“This town is too small for secrets.”

Based on the novel by Fiona Shaw, Tell It to the Bees was adapted to the screen by sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth. In an interview with director Annabel Jankel, she remarked that she was drawn by “the power of generosity to fulfill another person’s potential.” Lydia and Jean are two female characters who are lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down. Resiliency and compassion is what drives Jean to pursue medicine in a town that won’t have her. Lydia’s the extrovert to Jean’s introvert and she shows Jean how to be free with her emotions. And for what it’s worth I appreciated that the Lydia and Jean were working women and not bored housewives.

The general theme of secrets and lies runs strong in this story. It’s the main conflict for the story’s narrator Charlie who is grappling with major changes and doesn’t know how to process the actions of the adults around him. It’s refreshing to see a child character who is curious and receptive and an integral part of the main story and not just a sideliner.

A secondary story follows Lydia’s sister-in-law Annie (Lauren Lyle) who is in an interracial relationship with a young man. When she becomes pregnant, her disapproving brother Robert and sister Pam try to “fix” the situation. It’s a reminder that while that era had many beautiful aesthetics the cultural mores could be quite ugly.

The bees are another character in the story and add an almost fantastical element. The close up shots of the bees are stunning. They pulsate with energy and you can feel that coming off the screen. In the film they react to the goings on in the human world around them and at one point even intervene on behalf of some of the characters. About the bees director Jankel says, “I felt an added kinship with the supernatural cinematic quality that the extraordinary world of the bees could provide, for an audience, both visually, and sonically.”

Tell It to the Bees is a sweet indie film with a tender heart. Paquin and Grainger deliver beautiful performances as their polar opposite characters. My only small criticism of what is otherwise a beautiful film is that I felt there was a lack of sexual chemistry between the two leads. However, I appreciated the fact that their sexual relationship wasn’t the focus of the story. And thanks to the women writers and the woman director we don’t see a lesbian love story as a male fantasy. Rather it’s a deep and meaningful relationship that transforms the characters and allows them to grow as persons. If you get a chance to watch Tell It to the Bees, take it! I hope this film finds its audience.

I attended a press and industry screening of Tell It to the Bees at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

 

%d bloggers like this: