John “son of Denzel” Washington is Ron, a rookie cop who gets himself invited to a Klan meeting by being friendly with David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone, and has to send his white (ahem, Jewish) coworker Adam Driver to the in-person meetings while working behind the scenes to bust these guys, which they kinda manage to do when a Klan wife accidentally bombs her husband while trying to murder Ron’s girlfriend. Spike has righteous cop protagonists but doesn’t entirely let the police department off the hook. His main point is made clear by the Charlottesville news footage closing the film, and even if he changes no modern minds, the movie is fun and inspired a good article about “the cruel sucking nullity of whiteness” in the dying days of the Village Voice.
Our second Black Audio Film Collective film after Testament, this one a collage-style doc about the 1985 Handsworth riots – with at least one scene from the 1977 Handsworth riots, the country having failed to solve racism during the intervening years. A good mix of music and sounds, collaged like the visuals. Interviews with community members about mistrust of cops because of bad policing, combined with the story of an innocent woman shot by police in her own home give the sense that nothing has changed between Handsworth Songs and Crime + Punishment. Racism remains unsolved.
I’d been wanting to see this for ages, it having appeared on some list somewhere of great films, and am glad I held off on the bootleg VHS copies to see it properly projected in a theater. Not that there are such splendid visuals – it’s mostly news and interview footage – but there’s at least one innovative move in here: lit photographs hung in a dark room, the camera slowly moving through the room in 3D like an early version of the Ken Burns effect.
Akomfrah sought to redefine blackness in British culture for a new generation as a reaction against conservative Thatcherite policies along with the respectability politics of their immigrant parents. In turn, the Collective demonstrated that the best way to examine the noxious ideologies in the culture was to trace their historical lineage. As a middle-aged black woman tells a British reporter, “There are no stories in the riots. Only the ghosts of other stories.”
After Whose Streets and Kinshasa Makambo and so many others, it was hard to get used to the police being the good guys again. Fortunately, the majority of them are still portrayed as racist villains destroying the lives of poor people, which is very in-character, but our heroes are the NYPD 12, whistleblowers calling out the force for continuing to require arrest quotas after the practice had been banned. At the same time we’re following an ex-cop, a loud, personable P.I. fighting to free Pedro Hernandez, who was arrested on sketchy evidence. It’s easy to undervalue an issues doc with slick visuals following a big news story in the boundary-pushing environment of True/False, but this is a great primer on the issues the NYPD 12 raise, well-paced and informative without ever resorting to narration or interview footage, which seems hard to pull off. It covers why good policing matters, how retaliation silences other cops and keeps the stinking system running (featuring damning hidden-camera footage of the retaliation), and who it benefits: $1 billion of the city budget comes from arrests. The NYPD 12 case is still unresolved at the end, but Pedro was released from Rikers (and in attendance at the festival). This and one of the secret screenings were both about fighting within the system to stand up for the oppressed, both maybe more “useful” than artistic, but important.
From the advertising this looked like an amoral violent comedy with the funniest dialogue of the year, but it turned out to be a deep story about forgiveness with the funniest dialogue of the year. According to the Internet, the movie is actually racist, anti-feminist, and not deep at all, so I am wrong, but I had a great time.
Frances McDormand wants to shame sheriff Woody Harrelson into continuing the search for her daughter’s killer, but Woody is dying of cancer and finally kills himself, causing the town to turn on Frances. Sam Rockwell, a horrible racist cop working for Woody, who badly beats Caleb Landry Jones (playing a nice guy for once), is fired by new chief Clarke Peters, then tries to do the right thing for once by helping Frances. Lucas Hedges, having a big year, is Frances’s son, John Hawkes her ex, Peter Dinklage her partner in crime, and Abbie Cornish Woody’s wife.
I didn’t enjoy Heaven Knows What, but this Safdie follow-up is splashed across the covers of all three film magazines I subscribe to, so I went out all by myself (does nobody else in this town read the magazines?) to sit too close to the screen and watch a movie where everything is shot too close-up. Felt like maybe a bad idea, and I’m not always a fan of electro music scores, and I was already aware of certain accusations against the movie, but against all odds, it’s… extremely good. The nervous energy from the close camerawork and pulsing electro plus all the lurid colors and frantic performances add up to a… not a good time exactly, but a hell of a ride.
The only time the title is spoken in the movie is by Nick’s psychiatrist. The doctor is a white-haired nemesis to Connie, conspiring to restrict his brother’s freedom, appearing early in the movie’s trailer as Connie talks about “the program [Nick] is forced to attend and how he shouldn’t be there.” We see Nick going to prison in the trailer, getting beaten as his brother races against time to rescue him, then as images of violence flicker across the screen faster and faster the psychiatrist reappears: “This place where we are now can be a lot of fun if you let it. You’re gonna have a good time,” then the title sears across the screen. It feels like this wicked psychiatrist is taking advantage of helpless Nick, the title a bitterly ironic reference to the bad time Nick is gonna have in his evil institution. In the movie itself, it took me a couple scenes to shake this idea, since the psychiatrist seems harmless and Nick is the one getting his brother into trouble then trying to get him back out, in a rapidly escalating series of near-successes. Connie is (argh) a con-man, an expert manipulator, and we follow him as our would-be protagonist, the movie barely giving us time to contemplate the havoc he’s leaving behind him, until the deep-breath relief of the ending. In fact, the title is supposed to be a reference to getting reduced prison sentence for good behavior (Connie and Nick are both fresh out of prison) and the end of the film shows the psychiatrist actually helping Nick after his villain brother is sent away.
The first thing we see after Connie “rescues” his brother from the institute is a bank robbery, wearing dark-skin masks and getting hilariously foiled by a dye pack. In the ensuing chase, Nick smashes through a window and gets busted, and Connie fails to bail him out with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s cancelled credit card. Connie then breaks the wrong guy out of the hospital – a plot twist I saw coming but dismissed as too ludicrous-obvious – then teams up with him (Ray: Buddy Duress, Holmes’s buddy in Heaven Knows What) to make quick cash for bail money. Ray was busted at an amusement park, and stashed a sprite bottle full of pure liquid LSD and possibly some money, so they trick underage Crystal into giving them a ride there, fuck with the security guard, and everyone gets arrested except Connie and Ray, who escape with the LSD-soda to the guard’s apartment, where Ray calls his dealer and finally things go wrong.
J. Safdie on the controvery:
I don’t think Connie is a racist. I think that he just knows how society functions. He knows that society is racist.
Connie makes choices instantly, and one gets the impression that it’s an instinctual ability that has helped him at times but will only prove his downfall on this particular night … Pattinson perfectly conveys the nervous energy of being essentially hunted by your own bad decisions without ever feeling like he’s chewing scenery.
Quiet, lumpy Joel Edgerton (fourth movie I’ve seen him in, maybe I’ll recognize him next time?) marries sweet Ruth Negga (Ethiopian, of World War Z), they just want to be left alone with their kids and their auto repairs and home building and what not, but they’re arrested because they live in a racist Virginia shithole, and forced to move out of town. The NAACP hears about this and decides to use their case to challenge federal law, hires a shaky-looking local lawyer (comedian Nick Kroll), and Life sends photographer Michael Shannon, who gets them national attention. A slow-paced, good-natured movie with a happy ending – what’s not to like?
Travis, an ace photographer and committed activist, explores his own sordid family history, which only gets more shameful as he goes on, trying to atone for the crimes of his heritage by at least bringing them to light. Travis was in the room, reading live narration and triggering clips, making the experience more interesting and confrontational. His research leads him through some truly fiction-sounding scenarios – he’s told to quit searching and is chased out of town, and eventually digs up multiple rapes and another murder. This one has been written up extensively, and more elegantly than I can manage.
A. Taubin from Sundance:
Set in the deep South, in the small town of Dothan, Alabama, where S.E. Branch, a white supremacist and Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann in Branch’s grocery store. Branch was charged with murder, but the case never went to trial and he suffered no consequences … How is it that some people escape the racism and misogyny in which they are raised (Branch abused his wife and daughters and likely killed more than one black man) and some cling to it as their reason for existence? Wilkerson doesn’t offer an answer. But raising the question — at this moment when families are torn apart by what they believe America is and should be — is more than enough.
What he found, and what we watch and listen to him deliberate upon, was not news of a single murder, but an entire history of racism and brutal violence against the local black community. Branch, he discovers, was an outspoken bigot linked to multiple instances of violence and abuse against black men and women. With only a pair of vague news clippings and Spann’s death certificate as evidence, Wilkerson proceeded to trace the entwined fates of the Branch and Spann families … The futility of this quest is the crux of the film and the aspect of the project that most plagues Wilkerson, whose narration is in a constant state of second-guessing, self-indictment, and flat-out shame at the extent of the atrocities … When, in the course of his research, Wilkerson discovers that his mother’s sister is a practising white supremacist, the film takes on an increasingly disturbing urgency.
Wilkerson isn’t being disingenuous in his emotions or approach, but some of the moves on display feel too forced to be truly effective, especially when they’re juxtaposed next to others that are above board. This is the one film I feel most conflicted about. On one hand, I’m not sure I should judge an individual’s personal, politically motivated expression, but on the other hand, I can’t lie and say that there weren’t times when it made me feel uncomfortable outside the scope of Wilkerson’s perceived intentions. With that being said, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? was one of the very best things I saw at the festival precisely because it got under my skin.
A bunch of… things. Sometimes it seemed like the movie was taking different aspects of Baltimore life/history/politics and rat life/history/infestations and tying them together into a beautiful conspiracy web, and sometimes it seems like the pieces did not fit together but he doggedly left them in the movie.
The part everyone’s talking about is the movie’s discussion of “redlining” (via sci-fi voiceover), preventing certain (ahem, black) areas of town from getting investment and development, and how the redline maps from eighty(?) years ago line up closely to today’s maps of the city’s worst poverty, education, etc. The part nobody’s really talking about is the drag racing footage, or why he takes the very effective opening title scene of a rat trying to escape a trash bin and repeats it later in the movie.
Other bits from most-to-least-relevant:
– city employee who treats rat infestations and speaks the movie’s premise (the rat problem in Baltimore is really a people problem)
– scientist who studied population concentrations by building a rat High-Rise and documenting civilization collapse
– video game footage textured with Baltimore aerial maps, giving a post-apocalyptic meltdown feeling, discussing how the universe creeps in through the seams of the imperfect 3D environment
– rat hunters (couple of guys with baseball bat and fishing pole, and one with an array of guns)
– rat’s-height roving drone cameras, both real and VR
– a couple watching TV with their pet rats
– stylistic quirks (clicking sounds on edits, piercing electronic noise, white flashes)
The ending, in which Baltimore is leveled and begun again, bothered Katy, who says that suddenly telling an obviously fictional story and presenting it on equal ground as the rest of the segments calls all the movie’s facts into question.
Our screening was preceded by a short talk by Sarah Jeong which started by pondering a possible plot hole in the Star Wars film series (both the jedi and the empire have “long-distance” video chat capabilities, so why do the rebels fly around with their precious plans on a physical disc?), then presuming it’s because all the best communications technologies are held by governments and regular shmoes have no access to intergalactic data transmission, ending with a plea for modern net neutrality – genius.
Rat Film embraces an off-kilter essayistic form that digs through the city’s legislative history of systematic segregation (in its way reminding me of Robert Persons’ mournful General Orders No. 9) and rat-infested back alleys of the city’s tenements, subversively suggesting along the way that the countless minorities left amongst the wreckage of unjust codification have been little more than rats in a failed experiment run by white bodies. Meticulously researched and eerily presented by an ethereal Siri-like voiceover, Rat Film’s crushing thesis lands with a serious crunch that reminds of the death and detritus that’s been institutionalized since the city’s inception.
What really gives Rat Film its charge is its interest in mapping, and in the ways that maps intervene on the world by representing them. The rat provides a convenient metaphor for the social, or at least the social envisioned as a disease-spreading mass — intellectual, economic, racial or microbial — that must be contained … When Rat Film engages a number of actual maps, from those redlining diagrams to 3D urban real estate models and VR platforms, it does so in order to stretch them to their pre-programmed limits, revealing those spots where they fray at the seams. What is left at the end is a world of precarity, one of predominantly African-American people made precarious by these instruments of social engineering, and of a world in need of new models for living.
Daniel Kaluuya (my favorite Black Mirror actor) is dating Allison Williams (my fourth-favorite Girls actress), comes to visit her parents Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford and brother Caleb Landry Jones (Antiviral) in an aggressively white suburb. At first there’s the socially-awkward but not overtly threatening kind of racial tension: dad brags about his Obama support and all the white family’s employees are black. But things get weirder after the mom hypnotizes Kaluuya and now he can’t tell if he’s being paranoid or if there’s a conspiracy, until it’s too late and he’s tied to a chair in the basement being prepped for brain surgery, so the highest bidder (blind Stephen Root) can flee his aging white body and live fifty more years inside Kaluuya’s.
A finely crafted thriller, and I’d never in a million years guess it was from the writer of Keanu. I could tell that Peele had made a super-effective movie when the white Nebraska audience at my crowded screening erupted in cheers when Allison Williams got shot (or maybe she’s just their least-favorite Girls actress as well). Betty Gabriel (The Purge 3) and Marcus Henderson (Insidious 4) play the grandparents play-acting as servants (she’s especially good – coldly suspicious then briefly vulnerable). Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12 and Atlanta, Snoop in Straight Outta Compton) is the party guest who yells the title line at Kaluuya when a camera flash wakes him from “the sunken place.” And comedian Lil Rel Howery is Kaluuya’s buddy in the TSA who gets all the best lines.
Some of the reception has focused on whether it’s a scary/effective horror movie, which is the same kind of horror-purist bickering that lowered appreciation for Cabin in the Woods and The Witch. Come on everyone, break out of your genre holes. Peele more accurately calls it a “social thriller,” and says he’s working on four more.
One minute in, this movie that will play every mall in America makes it viscerally clear that it’s not black guys who are scary — it’s neighborhoods packed with sheltered dopes who quake at the very thought of black guys … Get Out is searing satire, with scary/comic riffs on slavery and assimilation, but it’s also a smashing crowd-pleaser of a horror film, complete with mad science, cult-like crazies and a creep-out homage to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin … But even as Peele brings the house down, we see the serious toll of all this horror on Chris’ face and body. Neither the movie nor anybody watching can take it all as a joke.