SCREEN GRABS The most eagerly awaited movie of the week—for many, of the year—is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, based on Ron Stallworth’s real-life account of infiltrating the Klan in late 1970s Colorado.
The first African-American officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, Stallworth (played onscreen by John David Washington) noticed a local newspaper ad soliciting new members for the KKK, and on the phone acted the part of an eager racist recruit so well that he was invited to join up. Of course this required the participation of a white undercover cop (Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman) to play the role in person. The two got in deeper and deeper, driven by the suspicion that this Klan chapter was planning a violent attack on black activists.
Though it delivers many of the same damning points about institutionalized racism, BlacKkKlansman is largely the feel-good opposite to last summer’s feel-bad flashback Detroit. It’s got the giddy spirit of a caper flick, one that’s sometimes a little more farcical in tone than feels apt for the subject.
It’s Lee’s most urgently relevant major project in a while—possibly since Do the Right Thing nearly 30 years ago—and he knows it. At two and a quarter hours, Lee’s film is overstuffed not just with stylistic indulgences and some overly caricatured elements, but every cultural reference point and social issue that crosses his mind. This story’s obvious corrolaries to our current political climate are sometimes drawn with all the subtlety of a hammer blow.
Still, it’s very much a movie we need right now, and it’s very nearly just as good as you want it to be. Even two short years ago, who guessed the extent to which popular racism and white supremacy might make a “comeback,” crawling out from various rocks to bask in the sunshine of our current POTUS’ tacit approval?
However, leave it to Spike Lee to complicate even this triumphant personal moment. The night before seeing BlacKkKlansman, I walked to the Alamo Drafthouse to see Melvin Van Peebles’ newly restored Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the 1971 proto-“blaxploitation” classic that Lee references (among other films of that era) in his latest. Just short of the theater on Mission, there was a wall of advertising posters—trumpeting Lee’s other current project, a series of promotional shorts shilling for Uber. Yes, Uber, the e-commerce giant with a consummate rep for killing one industry, replacing it with a sub-living-wage one, regulation-evasion, and having a creepy-sexist corporate environment.
Really, Spike? Say what you will about Spike Lee, for better or worse—but there’s no denying that while he demands admiration, he really doesn’t care if he’s liked.
Elsewhere, all opening this Friday (Aug. 10) at area theaters unless otherwise noted.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST
Caught going hot and heavy with her best girlfriend in a backseat after prom in 1993, the titular heartland teen (Chloe Grace Moretz) is hustled off by her religious adoptive parents to a Bible-based “gay conversion” camp. There, she joins a motley crew of other teens variably earnest and just-pretending in acquiescence to the general “pray the gay away” program.
Based on a YA novel by Emily M. Danforth, this second feature by director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) is like But I’m a Cheerleader! with all the comedy leached out. (A major exception: The recurrent clips from something called Blessercize, an actual late-80s Christian workout tape you can find in its campy entirely on YouTube here.) Anxious to caricature no one, not even the camp staff who often seem barely convinced by their own nutty rhetoric, this is a poignant and involving drama to a point. But it’s also low-key to a fault, ending without much sense of resolution, or even that very much has happened. (A pet peeve: Movies in which characters triumphantly “ride off into the sunset” at the fadeout, with no thought given to where they’re headed, or how they’ll survive once they get there.)
It’s a good little movie, but did it have to be quite so “little”? Perhaps the starrier Boy Erased, which arrives later this year, will eke more potent drama from the same subject matter. Embaradero & Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
THE ATOMIC CAFE
A surprise arthouse hit in 1982 and repertory/midnight-movie staple for years afterward, this compilation of Cold War cautionary kitsch—instructing schoolchildren to “duck and cover” during nuclear attack, and other ways to thwart the dastardly Commies—was the rare documentary to achieve a popular cult following. It’s been newly restored; co-director Jayne Loader will appear for a Q&A session after the Mon/13 7 pm screening. Roxie. More info here.
JEANETTE: THE CHILDHOOD OF JOAN OF ARC
Bruno Dumont began his career with three of the worst, most pretentiously empty movies ever to get someone a leg-up as “auteur”: The Life of Jesus (1997), Humanite (1999) and Twentynine Palms (2003). But he has improved—even if many of those who called him a genius back then hardly notice what he’s up to now.
This eccentric latest project is (take a breath now) an original rock musical about the Maid of Orleans when she was a farmer’s daughter (not the naughty kind!) receiving messages from God about personally ending France’s Hundred Years’ War with England, but hadn’t yet acted on them. Lise Peplat Prudhomme plays the future freedom martyr as a child, Jeanne Voisin as a teenager.
Jeannette is goofy, for sure, although really no more so than Jesus Christ Superstar, whose 1973 film version you might recall was also shot on basically the same locations the historical events purportedly occurred. The actors speak (or rather struggle with) archaic language, wearing period-accurate clothes, and nearly everything here occurs on the grassy sand dunes where our heroine grazes her sheep.
Yet the songs (composed by IGORRR) are primarily in a prog-metal mode, with elements of rap, electronica and whatnot; the “choreography” largely consists of pogoing and headbanging. There’s some surprisingly good music and singing here, yet at the same time the movie often feels as awkward and amateurish as a community-theater pageant. Alternately delightful and dull, it nonetheless will ultimately win over most viewers simply for being such an out-there curio. Roxie. More info here.
Danish actress Trine Dyrholm plays Nico nee Christa Paffgen, the German war survivor turned model, actress, singer and songwriter best known for her mid-60s stint in the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s general “Factory” scene. By the 1980s she’d buried her fabled blonde beauty under added pounds and a black dyejob, not to mention a long-term heroin habit. Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s film recreates this trainwreck’s last two or three years (the title is a slight misnomer) before she died in a bicycle accident on Ibiza at age 49.
We don’t expect glamour from this point in the subject’s life. Still, Dyrholm’s performance at first seems awfully close to parody—dull, dense, humorless, rude, damaged, this Nico acts (and looks) like a Teutonic Debbie Downer as played by Rosanne Barr. As she tours Europe with a ragtag group sufficiently low-end-professional to put up with her antics, the film is for a long time as dirge-like as one of her songs. (While she does a fair impersonation, it’s arguable that Dyrholm is a better singer than the one she portrays—faint praise indeed.)
Nonetheless, the film does eventually summon up some admiration for its surly, frumpy anti-heroine, in the last lap warming up enough to even render her rather likable. It’s not recommended for those allergic to art that’s “depressing,” although if you felt that way, why would you be interested in Nico to begin with? Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD
Sometime after the turn of the millennium, longtime industry rumors finally leaked into the public sphere, resulting in interviews and a book (Full Service) wherein one Scotty Bowers admitted he’d spent many years as a hustler and procurer to innumerable big Hollywood stars—his polysexual hookup business based out of a gas station the strapping ex-Marine ran on Hollywood Boulevard.
This proved controversial, not so much because people thought
Bowers was lying (his long list of prominent showbiz friends suggested otherwise), but because they took offense at his “speaking ill of the dead” who obviously couldn’t defend themselves. Bower’s own defense was that he was never ashamed of anything he did (and he did everything, as well as everyone), so why should un-closeting the deceased matter in our more liberal era?
Matt Tynauer’s documentary provides the still-spry 95-year-old another forum, as he retells racy, starry anecdotes from Full Service as well as revealing more about his own life. (He’s been married—yes, to a woman—for decades now, a conventional partnership complicated by his escalating problem with hoarding.) He’s an entertaining old coot, and needless to say it’s fun to hear about the hidden sexual proclivities of late luminaries both predictable (Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, etc.) and surprising (prepare to have your illusions about Tracy & Hepburn shattered).
The lightweight film errs only in trying to make out Bowers as some kind of noble trailblazer. Not a deep or articulate thinker, he’s simply a lifelong hedonist who enjoyed helping others get their rocks off too—attempts to posit him as something more come off as pretentious bosh that even he refuses to take seriously. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.