Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Jay says: go see it. Now.

BlacKkKlansman

Ron Stallworth is a young black man, proud to be Colorado Springs’ first African-American police officer, in 1972 (or 1979 in real life, but from these parentheses forward, please understand that though this is based on his autobiography of real events, I’ll be discussing the events in the film). He’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the PD, and like Jackie, he’s the impossibly perfect, flawless, magical black man who will need to constantly turn his cheek – not just to the racist public, but to racist colleagues as well. Life might be difficult for Ron walking the beat but he’ll never know because he’s buried in the basement records office being abused by his own fellow officers. He’s desperate to get some real police work but I bet he got more than he bargained for. When he’s partnered with a Jewish officer named Flip, the two of them together make a single perfect Klansman.

Wait, what? Yeah, true story, though it sounds like the setup of a joke with a cringe-worthy punch-line. A black guy and a Jew teamed up together, undercover, to infiltrate the KKK. Ron (John David Washington) says all the right things on the phone, all the way up to the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace). Flip (Adam Driver) provides the requisite white face and trucker caps. Together nothing can stop them, except possibly guys in hooded robes.

Spike Lee directs this thing, based on Stallworth’s memoir. But the spin that Lee and the other writers bring to the movie is fantastic. While this would have been a remarkable story at any time, setting it is amidst blaxploitation movies and Nixon’s reelection 03-blackkklansman-review.w1200.h630campaign gives it a crisp edge, and the constant allusions to Trump’s eventual win, thanks in part to his KKK ties, give it a sharp one. Damn it’s smart. And also depressing. And funny. Like, really funny. And so sad. Because as astutely-observed as this stuff is, it’s astonishing and disappointing to realize that 40 years on, we haven’t made much discernible progress. White people were horrified and baffled by 45’s election, which is funny because it was obviously white people who elected him. The two kinds obviously don’t talk. But nearly every black American I’ve spoken to was not overly surprised by the result (which is a far cry from being happy about it). They knew the country’s true temperature since they live with its consequences every day. And now those things have been outed, given permission to be voiced, and suddenly 2018 is resembling 1972 is some very uncomfortable ways.

John David Washington is really great in this role. He made his movie debut at just 6 years old, playing a school kid in a movie Spike Lee made with his father, Denzel called Malcolm X…maybe you’ve heard of it? If he’s getting acting lessons at home, they’re paying off. He’s subtle and natural and the movie’s success hinges on how well he underplays events that seem so impossible. Adam Driver does well too; he knows he’s second banana, but his character undergoes an interesting arc, from “it’s just a job” to really internalizing the hated for Jews that he constantly has to endorse as part of the klan. It has to mess you up to say things against your own people, to disavow yourself from a group that is part of your essential self – we feel that every time Flip denies his religion out loud to suspicious klansman, but it’s an interesting callback to Ron’s police department interview, where he basically had to do the same. And that should give us pause. And Topher Grace gets to play David Duke because Armie Hammer’s perfect Aryan face was presumably busy playing a slave owner in some other movie.

Ron spends the movie trying to prove to himself, to his potential girlfriend, and to his superior officers, that you can work from the inside to tear something down. His lady, the president of the black student union, is a proud agitator who doesn’t believe you should belong to the system you’re trying to destroy. “Black liberation!” she shouts at him. And we clearly see his own internal struggle because on the one hand he’s a first hand witness to the system being broken, and stacked against him, but he also believes he can be an agent for change. It takes guts to be the guy on the inside. I guess after being that guy for his whole life, joining the klan maybe didn’t seem so scary.

In fact, Lee does well subtly highlight the similarities between the two groups: kops and klan. Both seemed nearly identically racist in the 70s. But what got me is that in the film, both groups refer to themselves as “family.” Very recently I was telling Sean this theory of mine that any non-family member who refers to themselves as “family” is doing it for nefarious reasons. Work “families” tend to be abusive. It means, sure they’re internal fighting. It’s fine. It’s family. In the police department it means we don’t rat on each other. If some officers are abusing their position to harass people (spoiler alert: black people!) we turn a blind eye. There are so many clever, subversive little elements that they get under your skin incredibly effectively.

And just when you’re starting to feel cutesey about all the Nazi-salute foreplay and lynching pillow talk, Lee flips the script and reminds us of our present-day truth, where we cannot hide behind our smug sense of superiority. We are not better, and there’s no better way to remind us of that than with footage from last year’s white superemacist, neo-nazi, ‘white civil rights’ rally in Charlottesville. This weekend is actually the one-year anniversary, and tensions are high. This movie will likely never reach the hearts and minds of those who could really use it, but let it be both a balm and a rallying cry for the rest of us, perhaps even an emergency flare. We need movies like this to get us through these dark days.

 

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The Vanished

When director Chang-hee Lee saw Oriol Paulo’s 2012 film, The Body, he enjoyed it, but he also saw how he would make it differently, and perhaps more importantly, how he could inject it with some Korean spice. Chang-hee Lee introduces the film to us at Fantasial Film Festival, and appears overwhelmed to have traveled all this way for his first feature film, awed at the reception, abashed at the applause. After greeting us in French (garnering immediate rock star status), he reassures us that this is not so much a horror film as a thriller, and so of course the opening scene causes me to pee just a teeny, tiny, barely perceptible bit. It was hella scary.

OF COURSE it’s scary: a night security guard goes down to the basement DURING A BLACKOUT on a rainy night BY HIMSELF armed with only a flashlight TO A MORGUE where he sees – what? a woman? a body? a ghost? We don’t know, because someone (or something) shadowy gives him a crack on the head, and when the police arrive it’s night really the security guard who grabs their attention, but the empty drawer in the morgue.

Yoon Seol Hee, newly dead, formerly a young, successful CEO, has gone missing. Well, her corpse has. Bad-boy detective Woo Joong Shik is on the case, and he’s cynical as hell and casts an accusatory eye at her “trophy husband”, Park Jin Han, although he’s more concerned with murder than mere body snatching. Of course, since Park and Yoon run MV5BOTk0ZDAzOTMtMTg3NS00Y2Y3LWI4ZDYtNjE2MGU3NTRkNTc4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_with an elite crowd, the higher ups are cautioning Detective Woo to back off – but he’s much too much a loose canon to respect authority, isn’t he? You know he is. Meanwhile, if Park is looking inadequately grief stricken, he’s overly concerned about his wife’s missing body. And pretty soon he’s frantically claiming that she’s responsible for her own disappearance, and is somehow still alive.

The cool thing about this movie is that it takes place over the course of just one night, which gives it a real sense of urgency. Movie detectives are often of this variety, the old “renegade cop” trope, the guy who plays by his own rules. He’s tough, a bit of a cowboy, a definite anti-hero, often with a side of alcoholism or anger (mis)management. But there’s something about seeing this Detective among his much more restrained, polite, effacing, perhaps more stereotypically Korean colleagues that’s intriguing and fresh. No one quite knows what to make of him, and he definitely shakes up the investigation.

Even if you’ve seen the original Spanish version, you’ll still get a kick out of The Vanished; the Korean setting of course makes for quite a change, but circumstances and even outcomes have been rearranged as well, for your viewing pleasure. And to be honest, it was quite a pleasure. I can’t believe this is a first feature for the director. It looks slick and cool and there are lots of visual details to admire, we get a sense of his style and aesthetic and the whole thing just glows. The cinematography is beautiful. As I mentioned, this film takes place over the course of a night, so DP Lee Jong-youl coats it in a cold blue wash that lends just a touch of creepiness to an already creepy scenario. But in flashbacks he floods us with warm, natural lighting, which is a bit cruel actually – it gives us a false sense of comfort when really we should never let our guard down.

The thing about The Vanished is, it’s a very compelling puzzle. And even if you’re very clever and you  manage to slot all the moving pieces into just the right places, you’ll find it’s one of those trick puzzles that only look complete – actually it just unlocks like 3 more puzzles to solve! The veteran cast (Kang-woo Kim, Hee-ae Kim, and Sang-Kyung Kim as the rumpled Detective) close ranks and draw us in with their institutional politeness – but something stinks in this morgue, and it’s certainly not the dead body. Because, you know, it’s missing. And maybe not even dead.

Cam

Mostly, we’re very lucky to travel the world, attend film festivals, and see great movies eons before any of you jerks. But, to be honest, there are a few downsides. Popcorn isn’t a food group. It’s hard to take notes in the dark. There’s only so many times you can sincerely shake Matt Damon’s hand and say “Pleased to meet you.” But worst of all: sometimes you see a really great, or really interesting, or really controversial film and all you want, in fact NEED, to do is talk about it with fellow film fanatics but you can’t because literally no one else has seen it yet. I remember seeing La La Land at TIFF, my eyes stinging as I went from my dark corner of the theatre to broad daylight, sobbing as I walked through downtown Toronto to my next film, and walking straight into Arrival. Back to back massive, amazing films that I needed to discuss and debrief – but with whom? And then I saw Jackie and Lion and Loving and The Lobster, 4 or 5 movies a day for 10 days, at the end of which, I’m punch drunk. And then I have to sit on all this movie madness for anywhere from 3 months (lots of Oscar contenders are aiming for Christmas releases) to 3+ years (if the festival fails to bring in offers for distribution). Thank goodness I drink; if my memory were any better, I’d probably be fucked.

Cam is one of those movies that I’m dying to talk about, and it proves that a press pass is a nice thing, but 17 press passes for my 17 friends would be much nicer. Of course, I MV5BNjI1MTQ2YWEtYmE0OS00NzJkLWFhMDgtNmM3OTJkYzFlZDYwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODc4ODY5Mzc@._V1_SX1776_CR0,0,1776,998_AL_come home and stare at this white, white screen, trying to distill my thoughts, keep them straight, not confuse them with any of the other 32 trillion movies I’ve seen, and find a way to sort of talk about them with all of you. And that’s possibly the hardest part for me because I’m a bit of blabber mouth but a review is not about telling, it’s about hinting, hinting just enough so that you have an idea whether you should see it or skip it or read some other, more cohesive review that doesn’t waste 400 words complaining about having seen a terrific film.

I buried the lead there. Surprise: Cam is a terrific film!

I’m so glad I got that off my chest. I was playing it so cool during that first paragraph, trying to distract us both with all my reminiscing (I’m pretty sure those are my  memories anyway – of course, I wouldn’t swear to it. Not on my mother’s life. Not even on yours – no offense, of course, but I don’t even know the lady).

Cam is about a sex worker named Alice – though her fans know her as Lola. She’s a cam girl. She works for a website where men can live-stream women for “free” – although getting her to do pretty much anything requires a lot of “tipping.” Lola is quite popular. She’s able to maintain relationships with several men outside the chatroom – not in the real world per say, but in other digital venues, where they’re encouraged to spend more money, and even send gifts, for a more personalized show. Alice (Madeline Brewer) is a surprisingly ambitious sex worker, and she’s smart too. She pushes her shows to the limit, choreographing, staging, and even faking gruesome suicide scenes which her horny, horrible customers seem to gobble up. Alice has her eye on the top: she wants to be the #1 camgirl. But that pride in her work only extends so far – her mother don’t know shit about how Alice pays her rent. She keeps her two lives separate and firmly on lockdown – and that works, until it doesn’t.

One day she finds herself locked out of her account, and stranger still, someone else is using it. Well, not someone else. It’s still her. It’s just not her her. Who is this impostor? How is this sneaky, thieving lookalike even possible?

Cam descends into this pulsating vortex where we must question everything. What is digital identity? At this point, is it even separate from our “offline” identity? How valuable is it? How do we prove it? How do we safeguard it?

Alice is a many-flavoured protagonist, and Madeline Brewer will FREAK YOU THE FUCK OUT. Damn she’s good in this, in a can’t-watch, must-watch kind of way. Fierce and fearless, she’ll turn you on, she’ll mess you up, she’ll  haunt your dreams.

Cam is a smart, timely movie about sex work, but it’s also this swirling, confounding, complicated piece of cinema that manages to look stylish and cool even as it challenges some pretty core notions. I like its subversive nature, how it pokes the bear in sly and cool ways, how it opened me up to an underground world I’ve never really seen before. I was “lucky” enough to be in the audience for its world premiere at Fantasia Film Festival, but I won’t be truly happy until you’ve all been infected with it also, so I can finally dissect it the meaty, enthusiastic way it deserves.

 

Leave No Trace

This is a special breed of movie. In a summer of blockbusters, this quiet movie is a stand-out, a necessary refuge from the storm of testosterone and TNT playing at the local cineplex.

It’s about an army vet, Will (Ben Foster) who has made a home for himself and 13 year old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in a national park, where they read books, grow and forage food, and live a peaceful, low-stress existence. Until, that is, a small mistake trips them up and they are apprehended by park rangers and social services. Though Tom is obviously well-cared for and has been MV5BMjExNWUzZDItMTdmMS00ZjQ5LThlZTktYTE0Y2RhNzEzOWRkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzM1MTc3ODg@._V1_educated beyond her grade level, she should be in school, and have a roof over her head. At least that’s what the social worker says. But once housed and employed, things get sticky. Tom is a curious and lively teenager, making friends and thriving in her new environment. Her dad struggles to assimilate, and he’s largely unable to cope.

Trust me, I know the description sounds ordinary, but the execution is flawless.

  1. The casting is impeccable. Ben Foster isn’t a big, bankable name but he’s every casting director’s wet dream. He brings intensity and gravitas to every role he encounters, and the stoic approach he takes with Will is perfect, though few other actors would give themselves permission to try such subtlety. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie is fabulous. The movie is all about their dynamic and it only works if both halves of their little family unit is working in synchronicity. Tom is obviously bright but McKenzie gives her such a sense of vulnerability that we never lose sight of what’s at stake.
  2. The script, by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, is such a luxury. They find so much value and beauty in simplicity that I’m astonished at how much I felt for what amounts to a fairly sparse script. The difference is, they’ve edited carefully, they’ve pared it down to the essentials, and tuned them ever so carefully. What’s left is a lot of room for the actors to be comfortable and take ownership. Room for the director to make her mark. It’s so smartly-written. It would be easy to find melodrama in these circumstances but instead Granik and Rosellini consistently find empathy and dignity and it makes weepy just to write about it.
  3. The cinematography is astonishing. At times it looks like an expensive nature documentary – one that fits seamlessly into a feature film. Someone (Michael McDonough) took a lot of care with this. He films the park with such loving and patience we get the sense of how at home the characters are in this special place. By contrast, the city looks colder, less inviting.
  4. Granik’s direction is flawless. As you may be surmising from everything written so far, there isn’t much in the movie, not even silences and blank spaces, that aren’t actively working for the plot or the characters. And by keeping things trim, it forces the audience to be active too. The keys are all there, and the deft direction encourages us to pick them up, sort them out. This movie respects its characters and its audience – objectively, the events and circumstances are tragic, but they’re communicated with such restraint. It’s easy to have sympathy when no one is asking for it. Will and Tom do not describe their situation as homelessness, and the movie lovingly backs them up in this.

This movie is so thoughtful and caring and it shows a different model for living and loving with no judgment. There’s no malice, no villains. Even the social services are shown to be well-intentioned. But Will and Tom are hardly the only outcasts, and Leave No Traces embraces them as well. It has room in its heart for everyone and even though there is much to be sad about, the film is so sweetly assembled that I left the theatre with a little pocket of hope in my heart. There are no easy answers, but Granik’s gaze is fair and honest and I’m just bowled over by every inch of this movie. It’s a rare and precious thing, and though it may be called Leave No Trace, it actually leaves quite a mark.

 

Sorry To Bother You

Well.

I hardly know how to talk about a movie like this.

It’s radical.

Ostensibly it’s about “telemarketing” but that’s like saying Toy Story is about single parenting. It’s really about racism and assimilation and wage slavery and identity – by way of telemarketing, at least to start.

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is thrilled to get a shitty telemarketing job, working for commission. There’s almost no way to actually succeed doing this kind of work, but Cassius stumbles upon the secret, magic key: a white voice. A persuasive, approachable, overconfident voice, like Tobias Funke’s, perhaps. Using this voice, Cassius shoots straight to the top, rocketing past his buddies and even his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa MV5BMzNjZTZlZmYtODU0ZS00NzFkLTkyZGEtOTI5M2Q0YTZmNzg3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_Thompson) who are trying to organize a union that will help the little guys make a living wage too.

On top, Cassius is of course hypnotized by the wealth and privilege, but now that he’s rubbing elbows with “the man”, he’s finding it’s a little different than he’d imagined. “The man” is of course Armie Hammer, like you ever fucking doubted it. Hammer was literally born to be typecast as a slave owner – his great-grandfather was a legit oil tycoon and philanthropist, and the family is worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200M. So yeah, he’s got owning slaves in his blood, and we can all read it in his cheekbones. In Sorry To Bother You, he plays a CEO who is “saving the world” by enslaving all the poor people and making them thank him for it. Signing a contract, they agree to work wage-free for him forever in exchange for housing (which looks surprisingly like prison cells minus the bars but with double the roommates) and food.

And everything is just gently pushing you. Pushing your boundaries, almost imperceptibly. In the beginning, things are near normal but they escalate, asking us to accept just one more inch of absurdity. It is THE best kind of satire, uncompromising but plenty challenging.

First-time writer-director Boots Riley has made a film that is gutsy and experimental. It feels like this is a guy who isn’t sure he’ll ever get to do this again, so he’s not leaving a single idea on the table. He takes huge risks and when they pay off, hot damn. Sorry To Bother you zigs and zags in unexpected places but the super talented cast helps this thing stay grounded. Riley is full of piss and vinegar and a comic outrage that’s infection. This is bold stuff, exciting to watch, fearless, outrageous, and I want more. Not for the feint of heart.

Eighth Grade

What was eighth grade like for you? Sweaty palms and horrible class photos and nerve-racking social encounters? A bad haircut, perhaps? An unrequited crush? Does anyone ever feel cool in the eighth grade? Is that even possible?

Kayla does not. She’s wading miserably through her last week of the eighth grade, friendless and sort of petrified, living a double life. At home she creates Youtube content teaching others to be confident like she is – although at school, of course, she is not. She knows classmates would describe her as quiet if they describe her at all, but that’s not how she feels inside, even if she can never quite communicate this gregarious alter ego to anyone, ever.

Kayla is portrayed by Elsie Fisher, who is so good and so talented she’ll take you right back to your eighth grade shoes. And boy are they awkward shoes. But it takes great MV5BZDYxZWY4NjQtYzM2Ni00YmE0LTlmZDItNTZlZGMwYWVkZWI0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_wells of courage in an actor to be as vulnerable as she is up on that screen, so raw and real that we are instantly transported to our own childhoods. And Fisher is indeed a very young woman herself, (otherwise best known as the voice of Agnes from Despicable Me, for which she improvised that delightful little tune about unicorns) which makes it even more impressive that straight out of the box, she’s amazing and transcendent.

Eighth Grade is about that tender age, around 13, when kids are transitioning to young adults. To when everything feels big and important and all-consuming. When a spot of unhappiness feels like it might last forever. But in reality, things are changing so fast, and life is lobbing surprise after surprise, and it’s really only in the looking back that we can pinpoint all these little episodes that helped make us who we are. The Eighth Grade itself probably felt like it went on for decades, but it’s something we all have in common, and it’s the reason like someone like Bo Burnham, who as you might have guessed is a man, can still relate so well that he’s made a pretty accurate account of that time in a young person’s life. And even if Elsie has slightly different trappings: iPhones and Instagram and FMO, her base desires and fears and neuroses are universal.

Elsie is a brilliant character. Despite her social failures, she is sweet and smart and resilient. We see ourselves in her, but we also want to befriend her, mother her. She is the sun and we orbit around her, experiencing her different angles until all are exhausted and all we want is to hug her, to tell her it gets better.

We didn’t all have the same voyeuristic roommate at University, we didn’t all have the same embezzling first boss, we don’t all have dads who are dentists/truck enthusiasts, but we were all knobs in the 8th grade. Bo Burnham has captured this gracefully in this feature; Eighth Grade is a movie for all of us. Except, of course, for eighth graders themselves, who can only watch a movie about themselves when they are old enough to take it. Yeah, let’s just sit with that one for a minute. This movie is rated R, for language, for some teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual material. All things the typical 8th grader will encounter in their every day lives but cannot be trusted to witness in movies. Which is kind of fucked up. So if nothing else, this movie reminds us all how hard it is to be that age, to be in tricky situations that we aren’t really prepared for, to have the burden of expectation without the benefit of experience. If you know an eighth grader, this movie will have you wanting to cut them just a little extra slack. Life is hard. Kindness costs nothing. Set a good example.

Miss Stevens

Miss Stevens is a 29 year old high school English teacher taking 3 students on a weekend away for drama club. Student Sam (Anthony Quintal) is bright and sensitive and dedicated. Margot (Lili Reinhart) is studious and uptight. Billy (Timothee Chalamet) is “having trouble caring about a lot of things” – a kid with behavioural problems Miss Stevens is supposed to keep an eye on, but actually he’s the one she most relates to. And it doesn’t seem like she relates to much these days. Outside of the classroom, Miss Stevens (Lily Rabe) is sloppier, less responsible, more potty-mouthed. And on this drama outing in particular, she seems to let her guard down.

Julia Hart is a super talented director who I might never have known if not for MV5BMjA5MTc2Njg4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzY1MzMwMDI@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_touring around to various film festivals. She makes beautiful, sad, detailed films about strong women. Miss Stevens is such a character. As chaperone, she’s discovering that this whole “coming of age” thing isn’t just for teenagers – you do it first when you actually become the age of majority, and a second time when your adulthood really takes. For Miss Stevens, it is perhaps only truly gelling now, on this trip, as the only grown-up jumping on the hotel bed.

Life is hard. Miss Stevens is fragile. But the fact that she’s navigating these conflicting things, and the spongy, tricky thing that is friendship between students and teachers, means she is growing and learning and becoming the self she’s supposed to be. And it’s kind of amazing to see something so authentic on the screen. This movie is small but perfect in its smallness, uniquely positioned to bring out those tiny intimacies that string us together in life.

Lily Rabe is terrific in this, heart breaking and complex and frustrating and real. Timothee Chalamet proves that he’s got star-making stuff up his sleeve. Everyone and everything just comes together to make this movie mature and fascinating, balanced and natural, intimate but familiar. Check it out.

 

 

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Things that start out seeming like a commune can actually end up more like a cult in the end. The movie starts at that end, with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) running away from it, and being pursued, which is a good way to know for sure that it wasn’t ever a commune. She’s been gone for years so her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) are pretty surprised to get her call, but they welcome her into their home though she keeps her past whereabouts on the downlow.

Lucy and Ted have a very nice life and an idyllic home, but Martha can’t really relax. She wonders if she’s far enough away, if she’s safe. She’s haunted by flashbacks of the cult that kept her captive. And Lucy is still a little hurt that her sister was just out MV5BYTZkZmM4ZjYtOGM5Mi00YzllLTk4OTgtNTJlODhmMzIwY2NjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDQzMDYzOQ@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_of contact for so long – she might have empathy if only she knew the truth. But the two sisters have only each other for family, and now they’re struggling to readjust to each other. And truthfully, Martha is a little frustrating with the tight lip thing.

John Hawkes plays the charismatic cult leader who rapes the girls but then writes them a lovely ballad the next morning. It’s an interesting role for him. I love John Hawkes, he’s so unassuming but he’s got this massive range. In this he straddles this character, dangling him between ordinary Joe and insidious monster. And of course it’s the monsters who look normal who are the most scary, aren’t they? That’s how they catch you.

Christopher Abbott, Julia Garner, and the wonderful Maria Dizzia round out the cult cast, giving it some flavour, because not everyone gets to be the tyrannical messiah.

Leaving is hard. Staying isn’t easy. Sometimes it seems impossible to do either/or. Director Sean Durkin creates a real psychological quagmire; it goes down relatively smoothly but leaves a drop in your stomach so you remember – yeah, now that was a movie.

Gook

I admit that I’ve kind of been avoiding this one. This movie and I have circled each other awkwardly at several film festivals. I’d heard the buzz, sure, but couldn’t repeat it. I mean, just look at that aggressively confrontational title. It makes me uncomfortable. Understand that’s not a criticism; I believe it is intentional, and I admire that, forcing us to sit with this glaring four-letter message of hate, a word used by white faces to make others feel small and less than.

Gook is a movie shot in glaring black and white about the tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans during the Rodney King riots. Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So) are Korean-American brothers struggling to keep their late father’s MV5BMjU5MDQ2NDY4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjcwODE5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,740_AL_shoe store afloat even though its location in a predominantly poor and African-American neighbourhood is less than ideal. On this particular day, as the whole city awaits the King verdict, they get a visitor at the store. Kamilla (Simone Baker) is an unlikely friend and ally, being an African-American 11 year old girl, and yet she just won’t stay away, even though she should be in school, and she’s been expressly forbidden by her older brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.).

Aside from starring, Justin Chon wrote and directed as well, and you can immediately tell how many intimately personal details he’s incorporated. His choice to shoot in black and white only emphasizes the deeply emotional script, and allows simple but striking cinematography to transport. Rationally, I know the film wasn’t perfect, and there are even a couple of details I could nit-pick, but emotionally I felt hypnotized. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lovely Ms. Baker, which Chon must have known since he generously gives her top billing.There’s so much to praise here it almost has me tongue-tied, and I suppose I’d rather not give too much away. Gook is dense with beautiful observations and strong dialogue and aching insight.

Although I’ve always known that gook is an ugly word, an angry slur, I’m ashamed that it wasn’t until this film that I learned that it’s actually the Korean word (guk) that simply means country. Hanguk is Korea; Miguk is America. Americans took this word full of pride and used it against them during the war because it’s easier to kill ‘gooks’ than to kill people. Gook is a powerful reminder that America has oppressed basically every minority during its nearly 242 years. And yet the immigrants still come – to the land of freedom, wealth, and opportunity. And maybe someday, with their help, even equality.

Please Give

Kate and Alex own a successful, upscale second-hand furniture store; they buy estate items from grieving families and turn a tidy profit. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) also own the apartment next door to theirs, and are impatiently waiting for its former owner and current occupant to die before they can knock down some walls and start the renovations. The old lady is cantankerous enough that they don’t feel particularly guilty about this, though their repeated run-ins with her granddaughters (Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet) are increasingly awkward.

That sounds kind of brutal, but what writer-director Nicole Holofcener has created in Kate is actually a very interesting, nuanced character who’s experiencing some of that white woman, liberal guilt that comes with middle age and introspection. Kate is living MV5BNTM0OTU5ODY5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzgwNzUzMw@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,997_AL_in complex economic times that challenge her notions of propriety. She can’t pass a homeless person without contributing to their cup, which makes her privileged teenage daughter somehow feel deprived. There’s something really fascinating about Kate; she’s complex, and not afraid to have conflicting emotions. She has mastered the world in which she lives but while she isn’t comfortable holding the reins, she’s not a hypocrite, and she knows deep down she wouldn’t want it any other way. Meanwhile, the women next door, in less than ideal circumstances, provide a nice contrast to Kate’s guilty affluence.

Catherine Keener continues to be under-rated but she’s really terrific in Please Give – it’s inspired casting. Kate’s empathy and ambition give her a complexity that’s rarely seen and difficult to pull off, and I can imagine it being a lot less successful in almost any other hands. The movie feels a little slight at times, a little thin in plot, but everyone has a point of view and the film maker trusts us to sit with the themes and experience our own version of existential reckoning.