The Final Year–The End of a Term

 

The Final Year

The Final Year, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary, covers January 2016 to January 2017 of the Barack Obama administration . It is quietly devastating and demoralizing footage of the last twelve months of foreign statesmanship before the Trump administration.

Don’t expect that The Final Year will give you a portrait of the 44th president in the looming shadow of what was to come. The Final Year actually follows Samantha Power, U.N. Ambassador and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, as they almost inexhaustibly pursue Obama’s foreign policy agenda with heart and soul. The empathy they have for global unity is palpable. The Final Year documentary

The undoing of every last element of what the people onscreen are busy accomplishing is the not-so-subtle theme of The Final Year. The power of this documentary is gut-wrenching.

Tense, empathetic Samantha Power doesn’t avoid exposure to the horrific pain of parents in refugee camps. She is especially moving as she fights tears in the name of duty, having been an immigrant from Ireland herself. Outraged by an attack on a humanitarian convoy in Syria almost certainly ordered by Putin, Power shouts at the implacable Russian ambassador, “Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”

The tireless 72-year-old John Kerry, who travels by boat amid spectacular but melting Greenland icebergs, is conflicted– as a Vietnam War vet– in his attitude toward military invention in the Middle East. And the brilliant Rhodes, whose magic as a wordsmith provides alchemy to Obama’s speeches in Vietnam, Laos, and Hiroshima, is rendered speechless in the immediate aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

While Obama’s intellectual demeanor continues to inspire his staff, The Final Year rather surprisingly also suggests Obama’s emotional distancing, an abstraction or cutting off from what would certainly follow: the eradication of many of the policies his administration fought for. He believes that deaths from global conflict are far fewer compared to the last century and that democracy is going in the right direction. Power and Rhodes, both of whom have great pride and zeal in working for President Obama, nevertheless disagree.

As The Final Year concludes, Obama supporters are likely to find the movie terribly crushing and bleak. And viewers who opposed him? They probably won’t be interested in watching The Final Year at all.

 

Note:  Available on Netflix as a DVD.

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4 Replies to “The Final Year–The End of a Term”

  1. I saw Obama as an intellectual and cerebral. He had solid plans but could not get the work done always due to an uncooperative Congress. Not surprised he began to disengage. Sounds hard to watch. Not sure I will. There’s so much on TV that refers back to these issues.

  2. Ouch! I don’t envy you watching this Diane. I’d like to see The Final Year but I couldn’t handle, “terribly crushing and bleak”! The current presidency is hard enough as it is.
    Sounds like one I’ll keep on the back burner until #45 is long gone.

 “House of Cards” (Final Season)–A Different Shuffle

House of Cards Season 6

In the earlier five seasons of House of Cards, Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) represented the Machiavellian Chief Whip then Vice President, and then President. As he manipulated his fellow party colleagues, foreign prime ministers (principally Russia), we witnessed the dark truths of American politics by a despotic megalomaniac.

Now, in Season 6, Frank Underwood is dead, but we don’t know how.  His widow, Claire Underwood (the phenomenal Robin Wright) is President and has inherited her dead husband’s enemies.

Dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death, and declaring that “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over”, Claire clashes with corporate moguls, the Russian prime minister, and her own vice president.

Trying to forge her own path as President, Claire takes no prisoners and feels no regret. But Claire’s late husband still casts a long shadow. “Frank’s legacy” is the cornerstone of the series finale.

House of Cards Season 6

The powerful ending of this season of House of Cards is dramatically sharpened and has an even darker theme: gender issues and patriarchy infused with a stench of misogyny. Claire’s dark secrets venomously boil over, ratcheting towards an ignominious confrontation with Doug Stamper, Frank Underwood’s obsessively devoted acolyte who cannot forgive Claire for what he imagines she is doing to Frank’s legacy.

Overlaid with the backlash of the first female President, we see Claire have to disassociate from her husband’s despicable acts. Nevertheless, her political enemies delight in accusing her of being guilty of Frank’s sins.

Frank’s reach is beyond the grave. As Claire’s enemies come close to impeaching her, Claire does what she and Frank did the last time they got close to defeat: she manufactures a crisis. Claiming that terrorists are attempting to acquire a nuclear bomb, she creates a military standoff between U.S. and Russian troops in Syria.

It’s the thunderous theme of House of Cards: Power is fragile– and we watch as the powerful can be brought tumbling down by the smallest misstep. Claire’s own reign is ultimately doomed to fail, playing a near-impossible game, but as we watch we don’t know how or when.

House of Cards in its final season ends on a dramatically different, more ambiguous and amoral note, than any of its previous seasons or its BBC predecessor. What Frank and Claire did may not really be out of the ordinary. House of Cards is more about the undetected, malignant form of insatiable power: more difficult to expose and defeat.

Totally unexpected, this season of House of Cards is a different and more frightening look at unhinged power. Robin Wright is a marvel to behold!

 

Note:  I have reviewed Seasons 1-4 previously.

 

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  1. I stopped watching House of Cards in its 3rd season. I just couldn’t watch President Underwood do what he continued to do with such contempt for others. The other part that I couldn’t understand was the relationship between the President and his wife – was she really as ambitious as he?
    When Kevin Spacey was ousted from the show, I decided to, at least, watch this last season. Claire Underwood as president was just as complicated, complex and controlling as her late husband who loomed darkly over every move she made.
    All in all, I found the last season very satisfying, even with the creepy ending (I thought it was a little creepy, anyway.)
    P.S. Diane Lane was a character I haven’t seen her be before – excellent acting.
    And I loved the theme of women in power.

    1. I too loved to see the dynamics of powerful women in this series, even though their characters prove most sinister. Another series which follows a similar tack is Ozark. Dark, dark, dark, but full of intelligent intrigue and strange adherence to certain values (such as loyalty to family and not getting too greedy or full of oneself) that keep us rooting for otherwise amoral, unsavory characters. Fascinating storytelling!

  2. I just finished watching the final season last night, and I have to say, the show never moves toward the predictable (well, other than Claire manages to cease the upper hand in any situation). That being said, the final scene stunned me.

    Robin Wright plays Claire brilliantly, and what a host of stellar supporting actors! Unfortunately, it seems some of the themes hit frighteningly close to home in our increasingly digital and divided society.

“Queen of Katwe”–Queen of Chess

Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe, an  indie film based on a true story, features 10-year-old newcomer Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) living in the shanty town of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. She is an impoverished little girl who is in a constant struggle to survive along with her mother Harriet (the extraordinary Academy-Award-winning Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” and “Black Panther) and younger brothers. Queen of Katwe movie

 

After Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of “Selma”), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess, her outlook becomes more aspirational than selling vegetables at the local market. Under Katende’s guidance Phiona develops into a chess prodigy, becoming not only a champion player but also a scholarship student in  an elite school. She now has an opportunity to escape the misery of her family life. She refuses to let her gender, social status, or lack of an education interfere with her dream to become Uganda’s national chess champion.

One of the more emotionally authentic subplots in Queen of Katwe is the tenuous relationship between Katende and Phiona’s mother. As the mother begins to worry about her daughter’s promising future distancing her, we see a mother-daughter relationship pictured as loving but also awkwardly threatening. Under the direction of Mira Nair, there is no artifice, subplot cliches, or unnecessary romance.

Queen of Katwe is appealing to all ages, and a positive domestic vision of a family with a single mother living in squalor. This film is first and foremost about a young girl’s empowerment and her mother’s unconditional love and acceptance.

The actors are standouts: Newcomer Madina Nalwanga exudes the authenticity and spirit essential for evoking truth. Oyelowo further establishes himself as a powerful presence. And, of course, there is Lupita Nyong’o who must take a stock mother-figure role and turn it into something else, setting every scene with a fire-in-the-belly strength to match Oyelowo. This acting triumvirate makes Queen of Katwe a crowd-pleasing family film for the holiday season.

 

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“The Invisible Guest”–What You See is Not What You Guess

 

The Invisible Guest 

The Invisible Guest (2016) (Spanish: Contratiempo) is a 2016 Spanish crime thriller by director and writer Oriol Paulo. The intricate plot will leave the viewer spellbound .

Adrián Doria, a successful business entrepreneur, husband and father, is knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked hotel room to find the dead body of Laura Vidal, his married lover. Charged with murder but wealthy enough to be out on bail, Adrian soon learns that his lawyer, Félix Leiva, has hired the renowned defense attorney, Virginia Goodman, to represent him. She visits him late one evening to inform him that a witness has come forward to testify against him. He must tell the whole story quickly so she can prepare his defense. Goodman pulls no punches in the resulting cat-and-mouse game.

No spoiler alerts here! Suffice it to say that you must pay attention with every scene, even though–as in many foreign films–the pacing sags in the middle. The viewer will be rewarded, however, with clues and red herrings that are purposeful and complex, not suspecting how the interconnections make sense. The Invisible Guest requires more than the usual demands on the viewer’s attention in order to follow the plot.

Just when you think you have a reasonable explanation for what has taken place and who the probable perpetrator is, a new scene with a different point of view enters, and you are wondering again who is guilty of the crime. The story becomes so populated with different points of view and arguments back-and-forth with Virginia Goodman that the viewer is engaged up to the final reveal.

The narrative and plot remind me of Gone Girl with a number of unreliable versions of the crime scene. This masterpiece consistently changes the game, raising more questions than it answers. Consequently, the viewer parses the dialog and several accounts of the crime into puzzle pieces– but they don’t fit. The Invisible Guest is crafted so well that you don’t  see the intricately woven web  unravel as it does. There is always the who before the why.

The Invisible Guest is a winner! This Spanish gem is thrilling, suspenseful, mind-blowing, an edge-of-your-seat riveting tour-de-force for thriller/mystery enthusiasts and psychological film-noir fans.

Note: Available on Netflix streaming.

 

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“Colette”–A Woman Ahead of Her Time

 

Colette movie

Guest reviewer: Barbara Donsky, author of the memoir, Veronica’s Grave

 

“Colette,” opens in the countryside of rural France as we meet the young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) at home in Burgundy. In short order, a successful Parisian writer known as “Willy” (Dominic West) pays a visit to Saint-Saveur-en-Puisaye, and before long he and Sidonie are enjoying an energetic romp in the hayloft. Soon after, Sidonie (destined to be known simply as ‘Colette’) is installed as his wife in Paris.

But when Willy begins having problems with creditors, he convinces her to write a novel under his name. In fact, he locks her in a room! “Write!” he bellows. So she pens a story about a sassy country girl, “Claudine,” which becomes a literary sensation. Willy wants yet another novel from her and another. And so it goes. She will not write a book under her own name until she breaks with Willy, a wily philanderer, in 1906.

In fin de siècle Paris, Colette will go from enabling wife to the grand-mere of feminist literature and a bisexual adventuress. In this beautifully filmed biographical drama, you can track her transformation by her clothing—from the yellow country dress to the mannish suits. When her husband buys her an expensive Parisian gown— at a time when society ladies were dripping in jewels and wearing extravagant designs— she wants no part of it. Indeed, her idol was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who wrote under the pen name George Sand and preferred wearing men’s clothing.   Colette the movie

Colette’s self-confidence changed a country girl into a fashion icon, the most photographed woman of her time. Doing so, according to the director Wash Westmoreland, at a time when a woman could have been arrested in Paris for wearing men’s clothing.

The film is a joy! Oscar-whispers are circulating for Kiera Knightley.

 

Note: Barbara Donsky’s last review for us was “Cezanne et Moi” –Artistic Jealousy (June 27, 2017)

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  1. I saw the movie and thought your guest review was on the light side. In Colette, as in the movie, The Wife, we see women exploited by no-talent pretentious men who truly live off their wives, in an industry that was very much an old boys club..Colette was a treat for the eyes filmed in France with beautiful costumes.

“Ozark” (Season 2): “Dexter” Meets “Breaking Bad”

 

 

Ozark Season 2

Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman), his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), teenage daughter Charlotte and son Jacob continue as criminal minds laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel with roots in Chicago. The introduction of Helen Pierce ( the stunning Janet McTeer) as the attorney for the drug cartel ratchets up the ruthless and cunning subplots that made Season 1 of “Ozark” (see September 20, 2017 review) so addictive to watch.

The Byrdes are finally settling in to the Ozarks, compartmentalizing their illegal activities which they excel at with their determination to instill family values in their children which they fail at.

Dangers are everywhere–within their family, obviously from the cartel, but also from an Ozark family “cursed” to a life of crime–the Langmores– and from another Ozark family–the Snells– who are heavily involved with both local politics and maintaining their own hold on distributing illegal drugs from their “poppy” farm.

Ironically, Ruth Langmore (talented newcomer Julia Garner), yearns for a way out of the “curse” blocking her attempts to find the family and values she wants.

All three deformed families conjure up writhing snakes in a pit in which survival is ugly, bloody, and momentary advantage is the key stratagem.

The Byrdes find that every transaction involves betrayal, violence, and passive witnessing of atrocity. In the process, each member of the family gives up a piece of themselves until there is not much remaining of themselves to give up.

Marty’s mantra is that we all make our own choices and are responsible for how our lives turn out. But “Ozark” demonstrates–like “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter”–that circumstances can limit our options, until we become so flawed that we feel cornered and trapped with no options.

In Ozark season 2 we wonder how it will end: Will the Byrdes – and their children – ever be able to feel safe, secure, and content?

This season is even better than the first in tackling the corrupting power of wealth and greed, human nature, and the ties that bind a family and define it.

Note:  Ozark is a Netflix Original series.

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“The Wife”–The Invisible Woman, or…Stand by My Man

The Wife movie

The Wife, based upon Meg Wolitzer’s bestselling novel by the same name, opens with a sixty-something affluent couple, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) and her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), waiting for the phone to ring in the middle of the night. A perhaps futile hope that the Nobel Prize committee will grant Joe his dream of a lifetime–the Nobel Prize in literature.

Like two kids, Joan and Joe jump on the bed, ecstatically holding hands, singing “I won the Nobel.” Or was that a “we?” It is 1992 and Joe and Joan Castleman’s lives are about to be changed irrevocably.

A raw unfolding of secrets, infidelity, resentment, self-sacrifice, delusion, and rage erupt from the couple’s souls and that of their son, who is reminded by his father that he is merely a shadow of his own greatness. What a wonderful homage to father-son, and to husband-wife! The complexities of their relationships reveal a whirlwind of bliss and toxicity (not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Scenes from a Marriage”.) Contradictory emotions can coexist in a marriage: warm and playfully tender, or dark and destructive.

The Wife is, first and foremost, about the wife who stands by her man, often as a character alibi: ‘My husband is a good person in spite of what I know.’ But what happens when the secrets twist around like snakes: the talent is not where the husband thinks it should be? And the wife feels compelled to prop him up.

In several scenes Joe and Joan are at gala events to celebrate his reputation as a world-renowned author–at university gatherings, book events, and finally in Stockholm for the Nobel Awards ceremony. An entire unspoken code of power is expressed simply by who’s standing where and who is recognized as worthy of eye contact. The wives make eye contact of their own. At one point when asked the dreaded question –what do you do?–Joan Castleman responds: “I am a king maker.”

Enter Nathaniel Bone (played perfectly by Christian Slater,) an ambitious young writer who wants to dig deep into the enigmatic life of Joe Castleman. He’s done his research and speculates that there is considerable backstory to Joe Castleman’s literary success.   In a series of lengthy flashbacks of the younger Joe and Joan (played by Annie Stark, Glenn Close’s daughter), their early years of marriage promised their lives would be content and fulfilling.  On the other hand, Nathaniel suspects that Joan was a king maker in ways she hasn’t revealed.

The Wife delicately yet powerfully eviscerates the vulnerability of the narcissistic male ego and how it destroys all those nearby. The son suspects he knows the family hellscape.

Glenn Close’s almost supernaturally subtle, superbly self-controlled face in close-up says it all, communicating emotion and intention: resignation, understanding, sacrifice, love, and not-quite imperceptible rage transforming and flickering in and out in mere seconds. This is acting at its finest.

The Wife is one of the best films of 2018 and offers viewers a chance to observe one of the finest performances Glenn Close has ever given.  I predict she will be nominated for an Academy Award for this role.

Note: Currently playing in theaters.

 

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“Jack Ryan”– New Version of “Homeland”

 

Jack Ryan Amazon series

This new undertaking (by Amazon Prime) of Tom Clancy’s blockbuster Jack Ryan series pays off big-time. John Krasinski as a boyish Jack Ryan adds unexpected dimension to this eight-episode series focused on a terrorist plot in Syria. If this is your genre, you will inevitably make a comparison with Clancy’s books and the older cinematic depictions of Jack Ryan.   However, standing on its own, the new Jack Ryan series is riveting, albeit with some graphic violence and cultural stereotyping.

Reluctantly drafted into being a CIA operative instead of a number-crunching budget analyst by demoted CIA director James Greer (the wonderful Wendell Pierce of “The Wire”), Ryan soon learns that the CIA bureaucracy is no different from any other. His analytical skills are mostly ignored, although always proved right later on. Greer is his reluctant mentor. Add a romantic subplot with Dr. Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish from “Three Billboards outside Ebbings, Missouri”) and you have a complex thirty-something bureaucrat trying to fit into the CIA at the same time he wants a balanced life. In addition, the terrorist master-mind has a family and provides additional complexity to the plot.

This Jack Ryan Amazon series passed my test for binge-worthy: easy entertainment, mostly fast-paced, yet intelligent in character development. There is a great character arc with some memorable dialog and beautiful cinematography. [Filmed on location in Morocco, as a stand-in for Syria.)

 

Note: Confession–I’ve only seen Jack Ryan in film, and have not read any of the books, but my husband has and loved the dramatization with Krasinski. Highly skewed reviews online from one-star to five-star (influenced by the political divide currently perhaps?) Judge for yourself! I can’t wait for season 2 next year.

 

 

 

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society   is a Netflix historical drama based on the 2008 historical best-selling novel of the same name by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Set on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, a year after the end of the Second World War, we see Julie Ashton (the talented Lily James –Lady Rose in “Downton Abbey”), a London author writing under a male pen name. She yearns for a writing project in her own voice.

Ashton gets a letter from Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey pig farmer, who has a used book with her name and address. Exchanging letters with residents on the island of Guernsey, which endured Nazi occupation, Ashton accepts an invitation to read to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club that was actually part of the underground resistance.

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Intrigued by how much books mean to this isolated community, how reading kept everyone sane during the war, Ashton decides this book club and its history would be the perfect subject for a London Times article, the writing project of her dreams. But all is not as it seems. There is betrayal, a romance or two, and escape into the world of books for solace.

The original Guernsey novel is completely in a “letters” or epistolary format, mostly letters between Ashton and Adams, so the visual and sense of place is severely lacking. The film’s best moments, on the other hand, provide a keen sense of 1946 island life in a small British community. There is a sense of community after suffering a shared loss during the Nazi occupation.

The Guernsey book club is similar in feel and sense of identity and community as “Downton Abbey”. We see the bravery of the underground as they resisted the Nazis and yet we come to understand the price of war for all involved and the need for forgiveness.

A feel-good movie with three other “Downton Abbey” actors in key roles, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is entertaining, although not as engaging as the “Downton Abbey” PBS series.

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Mr. Mercedes — “Bates Motel” meets “Mr. Robot”

Mr. Mercedes television series

Mr. Mercedes,  an Audience (DirecTV) mystery-thriller original series, is based on the Stephen King trilogy “Mr. Mercedes”, “Finders Keepers” and “End of Watch”.  The macabre master again conjures alarming boundary-breaking drama, this time in economically depressed Bridgton, Ohio.

The opening scene is horrific: a Mercedes sedan mows down a crowd of job-seekers waiting late at night for the next morning’s job fair to open. A few of those waiting in line have babies. A massacre occurs, but the viewer does not know who the driver is or what motivates him or her.

Soon we meet Brady, the toxic male sociopath rivaling Norman Bates of “Bates Motel”, (played by an astonishing Harry Treadaway), pressured by a seething rage, the source of which is a seriously sick relationship with his mother. Brady is part Mr. Robot, dwelling in the basement, plotting cyber revenge on the world. And the main character and investigator who, for the second time, has to solve the crime is a disheveled drunk but nevertheless rather appealing Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), who retired after unsuccessfully investigating the “Mercedes Massacre” years ago.  Mr. Mercedes mini-series

Slowly Brady boldly begins to reveal himself, through cyber messages to Hodges, promising another attack. For the retired detective, Brady provides the opportunity to redeem himself by proving once and for all that the Mercedes massacre can be solved. And as for Brady, he craves validation and recognition, wanting to assert his own dominance over others. The two–Brady and Hodges– play off each other’s unhealed wounds.

As the episodes in the first season progress, viewers learn just how obsessive both Hodges and Brady are. In the second season, now being broadcast (but not completed), we see Brady suffering locked-in syndrome,   a condition in which the mind is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis.  What is happening inside Brady’s mind? Will he maintain his sick mental state or morph into a new one?

Visceral and emotional turmoil seem to be sustained in season two, with science fiction strongly inserted as only Stephen King can.   I naturally wonder if Mr. Mercedes can maintain the horror and suspense. Highly recommend season one and will withhold my assessment of the current season until the finale!

 

Note: Only available as Audience streaming to DirecTV subscribers  at the time of this writing.

 

 

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“BlacKkKlansman”: Part of the American Fabric?

 

BlacKkKlansman movie

A  Spike Lee film about white supremacy, BlacKkKlansman is based on Ron Stallworth’s 2006 memoir, which eviscerates the hideous social structures of racism in the US.

In 1979 Stallworth (played by newcomer, John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington) becomes the first black detective in Colorado Springs’s police department. The police chief warns Stallworth:  “We’ve never had a black police officer. So you’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police department.”

Assigned to be an undercover cop at a black power student rally, Stallworth is to gather intelligence in what his boss implies may be a terrorist movement. Stokely Carmichael, Black Panther leader, will be giving a speech.

The rookie police officer is deeply affected as he watches young black college students take pride in what Carmichael is saying. He understands their rhetoric but his superiors are threatened by the Black Panther political movement. Stallworth suggests that the real terrorism stems from the KKK as well as perhaps the Black Panthers. Both are kindling for explosive violence.

With footage from the notorious 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation”,– a homage to the Ku Klux Klan,– we are pulled into a clandestine operation where Ron’s colleague, Flip Zimmerman (an endearing Adam Driver), goes undercover as the white version of Ron at KKK meetings. Scenes of Flip’s own victimization by Klansman for suspecting he is a Jew triggers the empathy he has for Stallworth’s experience.

John David Washington, Adam Driver

Toward the end of the movie, Spike Lee uses original footage of the horrific scenes of the Unite the Right rally and Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, Virginia, to show that little has changed from the racism of the 70s. BlacKkKlansman’s  terrifying message is loud and clear: What you see is a story taking place in 1979, but this is not only a period piece about those days. That was then but also here now too. Little has changed.

BlacKkKlansman is both a conversation-starter and conversation stopper. It will leave you deeply moved!

 

Note: BlacKkKlansman opened in theaters on the anniversary weekend of Heather Heyer’s death.

 

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  1. The review provides a nice outline of a light movie..there was nothing in the movie that had me sitting on the edge of my seat or very thought provoking…however, I did leave the theater
    wondering that this was a very different Spike Lee…my memory of Mr. Lee’s movies is one of more Black vs White…in BK, Lee showcases how people came together to fight evil.

The Devil’s Backbone–Peter Pan meets “The Shape of Water”

Devil's Backbone

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) (Spanish: El espinazo del diablo), directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, was independently produced by Pedro Almodóvar and foreshadows his Academy Award winning “The Shape of Water” (see my March 19, 2018 review).

Set in 1939 during the final year of the Spanish Civil War, we see in the opening scene an orphanage in the middle of a solitary dessert. A deactivated bomb is standing in the courtyard.

An unexpecting twelve- year-old, Carlos, is left by his guardian and almost immediately bullied by two other orphan boys. On a dare to sneak to the kitchen for water, Carlos hears a chilling whisper from an unknown ghost, Santi, appearing as a boy about the same age.

This is a mythic tale of love and revenge, greed, the loss of family, mixed with a potent dose of magical realism del Toro conveys in all of his films (including his masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth”.) Carlos, who fearlessly wants to know the truth, and Santi, whose demise is shrouded in mystery, eventually make a pact. As the war begins closing in on the orphanage, violence and desperation erupt and Santi’s prediction comes true. The abandoned boys must band together if they hope to survive.

Dr. Caseres shows Carlos how the orphanage raises funds: by selling a spiced fluid preserved from deformed aborted or stillborn fetuses that “remedies” many ailments including impotence. The exposed fetuses in fluid are “the devil’s backbone”, an elixir with miraculous power. A visual metaphor illustrating how war entraps, just like insects in amber and fetuses in jars, The Devil’s Backbone exposes the horrors of war and fascism through the lens of fantasy.

This film, after a sagging middle with slow camera movements leading nowhere but to the orphanage basement, eventually evolves into an extraordinary dramatic narrative of tension and dread. It is a coming-of-age story combined with a tale of enormous deception resulting from misjudging human character.

Fantastic cinematography, –some sepia-toned scenes evoking the lighting of a Velasquez painting,– is well-worth viewing on its own merits. The opening underwater sequences will remind the viewer of del Toro’s later cinematic undertaking, “The Shape of Water”. The mark of del Toro is everywhere in evidence. Watching The Devil’s Backbone now within the context of having seen “The Shape of Water” allows a glimpse into the imagination of a very original filmmaker!

 

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