Thursday, August 16, 2018

BlacKkKlansman and Three Identical Strangers

                                 Identities in Turmoil

                                          Reviews by Ken Burke
           
                                   BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)

Executive Summary” (no spoilers): This powerful presentation’s based on actual events initiated by Ron Stallworth, the first African-American policeman in Colorado Springs, set in 1972, with this rookie cop taking on the task of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan via a combination of phone calls to Klan members (including Grand Dragon David Duke) and in-person meetings with the local KKK chapter carried out by fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Jewish, another Klan target, further complicating the web of deception needed to continue this scam as “Stallworth” not only becomes a Klan member but is considered by the chapter president as a potential new leader of the group because of his unrelenting racist attitudes—delivered with believable fury by both Stallworth and Zimmerman).  You can easily find historical accounts of what happened (somewhat fictionalized for dramatic purposes in this film), but I’ll leave it that right now for the non-spoiler summary of this review, with only the acknowledgement this is a masterful blend of humor, drama, and effectively-built tension coming to a satisfying conclusion within its decades-ago story only to push us back into current-day reality with actual footage of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, a very disturbing event intended to demonstrate how far we still are from any sense of a post-racist society.  Unless you’re already opposed to the types of narratives explored by Spike Lee (or have sympathies with the KKK, God help your soul) I highly encourage attendance at this film, easy to find in most major domestic markets, a worthy expenditure of time and money.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)


If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: To set his tone, Lee begins with a clip from Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) showing the huge expanse of wounded Confederate soldiers (but nothing about the slaves accepting their miserable fates seen throughout this Hollywood landmark), followed by a short clip of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) offering his opinion on White superiority because Blacks are a “mongrel nation” (maybe “dogs,” as Agent Orange [to use Lee’s term for President Trump] might say) as opposed to the “Biblically-inspired role of the White race.”  From there, we’re into the story proper in 1972 (identified as we go along by clothing, hairstyles, music, and a “Nixon’s the One” campaign poster left over from the 1968 election)—although the actual events this partially-fictionalized-film’s based on took place in 1978-’79—where Ron Stallworth (John David Washington [son of Denzel]) successfully becomes a rookie policeman (first Black to do so) in Colorado Springs, CO, where he’s immediately put  into a boring job in the Records Room, subject to racist taunts from some of his fellow officers.  Upon an appeal to Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke [no relation to me]) for detective work, he creates his own assignment by responding to a newspaper ad for the Ku Klux Klan, phoning (using a “White voice,” a la Sorry to Bother You [Boots Riley; review in our July 12, 2018 posting]) local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) to spew racist hate in his successful attempt to infiltrate the group, although that calls for fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to fill in for Stallworth in actual meetings with the Klansmen, where Walter presents a welcoming attitude in contrast to his more angry/paranoid lieutenant, Felix Kendrickson (Jaspter Pääkkönen), who’s suspicious “Ron” might be Jewish (which Zimmerman is, another primary Klan target), at one point almost forcing him to take a lie-detector-test to prove his Gentile heritage until the real Ron (always around on backup during Flip’s visits with the Klansmen, listening to their conversations through a hidden radio transmitter) throws a rock through Felix’s kitchen window, creating enough of a diversion to stop this dangerous interrogation.

 Through a good number of hilarious (as long as you can laugh at the stupidity of blatant racism, along with obvious commentary connecting these events to our present-day-dilemmas under Agent Orange) scenes, encounters, or snappy dialogue exchanges contrasted with the deadly serious progressions of this plot, the actual Stallworth pursues dual agendas in which he carries on friendly phone conversations with Klan Grand Dragon (or National Director, as he’s trying to rebrand the KKK as an acceptable political force) David Duke (Topher Grace), who’s so charmed with Ron’s apparent White nationalist attitudes he’s made plans to fly from Louisiana for Ron’s formal initiation, but meanwhile our protagonist is pursuing a budding romantic attraction to Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), head of the Black Student Union at local Colorado College, whom he met while attending (to gather information, in his role with police intelligence, in order to undercut any anticipated violent activities) a rally by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins)—formerly Stokely Carmichael—in which this nationally-known-activist gives a rousing speech about Black Power (at a time when the Oakland, CA-based Black Panthers were still a social force to be reckoned with; I don’t know if any of this speech was based on transcripts from the time, but even if it’s completely concocted by Lee and his 3 co-screenwriters it creates a show-stopping-scene that could earn Hawkins a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), stirring up inner conflicts for Stallworth as he attempts to balance his sworn duties as a peace officer with his rising consciousness about the need for true Black equality at a time when blatant racism was just barely being challenged by changes in national law (even as covert [at best] biases still plague our society today).  Ron and Flip’s cover story begins to have problems as it’s difficult for Zimmerman to know/remember everything Stallworth’s said in his various phone calls with Klansmen, compounded by Ron making the mistake of using his real name, address, and work phone number (no caller I.D. back then, fortunately) so when Felix pays an unannounced call at Ron’s residence it takes some scrambling for Flip to cover the discrepancy.

 All of this culminates on the occasion of “Ron’s” initiation ceremony because of another dual dilemma: First, for full irony, the actual Stallworth’s assigned as a police bodyguard for Duke (an act, of course, despised by the Klan), but things get even more tense when ex-con Klansman Walker (Nicholas Turturro) recognizes Flip as the cop who sent him away but has trouble interrupting the event to make his accusations.  Second, Ron realizes Felix’s wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson)—a browbeaten spouse who always wanted to do something notable to help her vile husband—has been sent to place a bomb at a civil rights rally but, because of active police presence, has to use Plan B of putting it in Patrice’s home mailbox (all of this is intercut with Jerome Turner [Harry Belafonte] at the Black Student Union describing a brutal 1916 lynching).  Even that option goes wrong because the bomb won’t fit in the box so she leaves it under Patrice’s car (after briefly hiding when Patrice came home from the rally).  Ron races to the scene, attempts to arrest Patrice, but he’s thwarted by White cops who believe her story of being accosted by him until Flip also roars onto the scene to free his partner.  The final arrivals are Felix, Walker, and dim-bulb Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), who, unaware of the others at a slight distance, park next to Patrice’s car, assume the bomb’s at the house, detonate it, killing all 3 of the Klansmen.  Stallworth and Zimmerman then do another sting on racist cop Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), who hassled Ron at the beginning of the film, to get him fired, but upon getting praise from Chief Burke for defusing potential violence from the local Klan find themselves with no further authorization to continue this infiltration (despite the only witnesses to their scam now dead from the car bomb), so Ron decides to move on from his police career.  However, just before he leaves he takes one last phone call from Duke (still unaware of all the undercover action), finally telling the Grand Dragon he's been duped by this Black man.⇐

 In what’s clearly an added ending to this prior activity, though (based on events as production wrapped), Ron and Patrice are now together (after he admitted his truth to her, which she accepted given he saved her life) but their home harmony’s disrupted by a night scene of Klansmen burning a cross in a nearby field, then actual footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA where riots occur between far-right bigots and leftist counter-protesters, Heather Heyer’s killed by a White supremacist, President Trump makes his infamous statement about there being “very fine people on both sides of this conflict,” then we have the actual David Duke further justifying what happened at this violent event (echoing the concern/dreams of Kwame Ture/Felix Kendrickson race war in America is coming—a fear this film implies great caution about).  The final image is an upside-down American flag (acknowledged symbol of distress) fading from color to black & white.

So What? The real-life-Ron Stallworth (whom you can get a lot of direct information about by watching the first video far below connected to this film in this posting's Related Links section) continued to work in law enforcement (although mostly in Utah) until his retirement in 2005, after which he finally revealed his Klan infiltration (known only until then by the other cops he worked with and some feds, resulting in the transfer of a couple of Klan members from the nearby NORAD airborne-attack-defense-center to somewhere away from a crucial military site [maybe David Duke knew too, if that last phone call scene’s accurate, but Duke would never have revealed how he was hoodwinked by a “Negro”]) in a newspaper interview, then his own book, Black Klansman (2014), which eventually led to this cinematic adaptation.  It’s an event that certainly gives support to the old adage of “truth is stranger than fiction,” because many have speculated it would be unlikely such a purely-fictional-account of Klan infiltration could have been greenlit by a studio, likely rejected as being too preposterous to be accepted by audiences (although after the critical/financial success of Get Out [Jordan Peele, 2017; review in our May 11, 2017 posting] maybe the limitations on what can be depicted about racism in our society are eroding with absurdity taking satire to new heights, allowing outrageous situationsalong with some of the most blatantly racist on-screen-language I can recall since Django Unchained [Quentin Tarantino, 2012; review in our December 30, 2012 posting], a bloody, brutally-revisionist attack on the entire institution of Southern slaveryto be appreciated).  That Lee’s also able to inject effective humor within this disturbing-on-many-levels-story is also testimony to his skill as both a filmmaker and a social provocateur, a guy who pulls no punches in his media work (as an extreme example of that, see his scathing presentation of Blacks starring in a blackface sitcom, Bamboozled [2000]) and his public commentary on what drives the motivations behind such work (if you don’t mind his rampant obscenities, watch his interview in the 2nd video with this film in the Related Links section far below).  He’s unabashed in his criticism of re-emerging nationalist, racist attitudes that are eroding societies worldwide, eager to show how what needed to be exposed and stopped in the 1970s still must be eradicated today.

 There’s no doubt there are intended parallels in BlacKkKlansman to today’s America under the influence of hate-mongers such as the vicious Stephens in the Trump entourage, Miller and Bannon (even if the latter’s no longer in the inner circle, yet his vile rhetoric’s still intact) in such scenes as Stallworth proclaiming our country would never elect someone with David Duke’s sensibilities as President or Klansmen shouting “America first!” at one of their rallies, although those initial implications became blatant when the Charlottesville riots occurred, with Lee knowing immediately he needed to incorporate aspects of that grotesque low point in our national identity, just as he’d already worked in footage of The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) in parallel with the Klan initiation scene.  (He even has them watching it in spellbound fashion, as I’m sure was the case a century ago when the immense popularity of this racist defense of the South’s post-Civil War response to Northern occupation—along with its absurd depiction of Blacks and mulattoes in that era—celebrated the original emergence of the Klan as violent, clandestine [to some degree] protectors of that “Civilization” that Margaret Mitchell declared was “gone with the wind” [although, for her, Scarlett O’Hara, and other “knights” of the Old South {Midwest, California Central Valley, etc.}, “tomorrow is another day” in which such cruelties might return in the hopes of “Make America White Great Again,” just as Birth … actively brought about the re-emergence of the KKK in the early 20th century]).  Still, Lee doesn’t overplay his hand here (although he’s emphatic in purpose, releasing his film on the 1-year-anniversary of the Charlottesville tragedy), in the sense there are no scenes showing White cops shooting unarmed Black men (although racist Officer Landers is responsible for unwarranted hassling of Ture [and his driver, Dumas] after the rally), but it’s clear enough the decades-long-connection between the calls for Black Power and Black Lives Matter, even as Lee pushes the envelope somewhat with a confrontation scene between Stallworth and Zimmerman as Flip’s ready to abandon the Klan ruse after he was on the verge of being killed during the lie-detector-showdown even as Ron pushes for him to acknowledge the Klan’s parallel-rejection of Jews, Mexicans, and anyone else without “pure White Aryan blood,” while Flip’s been content with blending in rather than pressing his identity in a multicultural-society.  Overall, they’re in league with, in support of each other, but the point is raised that those who look “acceptable” (except to Felix)—even very-light-skinned-Blacks—often enjoy the benefits of the dominant culture, leaving the front-line-battles to those who more obviously differ from the current hegemonic “norm.”

Bottom Line Final Comments: Many other critics have taken the position I do that BlacKkKlansman is among Lee’s finest work* (some even call it his best, but for me that’s a hard choice to make, to rank it fully above such impactful, easily-remembered-successes as She’s Gotta Have It [1986], Do the Right Thing [1989], 25th Hour [2002], Inside Man [2006]; however, if I’m being true to my own evaluative decisions then I have to put Malcolm X [1992] as his finest because my list of 10 Best American filmsnot counting Intolerance [D.W. Griffith, 1916], City Lights [Charlie Chaplin, 1931], Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941], 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968], which are part of my All-Time Top 10 choiceshasn’t changed in years, with Lee’s masterpiece at #3 [after The Godfather trilogy {Francis Ford Coppola; 1972, ’74, ‘90} and Raging Bull {Martin Scorsese, 1980}]).  All-time best for Spike or not, he’s certainly convinced the critical establishment this one’s worthy of great praise, with Rotten Tomatoes offering 97% positive reviews, Metacritic delivering an 82% average score (quite high for them; more details in the Related Links section below).  Audiences have been supportive as well, with the debut weekend yielding $10.8 million in the domestic (U.S.-Canada) market (plus another $400,000 from overseas venues)—which is already on-track to resolve the efficient $15 million budget—currently playing in 1,512 domestic theaters (sadly, the big money last weekend went to The Meg [Jon Turteltaub] with a worldwide gross already of $151.5 million [about $50 million of that domestically], playing in 4,118 domestic venues, so don’t ever assume you’ll lose money financing a tale of an enormous shark on the rampage).  I can only hope consistent accolades (and timely subject matter) connected to Lee’s film propel increasing success, with no doubt Washington'll find further feature film work, displaying a solid command of the screen nicely resembling the presence of his famous, Oscar-winning father. 

*Here’s one article with more content on such a supportive claim, offering much substance.  Here’s another where Lee himself is interviewed, expressing his very clear views on what he’s up to and why.  (I thank my just-returned-from-London-friend, Jim Graham, for steering me to this latter one.)

 The only thing about BlacKkKlansman that gave me a bit of a problem was coming up with an appropriate Musical Metaphor for it (regular readers of Two Guys reviews—What? You’re not one yet? Jump on board!—know that’s my standard trope for finishing up a cluster of comments on whatever’s under review), which my insightful wife, Nina, solved in 2 seconds after I’d wrestled with it for 2 days, through her suggestion of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” (a 1970 hit single, on their 1970 Greatest Hits II album) dealing with the very kinds of conflicting situations so well explored in Lee’s latest film: “People moving out, people moving in Why, because of the color of their skin Run, run, run but you sure can’t hide An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth Vote for me and I’ll set you free Rap on, brother, rap on […] Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon Politicians say more taxes will solve everything And the band played on So, round and around and around we go Where the world’s headed, nobody knows.”  You can appreciate The Temps’ performance style in this video (place and date unknown to me, seems to be early ‘70s just like the film) at https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQLdDfU_FNk&frags=pl%2Cwn, but you might also like to see the music in conjunction with added images that mirror the spirit of the lyrics in this video, the most interesting of several I found putting pictures with the song (they move at a rapid rate, though, so you may need to watch more than once to even process it).  Spike Lee certainly wasn’t confused about what he wanted to convey with his powerful statement in BlacKkKlansman, although it’s reasonable for us to be confused as to why such rejection and hate continue to pollute the minds of so many Americans (as well as other nationalities worldwide), so maybe having it thrown in our faces like it is here will help voters seriously question whether they can continue to support politicians who thrive on such bile when election decisions come around again for us in November.
             
(the intention was) SHORT TAKES (but the reality’s not even close) 
(please note that spoilers also appear here)
               
                  Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle)

A fascinating documentary about triplets separated at birth who find each other when they’re 19, having lived close enough after being adopted that chance and news reports brought them all together, initially in happiness until they found out they were part of a secret experiment trying to test the role of nature vs. nurture in human development.

Here’s the trailer:


        Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
               
 I must embarrassingly-admit I didn’t fully realize what this documentary was truly about because when it came out there were a lot of other films opening at the same time I knew were going to take priority so I didn’t read the reviews that carefully, thinking it was mostly a feel-good-testament to how 3 brothers (identical triplets, actually) came to discover each other after having been raised by separate adoptive families; thanks to my persistent wife, Nina (with interests and some undergrad coursework in psychology), we finally got to it last weekend whereupon I now realize it also features a disturbing dark side probing into the realms of social/medical ethics, making these middle-aged-men (born in 1961) simultaneously thankful they’ve been united but sorrowful over the full situation of their circumstances.  Composed of extensive present-day-interviews, re-enactments of earlier events using actors, old family photos and movies (from each childhood home) along with print clippings/newsreel footage from the time in the early 1980s when their reunion led them to become local, then national celebrities, this doc grows from joy (gleefully-shocked at how similar they were in attitudes, interests, appearance) to serious challenges as the then-young men along with their adoptive families learned the full situation of their placements and upbringings.  As all of the information is slowly revealed to us (just as it was to them), we start with Robert (Bobby) Shafran who describes how, in 1980, he enrolled in community college only to have many people on campus call him Eddy, because his (previously-unknown) brother, Eddy Galland, had also attended this school the year before.  With helpful friends of Eddy’s, Bobby connected with his brother, their situation making a heartwarming-story in NYC-area-newspapers, leading to the meeting with their other brother, David Kellman (all of them having grown up in about a 100-mile-radius of each other).

 Their initial joy turned traumatic, though, when some research revealed at about age 6 months they were all intentionally sent to specific Jewish families (of varying socioeconomic backgrounds) by the Louise Wise adoption agency working with Manhattan’s Child Development Center (affiliated with the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services) in an secret experiment run by Peter Neubauer, an Austrian-born, Jewish, Freudian psychiatrist (studied with Sigmund’s daughter, Anna), using a small group of twins and triplets to study the long-standing-human-development-argument about which is more crucial in one's personal growth, nature or nurture, that is, genetics or environment.

 The study, at least where these 3 guys were concerned, also placed a slightly older girl with each family then the scientists claimed the frequent visits, testing, and 8mm movies were standard follow-up procedure but actually were means of learning what each family setting was like prior to sending in the biologically-connected-siblings; then they were studied as well, although thousands of pages and other materials remain locked away in 66 boxes at Yale University, not to be made public until 2066, given the study behind all this manipulative research was, for some reason, never published.  One thing the triplets found out, though, is their birth mother had emotional problems, which began manifesting in each of them as they grew older, with a major break coming when Robert pulled out of the mutually-run-restaurant they established in Manhattan, which traumatized Eddy ⇒who eventually committed suicide in 1995,⇐ even though all of them have had some problems with depression.  The darker aspects of this story are revealed to us through the most useful interviews Wardle can present, as Neubauer died in 2008.  However, 2 of his associates talk about the scientific value of this study, giving us the initial impression nature has the dominant impact, until we get more specifics on the emerging lives of Robert and David, with the general agreement David’s gregarious father was a much healthier influence on him than Eddy’s more-stern-military-dad, seemingly throwing the weight back to nurture, with this article about the film going into some of the complexities that aren’t dwelt on enough while this one raises ethical questions about the focus and presentation of the doc, just as the film raises its own disturbing questions about what Robert calls Neubauer’s “Nazi” experiment. As a result of this film, about 10,000 (heavily-redacted) pages from the study have been made available to Robert and David, but with no info to them about others in the study so they can’t contact anyone who doesn’t already know they were part of it to help them avoid what these siblings and their 3 families have suffered.

David Kellman (left) and Robert Shafran
 While Three Identical Strangers may raise more questions than it answers (largely because those answers need to come from Neubauer or at least his extensive compiled materials), the impact of this film is uplifting then haunting, first in depicting the unbridled happiness these teens felt when they came to know each other, then in showing us how sometimes what you think will be useful answers to mysteries about your life (even if you hadn’t yet realized you have mysteries, as was the case with these triplets) may prove to be more troubling than you’d imagined when you obtain that previously-unknown-information.  I say this from the perspective of someone who himself was adopted (upon birth, through prior arrangement), knowing nothing about my biological father, only a small amount about my biological mother (revealed to me by an aging family friend years ago), leading to a failed attempt to meet with her which she refused so my existence wouldn’t become known to the family she’d grown secure with, my life an unpublished footnote where they’re concerned.  David and Robert have each other, along with their respective families, for solace, but it’s clear from their concluding interviews what they learned about their heritage has left them much more troubled than resolved.  Critics aren’t troubled by this film, though, with active acceptance: 96% positive RT reviews, a healthy 81% average MC score; although, audiences haven’t been able to share this unique experience very much yet, with the film having been out for 7 weeks yet now down to 326 domestic theaters yielding a mere $9.7 million in ticket sales so—as I often say—if this content interests you I recommend reserving a spot on your video queue for some future availability.

 Until then, maybe you’ll find some interest in my Musical Metaphor for Three Identical Strangers from The Beatles, “What You’re Doing” (on the 1964 UK Beatles for Sale album, 1965 US Beatles VI), either at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eARQAsKBJSc&frags=pl%2Cwn (with photos of the Fab Four, lyrics in both English and Spanish) or here if you just want to hear the song, which—despite its overt content about a romantic relationship gone wrong—in a symbolic manner speaks to the pain this secret experiment caused for these triplets: “Look what you’re doing, I’m feeling blue and lonely Would it be too much to ask of you What you’re doing to me […] Please stop your lying, you’ve got me crying […] Why should it be so much to ask of you What you’re doing to me?”

 Now, for a really long (even for me) Short Takes finale: One item quite important for the cinema industry and its supporters bursting on the scene last week I didn’t have time to explore then (but which I must wade into, knee-deep or higher) is the recent decision of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to add an Oscar category for Best Popular Film to its awards ceremony in 2019 (they’re also going to insure a maximum 3-hour-broadcast by giving some of the statuettes during commercial breaks), in an attempt to boost steadily-declining-TV-ratings of the event.  I’ll give you links to 2 negative responses from the industry-focused-publication Variety if you want to see what people in the biz have to say about this drastic decision (after 90 years of other modifications, although in the inaugural event [May 16, 1929] this concept existed for 1 year with separate prizes for Best Picture [Wings]* and Best Unique and Artistic Picture [Sunrise], the latter category dropped in 1930 leaving us with just Best Picture ever since, assuming anything—artistic, entertaining, foreign language, animated—could become a nominee [although most of the winners have come from that first designation, while no feature documentary has yet been honored at this highest award level, just in its own category]).  From one viewpoint I don’t care for this change at all because it feels to me like Best Popular Film is a consolation-prize intended to simply boost ratings, producing nominees more in tune with those from the Golden Globes and People’s Choice awards, cheapening the whole concept of the Oscars.  However, you can’t argue that what’s popular (depending on how you—and the Academy—determine such criteria; one writer offers 11 movies over the past decade that could have contended for that honor, based on arbitrary minimums of $100 million in domestic box-office-receipts, an average Metacritic score of 80%, 90% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes) hasn’t been paralleled with the Oscar Best Picture noms all that often.

*I’m skipping my usual director citations for the many filmic notations in these next paragraphs to keep the text at a reasonable (?) length.  Please look up any where you want to know this extra info.

 You can look much more carefully than I've had time to accomplish this week if you care to by comparing these lists of All-Time Domestic Box-Office Champs by year and decade (although not all sources come up with these same results) and Oscar Best Picture Nominees and Winners, but what I found by doing this quickly is for each year’s box-office-champ there are usually few correlations with Best Picture noms: late 1920s—1 (Wings, 1927**); 1930s—4 (It Happened One Night, 1934**; Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935**; The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938; Gone with the Wind, 1939**); 1940s—2 (Sergeant York, 1941; Going My Way, 1944**); 1950s—4 (The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952**; The Ten Commandments, 1956; The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957**; Ben-Hur, 1959**); 1960s—5 (West Side Story, 1961**; Lawrence of Arabia, 1962**; My Fair Lady, 1964**; The Sound of Music, 1965**; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969); 1970s—8 (Love Story, 1970; Fiddler on the Roof, 1971; The Godfather, 1972**; The Sting, 1973**; Jaws, 1975; Rocky, 1976**; Star Wars [Episode IV—A New Hope], 1977; Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979**); 1980s—3 (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981; E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982; Rain Man, 1988**); 1990s—3 (Beauty and the Beast, 1991 [1st animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture]; Titanic, 1997**; Saving Private Ryan, 1998); 2000s—2 (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003**; Avatar, 2009); 2010s—2, so far (Toy Story 3, 2010; American Sniper, 2014).  Along the way, others (of many) earning a spot in their decade’s Top 10 box-office-champs that didn’t get Oscar Best Picture noms include King Kong (1933), The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (both 1939), many Disney animated features (1940s-‘60s), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Thunderball (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Grease, Superman, (National Lampoon’s) Animal House (all 3 from 1978), none of the original follow-ups to the first Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies (all 1980s), Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop (both 1984), Back to the Future (1985), Batman (1989), Home Alone (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), The Lion King (1994), Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), none of the most recent Star Wars episodes or those prequels (2015-2017), Jurassic World (2015).

** Also won the Best Picture Oscar for releases from that year.  (This notation will be repeated a lot.)

 I’m not saying any of these noted just above but not chosen for Oscar’s top honor consideration should have secured such a nomination, but it’s very clear how so many of these audience favorites don’t factor into Oscar competition, lowering TV viewer interest over time when there’s such a disconnect since the 1960s-‘70s between what most people see and what gets Oscar attention/gold (except, in several cases for movies just mentioned, various technical categories—the ones most likely to now be reassigned to commercial breaks during the telecast).  If you simplify this situation by looking only at, say, the Top 25 All-Time Domestic Grossers there’s little change with only the original Star Wars, E.T. …, Titanic, Avatar, and Toy Story 3 getting those prized noms (Titanic the sole winner), although another 4 from 2018 are on that list (not surprising, given constantly rising ticket prices in recent years), with all of those as possible contenders for this new category, Black Panther the odds-on-favorite (for now, at least) to win it.  However, if you shift those Top 25 to being Inflation-Adjusted—a fairer comparison, reflecting actual numbers of tickets sold rather than how actual dollar amounts leave us with only 5 top-grossers released before 2000—then 15 of the 25 have been Best Picture nominated, 6 of them winners (Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, The Sound of Music, The Godfather, The Sting, Titanic), but despite these slight numerical gains it’s still clear there are many audience-embraced-movies on even this list that haven’t merited Best Picture consideration, all of which are either Disney animated features, Star Wars episodes, or feature cloned dinosaurs.  OK, I’ve likely provided enough evidence to support the Academy’s decision to add this Popular Film category, so why, might you ask, am I opposed to it being added?

 My reasons are essentially these: First, although I clearly make my own distinctions between “films” and “movies” when writing these reviews, with my highest respect for the artistic qualities of the former category (that’s all you’ll find in the Summary of Two Guys Reviews [all done by me; Pat’s still working on getting his computer plugged in] at the 5- or 4½-star-levels, most of what you’ll also find at my 4-star-level, although you’ll note some recognition to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, 2014), Wonder Woman (2017), and 1 each of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises), I think everything released in a given year should be on equal-footing as far the Oscar competition goes where the whole-picture-package is concerned—which I admit gives a fundamental edge to those entries with higher than genre-entertainment/social-reinforcement intentions, even though it appears to me most other critics are willing to dish out their highest ratings to any successes within recognized genres or narrative formulas. So, for example, Black Panther, an identifiable member of the fantasy superhero genre, gets the same superlative rating as BlacKkKlansman from such critics, despite what I see as a higher calling, greater aesthetic intention, a more personally/socially-impactful result with the latter than the former; I respect both of them, gave them both 4 stars, but if I had to put one in a time capsule for future generations to learn about the 21st century I’d take Lee over Coogler, with the self-criticism that maybe to verify my own philosophy I shouldn’t be so cautious with BlacKkKlansman (along with some others on my 4-star-list), in terms of rating it even higher (although I’m intentionally stingy with those levels of accolades, preferring that to the embarrassment of over-generosity after time allows the option of reconsideration), but at least I have those higher-star-levels for films to aspire toward whereas others will also offer their highest praise for formulaic movies that simply succeed well within the limitations of generic-expectations.

 Second, as evidenced by the lists cited above, there have already been a good number of popular films recognized by the Academy for Best Picture consideration, some of which have even scored the highly-desired-win (there are plenty more actual popular film nominees for Best Picture over these last 90 years of the Academy beyond the ones I cited above [where I focused on just the #1 income-champs of given years] that would have likely met whatever criteria are finally decided upon for what constitutes a “popular film” [or movie, as I’d call it, but that term may be too colloquial for the Academy], then applied retrospectively to their years of release), so I don’t think there’s been a gross-mistreatment of entertaining movie vehicles over the Oscars’ history of nominations nor do I think most of the excluded “popular films” cited above are truly worthy contenders for the top prize (although a good number of them—especially … The Empire Strikes Back [1980] and Toy Story 3, in my opinion—would have been worthy inclusions if the Best Picture nominations had been expanded to 10 over all of these past 9 decades).  Yet, it looks like we’re stuck with this new, mercantile-driven Best Popular Film category—for 2019, at least—so if you want some further thought on who the finalists might be, beyond the successful ones already cited above, here are some ruminations on how the big-ticket-releases from the major Hollywood studios have fared so far this summer.  All in all, rummaging around through these lists should keep you busy until my next posting, but if you find some other insights I’ve missed, please feel free to share them with me.
            
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
          
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about BlacKkKlansman:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aHrIh9QWfo&frags=pl%2Cwn (47:57 interview with actors Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Laura Harrier, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Pääkönen and real-life ex-cop Ron Stallworth [begins with the same trailer used in the review above]) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXYBnJ7BUss&frags=pl%2Cwn (22:27 interview with director Spike Lee [be warned, his anti-Trump and anti-global-right-wing-actions language isn’t sanitized at all, nor should it be given what he’s talking about during the first 6 min. or so of the video]; actors John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier are there but don’t speak during this clip) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEFXtzSaoLg&frags=pl%2Cwn (10:10 interview with actor John David Washington)



Here’s more information about Three Identical Strangers:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQ2EfhTOVro&frags= (22:04 interview with director Tim Wardle and the 2 of the triplets, David Kellman and Robert Shafran, along with their friend Ellen [didn’t catch her surname]—you’ll have to keep boosting the audio up when Robert talks)



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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of kenburke409@gmail.com(But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
         
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Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 5,877 (we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll be regular readers, especially those of you from the Unknown Region, which is either Russian hackers in hiding, Wakanda [I'm still hoping for readers from Africa, even fictional ones], or is somewhere I hope shows up on a map someday); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Blindspotting and Leave No Trace

            "It’s been a long time comin'
            Goin' to be a long time gone"
                    (from "Long Time Gone" on the 1969 Crosby, Stills & Nash album; this video 
                 is a live performance from sometime later in their career, with the song
                —sadly enough—still as relevant now as it was 5 decades ago)

                                                      Reviews by Ken Burke

 At the conclusion of my previous Two Guys posting (August 2, 2018) I indicated an intention this time to review Blindspotting and Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, but I got Spike’s release date wrong so instead of comparing explorations of racial conflicts I’ll go instead with explorations of societal-adjustment-conflicts by using Leave No Trace.  I’ll get to Spike next week, but in the meantime the last video here, found far below, is directed by Lee, so I'm just a bit accurate after all.
                
                         Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)
                
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Daveed Diggs (Collin), Rafael Casal (Miles) co-wrote and star in this energetic, multi-faceted, powerful film about a Black felony-parolee and his long-time, borderline-unhinged White buddy in a story set firmly in Oakland, CA where our beleaguered protagonist is making every effort to walk the straight and narrow as the final days of his probation wind down, even as his loose-cannon friend (now carrying around a small cannon of his own, which terrifies Miles’ girlfriend because of the danger it could bring to their young son) keeps pushing the limit of what the law will allow where Collin’s concerned.  Another aspect of what the law allows is a White cop shooting an unarmed Black man, witnessed by Collin yet kept private by him lest a confrontation with the police will backfire on his impending freedom, although the knowledge of this unindicted-crime constantly intrudes upon Collin’s mental stability, even as he finds himself to be a victim of what his office manager, Val, identifies as “blindspotting,” her term for a psychological response to events/realities/people that can’t be understood/acknowledged for what/who they are because observers refuse to see them in any other but a negative light (just as she keeps pushing herself away from the mutual attraction she and Collin share because she still sees him as a felon, previously sent away to prison for getting into a violent confrontation with a bar patron, an act she thinks was a useless waste of his promising life; meanwhile, Collin’s attempting to develop his own blind spot toward the shooting he witnessed even as it still troubles him).  This film’s already been widely praised as one of the best of the year (no argument from me, especially in its frequent use of riveting closeups, making great use of the big screen), although its present availability is very limited so see it if you can, queue it up for future viewing if that’s your only option.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)


If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
                      
What Happens: Collin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs) is a convicted felon (as we find out much later in the film, for assault on an obnoxious patron of a Tiki bar where he was working as a bouncer, a situation that escalated when the flaming $20 drink this jerk took outside to show to his friends [even though he's not allowed to walk out with it] also set him on fire, leaving Colin with no useful defense [except being resentful of the idiot verbally berating him, then pushing the confrontation too far with an unnecessary shove]), a Black man who’s been on 2-year-parole, now living in a run-down-halfway-house with a strict 11pm curfew, working at Commander Moving with his mouthy, White, long-time friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), trying his best to stay out of trouble for the last 3 days of his restricted life (where he can’t even leave Alameda County [CA], so his job assignments have to be limited in order to prevent violation), after which he can move back in with his mother, Mama Liz (Tisha Campbell-Martin), then try to recover whatever he can of a life hemmed in by his prior conviction.  During those trying final days on parole, though, he’s constantly put in danger of having those harsh confinements extended for another year because fellow West Oakland native Miles is always pushing things to dangerous limits, such as brandishing a newly-bought-pistol (he claims it's to protect his family, girlfriend Ashley [Jasmine Cephas Jones] and son Sean [Ziggy Baitinger], but more likely it’s to extend his self-defined-macho-image) or getting into a fight at a party given by techie-CEO Chet (Casey Adams) which goes especially bad when Miles first gets into a bloody fight with the only other Black guy there (besides Collin), then brandishes/fires the pistol, with Collin quickly grabbing the gun from him as they desperately run away from the scene of the confrontation before cops show up.  Once alone, Collin reads Miles the riot act for causing so much trouble for him (Miles responds with how he’s had Collin’s back ever since they were kids, including joining in on pounding the Tiki guy noted above, as well as frequently visiting him at the jail), berates him for acting/talking like he’s Black even though he’s clearly not (Miles has his own anger about his status in the neighborhood, trying desperately to fit in where he’s the oddball minority, not feeling he has nearly the potential Collin does, despite not being held back by a prison record).  They part in anger.

 From this point, the previously-frequent-aspects of humor (one of the most effective is a scene where Miles goes into a local beauty parlor attempting to sell a boxful of hair-straightening-devices to the Black women patrons but has to prove his products work so he uses one on Collin, resulting in a ridiculous look for him in the next scene; another funny bit comes when Miles decides to sell a dilapidated sailboat intended for the junkyard, which he successfully does after some urban-banter with a passerby, admitting later he had no idea what he was saying even though it proved effective) basically evaporate, starting with Collin walking home, alone on a city street, trying to beat curfew, yet with the gun in his jacket pocket when a police car comes along, then does a U-turn to follow him.  After briefly being in the cop’s spotlight he’s left to continue walking, but we’re prepared for a major crisis as this incident brings back in sharp detail an event crucial to an earlier scene where Collin’s driving home late one night when suddenly at a traffic stop a frantic Black man, Randall Marshall, runs in front of his truck only to be shot dead by a pursuing policeman, Officer Molina (Ethan Embry), with the resulting news stories saying Marshall was armed (although we see no evidence of that).  ⇒On the final day of Collin’s parole he goes for his usual run through a local cemetery (the same one containing the remains of my wife’s high-school-best-friend [cruelly stabbed by her crazed great-nephew]), finding himself surrounded by ghosts of dead Black men, a “haunting” scene leading to the next load-out of a resident’s belongings by him and Miles, with the setting clearly indicating a wife and child leaving a husband.  The scene intensifies when Collin realizes hubby is the shooter-cop so he pulls the pistol on him, delivers a blistering, spontaneous rap (he and Miles periodically do this throughout the film, with less-intense-lyrics than these), but has no intention of shooting, just wants to show the shaken man what it feels like to find his life abruptly in a killer’s crosshairs.  Collin leaves, gives the gun back to Miles to whom the upset cop says he didn’t intend to shoot Marshall, but it’s not clear Miles believes him (nor should we just yet, given what we saw earlier as the man desperately ran away).⇐   As tension recedes, Collin and Miles resume rapport, bantering about football’s Raiders set to soon leave Oakland for Las Vegas.

So What? If you didn’t get a chance to travel to NYC in 2015-’16 to see Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton (roles which led to both Grammy [cast album] and Tony awards [Best Featured Actor in a Musical] for him) or haven’t caught him yet as a recurring character in the ABC-TV sitcom-with-a-purpose, Black-ish, you certainly get a clear sense of his multi-talents as actor and rapper in Blindspotting, which also showcases his ability as co-screenwriter (with Casal).  Most reviews I’ve read focus on Diggs as the most impactful actor in this mostly-dramatic/seasoned-with-occasional-comedy film, although I think Casal certainly holds his own, especially in scenes where Miles becomes his most explosive, including when he fights with Collin after the fracas at the CEO’s party.  However, this film’s packed with meaningful plot considerations beyond questioning of personal identity and the ongoing tensions of race relations/conflicts in contemporary American cities, with a chief one being gentrification as explored in 2 especially poignant scenes; (1) Collin and Miles are on a job cleaning out a home with the owners now dead, the house set for intensive rebuilding; Collin finds family mementos including framed photos and an album, quietly noting the now-absence of invested lives in this place soon to be remodeled into a more contemporary dwelling for the benefit of the newly-rich moving into what used to be “Oaktown,” as housing prices have exploded in tech-heavy San Francisco just across the bay; (2) That aforementioned CEO’s also in a remade house (squared-off Modernistic, clearly imposed on the older Victorians sitting on either side of it) where he admonishes his party guests to not set anything on the tree stump in his living room because it’s his prized possession (as a transplanted [from Portland, OR], new generation of Oaklander saying he’s found his true home), the remains of an original Oakland oak tree (seemingly, he’s completely unaware of how this relic of earlier times also represents the process of this characteristic foliage being removed over recent decades as part of ongoing urbanization, just as various Cherryland and Pruneyard neighborhoods around the SF Bay Area are now just remnants of the earlier, more-agricultural reality of this region).

 There’s still a good bit of recognizable traditional Oakland highlighted in this film, though, beginning with contrasting images before the opening title that showcase upscale as well as deteriorated neighborhoods, culminating in “Blindspotting” displayed on the marquee of the magnificently-restored downtown Art Deco palace of the Depression-era Fox Theater (opened in 1928, served—as did so many lavish venues of that time—as an escape from economic turmoil beginning just a year later).  However, a not-so-embraced-Oakland-treasure-by-our-proud-urban-men—especially Miles—is the refurbished Kwik Way burger joint just around the block from another landmark, the famed Grand Lake Theater (location of Blindspotting's recent local premiere), famous for decades for cheap, greasy fast food but now so upscale to appeal to its newly-trendy-clientele you have to specify meat for your burger in order to avoid a veggie patty, disgustedly thrown away by Miles (even the bar—also very near the Grand Lake—where Collin gets into his fateful altercation with the disrespectful Tiki enthusiast, is recognizable to those who know it as The Alley [not a Tiki bar at all], a long-time-tradition where people pack into close quarters, singing along with the pianist of the night now that Rod Dibble’s no longer there to run the open-mike-atmosphere).  In another city-specific-scene, photographer Patrick (Wayne Knight, most-often-remembered as Newman from TV’s Seinfeld series) is overseeing Collin and Miles pack up his framed images of long-time Oakland residents, lamenting how such people (the “soul” of the city in his opinion) are being pushed out by the increasing intrusion of the overnight-wealthy, with our knowledge these sentiments come from the hearts of Diggs and Casal who’ve grown up together in this area, stayed in touch all their lives.

Bottom Line Final Comments: While many critics (including the best of the bunch, me) are calling Blindspotting one of the best films of 2018 (without even a “so far” qualifier), it’s not faring well in terms of box-office receipts.  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a hearty 93% collection of positive reviews while Metacritic comes in with a typically-lower-but-still-supportive-for-them 76% average score, but after 3 weeks in theaters it’s only managed to pull in about $3.2 million domestically (U.S.-Canada), plus a mere $17 thousand from the rest of the world, so it’s barely making back its restricted investment, having only been booked in a maximum of 523 domestic venues so far (although in my area that includes the suburbs where I live, not just the urban-located-theaters of Oakland and Berkeley, even as the other current film shot in/reflecting Oakland, Sorry to Bother You [Boots Riley; review in our July 12, 2018 posting], with similar critical response [RT—95% positive reviews, MC—79% average score] despite some quirky aspects that haven’t been universally embraced, has hit a bit more solidly with audiences, taking in about $14.9 million after 5 weeks in release but soon disappearing as its coverage is now down to only 404 theaters, yet both of these films pale in comparison to the silliness of something like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again [Ol Parker], also out for 3 weeks but already at $236.4 million worldwide [$92.8 million of it domestically], but that’s what playing in about 3,500 domestic theaters can get you, especially with some critical backing [RT—80% positive, although MC responds with only a 60% average score])Blindspotting may be too Oakland-specific in its setting and references to resonate with a wider-geographic-range of audiences, but you’d think its themes of characters being disturbed by racial injustice, the delicate balance keeping many people of color on the social borderlines in an attempt to reclaim lives restricted by prior-incarceration, the honest attempt of the protagonist to rise above the adolescent/self-imposed “ghetto” attitudes of his close friend in order to deflect the “blind spot” social stereotypes that prevent him from being seen in his full humanity would resonate beyond northern CA, but we’ll just have to wait a few months to see if Blindspotting’s even remembered next fall/winter after this initial rush of evaluative-acceptance has receded from collective memory.

 When Commander Moving’s no-nonsense office-manager (as well as Collin’s ex-girlfriend), Val (Janina Gavankar), explains late in this plot her use of the word “blindspotting” as a memory-jogger for a more precise psychological term (not really a pneumonic, a tactic often used to aid learners through various word-association-strategies)—as part of her night-school-attempt to better herself with hopes of someday moving up from an hourly-wages-job—I’d say she's noting cognitive dissonance (which occurs when conflicting information challenges long-held-beliefs, forcing the confused person to either seek new insights to resolve the mental conflicts or simply reject any troubling inputs [as “fake news,” according to our 1984-oriented President, whose name, like the evil wizard in the Harry Potter stories should not be voiced, although Spike Lee’s wittily-rechristened him as “Agent Orange”]), we finally get the meaning of the film’s title, referring to how people are often relegated to being perceived in a certain manner even if they’ve made conscious efforts to change past behavior, so Val still has problems responding to her attraction to Collin because she continues to have a “blind spot” about him, seeing him as a hot-headed-felon because of his altercation with the bar guy a couple of years ago (the reason why she never visited him at the Santa Rita jail in Pleasanton, not all that far from Oakland) in the same way she’s concerned he has a blind spot regarding Miles, refusing to see how the truly-hot-headed-one of this pair of friends is a bad influence on everyone around him, including Collin and Sean, all of which corresponds to the least-pro-active-strategy of acting upon cognitive dissonance, that of simple denial of new evidence as a means of rejecting troubling inconsistencies (from these examples you can see how this problem applies to many of the film’s characters—maybe even the killer-cop—as well to modern society as a whole, where the preconditioned bubbles we’re increasingly living in help all of us ignore what some call the “inconvenient truths” distracting us from our daily routines).

 Accordingly, to bring these comments to conclusion with a Musical Metaphor (my normal choice of aural-retrospection on what’s been previously presented) I’ll go with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (first used in the soundtrack of Do the Right Thing [Spike Lee, 1989], then on the 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kj9SeMZE_Yw&frags=pl% 2Cwn, a Lee-directed-video (He's getting a lot of mentions this week; if that's a problem, "Sorry to bother you.") beginning with a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 civil rights March on Washington, then contrasting that with Public Enemy’s rappers rejecting such a strategy in favor of more confrontational approaches, not about abolishing existing power structures as much as about rejecting and eliminating the negative influences these structure have on marginalized communities of color in our increasingly-diversified-society (opposed as that may be by those in declining demographics).  Collin, Miles, and everyone else focused on in this film wants to rise above these demeaning situations, constantly having to adopt new strategies in their difficult attempts to do so.
                
                                                 Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
                  
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): An ex-Marine who’s far from readjusted to civilian life (after who knows what's happened to him on the battlefield) attempts to live in the woods of a large Portland park with his teenage daughter, but they’re found by park police, sent to live and work at a social services-chosen farm although Dad can tolerate such confinement only so long before they’re back on the road again.  As they leave Oregon, cross into Washington through the generosity of a truck driver sympathetic to their situation, Dad sets them up in a currently-unoccupied cabin deep in the woods, but when he fails to return from a trek into a nearby town his daughter discovers he’s unconscious and injured.  With the help of some locals she flags down, they relocate to a small trailer community in this forest where she begins to find stability but has to deal with her father’s constant need to be alone, unbeholden to anyone so tension arises again as to whether they will stay or go.  This is a serious, relevant film dealing with the reality of PTSD difficulties among military vets and their clashes with more organized social structures that sincerely want to help, even if those in question can’t function well with the requirements they’d have to accept.  It’s already acknowledged as one of the best of the year (100% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), although its independent identity hasn’t led to its availability in many theaters as of yet.

Here’s the trailer:  


        Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
              
What Happens: Will (Ben Foster) is a former Marine (as we briefly learn later in this story) from a unit (likely assigned to some aspect of the ongoing U.S. military involvement in various Middle East conflicts) burdened by suicides within its ranks, so he attempts to deal with his PTSD demons by living in hiding in the far realm of a huge Portland, OR park with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), although we find out very little concerning absent-Mom except when the curious girl asks Dad a few questions about her.  Will’s determined to live off the grid, trusting no one except Tom (even with her, he’s not sufficiently satisfied with her camouflage tactics to keep their tent-based-home out of sight from any park police or hikers who might stumble onto their existence), living out their days with foraging for some vegetarian aspects of their diet from these woods, collecting rain water for sustenance and minor farming, maintaining Tom’s education with a combination of reading and evacuation drills, then occasionally hiking into town for Will to get meds at the local VA hospital which he then sells at a vets’ tent-encampment in another part of the park, using the money to buy a few necessities before returning to the deep woods.  Unfortunately, a passerby does get a glimpse of Tom one day, leading to the authorities capturing these 2 nomads, turning them over to social-service-workers (truly concerned for their welfare) who administer various interview protocols, then assign them to live in a small-but-functional-house on a Christmas tree farm run by Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober), who’s sympathetic to their plight yet insistent on Will getting into the flow of the work routine while the social workers get Tom enrolled in school (she surprisingly fits in well, makes friends with a local boy who takes her to a 4H club rabbit show).  Will tolerates this as long as he can (although he quickly puts the TV set into a closet, refuses the offer of a cell phone as he has no interest in either himself or his daughter keeping up with the inanities of the larger world [with my daily readings of newspapers, viewings or radio listenings of news reports, scanning of Internet postings, I wonder sometimes if he doesn’t have the right idea])—even to the point of attending the local church, to demonstrate his willingness to conform—before slipping away with Tom one day before he finds himself unable to abide by these constantly-imposed-rules.

 Tom’s beginning to assert herself a bit more, though, challenging Dad as to why they have to leave inside of a freight car, so with a quick cut we’re at a bus station headed for Washington state (I guess Will kept enough cash to afford tickets, but they carefully don’t sit together so as to not draw attention to themselves)At a rest stop, though, he’s concerned (in a paranoid manner, to my observation) that the woman Tom was sitting with was asking too many questions so they dismiss further bus travel in favor of hitching a ride north with a trucker; they finally find one sympathetic enough to their situation to allow them into his vehicle, but as they get into the next state Will chooses an arbitrary point to be let off where the woods beckon to him again, so away they go further away from civilization (colder here, wet, Tom wearing plastic bags in her hiking boots to keep her feet dry) until they find a unoccupied cabin which serves their immediate needs (even has a little canned food, easy to make a wood fire in the kitchen stove) until Will decides he needs to hike to the nearest town.  ⇒When he doesn’t come back that night, Tom looks through some papers they always keep (one is a news article about Will’s traumatized Marine unit), sets out to find him the next day which she does (he’s injured, mostly unconscious), so she flags down some motorized locals who take him to a wooded community where an ex-Army medic helps heal his injured foot (even loans his therapy dog who helps with Will’s adjustment to recovery) as Dale (Dale Dickey), a woman more-or-less running this isolated dwelling, allows them to stay (cheap rent) in one of her trailers.  Tom becomes comfortable here, learns a bit about beekeeping, is ready to settle in, but as soon as Will can semi-reasonably-amble he insists they pack up, head out again.  After they’ve gone just a little way, though, she decides to go back, leaving him to continue on his own after a loving goodbye hug as Tom now knows her life’s taking a drastic turn away from Will’s, with the last shot being her now having the task of leaving food for a local woodland hermit to take away later.⇐

So What? It’s unusual my rating for a film comes in below the critical averages of both RT and MC (because usually if there’s a discrepancy I’m a bit higher than both of them or I come in below one but above the other), although it’s happened a few times already this year (regarding my 49 reviews so far, not counting a couple of independent films not addressed by the heavyweights) with Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson; review in our April 5, 2018 posting), Blockers (Kay Cannon; review in our April 12, 2018 posting), Tully (Jason Reitman; review in our May 10, 2018 posting), Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis; review in our June 14, 2018 posting), Disobedience (Sebastián Leilo; review in our June 14, 2018 posting), Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird; review in our June 21, 2018 posting), Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley; review in our July 4, 2018 posting), and Mission: Impossible—Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie; review in our August 2, 2018 posting), but in none of these (most of which lured me to the theater based on encouragement from such glowing reviews) has my distancing from the higher scores been as “egregious” as with Leave No Trace as my puny 3½ stars fall from the heavens compared to the almost-unheard-of 100% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes (based on 160 surveyed, so it’s no fluke) along with an 88% average score from Metacritic (just about the highest they’ve offered this year to anything I’ve noted in doing my analyses of the same films).*  In my defense (if needed; I stand by my opinions), I’ll note a positive review from RT simply has to be one mostly in support of what’s on screen, not necessary a rave response so while a 100% result is truly admirable it doesn’t mean there aren’t reservations about what’s being critiqued; further, I’m in full sympathy with depicting the emotionally-distraught-lives of postwar-vets whose lives have been ruined or at least compromised by their horrid battlefield experiences, but upon seeing something praised to such heights I just didn’t feel it had that much of an overwhelming impact on me the longer I thought about it, despite its worthy subject matter and effective acting from these 2 leads.

*Numerically, my biggest discrepancy is with Let the Sunshine In because my 2½ stars (50% of my options) fall 35 points below RT’s 85% positive result while my 3½ stars (70%) for Leave No Trace is “only” 30 points below RT’s 100%.  Still, as noted above, that near-mythical 100% doesn’t note the nuances accompanying this variation of the old “thumbs up/down” stance of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, whereas the accumulated averages at a site like A critical consensus allow a bit more understanding of limitations within even the most positive of reviews (while also allowing more embracing voices than those from the consistently-restrained folks surveyed by Metacritic), with Leave No Trace currently at 8.7, slightly topped by Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham; review in our August 2, 2018 posting) at 8.8 (older versions of “… consensus” can be found here [if the innumerable ads at this SFGate site ever finish loading—it froze both Safari and Chrome when I tried to fully download it, creating such a slog I had to reboot the computer, so approach this link with caution]).

 What Leave No Trace forces us to confront is how these seemingly-eternal-overseas-wars—far from our shores, apparently having no real purpose in strengthening our own society nor in helping bring about useful, internationally-embracing-governments in lands long ruled by fierce dictators—are supposedly contributing to our national interests even as they leave generations of U.S. military combatants in varying states of likely-irreparable-trauma.  (Having never gone beyond the level of high-school-ROTC-training myself, I offer no assumptions about what it must be like for anyone to endure months/years of combat-encounters where death is a constant fear, allies are near-impossible to tell from enemies, mission purpose—beyond daily survival—remains an enigma; all I can do is learn from films such as this one, The Hurt Locker [Kathryn Bigelow, 2008], or others like them [even First Blood {Ted Kotcheff, 1982} where John Rambo’s {Sylvester Stallone} a Vietnam vet also suffering from debilitating PTSD, finding himself in misunderstood-physical-aggression with his local, abusive Washington state community; however, his later near-superhero-exploits in sequels made a mockery of the serious intentions of this first film in the series].)   These films also provide a glimpse of what it must be like to become alienated from all that may be decent around you because you’ve learned to distrust those who said you had a purpose in combat, said you have a partner in rehabilitation from that same “concerned” government.  Will’s a victim of forces beyond his control, attempting to use the immense survival skills he’s acquired to free himself from dependence on a society that’s left him behind after he’s served his ambiguous “duty”; we all can benefit from better appreciating how difficult he finds even tolerating the sincerely-embracing-woodlands-community in order to understand how damaged he is, even as his personal fortitude remains solid.  We can also easily appreciate how Tom must finally demand a break from this life of retreat, as it reflects nothing of her experience only how Dad has evolved to a point of permanent-social-incompatibility.  We can only hope she’ll channel her own strength into a life that doesn’t need to be reclusive like her father’s while still respecting the choices he’s been compelled to make.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Despite the intense critical acclaim for Leave No Trace it’s not been able to forge much of an impression in theaters where after 6 weeks in release it’s now down to 169 domestic venues with only about $5.2 million in box-office-receipts to show for its presence, which serves as evidence for those who argue critical acclaim adds little to a film’s impact with audiences if strong word of mouth doesn’t provide the crucial factor in turning out a supportive crowd.  (Conversely, that same sort of audience-bandwagon can at times completely override critical distain; a case in point is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom [J.A. Boyana], which has earned a Rotten Tomatoes tally of 51% positive reviews [of 312], a rarely-seen-equivalence of a 51% average score at Metacritic, yet its worldwide grosses after almost 7 weeks in release is a mammoth [yeah, I know these hairy-elephant-ancestors evolved after dinosaurs became extinct, but please let me wallow in whatever puns I can manage, for both our sakes] $1.3 billion [$406.1 million of that domestically], making it currently #14 on that All-Time list, so, once again, critical embrace may well be your ticket to success or it plus about $5 will get you a hipster-endorsed cup of coffee.)  I continue to admit I feel a little squirmy not joining in on the rah-rah-bandwagon for Leave No Trace, but to me it’s simply a solid idea that establishes itself soon into its reasonably-constrained-108 min.-running time, with little to enhance its concepts beyond the foundational situations of Will’s consistent traumas, Tom’s emerging resistance to Dad’s paranoia so its acceptably-ambiguous-ending just feels comfortable (mostly for Tom, as Will walks out of our sight into the deep woods again) but nothing’s (to me) been revealed that resonates to the degree of Granik’s previous success with Winter’s Bone (2010), even as several critics attempt to equate McKenzie’s performance in this film with Jennifer Lawrence’s impactful breakthrough in that earlier story.  (I still think her career could wait awhile before chalking up a Best Actress Oscar, but if such triumph needs to be I’d award it to her for … Bone rather than Silver Linings Playbook [David O. Russell, 2012], although my command of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decisions leaves much to be desired [by me—but’s that all that really matters, isn’t it?]).  McKenzie’s quite effective in her role, yet I'd say the acting accolades mostly go to Ben Foster with a marvelous follow-up to his verging-on-unhinged-brother-character in the remarkable Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016; review in our August 26, 2016 posting), stillin my unmatched opinion (!)the best of what’s been mentioned in this wide-ranging-paragraph (presented to you at no extra cost).

 For a musical metaphor to wrap up these internally-struggling-comments on Leave No Trace (with reflections back to my opening song and its implications for both of these films: “You know there’s something that’s goin’ on around here That surely, surely, surely won’t stand the light of day“) I originally thought of The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (from their 1965 Animal Tracks album) because of Will‘s constant efforts to extract himself and Tom from any situation where they have to intermingle with others, follow any rules, with his fevered-assumption that somewhere "girl, there’s a better life for me and you,"* but as “Long Time Gone” kept replaying itself for me I shifted to another CS&N (plus Young) tune, “Teach Your Children” (from the 1970 Déjà Vu album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQOaUnSmJr8 (an animation video joining images of young people in protest against social ills back when the song was written with references to similar resistances now, as so many aspects of our divided society still clash even after 50 years of attempted progress) because it seems even more relevant to me in regard to this film’s explorations of the dynamics between Will and Tom, so even as he tries, like other parents, to “Teach your children well [… there are problems regarding] the past [… containing] their father’s hell [… so] Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry […] just know they love you [… while Tom] of tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by And so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die."  Will’s taught Tom a lot regarding both traditional knowledge and survival skills, but she ultimately has to teach him she’s ready for a new path in their lives of resistance, a personal awakening she’s ready to explore away from the paranoia haunting her father.  She’s likely to be the one who survives more effectively, as she knows his only direction is further into the wilderness, attempting to seal himself off from what’s permanently damaged him.

*You might still be interested in this version which uses that Animals song over footage from Hamburger Hill (John Irvin, 1987) about gruesome aspects of the Vietnam War rather than more recent international conflicts but it’s certainly still relevant to whatever traumas Will experienced in whichever conflicts he endured, as well to those older vets still struggling to survive on many American streets.  You might also be curious to see which other RT entries have scored 100%, so here’s the more-extensive-than-you-might-imagine-list going all the way back to 1915 with The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith)—let's get Spike Lee back in here to comment on that onebut Leave No Trace is only 1 of 5 on that list to be based on more than 100 reviews (minimum was 20).

 But, before I dissolve into the ether prior to the next Two Guys re-emergence, here's a quick link about Tom Cruise’s stunt work from director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible—Fallout… Rogue Nation [2015; review in our August 6, 2015 posting]) as a final attachment to the … Fallout review in our previous posting with McQuarrie discussing the most "impossible" stunts performed by his never-aging-star.  OK, enough from me until the next time our paths cross.
              
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
             
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Here’s more information about Blindspotting:

https://tickets.blindspotting.movie (click the 3-bar-box in the upper-left-corner to get to this site's features)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0AnZMqcDuU&frags=pl%2Cwn (22:01 interview with co-screenwriters/actors Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, actor Jasmine Cephas Jones)



Here’s more information about Leave No Trace:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKvgkOawWrU&frags=pl%2Cwn (15:44 interview with director Debra Granik)



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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of kenburke409@gmail.com(But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come. 
             
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