John David Washington

Monster

13/05/21

Netflix

A courtroom drama with a difference, Monster stands apart, mostly by virtue of its artful direction. Anthony Mandler’s thought-provoking story centres around seventeen year old Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jnr), a film student with a promising future. With wealthy parents and a place at a prestigious college, Steve’s a regular golden boy. But a recent robbery in a Harlem bodega has gone horribly wrong, a shopkeeper’s been murdered and Steve stands accused of acting as lookout for the perpetrators, James King (ASAP Rocky) and ‘Bobo’ Evans (John David Washington). A witness has placed Steve at the scene of the crime and he soon finds himself arrested.

It’s an unlikely fit. King and Evans are streetwise villains with previous form, but Steve has never been in trouble in his life. How can he possibly have become involved in something like this? As his lecturer, Leroy (Tim Blake Nelson), points out, this is a kid who inspires trust in everyone he meets. And yet… he’s been identified.

The conceit here is that all the events of the story are filtered through Steve’s distinctive point of view. As a filmmaker himself, he cannot resist presenting them as a sort of screenplay, complete with titles and camera directions. (Don’t worry, this is way better than I’ve made it sound – it’s an assured marriage between style and content, neither element allowed to outweigh the other.)

We follow him through his arrest, his subsequent incarceration and on to his trial, where his appointed defence attorney, Maureen O’ Brian (Jennifer Ehle), does her best to guide him through the pitfalls of a court appearance and keeps reminding him that the way he presents himself to the jury will be of paramount importance. In flashbacks, we also witness his interactions with King and Evans, the way he is drawn to them as subjects for a film project he’s working on, how he’s caught up in their ‘outlaw’ attitude. But he knows there’s a line between him and them, doesn’t he? And he’s surely never going to cross it…

Monster is ultimately about the allure of the forbidden, the different choices we face in our lives. It also has a lot to say about class – it effortlessly demonstrates how Steve’s privileged lifestyle affords him opportunities that many of his peers will never experience – and how it might be the single factor that stands between him and the unthinkable. Harrison Jnr is compelling in the lead role and Ehle provides a calm, but steely presence as the defender who believes in his innocence. Originally filmed in 2018 and showcased at the Sundance Festival the same year, Monster has had a long wait to find its audience, but it’s been worthwhile.

This is an assured and original drama with plenty to recommend it.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Tenet

26/08/20

You have to feel a wee bit sorry for Christopher Nolan. He is the first film director of stature to pop his head above the parapet post-lockdown, and so Tenet has the daunting task of being the flag bearer, the film expected to tempt cinema-goers back into the multiplexes en masse. Both the Bond franchise and Disney’s Mulan, have recently baulked at the responsibility and who can blame them?.

Interestingly, it’s a Bond movie that most springs to mind watching Tenet, though it would be 007 On Acid, given that its plot elements are so incomprehensible, I feel singularly unqualified to say much about them. (Sadly, I don’t possess a PHD in quantum physics.) Suffice to say that Nolans’s regular obsession with time (and the manipulation of it) are taken to their ultimate conclusion here. The result is mind bending – and not always in a good way.

The hero of the film, a CIA operative known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), is first encountered as a member of a team carrying out a (frankly baffling) assignment in the Kiev Opera House. After that, he is recruited for a special assignment, which is referred to only by the palindromic title and a certain hand gesture. It’s all about the reversal of time or, as one character puts it, ‘entropy’. What ensues is a whole series of action set-pieces, where fights, car chases and even explosions can run forwards or backwards – often simultaneously.

The Protagonist soon finds himself teamed with the more modestly monikered Neil (Robert Pattinson) and, shortly after that, becomes increasingly enmeshed in the lives of the enigmatic Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband, power-mad Russian arms dealer, Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). Andrei, it seems, has the power to end the world as we know it, and The Protagonist has been handed the job of putting a stop to his shenanigans – so, no great pressure there…

There’s no doubting the sheer scale and ambition of this work and there’s certainly plenty of brain-scrambling action on offer, but Nolan doesn’t do himself any great favours with the complexity of the plot and the fact that much of the expository dialogue is obscured by an overly intrusive soundtrack, courtesy of Ludwig Göronsson. Washington doesn’t really have the opportunity to emote enough for us to care what happens to him, while Branagh’s snarling, bellowing Andrei veers dangerously close to caricature. Debicki is good though, and Pattinson manages to exude a suave, laidback charm, which helps no end.

I find myself alternately enjoying parts of this and feeling frustrated by others. While I’m generally the last person to favour ‘easy’ stories, I’m not convinced that this is the kind of material designed to tempt Joe Public back to the cinema – though I also have to add that it did feel wonderful to be back there, even if this isn’t the best Christopher Nolan film ever (that would be The Prestige, by the way. Thanks for asking).

If you’re looking for something big, loud and packed with action, Tenet is probably the logical choice – just don’t expect to understand everything you see.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

BlackkKlansman

29/08/18

Spike Lee is a passionate and prolific filmmaker, but few would deny that it’s been a while since he released anything of real gravitas. BlacKkKlansman is therefore, far and away the most exciting movie he’s made in years, even though (perhaps typically for him), it’s far from a straightforward proposition.

Take the opening scenes for example. We get that famous sequence from Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett O Hara wanders through hordes of injured Confederate troops and then cut to a 1950s KKK recruitment film shoot featuring Alec Baldwin as ‘Dr Kinnebrew Beauregard,’ spouting his white supremacist worldview as scenes from D W Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation are projected onto his face. The problem with this is that we’ve already been advised that the film is based on a true story – yet Beauregard is a completely fictional character, a twist that seems to undermine Lee’s good intentions. Why not feature the words of a genuine racist? There are surely plenty to choose from.

But then we are into the ‘fo’ real shit’ as Lee likes to call it – and I can’t help thinking that if this wasn’t a true story, nobody would believe it ever happened. It’s the 1970s and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black man ever employed by the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is eventually allowed to prove his worth and is promoted to the role of undercover cop and, on a slow day in 1979, he impulsively decides to answer a newspaper ad by the Klu Kux Klan, who are looking to form a new chapter. He does this by simply picking up the phone and giving them a call. He hits it off with the man on the other end of the line, former soldier Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), by telling him that he hates blacks, Jews and homosexuals and, on that merit, is promptly invited to pop along for an informal chat.

Obviously, that won’t work, so Stallworth talks his white fellow-cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into impersonating him for the meeting. Despite his Jewish upbringing (the KKK are, after all,  equal opportunities racists), Zimmerman manages to infiltrate the organisation, even hooking up with head honcho David Duke (Topher Grace). Meanwhile, Stallworth is becoming romantically involved with black rights activist, Patrice Dumarr (Laura Harrier), who is unaware that he is a police officer and clearly won’t be pleased if she ever finds out…

The tone of the film veers alarmingly between laugh-out-loud depictions of the KKK’s trusting naivety, sprightly ‘afros and flares’ nightclub scenes, full-tilt action sequences and searing polemics about historical injustice. Veteran screen actor Harry Belafonte appears as Jerome Turner, relating the true story of the horrific murder of black teenager, Jesse Washington, accused of raping a white woman in 1916 (the same year that Birth of a Nation was released). This is intercut with scenes at a Klan get-together, where the film is being screened to an enthusiastic crowd. It’s a powerful concept, beautifully shot, but it’s a tad overlong and there remains the overall conviction that, trimmed down a little, the film could have made all the same points just as effectively. It’s as though, Lee, enthused by the project, wants to throw in every idea he has – and sometimes, less is more. But that said, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, not least Washington’s solid and immensely likeable performance in the lead. Driver is good too, but then, I don’t think I’ve seen him make a bad job of any role he’s undertaken.

Just when I think the whole things’s being neatly wrapped up with a pink bow, Lee brings me suddenly and shockingly up to date, with a montage of recent real life footage that sends the audience stumbling out into the night in stunned silence. There is no doubting the director’s commitment to the cause of black rights and no arguing with his view that the world is in dire danger of slipping back into the kind of horrors we thought had been vanquished forever. It’s a sobering moment.

BlacKkKlansman may not be perfect, but it’s nonetheless a heartfelt and important movie that stays with me, long after viewing.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney