Reel Life #15: BlacKkKlansman, Red Cliff, and Breathless

This week, I’ve decided to do something a little different. Up until now, I have been hesitant use my usual rating system on films because, to be frank, I have less sure footing in this medium. With games, I could end up changing my mind somewhere down the line, but because I’ve reviewed over 130 by this point, I know what each number is used for in relation to that medium specifically. Having said that, while I thought my less specific verdict system was serviceable, I realized films of varying quality existed on the same tiers as each other. It didn’t matter if I thought the film was good or great – they both got the “recommended” verdict. I considered using a rating system similar to Roger Ebert’s in which I ranked each film from 1-4 stars, but in the end, I’ve decided to use my own. Because of this, most of my additional scoring rules apply to how I parse films as well. This does mean, among other things, that films with weak endings can’t achieve a score higher than a 5/10 and sequel hooks must be resolved in an expedient manner for me to avoid invoking the former rule. On that note, should I come across a work that’s divided into multiple parts, I will not award any score at all until all of them have seen their release.

With that out of the way, I have to admit I didn’t see that many films this past week. This is because one in particular ended up being quite long, though I can safely say ahead of time it was worth seeing. The other two? I’ll get to those shortly.

BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee (2018)

The year is 1972 and Ron Stallworth has been hired as the first black detective in Colorado Springs. He is, at first, assigned to the records room where he is mistreated by a racist coworker. He eventually requests to be transferred, wishing to become an undercover policeman. His first assignment is to wear a wire and attend a rally where civil rights leader Kwame Ture is to speak. Impressed with his work, Stallworth’s superiors reassign him to the intelligence division. As he reads the paper, he finds a peculiar advertisement. The Ku Klux Klan is seeking to start a new chapter in Colorado Springs. Calling the phone number listed, he pretends to be a racist white man who hates minorities. The person on the other end of the phone, Walter Breachway, is enthusiastic about meeting Stallworth. With the help of a Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman, the two set out to gather intel for this new chapter’s plans.

Whether it’s Battle of the Sexes or Raging Bull, my first exposure to these kinds of stories tend to be in biopics. BlacKkKlansman is an interesting case in that I had heard of this story long before I saw the trailer for the film. Specifically, I learned about it alongside five other bizarre undercover stories that sound like they shouldn’t have worked, yet went off without a hitch (well, more or less) in a Cracked article entitled “The 6 Most Hilarious Undercover Operations Ever Pulled Off”. Though I had never watched any of Spike Lee’s previous films, I was very much looking forward to seeing this one, as it made for a fascinating, audacious (in a good way) story.

What I got was a solid film with great acting performances. John David Washington and Adam Driver work really well off of each other, lending a sense of comradery that only gets better as the film goes on. Topher Grace as the morally bankrupt David Duke is also quite something, accurately portraying his racist beliefs. What’s terrifying is how normal he can make them sound. Otherwise, a lot of the humor is derived from the fact that the KKK is gullible enough to be falling for this despite many instances in which this plan could easily fail (e.g. if they actually bothered to do a simple background check considering Stallworth used his real name). What’s especially great is that Stallworth is very nearly made the leader of said chapter.

I do have to comment that you should go into it realizing it’s not a 100% accurate portrayal. The real operation took place in 1979 and Ron Stallworth used his real voice to dupe the KKK rather than a “white” voice. This is fine because one needs to take any of these films with a grain of salt; directors are never going to perfectly recreate exactly how these events went. I also have to say the ending kind of lost me. |The biggest problem I had with this film is that it doesn’t recognize a good cutoff point and proceeds to keep going until it runs out of energy. After the chief asks Stallworth to destroy the evidence, he gets one last call from David Duke. Stallworth uses his opportunity to tell him who he really is, leaving the Klan’s leader speechless. This is a funny scene though the irony is that real life has the upper hand. David Duke wouldn’t learn Ron Stallworth was black until 2006 – twenty-seven years after the sting operation occurred. Even after that, it keeps going until it begins showing clips from the notorious Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that resulted in three casualties in 2017. In addition to feeling tacked on, it comes across as somewhat crass. Mr. Lee seemed to forget that while it is his film, it isn’t his story; it would’ve been far more interesting to read a follow-up as to what happened to the real Ron Stallworth after this operation. Instead, he got on his soapbox for the last ten minutes, which runs the risk of dating this film in the grand scheme of things.| I wouldn’t call the ending outright bad, but it does cause the film to stumble, which is a shame considering how well it was doing up until then.

Rating: 6/10

Red Cliff by John Woo (2008-2009)

It is the summer of 208 AD in the final days of the Eastern Han dynasty. The newly appointed Chancellor, Cao Cao, is leading the imperial army on a campaign to eliminate the southern warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei, denouncing them as rebels. Emperor Xian reluctantly approves of the campaign, and Cao Cao’s army quickly conquers the nearby Jing Province. Liu Bei leads an exodus to lead civilians out of the village in Changban, but the imperial army begins attacking them as well. The skilled warrior Zhao Yun fights to save Liu Bei’s family, but is only able to save his comrade’s infant son. After the fierce battle, Zhuge Liang goes on a diplomatic mission to Jiangdong in an attempt to form an alliance between his lord and Sun Quan against Cao Cao’s army. Little do they know their actions will alter the course of history in the years to come.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of watching Face/Off for the first time. It is easily one of the best action films of the nineties, and it made me interested in checking out more of John Woo’s films. I eventually discovered the existence of Red Cliff when doing research on the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. After learning of its high accolades and the fact that John Woo directed it, I knew I had to see this film.

One film Red Cliff brought to mind was Saving Private Ryan. Both films start off with an intense battle sequence to show audiences what’s at stake only to take a few steps back to allow them to catch their breath. Though Red Cliff was made in the late 2000s, it almost seems to hark back to classic action films of yesteryear in that it makes excellent use of its downtime to establish the characters along with their motivations.  If you’re going into this film expecting nonstop action, you may be taken aback when you realize the film takes its time getting to its epic war sequences. And of course, the action sequences themselves boast incredible choreography, and must be seen to be believed. At the same time, it shows how horrific war truly is with good people on both sides dying. It takes cues from films such as Ugetsu when it deals with the countless displaced civilians as an inevitable result of these sweeping conflicts.

One widely accepted site of the historic battle.

More than anything, it’s an incredibly fascinating story. The southern warlords faced insurmountable odds, being outnumbered 50,000 to at least 220,000, so clearly a direct confrontation was out of the question. Even all of these years later, the conflict is called the largest naval battle in history in terms of sheer numbers. It was something of a reoccurring thing in the 2010s to see films split into two parts. In many of these cases, I would deem it unnecessary if an editor who knew what to keep was hired. Red Cliff is an instance in which it earns every single one of its minutes between its breathtaking action sequences, wonderful acting performances, and political intrigue. Whether you decide to watch them back-to-back or in short bursts, this is most certainly worthy of your time.

Rating: 8/10

Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard (1960)

Michel is a young man entranced with the film persona of Humphrey Bogart. He also happens to be a dangerous criminal who has no remorse stealing a car and subsequently shooting a police officer to death. On the run from the law and without any money to his name, he turns to his American love interest, a student and aspiring journalist named Patricia. She unwittingly hides him in her apartment as he tries to seduce her and ask her for a loan so they may escape to Italy. When the police tell her the true nature of her boyfriend, she has a difficult decision to make.

After watching the excellent Three Colors trilogy, I became interested in checking out more French films. Doing Google searches, it didn’t take me long to discover the existence of Breathless. It is cited for having jumpstarted the French New Wave movement, though a scant few works that preceded it could be said to have spawned from the scene, sharing a majority of the associated tropes. I’m always looking to sample various historic film movements, so I thought I’d give Breathless a shot.

Breathless is an interesting subject in that, like many critical darlings, no one involved with the project thought the film would be successful let alone attract over two-million viewers. Lead actor Jean-Paul Belmondo was especially taken aback by its warm reception. Even to this day, you will see this film on any given “best French films” list. When Empire magazine created a list of the 100 best films of world cinema, it ranked 75th, cementing its status as a sacred cow of sorts.

Having finally seen it for myself I would argue the following this film has amassed over the years demonstrates one of the biggest weaknesses the medium’s critical circle has. They can make excellent cases as to why a work was so groundbreaking. Director Jean-Luc Godard didn’t have a finished script when he began shooting, he fed the actors their lines as the scenes were being filmed, and there are numerous jump cuts – ostensibly because he needed to shorten the picture and got rid of frames randomly. Breathless captured the critics’ attention back in 1960 due to breaking all of the established rules of filmmaking to make something so raw and powerful.

So while film critics looking back at older works can correctly point out what made pioneering works great back when they were released, they don’t make as good of a case when it comes to answering the question of whether said pioneering works actually hold up. In the case of Breathless, I would say the answer is a resounding no. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it’s now painfully obvious they started off without a finished script. Moreover, the jump cuts are very distracting. While they can be effectively used to go for a certain mood, here, they seem haphazard and arbitrarily placed.

I also found I wasn’t particularly invested in the story or its characters. By no stretch are they the worst characters I’ve seen, but they fall in that “bland except when they stick out for the wrong reasons” category. Michel is fairly unlikable, but it’s just plain bizarre that he never seems concerned about getting caught by the police. Likewise, Patricia doesn’t have much of an emotional reaction to learning Michel killed a policemen. She seems to take it in stride and even goes along with her boyfriend as he evades the law enforcement, going as far as helping him steal another car. |This makes her eventual decision to betray him to the police come completely out of nowhere. Even stranger is that Michel isn’t particularly disturbed when she confesses what she did to him.|

In a lot of ways, Breathless is like Braid in that critics adored it for traveling so far off the beaten path. Appropriately, I have similar feelings toward both works. Much like how I can appreciate Braid for allowing the indie scene to blossom (albeit largely without its help), I also give credit to Breathless for inspiring Hollywood to step up their game. I can thank it for having such a positive influence on the medium as a whole, but a timeless film it is not.

Rating: 5/10

7 thoughts on “Reel Life #15: BlacKkKlansman, Red Cliff, and Breathless

    • Look into that article; it’s a fascinating read. Otherwise, despite the problems I had with BlacKkKlansman, I’d say it is, for the most part, worth checking out. The story really is quite something.

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  1. I too saw BlacKKKlansman this week and I really liked it. The ending worked for me, and although I did feel like the call with Duke felt like a natural ending point if Lee had done so there I think it would have been disengenious to what he was attempting to say with the film. Sure, on the main level it is a fun biopic about a crazy sting operation that shouldn’t have worked but Lee’s script is sprinkled with insights that pertain to modern day happenings. His opting to not be subtle in showcasing that this is still happening and that these people still have a voice and are still dangerous I think is because unfortunately too many people just don’t get subtlty and he wanted to drive home that point. I know that, at least in the theater I was in, it was effective. People went from laughing at Duke and preparing to leave the theater on a high note to leaving and talking about how/why we somehow still give these assclowns a platform and allow them to terrorize society. Because while Stallworth’s operation is funny, the reality behind the KKK and the similar groups of today (Unite the Right, etc…) is that they aren’t funny, they’re dangerous.

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    • I’m absolutely not questioning that it was a message that needed to be said. Instead, the main problem I had with the ending is that it has the potential to date the film like crazy. Once we’ve learned to manage these problems, the ending is going to make an accidental period piece out of a film that otherwise wouldn’t have been one (well, technically a second period piece considering when the actual story is set). It’s kind of like the disclaimer at the beginning of the 1932 version of Scarface only even more jarring. I give Lee credit for audacity, but at the end of the day, it still felt like an unnatural transition – even if it is relevant to the overall themes of the film.

      There are indeed some people who don’t really get subtlety, but I would say too many artists in this decade A) believe that with a fiery passion and B) overcorrect and in the process, inevitably ruin their story’s ability to be a story. In fact, I would go as far as citing that attitude as a major reason why satire has been so terrible in the past ten years or so. As I said, I don’t think BlacKkKlansman’s ending is outright bad, and I actually give it some credit for escaping some of the trappings of the 2010s satire scene, but at the end of the day, it I feel it wasn’t a particularly graceful landing. When it comes to satirical works from this year, I would recommend Blindspotting or Sorry to Bother You over this one.

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  2. Pingback: August 2018 in Summary: The Zelda Retrospective is Complete! | Extra Life

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