Uneven work from director Spike Lee is often more exciting than familiar quality from other filmmakers. His last narrative feature, 2015’s “Chi-Raq,” contains a wild assortment of tones and ideas, some of which click better than others, but there’s something about trying something new, even if it doesn’t quite work.
Then, every once in a while, Spike Lee manages to click the pieces together into something electrifying. His latest, the fact-based “BlacKkKlansman,” is the director’s most compelling, relevant and cohesive movie since “25th Hour.” At times thrilling, absurd, hilarious and terrifying, “BlacKkKlansman” delivers a social message without compromising its entertainment value.
Based on the memoir by Ron Stallworth, “BlacKkKlansman” stars John David Washington (son of Denzel) as the first African-American detective on the force in Colorado Springs, Colo., circa 1972. Stallworth managed to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by responding via telephone to a Klan advertisement in a local paper. Adam Driver portrays Stallworth’s partner, who poses as Stallworth for in-person meet-ups with the group.
Aside from some dramatics at the end, “BlacKkKlansman” plays closely to true life, including Stallworth’s numerous phone interactions with a young David Duke, national leader of the KKK. Duke is played pointedly by “That ’70s Show’s” Topher Grace in a career-best performance. He plays Duke as an aloof-but-power-hungry egomaniac, and he even brags to Stallworth about how he can tell the race of a person by the sound of their voice (he definitely can’t).
In portraying a local KKK group, Lee strikes an important balance between lampooning their ignorance and exposing their harmful history and philosophies. The movie manages to mine Stallworth’s infiltration for both laughs and suspense. Driver in particular shines as the cop (of Jewish descent) forced to be the literal face of the operation, and one klansman in particular repeatedly questions his ancestry and intentions.
“BlacKkKlansman” serves as one of Lee’s more straightforward narratives, focusing mostly on the investigation, but his flourishes as a filmmaker still find opportunities here. In particular, Lee makes time to dismantle the reverence for “classic” films like “Gone with the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation.”
“BlacKkKlansman,” which was released last week on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville protests, also climaxes on some devastating imagery that bridges the storyline set in the 1970s with some of the festering hate groups that exist today.
Energetic and angry, “BlacKkKlansman” has an uncanny point-of-view, but it’s also simply well-crafted storytelling about a seemingly unbelievable true story. It’s a new essential piece in the Spike Lee catalog.
‘The Meg’ has a really big shark and not much else
Somewhere between the classic terror of “Jaws” and the stupidity of the “Sharknado” franchise sits “The Meg,” an expensive-looking blockbuster that pits Jason Statham against a megalodon, the biggest shark the world has ever known.
“The Meg” thankfully doesn’t fall into the wink-wink, “we’re so silly” banality of “Sharknado,” but it also takes itself far too seriously for a movie about a shark chasing after Dwight Schrute from “The Office.” The movie, directed by Jon Turteltaub, tries to present a team of characters we’re supposed to care about but forgets to give them any distinguishing personalities.
Statham starts out as a drunk but sobers up pretty quickly to lead a rescue mission to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (it’s really not important). After about an hour of undercooked undersea adventure, the megalodon finally heads to the surface to feast on the human world. Some unlikeable characters get fairly standard PG-13-level deaths, a cute kid falls in the water a couple times, etc., and, inexplicably, Statham doesn’t punch a single shark, despite a few opportunities.
There’s some goofy fun with the giant CGI beast in the last 45 minutes, but all the action sequences are only loosely stitched together with narrative logic. It’s all worth exactly the price of a single-night Redbox rental and not a penny more.
Tyler Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org