Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman


Inspired by true events – or, as an opening title card explains, “based upon some fo' real, fo' real sh*t – BlacKkKlansman is a police procedural, a thriller, a comedy, a celebration of black identity, an indictment of white nationalism, and a rallying cry against more than a century's worth of media and public complacency, misrepresentation, and offense. Being a Spike Lee joint, the movie's stunning success on these and additional levels isn't necessary a surprise.

The shock of Lee's achievement, however, lies in how seamlessly its creator interweaves so much societal outrage, and so much artistry, in the service of what is essentially a high-concept, crowd-pleasing entertainment. (Replace leads John David Washington and Adam Driver with Kevin Hart and Ryan Reynolds, and you'd have a buddy-pic blockbuster that would yield sequels galore.) Lee's latest is, I think, legitimately great, ranking up there with 25th Hour and Chi-raq as his finest non-documentary work of the millennium. It's also, though, an unbelievably great time – right up until the moments in which Lee, with clear vision and passion, pulls the rug out, reminding you of the real-world horrors lurking beneath the movie's considerable cinematic pleasures.

One of them is the pleasure of spending two hours in the company of Washington, who is indeed Denzel's son, and who's so reminiscent of his father in look, voice, and easy charisma that it's almost like time-traveling to the early-1990s' Denzel/Spike heyday of Mo' Better Blues and Malcolm X. Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first black officer recruited into the Colorado Springs police force who, in 1979, landed upon a want ad seeking members for the town's burgeoning chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. With hopes of becoming an undercover officer and, in the process, ruining the Klan's plans for expansion, Stallworth called the number in the ad and, adopting a “white” dialect, connected with the group's leader (Ryan Eggold's Walter), with the two men making immediate plans to meet in person. There were, however, a few hitches. One was Stallworth's actual race, an inconvenience handled by the recruitment of white partner Flip Zimmerman (the astounding Adam Driver) to portray Stallworth in person. Another, less foreseen hitch was that Stallworth absentmindedly provided Walter with his actual name, meaning that if the plan went south, there was no alias to prevent pissed-off Klansmen from hunting for the very real Ron Stallworth. And to further complicate matters, Zimmerman was, unbeknownst to Stallworth, Jewish, making his “friendly” in-person dealings with torch-wielding, cross-burning Klansmen all the more fraught.

BlacKkKlansmen subsequently explores how Stallworth and Zimmerman cozied up to the Klan in order to (locally) eradicate it, with both men eventually having face to face encounters with national director David Duke (a pitch-perfect Topher Grace), and on the evening I saw the film, I could all but feel patrons' delight and relief in realizing how many of these scenes were designed to be funny. (The script, based on Stallworth's 2014 book, is by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott.) Lee's latest already had its share of hilarious bits prior to Stallworth's fateful phone call; a spectacularly blustery Alec Baldwin portrayed a white nationalist giving a terrible audition for a KKK recruitment film, and when Stallworth revealed his naīveté about institutional racism to his future employer, the official responded with a riotously unfinished expletive that brought the house down. (As he proved in 25th Hour, no can can turn “shit” into a five-syllable marathon quite like Isiah Whitlock Jr.)

Topher Grace in BlacKkKlansman

But there's so much comic incredulity built into the Klan infiltration, and so much comic tension in waiting to see if and how the cops will pull it off, that laughter quickly becomes an indispensable, and appropriate, go-to response. Whether the frighteningly feral Klan member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), suspecting that Zimmerman's “Stallworth” is a Jew is disguise, is hooking the officer up to a lie detector or Stallworth himself is goading Duke on the phone – with one of those instances resulting in a priceless spit take by Ken Garito's Sergeant Trapp – Lee finds and delivers the funny whenever he can. Given that he's also, frequently, an experienced and wildly gifted genre filmmaker, Lee delivers the excitement, too, with the race-the-clock finale an example of brilliantly sustained tension and cannily edited images that's sharper and smarter than the ones in nearly any big-budget superhero flick you could name.

What transforms the shrewdly written, marvelously acted BlacKkKlansman into unmissable art, though, are the nearly limitless grace notes that Lee provides. To be sure, the movie isn't without its flaws. Several performances (particularly those of Frederick Weller as a hatefully racist cop and I, Tonya's Paul Walter Hauser as a mouth-breathing Klansman) veer uncomfortably close to caricature, and you have to give the film an enormous benefit of the doubt, because even when they're really trying, on-the-phone Stallworth and in-the-flesh “Stallworth” don't sound remotely alike. (It's almost impossible to believe that the business-minded Walter, who sees and talks to Stallworth almost daily, would ever be fooled by the cops' ruse.) But for everything here that doesn't quite work, nine or 10 things work extraordinarily well.

A famed scene from Gone with the Wind opening the film on the image of a tattered Confederate flag, followed much later by the sight of giddy, popcorn-munching Klansmen and their wives in thrall to a private screening of D.W. Griffith's (cinematically essential) racist screed The Birth of a Nation. Corey Hawkins' power and precision as former Black Panther leader Kwame Ture, delivering a heart-stopping speech on cultural identity while Lee's cinematographer Chayse Irvin delivers distinct closeups of awed and empowered black faces. Zimmerman and fellow cop Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi, Steve's lookalike brother) attempting to prove their non-biogoted bona fides by raving to Stallworth about their respect for Wilt Chamberlain and O.J. Simpson. A joyous club sequence scored to “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” with Stallworth falling head over heels for activist Patrice Duman (Laura Harrier), lasting far longer than necessary as an expression of undiminished, unapologetic cultural joy. Harry effing Belafonte delivering a wrenching speech about the lynching of a childhood best friend, with the 91-year-old's presence suggesting that he doesn't deserve as Oscar for the role so much as a Nobel Prize. The horrific postscript taking us 38 years into the future, demonstrating, through video footage, how the acts of the film's 1979 directly correlated to the acts of last August – and the killing of Heather Heyer – in Charlottesville, Virginia. BlacKkKlansman is one of the most entertaining movies I've seen this year. It's also, hands down, the most vital one.

Page Kennedy, Ruby Rose, Bingbing Li, Jason Statham, and Cliff Curtis in The Meg


A half-hour into director Jon Turteltaub's The Meg, I was ready for a nap. When the movie ended some 80 minutes later, I was not only wide awake, but gave serious thought to sticking around the cineplex and seeing it again. I really don't want to oversell this profoundly ridiculous endeavor about a long-dormant prehistoric shark – the 75-foot Megalodon – and its attempts to gobble every whale, sea cruiser, and stubbly action stud in sight. After its logy opening quarter, however, Turteltaub's outing emerges as maybe the most enjoyably loony shark thriller since 1999's Deep Blue Sea – exciting when you need it to be and funny when you don't expect it to be. God knows the thing is silly as hell. But thankfully, God ain't the only one, as the filmmakers and cast are happily hip to that, too.

To get the opening 30 minutes out of the way quickly, they establish the flimsy excuse to get The Meg (or possibly Megs plural …?) released from the lower depths, with Jason Statham's traumatized rescue diver consequently pulled out of drunken retirement to a save a downed submarine that happens to be carrying – wouldn't you know it? – the guy's ex-wife. Having somehow missed all of The Meg's trailers in advance of seeing the film, I presumed we'd be in for a long haul as steely-eyed Statham overcame his aquatic fears and renewed his love for his ex and slowly but surely outwitted the toothy sea creature … yadda yadda yadda. My eyes are glazing over even as I type. Oh, but how wrong I was. Because it turns out that this formulaic rescue, with its gradual introduction of loads of formulaic characters, is successfully accomplished less than a third of the way into the film. The remainder, delightfully, is composed of riotously improbable and unexpectedly nimble action sequences as The Meg proceeds to other attack zones, plus some of the least subtle, most hysterical throwaway gags this genre has yet produced. (Some of them are so startlingly meta as to be almost abstract, as when Rainn Wilson shared a scene with Masi Oka, and all I could think of was that scene in The Office in which Dwight said, “You know who's a real hero? Hiro from Heroes.”)

Turteltaub's outing is an easy one to raise an eyebrow toward, considering the film's nearly universal Chinese locales – and the inclusion of the admittedly first-rate Chinese stars Bingbing Li and Winston Chau – feel like yet another deliberate suck-up to those increasingly important Chinese ticket buyers, and there isn't a line of dialogue that doesn't feel written for easy subtitling. (The film was co-financed by North American and Chinese companies, and I have a hunch we'll be seeing a lot more just like it.) Yet once that sub is saved, the tension is nicely sustained; the mostly cheesy effects are completely winning; Statham again proves he has the best 1,000-kilowatt smile, and perhaps the best abs, in the business; and the Thai version of “Oh Mickey,” which we get to hear twice, proves catchy as hell. And damn but there are killer jokes, from Statham paddling toward certain peril while singing Dory's theme song from Finding Nemo (“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming …!”) to the climactic title card familiar to French filmgoers that ends the movie the only conceivable way it could end. As for its climactic scenes set in China's heavily populated Sanya Bay, Turteltaub's movie doesn't at all try to hide the obvious source of its inspiration, scoring deserved laughs not only through a pudgy Alex Kintner wannabe, but a water-bound puppy named Pippin, which is only two letters removed from Jaws' doomed Pippet. The Meg, meanwhile, may be dumb-ass, but that's only four letters removed from kick-ass.

Nina Dobrev in Dog Days


August is obviously an appropriate time to release a movie titled Dog Days. But in the case of director Ken Marino's apple-cheeked ensemble comedy, I'd argue that the truly appropriate time would've been never, as this relentlessly predictable and synthetic offering with a no-star cast doesn't contain a single scene that plays as remotely believable, or even authentically endearing. A tale of randomly interconnected Los Angelenos in the style of Robert Altman's Short Cuts – call it Short Mutts – Marino's shameless trifle finds roughly a dozen frequent TV presences trapped in shallow sitcom subplots while their canine companions bark, heel, and stare awkwardly at their off-screen trainers. Astoundingly, though, the dogs you'd think would be central to the film's design are all but complete afterthoughts, having been given so little narrative purpose that it made perfect sense when Nina Dobrev's morning-show host arrived for her pup's pet-therapist session and forgot to bring her pet.

Instead, our time is spent enduring contrived, human-based mini-plots whose outcomes are apparent 30 seconds into their introductions, to say nothing of so much blatant manipulation goosed by a treacly score that the movie almost made me look back at Garry Marshall's loathsome, holiday-themed comedies Mother's Day, New Year's Eve, and Valentine's Day with something approaching fondness. If Dog Days is slightly more bearable than those works, it's because the actors have at least been directed to less shrill and grating performances. (In addition to Dobrev, the likable participants include Vanessa Hudgens, Eva Longoria, Ron Cephas Jones, Jon Bass, Jessica St. Clair, Thomas Lennon, Finn Wolfhard, and the fabulously named Tone Bell, with only Adam Pally a pain – if a laid-back one – as a stoner slacker with no use for dogs.) And Marino's sophomore feature isn't wholly without laughs, with a few fine ones provided by Phoebe Neidhardt as a neurotic meteorologist and, especially, the beautifully deadpan Tig Notaro as that pet therapist who, understandably, keeps jacking up Dobrev's fee. But Dog Days is still an exhausting, empty-headed exercise in pandering, and so hopelessly maudlin in its final 15 minutes that it even requires that snarky great Rob Corddy to get all weepy – though whether he's crying for scripted reasons or the trajectory of his film career is open to debate.

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