JWR Articles: Film/DVD - What They Had | BlacKkKlansman (Directors: Elizabeth Chomko, Spike Lee) - December 20, 2018

What They Had | BlacKkKlansman

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Reviewed for the 2019 edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival
A pair of films that make you think

Here are two important films that tackle difficult, but very necessary, subject matter.

What They Had
Elizabeth Chomko
101 minutes, Four stars

It can happen to us all

Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s début feature obviously comes from the heart and personal experience. The ravages of dementia both on the sufferers and the loving/puzzled/enraged family members around them has never been more topical as more and more Baby Boomers shuck reality for the seeming comfort of make-believe and heavily edited memories past.

At the centre of it all is ailing matriarch, Ruth (TV actor Blythe Danner delivers the performance of a lifetime). Her altered world is almost comprehensible to her children (Hilary Swank in superb form as California girl, Bridget; Michael Shannon sears through all of his scenes as bartender—er, rather “owner”—Nick, who as the local sibling is on call 24/7 when Ruth disappears). Husband Bert (an Oscar-worthy outing from veteran Robert Forster), revels in his full-denial role and has the good sense to leave the planet at “the perfect time.”

The original score from Danny Mulhern and the ever-welcome instrumental prowess of the London Contemporary Orchestra, serve the narrative well as do the many songs that also reinforce the unfolding drama of a family in endgame crisis.

A viewing is recommended—not only for the fine result, but as a primer for those of us who will end up on either side of the dementia divide.


Spike Lee
135 minutes, Three and one half stars

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Based on Ron Stallworth’s autobiographical book about infiltrating the KKK as a black man while being the first “coloured” officer on the Colorado Springs police force, Lee’s production too often errs on the side of “preaching to the converted” as most of us know full well that those who need to see this late-‘70s indictment of racism in America never will.

The fact that “rookie” Stallworth (a fine performance from John David Washington) managed to not only gain membership in David Duke’s “Organization”—Topher Grace is readily gullible as the “National Director” of Lynchings ‘R’ Us”—but, ironically, is soon promoted to head the local chapter. In order to achieve this black-is-white ruse, the smooth-talking undercover detective has to recruit a fellow officer (Adam Driver is marvellously convincing as the Jew-without-much-conscience, Flip Zimmerman) to be his white “beard” when coming face to face with fellow Klansmen.

The love interest comes in the alluring form of Patrice Dumas (fetchingly and convincingly performed by Laura Harrier).

The major flaw is Lee’s penchant for being too “on the nose” with references to Trump’s White House being the fulfillment of Duke’s dream of “becoming legit”—“call us the Organization rather than KKK.” The storied filmmaker frequently has his characters pout, “America First” “For America to achieve its greatness again”, while quietly adding Richard Nixon campaign posters into the background.

Much also is made of surrogate Ron being a Jew (but mostly theoretical, as we learn)—no friend of white supremacists either.

The best of the “bad guys” is easily Jasper Pääkkönen’s purposely slimy performance as Felix: a genuine doubting Thomas who gets too close to unmasking the truth than credibility can take. His full-featured wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson is a hoot) adds another layer of blind devotion to the “cause”. The inclusion of Harry Belafonte as the speaker of truth is a wonderful touch.

By journey’s end, with present-day Virginia’s ugliest moments thrown onto the screen, Lee’s circle completes itself but more with an overarching sense of despair than any glimmer of hope.

Please say it isn’t so. JWR

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