‘American Utopia’ Doesn’t Lose Any of Its Power in Its Trip From the Stage to HBO

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American Utopia (CREDIT: David Lee)

Starring: David Byrne, Chris Giarmo, Tendayi Kuumba, Bobby Wooten III, Karl Mansfield, Gustavo Di Dalva, Jacquelene Acevedo, Angie Swan, Mauro Refosco, Daniel Freedman, Stephane San Juan

Director: Spike Lee

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Release Date: October 17, 2020 (HBO)

Stop Making Sense is one of the best, if not The Best, concert documentaries ever made. I don’t know anyone who’s seen it who doesn’t share that opinion. Can lightning strike twice? Probably not, but something very similar to (but not exactly the same as) lightning can strike (or do something similar to striking) after that initial lightning strike. And that’s what we have in the case of American Utopia, which features Talking Heads frontman David Byrne with a group of musicians who are not Talking Heads members performing a set that includes some Talking Heads songs as well as other prime selections. It started as an album of originals released in 2018, made its way to Broadway in 2019, and now one of those performances has been recorded for a concert film directed by Spike Lee. If you know Byrne and his singular penchant for showmanship, then it goes without saying there’s no reason to think that that could ever be a formula for dilution.

“Once in a Lifetime” is one of the most iconic songs in rock music history. It was retooled for the stage show, and I first saw that version when Byrne was the musical guest on SNL back in February of this year. Despite my thorough familiarity with the song, I got chills once again while watching the latest filmed performance as if I were witnessing the birth of a new classic. That is the power of what has been assembled here. Byrne and his crew strip everything down to basics and reintroduce to us what we thought we already knew thoroughly. It is as if for an hour and 45 minutes we forget that there was ever any music before American Utopia.

We also get a refresher course on philosophy, as Byrne muses in between songs about the wonders of human perception. At one point, he asks why it is that we find looking at other people inherently more interesting than looking at anything else. If anyone is looking for any evidence as to why that is the case, American Utopia provides plenty of examples.

David Byrne, Spike Lee (CREDIT: David Lee)

If you’re wondering what attracted Spike Lee to direct, there won’t be any confusion once the credits are rolling. I’m not terribly familiar with his musical tastes, but he and Byrne clearly share many concerns over the state of the world, which is most obvious during the performance of “Hell You Talmbout,” a cover of a 2015 Janelle Monáe protest song that invokes the names of people of color who have been killed by police. When Byrne asked Monáe what she would think of a white man of a certain age performing it, she responded that she loved the idea and declared that the song is “for everybody.” This segment takes the fullest advantage of the journey from stage to screen, with relatives holding up memorial images of the deceased. American Utopia is a call to change for a better country and a better world. Can we ever meet the promise of that title? It’s a daunting task, but the wonder that this show inspires can’t hurt.

American Utopia is Recommended If You Like: Stop Making Sense, the Black Lives Matter movement

Grade: 4 out of 5 Gray Suits

Best Film Directors of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

I’ve got another extra-innings Best of the 2010s for ya. This time, the focus is on Film Directors, those folks who hang out behind the camera and let everyone know how they would like the movie to go.

Based on the eligibility rules of the poll that I submitted my list to, each director had to have at least two films come out between 2010 and 2019 to be considered. I made my selections based on a combination of how much I enjoyed their output and how much they influenced the medium and the culture at large.

My choices, along with their 2010s filmography, are listed below.

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I Watched ‘Da 5 Bloods’ and ‘Artemis Fowl’ on the Same Weekend: Here’s What Happened

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CREDIT: David Lee/Netflix; Walt Disney Studios/YouTube Screenshot

Da 5 Bloods

Starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Victoria Ngo

Director: Spike Lee

Running Time:

Rating: R for Sometimes Shocking, Sometimes Not-So-Shocking Graphic Violence

Release Date: June 12, 2020 (Netflix)

Artemis Fowl

Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Josh Gad, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG for Goofy Fantasy Action

Release Date: June 12, 2020 (Disney+)

I was so worried that I was going to spend so much of my time watching Da 5 Bloods bemoaning its lack of a theatrical release. For one thing, the event status of a Spike Lee joint is unavoidably diminished by an at-home debut, and furthermore, I was concerned that even if I was really feeling it, there would be too many distractions fighting for my attention. Regarding the former, I just had to make peace with that fact. As for the latter, I can’t tell you the last time a Netflix release pulled me in with such a firm grip and refused to let go. A prologue swoops in hard and fast with real-world contextualizing footage from the Vietnam War era: Man goes to the moon! Muhammad Ali refuses to serve! Riots at the DNC! Nguyễn Ngọc Loan is executed! If you look away for even a second, you’re going to miss something essential.

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Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 6/12/20

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CREDIT: Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Artemis Fowl (Streaming on Disney+)
Da 5 Bloods (Streaming on Netflix) – Da latest Spike Lee joint.
The King of Staten Island (On Demand) – Pete Davidson teams up with Judd Apatow!

This Is a Movie Review: A Wild Real-Life KKK Infiltration Makes ‘BlacKkKlansman’ an Essential Spike Lee Joint

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkönen, Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert John Burke, Corey Hawkins

Director: Spike Lee

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Incendiary Language and Images, Plus a Few Outbursts of Violence

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Going undercover is the most nerve-wracking work I can possibly imagine. Living in a constant state of dishonesty causes so many problems. Maybe this is one type of lying that can be justified morally, but that does not mean it is without consequences. It warps your sense of self and tears at the seams of all your close relationships. I have never had to go undercover myself, and thank God, because watching it in movies is stressful enough. The undercover experiences of Jewish Colorado Springs detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) only serve to confirm this perception. But the approach of his black partner, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), reveals that at least one person is built to handle the cognitive dissonance of going undercover.

Stallworth and Zimmerman’s infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan is the electrifying and infuriatingly relevant story of BlacKkKlansman, one of the most crowd-pleasing and just plain best joints in Spike Lee’s career. My main reaction to this flick is that if the real Stallworth is anything like the way Washington plays him, then he is one of the most righteously insane people who has ever lived. This is the first black officer in the history of the Colorado Springs police department, and his instinct when he sees a classified ad in the newspaper for the KKK is to contact them for more information. Furthermore, he treats his phone conversations with David Duke (Topher Grace) as an opportunity to pull off a long con to prove to the notorious grand wizard that he is not so adept at telling apart the races as he thinks he is. Stallworth’s actions may put himself and his fellow officers in the line of cross-burning fire, and Zimmerman calls him out for treating what should be a job as a crusade. But when unabashed racism is still delivering deadly violence to its targets, bold action is required to keep people safe.

Lee, of course, does not shy away from the rotting, anti-humanist message at the core of the KKK, but directly calling it out for what it is can still be a lot of fun. The entirety of Stallworth’s dialogue seems designed to inspire the dual reactions of “Can you believe what he’s saying?” and “That’s probably exactly what we need to hear, though.” “With the right white man, we can do anything” might very well be the slogan of American as filtered through the lens of Spike Lee. The KKK members are also a hoot without hiding their despicableness, with Grace seamlessly capturing the banality of evil and Alec Baldwin cameoing as a bumbling propagandist. Laura Harrier is just as essential as a Black Student Union leader who Ron becomes romantically involved with. Their discussions about blaxploitation and where the soul of fighting for justice should lie are the stuff of geeky film buffs’ delight. If you’re looking to have a fun time, seeing BlacKkKlansman is a great option, but Lee makes sure to unequivocally remind us of what we’re fighting for by including a coda of real-life footage from the 2017 Charlottesville riots. The historical passage of time in America is in many ways not so linear, and Lee is doing his best to capture it like lightning.

BlacKkKlansman is Recommended If You Like: Malcolm X, Chi-Raq, American Hustle

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Crank Calls