‘Dear White People’
There are razor-sharp points aplenty filed in Justin Simien’s rollicking race dramedy, though its most cogent trait may simply be the kinds of characters it includes — types who rarely, if ever, make it to the screen. Set at a college where the white populace dwarfs the black students, it gives face time to the gay black nerd (Tyler James Williams), the “angry black woman” (Tessa Thompson) who’s secretly into Ingmar Bergman and white boyfriends, the aspiring YouTube star (Teyonah Parris) acutely aware of her “blackness” to white followers. The diversity of modern black life is all over “Dear White People,” to the point where that observance takes precedence over its more sellable quality: the examination of stupid white people. The story revolves around the lead-up to an ironic (and painfully misjudged) “black party” thrown by the white populace, but Simien doesn’t let story rule the day. He balances blood-drawing satire with character, and crams his tightly-wound debut with both. This is great stuff, but Simien’s next film is going to seriously scorch some earth.
Liv Ullmann’s stab at August Strindberg’s most famous play dropped like a rock in last year’s Oscar season. Too bad: along with a lip-smacking turn from Jessica Chastain as the class-straddling aristo who cavorts with the estate’s valet (Colin Farrell), it’s a full-blooded adaptation that never feels strictly stage-bound, despite only having three actors. (The other is Samantha Morton, as the mousy cook.) Ullmann doesn’t play nice, as Alf Sjoberg’s 1951 film version did. Emotions run wild, the actors don’t hold back and the whole thing runs wild with an unclean exploration of class. Even the fact that Ullmann is doing Strindberg — one of her former one-off partner Ingmar Bergman’s key influences — is part of the rich fabric.
In the midst of the “Rocky” saga, Sylvester Stallone found his second franchise superman in John Rambo, wounded Vietnam vet who finds himself perpetually at war. Rambo would, in subsequent episodes, get a second chance to win ’Nam and aid the Mujahideen (and accidentally plant the seeds for Al Qaeda). But the first is a stripped-down grinder that finds him in pure survival mode back home, battling an evil Washington state police force in the woods before unleashing a climactic monologue about being betrayed by his own government. This was Stallone’s attempt to twist the Vietnam War, previously a bugaboo for the left, over to the right, as well as establish himself as part of the era’s then nascent obsession with what the academic Susan Jeffords called “hard bodies.” But at this early stage both were relatively mild, and director Ted Kotcheff (whose nifty early ’70s Outback nasty “Wake in Fright” was rediscovered a few years back) gives it a clean b-movie sheen that can be fun even for those not into the particulars of its politics.