Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Detroit *** (2017)

Detroit begins with an innovative animated sequence explaining the historical context of the 1967 uprising. Detroit, the center of the American Auto industry, offered thousands of jobs to African-Americans migrating from the South, but they were also relegated to a few neighborhoods and were under constant surveillance. By 1967, tensions reached the tipping point between residents and the police.

The film follows many characters over the course of a few days. John Boyega portrays a security guard who gets ensnared in a horrible situation. Other characters include members of The Dramatics, a Motown group, a Vietnam veteran played by Anthony Mackie, and Will Poulter as a racist cop. 

A large portion of the film recreates The Algiers Motel Incident. On July 25-26, 1967 members of the Detroit Police Department and the Michigan National guard terrorized guests at a motel after someone reportedly fired a gun from a window. Three civilians, all African-American, were killed, while all nine hostages were physically and mentally brutalized. In 1968 the New Yorker writer John Hersey published a book after interviewing the participants. 

Released a few weeks before the deadly hate rally at Charlottesville, Detroit hit an especially raw nerve during its initial theater run. Sequences play out in the film that could easily happen today when those on the side of hate are emboldened. Historical films fade in and out of relevance, but few have nailed the fear and anxiety of the current moment more than Detroit.

Kathryn Bigelow's previous two films, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, established her as a leading voice in American cinema. Bigelow's foray into the 1960s features her signature stylized, fast pace style. There's a smooth velocity to her films, fast moving but never over the top. Detroit moves along well enough, but does sputter in the last act.

The disappointment of Detroit is that we never get the complex tapestry of the city at that particular point in history. There's a brief scene with Congressman John Conyers, but for the most part little is explored on how and why the city reacted the way it did. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal present us with a wrenching study of man's inhumanity to man. The effect is hollow and saddening.

The last 50 minutes are an elliptical procedural, a Law & Order episode on speed. There's little said on the aftermath of 1967 and how it effected the future of Detroit and its people. A lack of a protagonist also works to the film's detriment. Boyega isn't given enough to do that leaves a lasting impression. Algee Smith gives a sincere performance as as Dramatics performer Larry Reed also gets short thrift in the script. Unfortunately, the standout performances are from the most vile characters, especially Poulter.

Detroit is a flawed film, but one that may open the way for a more sobering approach to America's history.  Bigelow depicts the Civil Rights era without the triumphalism that's problematic in films like The Help and Selma, films that can leave the impression that racism and discrimination are relics from a past era. Detroit breaks from the rest in that sense. I left the film uneasy, overwhelmed, and uncertain.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Downsizing **1/2 (2017)

Downsizing takes a contrived premise that begins as an ominous allegory and then tries to be a feel good movie. Starring Matt Damon as eternally naive every man Paul Safranak who along with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to shrink themselves in order to help the environment. For a Norwegian chemist has invented a serum that will shrink people in the hope it will save the earth (less waste will be produced). Eager for a change and the sense they are contributing towards a better world, Paul and Audrey decide to take the plunge into shrinking life. It goes without saying things don't go as planned. 

Coming off of two first rate character driven family dramas, Nebraska (2013) and The Descendants (2011), the film's director Alexander Payne, who takes a turn into science fiction in Downsizing, never quite manages to hit the right emotional and comedic notes, it's neither dark enough nor funny enough. Once we arrive in the small world, which is advertised as a utopia, it becomes apparent the dark side of humanity will reliably emerge. The first 45 minutes show great promise and feature some amusing cameos, setting a satiric tone that unfortunately dissipates at the halfway point. 

The muddled second half attempts to address economic and environmental dilemmas. Suddenly Downsizing becomes a quest movie including mischievous Dusan, an opportunistic German played by Christoph Waltz. The entourage includes Hong Chau as a Vietnamese activist and Udo Kier as a sea captain.

An ambitious misfire, Downsizing begins with a darkly comic Sci-Fi concept and then attempts to be a metaphor of the immigration experience, and the last act is a half-baked apocalyptic fable. Not a terrible movie by any means, Downsizing builds great expectations, but never lives up them.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Molly's Game ** (2017)

Molly's Game was marketed as an insider look at the high stakes poker world, we get a couple of those every decade, but it's actually a middling study of ego penned by famed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in his directing debut. Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom (not the James Joyce character) a champion skier who went on to manage some of the most lucrative poker games in Los Angeles and later New York during the 2000s. Despite a first rate cast and Sorkin's trademark hyper-drive dialogue, Molly's Game disappointingly never strikes the right tone, wavering between all knowing "this is how the world really works" sequences and strained attempts to make these cold characters engaging.

Molly's Game opens with an annoying montage sequence with Molly informing us on her family's awesome accomplishments. Kevin Costner, growing more insufferable with each year, plays her "driven" father Larry who demands greatness from his children (he's a prominent psychiatrist.) Costner's speechifying as the tough love Dad comes off as obnoxious, verging on self-parody. Determined to prove she can make it on her own, Molly skips law school moves to L.A. and gets a job as a personal assistant for sketchy real estate dealer Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who verbally berates her, but eventually allows Molly to run his high stakes poker nights that include power players from the entertainment industry.  In time she's running her own games. After A-list actor "Player X" (Michael Cera) buys her out Molly relocates to New York City.

Once the story shifts to New York, we enter into Scorsese lite territory. We see elite, beautiful people flaunting their money as they pull the levers of the global economy. The Russian mob gets involved. Idris Elba co-stars as Molly's lawyer and brings a conscience to the film to a thankless role. The scenes between Elba and Chastain do achieve a compelling dynamic.

Chastain's believable, but her character motivations are never fully explained, other than wanting to make money. But, for what? In a problematic scene towards the end, Molly's estranged father Larry (Costner) randomly shows up and psychoanalyzes her! It's a strange moment to select for a film's emotional high point. Almost every set piece features Molly playing opposite a man, usually in negotiation, and she does hold her own, but the never ending verbal warfare gets wearisome, especially for a 140 minute movie.

Sorkin's memorable scripts for Steve Jobs (2015) and The Social Network (2010) were keen insights into character and ambition in the 2000s, while Molly's Game explores similar themes, it never hits the dramatic heights of those two films.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

BlacKKKlansman ***1/2 (2018)

Spike Lee's BlackKKlansman is one of the most prescient films of 2018. John David Washington (Ron) and Adam Driver (Flip) star as undercover cops who infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs circa 1970s. How do they do it? Washington talks over the phone with KKK wizard David Duke while Driver appears as the physical manifestation of the voice. The film deals with race in post-Civil Rights America, including a white nationalist movement re-branding itself, racism within police departments, and African-American and Jewish-American identity. While it's one of the funniest movie of the year, the film also engages with history and the power of cinema to shape cultural memory on a much deeper level than most mainstream films.

First and foremost, BlacKKKlansman is a wildly entertaining movie with sharp dialogue combined with a sense of dread of the past shaping an undefined future. The film opens with the most iconic shot from Gone With the Wind and then transitions to Alec Baldwin portraying a terrifyingly racist Southerner who wants to make a propaganda film about Martin Luther King.

There's a sense that something changed in the 1970s, America had survived the 60s and there was a sense of progress being made, yet at the same time little had changed. Despite the sacrifices and accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, racism remained deeply ingrained within American culture. Enter David Duke, played by Topher Grace in a memorable performance. Duke wanted to remake the Klan as cultured and educated "interest group." The white robes and hoods were discarded in favor of suits and ties. Grace plays Duke as a banal man who makes corny jokes who happens to be a white supremacist. 

Washington and Driver are likable on the screen as 70s cops, but something about their characterizations lack dimension. Flips must confront his Jewish heritage for the first time when he encounters antisemitism, but it's never explored in much depth. The same with Ron, well played by Washington, but something of a cipher. There's perhaps an unconscious Quentin Tarantino influence going on (aware of the ongoing feud between Tarantino and Lee), in the sense that character development gets downplayed in favor of riveting stand alone set pieces.

Lee wants to make a statement about today through the prism of the 1970s, made apparent on a scene that pays homage to Blaxploitation movies of the decade. Scenes and even some throwaway lines are aimed directly at today. America's history of racism and the harsh truths are leveled at the audience, especially in a scene featuring Harry Belafonte as he bears witness to a lynching his character witnessed, juxtaposed with Duke laying his devious vision for the future leaves a haunting impression.

As Lee intended, we walk away from BlacKKKlansman feeling uneasy as the final images cascade across the screen (the audience at the show I attended fell in to a deafening silence.) A confrontational film that only the most cynical would dismiss as propaganda, it rises to the current moment. As other reviews have pointed out, it's a long overdue response to Birth of a Nation

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Mission: Impossible - - Fallout **** (2018)

In one of the most entertaining movies of the year, possibly the decade, Tom Cruise and his band of IMF comrades zoom through one jaw dropping sequence after another. Starting with the original Mission Impossible movie in 1996, the franchise over the past 20 years has continued to get better, taking the action genre to new heights. By the sixth entry most film franchises are running on fumes, Fallout revels in showing in its age and builds upon the mythology of the series. 

The film begins with spectacular slight of hand opening sequence that sets up the story. A group of ultra mercenaries have banded together, known as the apostles, who want to overthrow the world order and inaugurate an era of chaos. The premise is more than enough to sustain a popcorn movie, one where darkness is always just around the corner.

One stunning action sequence follows another involving sky diving, mountain climbing, car chases in Paris, hand to hand fight scenes, and a helicopter chase. While many action movies feature these types of action, Fallout makes it all look realistic and logical. These sequences recall the early years of cinema, more Buster Keaton than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

At the center of it all is the enigma of Tom Cruise. Few modern screen presences have the ability to win over audiences as he can.  He literally put his life on the line and broke his ankle performing dangerous stunts for Fallout. Somehow the moody actor of the 1980s became the premier action star of the 21st Century. As Ethan Hunt, Cruise brings a compelling combination of swagger and tragedy, a true American James Bond.

Fallout builds upon the mythology of the previous five films with reliable Ving Rhames returning for the sixth film, Simon Pegg's deliveries never miss a beat, and Michelle Monaghan even makes a poignant return.  Henry Cavill co-stars in a weighty role as the new member of the team, a younger and stronger version of Ethan.

As summer entertainment goes, Fallout leaves the competition in the dust. Intelligent, exciting, and well acted - a blockbuster in the best sense of the word.