Monthly Archives: August 2017

Detroit — 7/10

DETROIT (2017, Kathryn Bigelow)

50 years ago, there were race riots in Detroit, Michigan. Cops used it as an opportunity to unleash their inner white supremacist and murder innocent people just because they’re black. It’s a good thing America has advanced so much since those more barbaric times two generations ago — now, we luckily don’t see any white cops killing black people, nor do we see riots and marches based on racial animosity. Whew! Progress!

Okay, so Bigelow isn’t exactly looking for sarcastic acknowledgement like that, but her point is clear and explosively told. The running time is daunting — nearly 150 minutes — but my favorite thing about this movie is how, editorially, the length of it accentuates the content. The middle hour is a punishing, drawn-out nightmare of bigotry and violence. What starts off and ends as a movie that rushes through moments and slides around in history, ticking off key moments and cascading forward, stops dead in its tracks for a solid hour, unleashing a horrifying incident with uncompromised detail and endless torture. Bigelow wants the audience to want it to end, and we do. But it doesn’t. At least not for a long time past what we expect to be comfortable. Make this film 110 minutes and it collapses. The bloat of the second act is key to its force.

Unfortunately, the third act gets very Mark Boal, which has been a problem with other Bigelow films, especially THE HURT LOCKER but somewhat with ZERO DARK THIRTY. It doesn’t know where to go after the bravura Algiers motel annex sequence, so it just gives us a perfunctory trial that doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t predict for ourselves, and then leaves character threads dangling. We also never get a good reason why the hostages, especially the white girls, didn’t just finger the dead Carl as the shooter to placate Will Poulter’s menacing Officer Krauss. But screenwriting curiosities aside, the bludgeoning effect of Bigelow’s courageous camera and violent sound design does the job — it’s mean, but it works. And if it gets audiences to reconsider just how insidious it is when institutions normalize prejudice — how it’s not only the fact that individuals are hateful bigots, but also that the government policies and procedures in place enable that racism to flourish and influence behavior, not just thoughts — well then it’s a damn good PSA.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dunkirk — 9/10

DUNKIRK (2017, Christopher Nolan)

When you’re experiencing a trauma, time has a weird way of warping itself. A week can feel like an hour, and an hour can feel like a week. War, I imagine, is a nightmare from which you never awaken — and nightmares, too, can last a few minutes but feel like days. What a great gambit, then, that Nolan has structured his intense cinematic war poem with three timelines that converge at one moment — and each one is neatly presented at the beginning of the film with text telling us it will last either a week, a day, or an hour.

When those strands cohere, it’s not just narratively satisfying; it hits you on a visceral level as well. You catch your breath discovering which characters are where and what has happened or what will happen (in one case, we see a character appear first in the film days after the second time we see him appear; and in another, we see the same moment twice, from different perspectives, but several minutes of screen time apart, so we can follow both characters on opposite timelines).

This may seem like a bit of a mindfuck, and it is, and you’re forgiven for having a generation of History Channel Oscar bait train you to expect WWII movies to give backstories to its characters and treat exposition like a Wikipedia article. DUNKIRK does not do that. It just asks itself what is the best way cinema can capture this colossal act of terror, then wraps itself in that cape for a sleek 100 minutes. Entire sequences go by with no dialogue and no character-building: just isolated moments of visual WTF — a man drowning in the ocean with fire awaiting him if he brings his head above water; bullets from unseen guns putting holes in the side of a boat one by one; a pilot with a broken fuel gauge having to use a white grease pencil to estimate how much time he has left in flight; another pilot trying to open his jammed canopy before his plane sinks into the sea.

Each of these tiny sequences are paced flawlessly, scored acutely, and gorgeously photographed by new Nolan muse Hoyte Van Hoytema (with him since INTERSTELLAR, once Wally Pfister left to try his hand at directing). You don’t care that you either can’t understand the dialogue or there isn’t any dialogue anyway — you get the idea, and you let the sound and image whisk you into battle. This is the best war film since THE THIN RED LINE, not because it’s long and serious and full of meaning and politics — it’s because it’s a tight, contained, typically non-linear Christopher Nolan movie that happens to use the sheer horror of war as its mode. By the time the beautiful final 10 minutes arrived, I was weeping as much at the joy of admiring the form as I was at the depressing subject matter. Good luck making that Churchill speech land with that much power, Gary Oldman.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Atomic Blonde — 4/10

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017, David Leitch)

One cool long tracking shot (well, several cool shots with hidden cuts to look like one take) in the middle of a pile of sweaty garbage. That central set piece, though, is quite a doozy. Well choreographed action, terrific physical performance from Theron throughout, and a great sense of escalating tension and pace. Too bad the rest of it is a low-rent wanna-be spy thriller overly satisfied with its own twists.

80s MUSIC! CIGARETTES! PUNCHING! 80s MUSIC! CIGARETTES! PUNCHING! 80s MUSIC! CIGARETTES! GUNS! 80s MUSIC! CIGARETTES! CARS! Does that sound fun for 15 minutes? It is. Does that sound fun for 115 minutes? Didn’t think so.

Major spoilers here, so turn away if you haven’t seen this film and still want to, with a blank slate. If you look closely (and it’s hard not to, since the camera is right up the butt), Theron’s character is smoking American Spirits in one first-act scene. Looks like a prop mistake, but it turns out it’s a subtle clue that she’s actually an American spy (working for a sleepwalking John Goodman, even more checked out than he was in THE GAMBLER) playing double agent for the Russians playing triple agent for the Brits. But even if that’s a clue, why would a supposedly British agent under cover as a British lawyer be smoking American cigarettes? Too clever for its own good.

Somehow James McAvoy undoes the good will he generated with his first ever good performance in SPLIT, here just coasting on misperceived charm and a furry jacket. Sofia Boutella thinks she’s in a drama, and maybe she should have been, but this superficial action movie doesn’t have the brains of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or SPY GAME nor does it have the diesel-fueled kick-ass of Leitch’s previous JOHN WICK. It’s just a few loud New Order songs, a great actress trying her best to elevate trashy material, and a lot of work.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized