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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.

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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.

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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.

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Landline — 6/10

LANDLINE (2017, Gillian Robespierre)

Warning: might cause a serious case of déjà vu or at least a flashback to THE SQUID AND THE WHALE — New York City family, set 20 years before the movie was made, the dad is a failing writer undercut by his wife, the two kids react negatively to their parents’ marriage upheaval while exploring their own sexualities, uneven but interesting mix of comedy and drama, even a scene where the dad can’t find parking on his block. If Holm & Robespierre’s screenplay wasn’t directly influenced by Baumbach’s, the ghost of that great 2005 film haunts this in every frame.

What LANDLINE has going for it in the originality department, however, is the terrific sibling bond between Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn, the latter of whom seems destined for stardom with this breakout role. Their scenes together strike an earnest and believable chord of sisterly love and curiosity, and when the story slows down so the two of them can go swimming or braid each other’s hair and dance around stoned, the film crackles. But when some Duplass comes wandering in to remind us that the movie is still a lugubrious meditation on fidelity and relationships struggles, back down into the bog it goes.

John Turturro and Edie Falco are perfectly cast as the parents and turn in fantastic supporting performances, even when the script does saddle them with a couple of acting-class argument scenes. Slate, so terrific in Robespierre’s OBVIOUS CHILD, lets the ensemble take over more, ceding screen time so that her weird and infectious personality doesn’t dominate the tone. She’s still a force to be reckoned with, and the reason it’s worth seeing this eventually (you can wait for Netflix) is for her unpredictable reactions and lack of movie star self-absorption — as well as Quinn’s zero-fucks-given caustic abrasiveness. THE SQUID AND THE WHALE does win this battle in the end, but it’s not like it was a blowout or anything.

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Okja — 9/10

OKJA (2017, Bong Joon-ho)

One of the keys to this ebullient, expansive near-masterpiece is in noticing just how much it values globalism and different-ness. Early in the film, our heroine Mija is sleeping atop her best friend and pet, the giant hippo-manatee-superpig Okja. When Okja rolls over, Mija does too, so she doesn’t fall off. This happens while both of them are unconscious – not only showing the bond they have, but since it all happens in wide shot, we also see the extreme physical disparity between them. By contrast, Tilda Swinton’s twin characters Lucy and Nancy (between this and HAIL CAESAR! she’s having a banner couple years for dual roles) look identical, yet their relationship is fraught, and has a poisonous effect on the company and the public at-large. The less we are similar, the more we can and should connect. (This isn’t even mentioning a Korean character who gets “Translations are sacred” tattooed onto his forearm).

You might miss this message about crossing cultural and species boundaries, since the food-industry critique, anti-capitalism, and animal-activism messages are more front and center. But even with those, Bong is pointedly equivocal – the activists are just as wrong-headed at times, they betray each other and their missions are compromised by poor logic. This isn’t a Morrissey video. Bong still eats meat. The goal is to explore which values drive our behavior, and the consequences that come from perhaps overvaluing fame, popularity, money, or power over shared experiences, unconditional love, and unconventional bonds. After all, Mija wouldn’t even have a pet were it not for Mirando’s genetic engineering.

Not to make this review too much about the subject matter – formally, it’s dazzling. The special effects are sensational: Okja is from the designer who gave us the tiger in LIFE OF PI, and I’ve rarely seen such seamless CG work on screen. Add to that Bong’s sense of scale and proportion, and you get a work of visual beauty and comedy. Jake Gyllenhall is maniacally over-the-top but it works like a dream because he’s committed and knows what will make the character seem moored to the story. This isn’t just a stunt to show off Gyllenhall doing something new; it’s a controlled piece of physical performance art from the knees to the eyes and I couldn’t stop laughing.

On top of that, there’s the mastery of tone, which is something given just how dark and serious it can get between scenes of gut-busting hilarity. And here’s where I brag that I saw it at the only theater on Earth showing a 35mm print of it (even though it was shot digitally) with the director a few seats over – and his comments after the screening revealed him to be just as insightful as his film suggests. Even though seeing it with a big crowd made the comedy more uproarious and the sense of community stronger, I strongly urge everyone reading to head to Netflix where this is readily available for streaming. It’s one of those times where “you’ve never seen anything like it” is both true and good.

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Baby Driver — 7/10

BABY DRIVER (2017, Edgar Wright)

There’s a trend these days in action movie trailers of the music beats being accompanied by diegetic sound effects — most often it’s guns being cocked or fired, and punches being thrown. This can be done either brilliantly (cf. the ATOMIC BLONDE trailer), pretty good (FATE OF THE FURIOUS), or weakly and try-too-hard (AMERICAN ASSASSIN). Imagine this gimmick for an entire movie and you might want to cry. But imagine it done by a craftsman as skilled and giddy as Edgar Wright, and suddenly your ears perk up. That’s essentially what Wright is doing here, and he has pretty much made a musical out of a heist movie. Every detail from the clink of spent bullet casings landing on pavement to a passerby shouting into his mobile phone provides the soundtrack to the action, punctuating the music, accompanying the melody or the beat, and often driving the story. It’s a glorious feat of cinephilia, even if it’s in the service of a weightless and cold genre picture.

Wright has never lacked for a fun, spirited energy behind the camera, mixing his gorgeous eye for framing, economical use of camera movement, and whip-smart edits with a nod to filmmakers of the past — guys from Romero to Carpenter to Bay. Here he’s going for a combo of Walter Hill and Stanley Donen, and he drives donuts around poor Damien Chazelle’s flailing LA LA LAND. And in the way that musicals will cram exposition and dialogue into a few brief scenes before soaking in their extended dance numbers, Wright efficiently slips in just enough backstory and motivation to get us going, then lets his camera and the actors do the rest.

Once the plates are spinning, though, there’s nothing for them to do but eventually stop, and when they do stop there isn’t anything on them. I appreciate him going after a basic genre movie plot, but it couldn’t hurt to add a little spice to it. Maybe make Debora a little more of a human being; maybe give Jamie Foxx a reason to take the crew into the diner. Maybe don’t just coast through the last 10 minutes in neutral. HOT FUZZ similarly uses its form as its content and descends into a third act that gets too gore-killy, while THE WORLD’S END is an absolute gas until it’s not. Even SCOTT PILGRIM runs through the video game motions a few too many times. One of these days this guy is going to make a masterpiece, but until he does, it’s still pretty fun to watch a guy with this kind of command of sound and image make candy.

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The Big Sick — 8/10

THE BIG SICK (2017, Michael Showalter)

Really puts into perspective just how off-key so many failed attempts at this genre are. First of all, there hasn’t been a straight-up romantic comedy this good since probably NOTTING HILL (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the final scenes of both films are extremely similar), and in addition, it handles the intricacies of immigrant families (and interracial relationships) with nuance, complex detail, and earnest understanding.

Take for example the slapstick version of Indian parents in Netflix’s MASTER OF NONE from Aziz Ansari. No doubt his version stems from deep truths, but he casts his own parents (who are not actors, and are terrible at acting) and writes his scenarios with simplified arcs. What Nanjiani has done here (with deeply felt direction from Showalter) is present a Pakistani family with similar reservations but characters that extend beyond the screen; they’re stars of their own movies, not supporting roles in Kumail’s.

Then there’s the treatment of stand-up comedy — usually the domain of sad-clown clichés (where creators love to dig into the drama of “trying to make it,” and showing the dark side of this cutthroat business), here it’s just a solid creative outlet full of a variety of people, skilled and unskilled, that lack the psychoses of characters in everything from PUNCHLINE to I’M DYING UP HERE. Nanjiani plays a version of himself in the same way Louis CK or Jerry Seinfeld have done, but he’s done an excellent job of proving wrong his parents’ (and everyone else’s, perhaps) stereotypes about the business. [That said, I could have done without the set-that-goes-wrong-because-the-comic-gets-real sequence, which has been overdone to death ever since Tig Notaro nailed it in real life].

As for the supporting roles, the cast is overflowing with talent. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are both incredible: believable and uproarious in all the right ways. Small turns from people like Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant also find the right tone. Showalter, while not exactly Edgar Wright with the camera, nonetheless knows comedy as well as any filmmaker in America, and this thing is bursting with huge laughs. And they’re earned laughs, and they come from a real place that’s deeply human and heartfelt. That makes the gear-shift to sad, tension-filled drama a graceful one — it’s never too maudlin or cheaply sentimental. These are tough things to get right, and even if you can’t put your finger on one thing this film does that’s extraordinary, just compare it to everything else and you’ll realize just how special it is.

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