REVIEW: Detroit

5 08 2017

Don’t believe the marketing. “Detroit” is not a film about a series of riots that took place 50 years ago. Those events merely provide the background for a stripped down story in which the long-flaring tensions between the police force and the minority communities they patrol reach a boiling point.

Not unlike director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s last joint, “Zero Dark Thirty,” they begin with a brief prologue of historical context. Then, it was the audio of phone calls coming out of the World Trade Center over a black screen; here, crucial subtitles establish the interrelated forces of geographic mobility driving the Great Migration and the suburbanization of America. When blacks move into an area, whites move out – but maintain their control over those spaces through aggressive policing. Rather than cohabitation, the more powerful group opts for occupation by proxy.

This is important to understand in “Detroit,” which hones in on a single portion of the half-century-old historical event. Amidst the unrest, a black man fires shots from a prop toy gun out a window, sufficiently spooking the police and National Guard on patrol into storming the Algiers Motel. A harmless prank quickly brings out the most terroristic impulses from the boys in blue – and yes, they are boys. The young guns recall a description of the police in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.”

From there, the film essentially functions like a hostage caper or a home invasion story. With her “Zero Dark Thirty” editor William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, Bigelow ratchets up the tension by the moment as the police use every trick in the book to strip away all humanity from their suspects (several black men and two women in their company) in order to identify the shooter. Will Poulter’s unrepentantly lawless Krauss leads the charge to insult, harass and pit these friends against each other; calling his crusade against the dignity of blacks vigilantism does not even begin to do his despicable behavior justice.

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REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island

7 03 2017

“Am I the story of the Negro in America?” asks a German major in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” as he tries to guess the name written on a card affixed to his forehead in a bar game. He gets a resounding “no” after running through a series of questions that could just as easily describe the importation of slaves. But he quickly pivots and rattles off, “Well, then, I must be King Kong.”

Traditionally in cinema – and fiction as a whole – our monsters mean something. They reflect the deep fears and anxieties of a society, ones that might not obviously rear their heads but can find vicarious expression through metaphor and transitive representation. In 1933’s version of “King Kong,” Tarantino saw a deeply symbolic tale about race in America. It’s too bad that “Kong: Skull Island,” the latest spin on the giant ape, arrives at a time of no racial tension and the complete absolution of prejudice based on ancestral origin. (Ha.)

But what kind of monster is Kong in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film? At first, the behemoth primate seems to be something between a colonialist allegory given the backdrop of the Vietnam War and a cautionary tale for human overreach in a technology-heavy era. The longer the film goes on, the more these aspects reveal themselves as clear offshoots of Vogt-Roberts’ key touchstones, “Apocalypse Now” and “Jurassic Park.” Then the real question of “Kong: Skull Island” arises. Is it worse if the filmmaking team (which includes four credited writers) have an undercooked meaning of the monster … or if there’s just no meaning at all?

We get the answer – it’s the latter of the two options – in a post-credits zinger. No spoilers about the contents of the scene, but Warner Bros. deliberately robs King Kong of any allegorical meaning to strip him down to pure commercialism. He’s now just another branded property, another franchise toy who can be trotted out in any number of series without being weighed down by cultural baggage. The ape who loomed large in the American imagination is now just another large CGI creation in a veritable zoo created by the VFX wizards that be. The whole film amounts to a less neon-bathed “Avatar,” a creature feature full of empty spectacle (and even less politicization).

Kong’s presence in the film is practically nonexistent, too. That includes implied appearances, a method to which Spielberg acolyte Vogt-Roberts fondly makes homage. The majority of “Kong: Skull Island” consists of a ragtag band of people who have been in too many action movies (Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman) and those whose careers could use an action movie (Brie Larson, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell) trying to make it to the top of a mountain for rescue after a military mission goes south. Their journey has its enjoyable moments, but who really buys a ticket to a King Kong movie for pithy banter between photojournalists and cagey war veterans? B-





REVIEW: Keanu

26 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

The hype surrounding the film festival environment leads even seasoned veterans like myself into making questionable life decisions. On my second day at SXSW, I hustled to the Austin Convention Center at 8:30 A.M. to get a prime seat for a talk with comedy qweens Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. That very same evening, after a full day of interviews and screenings, I decided it would be a great idea to go see the work-in-progress screening of “Keanu,” starring the comedy team Key & Peele. Who cares that the show was at 12:30 A.M. and, because of the daylight savings time change, would not let out until 3:30 A.M.? Minor details.

Was I in the best state to watch a film? Gosh no. But if “Keanu” could keep me (mostly) awake and (mostly) entertained, then it ought to pack a real wallop for anyone viewing under normal conditions.

The film seems reverse engineered from all the things people love to share on my Facebook news feed: cat memes, irreverent ’90s action film-style violence and the sketch comedy of Key & Peele. “Keanu” could not tee up its stars for more success, plunging their thinking man’s wit into the absurd world of the Los Angeles criminal underground once their pet cat gets kidnapped. Yep, you read that correctly. (To be fair, the cat did escape from a drug lord.)

After pushing buttons and boundaries with their provocative Comedy Central show, Key & Peele’s first foray onto the silver screen resembles 2010’s “Date Night” more than anything else. Remember that movie? With Steve Carell and Tina Fey, who were still involved in their hit NBC sitcoms? You might not because it was sub-par material, but you might have some faint recollection because those two stars brought their A-game and elevated the script to decent effect.

“Keanu” does the same for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The script (co-written by Peele with Alex Rubens) has its fair share of great comedic set pieces and hilarious one-liners. It stops short, however, of the depth of satire Key & Peele normally utilize to probe questions of race, gender and class. That slight disappointment mostly comes afterward, though. In the moment, it is mostly just amusing and ridiculous to watch a cat meme come to life as a full-length feature. B2halfstars