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: Manchester by the Sea

12 12 2016

manchester-by-the-seaEarlier this year, Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” concluded an earnest moment of connection (slight spoilers – as much as that movie can be spoiled) with the protagonist, Blake Jenner’s Jake Bradford, describing his college essay’s reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In his mind, the Sisyphean task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, was not merely cosmic punishment. His eternal recurrence was instead an unintended cosmic gift that gives him a chance to find meaning and purpose.

No such solace or comfort can be found in the more straightforward Sisyphean tale told by Kenneth Lonergan in “Manchester by the Sea.” We meet his central character, Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, going through a series of repetitive toils in his work as an apartment complex’s janitor. Going from unit to unit, he fixes problems that residents could either fix themselves or avoid entirely. When not waiting hand and foot on tenants, Lee shovels the snow off the walkway to his basement dwelling, and the snow never seems to stay clear.

Lee Chandler is a modern Sisyphus of Massachusetts, a fate made even more distressing because he appears to have resigned himself to it. His percolating wit and acerbic banter with the people he must serve indicates an intellect far superior than the average sanitation engineer. If there is any upside to this situation, Lee willingly blinds himself to it.

As time passes and tragedy strikes the Chandler family tree with the young death of Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), we come to possess a deeper understanding of Lee’s self-imposed exile. He is the ultimate embodiment of Catholic guilt, responding to a perceived lack of divine justice against a life-changing mistake by taking the role of punisher away from a seemingly absent authority. He enters into an existence of almost complete asceticism, not because he hopes to earn redemption but because he wishes never to escape the burden of his misdeeds.

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REVIEW: The Hollars

23 08 2016

The HollarsSundance Film Festival

With a tender blend of comedy and drama, solid work from a big ensemble cast comprised of some surprising players as well as an acoustic-heavy soundtrack, John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” more or less epitomizes the kind of film that put Sundance on the map. And yet precisely because Krasinski earnestly embraces just about every indie cliché, the film manages to move and delight.

Sure, we could probably do without Krasinski’s John Hollar, another struggling artist (a graphic novelist) who fumbles when it comes to commitment. But he’s worth taking a journey with since Krasinski endows him with the kind of idealized everyman charisma that he perfected in 9 years behind a desk in “The Office.” John does not hesitate to break down as his world collapses around him, and Krasinski is there with vulnerability and empathy.

Yes, we likely do not need another dying mother like Margo Martindale’s Sally Hollar, whose sudden brain tumor discovery brings John home from New York. A few minutes into her spewing Southern fried wisdom, however, and you hope she never stops. Sally knows exactly what to say to people while also possessing the uncommon gift of knowing when people need to hear her sharp observations. She’s the glue holding together the lives of her husband and two sons, and Martindale approaches her character’s dawning acceptance of the the inevitable with a truly moving grace.

Fine, we might not need the vast array of supporting turns. Anna Kendrick is delightful, per usual, as John’s newly pregnant girlfriend Rebecca, although the script gives her little to do besides constant worrying and supporting about her boyfriend. Charlie Day provides nice comic relief as a jealous ex-high school rival of John; the fast-talking pipsqueak routine is very in line with his persona, though. Richard Jenkins turns in another excellent performance as an emotionally distraught patriarch. (The only real surprise of “The Hollars” is Sharlto Copley, in his first non-effects driven film, as John’s unexplainably neurotic brother Ron.)

Complain all you want about this movie existing. Point out all the boxes it checks. But “The Hollars” is here whether you like it or not, and Krasinski welcomes all with a wide embrace and an open heart. Be it your first or umpteenth indie family dramedy, the genuineness of the film can be disarming for those willing to let their guard down and just fall for its charms. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

22 08 2016

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenSay what you want about John Krasinski’s directorial debut, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” but you cannot say the film does not fulfill its title. At just 80 minutes, it is brief. The film consists primarily of interviews of males conducted by conducted by graduate student Sarah Quinn (Julianne Nicholson). And for the most part, they are, in fact, rather hideous.

These men are not murderers and rapists; they are mostly just average schmoes with the potential for violence and misconduct lurking underneath their civilized veneers. All Sarah has to do is poke a tiny hole with her questioning, and it opens up their insides to reveal startlingly primal forces at the wheel of the decision-making process. While Nicholson does a fine job with her probing, it’s hard to shake the sense that most of the heavy-hitting investigation comes from Wallace as a writer – not from her as a character.

Krasinski’s first outing as a director seems primarily focused with letting the words shine and the performances breathe. (Two very important tasks, mind you!) He treats Wallace’s prose with the sanctity of a theatrical director regarding the words of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, which might explain why so much of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” feels like filmed theater. It’s a show I’d want to see, though – particularly one centered around Krasinski’s own character in the film, Ryan. He delivers a powerful nine-minute monologue that deserves to serve as the climax of an entire film about his character, not just a mere episode in a collection of vignettes.

But “Brief Interviews from Hideous Men” comes from a collection of Wallace’s short stories, and the film retains that sense of brevity. Like many an episodic narrative, it practically invites being judged and weighed as a collection of parts rather than their sum. Some portions work; others drag. Some interviews enlighten; others preach to the choir. All of brief, for better or for worse. B-2stars





REVIEW: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

12 01 2016

What happens when you send Bay to do a Bigelow’s job? You get “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” an account of the 2012 siege of the Libyan embassy that proves both thrilling and frustrating.

Director Michael Bay honors the memory of the fallen and exalts the survivors in a way that recalls “Lone Survivor” or “Black Hawk Down.” When he turns his attention towards human beings and away from clanging clumps of pixels known as transformers, the man can sure craft a compelling action scene. Of course, his consistently shaky camera and manic editing patterns can result in some massive confusion, but he sustains the momentum of mounting dread for nearly two and a half hours. That’s no hack job.

But Bay falls short of Peter Berg, Ridley Scott and especially Kathryn Bigelow by painting in some questionably broad strokes. The expectation of any American war movie is that the troops are de facto heroes; to Bay’s credit, he has them earn their nobility rather than just assume the audience grants it to them. The titular “secret soldiers,” a paramilitary group of private defense contractors, act decisively to protect American interests. They are heroes for what they do, not simply for who they are.

Bay does not, however, grant the same level of thought to any other characters in the film. I’ll leave an analysis the sexist attitudes towards the lone female character present in Benghazi to thinkpieces on Jezebel, though I imagine Bay finds it progressive because he did not introduce her legs-first. (Credit on that joke goes to Kyle Buchanan at Vulture.) Anti-intellectual themes also run deep in the film’s veins, but I will again refrain from retaliating simply because I disagree.

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REVIEW: Aloha

19 06 2015

Aloha posterResponding to the reactions to a film in a review is something I generally frown upon; however, I am willing to make an exception in the case of “Aloha.”  Before Sony could release any trailers or marketing materials, studio head Amy Pascal’s scathing comments about Cameron Crowe’s film hit the Internet and sealed its fate.  The film said the “goodbye” aloha before it could say the “hello” aloha.  And then, once the critics finally got ahold of the final product, the nail was in the coffin.

So when I finally got around to seeing “Aloha,” I came with unavoidably low expectations.  I did not seek to answer the question of whether it was good or bad; I just needed to know how bad.  Watching a film in that mindset makes for an entirely different experience, akin to being a child in a doctor’s office waiting for a shot with eyes clenched shut.  You know the pain will come soon but are clueless as to when.

I kept waiting for “Aloha” to come apart at the seams.  Maybe the relationship between paramilitary contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and his spunky Air Force escort Allison Ng (Emma Stone, unconvincingly playing part-Asian) would just become a little too far-fetched.  Or perhaps Brian would wreck the marriage of his ex-flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), leaving the life she built with her kids and husband Woody (John Krasinski) in shambles and destroying all sympathy for the characters.  Any number of plot points, from the relations with native Hawaiian tribes to an odd space mission, could easily have gone south.

Yet, against the odds, “Aloha” manages to survive its shortcomings and remain a mostly enjoyable time at the movies.  Sure, the script could have benefitted from some retooled dialogue, a few reordered or rewritten scenes for the sake of clarity, and a narrower narrative scope.  As is, though, Crowe has the basis for a charming – but not disarming – romance with a superfluous side helping of story critiquing the military-industrial complex.

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REVIEW: Promised Land

23 01 2013

Gus Van Sant has called “Promised Land” his attempt at Capra, which is a noble thing to aim for – and it has certainly been largely MIA in today’s cinema.  But his film is hardly “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a truly inspiring extolling of the virtues of the common American.  Even when you factor in adjusting the tale for our grayer, more morally relativistic culture, it still falls well short.

“Promised Land” aims for pro-small town goodness but winds up being mostly anti-corporate.  Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both the stars and writers of the film, spend most of their efforts vilifying the businessmen.  The homely townspeople, on the other hand, merely speak in vaguely familiar talking points that make them really only function for the sake of the narrative.

And I think that’s a lost opportunity for the movie to really make a great case against natural gas fracking.  As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb postulated in “Inception,” positive emotion trumps the negative every time.  Maybe if we cared more for the well-being this tiny agrarian Pennsylvania town, we would come out of the movie and call our Congressman.  But all that Damon and Krasinski convince us is that businessmen are vile leeches who will go to any lengths possible to suck all the natural gas out of the ground – with as much cost to the environment as necessary to provide little cost to them.

Eventually, I believe we will look back at “Promised Land” as an interesting relic in the ongoing saga of the United States’ quest for energy independence and climate control.  The film lands at a critical nexus in our culture, where it makes sense to revive the economy and decrease our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels by fracking the natural gas underneath our own soil.  Yet the process is so unrefined at the moment that it can cause vast environmental damage.  You know, just never mind what it does to social capital because Damon and Krasinski are only seeing green – the color of money and the color of the environment.

But they make a mild and familiar argument within a generic framework to convey their message.  Perhaps their passion would have been best channeled into a documentary.  Although non-fiction films rarely reach large audiences, those movies can be as polemical as they want because that’s often what they are designed to be.  (For an example of how they could have frightened you with the horrifying truth, look to “Gasland.”)  What they settled on in “Promised Land” just feels like preaching to the converted; I don’t think it has the narrative or emotional strength to create any new believers.  C+2stars