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Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Detroit


Detroit

Months before its release, we marked Detroit as a must see on our calendars, a true chapter from the violent peak of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.  Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), working with writer and frequent collaborator Mark Boal, zeroed in on an incident at the Algiers Hotel one night in 1967 and brought all of her skills to bear to deliver her specialty--a powerful and immersive experience.  So much so that there were reports of scores of theater attendees walking out of the film as anger emanated from both African-American and White factions at her depiction of riots and police brutality.  Forewarned, we headed out with our intrepid band, and it can be reported first-hand that one among us did walk out, another later said he almost left, and those remaining averted our eyes on several occasions.  (Guy S. Malone, Researcher, as usual, was banished to another row for masticating his Jujyfruits so loudly it sounded like the Scottish Grenadiers slogging through a peat bog.  But we digress.)

Bigelow opens with a written intro superimposed over painted panels, describing the migration of Blacks and Whites in America and concluding with a lesson in urban geography.  Those few moments are the last peaceful ones as we cut to July 23, 1967, and a police raid of an illegal after-hours club in a Black neighborhood that is already restive.  As the police take party-goers outside, the streets go from simmer to boil.  Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd goes street-level as the scene escalates to looting, Molotov cocktails, and violence.  City and State Police try to take control, and by the time the National Guard arrives, what has become known as the 12th Street Riot is on.

Meanwhile, at a nearby Motown revue, an aspiring soul group, the Dramatics, await the opportunity that could finally bring them recognition; before they can perform, though, the violence outside forces the theater to evacuate.   Lead singer, Larry (Algee Smith), and his best friend, Fred (Jacob Latimore), decide to hole up in a dive motel, The Algiers.   There, they meet two suburban girls, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), flirting with the sexual revolution.  The girls take them to a party third-floor party where Vietnam Air Cavalry veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie) quietly stands by as the roisterous Carl (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) carry on.  As one of the words practical jokes ever, Carl shoots a starter pistol, a fateful event.  Down below, police and National Guard dive for cover, thinking there is a sniper.  Caught on the street with them is Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard for one of the local stores.  Soon, an assault is mobilized, and as the third-floor partiers are overwhelmed by massive force.

All of the foregoing is setup and prologue for the events that follow as a trio of city police--Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O'Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) take charge of, if not responsibility for, interrogating the suspects on-site.  Led by Krauss, events become increasingly violent and sadistic, prompting other officers to vacate the scene and leaving Dismukes as the rational observer of events.  Those disputed events lead to an investigation and an equally disputed trial, highlighting a third act that is as rushed as the interrogation scenes are grimly dragged out.  That is when John Krasinski shows up as the police defense attorney, representing a Machiavellian system of law that follows an Inquisitional system of order and remains a blot on America's record of race relations to this day.

With a runtime of 2:23, the Algiers Hotel incident lasted 37 minutes longer than it took for Christopher Nolan to evacuate Dunkirk.  During the interrogation scenes, it is evident that Bigelow wants the audience as much as possible to stare in the face of racist police brutality, but it is equally evident that the words "duration" and "endurance" come from the same root.  It is simply too much, as a matter of both taste and art.  We are not squeamish; to the contrary, we have gone out of our way to attend horror movies since our tender pre-adolescent years.  And although we won't go as far as those who call Detroit "violence porn," we will say that the camera dwells a bit too lasciviously on the agony and the anguish of the victims of the interrogation.  From an artistic standpoint, while it is well-composed, well-shot, and drives home the point of the entire film, it does so at the expense of the investigation, the trial, and the consequences to all involved.

Our previous remarks to this point may give the impression that the film is a failure, and that is not the case; Detroit is a good, in some ways a very good, film.  The problem is, it will probably fall just outside the nominee lists in a number of categories.  It may well make some top-ten film lists, but it's unlikely to be top-five in anything.  Few do war films better than Kathryn Bigelow, and Detroit is a domestic war film.  From the beginning through the aftermath of the interrogation, we are immersed in an action movie, shoulder to shoulder with the combatants.  But like many war movies, the characters are thinly-drawn caricatures whom we only care about because of the position they occupy as victim or perpetrator--the kid-singer with the dream, the honest best friend, the rebellious princess, the stoic observer, the strong but silent soldier, the sadistic cop, the nasty lawyer.  Make no mistake, the performances are uniformly good to excellent; they just aren't nuanced.  And in the case of potential acting nominations, the producers bet on the wrong horse: It seems that many people are desperate to make John Boyega happen; in fact, an EW critic drooled, "It's a pleasure just to watch him think."  Really?  They should have pushed all of their chips behind Will Poulter, the British actor with the perfect American accent.  He seems cast against type, with his Alfred E. Newman face, but even in repose he conveys menace, and when he feels the suspects are withholding information, the brutal racist oozes from every pore.  He is the best bet for an acting award.  For others, see below.
8.0 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Outside shot at nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Supporting Actor, maybe Sound Editing)

The Big Sick


The Big Sick

What to make of a romantic comedy that, on the surface, appears similar to a hundred other romcoms?  This critically acclaimed indie is a bit different.  Backed by (Judd) Apatow Productions, it has a strong pedigree, and it was written by stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, chronicling their courtship (at this junction, is it a spoiler to say it has a happy ending?).  The Big Sick also walks two tightropes.  First, it addresses Nanjiani's immigrant struggle to assimilate his young adult American lifestyle with his family's traditional Pakistani culture and do it without becoming preachy or political; second, as the title suggests, it faces Emily's mortal struggle with a life-threatening illness without becoming maudlin.  It mostly succeeds on both counts.

One night, as he is performing his stand-up act at a small comedy club, Kumail gets involved in a cute exchange about the nature of heckling with a young woman, who turns out to be Emily (Zoe Kazan).  They hit it off immediately, but such is the nature of romcoms, neither is in the market for a relationship at the moment.  She is a grad student in psychology at the University of Chicago and he is trying to get his comedy act off the ground while making ends meet as an Uber driver.  Yet they can't stay away from each other (and she always has a ride home).  As their relationship grows, so does their commitment.  But so does a secret Kumail harbors: his traditional Pakistani family wants her to meet a traditional Pakistani girl.  His dinner-time visits to his parents' home are as awkward as they are transparent, given his mother's "Look who just happened to drop in" matchmaking, but they also point up the cultural dilemma he faces, and it soon becomes a matter of choosing between family and love.  Kumail is afraid of telling Emily about his family, and he cannot tell them about her.  The time for an easy explanation long past, when the truth comes out, the secret becomes a lie Emily cannot tolerate, and she breaks off the relationship.

Time goes by, and both are moving on, but then the dilemma announced in the title occurs.  Emily is stricken by a puzzling illness, one that is life-threatening.  Kumail is the first to the hospital, but soon Emily's parents arrive.  Terry (Ray Romano), tact-challenged for a college English professor, and Beth (Holly Hunter), a straight-shooting Southern woman who was raised in a military family intent to pick up the baton from Kumail and have him go on with his life.  But Kumail won't go away.  It is here where the main course of the film is served, as Kumail, the man who broke their little girl's heart, tries to justify his presence, Beth vacillates between fretting and confronting, and Terry awkwardly plays peacemaker, trying to understand Kumail's position while trying to avoid Beth's underlying wrath directed at him.  This is also where the dual-tightropes converge: the journey from alienation to understanding even as Emily's life hangs in the balance--and to do it all with humor and grace.

The film started off slowly, and initially, only some of the jokes landed--it's hard to tell whether or not this was intentional because a significant part of the first act takes place in comedy clubs among comics, some of whom with greater aspirations than talent.  Nanjiani and Kazan are a cute couple, and they bring believable romantic chemistry, and his Pakistani family is as likeable as it is stereotypical: Azmat (Anupham Kher), the reasonable but henpecked father; Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), the no retreat, no surrender mother; and Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), the "good" brother who dutifully grew a beard and married a Pakistani girl.  But the scene--and movie--stealers are Romano and Hunter.  Like the comedy veterans they are, they inhabit their roles, making their line-delivery organic, thus taking a sometimes uneven screenplay to heights that might even earn awards.  Director Michael Showalter, a long-time comedy writer, takes on his biggest project to date and earns even bigger ones in the future.
8.0 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Will challenge for a number of Indie "Spirit" Awards; Possible Golden Globe - Best Picture, Comedy/Musical, Screenplay; AMPAS Original Screenplay a long shot)








The Little Hours


The Little Hours

When The Little Hours opened at Sundance, Catholic League president Bill Donohue flatly stated, "It is Trash. Pure Trash."  It is telling that Writer-Director Jeff Baena and Producer-Star Aubrey Plaza used the quote to highlight the movie's marketing campaign on their movie poster.  Such is the anarchic but good-natured irreverence emblematic in this little satire, loosely based on several stories from Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century work, The Decameron.

It is 1349, and in a remote convent in Tuscany we meet three nuns unlike any Catholic sisters you ever met: Allesandra (Alison Brie) is in the convent until her daddy can acquire the dowry that will fetch her a good husband, Ginerva (Kate Micucci) is a slightly deranged suck-up, and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) is the mean and snarky alpha-nun.  They spice up the daily tedium of embroidery and laundry duty by bullying the handyman, spying on each other, engaging in sexual fantasies, and other, more secretive, pastimes.  All of this occurs under the benign and clueless noses of Mother Superior Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) and the Father Tommasso (John C. O'Reilly).

When the handyman finally has had enough and quits, Tommasso lucks into a replacement: Massetto (Dave Franco), a servant on the run from the paranoid Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), who has discovered Massetto in flagrante delicto with his wife Francesca (marvelously sarcastic Lauren Weedman).  To protect the new handyman from the three sisters' abuse, Father Tommasso comes up with the dubious idea of having Massetto pretend to be a deaf mute.  The priest's plan, of course, goes awry when the sisters set eyes on the handsome young Massetto and realize the opportunity his inability to speak presents to their blasphemous machinations.  Things kick into high gear when Fernanda's friend, the wild Marta (Jemima Kirke) visits the convent, and peaks with the surprise arrival of Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen).

For a limited budget indie, The Little Hours has big budget production values.  Dan Romer's score establishes both period and mood while Quyen Tran's cinematography elicits a sunny, earthy pastoral beauty that belies the ongoing shenanigans.  Speaking of contradictions, the humor draws largely from an anachronistic pairing of characters using contemporary American dialect with a story set during the Middle Ages.  Adding to the fun, Baena has gathered some of today's most gifted comics and given them a script that is little more than a general outline then urged them to improvise, thus allowing each actor's idiosyncratic personality to emerge full-blown.  The end result is something approaching the subversive wit of Monty Python with nearly the same zany antics of the Mel Brooks gang.  To say The Little Hours falls short of those classic ensembles is not a put-down; quite the opposite, it is a compliment to its aspirations that it set the bar so high and then went for it.  We hope this group reunites for further efforts in the future.
8.0 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
5.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Cinematography a long shot possibility)

A perspective on Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk


Having been a fan of Christopher Nolan films since I saw Memento in 2000, I eagerly anticipated Dunkirk.  We've seen nine of his films, from his great ones--Inception, The Prestige--to his near misses--Interstellar--from comic book heroes--the Dark Knight trilogy--to tarnished heroes--Insomnia--his films are always beautiful, intense, and usually mind-bending experiences.  Our regular movie group saw Dunkirk on IMAX cinema last week, that rare occasion we got the whole gang together (Serfing Dude; Don Swedanya; Ambrose Wolfinger, Ph.D.; Prof. Quincy Wagstaff; Captain Lou Albano, HE; Guy S. Malone, Researcher; even two special guests, the Kreidenheimer Twins, showed up).  All of us were psyched, and, as usual, we commiserated afterward over Black Cows and Ginger Ale.  Guy and I like to hear our friends' thoughts because they season our own impressions as they marinate in our minds before submitting them for your approval.  None of us felt it was the "Best movie of the year" as so many have already crowned it.  Still, all thought it was very good, unique film.

It's important to emphasize the term unique as the prime descriptor for Dunkirk because it is not the standard war movie we've grown up on: not the brooding antiwar films we know so well, and certainly not the John Wayne gung ho type (almost a genre unto itself) of an even older generation.  And, although its immersive effects and visceral impact are reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, those films are still representative of that old paradigm of what a war film ought to be.  Christopher Nolan's film is far removed from them.  Dunkirk is unique even among the true originals, like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, although it remains to be seen whether or not Dunkirk will take its place among those all-time classics.

Dunkirk is a war film done as a work of impressionism.  The canvas is Dunkirk and its beach, the Strait of Dover, and, just beyond the horizon, the shores of England.  Soldiers on the beach wait to be ferried away from the clenching claws of the German army on land, U-Boats at sea, and Messerschmitts in the air.  Five representative characters emerge: 1) Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) represents the officer upon whom we depend for our bearings--our context and perspective;  2) Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) represents the civilian flotilla dispatched to carry out the massive evacuation effort; 3) Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), who shows the emotional costs of the men (and also hints to us of Nolan's warped timeline); 4) Farrier (Tom Hardy) a Spitfire pilot whose sense of duty compels him to place himself in the same mortal peril as the men on the beach; 5) most importantly, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), one of the soldiers on the beach.  [Point of information: "Tommy" was a catchall term for any British soldier in WWII, and Nolan purposefully picked an unknown actor and then cast as many generic look-alikes to show that there were over 300,000 "Tommies" on the beach that day.]  Nolan then shifts from character to character in frenetic splashes, shifting not only in place but also in time (one of the auteur's favorite game pieces).  What results is a chaotic swirl whose sense and sequence only become clear as Hans Zimmer's ticking-clock score hurtles us toward the conclusion of the lean 106-minute film.

Because of Nolan's writing and filming decisions, we have the feeling there will be much revisionist thought on Dunkirk before the Acadamy Awards air next winter.  After all, paradigms do not easily shift--especially a paradigm so firmly entrenched in the collective American consciousness as the war movie.  To illustrate, a friend sent me a writer's perspective on Dunkirk from a respected periodical.  While paying lip service what Nolan was going for, the writer showed that he didn't understand it at all.  He would have preferred Nolan's film plus a documentary that detailed British, French, and German troop movements plus rally-round-the-flag motivational speeches to stir the emotions. That movie would have made The Longest Day seem like an evening news sound bite in comparative duration.

As to its promise for awards, Dunkirk will be a rare bird.  Its minimalist dialogue and presentation of Everyman warriors will probably preclude Screenplay or Acting nominations: it's unusual for an Oscar favorite to miss out on those categories.  And make no mistake, it will be among the favorites for end-of-year awards.  Nolan himself should receive strong consideration for Best Picture and Director.  In other major categories, we can expect recognition for Hoyte van Hoytema's Cinematography, Lee Smith's Editing, and Zimmer's Original Score.  Throw in a couple secondary categories, and Dunkirk is in line for up to seven nominations.
8.5 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
9.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (see last paragraph above)

 
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