Detroit – a Relentless Focus on Reality

 

Detroit

3 ½ stars

It is impossible to watch “Detroit” without feeling overwhelmed by horror of what emerges on screen, awaking our vague recollections of the summer of 1967 when the Detroit riots were the main topic of all national news media.  And because it is only dimly recollected after 50 years, we can forgive director Kathryn Bigelow (“Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) and screenwriter Mark Boal for taking some liberties with the facts.

What we do know is following a raid on an unlicensed black after-hours club by the nearly all-white Detroit Police Department, black citizens were publicly rounded up and arrested which spurred a looting and arson spree in the predominantly black community known as the Near West Side. Governor George Romney called in the Michigan National Guard and President Lyndon Johnson also sent the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.  The rioting and chaos lasted five days, and at the conclusion there were 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

The focus of “Detroit” is a little known incident at the Algiers Motel.  In the film, we focus on several main characters.  Disdukes (John Boyega) is a black security guard for a local shop where the riots are unfolding.  He attempts to ease tensions between the black citizens and the police and predominantly white guardsmen and becomes enmeshed in the violence by being accused of the murders ostensibly committed by the Detriot police.  In the midst of the riots, a local singing group called The Dramatics are about to go on stage at a crowded theater, knowing that a record contract may be in the offing if they perform well.  But due to the riots taking place outside the doors, everyone is sent home.  Ultimately, lead singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his some-time agent/friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) escape the chaos of the street and seek sanction in an $11 a night room at the Algiers.  At the motel they meet two white party girls from Ohio, a black Viet Nam veteran, Greene (Anthony Mackie), and a trouble-maker, Carl (Jason Mitchell).  Carl has a tiny starter’s pistol which he discharges, calling police attention to the motel who believe a sniper is housed there.

The local police are led by a sadistic racist, Krauss (Will Poulter) who immediately kills Carl and proceeds to terrorize the remaining guests in an attempt to locate the non-existent sniper gun.  Green and Larry are horribly brutalized by the police and two more innocents are murdered by the police before they withdraw from the motel.

The power of the movie occurs in the endless interrogation and brutalization by Krauss and his cohorts of the several guests who survive a fate only slightly less than death.  The camera is merciless in recording the terror and humiliation the police visit upon these people.  In the end, Larry is near death and his friend Fred lays on a slab at the morgue.

The trial of the three white Detroit policemen, which more or less returns to recorded facts, takes place before an all-white jury presided over by a white judge.  Although two of the officers on trial have confessed to the police murders, the judge throws out the confessions, the jury discounts the testimony of the witnesses who are maligned and abused by the defense attorney, resulting in no charges – not even assault – brought against the white criminal defendants.

Even today, fifty years after the riots, it is still an open wound to see how our justice system failed, and continues to fail, the black victims of crime, abuse and outlandish prejudice.  It is enough to make me burst into tears, if not for the numbing effect of this powerful verdict on our society.

Just before the closing credits, there are small biographies of several of the main characters presented in the movie, testifying to the reality that many of those black lives were afforded very little value by a predominantly white society.  The movie is more than 2 hours and 20 minutes long and is positively exhausting.  But it reminds us of how far we have yet to go.  In the Chicago Tribune of June 11, 1969, a very brief article tells of the acquittal of suspended police officer August.  The article is one-eighth the size of the Montgomery Ward ad which ran next to it.

DUNKIRK – Do Your Research Ahead of Time

2 ½ Stars

The movie “Dunkirk” is a bit confusing.  Unless you have read a Wikipedia explanation of the movie or listened to an interview by director Christopher Nolan, you might not understand what Nolan was trying to accomplish.

Few of us on this side of the pond are familiar with Dunkirk – not the battle – the evacuation.  During the early days of World War II, well before the Yanks entered the war, the British and other allied troops we driven to the northwest coast of France and were hanging on by a thread, pressed by the Germans following their loss in the Battle of France.

If you were listening closely to the dialogue – not easy for a Yank – you might have heard that there were 300,000 allied fighters who had to be evacuated.  But with the ships being assailed by German guns and torpedoes, and Churchill unwilling to send in many destroyers that he would need later to defend England, the troops were sitting ducks to be picked off.

The film proposes to parse the Dunkirk evacuation into three parts – land, sea and air.  But in the interest of time, all three are combined into perhaps three days – though the actual evacuation took eight days.  The confusion begins with a film caption “The Mole.”  Unless you happen to be a crossword fan, you could not begin to know what a “mole” is.  In fact, it is a massive structure, usually of stone, used as a pier, breakwater or causeway to separate two bodies of water.  As a consequence, when this caption appeared on the screen, the audience was rendered clueless – thus setting the tone for the rest of the movie, in my estimation.

The story of Dunkirk is less about the individual soldiers in the throes of the disaster, but more about the incredible rescue by more than 800 civilian boats that came to the rescue of the stranded forces.  Unfortunately, the film shows only a handful of these vessels, so it never occurs to you that there were so many of these vessels that were both conscripted by the Royal Navy and manned by civilian volunteers.

Further, the film seemed to imply that almost every evacuation ship provided by the British navy was sunk.  In fact, there were 39 British destroyers that were involved in the rescue.

Much has been made of the Hans Zimmer score and it does add excitement and a sense of urgency to the film.  To Zimmer’s credit, it is almost impossible to separate the score from the film itself.

This is probably a film you will want to see.  But for me it was a disappointment simply from the confusion Nolan created by his captions and the strange juxtaposition of all events seeming to occur at once.  While some critics have heralded this is the best war movie ever created, to my recollection there are so many others that surpass it: “Saving Private Ryan,” “Platoon,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “The Longest Day,” “The Great Escape,” “Hacksaw Ridge.”

THE BIG SICK – Takes Rom-Com to New Hilarity — 4 Stars

 

How’s this for great comic theater and a creative preview of an upcoming movie:  comics Kumail Nanjiani, Ray Romano, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler started a “Big Sick” comedic tour two months prior to the nation-wide release of the romantic comedy movie of the same title.  All four comics appeared in the tour as well as in the movie.  Being in the backwater country of the Lowcountry, I had no idea that this fabulous tour was going on.  But if you keep your seats when you see this film in local movie theaters and wait until after the credits appear on screen, you will get glimpses of the real live tour.

So what is all the hoopla about?  “The Big Sick” is a hilarious, touching and, apparently, true portrayal of the unlikely love story between comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Nanjiani) and “white girl” Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan) beginning with their early courtship.  When the two meet at a Chicago comedy club, Nanjiani is working as a stand-up comic and sometimes Uber driver (or perhaps the other way around), and Emily is working on her graduate degree in psychology.  Because each is too set on his/her career goals to commit to the responsibilities of a relationship, they ostensibly engage in a one night stand only.  As fate would have it, they manage to continue seeing each other in spite of the demands of their chosen careers, and the romance turns serious.

Nanjiani plays himself in the movie and surrounds himself with a fabulous comedic cast with Holly Hunter as Emily’s mother Beth and Ray Romano as Emily’s dad Terry.  Also playing characters like themselves are real life comics Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler.

Kumail’s conservative Pakistani parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Schroff) are set upon a traditional arranged Muslim marriage for their younger son.  The parade of women Kumail’s mother contrives to “drop by” during dinner is positively mind-boggling.  In fact, Kumail is afraid to disappoint his parents and risk being disinherited (“dead to his family”) so he is unwilling to tell his parents about his courtship of Emily.  Kumail and Emily have an on again/off again relationship when Emily suddenly falls ill and is placed in a medically induced coma so doctors can assess the extent of her mysterious illness.

At this point, Kumail is forced to call Emily’s parents (Hunter and Romano) who come to stand watch over their comatose daughter.  Emily has held no secrets from her parents who are aware that Kumail and Emily have broken up because Kumail is unwilling to disappoint his parents.  While Kumail is not initially welcomed by the Gordons, he insists on keeping vigil with or without the family at the hospital.

Interspersed among hospital visits and Nanjiani family dinners are appearances at the Comedy Club and crazy interactions between Kumail and his fellow comics.  The dialogue is witty and droll.  Scenes between the Gordons and Kumail are full of a free-wheeling humor that defies description.

The experience will have you laughing out loud and applauding the miracle of this developing and evolving love story.  In my view, Holly Hunter gives as Oscar-worthy performance as the Hippie-type mom who is a defender of all right thinking people.  Watching her engage a bigot at a comedy club performance and bingeing on junk food and guzzling wine from the bottle will send you into hysterics.  This is a film for my personal DVD library.

Spider-Man Comes Home to Teens

Spider-Man Homecoming poster.jpg

3 stars

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” may not be the Marvel’s Spider-Man you were expecting.  And the homecoming part is really about a high school homecoming event complete with a dance where you get to invite your favorite girl.  All of this is because Peter Parker, our young Spidey (played by Tom Holland), is a 15 year-old nerd still in high school and with a not-so-secret crush on a much taller classmate and fellow geek, Liz (Laura Harrier).

While it might be helpful from a historical perspective to have seen other Marvel films that have their roots in this film, it really isn’t necessary to have been a witness to these films to enjoy this movie.  But just so you are not left completely in the dark, there is a climactic scene in the 2012 The Avengers where some space aliens left New York City in ruins and abandoned a lot of ultra-tech weaponry.   Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvage contractor, gets edged out of the business by a company owned by Tony Stark (Ironman/Robert Downey, Jr.).  Old feelings die hard, and Toomes takes revenge by becoming a high-tech arms dealer and flying villain, the Vulture.  It also helps if you have seen Holland’s Spidey debut in “Captain America: Civil War.” Even without these movies in your library, you will get the picture without having seen the pictures.

Our friend Peter Parker is an ordinary high school kid, except for the fact that he is an intern with Stark Enterprises, a kind of Avenger apprentice, whose dream is to become a real member of the Avenger team.  Peter is certain that if he can just show his prowess as a major crime-fighter (not merely “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”) that Tony Stark will give him a permanent place on the hero roster.  Alas, Stark has appointed Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as Peter’s keeper (sort of an off-site baby sitter).  Neither Peter nor Happy is pleased with this relationship.

Peter Parker has a bunch of equally nerdy friends, the equivalent of modern day Whiz Kids, as adept with trivia answers as with the intricacies of web applications (no pun intended).  Peter’s closest friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) learns of Peter’s secret superhero identity and wants nothing more than to blab it to the entire community, but Peter is able to keep Ned’s enthusiasm in check.  Following a thwarted ATM robbery, Peter picks up an abandoned weapon created by Toomes.  He and Ned manage to withdraw the secret glowing element from the weapon and Ned puts it into his backpack.

Spider-Man comes across a would-be black market arms sale to a local hoodlum (Donald Glover) and, through Ned’s crafty computer skills, manages to identify the arms dealers.  Still bent on thwarting a would-be crime, Peter and Ned discover there may be pending sale of arms which they track to a ferry in Maryland.  Peter, as Spider-Man, botches the job and the ferry is split in half when the arms materials show their volatility.  Ironman saves the day and again admonishes Peter for his interference and takes away Peter’s high-tech Spider-Man suit.  Some other stuff happens involving the Washington Monument and saving his classmates.  But you’ll want to see that on your own and figure out what might happen next.  All the action in fun.

This is not a typical Marvel movie because it is so focused on Peter the 15 year-old and all the stuff that goes on in this nerdy high school along with all the really bad decisions that teens often make.  Ned is a great comic character and so is Michelle (Zendaya) who has all the really snarky lines in the movie.  Too bad we didn’t see more of her.  There are cameo appearances by a number of well-known Hollywood actors:  Marisa Tomei plays Peter’s legal guardian Aunt May who is touted by neighbors as the sexy aunt; Bokeem Woodbine plays bad man Shultz; Tyne Daly plays the head of the Stark clean-up crew; Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Pepper Pots, a maybe love interest of Tony Stark; Hannibal Burress is Coach Wilson; and Kenneth Choi is Principal Morita.  Some of these names may have you scratching your head, but when you see these characters on screen you will know you’ve seen them before.

This movie is a refreshing break from other Marvel films.   With the exception of a tiny bit of language, this is a fun family film, and Holland’s performance is pleasantly reminiscent of Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly  in “Back to the Future.” This is a movie destined for a lot of home DVD libraries.

The Beguiled – a Sure Cure for Insomnia

The head of a boarding school for young Southern ladies (Nicole Kidman) reluctantly takes in a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) in Sofia Coppola’s atmospheric thriller “The Beguiled.” (Ben Rothstein / Focus Features)

The 2017 version of “The Beguiled” directed by Sofia Coppola is a disappointment.  The 1971 film version, starring Clint Eastwood, is so much more impactful and suspenseful than the 2017 version.  There is simply not enough anxiety created in the newer version – which is so much about mood and atmosphere that the underlying terror and anxiety are tossed away.  While Colin Farrell’s Corporal John McBurney is believable as the wounded Union soldier taken in by Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for southern women, the movie spends so much time creating an atmosphere with the same languid Spanish moss hanging from the same southern Live Oak Trees that we either lose interest in the underlying story or fall asleep from boredom.  Atmosphere is all well and good, but not when it totally supplants a story line that is both sinister and engaging if left to its own devices.

Farrell is found by a 12 year-old seminarian who is out in the woods scouting for mushrooms.  It has been at least four years since any of the 6 women in the seminary have seen a man at intimate range so they are completely taken with their wounded guest – he’s a MAN.  The corporal wastes no time in wooing every woman in the place who is old enough to recollect the spark of passion from pre-war days.  But Farrell’s talent for wooing is far less convincing than that of Eastwood’s.  And something is severely awry when Farrell goes on a rampage that far exceeds the subtle terror that Eastwood provoked in his seminary residents.

The story line is similar.  However, the character off Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is far too attractive and vulnerable compared with the unshakable Farnsworth played by Geraldine Page.  Really, not everyone needs to be taken in by Corporal John McBurney.  Geraldine Page managed to keep her distance from the irresistible charms of the corporal, but she was not as pretty as Kidman.  One thing the original film did a better job of was to plant us squarely in the Civil War with opening scenes of battles and monologues from the soldiers.  Also, Confederate scouts made regular rounds outside the gates of Miss Farnsworth’s school which heightened the danger in secreting a Union soldier.  Coppola’s insistence on atmosphere rather than character or story line drives the script into a state of serious somnolescence.  We do not even need the Civil War to tell this story in Coppola’s version.

Coppola depends a bit too much on subtlety.  Farrell slowly seduces his victims one at a time.  In the original version of the film there is no mistaking that McBurney is a liar and a thorough scoundrel.  Eastwood regales his captors with stories of his prowess while scenes of his cowardly brutality are played in the background.  Still the love-starved women vie for Eastwood’s attention, creating an atmosphere of jealousy and competition among the women.  In Coppola’s version we see little of the conflict among the women and we have reason to be surprised when Farrell couples with the wrong woman.

Further, even the children in Coppola’s film are far less convincing as children than in the earlier version.  It seems that it would not have taken much to cast great child actors in the several children called for in the film.  But some of the children are so wooden that we wonder where they were during their own childhood.

To my way of thinking there is nothing redeeming about this film, and I wonder why Coppola had to drift so far off script that she felt she felt compelled to offer us an atmospheric piece rather than a storyline.  This is no longer the story of a Union soldier salvaged and turned angry because of the atrocities performed on him.  It is the story of a bunch of terrified women who by happenstance manage to realize their own destinies.  But, sadly, it is mostly a crashing bore.

BABY DRIVER Totally Rocks

Image result for baby driver movie

If you love fabulous car chase scenes, don’t mind a bit of mayhem with a bit of gore thrown in, and are really into every kind of pop music you can think of, you will go crazy over “Baby Driver.”   This is one of the most original movies to grace the silver screen in recent memory, and I seriously suspect it is on its way to become a cult movie.  It is that good.

You would think that by now we have seen every sort of car chase scene that could possibly be imagined, but the chase in the opening fifteen minutes of this film is original and beyond thrilling.  It all starts with Baby (Ansel Elgort – “The Fault in Our Stars”) behind the wheel of a red souped-up Subaru.  He is plugged into his ear buds pounding out the rhythm of “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Exposition while his three passengers (Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Eiza González) pull off a heist at a bank.  Once the thieves are safely inside the car, Baby cranks up the music and the chase begins with some totally incredible driving stunts and very clever diversions.  Throughout the chase, Baby is completely in control and as relaxed as if he were taking a Sunday cruise down the freeway.

Awaiting the foursome at a remote warehouse is the mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) who insists on giving Baby an equal share of the proceeds and then clandestinely takes most of Baby’s share as partial satisfaction of an old debt Baby owes to Doc.  Doc likens it to taking candy from a baby – which it clearly and figuratively is.   We learn that Baby is being raised by his deaf black foster father (CJ Jones) who is not at all pleased with Baby’s activities, as Baby stashes his cash under a floor board in the run down tenement apartment they share.  But Baby believes that once his debt to Doc is paid – only one more heist – he will be free of this obligation to Doc.  Of course, nothing is that simple, which speaks volumes about Baby’s naiveté.

The final heist is complicated by a loose cannon named “Bats,” brilliantly played by Jamie Foxx.  Bats is certifiably crazy and ends up shooting up Doc’s arms suppliers before seriously jeopardizing the final heist of money orders from a local post office.

While all this action is taking place, there is a backbeat love story that is charmingly reminiscent of the 50’s.  Baby meets the girl of his dreams waitressing at the local diner.  Debora (Lily James) has the same fixation on music as Baby, and they hit it off from the get go.  In fact, they plan to drive off together and never look back.  Doc has other plans for Baby and makes it clear that he will never let Baby off the hook.

Director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) set out to create a movie set to music – or was it a lot of music with a film thrown in?  There are no less than 71 songs featured in the movie – everything from Dave Brubeck to James Brown; Simon and Garfunkel to Queen.  And it all fits perfectly into the action-packed script.  Pop music fanatics will love putting the songs together with the movie scenes to see how well they sync.  It is a music treasure trove.  We seldom see Baby without his ear buds and an assortment of I-pods to suit his musical moods.

Elgort is perfectly cast in this film, and his innocent and somewhat naïve relationship with Lily James is positively charming, nostalgically capturing all the innocence of young love.  All of the characters are well-cast, with each of the villains possessing an underlying explosiveness which threatens to pop at any minute and send all carefully planned events into oblivion.

There is some wonderful humor in the film juxtaposed against the tenacity of a super villain who simply refuses to die.  It makes for an exciting final conflict.  There is a lot of meat to this movie as well as fabulous stunt scenes.  As writer/director Worth would have it, there is also a very satisfying ending.  This is a film not to be missed.

Richard Gere is Brilliant in Norman

Richard Gere in Norman: ‘a light-footed shimmy of a performance.’

Richard Gere has played some interesting roles recently.  In “The Dinner” Gere played a charismatic politician who was a leading candidate for governor and who dined in places where haute cuisine came with a price tag that could finance a down payment on a Mercedes.  In his latest endeavor, Gere plays a has-been, or might-have-been, deal-maker who dines on jarred pickled herring and Ritz crackers in the balcony of his synagogue.  His character is enigmatic because we are not certain if he is really a nice charitable guy or just a shyster.  The full title of Gere’s latest offering is: “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”; and that tells the story of Norman the man and “Norman” the movie.  

In the film, Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a New York “enabler” who dogs his prey, trying to get an introduction to the movers and shakers in the high stakes financial institutions of New York.  He is thoroughly annoying and his demeanor is cloyingly intimate, allowing none of the personal space that good manners dictate.  We can’t stand him.  He is a chronic name-dropper, always suggesting an intimacy that anyone can see through as bogus.  Yet he has a nephew (Michael Sheen) of credible repute (who he is always trying to exploit) and there is something about Norman’s optimism and creativity that wins us over.  He promises everything to everybody and we are certain he can’t deliver.  

In the beginning of the movie Norman stalks an up-and-coming Israeli diplomat Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) who is window shopping at an exclusive New York City men’s store.  Norman befriends Eshel and insists on buying him a pair of shoes with an unimaginable price tag.  But the gesture pays off when three years later Eshel is the Prime Minister of Israel.  Norman convinces his nephew that he is a close friend of Eshel as the two attend a meeting of the Prime Minister and high ranking members of the New York Jewish community.  Norman is uneasy as his nephew insists they enter the reception line.  Norman’s apprehension that he will not be remembered by Eshel is palpable right up until the Prime Minister recognizes Norman and embraces him like a long lost friend.  Suddenly, Norman’s prospects are on the rise and he becomes someone in the New York Jewish community.  He sits on the board of his synagogue where he promises his rabbi, Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi), that he can deliver a multi-million dollar anonymous donation to save the synagogue from foreclosure. 

The web Norman weaves is like a Ponzi scheme with one promise depending on the delivery of yet another promise.  Soon almost no one believes that Norman can deliver and there is a brutal confrontation in the alley of his synagogue with Rabbi Blumenthal.  In the end, Norman can visualize the realization of all his promises with one single act of courage.

Many of the sequences in the film are obvious and inevitable, so we shouldn’t pride ourselves in figuring out certain events.  It is Gere’s masterful delivery of these scenes which draws us into the film and ultimately captures our attention.  Inevitably, we are less annoyed by the mannerisms and feigned grandiosity of Norman and find ourselves deeply caring for him as he moves toward the ultimate deal.

This film is a joint American/Israeli effort.  New York born Joseph Cedar (“Footnote”- 2011) directed and wrote the creative script.  Cedar is a graduate of New York University’s film school but has been a resident of Israel since the age of 5.  The casting is over the top with names and faces that will challenge your mastery of recall.  The photography is especially engaging, capturing the essential loneliness of Norman in stark scenes of Gere walking the streets of New York in all kinds of foul weather.  And there are some wonderful split screens where characters exchange conversations over a patio wall or a desk top.

The more I consider this film, the more I am convinced of the elegant simplicity of it.  It is an incredibly intimate portrait of a man who hovers in almost every scene but whom we never really feel we know.