It(9/9/2017)


If there’s any one profession whose practitioners I find some amount of sympathy for it’s that of the professional clown.  These poor sons of bitches have dedicated their lives, at great personal sacrifice, to a trade they must genuinely think brings laughter and joy to children when more often than not it does the exact opposite.  Personally I never had much distaste for clowns when I was a child but I can totally understand how in the mind of a small child it would be more than a little unsettling to have a strange man intrude on one’s birthday party and doubly unsettling to have this man wearing garish makeup and bizarre dress and perform mysterious magic tricks like pulling scarfs out of their mouths and exiting en masse from tiny little cars.  It’s a strange and rather outdated form of performance art and people have been interested in the dark side of these demonically painted jesters at least as far back as an 1849 Edgar Allen Poe story called “Hop-Frog” and has continued through such creations as the operatic “Pagliacci” and Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker.  However, the idea of the evil clown got a huge boost in the 70s and 80s by the one-two punch of the John Wayne Gacy murders and the 1986 publication of Stephen King novel “It” which is sometimes considered to be that author’s magnum opus.  In fact, the World Clown Association has recently released a press release blaming the 1990 mini-series adaptation of King’s novel for causing the fear of clowns in children and putting their trade at risk, a position that perhaps ignores the many many many other reasons kids have for finding guys frightening.  That press release was of course created in response to the release of a new theatrical adaptation of It which is set to be a major hit and which will at the very least cause a couple more cases of Coulrophobia.

I read a great number of Stephen King novels when I was in high school, but “It” was not one of them.  I’d heard it was great and I always wanted to get around to it but given that the thing is literally over a thousand pages long it just seemed a bit too daunting.  I never watched the ABC miniseries adaptation either, in part because I still hoped to read the book some day and in part because I’d heard mixed things about it.  Some people seem to think that TV version is really scary, others seem to hate it.  I’ve heard it theorized that the positive assessments are mostly the result of people having seen it when they were young and that it’s actually pretty bad outside of Tim Curry’s performance, and that explanation of its reputation makes sense.  In retrospect I was kind of glad I missed that adaptation because it meant this more ambitious screen take would be my first experience with the story, though I should note that this was not fully uncharted territory for me.  Through cultural osmosis I did know a decent amount about the original novel’s basic story and structure as well as its most iconic images like the paper boat going towards the storm drain and the sight of Pennywise’s teeth and hands.

My understanding is that the novel is set in two timelines; looking at the characters dealing with this threat as children in the late 50s and the then as adults in the then contemporary 80s, and that it intercut between the two through flashbacks and the like.  This movie adaptation ignores this structure and focuses entirely on the characters as children and that they plan to deal with the adult material in a potential sequel.  The setting has been moved to 1989, which would put a sequel right in 2016 and which has the added bonus of placing the movie squarely in the sweet spot of nostalgia for Spielbgergian adventures of children with free reign to travel extensively by bicycle without adult supervision with other projects like Super 8 and “Stranger Things” have been riding as of late.

Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine (which shows up in a lot of Stephen King books) the film follows a group of outsider kids called “The Losers Club.”  The most prominent of them is probably Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother disappears one day after being scene peering into a storm drain, one of many children who have disappeared in this town recently.  In fact the rate of disappeared people in Derry is off the charts high but the adults seem to be in denial about this.  Over time everyone in “The Losers Club” start seeing frightening visions of the things they fear the most and at the center of most of these visions is the frightening figure of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).  Soon “The Losers Club” is joined by other children who’ve had these visions like Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who is ostracized at school and is forced to contend with an abusive father, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who lives with his uncle on a farm outside of town.  Soon, through the research of a group member named Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) they learn that this evil force seems to surface in this town every twenty-seven years and the group resolves to face this monster rather than back down in fear.

I mentioned earlier that the movie is in many ways latches onto the look and feel of the Amblin movies of the 80s, but I don’t really think this is (entirely) a case of cynical nostalgia peddling.  After all, this childhood nostalgia element was clearly present in the original novel and King adaptations of the time like Stand by Me clearly contributed to the wave of movies that the “Stranger Things” of the world were aping from.  The decision to move events from the 50s to the 80s also seems logical enough and the movie doesn’t seem too shameless about throwing in tributes to the pop culture of the time and I like that they made these kids of some kind of lame relics of that era like The New Kids on the Block and Nightmare on Elm Street V rather than making them implausible fans of The Clash and The Thing (though showing one of them playing the original Street Fighter in an arcade, which wasn’t nearly as popular as its eventual sequel, is a bit odd).  More importantly I think the aim here is a little different.  Spielberg made movies about these cadres of suburban child bicyclists because his target audience could relate to them (and the adults in the audience could nostalgically relate back to them) and excitedly want to go along with them on their whimsical adventures.  Here I feel like the goal is more to make you like them enough to want nothing bad to happen to them and build suspense that way, not unlike John Carpenter envision the protagonist of Halloween as someone who could be a stand in for everyone’s sister, girlfriend, or daughter and create a sort of paternalistic protectionism between her and the audience.

Indeed one of the film’s great strengths is its ability to establish its characters in a very short period of time and make you like each of them.  Granted, there’s not a whole lot of depth to any of these people and most of the kids are identified by one simple quirk: Bill misses his brother, Ben like history and has questionable music taste, Richie talks too much, Eddie is overly pampered, Mike lives on the other side of tracks, and Stan is the most cautious.  When the movie actually does try flesh some of these characters out a little more it can feel a bit rushed and awkward like when it tries to establish that Mike’s parents were killed in a fire and then does very little with this information.  The character who’s given the most in the way of unique characteristics is Beverly, who is plainly the boldest member of the group and who (along with Mike) comes from the most adversity and has the most tumultuous home life.  Some of the supporting characters fare worse.  For all of his strengths as a writer Stephen King is kind of bad at writing human villains and often turns them into these insanely over the top creations that don’t ring true in the slightest.  You see that here both in Beverly’s abusive father and in this teenage schoolyard bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who seems extreme in his almost psychotic cruelty even for a bully in the 80s.

The other character I’m not so sure about is actually Pennywise himself, whose motivations seemed a bit unclear.  In the film’s opening sequence Pennywise seems to have taken the form of the clown as a means of luring children into his grasp.  He gives the boy at the beginning a false sense of security before lunging in for a quick kill.  Makes sense, but he completely switches up his M.O. for the rest of the film.  Every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them and seemingly putting himself in danger by giving away hints of his identity.  There’s some talk late in the movie of him feeding off their fear, which makes some sense outside of the way it clashes with his behavior in the opening scene, but I still ultimately just find the rules of this world a bit muddled and unclear.  I suspect that this is explained in more detail in the novel and may be explained more clearly in a potential sequel, but looking at the film as a self-contained work I do think this is a bit of a problem.

This iteration of It was directed by a guy named Andy Muschietti, a Guillermo del Toro protégé whose previous film credit was a 2013 horror film called Mama which I frankly didn’t really care for.  Muschietti, like Del Toro, is a guy who is perhaps a little too in love with monsters and is overly excited to show them on screen at times.  Del Toro gets away with this because most of his movies aren’t really horror movies and aren’t really trying to scare the pants off his audience, but Muschietti’s are and his over-eagerness to show his CGI ghosts ultimately made Mama a rather deflated experience.  Muschietti does fare a lot better here because he’s working with much better material and has other things to fall back on, but when this is trying to be an actual suspenseful horror movie I think it ultimately does still have that same weakness.  At times the film shows its hand with Pennywise a little too quickly and never quite lets the mystery of this entity play out as long as it could.  The opening scene is a good example of this: a weird freaky clown in a sewer turning a kid into a puddle of blood should have been enough, we didn’t necessarily need to see Pennywise’s semi-convincing CGI teeth as he bit into said kid’s arm that early in the film.  In fact questionable CGI is kind of a problem throughout the film; there are some effect in it that work really well but there are other shots that are pretty weak and kind of undercut the suspense a bit.  An approach more akin to Jaws where the big shots of the shark were saved until later would have been helpful.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimately great scenes and images to be found in the movie because there certainly are, possibly even too many of them.  When this movie is on it really cooks, but I ultimately think it works better as an adventure movie than as a pure horror film, and as an adventure film it seems kind of incomplete.  The movie ends with a title card that all but says “to be continued” and there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel and there are other things like that which I’m not quite sure what to make of until I see how all this plays out.  In many ways it feels like a movie I feel like withholding judgement on until that second part comes out.  That could be an issue because that sequel is not going to be easy to pull off.  A lot of the appeal of this first movie comes from the charming cast of child actors and from its period setting and the sequel will have to eschew both.  If the second part is able to stick the landing I think it will make the original that much more meaningful as a setup and if it shits the bed I think that could tarnish the first film’s legacy completely.  That’s the long term assessment, in the short term I don’t want to come off like I’m damning this thing with faint praise, if I’m critical of it it’s only because of how much potential it has.  This is plainly has a lot more to offer than most major studio horror movies and anyone whose been intrigued by the trailers should give it a shot.

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Good Time(8/26/2017)

I feel like we need to stop being surprised when actors from disreputable YA adaptations suddenly turn out to be decent actors when given legitimate material to work with.  I can’t tell you how many people seemed to be downright gobsmacked when Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight franchise, managed to win a César Award the second she started working with a respectable director like Olivier Assayas.  Maybe if I’d actually seen one of those Twilight movies I’d be similarly impressed with how much she had to climb to get to respectability, but really it just seems unfair to judge someone’s whole acting career when they can’t spin gold from material like that.  Her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson has had similar difficulty getting respect has he’s moved on from that franchise.  In many ways he’s in the same position that Leonardo Di Caprio and Ryan Gosling were in recently: forced to prove that he’s a real actor and not just a pretty boy who’s famous because teenage girls swooned at him.  In my eyes he’s had a bit of a tough time doing this, in part because some of his first attempts at respectability came from his work in a pair of David Cronenberg movies that didn’t really work and were so weird in tone that they didn’t give Pattinson a lot of room to humanize himself.  Outside of that his most prominent roles have been in David Michôd’s The Rover and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, which both showed some growth but which weren’t quite fully convincing star turns. Of course those were ultimately supporting performances and he has a much bigger showcase in his latest high profile indie Good Time from a pair of upstart directors named Ben and Josh Safdie.

In Good Time Pattinson plays Constantine Nikas, a petty New York criminal who early in the film tries to rob a bank alongside his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but the two are captured in the process.  Constantine makes bail but Nick doesn’t and Constantine soon finds he isn’t able to obtain the funds to get Nick out from his upper middle class girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he planned.  When he learns that Nick has been beat up in jail and transferred to a hospital Constantine comes up with a scheme to break his brother out of his hospital room, and much of the rest of the film looks at how the aftermath of this plot plays out over the course of a single crazy night in New York.

Good Time is a bit reminiscent of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in that it’s a crime narrative that follows a criminal who’s kind of bad at his job but not so bad that he fails right away.  Unlike that movie, the protagonist isn’t a guy who’s been pushed to the edge by actual wrongs against him but is in fact a total bag of dicks with very little in the way of redeeming qualities.  I’m trying to put my finger on what it is about this guy that I despise so much but I was really disgusted by him.  It’s not that his actions are all that horrible, at least by the standards of movie gangsters.  He doesn’t kill or (successfully) rape anyone over the course of the movie and he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to hurt anyone.  I think what gets my goat about him is the total indifference he shows towards everyone else around him with the possible exception of his brother.  He’s like a sociopath who doesn’t feel compelled to kill necessarily but who will take hurt, cheat, or swindle anyone who gets in his way and gets downright offended whenever they resist.  He doesn’t really seem to be a “product of his surroundings” and doesn’t really have some twisted noble end he’s working towards, and the real kicker is that you can tell his plans are probably doomed and that he’s probably not even going to get much out of these schemes himself, it all just seems futile.

The film was directed by a pair of upcoming sibling directors named the Safdie brothers, whose previous project was a film called Heaven Knows What, which looked at the rather hellish life of a drug addict.  I didn’t really think the Safdie’s penitent for stylization really worked well for that movie and I especially thought that film’s Tangerine Dream style synch score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink seemed especially out of place.  That directorial style and the not dissimilar score by Oneohtrix Point Never make a bit more sense here given that the film has more genre elements than Heaven Knows What did and I do think they’ve improved a bit between movies and benefit from the film’s increased budget.  In fact I worry that they may have swung too far in the other direction.  This is a movie that walks and talks like a hard edged gritty movie with a lot to say about modern crime, but I’m not really sure that it has much of anything to say.  At times it will hint towards some kind of societal failure in the lives of these people but these things never really connect and the movie ultimately feels kind of pointless both as a statement and as a story.  After a night long romp the characters end up in the same place as they began and not in a way that’s particularly profound either.  Frankly I think the Safdie’s would do well for themselves if they’d just sell out and make something for Hollywood because making these hard edged indies doesn’t really suit them.  Still, I don’t want to come down too hard on this, it is a crime yarn that’s ultimately fun to watch and there are some well rendered scenes.

Atomic Blonde(8/20/2017)

The summer of 2017 sure seemed like a great one for Hollywood. Marvel kept doing its thing, DC actually seemed to get things back on track a little, franchises that had delivered before kept delivering. Granted, there was some crap like Transformers 5 and The Mummy out there, but no one really expected much from those and the movies people actually had high hopes for really did deliver. In fact, by the time Dunkirk came out Hollywood had managed to go four straight weeks putting out really high quality big budget films like Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and War for the Planet of the Apes. Fun as it all was, it sure seemed to come to an abrupt and early end. In fact, August has been downright dismal. We’ve mostly been treated to disappointing bombs like The Dark Tower and unambitious nonsense like Annabelle: Creation. Clearly someone in Hollywood got their papers mixed up as they clearly should have spread out their solid July movies a bit more evenly across the summer. It’s in this vacuum of options that, late in August, I decided to go back and give a shot to a film that had been out for a couple of weeks already called Atomic Blonde which hadn’t seemed overly interesting in the film’s advertising but which had its clear defenders who had mentioned a couple of cool action scenes that I felt like I needed to give a look.

The film is set in 1989 right around the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the film opens a British agent named James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB agent named Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) who then steals a microfilm he was carrying which contained a list of all the active field agents in the USSR. The film then cuts to ten days later, after the main events of the film, to a framing story where our protagonist Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed on her mission to retrieve this list by an MI6 leader named Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent named Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman). From here she tells a story about her interactions with Britain’s head agent in East Berlin named David Percival (James McAvoy), a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi defector known only as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan).

The first thing that strikes me about Atomic Blonde is that it isn’t as action driven as its advertising, credit font, and silly title would have you believe. At its heart is a fairly gritty espionage story that takes the cold war pretty seriously and seems to be heavily inspired by the writing of authors like John le Carré. The film is also really confusing. It’s the kind of twisty spy story where people are constantly double and triple crossing each other and you’re never really sure who’s on what side and quickly lose track of what the McGuffin is and why you care about it. I’d be lying if I said I kept it all straight on one viewing, and I do think some of that confusion is on the movie. Director David Leitch (one of the duo of directors who made the first John Wick film) seems a bit out of his element here and doesn’t really tell this complex story with the same skill and clarity of someone like Brian De Palma making the first Mission: Impossible movie. What’s more, I think there are elements in this script that genuinely don’t make a lot of sense. For example, as far as I can tell this list everyone is chasing around is an MI:6 list that had fallen into KGB hands and needed to be retrieved lest the KGB use it to murder all of Britain’s undercover assets. So why the hell does Broughton end up spending a great deal of effort trying to move an asset who’s memorized this list out of East Berlin? Would it not be in her interest if this guy died? Wouldn’t that be a much more effective way of ensuring the Russians never get the list that’s confined to this guy’s memory?

Whether or not it makes sense for Broughton to be smuggling this guy out of East Germany (a country that will cease to exist a week later, making this mission seem… premature) there’s no denying that it provides us with a great action scene. The film is clearly at its best when it drops any pretense of being a serious cold war thriller and just lets Charlize Theron kick some asses. I’m not usually one to prefer mindless violence over storytelling ambition but its plainly obvious that David Leitch is more in his element when our heroine starts fighting fools than when she’s tracking down sources and determining the loyalties of the people she encounters and I don’t think he has quite the touch to make this the stylish 80s movie he seems to want it to be either. At the end of the day this is a movie that’s undone by the fact that its style and genre ambitions are at odds with its screenplay. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be and that’s something that escapist action films desperately need to pin down. That said there are things to enjoy here. That aforementioned fight scene is awesome and so is a car chase that follows shortly thereafter. For some that dessert will be worth the at best middling main course.

Disneyology 101: The Rebuilding Phase

It’s reasonable to believe the people at Disney were in something of a state of denial during the early 2000s.  They knew that the formula that worked so well for them in the early 90s was losing its appeal and that they’d have to find a new way of making movies but I don’t think they realized immediately just how much trouble they were in.  Over the course of the last phase I looked at you could see Disney trying to find new ways to thrive through slight adjustments before realizing that they were in such a deep hole that they’d essentially have to burn everything down and start over, this time as a CGI animation studio.  In this Eighth and final installment of Disneyology we’ll look at an era that was almost certainly Disney’s lowest point, lower even than the so called “Disney Dark Age” that would eventually bring on the “Disney Renaissance.”  In this era Disney would exhaust the last of its traditionally animated films before making some unsure baby steps into the world of CGI animation and slowly start to make more respectable films in that format while also taking one last look at what came before.

Brother Bear (2003)

When Treasure Planet failed spectacularly the writing was on the wall: Disney’s animation division needed to change and once again Roy Disney emerged to and started another “save Disney” campaign.  That is a long story that would eventually result in the ousting of Michael Eisner from his position as CEO of Disney, but what’s most relevant is that it made it clear to all involved that the animated film division was not going to be able to keep doing traditionally animated movies for much longer.  Of course major conglomerates don’t change overnight, especially not when they were working at a pace fast enough to put out multiple movies a year previously, so there were a couple of traditionally animated movies that were deep enough in production that they would still be finished and put out while the company charted out its new course.  One of those movies was their 2003 release Brother Bear, which was first conceived after the success of The Lion King and was meant to be a sort of North American version of that blockbuster.  Eventually it was retooled into a story not dissimilar from The Emperor’s New Groove where someone is turned into an animal in order to learn… something.  This one is less comedic than that movie and is meant to be more of an earnest look at a handful of Inuit characters and their connection to the spirits and nature or whatever.

Certain elements of Brother Bear work pretty well.  The animators clearly did their homework and put together some decent landscapes and made some animals that look pretty good.  They also employed a trick where they had the film play out in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first half hour or so and then expand out to a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio once our hero turns into a bear and the film also takes on a brighter more storybook like color scheme when this happens.  That’s an idea that displays some visual creativity, but I’m not sure this was the greatest idea given that the first half isn’t exactly a claustrophobic experience and replicating this on a TV, even in the era of big widescreen televisions is kind of tough.  There’s some of the usual annoying comic relief here including a bizarre reunion of the Strange Brew guys to voice a pair of moose who talk with stereotypical Canadian accents and a little bear cub voiced by one of the kids from The Bernie Mac show who I’m pretty sure is supposed to be annoying in a funny kind of way but who is mostly just annoying.  The film has also musically resorted back to getting Phil Collins songs in order to recapture the “magic” of Tarzan but it works even less here and the decision just kind of screams of laziness.

Where the movie starts to lose me is probably in its wishy washy message in which the main character is judged for having gone after the bear that sort of caused the death of his father and by becoming a bear himself he sees the animals’ side of what hunting feels like.  This sort of works if you take it as a very general fable about the ways that people misunderstand each other and the problems with acting out of anger and out of the desire for revenge, but taken at face value it’s kind of silly.  This is a post-ice age Inuit community, in that society sometimes you’re going to have to kill some bears and sitting back and thinking about how the bear would feel about in some fantasy environment where bears have human-like intelligence and personality is childish silliness.   In general though, this movie isn’t really half bad.  I get why it had a hard time competing with the likes of Finding Nemo that year but if it had come out in a time when Disney was better positioned to market it and people were more interested in movies like this it might be better remembered.  As it was the thing just kind of came and went.  I don’t think it lost any money and given that Disney seemed about ready to just write the thing off as a loss they probably thought they gotten away with something.

Home on the Range (2004)

I remember back in 2004 looking at an article on the internet which was laying out all the potential nominees for the then still new Best Animated Feature Category.  It listed each movie like The Incredibles and Shrek 2 and included a blurb outline the pros and cons of each film earning a nomination and then way down at the bottom of the list was an entry for the movie Home on the Range with a caption that simply read something like “Disney needs to rethink its animation division.”  That’s how much of a non-entity this thing was in 2004, it barely even registered and when it did it was little more than an emblem of Disney’s irrelevance.    Today it has, bar none, the worst reputation of any movie that Disney ever made and in some ways it almost feels like an act of self-sabotage; an attempt to force their 2D animation division to hit rock bottom just so no one would miss it when it was gone.  I’d like to think that, it certainly fits the narrative, but there’s one bit of evidence that suggests that isn’t the case: this damn thing cost $100 million dollars to make.  That’s over twice the cost of Brother Bear and even a little more than the cost of The Incredibles.  I don’t know how this can possibly be true, it may have been partially due to a reworking not dissimilar to what happened to The Emperor’s New Groove, but still, there’s no way a major corporation sinks that kind of cash into a movie unless they do believe in it on some level.

Going into the movie I had nearly subterranean expectations and that probably did effect the experience a little because as I was watching it I came to realize that the movie wasn’t really “bad” so much as it was wildly misbegotten.  It’s really unambitious, it doesn’t feel like Disney at all really, and it also doesn’t feel like a big budget movie made in the 21st Century, but it isn’t necessarily a failure at what it set out to do.  The film is trying to be a send-off of westerns but told from the perspective of the animals, specifically a trio of cows voiced by Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Tilly… because the only thing modern kids like more than westerns is Rosanne.  The plot is this insane thing where cows, actual quadrupedal cows, try to hunt down an infamous bandit to collect a bounty that will save their homestead.  Again, this is a movie about motherfucking cows saving the day.  The film’s animation is also… I don’t want to say dated because in part I think it was intentionally retro, but it certainly didn’t have that Disney look that people are looking for from this studio.  In fact, if you had told me that this was a Disney Channel special from 1995 rather than a theatrical release I probably would have believed it give or take a few celebrity voice actors and a CG show or two.  But still, there are aspects of the movie that are a little… cute, I guess.  It’s not a movie that overwhelms you with badness, it’s just a thing that should not be coming from who it’s coming from and when it came from.  I’m sure if you showed it to a very small child they’ll enjoy it but I also don’t really know why anyone who’s not doing a Disney retrospective will have watched the damn thing in the last ten years.

Chicken Little (2005)

By 2005 Disney Animation was clearly in deep shit.  They’d made three straight movies which were more or less considered embarrassments and hadn’t made a single movie that really captured the public’s interest in any kind of big ways in the 21st Century.  So finally they decided their only recourse was to ditch traditional animation and begin trying to compete with the Pixars and Dreamworkses in the CGI arena and began assembling a team dedicated to that format.  I’m pretty sure they knew that there would be some awkward growing pains along the way and that they didn’t want to waste their best ideas and concepts on this novice team so their first few forays into the medium were a bit… odd.  It would, however, be a mistake to assume that Disney was ready and willing to just take a loss on the project.  On the contrary there was actually a lot of pressure on the movie to perform at the box office because, at this point, Disney was in the middle of some rather heated negotiations with Pixar.  Pixar’s distribution deal with Disney was about to run out in 2006 and it was an open question as to what the future of that relationship would be.  Both Disney and Pixar wanted the two to merge but they would have to settle on terms and the success or failure of Disney’s first CGI movie would say a lot about how much they needed Pixar and give one side or the other leverage.

The first thing that jumps out about Chicken Little is how awful its animation is.  Now granted, it can be a little tough in 2017 to gauge the extent to which the awfulness of this CGI is just a fuction of the era it comes from, but comparing this to the trailer for The Incredibles (a movie which reportedly cost $50 million less to make) the difference is stark.  The character designs here are all really ugly and the world of the movie doesn’t cohere very well at all.  Obviously this is a modernized take on the Chicken Little story but it also seems to completely misunderstand that fable as well.  In the film Chicken Little gets in trouble because he thinks the sky is falling and no one believes him.  Then it turns out that, while the sky isn’t actually falling, reflective pieces of alien spaceships are falling and no one is believing his warnings because his initial claims seemed to be false.  That is the opposite of what happens in the original story, the whole point of the Chicken Little story is supposed to be that the title character’s warnings are ridiculous and they lead the fools who follow him to ruin: the moral is supposed to be that not everything you hear is true and that you need to exert some critical thinking lest you get caught up in a panicking mob.  This initially seemed like it was replacing that with a “boy who cried wolf” scenario, but that doesn’t really fit either given that Chicken Little turned out to be right from the very beginning.

Instead the moral of this movie is some bullshit about the kid reuniting with his father, who has not been terribly supportive.  I can’t say I cared all that much and the movie uses some of the most contrived silliness in order to force these people to deal with one another.  The movie is constantly begging Chicken Little to talk to this shitty father to solve these problems but never seems to accept the possibility that he could maybe go to some other adult authority figure with his problems or maybe have one of his friends go to one of their parents.  One could say this is just a movie for kids, but what kind of message does this thing send to that audience?  That if they make one mistake the whole world including their parents will be incredibly cruel to them for the rest of their lives and that the only way out of this hell is to redeem yourself in a major way?  That would just create some neurotic kids.  Oh and did I mention that the comedy in this is truly awful?  Basically nothing in this movie works.  It might not have the awful reputation of Home on the Range simply because no one remembers it but it’s noticeably worse.  In fact it’s the worst thing Disney has ever made and by a wide margin.  But here’s the real kicker: despite this being a truly inept and horrid movie it still made bank.  In fact it gave Disney its best opening weekend since The Lion King before making over a hundred million and becoming the fourteenth highest grossing movie of its year.  I don’t know how to explain that except that sometimes family movies can make a lot more than they deserve simply by virtue of opening on the right date sometimes, especially in 2005, a year that didn’t have  a Pixar movie but did see a whole lot of garbage like Robots and Hoodwinked make respectable box office.

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Disney Animation Studios didn’t release a single movie in 2006, making it the first year since 1993 to be entirely without a Disney movie but things were hardly uneventful for them.  In 2005 Michael Eisner stepped down from his position and named Bob Iger as his successor and finished negotiations with Steve Jobs to acquire Pixar.  As part of this merger John Lasseter was named as Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Disney Animation and with Disney Animation being the squeaky wheel he immediately set out to fix it and bring it back to its former glory.  While all this was going on Disney did have a film in production while Lasseter wasn’t there for its inception he did have some input on it apparently and gave notes to a rough cut of the movie which resulted in 60% of the movie being scrapped and re-tooled.   That movie is called Meet the Robinsons and it is decidedly not Disney’s most famous movie.  Seriously thing just came and went real fast and hardly generated any kind of buzz.  I sort of remember there being some talk about the fact that it was released in impressiveish 3D (despite Avatar getting a lot of the credit for the 3D craze Hollywood was definitely working towards 3D before) but that was about it, prior to this viewing I didn’t even know what the movie was about outside of its blurb on the Netflix mailer I got and its characters and imagery are hardly iconic.

For all its flaws, Meet the Robinsons is definitely a huge leap forward from Chicken Little.  The animation here is competent, it’s not mind blowingly great or anything but it does seem to be up to the same standards as their competitors and it has a better grasp of basic film grammar that that earlier effort lacked.  I still think there are design elements here that don’t really work.  They seem to have taken a lot of visual inspiration from old television cartoons like “The Jetsons” and especially “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” specifically the “Peabody and Sherman” shorts from the later and the film’s villain bears a bit of a resemblance to Snidely Whiplash.  I didn’t particularly care for the look of the main character and the actual “Robinsons” also just seem like a strange assortment of weirdness without much of a rhyme or reason.  Still, it’s mostly progress on the visual front.  Narratively, not so much.  The movie’s key flaw is that its protagonist is really annoying.  This kid is completely out of control and just does the stupidest things to make things harder for all involved and a lot of the movie’s time travel logic does not hold up to scrutiny.

The movie’s other big problem is its preachiness.  The message here is that you shouldn’t be discouraged by failure and should instead keep trying until you succeed at what you want to do.  I know this is the film’s message because characters say exactly that out loud early in the film and repeat it often.  The movie is not very subtle about this message and isn’t really confident enough to just let its story impart the message on its own and feels the need to really lay it out.  That said, there could be a bit of a meta level to all this; a suggestion that Disney has failed a lot recently but that it’s going to pay off eventually.  In fact I know this interpretation was intended because the movie straight up puts a title card at the end which more or less confirms this.  Again, not a subtle movie.  I don’t really think this movie is good enough to be the rebirth of Disney but it is a clear improvement, in fact it feels like this should have been Disney’s first CGI movie instead of the abomination that was Chicken Little (a movie that truly shouldn’t exist).  Here’s the real kicker though: as much as this feels like a comeback of sorts for Disney it actually made less money than Chicken Little, which may be a function of how much that awful movie hurt their brand or may just be a quirk or when it was released and how it was marketed (that title probably didn’t help).  John Lasseter still had a lot of work to do.

Bolt (2008)

They say that reputations are hard won but easily lost and by 2008 Disney was getting a hard lesson in this. In the time that they were floundering Pixar had unquestionably taken their crown as the king of feature length animation while Dreamworks and arguably a couple of other studios had also lapped them. They had been making some steps to get themselves back in the game but these had widely gone ignored by the film community, who were consumed with love for Pixar, who were at the peak of their talents in the late 2000s. I certainly remember Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons being almost entirely ignored by everyone except for parents of small children, but by the time their 2008 film Bolt came out I did at least hear some rumblings that Disney were making something of a comeback. These rumblings were faint and were almost entirely overshadowed by the overwhelming critical support for Pixar’s Wall-E, but they were there. Much of this credit was applied to John Lasseter, who had just come on board after the merger and who had more extensive influence over this than he did with Meet the Robinsons. This apparent respectability certainly came as a bit of a surprise to any outside observers who wasn’t familiar with the personnel changes at Disney.

The thing certainly looked pretty lame from its concept and advertising as it looked like it was about some kind of dog superhero or something. As it turns out the movie is actually about a dog (voiced by John Travolta) that merely thinks he’s a superhero because he stars on a stange looking TV show along with his child actress owner (voiced by Miley Cyrus back when she was still a Disney employee and not someone who made a point of swinging naked on wrecking balls) and goes on a cross country adventure with a gangster cat and a wacky hamster to return to her. This is probably where the John Lasseter influence becomes a little more clear as this plot bears more than a striking resemblance to Lasseter’s breakthrough film Toy Story what with the plot revolving around an underclass of people who exist to please human children, one of whom isn’t in on this and thinks he’s an action hero like Buzz Lightyear did. There are enough difference here to keep the movie from looking like a total rip-off, but the similarities are noticeable. The plot is also a little formulaic in general, and anyone over six is probably going to be able to guess pretty early on how this is going to play out and what lessons are going to be learned by the end, but moment to moment it does play out with confidence and avoids some of those cringey moments as much as it can.

The animation in the film is quite good, a clear step up from Meet the Robinsons and a giant leap over Chicken Little. The movie is almost a decade old now and does show its age a little and it doesn’t have quite the “wow” factor of something like Wall-E but in general it’s definitely up to the standards of the competition of the time. What the movie didn’t have so much was much of a real Disney Animation feel, though one wonders what exactly that even meant in 2008. Back in the day a movie like Lady and the Tramp or The Jungle Book could be said to have a “Disney feel” because of their animation style (and the fact that they were the only ones in the game making animated features on this scale), but that style doesn’t really carry over to the CGI era and as such they kind of just felt like one more studio making movies about talking CGI animals. Without Princesses and the like there really wasn’t a lot there to make movies like this jump out and scream “Disney’s back bitches!” and get people excited again and start looking at these movies as events.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

By 2008 Disney was pretty much back in action, they’d brought in new management vis-à-vis the acquisition of Pixar and they’d built up a CGI animation department that could compete with the big boys. For all intents and purposes they were once again a modern and formidable animation studio but there’s one thing they still hadn’t gotten back: class. Meet The Robinsons and Bolt didn’t feel like Disney movies, they just felt like movies that were competing with the pack. To really officially be worthy of that “when you wish upon a star” fanfare over the Disney logo they’d need to recapture that “magic” and prove that they could once again adapt fairy tales and create a new “princess.” They did have a CGI version of this in the works, but before they could pull the trigger on that they’d have to experiment and the way they decided to do that was by going old-school and make another 2D hand drawn animated movie that would try to do everything it possibly could to replicate that Disney Renaissance feel and see if 2D really died because audiences weren’t interested anymore or if those movies from the early 2000s actually would have succeeded if they had someone like John Lasseter guiding them. The movie they decided to do this with was an adaptation of “The Frog Prince” relocated to 1920s New Orleans and with Disney’s first African-American Princess.

The Princess and the Frog is partially a “princess/fairy tale” movie but also something of a talking animal movie as much of the plot has our heroine and her prince transformed into frogs and trying to escape the bayou alongside a Cajun firefly and an alligator who resembles Louis Armstrong (in case you haven’t guessed, the movie is unapologetic in featuring a litany of Nola stereotypes which checks off everything from voodoo to Mardi Gras). On a basic storytelling level it isn’t exactly the most original movie that Disney ever made, but it isn’t really trying to be. Instead it’s like the animation equivalent of something like The Artist or The Good German which intentionally tries to reverse-engineer an earlier filmmaking style right down to the formulaic plot, but the difference is that this isn’t trying to replicate something from decades past but something that was relatively recent though perhaps not so recent to the film’s target market. The movie is not half bad in its ability to check off some of the hallmarks of Disney old. That aforementioned jazz-man/alligator is not nearly as annoying as he could have been and the movie’s cackling villain, a voodoo man called Dr. Facilier, is a lot of fun in no small part because some genius decided to cast Keith David as his voice actor. The movie is also the first true “bursting into song” musical since Mulan, and while Alan Menken was busy working on their next movie Tangled they brought in frequent Pixar composer Randy Newman to do the music here, which makes sense given his knowledge of American roots music and of composing for family movies. I don’t know that any of the songs here are stone cold classics but they work well and the movie finds some creative ways to present them.

If there’s anything wrong with The Princess and the Frog it’s that it feels a bit calculated and inorganic, which can be said about a lot of Disney and Pixar films but especially this one given how hard it’s trying to be a very particular kind of Disney movie of yore. The film also feels a bit sanitized. This is, after all, a movie about an African American woman living in the 1920s and yet there isn’t even the slightest hint of racism in the air and everyone seems to be living in perfect harmony. Granted, New Orleans has a slightly more complex relation to the rest of the South when it comes to racial mixing but the portrait the movie paints is inauthentic. I suppose I can see why the movie wouldn’t want to force the realities of segregation on children but they maybe could have solved this by cutting the white characters out altogether rather than making them in to happy people devoid of prejudice. That’s not a huge problem though, and for the most part the film is actually quite successful at recapturing what made some of those earlier movies work while adding some unique touches of their own and made a movie that fits pretty well into their overall cannon.

So why didn’t they follow this up with more new 2D animated movies? Well, it’s not that the movie bombed exactly, it made $250 million on a $100 million budget which wasn’t too far off from the profit margins of movies like Bolt, but it didn’t really generate the attention and buzz that would have dissuaded the corporate suits who were probably skeptical about John Lasseter’s little experiment in the first place. Of course the movie had certain disadvantages holding it back, for one thing it’s been speculated that having “princess” in the title scared away a lot of the boy market, which is the reason their next princess movies would be called Tangledand Frozen rather than “Rapunzel” and “The Ice Princess” respectively. The bigger problem though was probably that the damn thing came out five days before the release of James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster Avatar which proceeded to dominate the market and the conversation. Critics weren’t much help either. Most gave it respectful notes but it was largely viewed as a curio rather than the triumphant comeback Disney might have hoped for. 2009 was the year of UpCoralineThe Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Where the Wild Things Are, which were all very critic friendly family movies and in that environment something like The Princess and the Frog didn’t feel like the refreshing breath of fresh air worth championing that it might have in other years. In general I think the movie might just have ironically been just a bit ahead of its time; the peak of 90s nostalgia and by extension Disney Renaissance nostalgia was still a couple of years away. That’s too bad because I do think Disney 2D animation is a tradition worth keeping alive and that they might have given up on a little too easily. That said, Lasseter did manage to use his clout to make it so Home on the Range would no longer be Disney’s final traditionally animated film, and that alone probably makes the whole endeavor worth it.

To the Present

And that brings us up to the present and to the Disney movies that I’ve already seen and analyzed either in my usual film criticism routines or in previous family movie retrospectives. However, given that Disneyology is as much a history of the Disney company as it is a look at the movies themselves I do think I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on what Disney has done since the 2010s began. Times have been good for Disney and they’re in the middle of what they’ve been calling the “Disney Revival” but which might perhaps be better dubbed the “Disney Enlightenment” given both that the historical Enlightenment came after the Renaissance and that general “wokeness” is something of a running theme in what they’ve been doing lately. Disney’s recent output can be divided into two camps: movies that continue their tradition of adapting fairy tales and more experimental movies that are trying to compete with the wider world of animated movies and which generally tend to target the interests of the young boy demographic.

In the latter camp they started with a movie called Wreck-It-Ralph (2012) which was meant to be about the inner working of a universe of videogames. That movie fell well into “nice try” territory and had some cute moments, but was neither a particularly authentic look at the world of video games (it’s slander of Zangief will not be forgotten) not a terribly original adventure unto itself and the moral at its center was rather muddled. Their next attempt at a standalone title looked at another interest of modern little boys: Superheroes. That movie, Big Hero 6 (2014), took an obscure title from the now Disney owned Marvel catalog and turned it into a big CGI extravaganza. It was a fun movie and it looked really good, but it had some weak side characters and ultimately didn’t prove to be the most memorable of movies once you got some distance from it. The most recent movie down this lineage was Zootopia (2016), which was less obviously pandering towards little boys than the aforementioned movies but it is ultimately telling a cop story. That was possibly the movie overtly political movie that Disney has ever made and more or less exists to provide an imperfect but age appropriate allegory to teach kids modern ideas about how intolerance works and how diverse people can co-exist.

Of course where Disney really makes their money is off the princesses and they’ve certainly served that crowed in abundance as of late. They first brought the princess thing into the third dimension with Tangled (2010), which adapted the Rapunzel story into almost an action story. It had the usual combo of scheming villains, musical sequences, and the like but it leaned into some rather lame comedy a bit too much and ultimately just didn’t prove to really be much of a meaningful twist on the genre otherwise. In retrospect that movie proved to be something of a warm-up (no pun intended) for what is by far their most popular movie since their Renaissance heyday: Frozen (2013). That is in many ways a movie that probably doesn’t need an introduction but in its adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ice Princess” it added some interesting twists like having two bickering sibling princesses instead of one and is particularly notable for having some particularly strong music. I thought that Frozen was only about half of the step forward it portrayed itself as and that its first half was a lot stronger than its second half, but it nonetheless was a clear win for them and left little remaining doubt that Disney was back to being the dominant animation studio, especially given that Pixar was having kind of a rough time at this point. Disney’s most recent princess was brought to us in the film Moana (2016), which followed the usual formula pretty closely but did it with gusto and differentiated itself by being set in the world of Polynesian folklore and followed its predecessor’s lead and upped its musical credentials.

So, Disney Animation seems to be in quite a place of strength right now, but if the history I’ve gone through for the last two years has taught me anything it’s that “happily ever after” has always proved to be something of an illusion for this studio and that no matter how strong they get the pendulum always swings the other way eventually. I don’t know when that will happen for this current incarnation of Disney Animation but they need only look towards their sister studio Pixar’s recent slide into relative mediocrity to see how things can go wrong. Pixar in many ways actually seems to be something of a victim of Disney’s success, it rested on its laurels while Disney was the squeaky wheel getting all the grease and they suffered because of it. Apparently there’s only so much John Lasseter to go around. What’s more, there are some disconcerting signs on the horizon. The studio’s next two films are both sequels: Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-it-Ralph 2 and Frozen 2. These will be the first theatrical sequels that Disney will have made since The Rescuers Down Under which was until now their only attempt at doing one. It’s really kind of extraordinary that this bastion of cinematic capitalism has avoided Hollywood’s obsession with sequels as long as it did, but it’s happening, and as such they won’t have another original film until their Jack and the Beanstalk adaptation Giganticcomes out. Lasseter has proven that he’s capable of guiding respectable sequels over the years, but if they’re not careful they’re going to end up making the same mistake that Pixar did.

In Conclusion

So I’ve now more or less seen every single fully animated Disney movie since the studio’s inception in 1937. Was it worth it? Well, I’d say my thoughts are largely mixed. I saw some good movies, I saw some bad movies, I saw some ugly movies. I saw a studio go from hand drawn animation to xerography, to various forms of computer animation, to mounting fully CGI productions. I’ve seen them rise and fall, rise again, fall again, and rise yet again. In many ways I think the overall narrative of the studio’s history kind of took over the whole column in a way that I didn’t expect it to and this overshadowed a lot of the actual movies, but that may simply be a reflection of what ended up interesting me the most about the movies. I certainly appreciated their older movies simply for their animation quality, but I’ve got to say, looking back at how simple some of the narratives have historically been in these Disney movies may have had the net effect of giving me a much greater appreciation for how much Pixar did to raise the bar on storytelling in animation. I can pine for the golden age of hand drawn animation all I want but if I’m given a binary choice I’m kind of glad they don’t make them like they used to.

Beyond that the various “eras” of Disney largely played out the way most people said they did. There were certainly individual movies that I break with consensus on (like Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians) but for the most part the movies that are considered “classics” have stood the test of time for a reason. Disney really was at its best during the “golden age” and during the “Renaissance” and is on a bit of a roll right now, and when they were bad it was usually pretty apparent. I’d be lying if I said doing the last couple of eras wasn’t a bit of a chore. It’s not so much that the movies they made between 2000 and 2009 were awful movies per se, in fact I liked some of them more than most, it’s just that they put out a lot of uninspired movies that no one cares about and which I didn’t have much to say about. On the upside I feel like there are going to be a lot of pop culture references that will make more sense to me and I’ll be a lot more prepared to look at the studio going forward, especially as they make pointless live action remakes of all these movies. Could all this time have been better used? Probably, but I made my choice and I’m glad I saw it through.

Wind River(8/12/2017)

Auteur Theory demands that the director be viewed as the main author of a movie, and that usually works, but sometimes a wrench gets thrown in the gears.  This mainly happens in situations where someone else on the crew is clearly calling most of the shots like in the two Star Wars sequels that George Lucas didn’t direct but still obviously had complete creative control over.  Complications also arise in cases where movies are written and directed by different people and writers have such a clear sense of vision within a body of work as to be auteurs unto themselves.  This often isn’t so clear as most Hollywood screenwriters who aren’t also directors tend to work somewhat infrequently; their scripts get sold, they circulate and get re-sold, they sit on the blacklist, they land in development hell, and it could be many years between different produced screenplays.  Sometimes though, screenplays will be produced in quick succession and it starts to be clear just how much influence the writer has over storytelling.  Take the case of Taylor Sheridan, who has had a writing credit on two successful films in a row: the 2015 Denis Villeneuve film Sicario and the 2016 David Mackenzie film Hell or High Water.  There were some pretty clear connections between these films, some for the better some not, despite having different directors.  To illuminate things even further Sheridan has opted to direct his latest screenplay himself, another crime thriller in a desolate area called Wind River.

The title Wind River refers to the Wind River Indian Reservation located in rural Wyoming and the film focuses in on a Fish and Wildlife Service agent named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) who has lived near this reservation most of his life and has earned a solid reputation with the Shoshone and Arapaho people who live there.  One day while tracking some wolves that attacked some livestock he runs across the body of a dead Native American woman named Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille Chow) who appears to have frozen to death after running a long distance barefoot in the snow while trying to escape someone or something.  Upon realizing that she was sexually assaulted before her death the FBI is called and an agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is flown up from Las Vegas to assess the situation and see if a larger FBI team needs to follow.  It’s determined early on that because this woman’s cause of death was officially going to be exposure rather than homicide on paper the crime likely won’t fall under FBI jurisdiction, so they’re going to have to solve the case rather quickly before Banner is going to have to leave and the over-worked and underfunded tribal police are going to be stuck solving the crime themselves.

The similarities between Wind River and Hell or High Water are pretty clear, or at least you can see why they’d come from the same mind.  Both are crime stories set in impoverished “middle America” type rural places that are populated by hard men with lots of guns.  The earlier film was more of a heist type thing which looked at both the criminals and the people hunting them down while this take more the form of a airport novel kind of murder investigation.  The film’s interest in location is a little different this time around, partly because Taylor Sheridan seems to make himself a bit more at home in this location than David Mackenzie was when he made Hell or High Water.  That film was made by a British director who came to Texas with a foreigner’s eyes and gazed almost fetishisticly at a lot of the surroundings, which is a valid approach but one that is sometimes a distractions.  This film doesn’t do that as much, though I probably can’t easily explain where the difference lies, but it’s noticeable.  Another difference is that unlike Hell or High Water, which was populated almost entirely by Texans this film opts to add in an outsider character in Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent who can act as an audience surrogate and have local customs explained to.  Occasionally her fish-out-of-water shtick goes a little too far and she says things that seem a bit too ignorant for a trained FBI agent to be saying, but for the most part her role in the movie works.

While he may not be as experienced of a director as Denis Villeneuve or David Mackenzie, Taylor Sheridan does prove to be plenty skilled behind the camera and manages to film both the landscapes and the “action” scenes very well.  If the film does suffer it’s less from his work behind the camera and more from some of the same problems he’s always had as a screenwriter.  In this case this mostly emerges in the film’s third act.  I don’t want to spoil it too much but I will say that the eventual solution to the murder involves a degree of evil on the part of the parties responsible which is downright stupid and ineffective.  He almost gets away with this through the use of an interesting structural trick and some flashily effective violence, but the film’s coda never really addresses the full extent of the carnage in its finale and Sheridan also once again feels the need to write a revenge scenario into the end of his film which is a bit over the top and not really in keeping with the tone of the rest of the movie.  Sheridan handled that a lot better in Hell or High Water, what he gives us here is closer to one of Sicario’s more questionable moments.

Despite its third act problems I think I do ultimately like Wind River the best out of this little trilogy of Taylor Sheridan works, though granted I’m not quite as big of a fan of the other two as some people are.  Part of that may simply be that Wyoming Indian Reservations strike me as being a fresher setting for a crime film than small town Texas and the cartel run U.S./Mexico border.  The film also seemed to benefit from the fact that it didn’t feel like it was trying so damn hard to be “gritty” and instead seems a bit more honest about the fact that it’s a slightly elevated potboiler.  Those films really really wanted to make sure you knew just how bad things were in their respective settings and it almost felt like you were being lectured to by a sophomore who only just realized they grew up in privilege.  This film isn’t exactly devoid of those moments, but its more resigned about them.  They feel more like they were added to pepper in an interesting backdrop than they were to make sure you knew what the world was like, man.  I’m not exactly sure if that’s simply a sign of his sensibilities as a writer evolving a bit or if it’s his touch as a director making these moments work a bit better, maybe a combination of both.  Either way I think this is a pretty solid thriller, the kind of thing that woks quite well as a middlebrow genre piece while also adding just a little something extra.

Detroit(8/4/2017)

Kathryn Bigelow has had a kind of weird career trajectory, one that seems remarkably different than most.  She spent decades making somewhat interesting but not overly respectable Hollywood action movies like Point Break only to then suddenly turn into a respected auteur and chronicler of real world events almost overnight in 2009 after making her Iraq War film The Hurt Locker.  I closest thing to an analogues career turnaround I can think of is Curtis Hanson going from making trash like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to making Oscar nominated fare like L.A. Confidential, but even after he made his transition into respectablitiy he wasn’t seen as an auteur so much as a standard journeyman who just so happened to have better material to work with.  The crazy thing is that, for me at least, this second phase of her career has its own set of unique problems, many of them rooted in the sensibilities of her screenwriter of choice Mark Boal.  I thought The Hurt Locker was well staged and interesting to look at, but its high episodic nature felt limiting and that the overall arc only did so much for me.  Zero Dark Thirty also felt overly procedural and I was frustrated by its inability of really make a statement.  They’re movies written by a journalist and you can tell, their determination to just “tell the facts” ultimately just came off as kind of empty and timid.  But those movies certainly looked great and had a lot of passion behind them and I’ve been waiting for this stage two Bigelow to break out and finally make a movie that was really a slam dunk for me and her latest film Detroit certainly looked like another great opportunity for that.

Detroit begins with a slightly awkward animated display explaining the Great Migration North to those who are unaware and transitions into a recreation of the ill-fated 1967 raid on an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood in Detroit and how the anger over this action would snowball into a full scale riot.  From there the film begins to explain the lead up to the shameful “Algiers Motel incident” which would leave three black men dead and several other people beaten and terrorized.  This reenactment begins when members of a Motown style vocal group called “The Dramatics” including singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and manager Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge from the chaos outside by paying to spend the night at a motel called the Algiers.  This seems to be going well until another person at the hotel named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) acts on an ill-fated impulse to shoot a harmless starter pistol in the direction of some police and national guardsmen stationed nearby provoking them and a local security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) to rush into the hotel and round-up everyone they find.  When the plainly racist police ringleaders Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) see two white women (played by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) among the African Americans they become filled with range, line everyone up against the wall and start threatening bloody retribution until someone confesses to where the gun that took those shots is.

Detroit ends with a very carefully worded title card which says something along the lines of “because the events of that night were never fully determined in court, this has been reconstructed based on witness recollections…” and the film has also changed the names of the officers involved possibly out of fear of litigation.  I’ve done some reading into the facts of this incident and as best as I can tell the movie is pretty accurate in its condemnation of these officers’ actions and of the broad strokes of what happened that night and that most of the liberties that it does take seem reasonable.  However, I do think it makes a couple of liberties that come back to bite them from a storytelling perspective.  Firstly, there is a lot of controversy about the initial shots that attracted the police to the Algiers.  It’s not clear exactly where these shots came from or if anyone in the hotel knew anything about it as a gun was never recovered and witness statements are contradictory.  The movie, however, decides to simply pick a side and show Cooper taking the shots with the starter pistol.  This is a problem in part because it begs a rather simple question: why didn’t the people the police were torturing simply explain what happened?  The man responsible was dead and the pistol he used (wherever it ended up) would seem to do nothing but back up their story, why not just spill the beans rather than endure this torture?  The movie never really explains this.  Secondly, the movie is awfully wishy washy about Melvin Dismukes’ role in all of this.  The role of the real Dismukes in the crime is murky and the movie doesn’t really seem to know what to do with him.  He isn’t depicted as a willing participant in the torture but he also does fuck all to try and stop it.  He’s just sort of there and the movie seems oddly non-judgmental about his inaction.  That the real Dismukes is alive and seemingly more vocal about the whole thing than the other participants may have had something to do with this.

However close Bigelow and Boal came to the exact truth, there’s little questioning that they’ve constructed a very passionate re-enactment but I do wonder if they perhaps errored in choosing such an extreme example of police brutality to center their film around.  Earlier in the film there’s another police shooting in which a looter is shot in the back while running away from one of the cops.  That incident would seem to be a bit closer to the kind of police shooting that has been popping up in the news as of late.  The prolonged terror in the Algiers Motel on the other hand feels perhaps more like something out of the Stanford Prison Experiment than something out of Ferguson, Missouri.  The movie does milk the suspense of the situation but given the subject matter you aren’t terribly inclined to enjoy it like you would a horror movie, though you do perhaps wonder what the film would be like if it had dropped the docudrama trappings, taken a more subjective perspective, and really let itself play out like some kind of realistic torture porn.

I’m not sure that the kind of people who make a habit of defending the Darren Wilsons and Jeronimo Yanezes of the world are going to see a whole lot of themselves in this story.  Firstly, the story is located in a past in which racist cops are a lot less subtle in their animosity, and the prolonged terror seen in the story is not exactly in line with the split second shootings that have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.  Those who claim that these shootings are the result of certain “bad apples” rather than inherent biases in police forces will also find their position somewhat supported by the film as the cops doing the killing seems to be really over the line evil while other cops including their commanding officer are (rightfully) horrified when they discover what happened and while they do make some clear mistakes they don’t seem to be going out of their way to cover up the crime either.  What’s perhaps more familiar is the film’s ending (which shouldn’t be a spoiler for anyone who knows anything about the history of police violence in America) where we see an all-white jury do what all white juries do.

When Zero Dark Thirty came out I criticized it for being “too soon.”  Not in the sense that they were tapping on a wound that was too raw, rather that it was a film that was rushed into production before anyone had any real perspective on the event they were depicting and didn’t have a coherent statement to make about it.  Oddly enough I feel like in the race to be topical this movie was actually a little too late.  In the 90s or in the 2000s we could have used a reminder like this that the police aren’t always on your side and need to be kept in check sometimes, but I don’t think too many people who aren’t unreachably stubborn are going to be oblivious to that in 2017.  Detroit is certainly a well-made movie, and one that can spark at least some food for thought, but there are few real insights into what drove these cops to behave in such an extreme manner and it doesn’t offer a whole lot of advice as to how to prevent cops from behaving in such a way in the future.  It’s not a movie that will surprise its audience and it’s not a movie that will serve as much of an inspirational rally cry to fight against the forces of intolerance.  Instead we’re just given this grim two hour experience about how awful it is to be black in America when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we do need movies like that sometimes but I don’t know that we needed this one.