The Death of Stalin(3/24/2018)

Every year I spend a good deal of time and expend a lot of thought into making a yearly top ten list of the best in cinema, and for as open-minded as I am I have noticed over the years that it’s pretty rare for a pure undiluted comedy to make those lists.  Movies that are sort of hybrid comedy/dramas are actually kind of common, in fact my 2017 list had three movies that could be argued to be comedies in The Square, Ladybird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri but these are not generally movies people go to when they’re straight up looking to laugh at a movie theater.  Outside of those edge cases the comedies that usually make year end lists are movies like Birdman, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Wolf of Wall Street which have a whole lot going on in their production beyond their apparent wit.  I don’t think this is exactly a bias that I’m alone in.  If you look at most top ten lists and Best Picture slates you’ll probably see a similar pattern and it maybe says less about critics and more about how unambitious dedicated comedians can sometimes be in their craft.  As if being funny is in itself so hard that they can’t be bothered to also build a great movie around a great set of jokes.  I bring all this up because I think the highest a 100% comedy has ever gotten on one of my top ten lists was in 2009 when I put Armando Iannucci’s dark political comedy In the Loop in my number two slot right behind Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus Ingourious Basterds (itself a semi-comedy), and the new film The Death of Stalin is in many ways Iannucci’s follow-up to that future comedy classic.

The film is set early in 1953 and begins with Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) at his most powerful and most feared.  NKVD agents (the spread police) are actively hunting down people on lists made by the party and throwing them in gulags and or executing them.  We spend a great deal of time early in the film watching a producer (Paddy Considine) at Radio Moscow scramble beyond reason to recreate a broadcast the dictator has requested a recording of just to establish the extent to which the normal Soviet citizen will piss their pants at the possibility of having slighted this regime.  But this will prove to be something of a turning point because the night of that broadcast Stalin suddenly becomes violently ill and it becomes clear to everybody in his inner circle that there’s about to be a transition of power in a global superpower and they immediately start jockeying for power.  Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) begins trying to paint himself as the people’s advocate, much to Nikita Khrushchev’s (Steve Buscemi) chagrin and both men try different approaches to gaining the favor of Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and manipulating the parliamentary process that Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor) rather lackadaisically tries to assert.  They also try to gain the favor of army officer/war hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Issac) and to manipulate Salin’s heirs Svetlana Stalina (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend).

Iannucci’s In the Loop was more or less an adaptation of a British TV show he ran called “The Thick of It.”  These were both projects that sought to demystify politics by suggesting that behind closed doors elected officials were petty and vulgar people who would make decisions for entirely self-serving reasons, but not in a glamourous way like on “House of Cards,” more like the kind of relatable human shortcomings on something like “The Office.”  If this sounds familiar to American audiences it’s because after the success of In the Loop Iannucci tooke this idea to HBO and created the much awarded series “Veep,” which is if anything even more cynical in its outlook.  With The Death of Stalin Iannucci has perhaps taken this idea to its logical extreme by applying it to one of the most infamous regimes in world history.  The various Stalin cronies who begins sniping at each other here are a bit smarter and more competent than some of the politicians Iannucci has brought us elsewhere but their personalities and shortcomings are not dissimilar from what we’ve seen in the director’s other films.  The key difference is that here’s they’re playing games that have life or death stakes to a degree that some of his other characters aren’t.

I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Soviet history and when it came to do with this particular power struggle I didn’t go in knowing much except for the fact that it wasn’t Lavrentiy Beria who would famously end up on the other side of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Consequently I’m not terribly knowledgeable about the specifics of how accurate this film is but I have a hunch that the movie’s approach is to be very accurate about the facts of what went down during this period while changing the tone of everyone’s mannerisms to fit more with Iannucci’s usual vision of how politics happens.  One part of this is that he’s casted nothing but British and American actors in the various Russian roles in the film and has clearly instructed them not to attempt any kind of Russian accent but to simply speak in their usual comic voice.  In the case of Stalin himself, who sounds like a “cockney geezer” I’m not sure this works, but for the rest of the movie it was a shrewd choice which really brings out the personalities in these characters who might otherwise be kind of hard to relate to on any level.  For instance, the Georgy Malenkov here is like the guy who finds himself in a position of authority and Beria is like the guy who’s got a plan but is so transparent in implementing it that people move against him while Khrushchev is like the guy who doesn’t have the force of personality to speak up in a meeting but ultimately sees things a bit more clearly than the people around him.

The Death of Stalin is a movie I’ve been pretty excited about ever since it started getting raves on the festival circuit and in part because of the buildup I must say that as audacious as the film was and as much as I could see the wit here the movie never quite lived up to my high expectations.  The movie is certainly funny, but it never quite had me in stitches like In the Loop did.  I think part of that might simply be that after In the Loop and six season of Veep this particular brand of comedy might just not have quite the potency it used to.  I also suspect that the foreign/period setting might have taken a few weapons off the table.  The writing here can’t really employ pop culture references for example and the actors don’t quite seem to have the same freedom to improvise that they might have in some other contexts.  Additionally there are a couple stray elements here that just feel a little sloppy like the occasional title cards which pop up to display applicable Soviet laws which don’t look great and aren’t really used frequently enough to fully integrate into the film’s grammar.  That’s a minor quibble but I think the bigger thing holding this back is that making a movie about a foreign country’s history simply feels less subversive than mocking one’s own government.  If this had been made while the Cold War was going on or been made by Russians it would have felt really daring, as it is it just feels like a strange but mostly well executed bit of gallows humor.  But “strange but mostly well executed bits of gallows humor” don’t come along every day so perhaps I should stop complaining.

***1/2 out of Five

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Darkest Hour(12/9/2017)

Let’s talk about Gary Oldman for a second shall we?  Oldman is an actor who I wasn’t introduced to through one of his actual film roles but rather through online rumors that he would be the perfect person to play Doctor Octopus in the movie Spider-Man 2.  That was a role that eventually went to Alfred Molina, but such speculation was not uncommon at the time because to a lot of people Oldman was someone who would be perfect for pretty much any role and anytime there was a high profile role that needed to be filled his name seemed to come up in the rumor mill, to the point where even Homer Simpson once insisted that Oldman would be the perfect person to play him in a movie.  Part of this might have just been Oldman’s tendency to show up in movies that were popular with the young male internet dwellers of the early 2000s but it also has a lot to do with the fact that he had this odd tendency to be both a hammy scenery chewing villain in movies like Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Fifth Element but also a dedicatedly chameleonic presence in certain roles like his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK or Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy.  The fact that he kind of stayed under the radar despite appearing in some fairly popular films was a help in this and gave him a certain cool factor.  The odd thing is, Oldman seemed to age surprisingly quickly.  Despite the internet’s obsession with him he sort of disappeared during the 2000s outside of his supporting roles in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight franchises and seemed to re-emerge in the 2010s as a seasoned British veteran in movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and now he’d doing the ultimate British veteran move: playing Winston Churchill in an Oscar season biopic called Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour is set in the May and June of 1940 and begins with parliament calling for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for his inability to stand up to Hitler.  France was on the verge of collapse and the British Expeditionary Force that was sent to assist in the defense of France was retreating to the beaches of Dunkirk and Calais; decisive action was needed.  Unable to replace Chamberlain with his chosen successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) the Tories instead turned to the one person in their party that the opposition party would accept: the outspoken hawk Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) despite the general distaste that King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) has for him over his various previous failures.  With the success of the Dunkirk evacuation very much in doubt Churchill had one very difficult decision to make: will he consider hearing Germany’s terms for surrender and call for a cease-fire or risk a potential slaughter and defeat if they aren’t able to find a way to get those men off the beach in time.

When the movie Lincoln came out a few years ago I felt like it encountered a lot of resistance less for what it was and more for what people assumed it would be.  I think what they assumed it would be is a movie not unlike what Darkest Hour is actually like.  I wouldn’t exactly say that the movie is a hagiography it’s certainly a movie that’s been made for people who are already very much believers in Churchill’s legacy.  The film isn’t afraid to show him as a drunken old man at times but it’s not very interested in challenging his worth as a leader.  The film actually serves as a sort of “Last Temptation of Churchill” and ponders what would have happened if the man whose entire legacy was built on his uncompromising certainty in the importance of fighting Nazism had considered surrendering rather than fighting.  I’m not sure I buy that this was something that Churchill really dithered over as much as is shown and I also doubt there was really as much pressure being put on him to do so as is depicted here and the sequence it invents to depict how he made his final decision is frankly corny and ridiculous.

Gary Oldman is of course really good here, possibly too good.  The film is very interested in showing some of Churchill’s vices, which is important as you want to illustrate why so many of Churchill’s colleagues and rivals doubted him at this point.  Oldman is almost too good at making Churchill seems like a mumbling drunken old man, to the point where you really don’t get how this guy ever pulled himself together enough to be this beloved figure that he is.  There are some other solid actors here like Ben Mendelsohn, who has the unenviable task of playing King George VI after Colin Firth more or less defined the role of “Bertie” in The King’s Speech but does a pretty good if not wildly memorable job just the same.  Ronald Pickup is also quite good here as Neville Chamberlain, a tragic figure that I almost would have wanted to see at the center of a film like this and Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Churchill’s wife even if she doesn’t have a lot of screen time.  Lily James is also good here as Churchill’s secretary, but I’m not exactly sure why her character is in the movie.  She seems like she’s meant to be an audience surrogate but the movie isn’t actually from her perspective most of the time and in many ways she kind of seems like a remnant of an earlier draft of the screenplay where it was.

Darkest Hour isn’t a bad movie so much as it’s a poorly timed movie.  A year or two ago a movie about the political machinations going on in the background of the Dunkirk evacuation would have seemed like fresh ground for a film but Christopher Nolan kind of made a movie this year called Dunkirk which showed the evacuation itself in visceral detail.  Darkest Hour by contrast feels like little more than a crappy sub-plot that Nolan knew better than to put in Dunkirk to keep from slowing it down.  The experiences of soldier’s fighting for their lives is always going to be more cinematic and interesting than the old white men bickering in dark, sometimes literally smoke-filled, rooms.  And even if Nolan hadn’t made that film earlier I’m still not sure that 2017 is the best year to try to get audiences to root for a large and somewhat unconventional conservative leader to stick to his guns while in the presence of establishment doubters.  The bigger problem here though is just an absence of anything overly compelling.  Director Joe Wright adds a couple of interesting flourishes but does nothing to write home about and the script is not insightful enough about its subject to really add much to the conversation about him.

The Disaster Artist(12/2/2017)

I’ve never really been one to watch movies that are “so bad they’re good.”  I’ll watch the occasional MST3K episode but in general I’m of the belief that it’s almost disrespectful to waste your time on stuff you know is crap when there are so many actual good movies that go unseen.  As such I was a bit late to the party when it came to the most infamous bad movie of the 21st century: The Room.  For the uninitiated, The Room is a film that was made in 2003 by an incredibly weird guy named Tommy Wiseau apparently with his own money which has become infamous for how hilariously bizarre and misguided it is.  It regularly plays to packed midnight screenings where fans engage in Rocky Horror Picture Show style audience participation involving plastic spoons and footballs.  I didn’t see the movie through one of those screenings (watching movies at midnight is not for me) but I did rent it on DVD and it totally lives up to the “hype,” in fact it may well have been worse than I expected.  Most infamously bad movies are genre films that feel like they maybe could have been passable if given a little more time and money and maybe a little tinkering, not this one.  The Room was clearly intended to be this literate indie movie where Wiseau puts his soul onto the screen, but Wiseau seems so oblivious to the basic logic with which most people see the world that nothing about it works at all.  Part of The Room’s appeal comes simply from the way it forces you to ask “What were they thinking? How the hell did something like this come into existence, what were they thinking?”  Fortunately James Franco has come along to answer that question with his new film The Disaster Artist, a comedy which seeks to reenact the events which led to the creation of this incredible oddity.

The film begins in 1998 when an aspiring young actor named Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) attends an acting class in San Francisco where he tanks a line reading in part because he lacked a certain level of confidence.  That did not seem to be a problem for someone else in the class, a mysterious character with what appears to be a thick European accent named Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) who proceeds to deliver a wildly over the top recitation of the “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”  Realizing that, if nothing else, Wiseau could teach him a thing or two about confidence Sestero decides to meet up with Wiseau and prep a scene.  The two eventually form an odd friendship despite Wiseau’s general Wiseau-ness and the two decide to move to L.A., where Wiseau apparently has an apartment, to pursue their dreams of professional acting.  Two years later they’re both chasing their dreams, not terribly successfully, and Wiseau gets an idea to stop waiting for Hollywood to give them his break and write and finance his own film which he’ll cast himself and Sestero in.

It is perhaps fitting that it would be James Franco who to bring Tommy Wiseau’s story to the screen given that Franco’s own directorial career actually parallels Wiseau’s in some curious ways.  Franco’s directorial career started off real shaky with him making these very low budget movies that few people saw and which were widely labeled “vanity projects.”  At James Franco Comedy Central Roast his friend Jonah Hill alleged that Franco’s philosophy was less “one for them, one for me” and more “one for them, five for nobody.”  Mind you these movies (which I admittedly haven’t seen and only know by reputation) weren’t necessarily said to be poorly made so much as they were said to be movie’s whose ambitions greatly exceeded Franco’s capabilities, especially in the case of his attempts to make adaptations of lofty works of literature by the likes of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.  Given this and his occasional eccentric behavior maybe one can imagine Franco having a certain sympathy for this guy who was also writing, directing, financing, and starring in his own movie, trying to bring a strange vision to the screen even though no one seems to have much confidence in him and almost seems to be humoring him rather than working with him.

Unlike some of James Franco’s more experimental work The Disaster Artist is at its heart a fairly mainstream comedy that isn’t too far removed from some of the movies Franco has made with Seth Rogen (who has a small role here as well).  The humor of course comes from how freaking weird Tommy Wiseau is and the various ways people react to him.  This ultimately comes down to James Franco’s rather impressive ability to replicate Wiseau’s broken English and his strange ticks both in his recreation of scenes from The Room and in his off camera interactions.  Franco doesn’t look just like Wiseau, he seems to be a bit younger than Wiseau and less muscular and he seems to have opted not to use a lot of makeup to correct this, but you aren’t necessarily thinking this when not looking at them side to side and the work he does imitating the voice more than makes up for this.

Also like those Appatow/Seth Rogen movies there’s actually something of a “bromance” at the core of this thing.  When I first saw The Room I interpreted it as being a two hour kiss-off to some ex-girlfriend that Wiseau wanted to depict as a duplicitous bitch who was tearing apart the life of a wonderful blameless man for no reason.  In retrospect I think I might have been giving that movie a little too much credit in assuming it was saying anything as coherent as that.  The Disaster Artist doesn’t do much of anything to back up the notion that Lisa is based on any real woman.  Instead the movie posits that the movie actually ties into Wiseau’s friendship with Greg Sestero.  The friendship between Wiseau and Sestero is an odd one; one gets the impression that Wiseau’s status as a weirdo makes him lonely and particularly grateful that Sestero and Sestero seems in many ways grateful that Wiseau believes in his dream of becoming an actor and supports this monetarily and otherwise.  The movie even hints that Wiseau may have had a homosexual attraction to Sestero and feels threatened when Sestero gets a girlfriend and starts drifting away from him.  Whether his interest in Sestero was sexual or not The Disaster Artist seems to posit that Wiseau made The Room and wrote a bit of a “bros before hoes” vibe into it in order to reform his bond with Sestero.

The obvious reference point for The Disaster Artist is almost certainly Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood, which was also a semi-loving look at an enthusiastic but wildly misguided maker of infamously terrible movies.  That movie was affectionate about its subject and ultimately celebrated him as a misfit who meant well and did the best he could.  I think Franco sort of feels the same way about Wiseau, but I sense something more akin to fascination than affection from the movie.  It also doesn’t sugarcoat some of Wiseau’s less pleasant characteristics including some of the more dangerous corners he cut in making The Room like refusing to pay for air conditioning during the shoot and his incredibly rude treatment of an actress while shooting a sex scene, which leads to a rather heated debate between him and Sestero about the on set behavior of other better directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock.  One could also see how a lot of what Wiseau does here would be a lot less funny if not for the fact that Wiseau was (for mysterious reasons) extremely wealthy.  He isn’t dropping his entire life savings into this movie and he isn’t wasting other people’s money in making it and because of that the stakes here are kind of low.  One can imagine a version of this story where someone like Wiseau takes the advice of La La Land and follows their dreams, puts everything on the line, and ends up making something like The Room but without the “Springtime for Hitler” reaction.  That story would be a tragedy, but Wiseau could take the hit and ended up with something of a happy ending, so his story is a comedy and a funny one at that.

The Florida Project(10/23/2017)

When I was a kid my family was never overly prone to family vacations, but one year when I was about eleven we did go on the customary Orlando trip that most American families need to make at least once.  However, me being me, I had little interest in actually going to Disney World given my belief that Disney was for babies.  For me the big attraction was Universal Studios Florida, where I had a blast.  As a child the name “Orlando” seemed like some kind of wonderland that had wall to wall fun stuff everywhere and I could only help but be jealous of whatever kid lived in such a place.  Needless to say, I was rather oblivious of the fact that the city of Orlando actually had the reputation of being something of a tacky dump outside of its theme parks.  It’s simple economics really, it’s something of a one-industry town and people have little reason to live there unless they’re working at a theme park and that isn’t necessarily a very high paying job.  As such you’re left with a city that’s dependent on a significant unskilled workforce but also desperate to hide them away from the tourists.  It’s this hidden side of the “magic kingdom” which is at the center of the new film The Florida Project.

The film is set at a cheap motel near Disney World which, during the off season, has come to be a long term home for a variety of disenfranchised people with nowhere else to live.  We focus our attention on a young girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).  The film is told largely but not exclusively from Moonee’s perspective and it doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how Halley came to be in this situation, but it’s not hard to connect the dots.  Halley can’t be much older than 20 and she’s tatted up, talks like the “cash me ousside” girl, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of long term plans.  She gets all her money through a variety of rackets and the hotel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is increasingly having his patience tested by her reckless behavior and often late “rent” payments.  However, Moonee is largely oblivious to these adult concerns and not particularly aware of how “ratchet” her surroundings are.  Instead she spends most of her time playing with a couple of other children staying at these motels like her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

The Florida Project is director Sean Baker’s follow up to his 2015 film Tangerine, which looked at a few days in the lives of a pair of transsexual prostitutes in Los Angeles.  While The Florida Project looks at characters that are straighter and whiter than those of his previous film but both films share an interest in showing the lives of the people who are normally ignored by society.  Here he’s looking at people who would not even be called “working class” exactly as many of them aren’t even working and if they are it’s in highly transient minimum wage jobs.  Halley in particular feels like she could have been a character in last year’s Andrea Arnold film American Honey; she is young, not terribly well educated, exudes sexuality, and seems to be rebelling because the alternative is to become some kind of pathetic housewife.  In Arnold’s movie that kind of behavior seemed somewhat harmless, but unlike the characters in that movie Halley is a mother and that means she’s dragging a small child into her web of dysfunction.  However, Moonee does not seem to constantly be in abject danger and she’s actually pretty well adjusted to her environment.  Much of the film is told from her perspective and you can sort of nostalgically relate to a lot of the regular kid stuff she does even if she is in a different situation and occasionally behaves in rather unrefined ways.

Outside of Moonee and Halley the main figure of the film is Willem Dafoe’s hotel manager Bobby, who has the rather tricky task of playing someone who clearly has some respect for the various tenants of the hotel even though they test his patience at times and is helpful to them in some ways even though he is in other ways complicit in their exploitation.  There is an element of suspense around his character in that the audience wants to like him for a variety of reasons but they’re also constantly weary that he’ll disappoint them.  Sean Baker never does end up judging him one way or another and a big part of the film’s success is that it never judges any of the other characters either even though it doesn’t shy away from their less flattering characteristics.  The movie is not interested in lecturing its audience about the causes of income inequality and while there are some bad people in the movie there are no true villains that it places the blame for any of the troubles on.  Instead it wants to simply be this empathetic and in some ways actually kind of funny look at the lives of the characters in this particular time and place.

Sean Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, was famously filmed using a (modified) iPhone but still looked great and perhaps took on an added energy through the use of its unconventional medium.  Working with a bigger budget this time around Baker is now actually shooting on 35mm but is once again working in a rather colorful (both literally and figuratively) location and has maintained the vibrancy.  The film may confound some audiences looking for a movie with more of a traditional narrative with a three act structure and characters with more of a clear motivation.  This is not to say that it’s a completely formless movie by any means and compared to many arthouse films it’s downright conventional.  There is a clear ending that it is building towards but that isn’t always clear when you’re watching it and the movie definitely goes against convention by including a lot of scenes that exist more to fill in the world than to advance a plot.  That could hurt its commercial prospects and so could it’s rather unusual title, which sounds like a codename that no one bothered to change, but it’s definitely a movie that’s worth checking out for its energy, its wit, and it’s willingness to look at a world that generally goes unexamined.

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.

Dunkirk(7/22/2017)

Christopher Nolan.  That has become one of the most strangely controversial names in certain film circles.   In many ways he’s the guy who’s been doing everything we’ve been asking our Hollywood blockbuster filmmakers to do: he doesn’t abuse CGI, he takes his craft seriously, and he makes original self-contained stories (at least when he’s not making Batman movies).  This has led Nolan to be greatly praised and has given him a very loyal fanbase but as with most nice things there’s also been something of a backlash to him.  There are a lot of people who resent Nolan’s role as Hollywood’s savior and they’ve come to lash out at his (admittedly sometimes hyperbolic) fans.  I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit on the internet pushing back against that backlash as a defender of Nolan, but at the same time I’m not a delusional stan for the guy.  I don’t necessarily think The Prestige is quite as good as some people say it is and I outright disliked his last movie Interstellar.  I was also skeptical about his latest project, Dunkirk, when I first heard about it and when early trailers were released.  It’s not that there was anything about the project that looked “bad” per se, it’s just, in the nearly twenty years since Saving Private Ryan came out the World War II battle film has gotten pretty un-noteworthy and I hadn’t gotten much indication that Nolan was really bringing something terribly special to this one.  I mean, I was still had every intention of being there on day one, but I had my doubts.

In Nolan’s film the battle is divided into three different theaters each with slightly different casts of characters which intersect occasionally.  The first is labeled “The Mole” and mostly follows a couple of rank and file enlisted men stuck on the beach named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) who are trying to get off of the beach by various means and we also get to meet a couple of officers commanding the evacuation named Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who have certain insights into what’s going on which the desperate men on the beach don’t.  The second theater, labeled “The Sea,” is on board one of the civilian vessels that famously set out to rescue some of the men on the beach.  This one captained by a guy named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who is accompanied by his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) and before they reach France they will need to contend with their first rescue, a soldier found on a wrecked boat (Cillian Murphy) who has been left shell-shocked by his experiences in Dunkirk.  Finally in the third theater we follow a pair of fighter pilots named Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who have been sent to protect the men on the beach and the evacuating boats from the Luftwaffe.

One thing I neglected to mention from that description is that, while each of these three stories play out in a linear fashion they aren’t meant to be happening simultaneously and they don’t play out over the same length of time.  We are told through title cards that the beach sequences are set over the course of a week, the “sea” sequences are set over the course of a day, and the “air” sequences are set over the course of a single hour. Occasionally these stories intersect; for example at one point a plane goes down in the “air” segment and then the pilot is rescued later in the movie by the boat in the “sea” segment when that timeline catches up.  That sounds more confusing on paper than it is in the film and when watching it I wouldn’t recommend you spend too much brainpower trying to piece it all together as it really isn’t essential to enjoying the movie.   In fact, I feel like whatever confusion that this format does cause actually kind of improves the movie in a roundabout way because it sort of places you in the mind of these characters that have been thrown into this confusing and chaotic situation.

Dunkirk is a film that is more experiential than narrative in its nature.  One could perhaps liken it to an extended version of the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan in its intensity but it lacks that film’s graphic violence and really doesn’t focus on actual combat at all really.  We rarely actually see German soldiers in the movie outside of the aerial dogfights, but there presence and the terror they elicit is omnipresent.  If asked to liken it to another war movie I might actually point to the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, which also looked at a number of soldiers trying to live through a chaotic military situation that went wrong in a major way.  But really I’d more easily liken it to something like United 93 or Gravity which really just place you into a situation and have you just watch as people try to get through it.  There isn’t even much dialogue in the movie, so people who’ve criticized Nolan for his exposition in the past should see this as an improvement but that’s not to say that the film is a non-stop action scene as there are some quieter moments.  The scenes with Mark Rylance on the boat aren’t entirely action packed and these sections gain a lot of gravitas from Rylance’s quiet strength and there are also moments of relative calm on the beach, but even when things aren’t actively popping off in these segments there’s still a constant threat and no one ever fully feels safe.  The section that is pretty much nonstop action are the aerial sequences, which are some of the most intense World War II dogfights I’ve seen.  When actual combat with the Nazi fighter pilots is occurring Nolan often opts to focus in on the inside of the cockpit and it can be very suspenseful to watch as Hardy lines enemy planes up in his sights and he prepares to shoot.

Now let’s talk about the presentation options.  Christopher Nolan has been perhaps the most outspoken advocate for shooting and presenting movies on film rather than digitally and has made it known that the ideal format to watch the movie in is IMAX 70mm, which is the format I watched it in.  In the past I’ve tended to avoid IMAX, in part because the only true IMAX theater (as opposed to the “lie-MAX” theaters that you can find in multiplexes) in my area is at this zoo that’s kind of a pain to get to and the smell from the zoo kind of carries over to it.  I’ve also resisted the IMAX presentation for Nolan’s previous movies because none of them have ever been fully shot in IMAX because of both the costs involved and the fact that IMAX cameras are big and unwieldly, and have instead opted to be primarily shot on standard 35mm and broaden out during certain action scenes resulting in aspect ratio changes throughout.  That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.  I feel like a movie’s framing should be consistent unless there’s some artistic reason for the frame to be changing and to have it just arbitrarily re-frame itself simply because one scene is more expensive than another seems problematic to me.  Dunkirk is a little different than some of Nolan’s other films in that the IMAX is now the primary format and conventional 70mm shots are the exception but there are more non-IMAX shots than I expected and their insertion is noticeable both in terms of aspect ratio shifts and the noticeable uptick in film grain during these sections and it was a bit jarring to me.

There are of course upsides to the IMAX presentation though.  The screen is obviously huge and the clarity that the 70mm film provides is kind of amazing.  There’s also something kind of interesting about seeing a modern blockbuster of this size and scope which is essentially being presented in the old Academy ratio and on a screen that’s actually set up to accommodate it (as opposed to the smaller movies of today in that ratio which look even tinier when presented on multiplex screens).  This is especially impactful in the airplane sequences, which are really immersive and use the full height of the screen to really give you a sense of the space between these airplanes.  Interestingly enough I almost found the extra oomph of the IMAX sound system to be as impactful as the giant screen.  There are moments in the movie where shots suddenly ring out and really shock you with their intensity.  A lot of people will tell you that IMAX is the “only” way to see this movie, and while that is a worthwhile experience I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it in a regular theater either, in fact I’m thinking about seeing it again in a more conventional setting (one that doesn’t smell a bit like animal shit) just to see for sure how it plays out in that format.

Really what stands out to me most about the film isn’t its technical acumen but the emotion it leaves you with.  Though I’m sure the movie has been in production for longer, I think Christopher Nolan may have inadvertently made the perfect movie for the mood of (non-deplorable) people in the wake of Brexit and the Donald Trump election.  The Dunkirk evacuation was after all less of a victory than it was a loss mitigation.  It was a save that kept a defeat from being a total decimation, and the soldiers who lived through it knew this and didn’t have the benefit of knowing that years later the world would rally to defeat fascism.  The film captures that feeling of realizing you’ve been utterly defeated while still being left with a desire to regroup and fight back.  That’s a feeling that a lot of people were left with when they heard the bad news on those election days and carry with them into the “resistance.”  But you don’t need to be building connections to modern politics to see value in Dunkirk.  On a simply visceral level it’s a very exciting movie and it leaves you with some interesting glimpses into what people do in a crisis whether they rise to the occasion or crumble under pressure and makes both of these reactions seem organic and believable but also understandable.