Detroit (Bigelow; 2017)

Before I begin the review proper, I’m going to allow myself a bit of a tangential rant on the way the actual city of Detroit is used, or rather not used, in fictional portrayals of the city.  It seems that if a film is set in the city of Detroit it is nearly always filmed somewhere else.  Robocop was filmed in Dallas.  Assault on Precinct 13 and Detroit Rock City were filmed in Toronto, as was Four Brothers.  Don’t Breathe was filmed largely in Hungary.  There are a few films that take place in Detroit which were actually shot in Detroit such as the Detroit scenes in Beverly Hills Cop and the Red Dawn remake, but for the most part Detroit is used as a generic city which won’t be recognized such as in Regarding Henry, Batman v. Superman, and the Transformers movies.  As a resident of Detroit, to find out Detroit was shot primarily in Boston was a bit of an insult.  Rant over.

Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood right now giving as dramatic critical darlings that border on action films in that they deal with subjects that are normally considered hypermasculine but she often eschews the pure action you would expect from her subject matter to give us gripping, often downright brutal, drama instead.  Her latest film Detroit does just this using an unusual five act structure in which we don’t even meet our characters until the second act nor delve into the main focus of the film’s plot until the third.  Detroit takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots in which 150 blocks of the city had to be shut off from the world outside, and the entire city had to be put on a curfew and patrolled by Detroit and State Police as well as the National Guard for 5 days.  Since it is coming out on the 50th Anniversary of these events, and not by coincidence, of course, Detroit is being marketed as the story of the Detroit riots, but it really isn’t.  Detroit uses the riots as its backdrop and setting, but the story focuses on an incident which occurred at the Algiers Motel in which three black men were found murdered and many others beaten.

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The screenplay for Detroit, as mentioned earlier, uses a five act structure which makes for some unusual story telling.  The first act is devoted entirely to setting up the mood and the situation by showing us how the riots began and how they spread.  This means we don’t even meet the focal characters of the story until the second act, and a lot of time is spent on them before we get to the real meat of the story in the third act.  This methodology makes for a film in which you aren’t really sure what the film you are watching wants you to focus on for a large chunk of its running time, but I believe all this set up pays off in how immersive and gripping the story ultimately becomes after you really get to know both the main characters and the level of lawlessness and fear going on around them.  I won’t spoil the story by going on at length about the focus of the last two acts, but I will say that I also don’t believe there is any way they could have gripped our attention the way they do if we didn’t have an intimate connection with the characters involved by the time we get to this part of their story.

Detroit is a brutal, unrelenting, and unfortunately very contemporary movie.  I would say that the film has more in common with a horror film than an action movie or thriller, in fact, though this horror is one that actually happened and could still very easily actually happen today.  Bigelow’s film shows us either that history repeats itself, or that very little has changed in the past 50 years, as the events on screen are ones we could imagine seeing on the evening news any given night.  The story is brutal and modern enough that I imagine Detroit is going to trigger anger in a great many people of many different races and beliefs bringing up cries of racism, reverse racism, injustice, distortion, and many, many other sensitive buzzwords which lead to loud arguments and worse.

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The acting and camera work are both top notch featuring a very large ensemble cast.  You’ll recognize John Boyega (Finn from the new “Star Wars” series) as a security guard trying to diffuse racial tensions, Hannah Murray (Gilly in “Game of Thrones”) as a party girl from Ohio who gets caught up in the events at the hotel, and Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the Marvel Studio movies) as an ex-veteran staying at the motel right away, and most of the rest of the large cast will at least seem familiar (and probably are).  All do a fantastic job making us believe that we are really reliving the intense events which took place 50 years ago, and all give us three dimensional real characters we can recognize and relate to.  As for the visuals, I do have a minor issue with the amount of shaky cam used throughout the film, but for the most part it was competent to excellent cinematography which captured both the action and the moods of the film unobtrusively which is saying something since so much of the action takes place in constrained bordering on claustrophobic environments.

Whenever a film is based on actual historic events there is nearly always some doubt as to its accuracy, and Detroit is no exception, but two of the survivors of the Algiers Motel that night 50 years ago were actually on set for the filming of Detroit working with the cast and crew to give their take on the events.  Both have given their stamp of approval to the film, so if it isn’t completely authentic, it’s at least close enough that two of those who the film really portrays are happy.

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Final verdict:  Bigelow does yet again what she does so well, takes what in different hands would be an action/thriller and turns it into compelling character driven drama.  Detroit is going to be a controversial film as it is brutal, unrelenting, and focuses on themes which are incredibly divisive in the here and now, but that is what makes it so important.  Detroit is not light entertainment, I also would not call it educational as its story is more narrowly focused than you would expect from a historical drama, but it is powerful and it makes an equally powerful statement about race, entitlement, power, and desperation.  Detroit won’t be easy for many to watch, both due to subject matter and its unusual story structure, and even more difficult for many to confront, but its powerful and insightful message is one that demands your attention.

 

 

Dunkirk (Nolan; 2017)

In May of 1940 German forces had driven the French, Belgian, and British Armies onto a small beach beside the town of Dunkirk.  The German forces stopped their advance on Dunkirk and instead fortified themselves around and in the town to prevent Allied soldiers from escaping by land as German planes picked the soldiers off on the beach and German U-boats with help from German bombers kept the British Navy at bay.   This film is about the action which evacuated 330,000 Allied troops from that beach, essentially saving the bulk of the British Army and preventing Germany from forcing a conditional surrender of the United Kingdom the consequences of which would almost certainly mean an entirely different Europe and world today.

Christopher Nolan is a very intellectual film maker.  It’s that very intellect that often creates the largest plot holes in his films, but his focus on thought over emotion, realism over spectacle, and precision over artistry is his trademark and the thing which makes his films stand out as singularly his.  Dunkirk is a bit different from standard Nolan fare in that there are no gimmicks on display here, no watching a story backwards, no dream levels, no men in costumes, there is just a beach, men, and weapons of war.  This is most definitely a Nolan film, though, as this is a film which very much intellectualizes the evacuation of Dunkirk practically documentarian in its style.  Quite a few of the major characters aren’t given names, Cillian Murphy plays “Shivering Soldier” for example, and Will Attenborough is simply “Second Lieutenant”, and not a single German character is shown for Dunkirk’s entirety.  This isn’t a John Wayne film which glorifies battle and makes heroes of soldiers, it’s not Apocalypse Now showing us war’s horror and madness, nor is it an Oliver Stone war film making a political statement, Dunkirk is simply a very thoughtful, almost clinical, look at one of the most important events of World War II.

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That is not to say there is no emotion in Dunkirk, just that emotion is not its focus.  Dunkirk very ably gets across to the viewers the feelings of dread, hopelessness, and inevitability those men on the beach must have been feeling, along with the feelings of determination in those attempting to rescue them, but the goal is to show what the men were going through, not to make us feel one way or another about it.   That is what is going to make or break Dunkirk for most people.  It’s style is one we rarely see in anything outside of a documentary, let alone a war film, and that makes for a truly original experience – something much needed in a genre as worn out as World War II films – however, that very same style is going to leave a great many people feeling like something was missing if they are seeking something inspirational or horrifying.

One thing that will not be debated about Dunkirk, however, is the quality of its cinematography.  The look of this movie is one that is normally saved for year’s end so that it will be fresh in the mind of the Oscar voters.  Despite the barren landscapes of beach and sea (English Channel, anyway) we are treated from beginning to end with visual spectacle in the form of wide sweeping shots, points of view that put us in the mindset of the soldiers as they sit in silent panic and confusion, and aerial views and battles that will have you gasping on several occasions – I got a look when I let out an audible “Wow” at one point.

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The score by Hans Zimmer is also worthy of mention.  The music starts before the visuals do, and it never stops at all during the film’s running time.  It rarely crescendos and is more of an omnipresent undertone of strings and horns undercutting everything happening on screen, but while it never stands out to the point it is distracting, it adds so much to the film’s tone and I can’t see Dunkirk working as well as it does without it.

The ensemble cast is excellent, though Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance are two of the only actors given very much to say.  The film has many branching story lines and many puzzle pieces to cover and much of this is done in silence, with one major character in particular having only one word to say in the entire film, but for the most part they manage to show us very different yet realistic people going through a hopeless situation.  I do admit, that due to the lack of dialogue and names, I had a hard time keeping some of the young dark haired actors and characters apart, keeping this element of the film from becoming fantastic, but that is a fault more due to casting than on the part of any particular performance.  Tom Hardy, by the way, wears a face mask the entire film not removing it until the very end.  What is it with him and face coverings?

Photographer: Anders Rosqvist, www.rosqvist.photo

Final verdict:  If you didn’t tell me that Dunkirk was a Christopher Nolan film before I’d seen it, I’m not sure I would have immediately recognized it as one of his, however, after seeing it if you were to tell me Christopher Nolan had directed it you would get the knowing nod and smile which says “Of course.”  Dunkirk is a fantastic movie, one that will almost surely get Oscar buzz, but it is not a movie for everyone.   It is not a war movie so much as a very astute look at people staring death right in the face and knowing that either their fate is out of their hands, or that the fate of thousands are placed directly in their hands.  If you need glory or horror in your war films, you may find yourself disappointed in Dunkirk.  If realism (though, realism without a ton of blood and gore which is oddly lacking in this movie) and introspection are terms that appeal to you, however, Dunkirk will most likely be right up your alley.  No matter which camp you fall into, you are almost sure to love the music and visuals, though.

The Lost City of Z (Gray; 2017)

Charlie Hunnam plays Major Percival Fawcett, a member of the British military whose father tarnished the Fawcett family name through his various addictions.  “Percy” is also an experienced surveyor, so when war is near breaking out between Brazil and Bolivia due to a burgeoning rubber industry combined with a lack of a distinct border between the two countries, Fawcett is called upon to head to the jungles between the two countries and determine where the border definitively lies.  When he discovers the remnants of what can only be an ancient civilization during his mission, he develops a life long obsession with finding the lost city which only the “savages” in the area seem to know even ever existed and prove that the native people of the area aren’t really savages, after all.

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The marketing campaign for The Lost City of Z made the film look as if it’s a pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) style adventure complete with hostile natives, death defying escapes, and lost treasure hidden around every corner.  What the movie really is, is a biography which covers the span of decades, following Percy from a time shortly after the birth of his first son, through World War I, and finishing with his final trip to the South American jungles.  While archaeology and the Lost City do cast a shadow across the entire film, and Percy Fawcett’s story revolves around them, this is the story of a man, not a mission nor a place.

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin, Percy’s right hand man), and Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett, Percy’s wife) headline the cast and all give performances that can best be described as proficient, but never exciting.  All the actors give us a fully developed, realistic character whom we can fully believe, but for some reason they never allow us to become fully invested in them, the simulation of a life is there, but the spark is missing.  The one exception to this is Angus Macfayden as James Murray, a man who insists on accompanying Fawcett on one of his trips which Murray funds.  Murray ends up being a truly pathetic sham of a human being who jeopardizes the entire mission with his arrogance and incompetence, but he is also the one character that truly seems human, like a life we can be honestly witnessing.

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Competent, but with no spark, is a good way to describe the entire film, actually.  The camerawork gives us some beautiful shots, but what it gives us is more like looking at a landscape which you’d buy at an art fair rather than a Van Gogh or a Renoir.  Sure, the cinematographer (Darius Khondji) knew what they were doing well beyond just where to point the camera, but there was no personal touch to it.  Everything was pretty and easy to follow, but again – no spark.

The story itself is well written, the screenplay is probably the best part of the film, but could have been edited better.  The Lost City of Z is a long movie, 2 hours and 20 minutes, and while I wouldn’t call that overly long if the time is well used, there are large chunks of the movie which could have been trimmed.  The pacing of the entire film is a slow, even one, which doesn’t have to be an issue, but it seems that director James Gray was overly enamored with too much of his material, choosing to linger on conversations which served a very minor purpose or leaving in scenes which added little to nothing to the story.

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Final verdict:  As a history lesson, The Lost City of Z is actually pretty great, but know going into it that that is what you are getting, a biographical history lesson.   Any adventure and excitement to found in the film is spaced very far apart and doesn’t last very long.  What we have is a very clinical look at an interesting life.  If you take a lot of interest in biographies and history then there is a lot to catch your interest in The Lost City of Z, for anyone else, though, I’m afraid this film may be too slow paced and aloof. There is a lot to learn here, but not a lot to enjoy.