Detroit: A Gripping Historical Drama

Detroit (2017), written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, dramatically recounts an incident in which three black men were allegedly murdered by police at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit Riot. Detroit grabs you and never lets go. Unfortunately, its subject matter might be a little too weighty for summer movie audiences. Bigelow, whose other films include The Hurt Locker (2008), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), set out to make a film critical of white privilege, so certain elements have been changed to conform to this perspective. In some ways the actual events were much worse than depicted.

First, some context. In 1950, Detroit was a diverse, prosperous, and culturally significant metropolis of 1.85 million people. It was arguably among the greatest cities in the United States. By 1967, Detroit was 40 percent African American, but its police force was 95 percent white. Migration to the suburbs had already caused significant population decline. The 1967 Detroit Riot (also known as the 12th Street Riot) began around 3:15 a.m. Sunday, July 23, 1967, after police raided an illegal after hours party in the office of the United Community League for Civic Action at 9125 12th Street.

The riot lasted five days, ending on July 27. Michigan Governor George W. Romney sent in the National Guard and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to help restore order. When the dust settled, 43 people were dead, 1,189 injured (including 493 police, firefighters, and National Guard members), and 7,231 arrested. 2,509 stores were looted or burned, with an economic loss estimated at $40 to $45 million.

Three men, Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), 19, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), 17, and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), 18, were killed at an annex of the Algiers Motel, 8301 Woodward Avenue. Pollard was killed by Detroit Police Officer Ronald August (“Demens” – Jack Reynor), Temple was killed by Detroit Police Officer Robert Paille (“Flynn” – Ben O’Toole), and Cooper’s murderer remains unknown. Police officers involved in the incident were acquitted by reason of self defense at trial, so their names were changed for the film.

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First Impressions of Detroit

I watched Detroit last night, Kathryn Bigelow‘s new film about three black men who were murdered at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit Riots. Bigelow’s other films include The Hurt Locker (2008), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), a mixed record as far as I’m concerned. But all I can say is, wow. Detroit grabs you and never lets go. It’s by far the best movie I’ve seen this year. Here are some of my first impressions:

  • I wasn’t alive during the 1960s, but the movie feels authentic. The settings, dress, characters, and documentary style transport you back to that time, and not in a cliched, feel-good way.
  • Will Poulter, who played Kenny Rossmore in We’re the Millers (2013), is incredible as a racist Detroit patrolman named Philip Krauss. Everything from his hair to his facial expressions make him look like he stepped off the pages of an early 1960s yearbook.
  • Although Detroit doesn’t disguise its message, it isn’t entirely one-sided, showing the destructiveness of the mob and the efforts of some white policemen and authority figures try to combat the excesses of racist officers.
  • Powerful images dominate the film. When a security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is taken into an interrogation room, you can see a handcuff dangling from a pipe and a discolored stain on the wall at the same level as his head. The movie doesn’t have to show violent interrogations took place–all it needs is this one brutal image.
  • Detroit’s run time is over two hours, but it grips you and never slows down until the ending trial scene. By the way, John Krasinski is really out of place as an attorney named Auerbach. He was the only bad casting choice.
  • I understand why the filmmakers chose to focus on the controversial event at the Algiers Motel, but it downplays the 40 other people who died during the five-day riots. 1,189 people were also injured, including 348 Detroit police and firefighters, 55 National Guardsmen, 67 State Police, 15 Wayne County Sheriff deputies, and eight soldiers. 2,509 stores were looted or burned.
  • Although an attempt was made, I don’t think enough was done to show how the National Guardsmen and other law enforcement trying to restore order felt threatened by the rioters. While it doesn’t excuse their behavior, it might help explain why they were so on edge, which the audience never gets a solid feel for.
  • The the main character, played by Algee Smith, finds some solace in gospel music, there is no happy ending here.

I’ll have much more when I post my full review next week.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Based on the French sci-fi comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) follows two interstellar agents on a quest to uncover the cause of a mysterious radiation bubble in Alpha, a massive space station home to over a thousand species from across the galaxy.

Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are reluctant heroes. Valerian seems more concerned with convincing Laureline to marry him and Laureline in keeping Valerian out of trouble. Overall, the film is visually stunning, creative, rich with color and spectacle, and epic in scale. Cara Delevingne is beautiful and charming. Just enough to make it good but not great.

Valerian is largely a victim of poor timing. Valérian and Laureline came out in 1967 and though not well known in the U.S., had a huge influence on sci-fi films, including The Fifth Element (for which artist Jean-Claude Mézières created concept art). Unfortunately, by 2017 the movie feels like a copy of all the things its source material inspired.

I found myself constantly recognizing characters and settings I’ve seen before, including from The Fifth Element but also films like Avatar (2009). You can’t help comparing the Mülians to Pandorans. They’re virtually identical both in appearance and what they represent.

The only element that “feels original” is the concept of inter-dimensional travel, which was brilliantly executed in a scene in which Valerian and Laureline travel to a market to retrieve a rare creature. In our dimension, the setting is an open desert and a walled enclosure, but by putting on special equipment, shoppers are able to enter another dimension to a bustling, multi-story shopper’s paradise.

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First Impressions of Valerian

I haven’t watched a movie in a theater in a while, so I decided to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this weekend over the other two on my wish list: Baby Driver and Dunkirk. I picked Valerian because it has mixed reviews and I wanted to judge for myself. Here are my first impressions after seeing the film:

  • It was good! It was visually stunning, imaginative, and reminded me of The Fifth Element (1997). I like the idea of inter-dimensional travel and traveling to a parallel dimension to shop, which you know humans would do.
  • The aliens were really cool, though I’m not sure why amphibian humanoids would have breasts. Are they also mammals?
  • Dane DeHaan, who played Major Valerian, basically reprised his role in A Cure for Wellness (2016), which doesn’t bode well for his acting range. He lacked a personality in both films.
  • Cara Delevingne (Sergeant Laureline) is a British actress who hides her accent well. She played Margo in Paper Towns (2015), which I loved. I take back calling her a discount Emma Watson.
  • Clive Owen is wasted in this film as Commander Arun Filitt. Anyone could have played this generic bad guy.
  • Maybe things will change in the future, but if Major Valerian were in today’s military, he would be court-martialed for seeping with his subordinates and keeping their photos as trophies.
  • Major Valerian is introduced as a daring ladies man and Sergeant Laureline as uptight and studious, yet Valerian is an officer and she’s an NCO. By the end of the film, their roles are reversed: she damns the rules and he’s suddenly reluctant to break them.
  • If the film needs to recap the entire plot at the end for the audience to understand it, like an episode of Scooby-Doo, there’s a huge problem.

I’ll post a complete review later this week!

Rough Night: A Morally-Bankrupt Comedy

When Jessica “Jess” Thayer (Scarlett Johansson) decides to plan a wedding while running for state senate, she’ll need a little help from her college friends, Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), to pull off a wild bachelorette party in Miami. Hilarity ensues when the ladies get drunk, snort a bunch of cocaine, and accidentally murder a male stripper, all while leading Jess’ loyal fiance, Peter (Paul W. Downs), to believe she wants to cancel the wedding. In the end, they get away Scott free because, well, I guess manslaughter isn’t a thing in Florida. Comedy gold!

Since the success of Bridesmaids (2011), there have been a slew of female-led comedies, but none have quite recaptured the magic of that film. Rough Night is something of a cross between Bridesmaids and The Hangover (2009), or a gender-swap of Very Bad Things (1998). It was written by partners Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs and directed by Aniello. Aniello, a former member of the improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, writes and produces Comedy Central’s Broad City. This is her directorial debut. Ilana Glazer and Paul Downs also hail from Broad City.

In Very Bad Things, a bachelor party in Las Vegas goes out of control when the drunk and coked up men (see a pattern?) accidentally kill a stripper and a hotel security guard. Roger Ebert said Very Bad Things, “isn’t a bad movie, just a reprehensible one. It presents as comedy things that are not amusing” and assumes “an audience has no moral limits and will laugh at cruelty simply to feel hip.” That’s how I feel about Rough Night.

I normally don’t judge movies from a moral standpoint, because I realize people watch movies, especially comedies, to see situations and characters way outside the norm. It’s escapism. But the more I think about Rough Night, the more morally adrift it seems. There are no consequences for anything that happens in the movie. Not only are there no consequences, but everyone’s life actually improves in the end. Because it turns out the “stripper” was actually a bank robber, it helps Jess’ campaign. Alice hooks up with the real stripper, and Frankie and Blair rekindle their college romance.

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Wonder Woman: A Dark Fantasy-Adventure

Wonder Woman was written by Zack Snyder and Allan Heinberg and directed by Patty Jenkins [Monster (2003) and The Killing (2011-2012)]. It stars Gal Gadot [Keeping up with the Joneses (2016), Furious 7 (2015)] as Diana, Chris Pine [Star Trek (2009), Hell or High Water (2016)] as American spy Steve Trevor, and Danny Huston [Hitchcock (2012), Robin Hood (2010), 30 Days of Night (2007)] as General Ludendorff.

Diana/Wonder Woman is a young, fearless woman with a mysterious destiny who lives on an idyllic island with fellow Amazon warriors. They spend their days preparing for a conflict with the Greek god of war, Ares. One day, a pilot (Steve Trevor) crash lands in the ocean and Diana saves him. The German Navy is in pursuit, and after a brief battle the Amazons defeat the German search party. Diana helps Trevor get off the island and return to 1918 Europe, where she thinks Ares has orchestrated the First World War.

Wonder Woman is enjoyable and fast-paced. It’s 141 minutes but never feels that long. The action is never exhausting until the end, when of course there has to be some apocalyptic battle between Wonder Woman and Ares. Through interacting with a cast of characters from 1918 Europe and America, Diana becomes disillusioned with humanity. In the end, Trevor’s sacrifice to destroy a new poison gas developed by General Ludendorff’s chemist, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), makes Diana realize humanity might be worth saving after all.

The “fish out of water” scenes are genuinely funny and charming. The interaction between Diana and Trevor is great, but you never really have a sense of them falling in love (they share an identical dance scene to the one between Peter Quill and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy to establish their chemistry). It’s another “two hot people hook up”-type of romance.

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Alien: Covenant – A Messy Prequel-Sequel

Alien: Covenant (2017) stars Katherine Waterston as a colony ship scientist named Daniels, and Michael Fassbender, who plays dual roles as two androids named David and Walter, in a sci-fi horror film and the latest installment in the Alien franchise. It was directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan and Dante Harper. John Logan is an accomplished screen writer, but this was Dante Harper’s first screenplay. Michael Green (of Sex and the City and Green Lantern) and Jack Paglen are credited with writing the story.

So many different writers is probably why Alien: Covenant felt like so many different films. It was supposed to be a sequel to Prometheus (2012), but often felt like a reboot of Alien (1979). Minus the events on the planet’s surface, Alien: Covenant was basically an updated version of the original. It flirted with its roots as a horror film, but lacked tension and suspense.

Alien: Covenant begins in a sterile room with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his synthetic creation, David. They muse on the nature of creation before the film shifts to the colonization ship Covenant, which is heading toward a remote planet, Origae-6. A neutrino burst damages the ship as it is recharging, killing some colonists as well as the ship’s captain, Jacob Branson (James Franco). The crew wakes up and Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) takes command. While making repairs, pilot Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride) hears a strange signal. The crew tracks the signal to a nearby planet and decides to investigate.

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