Good Time (2017): An Ultra-Gritty Crime Caper

Good Time should really be called Tough Luck. Directed by brothers Ben and Josh Safdie (Heaven Knows What), the film follows two bottom-rung losers as they try to steal enough money to get away from their miserable lives. Connie (Robert Pattinson; Twilight) and his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie) attempt to rob a local bank for $65,000. When their plan goes south, Connie decides to rescue Nick which leads to a string of progressively complicated situations as he fumbles each step along the way.

The Safdie brothers bring their realistic shooting style to the caper film. The word “gritty” is frequently thrown around to describe what appears as a more realistic shooting style, but in reality, it is a relative term. The concept is often associated with the crime films of Martin Scorsese and, in comparison to most slick, mainstream films, his works do appear more down to earth, but that is only because of the excessive sheen given to the visuals of a standard Hollywood picture. The Safdie brothers employ a style that can only be described as ultra-gritty. Their actors are mostly unknowns that look like regular people. They’re unkept and not particularly attractive. Even Pattinson, the former Twilight heartthrob, looks and acts like a lowlife and the change is refreshing. The extras and minor characters seem like regular, imperfect beings and the glamour-free appearances make Connie’s flight more intense because the setting is grounded in the real world.

Nothing about the brothers’ plans go as desired.

The New York City of the Safdie brothers is a downright shithole. This is a part of Queens far away from the haute intellectual settings of a Woody Allen film. The movie was shot on film and features a pronounced film grain, adding a scrappy, low-budget feel to the actions onscreen. The houses we see are cramped and rundown and the few glimpses of better situations are short-lived. These are the dirty streets of the lower class, filled with people in perpetual cycles of barely making it by. The cast that populates the city is uniformly excellent with the direct, curt behavior expected from the NYC working class. Safdie as Nick is unrecognizable and utterly convincing as a mentally challenged character with his vacant, disconnected stares and delayed reactions. In their previous film, the Safdie brothers followed heroin addicts slumming their way through the city and the realism of their repeated self-harm almost became repulsive. Here, the entertaining characters and Connie’s relatable motivation prevent the aesthetic from becoming unpleasant. Instead, it lifts the stakes and clearly distinguishes the film from others in the genre.

Despite their disparate visual styles, the Safdie brothers have made their own version of a Michael Mann film, specifically Thief. They even use a pounding electric score that is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work. The main difference is the caliber of their characters. Their protagonists, unlike Mann’s professional criminals, are horribly flawed. Connie is shown to have the seeds of good ideas and is crafty enough to momentarily avoid capture, but is not intelligent enough to fully solve his problems. The mistakes he makes as his outlook worsens are believable, but only for a desperate hoodlum with some awful decision-making. His narrow escapes exacerbate his situation and dig himself further into a hole which, to some, will almost be comedic in its escalation, but to others will be equally thrilling. The rough, realistic settings and increasingly precarious getaway make for a uniquely grounded heist movie.

4/5 stars.

Columbus (2017): Composed, Contemplative, but a Little Too Quiet

Known for his video essays dissecting the style of other filmmakers, first-time director Kogonada brings a unique voice and eye for images to his debut picture. Two people find themselves intersecting in Columbus, Indiana, a center for modernist buildings. A Korean man, Jin (John Cho; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), is forced to come to the city when his father, an architecture professor, has a medical emergency. He meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson; The Edge of Seventeen), a young architecture enthusiast delaying her college education to take care of her unstable mother. They begin meeting regularly as Casey shows Jin her favorite buildings in the city.

As the leads of the film, Cho and Richardson form a believable companionship. There is a hint of romantic feelings between them, but the film never makes them explicit. This is a relationship closer to that of Once than a typical romance. Richardson plays Casey as a bright, curious young woman that cares so deeply about her mother that she would neglect her own desires, but unfortunately Cho can’t match her performance. His readings as Jin are often stilted as he tries to relate to Casey, but their similar situations are enough reason to justify their bond. Both characters are trapped in Columbus by a parent and their candid conversations while surrounded by beautiful buildings become a gentle form of mutual therapy.

Every object in Kogonada’s film feels deliberately chosen for aesthetic balance.

Kogonada revels in the modernist architecture of the city. He relies on his fixed, wide-angled camera to allow the audience to dwell in the environments and heavily incorporates shots of building exteriors as connective tissue between scenes. Even though the locations are immaculate with each piece of fabric and furniture precisely chosen, they never feel sterile. He frequently uses symmetry in his framings and one-point perspective that funnels the viewer’s attention deep into the image, similar to the compositions favored by Edward Yang. For Kogonada, each plane of the image is of value and action is frequently placed at multiple depths. There are no flat backgrounds that only provide pleasant scenery here. Kogonada’s multidimensional images have a still, contemplative beauty.

There are several points where the director uses dialogue to reference his intents as a filmmaker. Referring to their dinner, Casey’s mother comments that it needed more spice to which she replies, “I was going for something a little more subtle.” In another scene, a librarian posits that people not being interested in reading is “…not a crisis of attention, but a crisis of interest.” With each of these lines, Kogonada appears to be describing his own style. The film has a subtle tone and may not have enough overt emotion to keep everyone interested. It’s true that it could have used more flavor. Jin’s estranged relationship with his father is something that is mentioned but never fully fleshed out and it leaves his character lacking in comparison to Casey. His motivations and callous behavior relating to his father’s health don’t receive the depth needed to be fully sympathetic which drains the film of some its central drama. Kogonada’s debut may not be a full success, but his pensive tone and skill with image composition mark him as a filmmaker of high potential.

3/5 stars.

Some Freaks (2017): Social Outcasts Coming-of-age

A one-eyed boy and an overweight girl form the unlikely pairing at the heart of Some Freaks. The film is the directorial debut of playwright Ian MacAllister McDonald and follows Matt (Thomas Mann playing a role similar to his in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), the boy missing an eye, and Jill (newcomer Lily Mae Harrington), a heavyset punk transfer student. The film is separated into two sections. The first shows the two meeting when they are the only people in their biology class without a partner for a project. Each has been the victim of bullying and they quickly enter an awkward, but caring relationship. The second section picks up when Matt visits Jill at college, having been physically apart since graduation.

The film suffers from a rushed and amateurish first half. McDonald repeatedly uses title cards to skip forward in time to advance the relationships but, save for the necessary gap separating the film’s two halves, the leaps are distracting. They’re an indication of poor editing trying to create character progression. The camerawork makes this feel even more slapdash. The lighting can be strong, but the camera is constantly jostling around to the point that it becomes difficult to track characters that are simply taking a walk. The cast is held in extremely shallow focus which can in general be a good technique, but when they move the focus doesn’t move with them. McDonald has stated that this was a deliberate decision to depict the unstable nature of teenagers still defining themselves but that doesn’t stop the film from feeling like it was shot by a subpar cinematographer. The characters are sympathetic, but McDonald seems to be rushing toward the second half where he can explore his true interests.

Harrington gives a realistic, conflicted performance.

Some Freaks is about how relationships can change us and how personal change can affect our relationships. These teens are in flux and the second half of the film, by far the stronger portion, examines the consequences of their development. When Matt finally visits Jill at her college, she is not the girl he remembers. She looks and acts completely different. Even though she still cares for him, he is unable to reconcile her new self with the one he fell in love with. In this half, Harrington reveals herself as the film’s true star and a breakout talent. She must come to terms with who she was, who she wants to be, and whether Matt is a part of that. In one of the film’s best scenes, she delivers an eviscerating tongue-lashing that hits the core of their problem. They were brought together by their outsider status so Jill’s progression has removed what was the foundation of their relationship. Their dissolution is a raw and nuanced portrayal of a couple that finds themselves moving at divergent velocities.

McDonald deserves praise for focusing on these specific characters. Few films bother with humanizing people at the fringe of society. The closest we normally get are fake misfits that are one makeover away from being on the cover of a magazine. In an intimate, but depressing scene, Matt confesses that he had never thought about girls before Jill. He spent so much of his energy struggling to make it through each day amidst the tormenting of his classmates that he never had time to think about romance. These teenagers are truly at the bottom rung of their social ladder and it is refreshing to see how their relationships benefit them. Even as their romance fades, its impact remains. It helped them get through a difficult time and despite the heartbreak it’s end may cause, it will be a part of them as they move on in their lives. Some Freaks is a film filled with difficult, honest insights about our formational relationships, dampened by a jumbled first half.

3/5 stars.

The Girl Without Hands (2017): Gorgeous Art, Unnecessary Adaptation

The world of animation has becoming increasingly similar. Despite growing options with new technologies, most companies opt for computer generated 3D animation. As beautiful as these renderings can be, the lack of diversity is disheartening with Japan remaining as the main producer of feature length 2D animation. The Girl Without Hands is a welcome visual change, featuring a singular hand-painted 2D art style animated entirely by its director Sébastien Laudenbach. The film is an adaptation of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It is the story of a miller that mistakenly trades his daughter for wealth in a deal with the devil and follows her as she faces the fallout of his decision.

The expressive images are worthy of hanging up on a wall.

Laudenbach’s art is the film’s most distinctive quality. He uses a minimalist, yet expressive style. The images are less like drawings and more like etchings. Each frame has a colored background with objects shaded in rather than explicitly outlined in a sort of spartan impressionism. The background colors are textured and often have a gentle gradient that sets the mood for each scene and the brush strokes are painted on similar to watercolors. The film animates by having these strokes pulsate and is particularly effective when depicting water or wind. The rippling colors perfectly encapsulate the energy and movement of nature. Laudenbach also has a unique method of showing the emotional state of the characters. Because they are so minimally sketched, he can paint a broad stroke of color over them and even as the character moves, this mark remains, showing their lasting presence and the unchanging state of their mind. His indirect approach to his images gives the film its unmistakable storybook quality.

The vibrant colors are a joy to look at.

If only the screenplay wasn’t also of storybook quality. The original fable is short and the film, while running only 76 minutes, still feels overlong. The material hasn’t changed significantly in adapting it for the screen so there isn’t enough content to justify the runtime and what is present is too simplistic. As gorgeous as it is, the film is clearly an excuse to show of Laudenbach’s beautiful images. Several scenes are elongated just to feature the artwork. The story, with its fairytale roots, never produces any emotional response. This is a fantasy world that is too detached from our reality to create a connection. There is supposed to be a moral lesson about admonishing the pursuit of wealth, but it is delivered using blunt platitudes that are as generic as they are groan-inducing. A character says to the girl’s father, “You are rich. How could you be at peace?”. These aren’t new or creatively presented insights. This might be a trait that stems from the source material, but even so that doesn’t mean it translates well in a film. The few original flourishes added to the story are scenes that show the director’s gross and unnecessary fetish with genitals that has no place in something that was originally meant for children. Laudenbach’s artwork and animation are uniquely expressive and minimalist, but the story they present would have been better suited to a picture book, not a feature length film.

2/5 stars.

Detroit (2017): Unsettling, Infuriating, and Timely

Working again with writer/producer Mark Boal to make a historically based film, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) leaves military stories behind for a period piece set during the Detroit riot of 1967. As a brief, but informative intro animation explains, the city of Detroit had become increasingly segregated with many of its black citizens living in the crowded inner city patrolled by a predominantly white police force. A large-scale raid and arrest of an unlicensed bar leads to riots, city-wide destruction, and the deployment of the National Guard. The film follows an up-and-coming doo-wop group led by Algee Smith (Earth to Echo) as they retreat to a nearby motel to avoid the riots, only to be attacked by the local police.

The film is shot in a quasi-documentary style. Bigelow has used this technique before and she leans even harder into this direction here. She uses an unstable camera that rapidly whips between subjects and zooms in and out constantly as if a cameraperson is rushing to capture live action. This makes the film incredibly immersive and it would be easy to forget that this isn’t found footage from the actual time. Bigelow chooses to interweave real news video and photographs which makes this distinction even harder. She is also an expert at blocking her scenes. And by that I literally mean blocking. The film almost always features groups or crowds and the characters will routinely burst into frame and obstruct the camera’s view causing it to have to readjust around them. These cinematographic choices create a palpable feeling of boots-on-the-ground frenzy.

You will hate Poulter (left) because of this film.

There are times when the story can strain your patience. The film’s climax is a slightly overlong interrogation inside a motel where three Detroit police officers repeated assault and, in some cases, kill the mostly black tenants for a crime they have no physical evidence of. This depiction dramatizes an event using witness testimonies so, as the film states in the end credits, some liberties were taken during the recreation. The local police, led by Will Poulter (The Revenant) in an appropriately repulsive performance, continuously fail at drawing out a confession and the film shows each of their futile attempts. These start to wear thin as you wonder why the police, or the filmmakers, haven’t moved on already. At 143 minutes long, the movie would have improved with some editing in this particular scene. The incompetence, the racism, and the cruelty of the police becomes evident quickly which makes the extended sequences unnecessary. Bigelow may be using the length to emphasize the cast’s protracted suffering but the point has already been made and further emphasis without additional depth becomes somewhat redundant, even if these scenes are rooted in fact.

Despite some pacing issues, Bigelow uses the injustice on display to create a sense of terror and urgency. For these characters, the slightest misconstrued movement or innocuous comment could lead to a ruthless beating or worse, so every interaction is fraught with danger. It’s impossible to separate the events depicted in the film from our current problems in America. The actions of the police in the film combined with the horrifying news headlines of the past few years become both hideous and infuriating with later scenes involving John Krasinski (The Office) as a police union lawyer being blood-boiling in their blatant inequity. The inhumanity displayed by the authorities towards people of color makes for more than just a disturbing movie. It has been some time since we have had a film that can truly be described as polemic, but Detroit deserves that descriptor. Bigelow’s indictment of systemic racism and injustice in 1967 Detroit is an upsetting look into the tribulations of minorities at the hands of law enforcement that is infuriating and, sadly, relevant to our present world.

4/5 stars.