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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.

The Hollars (2016)

If film festivals can be epitomized, then The Hollars is Sundance in a nutshell. John Krasinski (The Office) directs and stars as John Hollar, a New York City office worker making a graphic novel in his spare time. He lives with his pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick; Pitch Perfect) until he finds out his mother Sally (Margo Martindale; Million Dollar Baby) has a brain tumor and needs surgery, requiring him to go back home for the first time in years. He returns to find that many things have changed and that his mother’s health isn’t the only problem his family faces.

Despite a talented cast, the performances are unrefined. Each actor is committed to their part and goes through the required motions, but the acting lacks precision. The cast needed more takes or a more demanding director to push them beyond their initial efforts. Particularly bad is the otherwise talented Sharlto Copley (District 9) as the divorced older brother who now lives with his parents. His acting is overly eccentric and his accent is distracting. Many foreign actors are able to imitate an American accent without notice, but Copley’s South African intonations are jarring when compared to his supposed family. The exception to this is the female cast. Martindale is captivating as the stern but caring matriarch. Her tough love is often hilarious and its clear why she is at the center of the family. Kendrick shines as well in her limited role. She manages to gently push John to move forward with his life without falling into the trap of becoming the whiny girlfriend character. Martindale’s and Kendrick’s acting is welcome, but it only puts their co-star’s shortcomings in further relief.

Martindale's sharp wit is incredibly endearing.
Martindale’s sharp wit is incredibly endearing.

The film checks off a list of tropes from festival darlings of the past 15 years. Almost every story beat or production choice can be guessed beforehand. The main character is stuck in a rut living in a big city, they feel like a stranger in their own hometown, and every character has been dusted in a healthy helping of quirk. Even the soundtrack follows the Sundance manual by only featuring tracks by indie folk singers. Movies like Garden State have already employed many of these features and Krasinski doesn’t attempt to grow beyond them.

There is an old saying that “you can’t go home again”, meaning that your memories of a place or time are static and will never match up to your new experiences if you try to revisit them. John’s trip home shows him how much his family’s situation has changed. The people he is close to have moved on with their lives, often to worse outcomes, while he was living in a vacuum, delaying change and avoiding risk. He hasn’t taken the next steps with his graphic novel or advanced his relationship with his longtime girlfriend because of his fear of failure. In many ways, this concept applies to the filmmakers themselves. Instead of attempting something original, they returned to a formula they knew. By strictly treading on common ground, The Hollars is an agreeable but forgettable comedic drama, barely distinguishable from its peers.

2/5 stars.

Café Society (2016)

Café Society continues Woody Allen’s love affair with the past. While Midnight in Paris had him going back to the 1920s, here we have a glossy depiction of the 1930s. Jessie Eisenberg (The Social Network) plays Bobby, a young Jewish man from New York City who moves to Hollywood hoping that his successful agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell; The Office) will give him a job. Deliberately estranged from his family and career focused, Phil ignores Bobby for weeks until finally offering him work doing odd jobs. Since Bobby doesn’t know anyone in the city yet, Phil asks his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart; Clouds of Sils Maria) to show him around town. Bobby soon falls for Vonnie and even though she clearly has feelings for him, she can’t reciprocate because she is already in another relationship.

The film is decidedly safe territory for Allen. The tropes are well worn with the characters almost prewritten. Bobby is Allen’s typical protagonist, meaning he is Woody Allen himself, but the performance is inconsistent. Eisenberg oscillates between his own shtick, the fast talking staccato phrases from The Social Network, to Allen’s self-deprecating nervous ticks. The standout performance is Kristen Stewart’s. Her anti-commercial attitude contrasts nicely with the materialist celebrities and big shots Phil socializes with and makes her the one down-to-earth person in a Hollywood filled with superficiality. The clothes she wears only add to her appeal and further distinguish her. The other characters are dressed in period appropriate clothing but Vonnie’s outfits, while perhaps overly twee, are more like a present-day fashion brand’s lineup of ’30s inspired clothing than something actually of the era. They add a modern twist to the old fashioned elegance. Vonnie’s combination of unique personality and looks make it only natural for Bobby to be so deeply interested in her.

Allen and Storaro take the "Golden Age of Hollywood" quite literally.
Allen and Storaro take the “Golden Age of Hollywood” quite literally.

The film leans heavily on its visuals. The famous cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) lovingly recreates the era. This is Allen’s first film shot digitally and he and Storaro take full advantage of the format’s advantages when it comes to color correction. Scenes alternate between being shot in sepia tone and bathed in golden light from a sun that appears to be constantly at dusk. Does it make sense that everything seems take place before sundown? No, but it doesn’t matter. Their goal is to capture nostalgia and they achieve it. This artifice sometimes removes the scenes from any sense of reality, but is worth it for the gorgeous colors.

It’s the lack of emotional involvement that ultimately debilitates the film. There are brief moments when complications arise in Vonnie and Bobby’s relationship that entice, but most of the film is only engaging because of its visuals. Characters seem to be defined by quirky mannerisms rather than internal motivations. These idiosyncrasies can be momentarily amusing but aren’t enough to build any character depth. Even Vonnie, the film’s best and most fully developed character, eventually becomes like the other Hollywood socialites. Her previously attractive traits are gone and with them the film’s charm.  Like many of the stars at Phil’s parties, Café Society is visually attractive, unoffensive, and provides a few laughs, but isn’t substantial enough to stop it from joining the list of Woody Allen movies no one will be able to remember a few years from now.

3/5 stars.