Category Archives: hollywood

‘Detroit’ a true-life horror story

Director Kathryn Bigelow is perhaps the greatest tension-creating filmmaker today. From “The Hurt Locker” (2008) to “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) and now to “Detroit”, her work is taut, precise and involving. While “Detroit” does not quite measure up to her previous achievements (classics in my mind), it is still a harrowing and personal story of race, crime and corruption.

The film begins as the city of Detroit is rocked by riots in 1967. The National Guard is called in, looting becomes rampant and buildings go up in flames as racial divisions peak. The Algiers Motel is raided by police in search of a sniper and what transpires is a tale of abuse, torture and murder.

After the initial set-up of the riots, the film focuses on the characters of Dismukes (Johnny Boyega), a security officer caught up in the police raid, Krauss (Will Poulter), the main cop responsible for most of the carnage, and Larry (Algee Smith), one of the men caught in the house that night who aspired to be a singer with his team, The Dramatics.  Each becomes representative of the racial divide in a way, from the immovability of a bigot to the irreparable trauma of racial abuse to the realization that perhaps no matter how you function in society, you can still be viewed solely by the color of your skin.

While the film is told in a thrilling and horrifying manner, it doesn’t have much depth going for it nor is it’s lesson one that is original. While the story it tells is important and  worthy of remembrance, in the current political and sociological climate, it doesn’t really add anything to the discourse on race relations. It’s more a simple story on police brutality and bigotry. The ending also doesn’t wrap anything up much thematically, not giving our characters strong emotional conclusions. The film therefore is strong, but not essential viewing.

“Detroit” is a gruesome story and it examines a topic that continues to haunt the world to this day. It is important to remember not only the history we are proud of, but also that of which we are ashamed, and stories like that told in “Detroit” are necessary.

Movie Essentials: Casablanca

There are some films that not only stand the test of time, but that should be saved for all-time. There should be a collection stowed in a time-proof box or sent into space for other species to view, a representation of the medium, films that give a glimpse of our world, displaying different types of characters, different themes, presenting the human condition in a way that feels more real than life itself does sometimes. These are movie essentials.

In looking at some of these essential films, it is important to remember that what is paramount to the essence of cinema is first and foremost: story. Without an interesting, involving, heartfelt story, all the effects and cinematography and acting amount to nothing. Or, to put it more in line with Rick Blaine, they don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.

Casablanca (1942) may indeed be the finest screenplay ever written. It is the work of a number of writers including Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and potentially Casey Robinson off the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. The characters, plotting, locations, resolutions and dialogue are all timeless treasures that have transcended the film itself into popular culture.

The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, produced by Hal B. Wallis and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, has survived nearly eight decades based on its timeless story.

Rick Blaine is trapped in Casablanca, Morocco, the owner of a cafe in the midst of World War II. Everyone in the city is trying to get out, Casablanca being the last port to potential freedom away from the Axis powers, but the town is essentially a prison where no one can escape. Cynical and tough-minded, Rick’s world comes crashing down when the woman he thought he had lost forever, Ilsa Lund, walks into his gin joint and upsets the balance of his self-proclaimed exile. Faced with a choice of helping the fledgling freedom cause or wallowing into irreparable self-pity, Rick must confront his past and decide what to do with his future.

One of the greatest things about Casablanca is its ability to genre-morph. It contains elements of the dramatic, comedic, romantic, action-packed and musical genres. Its ability to balance all of these elements without falling apart is a tribute to the strength of its narrative which keeps the film chugging along. These different genres also give the film a more comprehensive feeling of completeness; we feel many different aspects of life throughout the course of one story.

The score, the song (As Time Goes By) and the cinematography, a high-contrast black and white palette that emphasizes bars seemingly on every character to represent the nature of their prison environment, all contribute to create the ambiance that the story serves. Supposed bit players such as Peter Lorre’s Ugarte and S. Z. Sakall’s Carl are given interesting character arcs and dynamics that make them memorable and further add to the emotional appeal of the movie. All of these elements (lighting, casting, sound) contribute to the story rather than distract from it.

At the heart of the characters of Casablanca, and specifically Rick, is a sense of mystery as to who they really are. Rick thinks he is one thing, a reclusive drunk who just wants to be left alone, but his heart tells him he is something else, a man dedicated to virtue and sentimentalism. Ilsa thinks she is one thing, the wife and inspiration of a freedom fighter, but her heart tells her she is a renegade in love with another man. Even Captain Renault believes he is one thing, a corrupt, woman-hoarding goer with the wind, and reveals himself to be a caring sympathizer.

It is this recognition of who we truly are and choosing to be that person despite the pains of that choice that makes the film feel more honest and dramatic than most films dare to recognize. At the finale, Rick chooses to be the freedom fighter that is true to himself at the expense of a potential life with his love. It is that moment of realization and action that has kept the film alive all these years, that recognition of true inner self, a universal theme that transcends time.

Of course, that is just one interpretation of the film. The film could also be interpreted as a story of unrelenting love against oppressive times, the necessity of personal sacrifice for the greater good, latent homosexual longings in times of crisis or the unending patriarchal power over feminine will.

One of the greatest things about cinema is the ability to interpret individually what films mean to us. The best films not only reveal themselves to us, they continue to do so every time we watch them, bringing us new interpretations that we had never experienced before and illuminating new aspects of the human condition. Casablanca continues to enlighten with each additional viewing. That is the mark of an essential film.

‘The Peanuts’ just a retread of previous material

Everyone loves Charles Schulz’s “The Peanuts.” We all have our favorite character: Sally or Lucy or Schroeder or Linus or Peppermint Patty or Snoopy or, of course, everyone’s favorite loser, Charlie Brown. They’ve entered into the public consciousness with cartoons, comic strips, amusement parks, an iconic musical score and several beloved animated shorts to their credit. They’ve been around for almost 70 years. So it is only natural that 20th Century Fox want to capitalize on their appeal with a full-length motion picture. When dealing with such a beloved franchise the decision to take risks becomes muted and the desire to ramp up the nostalgia becomes bloated. And “The Peanuts Movie” suffers mightily, not so much a film as much as an attempt to sell the nostalgia of years past into profit for the here and now.

Charlie Brown has been a loser his entire life. All of his classmates know it. He’s reminded of his incompetency everyday. His own favorite star at night drops out of the sky away from him. And then a new student moves in, a little red-haired girl, someone who has never met or heard of Charles before. Here’s his chance for a new start, to make a good impression. And on top of that, he immediately falls in love with her.

Now, it is commendable for the filmmakers to not stray as far from the source material as other adaptations (i.e. “The Smurfs” movies). Snoopy has his own adventure, but he doesn’t dance to a pop song or take up the majority of screen time simply because he’s cute. There are no fart jokes or belch jokes or pop culture tie-ins (Justin Bieber does not appear as a Peanut-ized version of himself). Everything stays true to Schulz’s original work for the most part and that in itself, in this day and age, is a major accomplishment.

Having said that, the animation is peculiar, a mixture of 3-D graphics done in a 2-D style, meant to harken back to the original cartoon shorts. It is obvious that the studio felt that audiences would not go to see a 2-D movie done in the Peanuts style anymore, but didn’t want to abandon the look of the shorts completely. It is a shame, because it is undeniable that audiences would still go to a movie based off the original animation. Part of the charm of “The Peanuts” is their simplicity, captured perfectly in the hand drawn style of the shorts, and this hybrid 3-D and 2-D animation feels manufactured, unnatural and overly colorful for the material.

Another flaw (and it is a continual flaw that keeps rearing its ugly head in animation) is the inherent sexism of the film. It is not as flagrant as other films of this nature (i.e. again, “The Smurfs”), but do audiences really need a pink, female Snoopy dog? Does the little red-haired girl need to be so pristine, white and perfect, and does she need a bright, fluffy and shiny pink pencil? And given such limited screentime, Lucy appears more of a bitch than a bossy little girl for being proactive and demanding. Sexism (and racism) continue to plague most major Hollywood productions with its continued insistence on what constitutes femininity and after years of such social progress, it is incredibly disheartening to keep seeing it again and again in film.

The ultimate issue with “The Peanuts Movie”, however, is not that it is a bad movie, but that it is such a safe movie. There is virtually no new material. Everything is piggy-backed from the comics or the animated shorts. It is amazing how afraid the filmmakers were of attempting to add anything new to the Peanuts mythos. One might as well watch the shorts again at home.

Now, the argument will be made that the movie is meant to be an introductory film to the characters for a new generation, that this is a “kid’s movie” and should not be held to the same standard as an adult film. You will see this critique mentioned by a lot of critics (as justification for a positive review which explains why the film has an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). But by lowering these expectations, we diminish the demands of the children’s genre and our appreciation of the quality animated film.

In many ways, it is a cycle of ineptitude where the studio underestimates the audience and comes out with a film like “The Peanuts Movie” that is unoriginal and rooted in nostalgia over creativity, and then critics justify the studio’s laziness with the refrain that it is only meant for children, and it isn’t as terrible as other films. The industry deserves better.

‘Deadpool’ proves not all superhero films have to be the same

With superhero films flooding the marketplace, it was only a matter of time before someone made the anti-superhero film, a movie that takes all the signature tropes of the genre, presents them to the audience and then, almost literally, takes a steaming dump on them. That movie is “Deadpool.”

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a smart-mouthed mercenary who falls in love with a stripper named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he volunteers for an experimental procedure run by a madman, Ajax (Ed Skrein). The procedure mutates his appearance, cures his cancer and gives him instant healing ability, but Ajax intends to use Wade as a slave. He escapes, but is horribly disfigured. This pushes him to don a mask and become the “superhero” Deadpool.

Much like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, it is hard to picture anyone else other than Ryan Reynolds as the titular character. He inhabits the role of the snarky, wise-cracking hero with ease, simply becoming the character that fans have envisioned for years.

The violence is extreme, the language and innuendo filthy, and there are so many inside jokes about the genre that some might go right over the casual moviegoers head, but it all works because of the lighthearted tone and the charismatic lead. It is a near-perfect blend of Hollywood glamour meets counter-culture, a big-screen extravaganza that appeals to the disillusioned outsider in all of us. While it is not ground-breaking or terribly original in terms of plot, it is a lot of fun and serves as a welcome breath of fresh air in comparison to the more droll and serious fare of superhero films (*cough* Batman v Superman *cough*).

‘Baby Driver’ a dynamic thrill ride

After Edgar Wright’s infamous leaving of Marvel’s “Ant-Man” project, the anticipation for his next film has grown exponentially. And with “Baby Driver”, his fans are treated to a high-adrenaline, nostalgic, soundtrack-driven thrill ride.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a kid conned into working for a crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), as his driver on heist jobs. Using iPod music to navigate his life, he becomes smitten with a waitress, Debora (Lily James). He has to protect her as some of the crazies from his crime life such as Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) question his loyalty.

The film is dynamic, utilizing all the tenets of good filmmaking (editing, score, cinematography, writing, shot design, sound) to tell an engaging, if not completely original, story. While the soundtrack-as-plot-driver is a little contrived, it is handled well enough that it is not too annoying. The action chase scenes are pulse-pounding and a lot of fun, the film using sound, editing and camera work to build up action rather than CGI bologna and explosions.

The film’s biggest problem is that it’s characters are not too original, more representative rather than three-dimensional. The love story between Debora and Baby is a little forced and bland, not given the opportunity to be fleshed out while psychos like Bats are rather one-note. While not a huge detriment, it keeps the film from being character-centered engaging.

Edgar Wright has always specialized in creating homage to an earlier era and here he incorporates 1950s idealism with 1980s car chases and millennial music obsession. It’s a fun ride if not perfect.

‘Hidden Figures’ a fine if predictable film

Directed by Theodore Melfi and based off a true story, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African-American NASA engineers, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Jenson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who help coordinate John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) space orbit.

The cast is great and the direction is steady and sturdy. It is great to see Hollywood tackle not just the concept of strong women, but also the concept of smart women. The well-written script bursts with clever quips and strong characters.

The problem is that the film is primarily focused on message over story. The struggle of the women against a white chauvinist world prevents the film from being anything other than a simple morality tale: Racism bad, perseverance good. It’s not very deep and doesn’t really offer anything other than surface level viewing, not really sticking with the viewer nor offering new thought-provoking ideas about class, sexism or racism.

So while “Hidden Figures” wears it’s heart on its sleeve and is a solid work, it really is just a retread of a very similar theme we’ve heard before. It doesn’t really offer anything other than an anecdote, but its message is timeless.

Live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a cashgrab snore

Disney continues its run of uninspired, derivative live-action adaptations with “Beauty and the Beast.” Directed by Bill Condon, the film follows Belle (Emma Watson) as she meets the Beast (Dan Stevens) who… well, you know the plot.

The film feels more like an excuse to photograph lavish set design as its story is exactly the same as the animated film. Right down to the jokes pretty much, there is nothing new in this film, and the end result is that the movie is boring. You know what’s going to happen exactly as it happens. So while it’s pretty to look at, that’s no excuse for good story.

The cast is fine for the most part. Luke Evans is adequate as Gaston in a role that is far too villainous for its own good. Emma Watson does an okay job with Belle, but Dan Stevens as the Beast, in all his CGI monstrosity, is distracting. All the digital effects substitute realism for design and the result is a disconnect with whatever story we have. Special effects are supposed to blend in with the story, not be a central focal point.

In conclusion, the film is less a film than a mass marketing enterprise. It sells nostalgia instead of ingenuity. It sells it well though. The film has grossed half a billion dollars in the United States. Instead of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Disney has finally achieved nothing ventured, millions gained.