Tag Archives: film review

‘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: Lawrence of Arabia

“They won’t come for Damascus,” Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) proclaims near the film’s climax. “They’ll come for me.” T. E. Lawrence’s exploits in the Arabian desert during World War 1 as the British fought the Turkish empire are now the stuff of mythos. Director David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is both epic and yet also touchingly intimate.

T. E. Lawrence is tasked with investigating the progress of the Arab rebellion against the Turkish Empire at the film’s opening. That rebellion however is in shambles, the result of an indigenous people fighting amongst themselves and against a much better supplied foe. For the next two years, he helps organize the different clans of the desert into a unifying force and win critical battles against the Turks. As his exploits continue, and as the war effort against Austria-Hungary and Germany continues to flounder, he is promoted to hero status in the British and American press, helping turn the morale of the war for the Allied powers. Lawrence eventually leads the Arab people into Damascus in the hopes of creating a true Arab nation for the Arabs. But the conniving ruling classes in France and England make sure that their stakes in the new region will be well-managed and the infighting between the various Arab factions (Sunni, Shiite, Kurds) prevents the dream of a true Arabian state from coming to fruition. Lawrence leaves the desert a broken man.

Lean filmed the nearly four hour epic on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco over a period of more than a year. The film is one of the most spectacularly shot spectacles in history. The brilliant cinematography captures the vibrant colors and texture of the Middle East. The viewer can practically smell the desert breeze and feel the heat and the sand.

The scope of Lean’s vision and the re-enactments of climactic battles would alone make the film memorable, but where Lawrence of Arabia really surges is with the characters and their inner dilemmas played out on such a global scale.

Lawrence is an incredibly complex and dynamic character. Is he British, Arab or something else? With his fame, is he a god of the desert, a hero of war or just a confused man thrust onto the world’s stage? Everyone seems to have a different opinion of him. The British think he is crazy. The Arabs think he is a being of divine power, a gift from God. The press thinks of him as a hero. Prince Faisal (Omar Sharif), perhaps his one true friend after an initial distaste for each other, considers him a potential leader of a great cause and grows to love him, hints of homoeroticism latent throughout the film (there are no women in the movie at all). As the war takes its toll and Lawrence’s identity changes from British intelligence agent to war hero to Arab inspirational figure, Lawrence loses more and more sense of who he is. With the ultimate defeat of the cause he put so much blood and sweat and soul into, he is left to the conclusion that perhaps he is no one at all.

There are also so many parallels to current events in Lawrence of Arabia. One need only look at events in Syria, Iraq, Israel, the UK and the United States to see just how much things have not changed in nearly 100 years. The sectarian violence, the revolutions against oppressive regimes, the suspicion of the East against the West and the subsequent fascination of the West to colonize the East are all at play in the film. The events at the conclusion of the movie illustrate the state of the modern world, with rival Islamic factions unable to coexist and the Western powers dividing up land for their own benefit regardless of centuries old cultures that reject their beliefs. The reverberation of events continues to haunt us to this day.

The viewer cannot help but see a bit of themselves in Lawrence, a sense of wondering who we are and what our destiny really means. The film opens in Arabia with a mirage, the sun dimly exposing just something over the horizon. Is it real or just a figment of our imaginations? No one knows. The same can be said about ourselves. What is truth? Are we real or just mirages?

‘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.

Movie Essentials: Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa is cinema’s Shakespeare. Not in terms of language or world influence, but in terms of narratives. Kurosawa himself was an unabashed Shakespeare fan, adapting two of his plays into films (Macbeth into Throne of Blood (1957) and King Lear into Ran (1985)). Kurosawa tackles universal themes that transcend their setting and time, crafting stories that are relevant across different cultures, much as Shakespeare did. In addition to this, both storytellers used ensemble casts, presented themes of social class, love and honor and posed more questions than answers.

Seven Samurai is the most recognized of his films and arguably his finest. While it does not feature the intense dramatics of Ikiru (1952) or the ground-breaking aspects of Rashomon (1950), it still stands as the finest samurai film ever made, a genre-defining, epic presentation of class struggle that illuminates the past and present.

Set during the 16th century, the film focuses on a small village. A group of bandits pledges to return in just a few months time to pillage their crops and destroy their town. The townspeople, defenseless, come up with a plan to recruit samurai to their cause. The first samurai they recruit, Kambei Shimada, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, believes that with seven samurai, the villagers stand a chance of survival.

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Each of the samurai in the film is a complete character with a storyline and an arc. There’s Katsushirō, the young one, who seeks to become a samurai and to learn from Kambei. He must deal with his love toward Shino, a peasant girl whose father does not want her involved with the dangerous samurai, going so far as to cut her hair and masquerade her as a boy (further alluding to Shakespeare). Kyūzō is a master swordsman and a seemingly super human individual who Katsushirō admires. Kambei’s friend Shichirōji is able to rouse the villagers to battle. The great Toshiro Mifune is Kikuchiyo, a poser of a samurai, the orphaned son of peasants himself, who treads both the world of the farmers and samurai with comedic flair. Heihachi illuminates dark times for the samurai and Gorobei, envious for death in battle, completes the seven.

The film explores the relationship between different class structures; the poor, the warrior, the rich. Finding a peaceful coexistence between farmer and samurai is a constant struggle, the farmers worried that the samurai will take their women, the samurai concerned that the farmers have killed their brethren for armor. In the middle is Kikuchiyo, Mifune mesmerizing as a man who wants to be a samurai, but is filled with the doubts of a peasant. He calls out both clans on their sins towards one another (Mifune and Kurosawa made a total of 16 films together).

Toshiro Mifune The Seven Samurai

The climactic battle scene at the film’s conclusion remain breathtaking even by today’s standards. Utilizing quick editing, harsh sounds and violent death, the film makes no excuses about the brutality of violence and the cost it has on both the samurai and the farmers. Filmed in the thick of mud and rain, entire buildings going up in flames, the dramatic outcome is near apocalyptic.

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One of the criticisms often levied against Kurosawa is that his films are too Western. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by the films of John Ford (the samurai are nearly identical to the myth of the American cowboy- this influence would in turn reverse itself as Kurosawa’s work influenced Westerns made by Sergio Leone and John Sturges). And while his films are not as ethnic or narrative as other Far East endeavors, they instead present themselves as universally intelligible. Whether viewed in the Western world or Asia or the Middle East, just as classic fables and Shakespeare’s plays, Kurosawa’s themes are eternal and have given his work a staying power.

At the film’s conclusion, four of the samurai have lost their lives. All of the bandits are dead. The townspeople celebrate, but Kambei has again lost his chance for a glorious death in battle. He must instead bury younger friends still full of life. He remarks that the samurai may have won, but they have lost as well, the farmers the only true victors of the fight. Shino looks past Katsushirō, displacing their love in order to remain in her social class, the bond between samurai and farmer now over. One can only sense that Katsushirō will end up as Kambei, full of regret, haunted by the death of old friends and suffering from fleeting happiness that cannot be found again.

The final shot lingers on the graves of the four samurai, Kikuchiyo among them, posing eternal questions about death, love, loyalty and social dynamics that continue to vex the world to this day. It is up to the audience to answer these questions, just as we must answer questions about the virtue of Hamlet, the treachery of Iago and the humanity of Brutus in Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa presents us with a wide tapestry of characters and social consciousness, but leaves us to decipher for our ourselves the answers to life’s questions. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s films will continue to linger in our minds.

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‘Dunkirk’ a non-stop adventure

From the first frame of “Dunkirk”, the action doesn’t stop until the film’s conclusion. Just under two hours long, the film is a breathtaking war story that never lets its foot off the gas pedal.

400,000 soldiers are stranded off the coast of France in Dunkirk, their home of England visible just over the channel, but they can’t get there. German planes are picking them off on flybys and the enemy army is steadily advancing in on them. The film follows three sets of characters; one set on land, led by young Tommy (Fion Whitehead) trying to survive on the beach, one in the air, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) trying to protect the troops on the ground from German aircraft, and one coming in from the sea, a commercial yacht piloted by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), tasked with trying to rescue the troops. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) on the beach overlooks the entire operation with despair and yet a slim ray of hope; perhaps rescue will come from home.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is a tale of tension rather than carnage. It is rated PG-13 so the blood and massacre of other war films is not as omnipresent or visual. This is rather a story of avoiding that horror.

Time plays a central element in the narrative, always seemingly ticking in the background. The time of the incoming tide, characters constantly checking their watches, Farrier’s declining fuel supply in his fighter jet; all tick by over the course of the story. This ratchets up the tension as we clock down to the possible annihilation of our heroes.

The film really puts you in the situation. Through the wide and precise cinematography and deafening sound (it may be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen), the war and dread come to life. Everything in the film appears shockingly real. Though we know there are visual effects, they are hard to point out in comparison to so many other films who blatantly use CGI, but in a way that points to the effect being man made.

The story is relatively simple, and there are seemingly barely 50 lines of dialogue in the whole film. It is really more about story told through action, and the film keeps going at full-speed the entire time, barely letting the audience catch their breath. This is both well-done and a bit overdone.

The film is not so much about war, but about determination, representative of the defiant British spirit. It is a story of perseverance in the face of slim odds, told in grand yet intimate scale. The three different storylines intersect at the conclusion in a grand rescue that gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.

‘The Girl on the Train’ a boring rehash of other’s ideas

You may initially be confused by the title of “The Girl on the Train” in thinking that it is “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or perhaps “Gone Girl.” That is intentional as “The Girl on the Train” is really just an imitation of both of those projects.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) takes the train to work in New York everyday. It passes by her old house where her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), lives with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their new baby. Next to them live Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). She sees something shocking one day and the next morning she wakes up with bruises and no memory of her previous night. And no one can find Megan.

The story is told in confusing fashion, leading the viewer not to trust Rachel. Without a firm character to latch onto emotionally, the plot is rather aimless, the audience not really caring personally about the mystery. And as the mystery is revealed, it generates a meh response for being pretty obvious and unoriginal.

The thing that keeps the film somewhat strong is Emily Blunt’s performance. She’s great in the lead role, showcasing insanity, uncertainty and shame. It’s a shame it’s pretty much wasted in this film.

The film and book it is based off really just feel as if they are trying to capitalize on the woman-mystery craze typified with “Gone Girl” and “The Girl With…” series. Crafting new stories into the genre is not in itself a poor choice, but you have to have a strong narrative to tell and “The Girl on the Train” simply doesn’t. It’s a half-baked concept with semi-decent execution.

‘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*).