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‘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?

Movie Essentials: The Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game (1939) was a critical and box office disappointment upon its release despite the fact that it was the most expensive French production ever at the time. In fact, the French censors banned it on the grounds that it was “having an undesirable influence over the young.” It wasn’t until after World War II that the film was rediscovered and a more modern audience could see it for it was: a masterpiece.

Aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just completed a record setting flight, but when he lands, the only thing on his mind is his disappointment that Christine (Nora Gregor), the wife of aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), is not there to greet him. Despite her marriage, he is in love with her. Robert himself in involved in an affair with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély) though he is trying to get out of it. André gets an invitation to Robert’s home from his good friend, Octave (Jean Renoir), where there is a large hunting party gathering. However, Octave himself is in love with Christine. More and more characters come into play: aristocrats, maids, servicemen, each involved in an intricate love web that all comes exploding in on itself at this weekend gathering. At the end of the night, André is dead, shot by a jealous groundskeeper who thought he was the man sleeping with his wife, and Christine belongs to no one.

The film stands as a commentary of the upper social class of Europe at the time. The aristocracy looks down on their servants and thinks little of them, using them for their own games, while that same lower class flails in a crumbling society, the lure of an outbreak of war pending. The director, Jean Renoir, had remarked that he believed it was the film’s candor about the social lives of the economic classes that drew such heavy criticism, that audiences were not ready for the truth presented in his film. The truth of the narrative is that the rich ignored the qulams of the lesser people, so indulging themselves with their own frivolous romances, that they failed to see the rising seeds of conflict that erupted into another world war.

Octave, played by Renoir himself, often remarks during the film, “Everyone has his reasons.” There is no central antagonist in the film. Indeed, the viewer is able to relate to just about everyone. All the characters have motives and goals against which they must compete within the rules of their society. They are all trapped in the rules of the game, a game of social hierarchy where the poor stay poor, the rich become richer and desires and lusts are structured according to placement. The Rules of the Game may hold many parallels to modern times, maintaining its relevance.

What the film ultimately gives the audience is a wide tapestry of European social existence. There are moments of comedy and drama and action, the dialogue is witty and the multitude of characters are interesting and involving. Much like his father, Auguste Renoir, a leading impressionist painter, Jean Renoir utilizes his canvas and presents an intricate glimpse into a timeless story.

At the film’s conclusion, André lies dead, the result of mistaken identity. He is a victim of someone who tried to transcend social ranking and become something more. He sought a married woman, a woman of higher class and even flew across the ocean to prove himself to her, but it does not matter. He is a victim of the rules of the game, a game that was rigged in Europe at the time and, with its eerie parallels to modern times, may still be to this day.

Movie Essentials: Persona

Ingmar Bergman has always been cinema’s great existentialist. His work delves into musings about life and death and love and sex and the mystery surrounding all of it. Watching one of his films is equivalent almost to a church confessional, as if he is whispering to us all his deepest thoughts.

Filmed during the height of the war in Vietnam, Persona (1966) begins with a series of seemingly random images: corpses, spiders, a young boy waking up, hands nailed into a cross, a reel of film spinning out of control while showing old cartoons.

We then meet our principal characters: An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who falls into a silent state suddenly during a performance and her young, soon-to-be married nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).

The two spend the summer at a doctor’s summer house. Throughout their stay, the audience learns about each woman, one through talking (Alma), the other by silence (Elisabet). Alma relates a lucid sexual excursion she and her friend had at the beach and the subsequent abortion. Her guilt afterwards festers and makes her wonder if she could be two people at once. Afterwards, in a dreamlike state, both women meet in the dead of night and seemingly blend together. Upon discovering that Elisabet has been condescendingly humoring her during their stay and seeing her as a case study, the two fight. Their fight escalating into surrealism, Elisabet’s husband arrives and confuses Alma for Elisabet, further drawing the two characters together. It is revealed that Elisabet hates her child, and Alma is terrified of their strange connection, seemingly trying to convince herself that she will not end up the same way. In a state of near vampirism, Alma cuts her wrist and Elisabet drinks her blood before Alma repeatedly slaps her. Alma leaves Elisabet as the audience views the film projector spin to a stop.

Bergman described the film as a poem in images. He came up with the initial idea after an operation and the process of waking up from unconsciousness. The film seems to imply that consciousness is something unnatural. Both Alma and Elisabet suffer from delusions about what they should be feeling, but can’t. Love is a mystery to them and even harmful in respects. Elisabet is hiding from confronting her fears about humanity, and Alma tries to convince herself that she won’t end up like Alma, a vessel of emptiness. Hands are a visual key throughout the film, always reaching, searching for connection. When both characters realize just how similar they are, they see that they are both deluding themselves.

The camera stays on the two women’s faces during the pivotal conclusion. We see every movement in their expression, their lips trembling, their eyes watering. Through this deep inspection, the audience understands that both characters are open to us despite what they hide from themselves. And then the faces merge.

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Perhaps Bergman was making a comparison between the character of Elisabet and us, the audience. We sit back and view the film silently as Elisabet does, watching Alma pour herself out to us, telling us her story, but, like Elisabet, we watch with amusement rather than investment, and Bergman resents our condescension.

Or perhaps Bergman was insinuating the decline of structures themselves. Featuring shots of Nazi concentration camps and a monk burning himself in protest, the 1960s were a time when societal structures were viewed with rancor. By deconstructing the film process and showing the film reel in his film, perhaps Bergman implies that all structures, whether they be social or sexual or governmental or cinematic, are false compared to the allure of unconsciousness and the peace that entails.

Alma eventually convinces Elisabet to say one word. “Nothing.” Perhaps that is the meaning of the film, a desire to return to nothingness when confronted with both halves of our personality, one ready to admit the truth and the other trying to hide it.

Perhaps Bergman’s seminal work, “Persona” continues to haunt and entrance those who view it. It will always be one of the greatest works of cinema.

‘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).

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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.