Skip to main content

You think we're bluffing? We don't bluff!

Detroit
(2017)

(SPOILERS) A film about black people made by white people for white people. That’s the common charge levelled at Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the 1967 Algier Motel incident. And it’s difficult to argue against the validity of the assertion. One might also add, “the majority of whom aren’t going to be interested in seeing it anyway, unless it gets some Oscar buzz, and even then”. Then, one might similarly doubt who Bigelow’s last few movies were for, exactly, since they seemed primarily designed to cement her status as a serious, politically-astute filmmaker who now shirks all that genre nonsense of her less socially-conscious days. More’s the pity. Is Detroit any good? It’s well made, as technically accomplished as everything she’s done, and electrically tense during its central section, but it isn’t so much an “angry” film (as some cheerleaders have suggested) as the result of a dispassionate craftsperson tackling combustive subject matter. It betrays exactly the eye of someone aware of the prestige status they now occupy.


I wasn’t a fan of Zero Dark Thirty, a picture precision-designed to invade the consciousness as an official account – after all, we’re unlikely ever to get to see otherwise, any more than that elusively disposed of body – with all the dubious propaganda issues that entails (bring along just a smidge of controversy, to make it seem like you aren’t completely wagging your tail). The Hurt Locker was better, by virtue of still having its finger on the dramatics of the unabashed set piece, but it nevertheless didn’t warrant its Oscar glory, any more than K-19: The Widowmaker deserved to be dismissed out of hand, back before she was flavour of the month.


Detroit exhibits the casual virtuosity of a filmmaker who knows exactly what they’re doing technically – handheld camera that never becomes disorientating or distracting is used throughout, the sound design is inescapably oppressive – but it also betrays her “baser” instincts. Bigelow is a naturally kinetic director, her inclination is to excite her audience, and that’s both a boon to the incredibly taut proceedings that occur during the extended middle section of the picture, in the motel, and a drawback, because it highlights that’s all she’s really achieving, all she’s really adept at. There’s no outrage in her lens, merely calculation.


Indeed, many a review has referred to Detroit as a horror movie. Is that really what this ought to be, though? “Punched up” in terms of tightening the screws of tension. Is that a suitable way to tell the story, if you feel the need to dramatise it? Is that the key to the casting of (the very good) Will Poulter, making the most of a naturally ghoulish visage to essay an unmitigated horror genre villain (aside from a wrong-footing line in his first scene, where refers to trying to a desire to “help these people”, moments before giving chase to a looter with a bag full of stolen groceries and shooting him in the back)? I guess it depends what you’re looking for from a picture. It’s very easy to push a button that elicits indignation when you’re working with the tools of an average home invasion thriller. What you expect more of is insight.


There’s also the problem of Detroit as a story, though. If the meat is the mid-section in the Algiers, Bigelow has trouble with the rest of her sandwich. And problems with the focus on her protagonists too. The opening act seems to wander aimlessly at first, setting up incidents and encounters that coalesce into the characters we will follow into the motel (or, at least, some of them). That’s a smart strategy in eliciting empathy and attachment (or lack thereof in the case of Poulter’s Krauss and his accomplices; the picture is almost ineptly apologetic in showing other cops to be okay guys, such as the superior who labels Krauss a racist, or the patrolman who is beside himself with concern for the half-beaten-to-death Larry Reed).


So why then is the instantly most engaging character one we don’t meet until we’re in the Motel, Anthony Mackie’s veteran Greene? In particular, the focus on the arc of Reed (Algee Smith), no doubt because it represents most strikingly aspirations dashed and destroyed by that fateful night (he could have been the next big thing with The Dramatics, until it all went to hell) is weak and hackneyed, Mark Boal’s screenplay intent on using obvious melodramatic devices (Reed gets up on stage to deliver a few verses to an evacuated auditorium) to indicate this is the last occasion he’ll be doing such a thing.


John Boyega is solid in an undernourished role as security guard Melvin Dismukes, attempting to tread a delicate line of peace-making and both self and general preservation (an account from at least one of the victims has Dismukes handing out beatings himself) but being particularly poorly served in the almost perfunctory trial-come-coda, even to the extent it isn’t immediately clear he is on trial (we see him arrested and then locked up, but then the attention shifts entirely to the bad cops). Also strong are the white girls (Hannah Murray of Game of Thrones and Kaitlyn Denver of Justified) whose mere presence inflames the cops’ wrath, Jason Mitchell (previously memorable as Easy-E in Straight Outta Compton) as Carl, whose foolhardy flourishing of a starter pistol initiates the convergence on the Motel, and Gbenga Akkinnagbe (The Wire) as the grieving father of one of the victims.


The animated introduction concerning The Great Migration seems to float above the subsequent film, failing to inform or effectively contextualise the whole, as if it came after the fact in brainstorming how to position a picture relying on the tools of immediacy and the moment. As a result, the riots appear to come out of nowhere, providing an excuse for only a lot of looting and abandon, with little grounding of the pervading political atmosphere. Boal and Bigelow know the part of the story they want to tell in Detroit, the part that’s a quick fix in dramatic terms, but they’re unable to get to grips with the bookends, which ought to have held equal weight – greater even – if they were to prove their best intentions.  


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

I think my mother put a curse on us.

Hereditary (2018)
(SPOILERS) Well, the Hereditary trailer's a very fine trailer, there's no doubt about that. The movie as a whole? Ari Aster's debut follows in the line of a number of recent lauded-to-the-heavens (or hells) horror movies that haven't quite lived up to their hype (The Babadook, for example). In Hereditary's case, there’s no doubting Ari Aster's talent as a director. Instead, I'd question his aptitude for horror.

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

Reindeer-goat cheese pizza?

Hudson Hawk (1991)
A movie star vanity project going down in flames is usually met with open delight from press and critics alike. Even fans of the star can nurse secret disappointment that they were failed on this occasion. But, never mind, soon they will return to something safe and certain. Sometimes the vehicle is the result of a major star attaching themselves to a project where they are handed too much creative control, where costs spiral and everyone ends up wet (Waterworld, The Postman, Ishtar). In other cases, they bring to screen a passion project that is met with derision (Battlefield Earth). Hudson Hawk was a character created by Bruce Willis, about whom Willis suddenly had the post-Die Hard clout to make a feature.

I love the combination of Gummi Bears and meat.

Despicable Me 3 (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Illumination formula is at least reliable, consistently and comfortably crowd-pleasing where DreamWorks often seems faintly desperate (because they are – who's their distributor this week?) Despicable Me 3 ploughs the same cosy, affirmative furrow as its wholly safe predecessor. When I saw Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that it reminded me of Shrek 2 in its attempt to continue a story that was complete in itself. Despicable Me 3 is similarly redundant, suggesting the most airless of brainstorming sessions – Gru has the kids, the wife, the job, how about now he gets a sibling? – although this time I was put in mind of the Lethal Weapon sequels and their ability to continue churning out/expanding on the family vibe long after Riggs had become a (relatively) well-adjusted member of society.

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway)
Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders Carry On, Jeeves but this time blends it with a tale from The Inimitable Jeeves for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.