Short takes: Detroit, Girls Trip, Atomic Blonde & A Ghost Story

Detroit— Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is harrowing and infuriating, a claustrophobic tale of police brutality set against the 1967 riots in the Motor City. The movie is centered around the murder of three black men by the police at the Algiers Motel; more specifically it’s about the violent lead up to those deaths. State and city police and the National Guard swarm the complex after a man at the motel tauntingly pops off a few rounds from a starter pistol. That man is shot in the back while trying to flee, and a Detroit cop places a pocket knife next to his dying body so he can justify the killing. The rest of the people at the motel are detained and brutalized.

This is all told in squirm-inducing proximity to the carnage; Bigelow makes you feel every punch, shove and gunshot. The blunt physicality that has come to define her recent work often lends itself to unnerving suspense, especially in her 2008 film The Hurt Locker.  However, though I could feel this movie’s violence in my bones, it’s not instilled with enough historical context to elevate it much beyond that. The horror at the Algiers is bookended by sloppy segments that try and fail to broaden the movie’s focus.

Bigelow, working for the third time with screenwriter Mark Boal, glosses over the uprising in the city that preceded the events at the motel, focusing too much on looting and window breaking and not enough on effectively establishing the movie’s many key characters. The aftermath of the killing plows through the trial of the three city cops believed responsible, briefly lingering on the emotional trauma that Algiers survivor Larry Demps (Algee Smith) suffered from after leaving the motel. However, the movie doesn’t connect with him or any of the other victims long enough to expand on the aftermath of that violence. It is an overly vague tale of a vicious injustice. Grade: C

Girls Trip — Malcolm D. Lee’s buddy comedy Girls Trip is a strong showcase for its lead performers that features some of the funniest gags in recent memory. Set around a long overdue reunion of four college friends at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, the movie explores the personal and professional choices that led to the women growing apart. The excuse for their reunion is that one of them, the lifestyle guru Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall), is being honored at the festival. The other three — a journalist-turned-gossip-writer (Queen Latifah), a strung out single mother (Jada Pinkett Smith), and a hard-partying wild card (Tiffany Haddish) — soon discover that Ryan’s “you can have it all” lifestyle that they’ve seen on TV is quietly crumbling behind the scenes.

Her husband is cheating on her with an Instagram star, and if that gets to the press (or if Latifah’s character chooses to leak it) it could ruin a multi-million dollar merchandising deal the couple has been negotiating. In the midst of this marital turmoil lies one of the most hilarious movies I’ve seen in quite a while.  Lee thankfully keeps the focus on the amazing quartet at the center. Haddish steals the show, giving a performance of jaw-dropping comic ferocity that is among the year’s best. That’s saying something in a movie where Latifah’s character has sex with a lamp during an absinthe hallucination and Pinkett Smith gets stuck while zip lining and pisses all over an unsuspecting crowd below. The cast is so strong that they elevate the movie’s sometimes clumsy tonal shifts and overwrought story. Grade: B

Atomic Blonde —  The premise of Atomic Blonde sells itself: Charlize Theron as a badass Cold War-era spy, sneaking and pummeling her way around a divided Berlin. That it was helmed by John Wick co-director David Leitch made it even more promising.  And yet, the finished product is a disappointment. Atomic Blonde is a convoluted espionage thriller that often seems disinterested in its own story, about undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) trying to retrieve a stolen secret list of spies that would compromise the agency. That disinterest would be fine if Leitch could sustain a mood around Theron’s effortlessly sleek, cool-to-the touch performance instead of overwhelming nearly every scene with a hit period-friendly song. The soundtrack is a hit, to be sure, but the songs are used in increasingly uninteresting and distracting ways as the movie wears on.

Though it leaves much to be desired, Atomic Blonde does feature a couple of show-stopping fight sequences. The most notable of these takes place on a flight of stairs as Broughton tries to extract an agency asset. Surrounded by Russian agents and low on ammo, she ruthlessly fights her way out.  The sequence is filmed with a startling intensity that connects with Theron’s raw physicality. She’s tremendous, even if the rest of the movie can’t keep up. Grade: C-

 

A Ghost Story — I’ll be honest: I entered David Lowery’s A Ghost Story a skeptic.  A movie where Casey Affleck wanders around covered in a sheet with two round, sad eye holes in it didn’t seem like something I would be able to take seriously. And yet I found myself captivated during much of it. Affleck plays a man (simply credited as C) who dies in a car crash and returns as a ghost to the home he shared with his girlfriend M (Rooney Mara).

The thing that makes A Ghost Story resonate as well as it does is how Lowery plays with time. In the period after C dies and returns home, things seem to slow to a crawl. He watches as M copes with her grief by scarfing down an entire pie (a now infamous 5+ minute sequence that Lowery shows in a single grueling take), listens to music, brings another man home and eventually moves out of the house and on with her life. All of this is peppered with memories of their life together when he was still alive.

When she moves out, though, C remains tethered to the location but time begins to blur. Lowery begins to liberally skip through days, weeks, months and even years into the future during a single cut.  A new family comes and goes, partiers take over, the house is demolished and replaced with a giant, ominous corporate office — this rapid pick-up is disorienting but often moving.  A Ghost Story is anchored by a tremendous score that infuses Lowery’s still, distant compositions with deep undercurrents of sadness and longing. Grade: B

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