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.

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Short takes: Dunkirk & War for the Planet of the Apes

Dunkirk — Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama is an intense, often thrilling triptych.  Structured around British efforts to escape the beach at Dunkirk, France as the Germans inch closer and closer, the movie oscillates between characters on land, air and sea.  There are the troops stuck on the shore, desperate to get away as Nazi planes pick them off with gunfire and bombing runs. A small number of Allied planes counter the Germans, trying to minimize casualties on the ground until help arrives. The third segment revolves around a man (Mark Rylance, casually excellent) whose boat is among a fleet of British citizens commissioned by the navy to take their private vessels to go and rescue the stranded soldiers.

Each of these segments unfolds over a different timeframe, so things that happen in one of them are sometimes viewed from a different perspective later on in the movie.  Nolan skips between them liberally, and this rapid fire structure nearly always pays off.  However, there are moments that cut away too soon, dicing up scenes that would have worked better if they’d been allowed to play out a bit longer.  Dunkirk’s expansive, visceral view of war is also sometimes lessened by an overbearing score that distracts rather than enhances.

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Short takes: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver & Beatriz at Dinner

Spider-Man: Homecoming — For better and worse, the rebooted-yet-again story of Spider-Man thrusts the hero into the digital age. First introduced as a DIY filmmaker enthusiastically chronicling his semi-induction into The Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) soon learns the challenges of balancing high school and super hero life. Should he use his costume to impress a crush and silence a bully?  Will his parental guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, shamefully but not surprisingly under-utilized) find out why he’s sneaking out at night?

The Parker of Homecoming longs for more than thwarting ATM robbers and recovering stolen bikes. He wants to play with the big kids, though Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) periodically shows up to remind him he’s not ready. Director Jon Watts balances the whimsical innocence of the high school portions of the movie with the slightly grave mission Spider-Man undertakes: combatting the Vulture (Michael Keaton, a manic delight), a disgruntled public works employee who steals secret technology from the military and eventually The Avengers.

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REVIEW: The Beguiled

The Beguiled
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola (screenplay), Thomas Cullinan (novel), Albert Maltz & Irene Kamp (The Beguiled 1971 version screenplay)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning

A playful chamber drama tinged with nervous desire, Sofia Coppola’s latest takes the director’s predilection for insular worlds to a new extreme. Her The Beguiled is a remake of sorts of a wild, pulpy 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Paige and directed by Don Siegel. (Both films are based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan). The story is set in 1864 at a secluded Southern girls boarding school in Virginia, where Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (here played by Colin Farrell) is hesitantly taken in after his left leg is severely crippled in battle.

The Beguiled is not an interrogation of the broader political machinations of the Civil War. It examines white women left behind by war, a study of desire that is pent up in corsets and isolated in the woods. It does not portray slavery in any capacity, and actually removes a key character. In the 1971 film, one of the women at the boarding school is a slave named Hallie, who tends to McBurney’s wounds.

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REVIEW: A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion
Directed by: Terence Davies
Written by: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff and Keith Carradine

In A Quiet Passion, writer/director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon see their subject, the American poet Emily Dickinson, with such disarming clarity that it can at times be difficult to watch. This is not only true of Dickinson’s declining health late in the movie, but of most of her interactions with other characters; how she latches onto a kindred spirit who shares her rebelliousness and fiery wit, only to withdraw further from the world when that woman marries, or her regular confrontations with priests and her own family about Christianity.

She knows in her bones that she does not share everyone else’s piety or the pressure to marry simply because it’s expected of her.  Dickinson defiantly accepts the label of “radical,” spending much of her life in 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts, defining exactly what that means. As portrayed here, she is an intellectual far ahead of her time, crippled by a reclusive despair because she knows how the world would treat her if she showed it who she really was. Traditional happiness is nearly always out of reach, something that Nixon, in one of the finest performances of the decade so far, displays on her endlessly crumpling face.

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REVIEW: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Written by: Allan Heinberg (screenplay), Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs (story), William Moulton Marston (comic)
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis and Connie Nielsen

Patty Jenkins doesn’t think movies today have enough sincerity. “I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing,” the Wonder Woman director said in a recent interview in The New York Times. “It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.”

With Wonder Woman, Jenkins says she wanted to create a movie about a superhero who “believes in love, who is filled with love.” Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) wields sincerity as a kind of blunt instrument, course correcting her allies when she feels they fall short and destroying anyone who seeks to harm innocent people. Wonder Woman is a World War I drama infused with Greek mythology; humanity may have moved on from the likes of Zeus and Ares, but here at least one remains as a corrupting influence, whispering horrendous ideas, like a new gas mask-resistant mix of mustard gas, into German ears from the shadows.

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Short takes: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Mommy Dead and Dearest & more

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a sizable leap forward from the first installment, a movie that feels like its own beast and has a distinct visual personality that is so often absent from other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Again following the planet-hopping exploits of a misfit group of reluctant heroes, director James Gunn doubles down on the ensemble’s comedic banter while refining the action set pieces. The generic, indistinguishable eyeball assaults that I’ve come to expect and dread from Marvel movies are mostly gone here, replaced with fun, varied fight sequences. Gunn also divides the team up so he can focus on different character dynamics rather than throwing everyone into a big, empty spectacle that flattens them.

That’s not to say that doesn’t happen occasionally. There are times when the movie trips over its own feet, skipping between plot lines by awkwardly cutting up scenes that would be better had Gunn just let them play out a bit longer. This is especially true of the ones between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the Guardians’ leader, and the father (Kurt Russell) who abandoned him and his mother for a life of space conquest. Right as their scenes start to find a rhythm, the movie skips back to see what other members of the squad, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), are up to while trapped on a space ship lightyears away.

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REVIEW: Moonlight


Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris

Moonlight, a coming-of-age film from Barry Jenkins, is a moving, intimate epic. Told in three stages of his protagonist, Chiron’s, life — as a young boy (Alex R. Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and an adult (Trevante Rhodes)– Jenkins and the three actors who portray Chiron show his evolution from a quiet, cripplingly shy child to a more confident adult without losing sight of his pent up frustration and insecurity.

When we first see Chiron, he’s a frantic blur, a boy fleeing through grass from schoolyard bullies in Miami, his backpack thrashing behind him. To escape, he heads to a largely abandoned drug den and tries the doors until one opens. Locking it behind him, he’s finally alone and, temporarily, safe.  It’s not long before Juan (Mahershula Ali), a drug dealer who becomes a warm, caring father figure to the tormented boy, breaks off one of the wooden panels covering the window.

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REVIEW: Little Sister


Little Sister
Directed by: Zach Clark
Written by: Zach Clark (screenplay), Zach Clark & Melodie Sisk (story)
Starring: Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson and Peter Hedges

Colleen Lunsford hasn’t been home for a while.  The young novitiate (Addison Timlin) made her way from her hometown of Ashville, N.C. to Brooklyn and hasn’t looked back for several years.  Little Sister, from writer/director Zach Clark, establishes her life in New York and the rift between her and her mother with quick, economical cuts showing her new routine as her old life gradually, forcefully seeps its way back in. It begins with her mom Joani (an excellent Ally Sheedy) emailing her to tell her that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) is out of the hospital and back home after being wounded and permanently disfigured in the second Iraq War.

The email, which she reads after ignoring her mom’s attempt to contact her by phone, spurs her to temporarily abandon her life of buying food for the homeless, reading to the elderly and attending anti-George W. Bush performance art shows and head South.  She asks the head nun if she can borrow her car for the trip; the nun agrees, but makes her agree to a time frame.  God created the Earth in six days, she says, so Colleen should be able to attend to her business in less than that. They settle on five, though Colleen doesn’t hold herself to that time frame.

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Short takes: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and more


Arrival — Arrival feels like the more hopeful and optimistic prequel to the 2009 sci-fi film District 9, a movie about the destructive, Apartheid-like aftermath of an alien spaceship’s sudden presence on Earth.  As in that movie, the large, ominous vessels in Denis Villeneuve’s film loom large over an otherwise standard landscape.  A dozen or so of the big, black ships pop up around the world, in places like Siberia, Sudan and Montana, where much of the movie is set. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is called there by the U.S. military to try and communicate with the aliens and translate their messages.

If it weren’t for the strategic establishing shots with the spaceship, Arrival would feel like a much smaller movie, one that largely unfolds in an ominously foggy room inside one of the ships or in the close quarters of a temporary military base just outside it.  Its use of practical effects and news footage widens its scope and enhances the drama rather than distracting from it.  The movie focuses on a select few characters, but their actions are seen to have a huge and wide-ranging effect on how the rest of the world will respond to the crisis. Arrival builds to a moving, surprising climax, one that is both hopeful and heartbreaking.  Grade: B

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