Sunday, August 6, 2017
Detroit, The Dark Tower, Annabelle: Creation, A Ghost Story Reviews
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
In many ways, Detroit marks the third in a trilogy of films between director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, starting with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Each film examines a period of history using Bigelow's established roots as an action director to make politically charged films with a constant sense of energy, examining the power dynamics in typically scary "combat" situations where traditional rules no longer apply. She also often delves into researched details that aren't typically covered on the evening news. With Detroit, Bigelow is examining the pressure-cooker situation of the Detroit riots, a shameful and often overlooked moment in US history, and marks Bigelow's most hard-hitting (literally) and visceral film to date - made prescient by the fact that its depictions of injustice, prejudice, and police brutality seem like they've been ripped from today's headlines.
The backdrop of the film is the summer of 1967 in the titular city, when a racially-motivated riot breaks out after police raid an unlicensed nightclub. Tensions are high, and relations between the enraged black citizens and the mounting police force are reaching a fever pitch. After showing this building tension through intense, documentary-style recreations interspersed with actual stock footage, the film then zeroes in on one specific incident that describes the personal and human toll this event took, taking place at the Algiers Motel. Responding to the call of a supposed sniper, Michigan police raided the motel and essentially rounded up and terrorized the ten black men and two white women inside.
Detroit, similar to 12 Years a Slave, is to me a horror film masked as historical drama. The hopeless degree to which the police abuse their power, and the terror that ensues inside the Algiers is as palpable as Last House on the Left or Funny Games. Will Poulter, playing a racist police officer, becomes one of the most disturbing characters I've ever seen in a film (making me wish his screen turn as Pennywise in It could've happened). After essentially taking the motel occupants hostage he becomes unhinged, trying to find this "shooter" - who doesn't actually exist - by any means necessary. The character is unapologetically unsympathetic, apt to literally shoot a man in the back who poses no danger to him. The riots, however, being an "all-hands-on-deck" situation, unfortunately is the perfect catalyst for this psycho to have the god-like authority of life-or-death over these men and women.
While some of the characters are not as developed as they could have been, one of the best performances of the film comes from Algee Smith's Larry Reed, an aspiring Motown singer whose life is forever changed after the riots. There are three key "singing" scenes that take place at the beginning, middle, and end of the film, with each holding a lot of emotional weight for the character and also standing in for the overall human, psychological toll this event had on the people that experienced it. It's a fantastic performance, and one I hope doesn't get buried underneath Poulter's "showier," terrifying portrayal.
The most painful part of watching Detroit is how relevant it is nearly 50 years later. The conditions that allowed this atrocity to happen seem to still be in place today, with the brutal deaths of black people like Eric Garner at the hands of police routinely making the news and the volatile situation in Ferguson, Missouri still fresh in our memories. For that reason, along with its fine performances and a breathlessly intense immediacy to its filmmaking, Detroit is in my mind a must-see film and stands among Bigelow's best and most important works.
The Dark Tower
Dir. Nikolaj Arcel
Despite being one of the most prolific writers in America today, adaptations of Stephen King's work have been really hit or miss over the years. But while King fans can collectively shrug away something like Cell, which sort of came and went with the breeze, The Dark Tower is a property that deserves a bit more TLC. Comprising a series of eight novels, some of which run close to a 1000 pages or more, it's King's fantasy epic series that brings together everything from evil wizards to Spaghetti Western gunslingers to inter-dimensional portals to evil demonic robots. It's an unwieldy property that even the likes of JJ Abrams and Ron Howard eventually gave up on directing. With so much bizarre, visually-interesting mythology to build, the choice here to make a rushed, 90-minute mish-mash adaptation taking elements from a bunch of different books is, in my opinion, sort of insulting to those die-hard King fans who've waited their entire lives for this movie.
Already a confusing, complex story from the books, the film struggles to explain the logistics of its own world to newcomers. The movie follows audience surrogate Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), an 11-year old boy who dreams of a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who seeks to destroy a mystical, universe-protecting Tower to ruin the world, as well as the gunslinger who opposes him. Dismissing these dreams as trauma, his mom and step-dad seek the aid of a psychiatric facility for Jake - but they are really the Man in Black's evil henchmen in human disguises. After managing to run away from his captors, Jake stumbles upon an abandoned house from his dreams and finds himself walking through a portal into another reality: Mid-World. It's there he meets the gunslinger of his dreams, Roland (Idris Elba), who seeks to kill Walter, the Man in Black, for the murder of his father. The two then set off to find Walter across time and space and potentially save the universe while doing it.
The most frustrating thing about this movie is that there are so many hints at the good movie this could have been. Elba is fantastic, displaying both a badass side with his gunplay and a fish-out-of-water comedic side when he travels back to Earth with Jake, reminding me very much of the same dynamic we saw in Wonder Woman. McConaughey is also devilishly casual in his portrayal of Walter, who has the god-like power of "suggestion," to the point here he just has to tell someone "stop breathing" and they'll die on the spot. However, the problem with both these characters is that their "powers" are not clear and because the brief run-time allows no time to breathe, they come off as incredibly generic. Their backstories remain unclear, with scenes feeling rushed and cobbled together; Roland's important backstory with his father is only half-remembered in a dream sequence and Walter's motivation remains unknown. Also: whatever the hell "magician from Hot Topic" outfit McConaughey is wearing is completely silly and deflates his entire performance.
The Dark Tower series seems tailor-made for an episodic television series for the Westworld or Game of Thrones crowd, where the mythology could slowly build over time and the rich cast of characters could be introduced fully, uncompromised. In fact, three of the most major characters of the book series - Eddie, Susannah, and Oy - are totally missing in this movie (which is almost the equivalent of the first Harry Potter movie getting rid of Ron and Hermione). The Dark Tower is a 90-minute surface-skim of the books and the film equivalent of a microwaved TV dinner. It's not inedible, but there is nothing special about it.
Dir. David F. Sandberg
Note: I saw Annabelle: Creation through a free early screening held by AMC Theaters.
None of us knew it when The Conjuring premiered in 2013, but we're apparently getting a "Conjuring" horror universe to rival Marvel's. As if unoriginality couldn't be more confusing, Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to Annabelle, which was itself a prequel and a spin-off of The Conjuring. So here we are with the second Annabelle film, discovering the "origin" of the creepy doll introduced as little else than a background detail in the first Conjuring. It's also the first in the series from Lights Out director David F. Sandberg, and while this movie is as riddled with cliches and bad dialogue as you'd expect, to me it surpasses all of its predecessors due to Sandberg's ability to wring out tension in some clever ways and the two main characters actually being likable.
The story follows six girls and a nun moving into a remote orphanage run by a grieving toymaker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto). Most weary of the move is Janice (Talitha Bateman), a polio-stricken girl wearing a leg brace, but she's comforted by her close friend Linda (Lulu Wilson), who assures her everything will be OK. The two - one the "weakest," the other the youngest - are often shunned by the other catty girls. They are both incredibly sympathetic characters, so when the going gets tough, I actually found myself rooting for them to succeed. While the other characters were embarrassingly one-dimensional (especially the nun), the two lead girls' performances elevated the entire movie for me, making even the most generic of generic lines like "I feel an evil presence in this house" stand out.
The best aspect of Annabelle: Creation is its set design. We get a clear sense of the labyrinthine layout of this orphanage, with each room containing hidden secrets. The toymaker's bedridden wife remains mysteriously hidden in her own room, behind a sheer curtain. The room where Janice and Linda sleep is strewn with all kinds of eerie props and unfinished doll "bodies." The room in which Annabelle is locked away is both childish and garish. There's even a cool, antique electric chair lift that allows Janice to go to the second floor (which you just know is eventually going to malfunction). Production designer Jennifer Spence, who's worked on a number films in the Insidious and Paranormal Activity franchises, makes this house into something that feels both authentic and sinister.
Annabelle: Creation isn't Shakespeare, but it totally works as a solid "haunted house" movie. There are some genuinely creepy visuals - from a haunted barnyard scarecrow to the Annabelle doll menacingly sitting in a room covered with Bible pages - and it's no surprise coming from Sandberg that the use of darkness and light to convey fear was utilized well throughout. It relies a little too heavily on jump scares and the script is laughably bad at points (at the end of the film, one of the characters asks a little girl who just went through the most traumatic event of her life: "How are you doing?"), but overall, for a few cheap scares Annabelle: Creation is a decent option to bring your scaredy-cat friends to to watch them nervously grip the armrest.
A Ghost Story
Dir. David Lowery
One of the most pleasant surprises for me last year was David Lowery's Pete's Dragon, which married Lowery's largely poetic, "indy" sensibilities with a big Disney action movie. A Ghost Story, a supernatural drama that premiered at Sundance, brings Lowery back to his roots making low-budget, rudimentary films. And in depicting a ghost, what's more rudimentary than the image of two dark holes cut into a white sheet? As opposed to making a straight-up horror film, Lowery examines our fear of death from the perspective of a wandering ghost - it's the living that haunts him throughout the film, as we're brought along to feel the sense of loss and inevitability of time marching forward. And somehow, despite that lofty ambition and seriousness, there were moments of humor and catharsis to go with its more dour philosophical musings.
The story follows a nameless couple played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. After Affleck dies in a car wreck and Mara identifies his body at the morgue, Affleck's body slowly lifts from the examining table and returns home. Then, like Affleck's sheet-ghost, we watch as Mara grieves on her own, oblivious of Affleck's presence (in a scene that I'm sure will piss certain people off, there's a long take of Mara devouring a pie to eat her way out of her grief that I found oddly transfixing).
It's an extremely simple film with complex ideas behind it, and the way Lowery frames those ideas was fascinating - even if the pace can be frustratingly slow. The movie is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio (like a square), making the film feel both claustrophobic and like a memory caught on Polaroid. I also thought it was incredible how cinematic Lowery is able to make this ghost character feel, literally making an emotionless sheet exude sadness. Because the character is a blank slate, I think people can project their own ideas into the film. The music from frequent Lowery collaborator Daniel Hart also adds to the powerfully melancholic mood, with the beautiful repeating song "I Get Overwhelmed" playing as a main theme throughout.
With A Ghost Story, David Lowery re-invents the haunted house movie. Some people may be totally on board with its poetic feel, sparse dialogue, and intentionally provocative use of time while others will find it pretentious dreck (I will admit, there's one extended scene where a hipster explains the meaninglessness of life at a party that was completely insufferable). I landed more on the "plus" side though - it's strange, emotional, unlike anything I've ever seen, and seemed as though it would fit more at home in an art museum rather than my local theater.