Motor City Mayhem

Detroit is a movie you won’t forget. Or at least I won’t. It is brilliantly infuriating, difficult to watch and necessary to experience. If we as a country – or really as a people – are to begin to figure out how to move forward with the remnants of 2017 life, it’s a starting point. Not the only one but a possible one.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are both white and yet have chosen to tell a historical story that can be read as part of the ongoing story of the White patriarchal repression of Blacks. This has already created a side controversy that one realizes, after seeing the film, provides endless intellectual fodder but is sort of beside the point.

More to the issue is that if the arts can play some small part in bridging the gap between where we were, where we are and where we hope to be, Detroit should become a potent and powerful conversation starter. It’s that unrelenting and uncompromising.

…. but this time, the hype is real

Watching the film at a Writers Guild screening of people of all sorts of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes, it was clear the entire audience was emotionally gutted and awake. This was a Hollywood film made by whites where no white savior came in to save the day or even the score for the poor, put upon downtrodden.   We will never know what any other filmmaker of any other color would do with the same material – for better or worse – but at the moment Detroit is what we have of one hideous incident in one particularly hideous moment in our past.

This, by the way, is not meant to be congratulatory in any sort of way. There are no congratulations to be had in any discussion of this debacle.

Fifty years ago a racist patrolman in Detroit led a small group of law enforcers to alternately beat, torture and murder a small group of innocent Black men hanging out at the local Algiers Motel.

Detroit burns in July 1967

It was an explosive, ugly time of race riots and social injustice in big cities all across the country, but most especially in in the Motor City where an almost all White police force (93%) were tasked with holding the line on the residents of a fast-growing Black city (30%).

The unfolding story of the movie Detroit uses the ever-growing popular method of plopping its audience directly into the dramatic center of its narrative and trusting that in the age of web surfing, iPhone clicking and incessantly intense game-playing it will be able to play catch up.

Recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk do this and go for the big overall visceral reaction at the expense of individual character development and emotional nuance. Others like Atomic Blonde provide a couple of Irving the Explainer scenes of incoherent exposition and then have us settle down so we can watch the real entertainment – some larger than life extended violence where an unlikely hero/heroine (and who better than Charlize Theron) beats the crap out of everyone in slight we’d like to pulverize if were we six feet tall and had the benefit of hair, makeup and extensive martial arts training by stunt coordinator experts.

Charlize looking a little different from her Mad Max days  #oliviapopejacket

Detroit, however, is not about sensationalized hollow victories or a dramatic retelling of heroism under the thematic banner that War is Hell. It only starts out as a generalized expression of the Big Idea and a pastiche of characters one never gets to really know yet follows along into over-the-top battles. Its power is that it does all of this and then, at some unsuspecting point once this is all established, gets real specific, real fast. And stays there and unfolds for the essential body of the work – a kind of American horror movie gone wrong in a period motel hallway. And then goes on from there to show something about how we lived then. And ask the question if, at the end of the day, it’s really all that different than the way we live now – or is now just a cleaned up version?

Suffice it to say that at the end your visceral nerve endings are not only more than met but you also didn’t need chunks of exposition or violently musical YouTube-like video sequences to do it for you. There are actually real people to watch doing unfortunately all too human things that prompt all too human reactions that go on and on and on. As we say in screenwriting class, in science and in psychotherapy – cause and effect, real cause and effect. For every action is there is a reaction – one that is logical and one, in the movie Detroit, anyway, that you can follow.

… and countless other movies used for the exact opposite purpose

When asked the often-dreaded question of how he approached the material in a talkback afterwards, screenwriter Mark Boal said that he essentially saw this as a movie about an artist whose life was derailed. That, and a good deal of research, and talent, is probably a large part of the reason that the script for Detroit works so well. Call me old-fashioned but if you don’t know or care about the people (in this real-life case an aspiring young Motown-type singer) what do you really have? As a writer you need to find a way in. You can’t effectively write an issue or a historical event.

Sure, you can film it and use all sorts of technique, CGI and camera tricks to forge effective mass entertainment. But at the end of the day, what do you really have? What are you telling us that we didn’t already know, or need to be reminded of?

Certainly, movies can succeed solely on mass entertainment value, escapism, cheap thrills and recycled messages. Many of these films are highly watchable and superbly executed. But we’ve reached a point in the business where we have gotten used to the former and forgotten films like Detroit. Go see it and consider this a reminder.

But you can still go see Jon Hamm and this terrible haircut in Baby Driver #iunderstand

That might be a good way to end but it would be an oversight not to single out the mammoth filmmaking skills of Kathryn Bigelow here.   A two-year DGA study at the end of 2015 noted women account for 6.4% of film directors and just 3% of major box office films.  But let’s be kind and say the numbers have gone up slightly in the last year and a half. Still, that’s pretty piss poor.

When you watch Detroit you don’t so much ask yourself, how did she do that shot but in what world was she able to integrate all those disparate scenes and themes so convincingly, recreate an often botched decade of American history (the sixties) on film so convincingly and get those performances out of those actors so effortlessly? Heck if I know.

That girl #shesgotit #sheknowsit

It makes you wonder how many hundreds of other potential Kathryn Bigelows there are out there. Filmmakers who are female, or perhaps non-white, non-heterosexual or non gender binary, who might never get the chance. And how many of those stories are yet to be told. Not only through the entertainment industry but in any other American industry.

That would be one way to truly Make America Great again.

The Dramatics – “All Because of You” 

Before and After

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 1.18.28 PM

No – this is not one of those postings where you are going to hear about how I remade my body, my house or my mind in six weeks or less.  Though admittedly any of those could be worthy of a little freshening up, if not a total and complete reboot. Yet who but a few close contemporary frenemies has the money, dedication or time?  Well, the latter in that list is a total lie, isn’t it?  Yeah, it is.

It’s a lie because I found the time to spend what felt like 17 and a half hours of my life this weekend seeing the current #1 grossing movie in the world– Transformers 4: Age of Extinction – which in case you didn’t know has made a third of a billion dollars worldwide so far in mere weeks of release, a third of which came from just the US alone in a mere handful of days.  Relax, I didn’t contribute to any of the total – I went to a screening.  As if that will buy me those hours back.

I also found the time to see four other films in an attempt to not only cleanse my palette but to conduct my own very unscientific social experiment to answer this very unscientific question nagging at me: What has changed – the movies or me (nee) us?  Is it all just a giant misunderstanding of unfulfilled expectations or have Hollywood movie studios, led by the tent pole that is Transformers, alienated (get it?) us (nee) me, from the thrill of seeing the hot new movie on opening weekend or even beyond – forever?

is this over?

is this over?

This is the age of binge…everything.  Where there is no time like the present to indulge ourselves with whatever we want because, well, we can.  For instance, though we might be unable to take a week or two for the vacation of our dreams on the spur of the moment we can immediately stuff ourselves with pretty much any TV show we want that will take us there, or watch something online that will give us the vicarious thrill of being there.

That seems to be what the economically challenged (for most us) 2014s are about.  It used to be a very American thing to charge what we wanted on plastic or even quit our jobs and/or indulge, then worry about the results later.  I mean, look at the seventh season of Mad Men and tell me you don’t want to travel back to late 1960s Los Angeles?

Movies were invented for this very reason.  To help us get away and live in a world we could never be a part of were it not for Hollywood and the larger than life people and stories they brought to us.  I grew up that way, as did many of my friends, and it’s what made us want to become a part of the entertainment industry.  That, and the requisite dysfunctional childhoods that by today’s standards seem quite normal and, very certainly, typically American despite what films (and then television) showed us.  How’s that for irony?

My family portrait?

My family portrait?

Still, none of this was on my mind at all when it occurred to me this week that I hadn’t been out at a movie theatre to see a film other than Malefecent – which was a screening a friend took me to that I could have cared less about seeing so it doesn’t count – in about six weeks.   Well, two months if you count the two-week trip to Italy in May (Note:  That accounted for only heavenly bliss on an unearthly plane, hence the omission).  Yet I find time to binge watch TV and keep up with Orphan Black, The Rachel Maddow Show, Love It Or List It, Cold Case reruns and even the new season of The Next Food Network Star daily, weekly and, most certainly, religiously – in the summer – when most TV shows are on hiatus. Forget that I’m leaving out all the time reading, watching and posting mostly meaningless stuff on Facebook, Twitter and God knows where else (Note: This blog excused).

What’s happened?  Is it age or have the movies gotten as bad as the Academy Award hosting duties of Seth MacFarlane more than implied several years ago?

I guess the Chair didn't see A Million Ways to Die in the West!

I guess the Chair didn’t see A Million Ways to Die in the West!

Well, like a newly invigorated Oscar host (Note:  I have no suggestions of anyone better but perhaps, say, Nikke Finke, to re-invigorate them), I was determined to find out if the movies could once again hook me like a bad/good or good/bad TV show or even as effectively as the latest dumb feature/news story or Facebook posting.

Was everything awful I decided in advance about the current state of films the reason why I wasn’t leaving my house for my local multiplex?  Or would it merely take an attitude adjustment on my part – something my parents found more challenging than their own divorce to ever make happen – to cause the difference?

5 Movies/3 ½ Days.   Here is my report.

Thursday Night:

The Obvious Child

Not just Marcel the Shell

Potty mouth?

Expectations:  Some.  Good reviews of a very low budget film calling actress/comedian Jenny Slater the new Sarah Silverman by way of Woody Allen.  And besides, who can resist an original rom-com about…abortion!

Venue: Landmark Theatres, West L.A

Outcome:  Thoroughly enjoyable, touching and wickedly funny at parts.  It’s extremely low budget so don’t go in expecting much in the way of escape.  But it reminded me that despite all of my previous ranting escape is not what movies are entirely about – at least not for me.

It always bugged the crap out of me that films liked Knocked Up dismissed the idea of a young women these days getting an abortion as something out of hand and just, well, not a real serious option.  Even Juno, which certainly presented a convincing portrait of why a teenager would not choose to terminate a pregnancy, never quite convinced me of its heroine’s decision.

Does that hamburger phone have a direct connection to reality?

Does that hamburger phone have a direct connection to reality?

Oh, of course no woman enjoys having an abortion or even making the decision to do so.  But it’s a choice MANY choose and will continue to choose whether the people who call themselves right-to-life (Note: Meaning those who are pro choice are anti-life?) like it or not.  So why hasn’t it been addressed in any movie in any real way since what seems like the 1970s.

The above is for far greater minds than myself to address.  What The Obvious Child does so brilliantly is not make abortion an issue but tell the story of a young female comic in her twenties making choices as she tries to understand both herself and love.  Yeah, there’s a cute guy involved – isn’t there always?  And it’s funny.  And it rings true.  If this were two decades or ago and it was possible for more than one or two really small films per year to break through into the zeitgeist, we all would’ve gone to it sooner.  But it’s not and this is the new movie-going normal.  If you’re interested you have to look around and make the effort.  If it’s your kind of film and makes a bit of money, it might be easier to spot the next time.

Friday Night:

Ida

The gray lady

The gray lady

Expectations:  Promising but a bit like medicine that I realize will be good for me in the end.

Venue: Writer’s Guild Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA

Outcome: Haunting, provocative and thoughtful.  It makes you think and impresses you with simplicity without ever trying to.  It also makes an extremely convincing case for artistic brevity and international cinema – two items that shouldn’t ever need to be reinforced but will, unfortunately seem to always have to be.

If I’m not the audience for a black and white Polish language film set in 1962 about two strong Jewish women with echoes of the Holocaust, then who is?  So why did I only go to see Ida because a good friend recommended it to me in particular, and then only because it was screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre at a convenient time (Note: Which still technically counts as leaving your house)?  Lazy and complacent, that’s why.

Is this all it takes?

Is this all it takes?

All films are irrefutably artistic in some form because each and every one of them is an example of the art form.  But is there good art and bad art, high art and low art?  Who knows?  The only thing I’m sure of is that at 83 minutes Ida’s director, Pawel Pawlikowski, a former documentarian, has made a true work of art.

The film is the definition of spare in the best possible ways.  Imagine Ingmar Bergman making an Italian neo-Realist film by way of Mike Leigh and Terrence Malick and you might begin to get a picture.  Or perhaps it is none of those and simply – uh – original.

At it’s core this is a coming-of-age film about a woman who is about to be a nun and then learns she is Jewish.  It’s about family, history, love and what impact one chooses to make on the world and how.  And why.  It is also about the past and probably leaves more questions than it answers.  But the questions it leaves us with are more than enough to chew on for an entire evening afterwards with friends or perhaps even a date who is interested in something more than, well, your ________________.  Yeah, movies used to be about the latter, too.  Not all, because who would really want that?  Just a few of them.  Ida is one of those few.  It is what it is AND deserves to be seen.

Saturday Afternoon:

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction

Bumblebee-Transformers-4-Age-Of-Extinction_1399883699

Good grief.

Expectations:  None.  Like zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

Venue: Linwood Dunn Theatre, Hollywood, CA

Outcome:  My expectations were met – and then some.

This film is such a great example of what major movie studios are about today.  Therefore criticizing it is a bit like complaining that eating at McDonalds or even In ‘n Out Burger isn’t as good as enjoying the burgers they serve at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut or Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.  Or even at that favorite local greasy spoon you’ve been sneaking out to for years and years.

Hungry?

Hungry?

This is a movie that is not made for me or perhaps you.  The best thing about it is that it doesn’t take itself totally seriously, though you wish the jokes were better or even good.  It tries to be meta in some moments –like when it has an old movie proprietor complain in the first act that movies got ruined when they started doing those lousy sequels (Note: Not totally exact quote but you get the idea). And eventually it simply stops trying to do even that in favor of blowing things up, melting them down and throwing as much product placement at you (do people still drink Bud Lights?) as possible.

Full confession:  I have never seen any Transformers movie all the way through – rephrase that – I have never seen more than 20-25 minutes of any Transformers movie before this one though I’ve tried to if for no other reason than to understand what’s going on in movie land.  Of my attempts, some of them were from the beginning, other times it started in the second act, and at least once I think I forced myself to watch an ending – hoping that if it worked I might be motivated enough to track back and get the full Transformers movie going experience.

See, I made an effort

See, I made an effort

I used to be a movie critic so it doesn’t take a lot for me to be perversely curious about films.  In fact, sometimes I will purposely force myself to sit through something I’m unlikely to enjoy in the hopes that it will be so bad that I will actually be entertained.  I sort of felt that way about Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor until it lost me when the gleam from the spanking new desks in the 1940s military offices it was seeking to portray were so shiny that they began reflecting off the screen into my eyeglasses and gave me a headache.

Mr. Bay still clearly loves golden time lighting and shimmery new/old stuff.  But rather than give me something truly god-awful he’s basically made a movie that at the end of the day is merely repetitious, corny and dull.  The effects are fine, the robots or whatever you call them feel generic and somewhere along the way Mark Wahlberg, who turned in fine recent performances in movies like The Fighter and Lone Survivor, not to mention Boogie Nights, got Bay-ized into oblivion here.  He’s truly hideous in the movie but you try to make those lines work and then get back to me.

My favorite moment was during the act three action in China (Note: Why we are in China is a mystery, except it must have something to do with international financing).  At one point, a requisite Steve Jobs type character, who is stuck lugging what amounts to a mini nuclear bomb in what reads like like an elongated violin case, balks at a group of old ladies preventing him from passing and bellows:  How do you say get the fuck out of the way in Chinese?

Oh hey, I'm in this movie!

Oh hey, I’m in this movie!

This line does not simply please me so because it is uttered by Stanley Tucci, who plays the Job type and is part of my real life extended family.  It makes me happy because it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to say to Michael Bay – in English – but unfortunately will never get to do so.  Unless, well, I just did.  (Note: In which case, be forewarned if I happen to fall upon any tragically sudden accident).

Saturday Night:

The Lego Movie

more than just shiny plastic?

more than just shiny plastic?

Expectations:  High, high, high.  Everyone seems to think it’s awesome!!

Venue: My upstairs TV room big screen with a brand new DVD since it’s not playing at a theatre and I waited too long to see one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

Outcome: I don’t get it.  And I didn’t like it.  What gives???

I sooo don’t get the appeal here.  Don’t hate me.  Okay, hate me if you must – I’m not changing my mind.  I can’t help but believe that the hype here is because of diminished expectations for wit and inventiveness during the first half of 2014 and  this simply happened to pass for something that could fill in the drought.

In case you were wondering, I’m a big fan of the Toy Story movies, really enjoyed Despicable Me and sang along to both Happy Feet and Frozen.  Oh, and I loved Ratatouille, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast  – if it counts for anything.

OK.. this too!

OK.. this too!

Fine, I’m done apologizing because I don’t have to.  I barely laughed through any of this and thought the characters especially simplistic and poorly drawn – in every way that implies.  And let’s talk about its ultimate theme – the reinforcement of the patriarchy.  Yes, I’m going there.  There’s a twist at the end of the second act that felt totally unnecessary and seemed determined to make something that up to that point was just sort of silly suddenly become a family movie with a message.

There is nothing wrong with a first act showing an average young worker drone Lego guy singing an original ditty called Everything Is Awesome as the film proceeds to show us how his assembly line life is anything but.  Yet somehow, as he Forest Gump’s his way into…well, I don’t want to give it away…the song replays and asks us to believe everything is indeed awesome because….uh….oh, what’s the difference?  It was about as simplistic and mundane as one expects a Lego movie everyone seems to love NOT to be.  And I got to watch it at home eating dessert.  Hmm, maybe this means I should leave the house.

I would like to attribute by extreme dislike to all that time I spent earlier in the day on Transformers 4.  Or maybe it was a case of inflated expectations – knowing full well everything I had read and heard about this experience indicated it was 100 minutes of unadulterated little pleasures.

Well, that’ll teach me to look forward to anything or to think even for one second I am still a kid at heart.  Bah, humbug.  Though this is exactly the kind of film I also would NOT have liked when I was 10 years old.  I was the kid who much preferred Mary Poppins.  And didn’t play with Legos.  Yeah, that could be it.  But I’d still take Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke over Will Ferrell and some animated pieces of plastic any day – because they were truly awesome.

Sunday Afternoon:

Jersey Boys

Got you under my skin

Got you under my skin

Expectations:  Middling – middlebrow.

Venue:  Writer’s Guild Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA

OutcomeCouldn’t Take My Eyes Off Of It – see that’s a riff on a Frankie Valli tune and this is a biopic about him and the popular mega platinum singing group The Four Seasons in the 1960s.  Oh, never mind.

This film was so much fun – especially the first hour and 20 minutes.  So what if it then has the issue of almost every show business bio ever made.  And that issue is that once the uber talents become famous their personal demons – be it money, drugs, thug life, romance or family – are never as interesting as the purity of their exciting rise to the top with their newly discovered uber abilities.

None of this matters here because you get to listen to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ never-ending list of hits in an old-fashioned styled film whose pacing, cinematography and editing seem to exactly fit the time it’s portraying.  And unlike other movie musicals these days – say, uh, Nine or Chicago – it’s so nice to hear the songs sung by actors who are really singers as opposed to movie stars that can sort of get by without croaking out the words (Noteworthy example: Catherine Zeta-Jones – and yeah, I do know she won the Oscar – I still had to cover my ears at a few key moments in her “singing”).

Gurllll

Gurllll

Let it be said I had zero expectations for Jersey Boys going in.  I’d never seen the show and LOATHE movies where actors talk to the camera doing onscreen narration.  However, JB not only does all of the aforementioned but has multiple characters doing it multiple times.  Yet even that doesn’t matter because there is a certain suspension of belief in a musical set in the 1950s and 60s that allows you to get away with a lot more than that conceit.

Which begs the question of how an ultra liberal Chair like me watches a Clint Eastwood directed film without thinking about his infamous Chair performance at the Republican convention several years ago.  Well, I don’t think about it because I’m charmed by the film – it’s as simple as that.  Plus, I assume that people who are 30 plus years older than I am and grew up in a very different world are bound to differ with me politically.

Okay, and also it’s Clint.  Anyone who survives 50 plus years as an actor-director-producer in Hollywood and continues to consistently make more films than not that are worth seeing deserves our attention.  Because NO ONE else has.   Or is likely to.  Unless Warren Beatty decides to emerge soon from wherever he is or Robert Redford has a directing comeback 10 years from now.

OK you too.

OK you too.

Until then, leave the house to go see Jersey Boys.  Or leave the house and go see any movie you wouldn’t ordinarily go to anymore.  There’s a chance you might be surprised – and in a good way.  It just takes a little effort from us – and the filmmakers.