Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Glass Castle


The Glass Castle tells a messy story neatly. The new drama, based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of how one family overcame its own weakest member in order to survive. Yet to the film's detriment Cretton can't quite resist the temptation to leave the story in a comfortable place. Walls's book recounts her family's peripatetic existence. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson in a frightening portrait of half-understood inadequacy) was a soldier whose alcoholism and distaste for authority set the family moving from town to town, always in poverty. (The title refers to Rex's never-realized dream house.) Rex's worst tendencies were for too long enabled by his wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), a self-absorbed artist who in the opening scene is too distracted by her work to make Jeannette lunch. Jeannette (played as a child by Chandler Head and then the very good Ella Anderson) attempts to cook hot dogs and sets herself on fire. There is more time on the road - Jeannette and her siblings are forced to ride in the back of a moving truck - and there are more towns, but the Walls eventually land back in Rex's hometown in West Virginia. We go back and forth between Jeannette's childhood and Jeannette in 1989, played as an adult by Brie Larson. Jeannette is now a writer for New York magazine, but her weekly gossip column doesn't fulfill her broader ambitions. Her fiance David (Max Greenfield) is both loving and financially comfortable, but again something is missing. Seeing her parents on a New York street ignites a spiral of memory in Jeannette that drives the film emotionally. The Glass Castle is filled with incident, mostly to do with Rex's drunkenness, and Cretton films Jeannette's disastrous swimming lesson and a fight between Rex and Rose Mary without cutting away from how frightening those moments were. Yet for too long the story feels out of balance, as we watch Jeannette and her older sister (Sarah Snook) frantically save money to move to New York while the 1989 version of Jeannette remains something of a cipher. Brie Larson acts here with supreme control and gives a convincing performance as someone feeling out her life in the moment, but Cretton's script doesn't let us know her very well. Moments where Larson does let go, like during an arm wrestling match between David and her father, are riveting but the character doesn't seem to have any life other than dealing with her fiance and family. Too much time is spent on Larson playing Jeannette as a high schooler, where we are given to understand that she discovers her calling as a writer.

Destin Daniel Cretton's screenplay, cowritten with Andrew Lanham, is doing a hard-sell on the themes of Acceptance, Forgiveness, and Understanding. Rex's behavior is given partial justification once the family returns to West Virginia and his own mother (Robin Bartlett) is introduced. As the film goes it slides onto a track where we can feel confident that Jeannette's feelings about her parents - which boil over at her engagement party - will be resolved. Will Jeannette become estranged from her family? Check. Will Rex's drinking catch up with him? Yes. Will father and daughter have a final meaningful conversation? You got it. Jeannette's memories of her girlhood with her father become noticeably kinder at this late stage, with Harrelson getting a sort of seize-the-day speech about "attacking demons." The desire to mitigate our feelings about Rex may be a natural one, but it saps the film of some emotional honesty it had earned when Rex threatens to throw Rose Mary out a window. We leave the Walls family with Jeannette hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for her siblings and her mother. Stories of Rex are delivered with laughter and tears, but have Jeanette or the film earned this moment of exhalation? The Glass Castle has been adapted with great skill and conviction, but by working too hard to contextualize Rex it only describes the surface of what he gave to his daughter.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Detroit


Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit aspires to be nothing less than a consideration of African-American experience, one filtered through a few horrific days in 1967 Detroit. The bar that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal set for themselves is an insanely high one, and their success will no doubt be perceived in terms of how audiences feel about more recent events in American society. Whatever Bigelow and Boal's specific intentions, the issues raised in Detroit are a part of our national discourse. In thinking about the film it's worth thinking both about to what degree its fair to critique a film on the basis of the climate surrounding its release, and the amount of responsibility that artists owe their communities. Detroit begins with opening titles detailing the Great Migration, the massive movement of African-American population to the North and Midwest that began after World War I. Further titles also allude to the subsequent movement of whites from urban centers to the suburbs and the fact that Detroit's African-American population was policed by a mostly white police force. Bigelow puts these titles over illustrations that evoke the mid-20th century painting of artists like Jacob Lawrence, and the effect is oddly distancing. It is as if Bigelow and Boal want us to know that we are about to view the results of a sociological experiment, one whose subject is something not quite of our time. The film proper begins with a police raid on an after-hours club, a raid led by an African-American detective (Chris Chalk) who is nervous about completing his work before the neighboring residents can express their anger. A bottle is thrown, a fire is lit, and Bigelow details the subsequent riots with a mix of archival and staged footage cut together. Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) is depicted urging citizens not commit violence against their own neighborhoods, while Bigelow also includes a clip of the real Governor George Romney calling out the National Guard.

Detroit is in part a film about how people function in relation to institutions, and the first main character we are introduced to is Detroit Police Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) Early in the riots Krauss fatally shoots a man stealing groceries. After being hurriedly questioned by a detective Krauss is told he'll probably be charged with murder and then told to return to duty. The fact that the police department of a major American city appears to have no means for self-examination in a moment of crisis shouldn't surprise anyone who has been watching the news, but the moment is still chilling. Will Poulter as Krauss looks unprepared to be a cop in this film, and that's deliberate. The casting is a masterstroke, as is the choice to have Poulter play the character as in over his head rather than overtly racist. The counterpart to Krauss in Detroit is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Where Krauss attempts to use the power of the police as a shield, Melvin works on the margins of power structures because it's all he can do. We see Melvin at work bringing coffee to National Guard troops when shots are fired from the direction of the Algiers Motel. The Algiers Motel incident is the center of Detroit, and Bigelow has turned what occurred there into a sustained exercise in tension. We travel to the Algiers with aspiring Motown star Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Lattimore). The two are seeking refuge from what's happening on the streets, as earlier that evening Larry's group The Dramatics had been pulled from the stage as nearby rioting intensified. Larry and Fred fall in with another group at the Algiers that includes Carl (Jason Mitchell), who gives a memorable speech about the limits of black agency against police power. There are also Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white women that Larry and Fred hope to know better. When a starter pistol is fired from a window, the resulting police response ends with three dead men and Melvin accused of murder. Krauss is the Detroit PD officer in charge at the scene, and the actions of he and his men are a toxic combination of racism, fear, and unpreparedness that the actors play expertly. All of the actors - including Anthony Mackie as an unlucky veteran - are superb here and Bigelow doesn't pull back from the horror of the situation. (There is a cutaway to a State Police Captain, who knows something is wrong but doesn't want the responsibility of intervening.) Melvin tries to distract by leading a search for the gun the police are convinced is there, but even then we're always aware of just how confined the space at the Algiers is and how narrowly even more violence was averted.

The Algiers sequence is so compelling that the rest of Detroit seems somewhat perfunctory by comparison. The investigation of the officers' behavior at the Motel is curiously elided, we don't see Krauss's partners (Jack Reynor and Ben O'Toole) being questioned and so it's a surprise when their confessions are thrown out. The subsequent trial feels rushed, and it's not even made clear that Melvin was actually put on trial and acquitted in federal court alongside the policemen. The character of Melvin illustrates why Detroit doesn't easily bend to rules of dramatic structure. We're conditioned to expect that Melvin will do or say something to mitigate what's going on, but of course if he had interfered with cops it would likely have meant his life. Boyega plays the role with great charisma, but the character winds down awkwardly along with the rest of the procedural part of the film. The conscience of Detroit is located in Larry Reed, who survives the Algiers but can no longer participate in making music for the consumption of white people. Bigelow ends Detroit with Larry singing a gospel song, and just as with the titles at the beginning the choice serves to tamp down our emotions. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal had a responsibility to tell the story of Detroit as accurately as they could. They have done so with great skill, but the choice to frame the story as a historical tragedy rather than the result of institutional racism and incompetence might mean the film will matter less than it should. But then again, it isn't Bigelow and Boal's job to make us angry about abuses of police power. Artists in any medium owe us honesty, but it's up to us to decide what comes next.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Atomic Blonde


From the first moments of Atomic Blonde we are invited to consider the physical presence of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a British intelligence agent, as she recovers from what appears to be a severe beating. In considering Broughton we are also of course considering the presence of Charlize Theron as action star, Oscar-winning actor, and sex symbol. If "Charlize Doing Things" could be a genre, then Atomic Blonde would be its peak. Atomic Blonde has a plot - a stapled together contrivance of familiar tropes including a stolen list of agents' names and an errant station chief - but its chief pleasure is the sheer force of personality that Theron brings to the film. Broughton is called in by her superior (Toby Jones) to recount the details of an operation gone bad in Berlin. (We're in 1989, just before the Wall came down.) Before we're even out of the framing scenes Broughton has managed to insult the CIA officer (John Goodman) in the room and to establish that she knows her boss has his own agenda. The story that Lorraine tells is about a mission to retrieve stolen information, but before she has been on the ground an hour she has already survived one assassination attempt and met eccentric Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy). Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch, one of the filmmakers behind the first John Wick film, and it's with the action sequences like that initial attempt on Broughton's life that Leitch gives this film its personality. Leitch favors long takes in which various assailants run at Broughton or otherwise attack her, and the mostly hand-to-hand combat is visceral and non-stylized to an amazing degree.

Late in the story Broughton must protect a source (Eddie Marsan) and deliver him and his information safely to the West. Her plans go bad, and the resulting fight on a staircase and through an apartment is an apparent single take that leaves Broughton barely able to stand. It's an all-time sequence that combines technical skill and stamina, and the moment where Broughton tries to stand and immediately slides back down is the moment that Atomic Blonde gets to where it wants to go. There's more of course, Broughton escapes after a car chase and the rest of the film is a series of reversals and recriminations. I didn't care as much about the late plot movement (including the involvement of a French agent played by Sofia Boutella) because I couldn't stop thinking about the immediacy of what had come before. Theron's physicality and Leitch's talent for staging actually transcend the genre mechanics and create a kind of pure action cinema that's worth watching on its own. If Lorraine Broughton comes back in a sequel I'd love to see a better script, but the character shouldn't change a thing.