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Movie Reviews

Detroit

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Released: 25th August 2017

Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter

Reviewed By: Menachem Rephun

“God!” the hunter exclaims to his cohort, his face soaked with sweat as he looks down at his fallen prey. “What a specimen he was!”

Had this flippant remark been made by a poacher on safari, we would likely not think too much of it. The speaker in this case is no big game hunter, though, but a police officer proudly sporting the uniform and badge denoting his profession. The officer’s “kill” is not an animal, but a human being, an unarmed black man shot in the back despite posing no threat to anyone.

This is the world of Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit, a film which transports us to the nerve-wracking, racially-charged atmosphere of 1967 Detroit. It was a time when tensions between the city’s black residents and its white police force were running at an all-time high, resulting in violent clashes between angry African-Americans and DPD officers who bigotry was very thinly disguised.

Bigelow, who has proven herself a master of cinematic realism with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, clearly appreciates the famous “show, don’t tell” rule. With all of the history on hand, it would have been easy for the film to be expanded by another hour, at the very least. Aside from a brief, animated introduction establishing historic context, though, Bigelow does not allow her movie to become bogged down in exposition. Instead, the nightmarish, chaotic atmosphere is established through haunting imagery, like the shot of police officers silhouetted against a backdrop of smoke and flame.

As many have noted, Detroit is rife with painfully drawn-out sequences of terror and violence that are almost jaw-dropping. As its name suggests, the dramatic core of the film is an incident which took place at Detroit’s Algiers Motel on a summer night in late July 1967. The trailer for the film bills the incident as one of the most terrifying in American history, and after viewing this reenactment, it isn’t hard to see why.

The episode, in which three young black men were murdered, while several other hostages, including two young white women, were verbally and physically tortured by DPD officers, is an exercise in police brutality that transcends anything we have come to expect. The heart of Detroit lies in this sequence which makes up a good portion of its run time. The way that Bigelow presents the horror is truly unflinching, without a trace of histrionics or sentimentality. Most viewers will be as unprepared for the nightmare as its victims, creating a nail-biting anxiety and claustrophobia that would send Hitchcock back to the drawing board. Bigelow’s interpretation of what took place in the Algiers Motel that night is colder, more insidious, and more traumatic than anything Stanley Kubrick ever made. Despite its intensity, the violence never becomes numbing. Bigelow captures the tragic absurdity of the incident, which began when a young African-American man, Carl Cooper, fired a toy pistol out of his hotel room window as a prank, sending the police into a frenzy. It was a very stupid move, to be sure, but it paled in comparison to the Pandora’s Box it opened.

As horrifying as Detroit’s violence is, it would have much less impact without a compelling villain. In this respect, Bigelow has gone above and beyond the call of duty, creating a flesh-and-blood monster who undoubtedly deserves a spot on any Greatest Movie Villains of All Time list. That monster is Phillip Krauss, a young DPD officer whose childish, innocuous features give little indication of the sadism, cunning, and pure hatred underneath. It is Krauss who deals the first real blow in the movie, gunning down the above-mentioned unarmed black man during what should have been a routine patrol. The action, which results in the victim’s death, earns Krauss a reprimand from the top brass that is little more than a slap on the wrist, and it isn’t long before the rookie is back on the beat. When confronted over the murder by his superior officer, Krauss points out that Detroit is “a war zone.” He isn’t wrong. The city does look like a war zone, trapped in a state of lawlessness that makes it the perfect playground for an unhinged psychopath drunk on absolute power. Events soon conspire to bring that maniac (Krauss) to the Algiers Motel, where he becomes responsible for most of the insanity that follows.

After the dust settles from the night of terrifying violence (which really must be seen to be believed), it is the characterization of Krauss, portrayed with oozing, bone-chilling malice by Will Poulter, that most haunts me. A beautiful scene in which the young black musician Larry Reed (portrayed by Algee Smith), sings a powerful Gospel tune after surviving Krauss’s reign of terror, is obviously meant to be cathartic and cleansing. But the sting of the injustice refuses to be wiped away.

The performances in Detroit, particularly those of Smith and John Boyega as beleaguered black security guard Melvin Dismukes, are uniformly excellent. But, for better or worse, it is Poulter who steals the show. In his first appearance, we see Krauss riding by car through the ruins of Detroit, remarking to his fellow officers that the police have “failed” the black community. This phony compassion is shown for what it is when, moments later, Krauss shoots a fleeing black man in the back. It is an introduction that, in hindsight, strikes me as eerily similar to the first time we see Nazi Commandant Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, as he arrives at the Plaszow labor camp by car. There is an extremely thin line between Krauss (note the Germanic name) and a young Nazi commandant. Krauss’s actor, Will Poulter, and director Katheryn Bigelow have confirmed that Krauss is a composite character meant to represent the officers present that night, and I doubt his German name was chosen at random. Both Krauss and Goeth are men better suited for a straitjacket and a padded cell than an officer’s uniform, but fate, tragically, handed them a weapon and the freedom to use it as they please. All that separates the Goeths and Krausses of the world is the uniform and the badge. And, perhaps most disturbingly, the Krausses and Goeths will always prowl among us likes wolves in human skin, smirking and confident knowing they’ll walk free.

Movie Reviews

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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