Detroit (US, 2017)

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Enduring racism

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (like Detroit scripted by Mark Boal) played loose with the truth when stating CIA’s torture was instrumental with bringing Osama Bin Laden to… well, it wasn’t exactly justice. She may well be doing the same with Detroit, as unpicking contested truth 50 years after the event is always going to be contentious, however here it is entirely justified because of the essential truth of a racist justice system.

In many ways it is an extraordinary film as the first 20 minutes or so is a mosaic of events and is as anti-Hollywood narrative as Hollywood gets; though producer Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures does strive to go beyond the mainstream. As Bigelow said, in a Sight & Sound (Aug. 2017) interview, her intention was to move from the macro, the riot, to the micro, the notorious events in the Algiers Motel. This is accentuated by the use of relatively little known actors (to me at any rate), it wasn’t until John Boyega’s appearance that I had a face to latch on to. Algee Smith plays would-be Motown singer, Larry, who becomes as close to a protagonist the film has; he is superb (as is Boyega).

Once the scene is set we are immersed in Bigelow’s trademark intense direction as racist cop, played with vital viciousness by Will Poulter, ‘interrogates’ the unfortunates in the motel. This viewer at least was mentally pleading for a ‘good guy’ to step in and stop the violence but reality isn’t Hollywood. I don’t know whether police violence against African Americans is on the rise, or whether social media is making it more visible, but the problem dramatised in the film has not gone away; see also The Hate U Give, which also featured Smith.

The Sight & Sound reviewer argues the final part of the film, the trial, is deal with in a perfunctory fashion. Court scenes are never my favourite and by eliding most of the discussion we get just enough to see that justice (mostly) wasn’t done and that is sufficient.

The relatively cheaply made ($35m) film bombed in North America. Was this due to the non-Hollywood opening or a reluctance to engage with depressing topic? Whatever the reason the film is an essential statement about racist America both in the 1960s and now.

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Soni (India, 2018)

Strength in sisterhood

This low-budget, low key film about female police officers in Delhi lingers in the mind. Written, directed and edited by Chandigarh-born, and American educated, Ivan Ayr the film has an observational documentary quality that downplays potential drama; in one scene, the protagonists listen to corrupt cops extracting bribes. It is shot from their distant perspective and this serves to drain the drama but at the same time maintains a realist viewpoint. By subverting genre expectation, we expect the good cops to sort out the bad ones, the film signifies its realism. This is further reinforced by the use of sequence shots throughout; all the scenes are shot in one take.

Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is a cop with a temper; she’s used as bait on the streets of Delhi to trap men who sexually abuse women. Her superior, Kolpana (Saloni Batra), tries to rein her in whilst protecting her from her the police hierarchy. Key to the film is the developing relationship between the women which is more important than the cop narrative. Both the actors are newcomers (it’s Ohlyan’s first film and Batra’s first feature) and they stand up very well to the strains of the long takes. Vikas Shukla is superb as Soni’s ex-boyfriend who’s trying to wheedle his way back into her affections.

David Bolen’s cinematography is excellent capturing the urban night-time wasteland of the streets that serves as Soni’s workplace.

I was surprised the film was authored by a male as he seems to me to capture a female point-of-view with great authenticity. He researched the police procedure thoroughly but also portrays the position of women, even putatively powerful ones as police, in patriarchal India. Radio news reports punctuate the soundtrack about having the apartheid of women-only public transport to protect them against men. At the film’s conclusion it’s clear that the film argues that the nepotism of Indian society has to change in order for there to be a fundamental improvement in the lot of women.

Ayr takes on not just the would-be rapists and the boys who know their influential parents will protect them should they get into trouble. Kolpana’s family gently hint that she’s not getting any younger (she’s 30) and so should be having children. The insistence on motherhood must, for some, become a stultifying bind and Batra subtly portrays her character’s frustration whilst trying to avoid confrontation.

The film was celebrated at some film festivals last year but not distributed in cinemas in the UK. It’s ‘washed up’ on Netflix.

Good Kill (US, 2014)

The end game

New Zealander Andrew Niccol has been responsible for some excellent films: he scripted The Truman Show (US, 1998) and both wrote and directed Gattaca and In Time (US, 2011). These science fiction films were all thought-provoking and Niccol tries to raise issues whilst entertaining us. His Lord of War (US-Germany-France, 2005) was less successful but it did show how the international arms trade works. Good Kill examines the moral quagmire (no let’s call it what it is: evil) of drone strikes that proliferated under the apparently saintly Obama. Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan a fighter pilot reduced to flying drones and blasting suspects in Afghanistan, Yemen or wherever else America perceives a threat. Whilst it’s true that the threat is real but, as the film points out, the ‘war on terror’ is counter productive. The more America indiscriminately kills the more ‘terrorists’ will be manufactured.

Some reviewers have complained the film is too preachy; each character in the drone team offers particular viewpoints on the events. It’s unclear how else Niccol is supposed to explain the mechanics and morality of this particular theatre of war without resorting to this technique. The escalating carnage, which occurs when the CIA takes over the operation, is enough drama to engage and appal. It’s true that the film loses some momentum toward the end which was inevitable as there can be no happy resolution whilst these inhumane strikes continue. Niccol, and the excellent cast, convey the dehumanising effect of killing by proxy (though of course killing in reality is similarly damaging). There’s no doubt that war as a video game, the drone technology was based on the Xbox, where reality takes place in virtual reality, has severe repercussions on what makes us human.

Helen Fry’s book Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine (2018) examines how the use of logarithms in everyday life is polluting the world and there are regular moral panics about youngsters ‘screen time’. There’s little doubt that Silicon Valley is driving fundamental changes to our way of interacting with the world and often not in a good way. The latest poisonous story about Facebook shows how dehumanising the platform can be – see here. YouTube is also full (well it actually isn’t ‘full’ the scale of the platform is such that even a relatively small number of videos amounts to a massive number) of appalling material – for example. We have slept-walked into a surveillance dystopia and most people don’t even know about it, which is a failure of education and the news media. Good Kill is a microcosm of what can happen when we lose touch with reality through the distancing effect of computer-based perception. The disembodied voice of the CIA giving orders that appal Egan is so far divorced from the consequences of his decisions that empathy, the key emotion that makes us human, is lost.

Despite Hawke’s presence (Bruce Greenwood also stars) Good Kill took little more than $1m worldwide. Maybe audiences are happier with their head in the sand.

The Other Side of the Wind (Iran-France-US, 2018)

What to make of it?

An Orson Welles film over 40 years in the making (he’s been dead for over 30 of them), The Other Side of the Wind is an extraordinary gasp of a great filmmaker from beyond the grave. Of course it’s unclear how much of the film is Welles’, though he’d edited 42 minutes, it fell to Bob Murawski to put it together with the help of many and, crucially, Netflix’s investment. Netflix is a villain (it’s difficult to see Roma in cinemas in the UK and no doubt in most places) but a hero in the case of Welles’ final breath.

I watched the film knowing little about its content and it’s both easy to watch, the visuals and editing are often outstanding, and difficult to follow. I shall have to see it again having now ‘done the reading’. John Huston, in brilliant form, is playing a Welles-like character (though significantly Welles distances himself by not playing the role) of a director returning to Los Angeles, after making movies in Europe, and is trying to get funding to finish his film. What could be a postmodern conceit is elevated by the artistry; there’s no doubting that, even though stylistically the film is very different from his other work, the director is a genius. So we should take it as a Welles film and applaud those who brought it to the screen.

Despite not playing the lead, the film is clearly autobiographical: Susan Strasberg plays a Pauline Kael type of critic allowing Huston’s Jake Hannaford to take verbal pot shots at her (Welles and Kael feuded) and there are some appearances by filmmakers, such as Dennis Hopper and Henry Jaglom, as themselves thus mixing up the real and unreal. Added to the mix is the film Hannaford is making, a parody of later Antonioni, featuring Welles’ partner (and co-screenwriter) Oja Kodar as a Native American and usually undressed. This is mixed with documentary-like footage of the party hosted by Hannaford to raise money. Peter Bogdanovich plays an up-and-coming director (as he was after The Last Picture Show, 1971) who previously hero-worshiped the director (again an autobiographical element). Some of the film is in black and white, and the aspect ratios vary, to indicate the different sources of the footage.

As I’ve said, I need to see the film again but the first viewing had enough breathtaking moments to satisfy. For example, a swirl of red dust blows across the screen to reveal Kodar’s ‘The Actress’ and Wellesian ‘cut on movement’ is evident throughout creating dynamic transitions.

As an epitaph it’s a remarkably different film from the expressionism that preceded it and so a testament to Welles’ creative vitality. It was worth the wait. (Netflix)

Bone Tomahawk (US-UK, 2015)

Not your average ‘Indian’

S. Craig Zahler’s debut as a director (he also scripted) is less a Western than an outback horror movie, though the tropes of the former are present. A posse of four ill-matched men go after some particularly savage ‘Indians’ who have kidnapped one of the pursuers’ wife. So far so conventional and the unspoken male creed of ‘what a man’s gotta do…’ underpins the men’s bravery. The landscape, a mixture of scrub and glorious vistas, is typical of the genre too though the setting, in the last decade of the 19th century, is later than ‘classic’ Westerns.

The (for me) dread hand of Tarantino is present in some of the dialogue that seems to be trying to be clever but that’s never over-bearing and it’s delivered brilliantly by the cast. The actors are the main reason to see this film unless you wish to be grossed out. Kurt Russell’s rugged visage was designed to be a sheriff and Richard Jenkins’ garrulous old man is a delight.

The film risks going back to the reactionary ‘Indian as savage’ trope but Zahler’s careful to distinguish the savages with ‘authentic’ Native Americans. And savage they are ‘treating’ us to the ‘best’ dismemberment I’ve seen in film; if that’s your bag.

One bright spot, in terms of it being a Western, is Lili Simmons’s character, the abducted wife. Although marginalised for much of the film she does get a great speech where she talks about the problems of the frontier (which had disappeared by 1890) not being the terrain or ‘Indians’, but male stupidity. The ‘men’s gotta do…’ is certainly stupid in some contexts and the narrative stretches too far in allowing them to do it; even in the context of a genre film, it is not believable.

The film is overlong, some of the dialogue could have been trimmed, but is worth seeing for the cast but if you’re squeamish avoid the last half hour.

The Swimmer (US, 1968)

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Swimming to oblivion

This is an interesting ‘New Hollywood’ film where the French ‘new wave’ can be seen infiltrating the commercially desperate Hollywood. Though it was an independent production, Sam Spiegel was pretty much establishment Hollywood and Columbia Pictures distributed. Of course the presence of Burt Lancaster brings the Hollywood star system into play but the fact that Spiegel took his name off the film and had Sydney Pollack reshoot some scenes give an indication that this isn’t a product of the Dream Factory.

It was filmed in 1966 but took two years to be released and so predated both Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, key films in the emergence of Hollywood films that challenged the American consensus about their ‘Dream’. Lancaster plays Ned Merrill who, an a whim, decides to swim via his friends’ swimming pools back to his house several miles away. What starts as genial romp deteriorates as it becomes clear that all’s not well with Merrill.

Lancaster looks terrific, although clearly middle-aged he’s in trim particularly compared to the peers he meets on his journey. The hard-edged optimism of his persona is used to good effect and, as the day progresses, Lancaster conveys his mental deterioration with some brilliance. The time he spends with the teenager (Janet Landgard), who had a crush on him as a child, are superbly creepy.

An interesting piece describes Merrill’s decline as tragic. My reading was less charitable as his treatment of women was full of self-regard and his fall is entirely deserved. The shallowness of the bourgeoisie, flaunting their wealth, is well presented and some of the dialogue crackles (the script was by Eleanor Perry) and was no doubt drawn directly from the source material, John Cheever’s short story of the same name.

Director, husband of the scriptwriter, Frank went of to make Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), which I remember enjoying a long time ago. The ‘new wave’ influence I mentioned above refers primarily to the occasional non-conventional use of film form rather than specific aspects. For example, the editing, particularly when Merrill’s on the move, sometimes uses very rapid montages to convey the dynamic movement. There is one very striking zoom into an extreme close-up of Merrill’s eye. It wouldn’t be mistaken for a classical Hollywood film.

The only other film I’m familiar with that Perry directed was the Joan Crawford ‘hit piece’ Mommie Dearest (1980). Would be good to see the Diary of a Mad Housewife again.

Summertime (UK-US, 1955)

When the living is uneasy

The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.

The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.

In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.

Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.