American Made

American Made

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The indefatigable Tom Cruise, still able to carry off youthful mock-insouciance at the age of 55, has plenty of fun as Barry Seal in “American Made.” Seal, a pilot who smuggled drugs for the Medellin Cartel and informed and testified for the D.E.A., probably wouldn’t have recognized much of his lived experience in Doug Liman’s entertaining fantasy, but the “true story” epigraphs affixed to feature films allow us to assign plausibility to the implausible. Cruise’s Seal, an in-over-his-head entrepreneur seduced by a government handler into thinking he’s one of the good guys, uses his dazzling smile and firm handshake to hide his initial ignorance of all the deep shit that piles up around him.

Cruise, who previously worked with Liman on “Edge of Tomorrow,” elects not to push Seal’s rapid rise into the full-blown meltdown and fall usually accompanying the theme of wretched excess. Instead, he and Liman willfully turn their backs to any kind of moral hand-wringing or introspection. It’s a sound move, as Seal’s can-do pluck perfectly suits the Cruise template. Seal, like so many fiercely driven Cruise characters, desires motion, action, and a sense of purpose — even if that purpose breaks a lengthy list of national and international laws.        

“American Made” twists the rags-to-riches schematic of the Horatio Alger myth to its own agenda, acknowledging the perverse glee our fellow citizens take in accumulating wealth by any means necessary. Liman simultaneously lampoons and celebrates the obsession with money by constantly emphasizing Seal’s cash-only transactions. As Seal completes an escalating number of successful smuggling trips, the greenbacks pile up in duffel bags, closets, hat boxes, suitcases, stables, and car trunks. Money is buried all over the backyard. In one scene, a suspicious F.B.I. agent rolls into sleepy Mena, Arkansas — the town where Domhnall Gleeson’s mysterious agent Schafer has relocated Seal — only to see an alarming number of banks, trusts, and savings and loans along the main drag.   

In the hypermasculine, jacked-up universe of “American Made,” women unsurprisingly take a back seat to the parade of scenes in which men speak to other men. Sarah Wright, as Seal’s spouse Lucy, gets the most screen time of the trio of females who register at all. The always interesting Lola Kirke shows up as the wife of Jesse Plemons’ Sheriff Downing, and for a minute you wonder whether her role will develop into something of substance. It does not. Jayma Mays, as the state attorney interrupted by an unwelcome phone call from Governor Bill Clinton, appears in just a couple of scenes. None of the women share a conversation with another woman.

Screenwriter Gary Spinelli zips through a far too-good-to-be-true chronology that links Seal to U.S.-based Contra training camps, reconnaissance photos, Pablo Escobar, and drug and gun running routes the C.I.A. conveniently chooses to ignore. Liman matches the pace with a fevered mix of great stock footage (much of it featuring Ronald Reagan), animation, freeze frames, pop music, smeary VHS tape confessions, and other winking period details evocative of the early 1980s. The cumulative effect of the movie has already been compared a number of times to “Goodfellas,” but “American Made” does not accomplish the same level of world-building verisimilitude on display in Scorsese’s classic.    

Strong Island

Strong Island (1)

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Strong Island,” Yance Ford’s vital cinematic elegy to his slain brother, is a gripping documentary presented with control and precision. That careful formality serves both the story and the filmmaker’s underlying thematic questions addressing the absurd but commonplace outcomes of the notion of justifiable homicide and the use of reasonable fear as a means for perpetrators to claim self-defense. In 1992, Ford’s then 24-year-old sibling, William Ford, Jr., was shot to death by Mark Reilly, a white mechanic. Even though Ford’s close friend Kevin Myers was nearby, the killing took place out of the direct sight of any potential eyewitnesses.

Statistically speaking, it was unsurprising when an all-white grand jury decided not to indict Reilly. Ford’s incredulous family members, initially expecting that a criminal case would be brought forward, speak about the slow-motion devastation of the system’s injustice and the effective destruction of their nuclear family in the months and years that followed. Yance Ford, who often appears on camera in tight close-up shots, intimately processes his thoughts to articulate the impossible: “I’m not angry. I’m also not willing to accept that someone else gets to say who William was. And if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.”       

Calls are made to several of the people involved with the original investigation, and Ford uses those conversations to underline the common way in which power is exercised against the marginalized. But as the narrative unfolds, the filmmaker stakes out and clarifies positions that don’t rely on the procedural (mis)handling of his brother’s case: Ford said in an interview with Steve Rose, “I have no interest in giving Mark Reilly any space in this film. When you shoot my brother, you’ve said everything to me that you have to say.”

Instead of orienting in the direction of any lurid, true crime rundown of reported details, Ford makes some bold and rewarding choices. The insidiousness of zoning all African-American neighborhoods inside Long Island is expressed by Ford’s matter-of-fact narration and through the words of Ford’s mother Barbara Dunmore Ford, who leaves a lasting impression on viewers through the vivid detail and specificity of the anecdotes she shares. Dunmore Ford’s presence in the movie is indispensable, and the way in which she addresses the toll of grief on her marriage results in one of the movie’s most unforgettable scenes.

Additionally, Yance Ford personalizes the loss of his brother by including a series of snapshots and photographs, physically arranged by hand within the frame (home movie footage is also incorporated, but to a lesser extent). The visual device calls to mind, among others, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s stunning 2013 short “My Favorite Picture of You.” From start to finish, Ford spent more than a decade on this project, and the full weight of its considerable impact lands with the filmmaker’s grim reminder that the conversation about violence against unarmed African Americans must be expanded beyond the coverage of police incidents to account as well for civilians who get away with murder.   


Mother (1)

Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Mother!”

With a tongue-in-cheek exclamation point distinguishing it from the likes of Joon-ho Bong’s superior 2009 film and the more than 180 other movies sharing the title, Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” offers fair warning to the curious. Eschewing proper names for characters and saddling them instead with the likes of Penitent, Defiler, Herald, Pilferer, Supplicant, Hewer, Lingerer, and Zealot, the moviemaker drinks deeply from the well that gave birth to the similar ecology-meets-religious-mythology themes of “Noah.” Fast-tracked once Jennifer Lawrence signed to play the lead, “Mother!” tells the story of a young woman married to a distant poet (Javier Bardem). No matter how much she offers of herself, her powerful husband keeps taking.

If that dynamic sounds suspiciously familiar, Aronofsky acknowledged in a “Vanity Fair” interview that the core of Lawrence’s character was influenced by, of all things, the plot of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” The Mother Earth symbol labors in vain to restore and refurbish the couple’s spacious octagonal home (“I want to make a paradise”), but her efforts are perpetually interrupted, first by an ailing surgeon (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), and later by an unruly throng of the poet’s admirers. Eventually, all hell figuratively breaks loose in a tour de force sequence certain to terrify anyone planning their next dinner party.     

Even before the inevitable think pieces start to pile up, one anticipates the impending slugfest over Aronofsky’s treatment, or mistreatment, of womanhood. Is the filmmaker offering a nuanced critique of the patriarchy’s systematized marginalization and abuse of women or is he wallowing in the spectacle of violence visited on the sexualized female body? Chelsea Phillips-Carr stakes out her position that the movie is “a work of pure misogyny,” writing, “Films which depict extreme abuse in order to make a point that abuse exists are not effective: it’s well known that violence against women exists, and the simple regurgitation of it on screen is not illuminating. The reproduction of misogyny, without thought or solid critique, can very rarely be effective beyond its lifelessly repetitive presentation, so often indistinguishable from works of more earnest hatred.” And she’s just getting started.

Defenders of the Aronofsky/Lawrence partnership argue that “Mother!” does, in fact, present that “solid critique” in several ways: recognition of the infuriating entitlements of the poet, the painful outcome of the pregnancy that inverts the nativity of “Rosemary’s Baby,” and the pleas for the sustainable treatment of the planet’s resources are three options. Additionally, Aronofsky’s relentless viewer identification with Mother via tight framing and subjective camera merits further discussion. Even so, certain choices, like the use of the trope known as the Not If They Enjoyed It Rationalization, in which rape and sexual assault victims are made to appear as if initial resistance gives way to erotic pleasure, raise serious questions.  

While the thunderous allegorical nonsense devoted to heavy-handed biblical and environmental metaphor is a hefty burden if not a millstone around Lawrence’s capable neck, other layers of meaning and/or alternative readings yield far more pleasure. The exasperation of the put-upon host, for example, ripples with terrific comedy when Mother cannot get the goddamned interlopers to stop perching their asses on her unbraced sink. Audience members who claim the film works just as well as a commentary on celebrity culture and the pressures of being in a relationship with someone famous might have more fun than those looking only for parallels to scripture.

Tulip Fever

Tulip Fever (1)

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The snaky production history of the long delayed “Tulip Fever,” detailed most thoroughly in a “Telegraph” article by Adam White, proves more intriguing than the final version of the movie. Wilting in cinemas during a particularly painful Labor Day weekend, the arrestingly photographed period melodrama was at one time expected to attract award season accolades under the careful orchestration of Harvey Weinstein, apparently looking to duplicate some of his “Shakespeare in Love” success. Instead, Justin Chadwick’s film is a disheveled curiosity — a bad movie that still manages to push a few buttons and convey some guilty pleasures.

Based on the novel by Deborah Moggach, who co-wrote the screen adaptation with Tom Stoppard, “Tulip Fever” uses the 17th century Dutch phenomenon of bulb speculation as a framework for a story of adultery and seemingly doomed romance, complete with mistaken identities, a conniving abbess, naval impressment, and a pregnancy switcheroo that topples the whole works into a laughable jumble that at times borders on self-parody. One can only imagine the scenes left on the cutting room floor, including those featuring Cara Delevingne, Matthew Morrison, and Kevin McKidd.    

Alicia Vikander is orphan Sophia, the young wife selected to provide an heir to peppercorn king Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). Trapped by her matrimonial bonds and irksome sexual chores, Sophia’s eyes light up when hungry artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) is commissioned by Cornelis to paint a family portrait. Before you can say “red ochre,” Sophia and Jan start a clandestine affair complicated when servant Maria (Holliday Grainger), who also narrates, discovers the deception. Maria, deeply in love with fishmonger William (Jack O’Connell), has some monumental troubles of her own, and Chadwick labors to keep all the wobbling plates spinning.

Had the promotional campaign of the movie embraced the comic instead of the tragic, “Tulip Fever” might have been more warmly received by critics and viewers. The film’s supremely silly, credulity-stretching artifices yield plenty of deliberate laughs, from Tom Hollander’s playful obstetrics quack to Waltz’s entreaties to command his little soldier to conjugal attention. But there are unintended guffaws as well. The ridiculousness finally collapses under the weight of a curiously cast Zach Galifianakis. In defiance of all common sense, his dipsomaniac Gerrit is perplexingly entrusted with a plot-turning task of grave importance — the outcome of which is so immediately obvious it inspires groans of derision.    

White summarizes the consensus opinion, noting that “Tulip Fever” has “been met with significant disdain, critics referencing clumsy edits, nonsensical plotting based almost entirely on coincidences and contrived leaps of logic, and the feel of a film cut to shreds in an editing room at the behest of worried producers.” Despite the accuracy of these assertions, “Tulip Fever” works up a bit of sweaty charm through a combination of the gorgeously imagined costumes by Michael O’Connor and production design by Simon Elliott, and the fantasy projections of cinephiles who will speculate on the “Tulip Fever” that never was: a proposed 2004 John Madden-helmed version starring Keira Knightley as Sophia, Jude Law as Jan, and Jim Broadbent as Cornelis.   

Brent Brandt Interview

Brent Brandt Molly Ringwald (1)

Interview by Greg Carlson

On Wednesday, September 13, 2017, actor and filmmaker Sean Astin will visit the Fargo Theatre to share conversation about his life in the movie industry. Cinephile, film festival producer, and enthusiastic LaserDisc collector Brent Brandt will co-host the event.

Greg Carlson: After co-founding the South Dakota Film Festival and living and working in Aberdeen for years, you recently returned to Fargo-Moorhead. What brought you back?

Brent Brandt: Fargo-Moorhead has always been home to me. I went to Moorhead State University and lived here for almost twenty years before a job brought me to South Dakota.

South Dakota was a great place to raise my family but I was excited to make the move back to the area when a job opportunity came up. I’m thrilled to be back in Fargo-Moorhead!


GC: When did you fall in love with the movies?

BB: I can remember movies being a part of my life early on. I grew up in a rural community with no local theater so when I did get to go to the movies it was quite a treat. I would watch old movies on television whenever I had the chance. Sometimes very late at night. That’s still my M.O.

At MSU, I took film professor Ted Larson’s New Hollywood course, which featured great stuff like “Annie Hall,” “Jaws,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Ted was so passionate and knowledgeable about cinema, and it was exciting to be involved in the conversation.


GC: What are some of your favorite moviegoing memories?

BB: I have so many, like seeing “Star Wars” on the big screen for the first time as a kid, watching “Die Hard” two times on opening night with a college buddy, or taking my son and daughter to “Toy Story” when they were young and “The Room” now that they are both in college. “The Room” is such a bad movie and so much fun to watch.


GC: Through your involvement with the SDFF, you brought guests like Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, Molly Ringwald, Cary Elwes, Anthony Michael Hall, and Stephen Tobolowsky to Aberdeen.

BB: It’s a thrill bringing that little bit of Hollywood to town. I get a great deal of joy seeing people get so happy meeting these movie stars and hearing stories from them. When Cary Elwes says “As you wish” to a fan who asks them to sign a copy of “The Princess Bride” DVD or Molly Ringwald hugs someone that says “Pretty in Pink” is their all time favorite movie, I’m pretty happy.


GC: Can you tell me about HERO and “An Evening with Sean Astin”?

BB: HERO stands for Healthcare Equipment Recycling Organization. Our mission at HERO is to collect and re-distribute donated healthcare supplies to those in need. We help people all across the region and also around the world with mission trips.

Working together with the Fargo Film Festival on a fun event like this allows both of our organizations introduce what we are about to new people and raise some much needed funds. It will be a great evening, hearing Sean Astin share some amazing behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories.


GC: Best Sean Astin role: Mikey Walsh in “The Goonies,” Daniel “Rudy” Ruetigger in “Rudy,” or Samwise Gamgee in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy?

BB: “Rudy.” You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve cried watching that movie.


GC: What are you most looking forward to asking Sean Astin?

BB: I’m really excited to hear details from the sets of the three movies you mentioned, and several others. Sean is also in the next season of “Stranger Things,” so I’m curious what he has to say about being on that show, if he is allowed to say anything at all before it comes out.

Sean had such an interesting childhood — he is the son of Oscar-winner Patty Duke and John Astin, who most of us know as Gomez on “The Addams Family.” I’m curious what it was like to grow up in that environment, being a child actor, and how he has been successful in the business through adulthood.

I also want to know what happened to the map from “The Goonies,” the Irish jacket from “Rudy,” and the One Ring from “The Lord of the Rings.”


Tickets for “An Evening with Sean Astin” are now available at


Good Time

Good Time1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Joshua and Ben Safdie, the NYC brothers whose independent spirit draws from a wide range of cinematic sources, reach their widest audience yet with “Good Time,” a frantic thriller that aspires to 1970s-era Big Apple grit. Martin Scorsese is the first name on the end credit thank-you list, and “Good Time” will remind some viewers of “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.” Multiple comparisons have also been made to “Dog Day Afternoon,” and the Safdie’s love-it-or-leave-it sense of manufactured urgency also owes a huge debt to the twitchy rhythms of Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky.”

As Connie Nikas, a luckless bank robber fiercely loyal to his hearing impaired and special needs brother, Robert Pattinson constructs an electrifying performance. Ben (Benny) Safdie plays the sibling, and while their relationship dynamic echoes “Of Mice and Men,” the Safdies take care to humanize the character of Nick. Despite leaving a number of critics unconvinced, Nick’s disabilities function as a thematic undercurrent alluding to conditions of suffering and abuse that account for (if not justify) the Nikas brothers’ desperation and willingness to break the law.

Like Larry Clark, the Safdies have a deep affinity for casting memorable and unconventional faces in a wide variety of roles both large and small. While it is difficult to disguise the model contours of Pattinson’s Dior Homme good looks, several performers — including Barkhad Abdi as a wrong-place-wrong-time security guard and “Heaven Knows What” alum Buddy Duress as Ray, a perfect comic foil to Connie — lock in with just the right amounts of outsider status. The use of a number of non-actors also abets the neon-lit nightscapes captured by veteran director of photography/weapon of choice Sean Price Williams, who earns MVP honors along with composer Daniel Lopatin/Oneohtrix Point Never.        

The treatment of the female characters emerges quickly and emphatically as the movie’s most glaring flaw. With virtually no substantive interaction between two women at any point in the narrative, the depictions that remain stumble over a minefield of longstanding cliches. Benedict Seal nails the evidence, writing, “Oft lamented but ultimately given little screen time, female maternal figures are demonized and presented as hysterical, abusive burdens.” In some ways, it’s a step backward from the female-centered “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and “Heaven Knows What.” Who knows how the brothers will handle gender dynamics in their upcoming “Uncut Gems,” but with Jonah Hill in the lead and Scorsese as a producer, the forecast calls for plenty of men talking to and interacting with other men.   

While an underutilized Jennifer Jason Leigh fits squarely into the crosshairs of Seal’s charge, the film’s lone exception is Taliah Webster’s Crystal. A self-assured teenager whose accidental meeting with Connie suffuses the hypermasculine, adrenalized trajectory with a surprise turn toward something calmer, quieter, and softer, Crystal initiates one of the movie’s most interesting and inviting sequences. Her presence is an absolute gift to the plot, and she is immediately missed following the conclusion of her story.

There is nothing inherently wrong, of course, with a tale of fraternal bonds, and the way in which the Safdies never lose sight of Connie’s obsessive and relentless quest to reunite with Nick is arguably the film’s raison d’etre. One of the pleasures of “Good Time” is that the experience delivers exactly that; the filmmakers take their lovable losers seriously, but not too seriously. The result is an adventure that deftly balances pathos with comedy.

Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” ends the filmmaker’s short-lived “retirement” from directing theatrically-released features, and his return to cinemas is a welcome one. Extending his well-documented penchant for pseudonymous tomfoolery, “Logan Lucky” spreads the wealth to cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard, two of the director’s common disguises. The screenplay is attributed to newcomer Rebecca Blunt, and a recent “Hollywood Reporter” article suggests that like Andrews and Bernard, Ms. Blunt is also a fictitious person. Whoever wrote “Logan Lucky” deserves praise. The caper is filled with solid characters and incisive observations.

Channing Tatum makes his fourth appearance for Soderbergh. Playing a West Virginia hard hat whose bum leg gets him canned from a job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Tatum’s Jimmy Logan cooks up a wild robbery with his younger brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender and veteran who lost a hand and part of his arm in Iraq. Hoping to escape Clyde’s superstitions regarding a family curse, the siblings visit incarcerated safecracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to enlist the con in a wild cash grab involving everything from gummy bears to color-coded cockroaches to the pneumatic tube pipelines that dump piles of greenbacks underneath the sprawling racetrack.   

Soderbergh’s films unfold with professionalism and competence, and this one capitalizes on the strategy to withhold just enough of the Logan plan to keep the viewer invested. Soderbergh’s sly sense of humor is also in full effect: the simpleminded rednecks of “Logan Lucky” are anything but, and the NASCAR milieu is just as likely to host a hilarious riff on George R. R. Martin’s delayed “Game of Thrones” books as it is to take easy shots at backwoods caricatures. The usual complaints apply: actors of color are scarce, and talented women from Riley Keough, as the third Logan sibling, to Katherine Waterston, as Jimmy’s former classmate, are not given enough to do.

A few critics have gone fishing for any signs of overt or covert political commentary embedded within the goofy heart of Soderbergh’s antidote to “Ocean’s Eleven,” but for my money, they keep coming up empty. One of the best readings, courtesy of Anthony Lane, argues that Soderbergh’s catalog of red state tropes (including fighter jet flyovers, LeAnn Rimes belting “America the Beautiful,” and a sincere singalong to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”) examines “confused cultural attitudes toward the heartland.” Lane notes that Soderbergh plays this stuff straight, and warns, “mock it at your peril.”

But while the spectacle of the Coca-Cola 600 race simmers in the background as but one of a complex number of moving parts in the heist (a great directorial choice, by the way), Soderbergh cruises to the checkered flag without breaking a sweat. The secret, to a large extent, is in the actors’ elan and effortless sense of fun the filmmaker brings to the party. With its David vs. Goliath theme of inequitable wealth distribution and the economic hardships of the working class, “Logan Lucky” is the comic cousin to David McKenzie’s “Hell or High Water.” Jimmy’s adorable daughter — a beauty pageant contestant, no less — does the heavy lifting when it comes to the heartstrings. Soderbergh never takes “Logan Lucky” too seriously, and that attitude invites a wide grin and repeat viewings.  

A Ghost Story

Ghost Story1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Reteaming with his “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” leads Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, filmmaker David Lowery has a very compelling tale to tell in “A Ghost Story.” Somber yet funny, and comfortable with exclamations of profundity and absurdity, the movie is an invitation to reflect on a few great philosophical questions. Beautifully conveyed in a squarish aspect ratio close to the approximate 1.37:1 dimensions of the classic “Academy” standard, Lowery’s instincts are rewarded by the stunning photography of Andrew Droz Palermo, who helps conjure a pharaoh’s tomb of pictures that meditate on place, love, loss, loneliness, and the ephemeral blink of the human lifespan.

As the couple known in the end credits only by single initials, M (Mara) and C (Affleck) inhabit a small rambler in which the shorthand of their relationship is communicated via moments of conflict, intimacy, and the recognizable patterns of daily routine. One night, they get out of bed to investigate the inexplicable and startling sound of something landing on the keys of the piano. Not long after, C dies in a car accident just outside the house, but his ghost — rendered as the classic white-sheet-black-eyeholes icon — stays behind, silently observing M as she first reels in shock, then mourns, and eventually moves on.

Lowery directs with confidence, masterfully modulating our feel for the passing minutes by the skillful manipulation of cinematic time. We learn how a kind of eternal present works differently for the ghost of C, which Lowery investigates via a range of straightforward devices so often taken for granted. For example, a series of shots of M leaving the house are exquisitely stitched together to appear seamless and unbroken. We’ve seen stuff like this before, but the context calls for our close attention. In one of the movie’s most imaginative and yes, haunting, displays of imagination, C spots a fellow ghost next door, and the two speak telepathically (helpful subtitles lighting the way for the viewer). The eventual outcome of that otherworldly acquaintance will take your breath away.

In his essay on the film, Anthony Lane shares a passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pnin” speculating on the “democracy of ghosts,” but one could just as readily point to Richard McGuire’s astonishing graphic odyssey “Here,” which in its meditation on the intersection of space and time contains the thought, “Life has a flair for rhyming events.” I don’t know whether Lowery had McGuire in mind when he went to work on “A Ghost Story,” but several of the film’s most memorable and powerful scenes, including an eerie observation of a family of murdered settlers, echo McGuire’s incredible technical feat. Others, including Nick Johnston and Benjamin Rosenstock, have also noticed the parallels between the two works, the latter remarking, “‘A Ghost Story’ is probably the closest we’ll ever get to an adaptation of ‘Here.’”

Writing about “Here,” Chris Ware said, “You could say [the main character is] the space of the room, the arbitrary geometry imposed by a human mind on a space for reasons of shelter and as a background to this theatre of life. But you could also claim it is the reader, your consciousness where everything is pieced together and tries to find, and to understand, itself.” While “A Ghost Story” does not quite match McGuire’s achievement, Ware’s words could readily apply to Lowery’s film, which now takes a place alongside some of the screen’s great depictions of spirits and phantasms.



Movie review by Greg Carlson

Kathryn Bigelow, to this day the only woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, makes an admirable if flawed attempt to fictionalize key components of Detroit’s 1967 12th Street Riot. Timed in part to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incendiary actions that resulted in 43 deaths and more than 7000 arrests, Bigelow — working for the third time with “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” scripter Mark Boal — concentrates on the so-called Algiers Motel Incident in which three black male civilians were murdered by white police officers. “Detroit” is carried along by Bigelow’s visceral facility for violence, but the filmmaker struggles to grasp the psychological interiority of the sprawling ensemble, whether black or white, guilty or innocent.

At 143 minutes, “Detroit” attempts to cover more territory than can be effectively addressed within the genre parameters of the fact-based history lesson. Following a Henry Louis Gates prologue explaining the Great Migration, a police raid on a “blind pig” leads to civil unrest that escalates until National Guard soldiers arrive. While the details of the Algiers Motel (both verified and speculative) take up the bulk of the film’s central sections, “Detroit” rushes through the aftermath of the crime. The resulting material, a streamlined and simplified abridgement of the legal proceedings that ended in jury decisions favorable to the police officers, is so different in tone to the preceding content it might have been eliminated in favor of a deeper look at security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega).

Boyega does absolutely anything and everything he can with Dismukes, often wordlessly conveying the unthinkable circumstances of being witness to a terrible and dangerous situation that continues to deteriorate. As the sole person of color depicted in a frontline position of any authority during the terrorizing perpetrated by a small group of white cops, Dismukes is shown multiple times making instant decisions that imply a desire to protect the “suspects” caught up in the horrific “death game” of racist ringleader officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). The filmmakers, however, only gesture toward the question of Dismukes’ possible complicity in the nightmare.    

Past and present remain in uncomfortable proximity, and the astonishing period detail is just about the only signpost we have to separate the Algiers from constant contemporary examples of unarmed black men dead after coming into contact with police. More than one critic has identified Bigelow’s grim and unflinching construction of brutality and mayhem as torture porn, and Krauss’ repetitive tactics certainly suggest that Bigelow was — rightly or wrongly — deliberate in her decision to take viewers through the punishing details of the gruesome “interrogations.”

As horror movies, “Detroit” and “Get Out” exist in distinctly different realms, but the readings of violence, ranging from A. O. Scott (“The specific, close-up acts of cruelty you witness are comprehensible as manifestations of a systemic, continuing and frequently invisible pattern of injustice.”) to Angelica Jade Bastien (“What is the value of depicting such nauseating violence if you have nothing to say about how that violence comes to pass or what it says about a country that has yet to reckon with the racism that continues to fester within its very soul?”) will continue to divide opinion regarding the film’s effectiveness.

Beatriz at Dinner

Beatriz at Dinner (1)

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Miguel Arteta is always worth watching, particularly when armed with a screenplay by Mike White. Their third collaboration, “Beatriz at Dinner,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is now making a modest theatrical run. Given the outcome of the November 2016 presidential election, the movie’s simple premise, a moral and ethical showdown between a spiritually-inclined healer/massage therapist (Salma Hayek) and a rapacious business mogul (John Lithgow), sets the stage for all manner of timely social and political commentary, as well as for the cringe-inducing discomfort that the Arteta-White team embraces.

Hayek’s title character, who provides her services to the wealthy Kathy (Connie Britton), is asked to stay for a carefully pre-planned dinner party when Beatriz’s car won’t start following an appointment at Kathy’s opulent Newport Beach spread. Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky), nervous about an impending deal involving Alex (Jay Duplass) and Lithgow’s Doug Strutt, reluctantly extends his hospitality to Beatriz. Shortly after the VIP guest arrives, Strutt asks Beatriz to refill his bourbon (“You were hovering. I just figured you were part of the staff.”) and the awkwardness commences.     

White and Arteta did not know who would win that election last fall, but “Beatriz at Dinner” has been accurately tagged as a film of its time. Unsurprisingly, Arteta’s sympathies align principally with Beatriz, a character whose careful navigation of English and Spanish-speaking settings alludes to her knowledge of class, race, and privilege (Arteta interestingly and deliberately omits some subtitles). But despite steady, condescending praise from Kathy, Beatriz is far from a saintly miracle worker composed of light and energy. Hayek likes Beatriz’s flaws and edges, and she is all the more interesting for her “fatiguing sanctimoniousness” (as Melissa Anderson put it).  

Just as good is Lithgow’s perfectly monikered developer. Strutt, so accustomed to being served and to getting his way, shares a number of traits with the current resident of the White House, but the filmmakers and the performer do a remarkable thing: they offer Strutt glimmers of humanity that prevent the caricature that could so easily be built from the man’s narcissism, self-importance, casual racism, and domineering discourse. Even the revelation of Strutt’s ultimate rich white asshole signifier — a cell phone photo of the rhinoceros trophy he bagged on an African safari — is transcended by Lithgow’s skill.

Both the real and false endings of “Beatriz at Dinner” will take some viewers by surprise, and each sequence raises questions that may not have been completely addressed by the fascinating stretches of dialogue preceding them. With a tidy 83-minute running time, it is possible that something more might have been explored (especially given the leisureliness of the film’s dreamy bookending device). Chloe Sevigny, as Alex’s spouse Shannon, is especially underutilized. Arteta’s film succeeds, however, in its stubbornness. We are not necessarily called upon to see things strictly from the perspective of Beatriz or the perspective of Doug Strutt. And the way those irreconcilable differences are treated by Arteta, White, and the ensemble recommend “Beatriz at Dinner” for anyone who wonders about our future.