Detroit

Posted on August 3, 2017 at 2:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language
Profanity: Very strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic violence including murder and brutal beatings, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 4, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017

If a newspaper is the first draft of history, perhaps it is art that conveys the truth of the past with context, nuance, and power. And so “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s story of a horrifying, tragic murder of three black men during the Detroit riots of 1967, meaningfully begins with the paintings of Jacob Lawrence documenting the migration of black families from the rural South to northern urban centers and the unrest triggered by the fear and flight of the white residents. “The promise of equal opportunity for all turned out to be an illusion.  Change was inevitable.” And, for some people who were happy as things were, terrifying.

And so “Detroit,” directed by Bigelow’s and scripted by her “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal aspires aspires to be art that tells the story of one incident that illuminates not only its own time but ours as well. It is based on intensive research including court transcripts and interviews with people who were there.

Television news in the 1967 featured footage of riots, with looters smashing windows, even at stores with “Soul Brother” spray-painted in hope that being owned by black neighbors would keep them safe. There was not much, if any coverage of an incident at the Algiers Motel, where white cops abused a group of young black men and two white women and murdered three unarmed teenagers. This was before the time that a bystander could record the beating of a Rodney King, and so it had to wait for the Hollywood version.

The threat of anarchy and violence was so unsettling during the Detroit riots that Lyndon Johnson sent 1100 National Guardsmen — to protect the police. The state police were there, too, and we see one officer recognize that horrible abuse is taking place, but leave, saying, “I don’t want to get in any civil rights mixup.” The pervasive chaos and fear inspires one character to say, “Now everybody knows what it’s like to be black.”

Reportedly, Bigelow encouraged her actors to develop their own dialog so it would be more authentic to their own perceptions and experience. She has a gift for conveying urgency and putting the audience in the middle of the action. The characters who take us through the story include a mild-mannered security guard (“The Force Awakens'” John Boyega), a just-returned Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie), and a young white cop in way over his head, who has no hesitation about planting a weapon on a murder victim (“The Revenant’s” Will Poulter). It is in no way excusing his behavior to say that his behavior here is as much based on fear, anger, and ignorance as in racism.

I hope the film will not always feel as timely as it does now. If that is true, it will be in part because films like this provide context that helps us understand not only the origins of Black Lives Matter but the lives of the parents and grandparents who were unable or unwilling to tell their own stories.

NOTE: I recommend the thoughtful responses to this film from African-American critics, including Angelica Jade Bastien, who found the portrayal of brutality exploitive (“It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin.”)

Parents should know that this film includes explicit depiction of a real-life incident of police abuse and brutality including murder of three unarmed teenagers, with rioting and looting, many disturbing and graphic images, very strong language, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references and brief nudity.

Family discussion: What would make you believe that justice had been done in this case? How does this story help us to understand some of today’s conflicts?

If you like this, try: documentaries about this era including “4 Little Girls,” “Eyes on the Prize,” and “12th and Clairmount”

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Trailer: Detroit

Posted on April 12, 2017 at 10:34 am

The new film from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is “Detroit,” set in one of the most tense and violent moments of civil unrest in US history, Detroit in the summer of 1967. The cast includes some of my favorite actors: John Boyega, Will Poulter,Jason Mitchell, Jack Reynor, Laz Alonzo, John Krasinski, and Anthony Mackie.

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Trailers, Previews, and Clips

Zero Dark Thirty

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 6:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing wartime images including torture and terrorism
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 11, 2013
Date Released to DVD: March 18, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00B1E6FF8

It begins with heart-breaking audio of 911 calls from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  A frantic woman who asks if she is going to die is soothed by the operator until she is suddenly gone and we hear the operator’s dawning understanding of the magnitude of the disaster.

And then it is two years later and we are watching the torture-aided interrogation of a detainee in Pakistan.  Dan (Jason Clarke) is forthright and almost clinical as he tells Ammar (Reda Kateb) that he will hurt him for every lie.  The interrogation is witnessed by a new arrival who we will know only as Maya (Jessica Chastain).  She turns down the chance to stay outside the room.  “There’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor.”  Maybe she is proving something to Dan, maybe she is proving something to herself, maybe she is so intent on finding Osama Bin Laden that she wants to make sure she does not miss a detail.  Probably all three.

Director Kathryn Bigelow brings that same intensity of focus to telling the story that Maya brings to the search.  After “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow, the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar, re-teamed with screenwriter Mark Boal to make a movie about what they thought would be the unsuccessful search for Bin Laden.  Their project was overtaken by events as Bigelow and Boal were all but embedded with the military and CIA to do their research in real time, giving the movie an intimate, gritty, documentary feel.

Maya goes to work.  “You don’t think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?” one of her new colleagues asks.  “Washington says she’s a killer.”  This is not a movie where we go home with the heroes and see them hug their children.  It is not a movie where we see them struggle with their demons or sit down over drinks to give us endearing details about their lives or explain why they do what they do.  At one point, Maya is asked about her background and she says she has done nothing since she got out of school but look for Bin Laden.  She acknowledges that there is a reason she was particularly suited for this task, but she never reveals it.  This is the story of hard-working, even driven professionals who have to make life or death decisions all the time, about what it takes and about the price they pay.

People come and go in the story.  A new President is elected and the policy on torture changes.*  The policy on the level of certainty required as a basis for action changes, too.  Dan goes back home.  “I need to do something normal for a while.  I’ve seen too many guys naked.” And, he says, “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”  Some of the CIA and military investigators are killed and she is attacked.  But then there is a breakthrough and she has another challenge — persuading the military and the politicians that she is right about where Bin Laden is hiding.  James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehele, and Kyle Chandler are all outstanding as Maya’s colleagues.

And then it is time to bring in Seal Team 6.  The attack is brilliantly staged, much of it through night goggles that let us see the compound and the shoot-out through their eyes.

It is also a gripping, masterfully assembled story.  Even though we know how it ends, it will leave you breathless.

 

Parents should know that this film includes terrorism, war, and torture scenes with some very graphic images, characters injured and killed, some sexual references, very strong language, and drinking and smoking.

Family discussion: What does this movie stay about torture?  Was Mya right to be so confident?  What made her good at her job?

If you like this, try:  the documentaries “Restrepo,” “Gunner Palace,” and “Standard Operating Procedure”

*Those who claim that this movie is pro-torture are not paying attention.  While some people in the movie may be pro-torture, that is not the same thing as having the movie promote torture.  The movie makes clear that establishing a high probability of Bin Laden’s location depended on years of intensive research and was based on correlating many, many sources of information.  Mya gets critical data other ways.  And the movie’s unblinking portrayal of torture is there to remind of what happened, and, perhaps, of Golda Meier’s famous comment about the true tragedy of war: “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

 

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The Real Story: “Zero Dark Thirty” and the Hunt for Bin Laden

Posted on January 8, 2013 at 8:00 am

Letter from Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain“Zero Dark Thirty” is a leading contender for the Best Picture Oscar.  Following her Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow began work on what she thought would be a part journalistic, part feature film version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  She did not expect that during the course of developing the film with “Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal Bin Laden would be found and killed, so that the entire direction of the movie would have to be revised.

The CIA was criticized for working with Bigelow and Boal, but insists that they did not provide the filmmakers with any classified information and has published a statement correcting what it says are inaccuracies in the film.  Now that the film is out in a few cities and preparing for its wider release on January 11, politicians and commentators on all sides are criticizing its depiction of torture. Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin have written to the film’s distributor outlining their objections to the portrayal of torture in the movie, calling it “grossly inaccurate” to portray information gathered as a result of torture as essential to determining Bin Laden’s location: “We are fans of many of your movies and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ will believe the events it portrays are facts.”  Writer Glenn Greenwald was so eager to complain that the movie supports the use of torture that he decided to condemn it before actually seeing it for himself.  I will be addressing some of these issues in my review, but for now I will just say that it is hard to imagine that anyone who sees the movie will think it is an endorsement of torture and that while the movie depicts waterboarding and other high-pressure tactics that have been well documented and are — as the movie makes clear — not permitted any longer, and one or more characters may endorse torture, that does not mean that the movie is pro-torture.  When Bigelow accepted her New York Film Critics Circle Best Director award, she said, “I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices. No author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.”

I recommend this piece by Paul Miller, describing his reaction to the film as someone who was in the military on Sept 11, 2001 and later served as a CIA analyst, and this piece about a key interview that informed the screenplay.

Watching this movie made me both sad and angry.  Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures.  I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend’s death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare.  This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.

But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story.  I told my wife after seeing Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film,The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers’ lives in a modern combat zone I’d ever seen.  I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.

Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless  soldiers, sailors,  airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Laden, but all of al-Qaida and its murderous allies around the world.  It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I’ve ever seen in a movie–the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes.  There isn’t the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here:  even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flare….Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching….The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers.  It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes.  I was angry most of all at al-Qaida, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend.  But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness:  Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.

The CIA is by nature, culture, and function inclined to keep secrets.  And any story-telling, even documentaries, selects some details, leaves others out, shifts emphasis, intentionally and unintentionally.  At least one commentator says that the real “Maya” is a man.  And the publicity from the film and the focus on the character played by Jessica Chastain, known only in the film as “Maya,” has led to some internal conflicts as well.  Now that story would make a great movie.

 

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List: Women Directors

Posted on March 8, 2010 at 10:03 am

In honor of “The Hurt Locker’s” Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director last night, and International Women’s Day, here’s a list of pioneering women movie directors.

1. Penny Marshall, who started as an actress (“Laverne and Shirley”), went on to direct films that included “Awakenings,” “Big,” and “A League of Their Own.”

2. Amy Heckerling is the director of “Clueless” and the neglected gem “I Could Never Be Your Woman.”

3. Betty Thomas also started as an actress (“Hill Street Blues”) and went on to direct “The Brady Bunch” and “28 Days.”

4. Nora Ephron, the daughter of successful screenwriters, began as a writer and then went on to direct films like “Julie & Julia,” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

5. Gurinder Chadha directed the international hit “Bend it Like Beckham” as well as “What’s Cooking” and “Bride and Prejudice.”

6. Nancy Meyers also began as a writer and has gone on to direct some of the most successful movies of the last 10 years including “It’s Complicated,” “The Holiday,” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”

7. Penelope Speeris made a successful documentary about a topic considered very male — punk music — in “The Decline of Western Civilization.” That led to her directing the wildly successful “Wayne’s World.”

8. Kasi Lemmons is another actress turned director with “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Caveman’s Valentine,” starring Samuel L. Jackson.

9. Mabel Normand was one of the most gifted comic actors of the silent era and one of the first female film directors. She often worked with Charlie Chaplin.

10. Mira Nair directed “Monsoon Wedding” and the recent biopic “Amelia,” starring Hillary Swank.

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