After making two unrelentingly visceral war pictures, veteran filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow has taken up another war, the one fought in the streets of America’s inner-cities in the 1960s.
One hundred years after the end of slavery, as Sidney Poitier won an Oscar, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Bill Russell were cheered nightly for their athletic prowess and a roster of black musicians, many from Detroit’s Motown label, filled pop music’s Top 10, black America was still a separate nation, tolerated as long as it collectively remained humble, soft spoken and patient for the day it could share white America’s financial, educational and social opportunities.
Bigelow and journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal (who wrote and researched “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” for Bigelow) use the 1967 riots in Detroit and the killings at the Algiers Hotel that led to federal prosecution of three policemen to make their point.
While the docudrama offers passing condemnation of the rioting and unprovoked violence, the filmmakers never waver from their central theme that deep-seated racism has both created and exploited the hot house atmosphere that led to this confrontations and others like it.
There’s a long buildup introducing the main characters, which may seem a bit off-topic but turns out to be background that pays off once the film gets to its centerpiece: the Algiers Hotel. There, a group of black men and two white women visiting from Ohio are partying in some of the rooms when a fired starter pistol is mistaken for sniper fire, spurring local cops along with federal troops to storm the hotel.
The young people in the hotel are put through an interrogation, led by a racist cop with a giant chip on his shoulder (a wild-eyed Will Poulter), more suited for terrorist suspects. The standoff, mostly set in a narrow hallway with the men and two women against the wall, goes on for what must be an hour of screen time, allowing the audience to feel the fear from both the victims and the unsteady police. The sequence is as intense as any frontline battle or POW encounter ever filmed.
Much of the film is seen through the eyes of a part-time security guard Dismukes (John Boyega from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) who knows what he’s witnessing is wrong but doesn’t have the clout or fortitude to stand up to the white cops.
The performance of the film is given by newcomer Algee Smith as Larry Reed, the lead singer of the R&B group The Dramatics (all of these characters are based on real people), who ends up in the middle of this after missing out on an important performance because of the riots. Through him, the psychological devastation to the black community is best expressed.
Obviously this film is meant to echo contemporary problems in the inner city and the distrust between police and the black community. It also serves as a reminder of how progress in race relations has moved at a glaciers pace over the past 50 years. There will always be a problem when too many law enforcement officers see any African American as a threat, an enemy, before there’s any provocation.
Ironically, this sometimes hard to watch film offers a best-case-scenario of the era: at least these cops were brought up on charges; in too many cases, abuse was just swept under the carpet by sympathetic departments.
“Detroit” is a startling piece of filmmaking, a strong indictment of justice turning its head away from injustice occurring in the minority community. If this story had been told by filmmakers in the 1970s or ‘80s, it would have had the impact of “Do the Right Thing.” (It loses some juice for chronicling a 50-year-old event.)
As for Bigelow, she’s gone from an overrated cult filmmaker, in the first half of her career, to one of the most skilled and committed American filmmakers, willing to tackle subjects that few of her contemporaries are willing to take on.
OUT OF THE PAST (1947)
In the never-settled debate to determine the greatest American film actor, the names most often considered remain consistent: Tracy, Cagney, Bogart, Grant, Stewart, Brando, Nicholson and De Niro. But Robert Mitchum, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 6, deserves to be part of that discussion.
His offhanded coolness was part Tracy and Brando, while his tough-guy rage could match Cagney or Bogart. Most impressively, he brought a complex, inner turmoil to his acting that few beyond Stewart and Nicholson can touch.
A reluctant star who never passed up a chance to belittle his profession or dismiss the idea of craft, Mitchum was probably the most underappreciated actor of the 20th Century.
Working steadily during World War II (he served briefly after being drafted in 1945) in mostly B Westerns, he was 27 when he moved into the big time, earning an Oscar nomination for his moving performance as Lt. Walker in William Wellman’s “The Story of G.I. Joe” (1945).
After “G.I. Joe,” he established new benchmarks for under-acting, not quite a Brando mumble, but displaying how less can be more in four excellent crime films, “Crossfire” (1947), “Out of the Past” (1947), “The Big Steal” (1949) and “The Racket” (1951).
While it’s hard to tell how much say an actor had in what roles he took in that era, Mitchum somehow landed some meaty, offbeat roles that other star-actors wouldn’t have touched: a cowboy in the rodeo picture “The Lusty Men” (1952), the strident hunter-son of isolated family in “Track of the Cat” (1954) and, his greatest performance, the menacing, deliciously evil religious conman Harry Powell in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955).
He probably reached the apex of his movie stardom in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with the war romance “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957), the Southern family soap opera “Home from the Hill” (1960) and the Australian “Western” “The Sundowners” (1960).
But he was more in his element as Max Cady, the vengeance-seeking ex-con in “Cape Fear” (1962). By then, the best directors in the world wanted Mitchum in their films; John Ford gave him the drunken sheriff role in his “Rio Bravo” remake “El Dorado” (1967), and David Lean cast him, daringly but successfully, as a timid, newly married teacher in the Irish epic “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970).
While his acting contemporaries were mostly easing toward retirement, Mitchum was still scoring interesting roles, highlighted by two first-rate crime pictures, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973) and “Farewell My Lovely” (1975). Then came “The Winds of War” (1983), the biggest miniseries of the 1980s (along with its sequel, “War and Remembrance”), offering the actor a taste of the kind of acclaim he’d rarely seen from his film roles.
Nearly 70, he played Navy Commander “Pug” Henry, the central figure in this World War II soap opera based on the Herman Wouk novel, becoming the hottest actor on TV. Mitchum’s authoritative presence and long screen history made him the perfect choice to play Wouk’s hero, who, like the Forrest Gump of World War II, becomes intertwined in every important event of the war.
In the 1990s, he starred in the TV series, “A Family for Joe” (1990) and “African Skies” (1992), had a small role in the remake of “Cape Fear” (1991), in which De Niro played his original role, and then found his way into the quirky Jim Jarmusch picture “Dead Man” (1996), a year before his death.
Needless to say, there were a boatload of bad movies between these memorable ones and sometimes Bob’s effort wasn’t always (being charitable) 100 percent, but even in bad performances, without really trying, the actor dominated the screen.
His Jeff Bailey (aka Markham) in “Out of the Past,” a film that turns 70 this year, etched the template for Mitchum’s approach to acting while also providing solid evidence as to why he was rarely recognized as a great film actor.
Through the first hour of the film, Mitchum, despite looming over the other performers, does his best to disappear into the surroundings. He looks like he wishes he was back in a low-budget horse opera (Bogart was originally sought for this role), barely registering a personality.
This could have been a megastar-making performance, earning him another Oscar nomination (criminally denied him for the rest of his career) and a string of big-budget pictures, but his soft-spoken, emotionless delivery—which works perfectly for the film—wasn’t going to get him noticed.
Hired by crime boss Whit (a too young Kirk Douglas) to find Kathie (cool and calculating Jane Greer), an angry girlfriend who took a shot at Whit and left with $40,000, private eye Jeff tracks her to Acapulco. But everything changes the minute he sees her. He falls senselessly in love and, defying Whit, they sneak off to San Francisco to live happily ever after.
Not surprisingly, knowing we’re deep in film noir territory, nothing is as it seems and Jeff is forced into hiding, starting his life over, yet again, this time as a small-town gas station owner in Northern California. (The background of how he got there is told in flashback).
Turns out Whit and Kathie aren’t done with him and that’s when the double and triple crosses really get crazy. As was true throughout his career, Mitchum is more believable as a cynical, quick-on-his-feet man-of-action, which emerges in the second half of this film, rather than a smooth-talking romantic. Even so, he’s definitely the great talent of the picture, yet Douglas (and others like Glenn Ford and Gregory Peck) became the era’s brightest stars, not Mitchum.
No doubt, his bad boy image (booze and pot) didn’t suit Hollywood and that cost him major roles early in his career—though being stuck in the B-movie land of RKO for nearly a decade didn’t help either. I think his second-class status also had to do with his refusal to play the Hollywood sport of self promotion; if you don’t seek the spotlight, you won’t get it. Mitchum was happy to deliver a performance, duck into a bar and move on to the next location.
But that doesn’t diminish a career that ranks with the best of best and Mitchum’s ability that brought authentic truth to characters as different as Max Cady and Pug Henry. His cool demeanor and implied understanding of the dark side of human nature have secured him an essential place in cinema history.
By rescuing over 300,000 troops pinned down on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, after being driven from continent, England created its rally cry for the desperate times ahead in the fight against Nazi Germany.
To properly chronicle the Channel rescue, which took place over a week in 1940, writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose time-shifting skills are second to none (“Memento,” “Inception,” “Interstellar”) shows different parts of the operation out of sequence, then brings the air, the beach and the sea events together at film’s end.
That concept didn’t work for me: at times it left me confused about what was happening and at some point, rather early in the film, I stopped trying to figure out the sequence, which, when you are talking about a rescue, is rather important. I know Nolan was trying to capture the intensity of each aspect of the escape, giving each part its due, yet I felt it slowed down what should have been a nonstop action film, losing needed energy and that edge-of-your-seat urgency.
Even more damning to the film, Nolan decides to ignore what every memorable war film has always done—make you care about individuals. In any war film, the audience is going to witness hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths, but what keeps us interested is getting to know a handful of these soldiers though a pre-battle introduction or because a well-known actor is cast in the role. Fionn Whitehead and pop star Harry Styles are not actors I know and Nolan does little to makes them distinguishable from the other soldiers.
The closest to the old-style star performance comes from British film stalwart Kenneth Branagh as the ground commander and Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Revenant”) as the crack fighter pilot who saves hundreds of lives with his impressive dogfights against the Luftwaffe.
Even the brilliant stage and screen actor Mark Rylance, as a local fishing boat owner who bravely heads into the dangerous war zone, is given little to do except look resilient, even as he’s surrounded by tragedy and conflict.
I never completely understood, whether it was Nolan’s jumbled narrative or the muddled British accents, why the Brits were standing on the beach as they awaited rescue, rather than huddled in the homes that lined the shore or at least in trenches. As it was to be a long wait for rescue, it seemed pure insanity to stand around waiting to be target practice for the German pilots.
But I understand the movie’s appeal; there are some very impressive action sequences, beautifully realized by the director and his director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, mostly involving failed attempts to escape the beach and desperate soldiers struggling to avoid watery deaths. And the last 20 minutes of the film (Nolan is an absolute master of sweeping endings), nearly made me forget my reservations about the first 90 minutes. He brings everything together in an emotional tour de force that captures the resolve of this prelude to the existential battles that lay ahead for Britain and all of Western Civilization.
SAM SHEPARD (1943-2017)
In the days since Sam Shepard died there have been numerous thoughtful, heartfelt tributes to the man and his talents, most notably Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty’s appraisal of Shepard’s place in theater history and Patti Smith’s remembrance of her longtime friend, published in the New Yorker.
I weight in, not because I have much more to offer, but to hopefully make more people aware of this extraordinary artist who was the finest playwright of the last quarter of the 20th Century and one of Hollywood’s most reliable and busy character actors for almost 40 years. Not many have ever matched his resume.
What I cherish about his sometimes hard to navigate plays—including “Buried Child,” “True West,” “Fool for Love,” “A Lie of the Mind”—was his ear for dialogue. He captured the cadence of working class middle-America, the sudden outbursts, the meaningful silence, the poetic profanity, knee-jerk sentimentality and the grasping for an understanding that rarely was reached, all without diminishing the character’s humanity.
You can’t be a successful playwright without understand the nuances of acting, which certainly gave him a leg up on other “untrained” film stars, yet few who have succeed in another fields have had so much success on screen.
In the first decade of his film career, starting when he was the dying Texas farmer in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” Shepard co-starred in a major film every year, including playing the love interest to Ellen Burstyn in “Resurrection,” Jessica Lange (starting a real-life relationship) in “Frances” and “Country,” Kim Basinger in his own “Fool for Love” and Diane Keaton in “Baby Boom.” Not a bad run for a previously unknown actor. I had actually forgotten how quickly he became a major Hollywood player.
But it was his performance as test pilot Chuck Yeager, laconically commanding and coolly humble in “The Right Stuff” (1983) that forever etched Shepard as a memorable movie character. Though this memorable film directed by Philip Kaufman chronicles the beginning of the astronaut program (from Tom Wolfe’s book), Shepard’s Yeager is its soul, its rock, as the old-school pilot paves the way for the space age.
I’ve repeatedly lamented the lack of familiar faces in supporting roles in contemporary film; in the studio era and into the 1970s, even mediocre pictures were enlivened by well-known character actors in small but entertaining roles. Shepard is the modern exception: You don’t need a lot of exposition to know what his character is all about—like the great stars of the past, he brought a signature image (himself or a version of that) to his roles.
And he wasn’t a dilettante when it came to acting: he’s appeared in at least one film every year since 1989. He’s given some of his best performances in recent years, including as Frank James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” (2007), a mysterious father figure in “Mud” (2012), the depressed matriarch in “August: Osage County” (2013) and a cult leader in “Midnight Special” (2016).
In Wim Wender’s “Don’t Come Knocking” (2005), probably his best performance since “Right Stuff,” Shepard, who also wrote the script, plays a cowboy actor who rides off a movie set, heading to his hometown to visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint) and his messy past.
Though his screenwriting work is mostly connected to his plays, he also contributed to the scripts of the 1970 counter-culture touchstone “Zabriskie Point” and Wender’s “Paris, Texas” (1984).
All told, that’s an impressive collection of film work for a second career. With little fanfare, Sam Shepard’s uncompromising words and comforting presence have been an important part of the American culture for a generation.
NAZI AGENT (1942)
One of the most interesting World War II films I’ve seen recently was this low-budget vehicle for Conrad Veidt, made the same year he played the most notorious Gestapo agent in Hollywood history, Major Strasser in “Casablanca.” In this little known picture, he’s both a Nazi and a loyal American, playing twins with very different political beliefs.
A star of early German silents (he played the somnambulist in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in 1920) Veidt escaped Hitler’s regime in 1933, first to England and then later to Hollywood, becoming the go-to German for starring and supporting roles. He co-starred opposite Vivien Leigh in “Dark Journey” (1937), headlined Michael Powell’s U-boat film “The Spy in Black” (1939), played Jaffar in Powell’s “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940) and yet another Nazi facing off with Humphrey Bogart in “All Through the Night” (1941).
Just a few months after the release of “Casablanca,” the 50-year Veidt died of a heart attack while golfing.
In “Nazi Agent,” he’s humble rare book store owner Otto Becker, living a quiet life in America before his twin, Baron Hugo von Detner, arrives to use Otto and his store as a front for Nazi activity. Veidt does a superb job of distinguishing the brothers, creating two very distinctive characters, while the camera work (a half century before digital), when they have scenes together, is seamless.
The intensity kicks up a notch when Otto, fed up with being used by this enemy agent, kills his brother and takes over his identity.
The film was the directing debut of Jules Dassin, who went on to become one of the masters of film noir, helming such dark classics as “Brute Force” (1947), “The Naked City” (1948), “Night and the City” (1950) and “Rififi” (1955).
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)
How silly and inept do the 1960s-70s version of this apocalyptic franchise look now as this model reboot completes its first trilogy chronicling how apes became masters of the Earth?
What has elevated this action series above others was the decision to place the audience on the side of the apes and placing at the center a nonhuman lead as memorable and sympathetic as Caesar, the ape raised by humans who comes to represent the best of what was once humanity.
Director and co-writer Matt Reeves (who also directed 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) understands that even sci-fi films are about connecting characters to our own lives through human values, even if those characters are another kind of animal. Reeves’ work has earned him a shot at “The Batman,” with Ben Affleck.
“War” opens as human troops make an assault on the ape compound deep in the Northern California forest. Caesar’s soldiers repel the attack and, though the prisoners they capture, learn of a colonel determined to eliminate Caesar. Plans are hatched to migrate inland, but not before a nighttime raid led by the colonel himself (Woody Harrelson) leaves Cesar’s wife and son dead.
Unable to put those deaths aside, Caesar and three of his most devoted followers, including the baboon Maurice, seeks out the colonel while the community begins its long migration inland.
Once they reach the colonel’s compound, they discover that he’s “out there operating without any decent restraint…totally beyond the pale…”—to quote a film this one owes a debt to, Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”—and other human troops are coming to take him out. The colonel turns out to be Kurtz-like, a bit less philosophical, but just as twisted. The filmmakers clearly follow the old axiom: If you’re going to appropriate ideas, steal from the best. Conrad and Coppola are a good place to start.
Along the way, Caesar and friends are joined by a young mute girl and a comically coward monkey, creating a ragtag team just resourceful enough to save the ape world.
While I don’t completely understand the performance-capture process, Andy Serkis certainly deserves some kind of special Oscar for his work animating Caesar. As Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” he was memorably but irritating, but Caesar is one of the great movie heroes of the last 20 years, more “human” than any of those comic book mutants, bringing old-fashioned dignity and compassion to the role of leader.