(On Cable TV, June 2018) A social critique executed as a home invasion horror films, Detroit takes us back to the not-so-long-ago 1967, at a time when Detroit was wracked by the racially fuelled 12th Street Riots. Against this backdrop, we get a tale of innocent people terrorized and sequestered by racist policemen who invade a private home and threaten all occupants at gunpoint. The white women aren’t necessarily treated any better than the black men, and the theme of police brutality has an uncomfortably loud resonance. Katheryn Bigalow directs the thriller with her usual nervous energy, taking dry historical facts and making them as raw and frightening as any other horror movie. It’s really not an entertaining movie—it confronts us to abuses of power that still occur regularly, especially in racially divided 2018. Actors John Boyega and Will Poulter (unfortunately getting typecast as a villain) give rough performances, with notables as diverse as Anthony Mackie, John Krazinski and Jennifer Ehle in supporting roles. Still, this is Bigelow’s show, proving once again her standing as one of the finest directors working today. While Detroit often feels too much like a lesson, it’s a worthwhile lesson.
(On Blu-ray, April 2016) It’s not that The Force Awakens is un-reviewable—it’s that there’s so much to say that a full review would take a few pages, encompass the recent business state of Hollywood, meander on commodified nostalgia, indulge in insufferably nerdy nitpicking, and yet deliver an assessment not that far removed from “wow, competence!” This is a capsule review, so let’s start cracking: My first and biggest takeaway from The Force Awakens is that I’m not 7 years old, watching Star Wars on French-language broadcast TV and being so amazed that I can’t say anything bad about it. The Force Awakens is far from being perfect, and it doesn’t take much digging to find it crammed with problems. Even on a first view, I’m not particularly happy that thirty years later, The Rebellion hasn’t managed to establish a workable government and seems stuck in an endless echoing battle against evil. (Heck, they still haven’t changed their name, apparently.) My mind boggles at the economic or political absurdities of what’s shown on-screen, and the moment I start asking questions about basic plot plausibility is the moment I start making a lengthy list of the amazing coincidences, contrivances and plain impossible conveniences that power the plot. The jaded will point out that director J.J. Abrams has never been overly bothered by plotting logic and The Force Awakens certainly bolsters this view. Worse, perhaps, is the pacing of the film, which often goofs off in underwhelming ways rather than go forward. Then there’s the way this return to the Star Wars universe seems unusually pleased in echoing the first film’s elements, all the way to another who-cares run through a Death Planetoid’s trench. On the other hand, echoing is forgivable when the point of this film is to reassure everyone that the soon-to-be-endless Star Wars franchise is safe now that Disney took it away from George Lucas. In that matter, The Force Awakens is a success: it feels like classic Star Wars, from the visuals to the music to the elusive atmosphere of the first three films. Sometimes, a bit too much so: The decision to shoot the movie on actual film introduces film grain issues that sometimes vary from shot to shot, which is enough to drive anyone crazy. (Witness the Rey/Finn shots in the cantina…) Star Wars clearly isn’t as much about story than characters and set pieces, and that’s also where The Force Awakens succeeds: Harrison Ford seems timelessly charming as Han Solo, while John Boyega, Daisy Williams and Oscar Isaac are also easily likable in their roles. (Boyega and Isaacs are effortlessly cool, but Daisy Williams has a more delicate role as a stealth superhero.) Adam Driver has a tougher job as the intriguing Kylo Ren, riffing but not copying the series’s iconic villains. Then there are the set pieces, which often work despite shaky logic, implausible premises and nonsensical engineering. Coring a new planet-killer out of a planet may not strike anyone as the best plan, but it’s good for some fantastic images and at some point, that’s what really counts. Especially when, in the end, we’re left satisfied that this seventh Star Wars film is better than the prequel trilogy, and are left looking for more. Mark these words: There will now be a Star Wars movie every year for at least a decade and probably more. This one’s special, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t age well once the sequels start piling up.
(On DVD, December 2011) Sometimes, all you need is a good old premise with new characters and setting. So it is that Attack the Block, one of the most entertaining of 2011’s crop of alien-invasion movies, is basically “aliens invade inner-city London; the local hoods fight back.” It works pretty well, as long as you get over the opening narrative lump of portraying the local hoods realistically. They’re reprehensible to the affluent white audiences most likely to watch the film, but writer/director Joe Cornish eventually walks the audience back to a tremendous amount of sympathy for his unlikely heroes. The rest of the film is almost pure fun as the local street gang defends itself from hungry monsters from outer space. Much of Attack the Block’s charm is pure execution: confident camera work, astonishing performances from a cast of mostly-unknowns (including headliner John Boyega), very clever creature design and a neatly wrapped script that manages to tie nearly everything together. It’s a very unusual Science Fiction film in that it dares to explore a conventional idea with an unconventional cast of character; it speaks volume about Cornish’s work that by the end of the film, we have gained both understanding and respect for the street gang. One essential tip: leave the subtitles on, as even the best-meaning audiences will have a bit of trouble understanding the thick South London inner-city street accent.