Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to overwhelm viewers with visceral action and heart-stopping suspense as she proves in Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, for which she became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing. In her latest film, Detroit, she concentrates on what has come to be known as the 12th Street Riot there in 1967. 

She and writer Mark Boal single out the July 25 police murder of three black men at the Algiers Motel and the brutal treatment of seven additional black men and two white women. Her characteristic technique is on full display: a moving camera staying in close on subjects, framing and reframing with quick edits adding up to jumpy images with few pauses.

Unfortunately, in Detroit she delivers not characters but caricatures, sensationalizing the deplorable racism on full display but so two-dimensional and grotesque that it attacks the senses, crossing the divide from justifiable condemnation to counterproductive emphasis. Moreover, the excessive indulgence drags on in this two hour twenty-minute portrayal of truly racist ugliness, so much so that the trial in the final act is abbreviated and rushed. Points that should be explored and action that should be fully deplored, both by judicial and police representatives, end up glossed over in surrender to what any sane person immediately recognizes as racist-motivated torture.

Detroit begins with a very brief history of black migration and ghettoization and a quick montage of fabulous Jacob Lawrence paintings. Riot footage, sadly much too familiar today, sets the stage before the action moves to the Algiers Motel. Once there, the racist police take over, led by sneering, snarling, nauseating Detroit officer Krauss (Will Poulter). In a skilled portrayal by John Boyega, the wise and wary security guard Dismukes is the closest to our surrogate, and we need one to try to keep any reflective distance on the victimization. 

Jacob Latimore as Fred, Malcolm David Kelley as Michael, Peyton Alex Smith as Lee, Nathan Davis, Jr. as Aubrey, Joseph David-Jones as Morris, and Algee Smith as Larry are names and performances to remember, next time, I hope, in a more positive story.

Yes, as the tag line for Detroit proclaims, "It's time we knew." Less heat and more thoughtful consideration would recommend it to me. See area listings.

 

 

When the house lights went down a video played with text that read, "See them before they're dead!" followed by clips of their most beloved characters on Saturday Night Live: King Tut, Ed Grimley, The Festrunk Brothers, and Attorney Nathan Thurm. Also included were scenes from Trains Planes & Automobiles, The Jerk, Little Shop of Horrors, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Martin then appeared on stage and humored the audience with a crowd-pleasing regional nod, "It's great to be in St. Louis! Webster Groves was a bit too fast paced for me," then added, "It's more than a thrill to be here, it's an obligation." He apologized for the exorbitant price of tickets but explained that he must pay a celebrity look-a-like to be there just in case he'd prefer to not preform that evening, and also, "Steve says, 'Hi.'"

When Martin introduced Short he described him as "funnier than a barrel of monkeys and that's it." The pair delivered rapid-fire quips, the kind where you can easily miss out on the next because you're still laughing at the previous. Short joked that Martin had "the sun-kissed glow of an agoraphobic shut-in." Their banter reminded me of an old school Friars Club roast where each string of witty burns is punctuated by an asinine final jab like, "You look like a toupee on a urinal." Their timing was flawless and the crowd was in tears. 

Short sang a song from a fictitious musical he had starred in called Stepbrother to Jesus. As he sang he undressed himself and put on a curly black wig. By the time he sang the line, "What's the big deal about raising the dead?" he was wearing nothing but the wig and a nude-colored bodysuit with the male anatomy hastily drawn in marker. After holding out the last note he looked creepily at the front row, "Hello, ladies..." then yelled off stage to Martin, "Top that m@#*!%$>#@!r!" 

During the course of the show they delivered a well-rounded collection of bits. Three volunteers were brought to the stage for the Three Amigos Salute while dos amigos sang the movie's theme. Short did some impersonations including a flawless Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stuart and Katharine Hepburn. The night would have been complete without an appearance from Jiminy Glick, and no celebrity or politician was safe from his mockery. He said Vice President Pence is "so white he makes Steve Martin look like a member of the Wu-Tang Clan" and Elizabeth Warren looks like "David Spade transitioning." 

As a momentary departure from the relentless banter, Steep Canyon Rangers preformed a song they call "Auden's Train." It was composed by Martin and violinist Nicky Sanders, and the lyrics were taken from W. H. Auden's poem "Calypso." Throughout the song Sanders, featured on fiddle, makes a train whistle noise into the mic while playing and jumping around the stage in an animated frenzy. He wildly picks the strings with the bow and sometimes with just his fingers. His intensity and expertise is breathtaking and comes as such a surprise when expecting a night of comedy. When Short returns to the stage he puts the show right back on course saying, "Tonight is just like Deliverance. It's all fun and games until the banjos come out."

The big takeaway from this night of side-splitting laughter was Steve Martin's advice for making it big as a musician. He said you only need two things, to be very creative person and to already be famous. Although the humble comedian was sure to give credit where it was due, "I wouldn't be here if not for Martin Short," looking at Short, "Marty, thank you for driving." 

 

The period drama Lady Macbeth is based not on Shakespeare's character but the one central to Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. She is, however, appropriately named, a woman who becomes a single-minded killer without a discernible conscience. Set in 1865 in a remote, northern English estate, the film begins as seventeen-year-old Katherine weds Alexander Lester. 

On their wedding night and subsequent nights, Alexander has Katherine strip, though no sexual union follows. Humiliated, perplexed, and trapped, Katherine is forbidden to leave the quiet, dreary house, even to get some air on the heath. She's become an isolated prisoner, her only company her mute maid Anna. After Alexander and his equally cruel father-in-law leave on business, Katherine breaks loose with a torrid affair with the groomsman Sebastian. Succeeding events will involve several murders with a variety of complications not spoiled here.

It is beautifully lit and shot by Ari Wegner, who creates a pressure cooker atmosphere anchored exclusively on an expressionless Katherine centered in the frame. The dominance of symmetrical shots and the compositions with this corseted, constrained woman dwarfed by heavy wooden furniture adds to the feeling of an immutable world that offers no escape. No added music relieves the stifling intensity thus created. 

Director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch wisely choose not to sensationalize the killings, emphasizing, instead, their cold, dispassionate execution. Are we to infer this is the retaliatory excess of such complete subjugation of this woman? The return of the repressed? Katherine cannot even participate in the men's dinner conversation, though, ordered to sit quietly, she can't even leave the room. Are we to pity or root for her? Is this more than a plea for humane behavior and against class oppression? If so, should Katherine not treat her black maid Anna as more than a servant? 

Katherine would, in fact, be a more interesting character if there were some psychological complexity explored. Some have called this a nice change from the suffering female victim, but the other side of the coin shows a sociopath at work, not a great recommendation though Florence Pugh delivers a flawless, strong performance. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

 

Amazingly, A Ghost Story works. It manages to be a little funny, a whole lot meaningful, and strikingly unpredictable. It's not like any ghost movie before -- it does not dwell on the scary although crockery is thrown to smithereens and lightbulbs do flicker -- as it explores mourning thoughtfully.

David Lowery directed the film with an artsy component. Rather than going high-tech, his ectoplasm is shrouded in a sheet, a long, white, voluminous sheet with childish eye-holes. The sheet has no name although it covers the male in the movie, a musician. The man caressed his wife, argued with her about moving, and had a car accident.

His widow, also unnamed, lives with his ghost for awhile, aware that someone else is in their rental house in the middle of nothing much. While sprucing up the house, Wife inserts a message into a door jamb before painting the opening closed. Sheet sees this and spends time trying to get at the message.

Ditto for movie goers trying to get at the message of A Ghost Story. If that is not immediately getable, there is plenty else to occupy the post-mortem period. Note, for example, how often Andrew Droz' cameras are locked down while characters move in and out of range or curtains breeze in. See, too, how the camera serves as our ghost. Listen to Daniel Hart's telegraphic music. Hear, too, how rarely dialogue comes along and, when it does, how mumbly it is.

The one time when words are spoken with force comes at a dinner party when a character, called the Prognosticator in the cast list and played by Will Oldham, waxes eloquently. The main characters are played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who worked for director David Lowery before in Ain't Them Bodies SaintsA Ghost Story offers a new take on old themes of death and life and comes full circle.

 

Contemporary French cinema excels in character studies, foregrounding the interaction between a few connected characters. In The Midwife two middle-aged women come back together in a reunion of opposites. The midwife of the title is Claire who receives an unwelcome telephone message from Béatrice, her deceased father's lover who just walked out on him one day. 

Recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, Béatrice expresses regrets about her previous behavior and seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. Claire responds icily at first but, because of her good nature, gradually thaws. And yet, we see that Béatrice remains the kind of person who uses those around her, indulging her narcissistic predisposition, getting money from Claire, moving in with her, and taking advantage of her kindness.  

A study in dichotomous personalities, they present contrasting physical appearances as well. Béatrice gambles, drinks too much, smokes, and thinks of herself first. By contrast, Claire works hard, supports her patients, her son and his girlfriend, and sacrifices her time. Claire wears conservative, tailored, dull-colored clothes; Béatrice prefers bright colors, busy designs, and loose fitting styles. Claire's hair is pulled back in a ponytail; Béatrice's bleached blond hair is loose and free. 

Director/writer Martin Provost makes this all too deliberately designed to explore the yin and yang of one woman who is dying and the other who brings life into the world -- emphasized through a birth in the opening moments and several births in succeeding scenes. More gratuitous, Claire has a budding relationship with Paul who shares garden space as though this woman can't be happy without romance in her life. 

Nevertheless, The Midwife succeeds, to the extent that it does, because of the talented, legendary French actresses who inhabit these two characters. Catherine Frot as Claire and Catherine Deneuve as Béatrice interact and react effortlessly, delivering exchanges with poise. For Claire and for us it does invite reflecting on compassion, forgiveness, and what is most important in our lives. In French with English subtitles, at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

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