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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

August movies: from important, memorable, to mediocre

Gerald Schmitz

08/30/2017


An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (U.S. 2017)
Dawson City: Frozen Time (U.S. 2016)
Detroit (U.S. 2017)
The Dark Tower (U.S. 2017)
The Glass Castle (U.S. 2017)

The lazy hazy days of summer are not generally a time when big important pictures get released. Air-conditioned theatres offer a more likely escapist inducement. But it’s worth noting at least three exceptions, and I’ll start with the one that connects to the smoky haze I experienced on Vancouver Island earlier this month.

With a warming planet, the threat from forest fires is expected to increase, as are the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. (In contrast to B.C., Ottawa set rainfall records in each month from April through July.) Despite Trump administration denials, the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change continues to mount, as confirmed this month by a leaked draft national climate assessment report compiled by 13 U.S. federal agencies. Some inconvenient truths cannot be suppressed.

Last January’s Sundance Film Festival opened with the timely documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (https://inconvenientsequel.tumblr.com/) that centres on the global climate change activism of former U.S. vice-president Al Gore in the decade since 2007’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. Notwithstanding President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord since that premiere, at which Gore spoke with conviction, he has reason to remain optimistic. Not only have other countries reaffirmed their climate commitments, many American states and cities have done the same. What may be more significant is the clean energy revolution that is underway as renewable alternatives to fossil fuels become increasingly available and affordable.

Released during summer’s heated political climate south of the border, one hopes this pointed sequel will spark challenging conversations.

***

Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time is a must-see “only in Canada” documentary, writes Gerald Schmitz.

Writer-director-editor Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival a year ago, is a must-see “only in Canada” documentary that starts with an incredible story. In the late 1890s hundreds of thousands of “stampeders” attempted to join the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon, and what had been a tiny indigenous settlement was explosively transformed into Dawson City with a ballooning population that soon crashed. In 1978 an excavation behind Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall unearthed hundreds of reels of old nitrate film that had been stored and forgotten in what had been a swimming pool under an ice-hockey rink in a recreation centre. Nitrate celluloid is highly flammable but, preserved by permafrost and thanks to the efforts of several local conservators, what could be salvaged formed the basis for an extraordinary film archive. Given that an estimated 75 per cent of silent-era films have been lost, it’s been called the King Tut’s tomb of silent cinema.

Morrison previously earned acclaim for Decasia (2002), a meditation on the transitory and transcendent using decaying film images set to a symphonic score. In Frozen Time he combines a fascinating historical narrative with a flickering feast of recovered bits of found footage from films made in the first decades of the 20th century when Dawson City was the end of the distribution line. The history includes striking period photographs and the archival montages are accompanied by a haunting score. Dawson City was at the root of some storied fortunes — among them the Guggenheims, and Hollywood theatre tycoons Sid Grauman and Alexander Pantages. There’s even a Trump connection. His German immigrant grandfather, Frederick Trump (anglicized from Drumpf), was among those who “mined the miners” through gambling, booze and brothels.

Highly revealing about a forgotten era and a cinema thought lost in time, Morrison has fashioned what Glenn Kenny of The New York Times rightly calls “an instantly recognizable masterpiece.”

***

I saw Detroit on the same day an Aug. 14 headline in The New Yorker asked: “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?” In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy it’s certainly troubling to have a president who draws support from white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Still, America has long been prone to spasms of racialized violence. During the civil rights era of the 1960s some of America’s cities exploded in violent protests on a far greater scale.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s timely drama recalls events that took place in America’s motor city a half-century ago. It begins with an animated prologue observing how millions of African Americans from the south were drawn to job opportunities in northern cities, and how a flight of whites to the suburbs created inner-city ghettoes in which “the promise of equal opportunity turned out to be an illusion.”

Working from a script by longtime collaborator Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), Bigelow then thrusts us into the sequence of events that began in Detroit on July 23, 1967, after an aggressive raid by an all-white police force on an unlicensed after-hours bar in a black neighbourhood sparked street protests that escalated into days of rioting, looting and arson in what was then America’s fifth largest city. It was a cry of frustration and rage in which black people and business owners were the main victims of both the destruction and the aftermath as Michigan state police, the National Guard and army troops were called in to impose an uneasy control.

Bigelow zeroes in on the charged circumstances behind a particularly tragic and revealing incident, inserting bits of archival footage to add to the gripping realism with which she recreates this true story. A central character is aspiring soul singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a member of the Motown group The Dramatics, whose breakout performance gets cancelled by the unrest. Caught up in the chaos, he and a friend seek refuge by getting a room in an annex of the Algiers motel where they mingle with others, including a black Vietnam War veteran and several young white women vacationing from Ohio. A stupid prank with a toy leads to a night of horror to which another key African American figure, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), moonlighting as an armed security guard at a nearby grocery store, acts as a silent witness.

Suspecting possible sniper fire, several police officers barge into the hotel demanding answers about the gun and the shooter. There to provoke, not protect, they are led by the youngest officer, Krauss (Will Poulter), who has earlier been reprimanded for shooting a fleeing robbery suspect in the back. The blonde, pale Krauss looks like he could still be in high school, but his profile and racist fervour are suggestive of someone who would have eagerly joined the Hitler Youth. Abetted by officers Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor), Krauss’s interrogation turns into a serial terrorizing of hotel guests, including the two girls, involving verbal and physical abuse plus mock executions. Other security forces come on the scene but back off, although one soldier allows a detainee to escape. It takes a dim-witted actual murder to end the police power-tripping that leaves three young black men dead at their hands.

What follows is almost as shocking. Dismukes, who would probably have been killed had he tried to stop the homicidal officers, was hauled in by police as a suspect. Although Flynn and Demens confessed to their role in the killings, backed by the police union they and Krauss were let off by an all-white “justice” system that essentially exonerated racially motivated murder. Black lives were ended, and many more scarred. Larry, whose friend was among the dead, abandoned a promising career, salvaging some solace with a local church choir.

The city Detroit has since fallen on hard times, losing much of its population and economy as probed in documentaries like Detroit on Fire and Detropia. The movie Detroit speaks to a deeper affliction of race-based hatred that continues to trouble the soul of America. It’s a compelling reminder of what happens when justice is denied and of why the struggle for rights must carry on.

***

Danish director Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of the Stephen King eight-book series, The Dark Tower, disappoints, soon to be forgotten as a slight and silly sci-fi horror fantasy in which a dark tower, the anchor of universes, is threatened by demonic forces preying on the minds of children. New York City adolescent Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) sees them in visions and plasters images on his walls including of a “gunslinger” who turns out to be “Roland” (Idris Elba), and a “man in black” who turns out to be the sorcerer, “Walter” (Matthew McConaughey), a sort of supreme demon. As the city shakes from earthquakes, mom and stepdad (Jake’s dad died fighting fires) call in the shrinks. Jake isn’t crazy, but a seer who absconds, finds a portal from “keystone earth” into “mid-world,” there to meet Roland, whose saving mission is to vanquish Walter. The condensed narrative doesn’t do justice to the source material. As child versus monster stories go, it’s creepy and underwhelming.

***

The Glass Castle, directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton, is adapted from a 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls who is also at the centre of this true story of a highly unusual family, both as a child (Ella Anderson) and adult (Brie Larson). Jeanette’s parents, two sisters and brother live an anarchic nomadic existence on the margins. Mom Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) indulges her passion for painting, while chainsmoking dad Rex (Woody Harrelson), a drunk as well as a dreamer, indulges his fantasy of building a solar glass house. After settling near hillbilly relations in West Virginia, Rex briefly dries out and gets a job, but generally chaos reigns. The children have to make it largely on their own wits. Jeanette joins sister Lori in escaping to New York. Still, the past follows her when the rest of the family migrates there.

The movie shifts back and forth between childhood scenes and Jeanette’s career as a fashionable magazine writer, juggling being engaged to slick financial analyst David (Max Greenfield) with the reality of having anti-establishment parents living as homeless squatters. Through all the twists and melodramatic episodes Jeanette can’t shake a soft spot for the irresponsible dad who calls her “mountain goat.” There’s a final reconciliation and, as her life takes a new turn, she holds on to family, underscored by some affectionate closing images of the real Jeanette, her parents and siblings.

While there’s some dramatic exaggeration, and Harrelson’s portrayal verges on caricature, the performances by Watts, Anderson and Larson are strong. This is a family movie of the disturbing kind.

***

A few last recommendations:

Quebec director Christian Duguay’s A Bag of Marbles, a Canada-France co-production, is a stirring second screen adaptation of Joseph Joffo’s autobiographical Holocaust novel about how two Jewish boys, brothers in Nazi-controlled France, survive through much pluck and luck while pretending to be Catholic and Algerian.

The heist thriller Logan Lucky, propelled by a pair of brothers, marks a welcome return to filmmaking by director Steven Soderbergh.

Taylor Sheridan’s award-winning Wind River is a taut drama of crime and justice on a Native American reservation.