4 Reviews of 4 Recent Films of (Uneven) Interest: “Detroit,” “Girls Trip,” “Landline” and “The Little Hours”

Here are brief capsule write-ups for four recent films that I did not review for their respective opening weekends.

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point BreakThe Hurt Locker) has always been something of an adrenaline junkie, so it should surprise no one that even in her ostensibly more serious fare she cannot avoid the temptation to go deep into the fetishistic side of violence. That was one of the many flaws of Zero Dark Thirty, in which Bigelow turned what could have been a sharp examination of America’s post-9/11 obsession with torture into an unintentional celebration of enhanced interrogation. Here, in Detroit, Bigelow’s staged reenactment of the Detroit Riots of 1967, there is no such triumphalism – and how could there be, since it’s all about horrific police overreach? – but there sure is the same fetishism. As we watch young African-American characters – and a few young white women, too – mistreated and/or killed in scenes that go on and on and on, it’s hard not to wonder whether Bigelow (and the material) would have been better served by not teaming up with her usual (white) screenwriter, Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), just to bring in the perspective of actual people of color, rather than that of white liberal guilt. It is by no means an unworthy film, shedding light as it does on an issue still with us today, but it treats the people on screen more as dramatic constructs than as actual human beings with their own agency.

Girls Trip (Malcolm D. Lee, 2017)

Speaking of the perspective of people of color, bring on Girls Trip, which had a very good July. To be honest, it’s kind of a stupid movie, but there is nothing wrong with it that is not also wrong with films that feature overgrown adolescent white boys – like The Hangover or every comedy starring Will Ferrell – or white gals – like Bad Moms or Bridesmaids (Maya Rudolph notwithstanding). Director Malcolm Lee (The Best Man Holiday) has made a career out of the kind of overlong, soggy comedy on display here, yet he is not without talent and always provides  plenty of fun to go along with the excessive sentiment. In Girls Trip, we get four college friends, now drifting apart as middle age approaches, brought together for one last good time in New Orleans. Regina Hall (Think Like a Man Too), Jada Pinkett Smith (Magic Mike XXL), Tiffany Haddish (Keanu) and Queen Latifah (Last Holiday) all shine as said friends, especially Smith and Haddish, whose characters let loose the most, literally spraying the crowd with their good vibes. Though the pat resolution is a bit of a bummer given some of the manic joy of earlier, the movie still leaves one with the delightful lingering image of all four leads, in multi-colored wigs, throwing down their best moves in a second-act dance-off that is the highlight of the affair. Did I say dumb? Does it matter?

Landline (Gillian Robespierre 2017)

From director Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) comes a mostly solid sophomore film about a family in New York, in 1995, where everyone is in some kind of emotional crisis. Dad (John Turturro, Fading Gigolo) may be cheating on Mom (Edie Falco, Showtime’s Nurse Jackie), while oldest daughter Dana (Jenny Slate, My Blind Brother) is having second thoughts about her fiancé, Ben (Jay Duplass, Amazon’s Transparent), and the youngest, high-schooler Ali (Abby Quinn, The Journey Is the Destination), is, well, in high school, with all of that attendant existential/hormonal mess. The beauty of the movie is that much of what happens on screen is unexpected, with characters defying easy categorization. Unfortunately, they also spend a lot of time telling us exactly how they feel, leading to many on-the-nose stretches of dialogue where we wish Robespierre had spent some time learning the value of subtext. The actors all deliver heartfelt performances accompanied by no small amount of humor, and the overall experience of the story is a pleasant one, even if the journey is messy.

The Little Hours (Jeff Baena)

Apparently loosely based on The Decameron, Giovanni’s Boccaccio’s 14th-century collection of ribald tales (which I have never read), The Little Hours is set in an isolated convent filled with lusty, foul-mouthed nuns who spout obscenities as eagerly as they seek sexual gratification. Needless to say, this is hardly a film for the devout Catholic not blessed with a healthy appreciation of satire. With a cast that includes Aubrey Plaza (The To Do List), Alison Brie (Sleeping with Other People), John C. Reilly (Kong: Skull Island), Dave Franco (Nerve), Molly Shannon (Other People) and Fred Armisen (IFC’s Portlandia), among others, The Little Hours promises many zany shenanigans, and then delivers inconsistently on that promise. Franco plays a young servant who has been sleeping with his master’s wife. When the affair is discovered he is forced to escape to the nearby convent, where the Abbot (Reilly), in need of a new helper, hires him on the condition that he pretend to be mute, believing that this will shield him from the attentions of the raucous nuns. These ladies, led by the boldest of them, Sister Fernanda (Plaza), find the young man too attractive to resist, with predictable (if quite funny) results. “Get thee to a nunnery” has never been so wildly inappropriate. Unfortunately, too much of the pacing is uneven, and the script refuses to commit, long-term, to the manic pace of its earliest scenes. Writer/director Baena (Joshy) has a fine way with his actors but can’t quite sustain the bawdy tone and comic mayhem throughout. Still, flawed though it may be, The Little Hours is delightful when it works.

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