Detroit is a viscerally intense story told by the wrong people

The second act of Detroit is less Selma than The Purge. A home invasion horror tapping into the deepest fears of the faces on its screen, the difference is that the white faces were placed in a dystopian future to live their terror, black faces are reliving a still-perpetuating history.

History is important to consider with Detroit. The best telling of history in film is never about what happens. It’s not rote recitation, documentary and written and oral history has proven itself far superior at those activities. History on film should understand the effects, the people, the reverberations in culture. In other words, not just what happened, but was felt, dreamed, and meant.

In all respects, Detroit is an impressive work of historical re-creation of an event that flew under the modern radar and is still muddled in its telling. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s third collaboration conveys gripping you-are-there visceral recreation that drips every bead of sweat on you and every bit of righteous fury that simply watching these events play out before you can and should induce.

Yet, something’s not quite right. Not quite there. The story being told feels right, but it feels like it’s being told by the wrong person.

Detroit tells the story of the 1967 12th Street Riot primarily through the incident at the Algiers Hotel. Ignited by a late-night police raid on an unlicensed drinking club where 82 African-Americans celebrating the return of two GIs were arrested, the incident quickly spread and overtook the city. Police were fully mobilized, The National Guard was brought in, and countless African-Americans were subjected to the extreme measures designed to put the riot down.

At the Algiers Hotel, the belief that there was a sniper (created by a toy gun firing from Carl Cooper [Jason Mitchell]) led 3 police officers, headed up by Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter), as well as National Guardsmen to take hold of the Algiers Hotel annex and keep the residents hostage until one of them confessed to firing on the police.

This incident is the bulk of the action and runtime, preceded by a historical explanation and followed (largely unnecessarily) by the trial that came out of the Algiers incident. It’s clear that you see the appeal of this story to Bigelow on an aesthetic level.

It’s a chance for Bigelow to return to a more genre-aesthetic befitting some earlier work. The Algiers sequence is less historical drama and more home invasion-horror flick, the sadistic police officers befitting the slashers, the Black men (and white women) trapped in the hotel their victims. The horror all the more for knowing (and showing, in docudrama style, the real photos of their bodies) that this happened and still does.

Bigelow is in her element, ratcheting up the sweaty, late-night tension and the constant brutality of what’s happening. Guns cocking, batons beating, the air is filled with the sounds of violence. The entire second act plays like an extended version of the Seal Team 6 raid from the end of Zero Dark Thirty. A recreation of a muddled event that leaves you digging into your arm rests. It’s undoubtedly impressive and a reminder of the sheer skill someone like Bigelow brings to filmmaking.

It’s also impressive the cast she’s assembled. While none of her characters ever quite escape their setting and history (emulating the Dunkirk model), they’re each performed with all the passion that can be allowed. John Boyega’s fundamental charming decency as a leading man shines through, Algee Smith makes a harrowing impression as Lucas Reed, and the cast is dotted with talented player. Will Poulter is the film’s despicable MVP, sinister in a way too human way and using his arched eyebrows to considerable effect.

But it’s easy for Poulter to have a good performance. He’s the monster and he’s one of the only allowed to have agency in this film. He’s making the decisions, we intricately understand what brought him to this point. A facts-based recollection, a loud atonement for guilt can easily get into the mindset.

The Black characters put up against the wall never get the chance to take their own decisions. They’re saved by the “good” white police officers with agency, they’re subject to the whims of the world around them, never getting a chance to dive in and see their thought processes. Boal’s characters have all the semblance of a traditional story, but they never dive into get what they might be thinking.

If their powerlessness was intentional, it would have been beneficial for Detroit to understand the implications on the community, on the political ends and the reasons and psychological ramifications of these riots. Some understanding of the effects of this story on Black history, on Black political thought, some theorization on what all of this meant. Without it, Detroit feels like Black suffering without Black thought. There’s little inner life, it’s all outer pain.

I can’t help but think Bigelow and Boal weren’t the people to tell this story. They’re not enough. They reckon with its facts and reenactments, but never diving underneath the surface. We’re forced to watch beating after beating, but we’re never given the before or the after.

Grade: C+

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 3: The Queen’s Justice

Where Is Everybody?

  • Dragonstone
    • The Song of Ice and Fire begins as Jon and Dany finally meet. A few bum notes get hit as the King in the North and the Mother of Dragons feel each other and their situations out.
  • King’s Landing
    • Euron finally gives a gift to Cersei, which she immediately breaks. The Iron Bank comes to check on its debts.
  • Winterfell
    • Bran gets back from his time abroad and things between him and his commander sister Sansa are a little awkward.
  • Oldtown
    • Sam gets some credit for actually saving Jorah.
  • Narrow Sea
    • Theon gets fished out of the sea.
  • Casterly Rock
    • Under Tyrion’s master plan, the Unsullied take Casterly Rock, but it’s a little too easy…
  • Highgarden
    • As Jaime has taken the forces to take the seat of House Tyrell. Olenna gets one last fuck you in.

What Worked?

It’s shocking to realize how much faster this season of Game of Thrones has been than basically almost ANY other season. It’s not just the fact that the season has 7 episodes and by that virtue needs to be moving through its story at a rapid clip. It feels like the operation of this season is to finally bring everything to fruition and that once this history gets on the march, there is no stopping it.

To say “The Queen’s Justice” is a phenomenal episode simply because so much happens kind of does a disservice to how strong the material here is. There is a thrill in seeing so much happening and in seeing everything we’ve been teasing for 7 seasons actually exploding out. The war has begun.

But it’s because Game of Thrones really is at its best when things are going down. Season 5 was its weakest simply because it spent so much time grinding to a halt and spinning its wheels. When it has forward momentum, the writers, the directors, and the actors really dig in and pull the richest veins of this material.

Take for example the performance of our Lannister Twins. Lena Headey has done extraordinary work since Cersei really slid into full-bore evil queen supervillainy. As she’s started to move towards solidification of her hold on power and her revenge on the whole of the land, Headey has seized on the theatrical evil it takes to achieve to sell the pain and the base pleasures that have always driven Cersei. It’s just strong and interesting work that is based in the move towards the end.

But that forward momentum has also enormously benefited Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau. Jaime has been an underrated portion of this show, but the thread of what exactly to do with him has been lost for some time. But the increasingly rapid march to the end has given him a lot to do outside of Cersei. His scene with Olenna is some of his finest work, that pained look when she tells him that she killed Joffrey is phenomenal. But he finally gets to dig in to his increasingly dark feelings about his sister and his place in a kingdom she rules.

On the whole, that forward momentum also has benefited this show trimming down to the bare essentials. The Tyrells are gone, the Dornish are officially a closed loop, sides are all basically chosen and families are reunited. Basically every scene is moving something forward, creating something or closing something. The show finally feels like it’s able to do the things it’s been setting up forever.

For example, that Jon and Dany meeting. Look, it’s been set up since the beginning. This is the Song of Ice and Fire. It was hard to know what exactly this was going to be when it happened, but the tense and terse back-and-forth feeling each other out, Dany trying to assert and Jon with no patience for anything but his earnest quest, is certainly displaying the show’s capacity to surprise.

These characters are now getting put in place, their situation and preparations for war actually based in the arc that brought them to this place. I’m really impressed with where Game of Thrones has brought itself. A show this huge managing to pull down to the characters is a rare feat.

What Didn’t?

I’m still not entirely sure the failure of Tyrion’s plans is getting narratively justified. Tyrion’s failures as a general are perhaps supposed to be the reasoning, but it’s just not quite set up within what’s actually happening so far. It’s more convenience and moving its pieces than anything else. I’m hoping that’s knocked back into place.

Who Got A Win?

  1. The Lannisters
    • They tactically out-maneuvered their major challengers, took and rebuked one of their biggest defectors, are currently keeping the Iron Bank on their side, and Cersei and Jaime managed to take revenge on both of the people who killed their kids. It’s rare anyone’s had such a good episode.
  2. Jon and Dany
    • While Dany suffered a big set-back, the Jon and Dany partnership took a real huge step-forward by warming up their initially frosty relationship. They’re gonna need a whole hell of a lot more to make this work, but a good first step.
  3. Jorah
    • He got a new shirt!

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. The Sands
    • They’re going to die very slowly and painfully.
  2. Dany and Her Allies
    • Their three largest Houses of supporters have basically been crushed under foot and they wasted soldiers on what appears to be a fool’s endeavor. What a setback.
  3. The Tyrells
    • They died relatively quickly and painlessly.

A Ghost Story is a bonafide masterpiece

You can tell whether or not A Ghost Story will work for you based on your first look at the actual ghost of the picture. Is it a representation of something as ineffable and difficult to capture as the spirit as something so small and ridiculous that it becomes inextricably human? Or is it Casey Affleck under a sheet?

If you’re still with me (and for a film that features Sheet Affleck and a whole lot of unbroken shots of people staring at things, I don’t necessarily blame you) or even if you’re not, A Ghost Story is perhaps one of the most incredible works of cinematic artistry this year.

More poetics than prose, director David Lowery (who filmed this in just over two weeks, functionally in secret) has crafted an intimate epic, a story of love across death and how small we are against the span of time. A work that can only be done through the unique powers of filmmaking and a work that will haunt long after it ends.

I don’t want to signal too much about this film. There are things you need to uncover for yourself. You simply need to know that C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a married couple living in a house in Dallas. One morning, C dies in a car crash outside his home. He wakes up in the morgue and returns to haunt his home and the people left behind.

It’s a tale of sickeningly raw grief, the slight sense of unreality that comes with having to move on and drawing out every single moment to the breaking point, giving no break away from what you’re seeing. It’s a remarkable intimacy, the constant feeling of seeing something that you’re not supposed to see, those moments that we talk about but never want to show.

Mara excels at this, letting herself go to a very difficult place, putting so much of herself out there and being constantly under the camera’s eye for every microexpression she can give. She gives a phenomenal performance, grief and acceptance mixing into something cathartic and understanding. There’s also a five-minute sequence that I kind of can’t believe someone agreed to and that there’s no way to explain how it’s as brilliant as it is.

But you can’t speak performance in this film without talking about its most perpetual presence and scene partner…Casey Affleck underneath a sheet. That sheet removes C from humanity, really sells that outsider feeling. Just as Affleck removes basically every actor trick possible. No eyes, no dialogue, and most of his movements hidden. It’s all about the spacing and the timing and his large motions and his gait. Yet he manages to convey so much. It’s a performance that competes with Manchester by the Sea for career best.

But all of this is at the control of Lowery. A Ghost Story is an excessively small film, but that’s how it gets it power. It pulls in so so close to its subjects, Lowery lets his camera linger just past the point of comfort to make his audience squirm as they recognize what’s going on. It’s bold and ambitious filmmaking, seeing exactly what you can extract from every bit of setting, from the shadows of the night and from the faces of recognition.

It’s a beautiful, haunting, incredible story. It’s hard to praise it enough. Yet up until now, I’ve been discussing the film’s grief-stricken first half, the easiest to pull from what’s already out there. The film becomes so much more. I’m gonna ask you that if you are at all interested in this film, stop here, check my grade, and go see it. If you want to know more, click on to page 2.

Grade: A+

Review Round-Up: Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planet and The Little Hours

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the sort of project birthed in the world to be an example of a high budget failure. After all, the whole thing:

  • Is starring two stars who have more name recognition than most, but less box office draw than almost all.
  • Is coming from a director who’s had huge successes and numerous flops.
  • Is based on a property that’s really big to a very small audience.
  • Looks really expensive because it is really expensive.
  • Has…some competition.
  • Has an entire advertising campaign based largely around hiding what the living fuck is happening in the movie.

It’s a shame because had this project been less blatantly thrown to the wolves, Valerian might have had something like a cult success. It’s rare to see a film this large feel this singular or bizarre or truly visually rich and there’s a lot going on here that is admirable. Yet it’s also not hard to see why this film is fated to do so poorly. It’s a total pacing and narrative mess and has so little charisma in and between the people leading its movie. It’s so good at things other major studio films are bad at, and so bad at things other major studio films are good at..

I’m not gonna bother summarizing all that much. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are agents working for the Human Government in the far-flung future. They look related but are not and Valerian has the hots for Laureline. They get sent on a mission to protect the Commander (Clive Owen) (whose actual political authority is ill-defined) and get wrapped up in a mystery involving a rat/frog that shits out pearls, colonialism, and various large set-pieces.

Let’s start with what it’s good at. Valerian is easily one of the most visually impressive movies to come out on a large scale in some time. Not necessarily speaking cinematographically or from an effects perspective, both qualities are strong if not necessarily over-the-top. I’m speaking from a design and imagination perspective.

Luc Besson has crafted a truly fantastic and alien world. Every frame is showing off something different or bizarre, every detail is creative. It’s just so much fun to pick through every moment and find something new, something that shows off the real power of cinema. There’s an actual inventiveness to the world-building, too rarely seen.

You’ve also got some great set-pieces. And by some great set-pieces, I’m talking very specifically about the Rihanna shape-shifting performance in the middle, which again all goes into the imagination that this film speeds with. It’s a movie that I can’t describe to you, you really have to see it to believe it.

It’s just hard to find the core of the movie here because the movie is deliberately distancing from the people pulling you through this world. Characters like Rihanna’s shapeshifter or Ethan Hawke’s space pimp (seriously) provide way more flavor than our leads, who have trouble ever sufficiently generating a belief that they like each other, much less that they’re madly in love. Delevingne is definitely at least the more interesting screen presence, but neither generate much more than a shrug.

It’s also that the movie around them maybe just never finds the momentum to pull things forward. Valerian is afflicted with a weirdly slack pacing, an already sprawling narrative never feels zippy enough to address everything that’s happening. And it’s a shame because there is some really strong material here. No spoilers, but Valerian gets essentially into an anti-colonialist message that demands empires take responsibility for their misdeeds. Good shit, but it’s a slog to get there.

Valerian is by no means as bad as its place in the landscape might tell you. It lacks the rapid clip that its contemporaries move at, as well as the often strong character work that populates the rest of the landscape. But a movie this bold and imaginative deserves some sort of consideration.

Grade: B-

The Little Hours

The Little Hours is perhaps one of the most literarily high-minded UCB improv shows ever. It’s not adapted from a particularly deep ASSSSCAT riff, but mostly improvised (by affiliated performers) and based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, it can’t escape the weird worlds it’s been pulled between.

Perhaps that’s why The Little Hours never fully comes together. The tale of three ribald nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci), the officials who run their convent (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly), and the young man up shit creek who needs to hide out there (Dave Franco), The Little Hours seems poised to be a rollicking raunchy comedy with an unconventional setting.

Yet it’s also a surprisingly faithful retelling of that original Decameron story and plays into those dramatic beats. There’s plenty of time spent on the actual dramatic contours of these characters, poising the movie to be closer to something like a dramedy, a raunchy movie that actually wants to explore these characters.

Director/writer Jeff Baena has certainly set out for ambitious waters, and on that, I admire it. Yet I think it has troubles truly navigating what it needs to do to make it through the course it’s charted.

Much of it starts at this film’s pacing issues. It’s a weirdly slack, slow, low-energy film for the dirty, loud, raunchy jokes it’s trying to tell. You can perhaps see what the intention was. That you would break up this idyllic Italian landscape with these filthy jokes. But The Little Hours never gets up the energy to sell these jokes, delivering Andrew Dice Clay with the energy of Todd Barry, never feeling like it’s doing it on purpose.

That means from a comedy perspective, nothing is necessarily landing. It feels odd to say it, but I can literally see what they’re trying to do here and in theory I find it funny. But that pacing and the weird underplaying snuffs most of the jokes in the bed and The Little Hours never really gets more than a snort out of me. This movie is mostly improvised, and it kind of feels like talented improvisers who aren’t quite pulling things together.

Without the comedy working, the drama is mostly just hard to hook into. You care about characters and people who make you laugh, and when they don’t, the drama is just…there. Fine, I guess, nothing is bad. But not worth price of admission.

I wish I had more nice things to say, because I admire the ideas here. It’s a bold setting and it really does go off the rails in some interesting ways. But when the basic genre never feels like it works, it’s hard to recommend much about it.

Grade: C-


Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 2: Stormborn

Week 2 of Game of Thrones got straight up gratuitous. All the murder, sex, and gross body stuff you could ever imagine, as well as plenty of the Great Game that keeps you coming back week after week.

Where Is Everybody?

  • Dragonstone
    • Varys gets cleared. Tyrion and Dany reveal their plans to their backers in the Houses of Tyrell, Sand, and Greyjoy and Dany gets some advice. Grey Worm and Missandei finally reveal their feelings and consummate their relationship over the course of a century.
  • King’s Landing
    • Cersei and Jaime try to get some kingdoms back on the Lannisters’ side. It also turns out you can hurt a dragon…ominous.
  • Winterfell
    • Sansa and Jon hopefully learn the value of having a meeting before your meetings as Jon decides to go meet Dany and Tyrion. Later, Jon has an incredibly satisfying moment with Littlefinger.
  • Riverlands
    • Arya learns from Hot Pie that she can go home again and meets up with an old friend who is a Direwolf.
  • Oldtown
    • Sam rules and managed to figure out how to cure Jorah. It’s real gross though.
  • Narrow Sea
    • Euron kills the Sand Snakes in a big-ass sea battle and finds his way into our hearts.

What Worked?

Before we get into all else, let’s focus on the most surface level pleasure of this episode. “Stormborn” ended on a massive naval battle that ranks among the best action sequences of this show (minus the season-climax battles that always stand above). Euron’s ship sailing ominously through the dark, the flickering sparks through the air illuminating the battle by burning fire, Euron’s wild-eyed gaze as he brutally tears through Yara’s forces. It’s a scene tense and pulse-pounding and well-composed, a reminder of the particular thrills of a show like Game of Thrones that does manage to pull off such large scale action week by week.

But there’s also an emotional portion of this scene I really love. At the end of the battle, Euron has taken Yara hostage and is taunting Theon with her. Given the chance to return the good she once did for him, he runs and jumps overboard, leaving Yara in the clutches of their sadistic uncle.

It’s an incredibly moving moment, for the sort of sadness this show really can evoke. The trauma done to Theon doesn’t just leave, he’s not just going to be okay. He’s not ready to be a hero and this show isn’t interested in pat blazes of glory or resolutions that tug the heartstrings. Theon is broken and he leaves the carnage behind him as someone stronger tries to take power, the sorrow at his cowardice and at Yara’s feeling of betrayal is never said, but it hangs heavy in the air. A seriously great choice on the part of this episode’s writers.

As Game of Thrones continues down the path to the end HBO doesn’t want to see coming (seriously, HBO has nothing on this scale and they are terrified of when it ends), our storylines are increasingly converging. Last season was about setting up the endgame, this one appears to be about putting all the pieces in place, including pushing the characters into their final alliances.

“Stormborn” shows us just how fun seeing these characters we’ve spent 6 other seasons getting to know in new combinations can be. Strong personalities with seasons of history bouncing off new walls is an absolute delight. Yara and Ellaria’s ribald fliration (interrupted by Euron’s terrifying attack) is worth the watch of the episode alone. Seeing Jon throw Littlefinger up against the wall is amazing. Sam getting to do the right thing for the son of Mormont and Dany consulting with Olenna Tyrell and dressing down Varys are things that only work this late in the game, with such a clear idea of who these people are and what’s happening to them.

It’s important to note just how good an endgame has been for this show. As it focuses, the tightness of the narrative makes everything feel urgent. Everything is now pointing to a future, all the fat has been trimmed off the story’s movement.

From a totally petty perspective, I’m also just glad we saw the Dorne portion of the story cut off. The show’s completely bungled its handling of it, and the death of (2 of) the Sand Snakes was a great way to close off the story and reestablish Euron’s threat. I mean, we knew they would die, these are not fan-favorite characters.

What Didn’t?

At this point (don’t @ me) Game of Thrones pretty much has figured out what works and what doesn’t. Missteps are on the basis of miscalculation rather than blatant mistake.

Let’s take Missandei and Grey Worm. The scene was a long-time coming and honestly the idea and set-up was truly spectacular. But it went on just a hair too long, just past the necessary point. It felt like a moment of the show grinding to a halt when it doesn’t have the time to waste.

Also, how did Grey Worm learn how to go down on a woman? Is there a bard going around singing about the glories of cunnilingus who’ll teach you how for a copper?

Who Got A Win?

  • Euron
    • Euron basically decimated the Greyjoy opposition and struck a major blow to impress the Lannisters and get them back on his side for a claim to the Iron Islands.
  • Arya
    • Arya again gets a nice, sweet moment of grace and learns that she does indeed have friends. I’m just so happy for her.
  • Jorah Mormont
    • It looks like he’s got that greyscale fixed. Yay!

Who Made A Mistake?

  • Jon and Sansa
    • CAN THEY NOT HAVE ONE FUCKING FIVE MINUTE MEETING BEFORE THEY ACTUALLY HAVE THESE BIG DECLARATIONS. Jon sucks ass at actual politics and Sansa needs to figure out how to guide better. Littlefinger is creeping into that growing divide.
  • Tyrion
    • Olenna’s words are ominous and the current alliance worries me if Dany decides to turn back on Tyrion’s frankly fantastic plan.
  • Theon and Yara
    • Their forces were decimated, Theon ran, and Yara’s in Euron’s hands. About as bad as it could get for them.

Dunkirk is a war film that’s all death, no glory.

Note: I saw the film in non-IMAX 70mm projection.

Dunkirk is the rare kind of blockbuster granted to the rare occurrence of a clear and vaunted “auteur” that manages to find clear commercial success. Scorsese or Spielberg had these and now Nolan joins their ranks. A film that drips its budget and studio backing and effects work from every frame and yet takes its formal cues from masters of Art and Classical cinema and, of course, wears the concerns and abilities of its directors on its sleeve.

If Inception was Nolan’s calling card, a film that showed how his very specific clockwork robot filmmaking and spiraling narratives about confidence men and dead wives could be commercially populist, then Dunkirk is his opus. A film that, finally divorced from all his usual narratives and genres, gives him the chance to let his formal aesthetics and structure and filmmaking ability free.

Dunkirk is Nolan letting his filmmaking speak all the volumes it can, no dialogue, no tricks, just his narrative structures and his ability to stage filmmaking on a massive scale. It’s an immersive, breathtaking experience and one that it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off on quite so grand a scale.

Nolan chooses to tell the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, after most of the fighting has stopped and as the British forces try to retreat from the French Harbor as the Germans push slowly forward and pick them off from the air. There are three narratives interwoven here, told non-linearly.

The Mole takes place over one week and follows Tommy (Fion Whitehead) as he tries to get on a boat back to Britain and escape the bombing in Dunkirk. The Sea takes place over one day as British civilian boats (our focus is on one vessel commanded by Mr. Dawson [Mark Rylance]) as they sail to Dunkirk to evacuate the soldiers. The Air takes place over one hour as a trio of the British Air Force (our focus is on a pilot named Farrier [Tom Hardy]) shoot down Luftwaffe as they advance towards the evacuation in Dunkirk.

While on its face this non-linear storytelling may seem like a simple extension of Nolan’s usual narrative tricks, there’s something that feels so much more vital than merely being impressive. Dunkirk is a film of experience, a “You Are There” strapping-in where the war isn’t happening in front of you, but around you. The airplanes scream and the bombs explode (this is a LOUD movie) and you feel the air leave your lungs as the characters drown in the sinking ship.

Nolan compresses and expands time to create just as much of that feeling. The waiting on the beach desperately hoping someone will come, giving a week gives the time for multiple attempts to cling to a chance of rescue. The day gives that difficulty and the way civilians could approach each instance in this war. The hour gives urgency and an ever-ticking clock up in the air.

Speaking of an ever-ticking clock, and as much as I’ve praised Nolan, Dunkirk is a film that reminds you of the efficacy of good collaborators. Hans Zimmer’s score, constructed around a ticking clock (see, brought that back around), is a score that embraces the terror of this war, blasting noise and pulling the strings to their limits, and allowing for the briefest moments of grace. Lee Smith’s editing is tight and propulsive and juggles the intersecting timelines and time frames impossibly well. And cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema may be the best pickup Nolan’s had, giving his film a more distinctive and dirty, shadowed look far from Nolan’s overly clean earlier work.

Dunkirk is a film that looks past its people, in a way. This is Nolan’s most human film, in a way that’s more successful than something like Interstellar. The emotion, the pathos, the connection to these men in this tribulation feels more organic, more drawn from what we see them go through than the story that’s told about them.

But it’s not about them. It’s not Man v. Man. The word Nazi is never said and a German is but once seen on screen. There’s only the dialogue that is necessary, only the struggle that feels real. The twist is incidental, the structural tricks have no explanation within the narrative itself based on the characters.

It’s about something bigger than them. It’s about war not as an individual glorious struggle, but as some terrifyingly mundane thing that just gets a bunch of people killed and doesn’t produce great men dying to make a name for themselves. Dunkirk is a film that gets that existential terror of war, how much you’re subsumed into the gears of a machine that grinds you up and spits you out on the other side for enemies vaguely defined and by people basically unseen. There’s a patriotism yes, but there’s no glory to Dunkirk.

The people aren’t defined because no one in war is. We glorify heroes to hope that war has a meaning, but Dunkirk shows how truly anonymous many of these people are, how much they’re pulled into a monster that doesn’t offer them glory, just the hope of one day leaving.

This isn’t to say that the performances aren’t worth anything. Dunkirk has a strong cast doing simple, clean, understated work. Rylance and Hardy’s skill is well-known and unsurprising, Rylance conveying a fundamental decency and Hardy doing wonders with just his eyes. The kids on the Beach, including the famous Harry Styles, get across the sorrow and difficulty and desperation.

But it’s not about them. It’s about that larger horror and the little graces you can find in them. The movie’s second-to-last shot is a beautiful grace note in the middle of it all, a bit of Tarkovsky in the middle of all of Nolan’s Bresson here.

Grade: A+

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 1: Dragonstone

The only time I’m giving this disclaimer: All of these recaps will be assuming that you’ve seen the episode and show as a whole.

Welcome back to the Game of Thrones, folks. After almost a year’s wait (and what looks like at least that much time in the show), we rejoin Westeros in the throes of the gearing-up war machine, as power has been consolidated and the threat of the White Walker army looms large over The Wall.

God I missed it. The slow creep of this show towards high fantasy has ruled and that plus an endgame in mind has meant Game of Thrones getting such a shot in the arm as a show. Season 6 was perhaps the best they’d ever done, which means Season 7 has a large legacy to live up to. Do they succeed?

Where Is Everybody? (A quick update on everyone’s story)

  • The Twins
    • Arya takes her revenge on the Freys and murders them all in the most glorious ways. Then she travels south and “Wow it’s ED SHEERHAN” as she takes a brief rest with some Lannister soldiers.
  • Winterfell
    • Jon and Sansa, now back in their rightful place, have a tiff about how best to deal with some treasonous houses. Petyr Baelish keeps it creepy, trying to wedge the alliance apart. Brienne gives some side-eye to Littlefinger.
  • King’s Landing
    • Jaime and Cersei have it out about their enemies and their lack of alliances. Cersei tries to fix it through an alliance with the Greyjoys, specifically Euron Greyjoy’s rogue faction. A hand of marriage is offered, Cersei slaps it away.
  • The Wall
    • Bran and Meera Reed get to the Wall. Dolorous Edd lets them in.
  • Oldtown
    • Samwell Tarly cleans up shit, serves food, and has a montage. It’s real weird. Also, Jorah’s greyscale got real bad.
  • Riverlands
    • The Brotherhood without Banners and Sandor Clegane have a bit of a heart-to-hearth in the house where Clegane once murdered some folks.
  • Dragonstone

What Worked?

It is important to understand that the purpose of the first episode of every season of Game of Thrones is a placesetter. It will rarely have the thrills of a late-season episode or the stunning wit of a culminating conversation. The openers are here to re-establish the terrain, remind us who our players are, and give us the direction of the season going forward. A place setting. Even with the steady consolidation of the storylines, we still have roughly 10-12 character threads to pull.

So, at the very least, this is likely one of the finest place-setter episodes they’ve done. It clips at a brisk pace (minus one particularly shitty montage) and gives us a lot while not having to do all that much. After the breathless pace of the end of last season, it’s a return to a more calm mode of operation I have a feeling we won’t get much of this season. There’s a clear-eyed view of what has to be ahead.

Not to say there isn’t excitement. The cold open (one of the few the show has ever done) wherein Arya poisons most of the remaining Freys is a thrilling little sequence, as close to justice as Game of Thrones is willing to get. Kudos to David Bradley for selling the slow shift in the scene as well as selling the “Arya is pretending to be this person she hates” vibe. It’s well-staged, and Maisie Williams just looks so badass walking out.

This is also one of the better episodes for the quiet moments in a while. Sandor Clegane is perhaps most interesting for being one of the only characters on this show to have a redemption arc of any sort, seeming to go against the show’s decidedly bleak view of humanity. Him digging the graves of his victims is certainly not a light bit, but it’s an emotional touch (and a homage to his status as The Gravedigger in the books).

It’s also a good episode to remember how great the character work has gotten over the course of the show. The chemistry between these performers is just solid, whether old or new pairings. Jon and Sansa’s vaguely disagreeing but affectionate chemistry is a fun prospect for the season ahead and when they’re making good decisions for Jaime and Cersei, there are few characters more fun to watch.

What Didn’t?

I guess it’s good to address the Ed Sheeran in the room. While Game of Thrones has certainly had its musician cameos before, there’s never been one this blatant from someone this recognizable by face. It’s a weird immersion-breaking cameo, something almost akin to when they used to have guest stars on sitcoms who played themselves.

I get why it was done and it’s a sweet story (a surprise for Maisie Williams, who is a superfan), but it’s a shame almost entirely because it overshadows what is actually an interesting scene. This is a moment of levity the show rarely indulges in, a moment of remembering that humans can just be human, Arya getting to see someone for once not showing overt kindness or evil, but simple normality. It’s also a moment the audience expects to go wrong and is shocked when it doesn’t, showing Game of Thrones still has the capacity to throw us a surprise or two. I just wish it wasn’t so overshadowed.

The other major ding this armor takes is the Samwell Tarly chore montage. Again, I see what’s being done, but it’s just a whiff. The sequence goes on too long and goes past “we are conveying off-putting” to “we are being off-putting.” Too marked a change from the last time we saw him.

Who Got A Win?

  • Arya
    • Finally taking revenge on the Freys and getting a moment of normality? That’s pretty much the biggest victory Arya has had in this whole show. You have to feel good for the poor girl finally getting something that makes things a little less awful.
  • Bran and Meera
    • They’re at The Wall and the people who can start to point them in the right direction to deal with The Night King.
  • Daenerys
    • She’s in Westeros with a hell of an army and retook her ancestral home. Her active role in the War begins.

Who Made A Mistake?

  • Jon and Sansa
    • Look, there’s not enough time for Stark in-fighting. They’ve been such a fractured faction that finally having two competent leaders up at the top is the biggest boon they’ve had in a while. The issues that arise from their varied leadership styles (Jon learned everything from Ned and Robb, Sansa [whether she likes it or not] got everything from Cersei and Littlefinger) need to be hashed out in private, the public show of disagreement only serves to open up an exploitable gap, one Littlefinger is already seeking to pry wide. Whoever you think was right (the answer right now is Jon, who has to strike a different tone from the Lannisters, don’t @ me), they have to show a united front.
  • Jaime and Cersei
    • Contrasted against the Starks, while they’re hashing out their disagreements in private and there is no power to challenge on Jaime’s behalf, the Lannisters are presenting a united front. However, they’re up shit creek without better allies. They’ve lost the Freys and have killed any house that turned on them. There’s not a whole lot of houses willing to play ally, and Cersei isn’t dealing with it quite well enough yet by going to the Greyjoys, who themselves are a divided house.
  • The Freys
    • They’re all dead. Shoulda killed all the Starks.

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