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Movie Reviews: 'Detroit', 'Good Time', Patti Cake$'


Think of summer and you think of escape. It’s built into the architecture. Hot sun, summer in the city, escape to the beach, escape to the Cape. And go to the movies to escape the escape.

How about escape the cops? Traditional summer escape movies have crashed and burned by the dozens this summer. 

Maybe that’s because it’s gritty urban realism month in more adventurous movies, as we follow various and sundry characters—white bad boys, good black kids trying to mind their own business—trying like the rest of us to just get away from the law. Of course, the films are very different, as are the sheriffs in town in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit set 50 years ago, the Safdie Brothers Good Time set now in Queens, even Patti Cake$ set right here in the rap scene in Newark. 

Katherine Bigelow’s DETROIT, relates the story of the Algiers Motel incident in the middle of Cadillac City’s late July 1967 riots, when rogue white cops trap a group of mostly young blacks taking refuge from the craziness outside. Over the film’s 2h23 minutes, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal—who worked together previously on the Oscar winning Zero Dark 30 and The Hurt Locker-- take us first through a history lesson going back to the southern black migration to northern cities on the 19th century, before setting down in Detroit, among the cities which went up in flames that summer. 

Here we are backstage, as lead singer Larry Cleveland, played light as a feather by Algee Smith, and his young group, The Dramatics, are about to make their debut, following Martha and the Vandellas. Stardom is 20 feet away. 

Then the cops arrive and clear the theatre. There are riots outside, they say, sending some of the band out into the streets eventually to take refuge in the Algiers Motel. The point is then made: no one can escape the flame of race in America. 

It’s at the Algiers where the film’s action comes to a dead halt. But cinematographer’s Barry Ackroyd’s camera continues its hyperventilating probe into white racism. The cops led by Will Poulter --who channels white psychosis into the face of Archie of white comic book fame -- terrorize the ten or so black men and two white women and murder three of them. The only witness, a black security guard (the sullenly silent John Boyega) will be the first suspect in the crime. But by the time the film lands back in the precinct house, you’ve been gut punched so hard inside the Algiers Motel, you almost welcome the bile and outrage of the perversion of the justice system that follows. 

That Detroit falls into a hole—and it does--is its point. It has subsequently set off debate about whether whites can do justice to the black experience, which goes to the heart of art, and for me is function of identity politics run amok. Bigelow rightly replies in Rorschach fashion: think what you will about whether she got black fear right while treading the line of black torture porn. She wants whites to see and own the ugly face of white hate. Detroit does that. 

Unfortunately, Annapurna Pictures, which has been a rising producer of serious films, and which spent $50 million to make Detroit, also made it the first film they distributed. They made a rookie mistake in taking it out into 3000 theatres in the summer, instead of 30 in October. It’s failing at the boxoffice. It is worth your time and attention—there are rising stars all through this film that rejects escapism for engagement—but see it soon. 

By contrast, the Safdie Brothers’, Good Time, co-directed by Ben and Josh Safdie, stars Robert Pattinson in a breakout role as Connie, the older brother to a mentally slow brother, Nick, played by Benny Safdie. It’s a fast and furious chase film, after Connie cons Nick into a bank robbery that explodes code red. Nick lands in Rikers, Connie needs bail to get his fragile brother out, and the film sets up a run with the cops in hot pursuit through the night and day boroughs of NYC. How interesting to see this film pause in a Queens apartment, where a young black girl gradually realizes she’s a witness to a morally complex but illegal act on a white stage where the next stop is the Adventureland Amusement Park in East Farmingdale with a black security guard taken for a ride in fun house commentary. The film is best thought of as Criminal Rainman crossed with the French Connection’s velocity and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest moral compass. 

I should disclose that my son, Samson Jacobson, secured and managed the locations on the film, and it’s one hot trail through the boroughs. Good Time was also the biggest hit of the recent Cannes film Festival, certainly the tiniest American indie film to rock the boats there since Soderbergh’s Sex lies and videotape in 1989. You want to escape for an hour 40? Good Time is all that and more.

Detroit and Good Time 50 years later, speak to each other about race and the possibility of post-racial America. So, in its way does PattiCake$, North Jersey born Geremy Jasper’s, wonderful trip through the Newark rap scene and its rise to rap stardom fantasy. Here Siddarth Dhananjay, as Hareesh, a part time pharmacist assistant and wanna-be rap producer, tries to coax his reluctant pal, Patti Dombrowski, played improbably by Australian born actress Danielle Macdonald, to rap by beating on the hood of their ancient Cadillac mother ship: 

Patti’s rap alas requires more bleeps than there are stars in the jersey sky, which is a total of about 19. Finally, an old-fashioned escape movie, set in Newark, that will make you feel glad to be fat, skinny, old, young, black, white or other, and seduce you into wanting to believe that the American Dream is still alive, as long as you don’t watch cable TV news.  

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.