New films: Urban decay in “Alex Cross” and “Detropia”
Urban Decay at the Movies
The cinematic coincidences continue as we get two new films that feature urban decay, specifically with regard to the City of Detroit.
In “Alex Cross,” Tyler Perry plays against type as novelist James Patterson’s long-running detective/psychologist, previously played on the big screen by Morgan Freeman (“Kiss the Girls,” “Along Came a Spider”). It’s a fairly awful movie on multiple levels – with poor acting, a story that gives itself away quite consistently, and a few special effects that would seem more at home in a late night movie on the Syfy channel.
But the plot does have an interesting premise, with a rich French industrialist scheming to make money by rebuilding the blighted Motor City. This is also of economic importance to the movie itself as Detroit, and Michigan in general, has some of the most competitive film production incentives, and so the story is set up to be a pre-cursor to most Alex Cross novels, in that it takes place before he relocates to Washington, DC.
However, that move from police detective to Capital FBI agent is premised on his expertise as a behavioral psychologist – and we’re given an early scene that could have come from a Sherlock Holmes story, as he makes various observations about his wife’s movements and new habits. Which would be great if not for the fact that the rest of the movie seems to be a series of mistakes, near misses, late deductions, and violations of protocol that are neither impressive nor likely to ingratiate one to the FBI.
Towards the end of the movie, I felt as though I had just sat through the longest ever General Motors commercial – after watching a series of GM vehicles up close and personal, being reassured of their structural integrity, and paying a visit to the GM Heritage Museum. And there’s an explosion that would be bad enough if we only had to watch it once, but we’re shown it twice for no good reason, as the plot is explained retrospectively during an exceptionally unrealistic stretch of a final scene.
On the upside, Matthew Fox makes a pretty creepy killer and transformed himself quite effectively for the role.
Detroit is also the center of attention in the less violent but, to some extent, more disturbing “Detropia” – a documentary that examines the changing fortunes of a city that loses a family every 10 minutes. As the film points out, in 1930 Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world and it is now the fastest shrinking city in the US, having lost more residents than most cities have ever had (the population has declined from approx. 1,850,000 to approx. 700,000, since a peak in the 1950’s).
That has created 100,000 vacant houses and lots and enough unoccupied space that you could drop the Cities of Boston and San Francisco, as well as Manhattan, into the gaps with room left over. Many of us have grown up seeing older relatives or friends pointing at development and saying things like “I remember when all this was green” – but Detroit has the potential to reverse that trend, with vast swaths of derelict buildings being torn down and controversial plans to relocate residents to more densely populated parts of the enormous territory (139 square miles).
This is a city with entire blocks that might only have one (or less) occupied homes – but where the streets, lighting, and city services still need to be maintained. And where the cost of a house in many cities could buy you an entire vacant block. It’s a sobering look at a situation that makes many struggling city economies, Sacramento’s among them, look almost rosy by comparison.
The positive outcome of the severe depression is that Detroit is seeing a late influx of young artists and creative entrepreneurs, lured by the extreme low costs. They don’t come close to making up for the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs, primarily in the auto industry, but it is helping on some level.
The film conveys these and other facts, as seen through the eyes of several residents, including a long-time Cadillac employee and union leader. It has an easy-going pace that throws facts and figures more slowly than many documentaries, while letting the sense of anguish and frustration sink in more effectively than some. In this context, it’s worth noting that “Detropia” won a documentary editing award at Sundance and was nominated for that festival’s Grand Jury prize.
“Alex Cross” opens today in wide release and “Detropia” begins an exclusive engagement at Sacramento’s historic Crest Theatre.