REVIEW: Get Out

8 05 2017

“I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this […] through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” then-President Barack Obama stated upon the occasion of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me.”

The terror that white people feel when a black man enters a space they historically dominate has gotten a surge of attention in recent years. (Some might say it’s the underlying narrative of the 2016 presidential election.) This tension appears most in the police shootings of unarmed black men, though it also appears in dialogues surrounding everything from cultural appropriation to #OscarsSoWhite. The issues, of course, are nothing new. The means for traditionally underrepresented voices to make their opinions heard, however, are.

With his feature debut “Get Out,” writer/director Jordan Peele finds yet another method of expression: the thriller genre. From its ominous opening scene in which a black man ambles uneasily through a Stepfordian suburb, the film engrosses us in the acute and hyperaware perspective of a minority navigating a predominantly white culture. That also requires shining a light on the dark flip side of the equation that helps construct blackness – white myopia or blindness.

As Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) prepares to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (a perfectly cast Allison Williams), we become painfully aware of how the vast gulf of racial privilege affects their read on certain situations. She cannot understand why Chris simply gives his license to an officer calmly by the side of the road when it’s clear he did nothing wrong. She has a post-racial mindset that makes her think it’s unnecessary to specify Chris’ race before arriving. Race is something Rose can forget about. It’s not that easy for him.

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REVIEW: Other People

6 09 2016

other-peopleSundance Film Festival

Chris Kelly’s “Other People” was the first film I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Had it also been the only film I saw, I think I could have left Park City feeling wholly satisfied.

This personal, deeply felt tale about a struggling writer (Jesse Plemons’ David) who comes home to take care of his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon’s Joanne) contains everything people have come to expect from a quote-unquote “Sundance movie.” It’s a dramedy with real heart, surprising performances from a vast ensemble and a little something to say about the constant battle to claim one’s identity. David, an openly gay twenty-something who still has yet to receive approval from his stern father (Bradley Whitford’s Norman), marks a refreshing change of representation. He’s allowed to be defined by something other than his sexuality without denying him romance.

But “Other People” goes beyond delivering the expected. It reminds you why we love these kinds of movies to begin with, why we’re willing to sit through countless half-baked similar films to get one this moving.

You will marvel at how much the people in this film bear a resemblance to someone in your own life. You will feel that you lived a year with this bereaved family, not just watched scenes about them for under 100 minutes. And shockingly, you will come to like – and probably cry to – Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” Not just during the movie, either. Let’s just say you heard it at the gym. It might make you emotional there. (What, who? Me? Was that me?)

Oh, and you will weep. GOSH, did I weep during the screening. The crowd at the post-show Q&A I attended essentially posed no questions. It just featured people who tearfully ran through stories of their own tragic losses and how “Other People” resonated with them. Had I been able to gain composure amidst the veritable lake of tears surrounding my chair, I likely would have done the same.

I saw the film just days after losing a friend my own age – just 23 – to the same kind of cancer that afflicts Joanne. I remained stoic in the days following her passing, almost in disbelief that she just wasn’t here anymore. “Other People” played a crucial, cathartic role in helping me finally feel what happened. The film gave me a space in which I could work through the conflicting sets of emotions and make sense of what seems so unfair and yet so inevitable. While I could write impersonally about Kelly’s work and describe some kind of generalized viewer, it does a disservice to experiencing the film. This affected me because these tragedies affect us.

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REVIEW: I Saw the Light

1 04 2016

I Saw the LightIf the biopic of Hank Williams is to be believed, he saw the light when his first-born child entered the world. (We know this, of course, because he sang it.) Around this time in the film, I found myself wishing I saw a different kind of light – the one at the end of the tunnel, if that tunnel were the interminable film “I Saw the Light.”

Marc Abraham begins the film with a long take that circles around Tom Hiddleston as he introduces us to his take on Williams through music: an a capella rendition of “Cold, Cold Heart.” (Conspicuously, his voice lacks that deep Southern drawl that so defines the Williams sound.) He rest firmly in the spotlight, though the camera angle obscures his face until the very end of the song. Ironically, the introduction provides a perfect encapsulation of the film’s flaws.

“I Saw the Light” places its subject front and center, but Abraham never really finds a satisfying angle through which to analyze him. As a performer, his chief adversity is … convincing people to get over the fact that he holds onto notes for too long. As a person, he is guilty of … philandering, like far too many musicians depicted on screen. At one point, seemingly out of nowhere, it is revealed that Williams struggles with alcoholism to a point of self-endangerment. One aspect, isolated and explored with gusto, might have helped the film gain some footing. Without such focus, it flounders.

Often times, biopics lacking a strong directorial hand or a definitive angle can find salvation in a strong lead performance. Yet Hiddleston, charming as he can be, just never quite gets comfortable as Hank Williams. The film clearly values veracity as it awkwardly intersperses documentary-style interviews with Williams’ manager (Bradley Whitford), but the central performance never quite registers as an adequate facsimile for the real thing. C2stars





REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods

29 11 2012

Shhh … don’t ruin Joss Whedon’s big year, but have you heard of this movie called “Scream?”  It’s a little vintage, I know.  In 1996, Wes Craven unleashed his film on audiences to massive acclaim and success.  He deftly sent up horror movie tropes with humor and a sharply philosophical slant – at the same time delivering a chilling horror movie!

Now Whedon, the fanboy favorite, has given us “The Cabin in the Woods,” a film he wrote along with director Drew Goddard.  The film took three years from shooting to release, although the satire feels relevant still as the climate of the horror genre remains roughly unchanged (with the exception of the found-footage epidemic that struck with “Paranormal Activity“).

And indeed, I really did enjoy some of the things it had to say and the clever way it presents them.  The deconstruction of the horror genre, particularly the onslaught of torture flicks, is done deftly and swiftly.  While “Scream” was Craven talking merely about the archetypes and trademarks, “The Cabin in the Woods” expands to include the audience.

What does it say about us that in our heads we are rooting for the directors, played to droll hilarity by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, to inflict the strangest and most unimaginable pain on people we don’t even know?

If we think it’s sick that there’s a betting pool on how long these characters will survive and how they will die, isn’t that essentially what we do when we gossip with the person in the seat next to us in the theater?

These questions were fun to ponder for a while, yet I found that “The Cabin in the Woods” quickly got on my nerves.  It reminded me of the feeling I get when a Hermione Granger-like student thinks they are the smartest person in the room and wants everyone to know it.  Whedon and Godard act like their film is the most ingenious thing to be dropped into cinema in ages.  Granted, anything that deviates from convention in this depraved artistic moment feels original.  Yet I couldn’t escape a sense of arrogance being radiated from the film.

And my only response was that I wanted to get on Amazon, order the Blu-Ray of “Scream,” and mail it to Whedon’s house.  The message: it’s been done before, and it’s been done better.  That doesn’t mean you can’t try, but you can’t gallivant around as if you are God’s gift to the genre.  You’ve made your contribution to the parodic state of horror, and you should be content with that.  B