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: Enough Said

8 04 2015

One day after work in London, I had a few hours to kill before a dinner engagement and decided to spend them seeing “Enough Said.”  The auditorium was the size of some houses’ living room, so any obnoxious behavior was sure to stand out even more than usual.  So, of course, I found myself laughing hysterically nearly the entire duration of the film and thus the butt of a number of glares.

I was not the only person having a great time, but I certainly seemed to enjoy the film more than most people in the audience.  (Maybe the humor was culturally specific?)  “Enough Said” does feature one of my favorite comediennes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, turning in some of her funniest and most humane work to date.

It’s a common phrase regarding comic actors that they could make reading the phone book a laugh riot.  But I am convinced that Louis-Dreyfus could just look at a phone book and have me in stitches.  Her expressions and reactions practically constitute a second text of the film, and it only serves to enhance the richness of emotion and humor in writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s script.

“Enough Said” may be a little slight compared with some of the heftier, more thematically complex works of the filmmaker like 2006’s “Friends with Money” or 2010’s “Please Give.”  Nonetheless, her film delights with the familiarity and recognition.  Her characters feel less like symbols or stand-ins for big ideas and more like real people.  As a result, the comedy derives from everyday, mundane occurrences, and it allows the film to really hit a nerve.

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REVIEW: Begin Again

2 07 2014

Begin AgainJohn Carney’s “Begin Again” was first screened for audiences under the title “Can A Song Save Your Life?”  An interesting question, to be sure, but perhaps not the right one … or at least not the one preoccupying most viewers.  Their biggest question is (or ought to be), can these songs save this movie?

The answer is, well, not exactly.  “Begin Again” flaunts some pleasant ditties, including a few from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine (great for boosting soundtrack sales) and several from the surprisingly smooth pipes of Keira Kinghtley.  But they are rather breezy and generic tunes, not quite the game-changing classics Carney and his film make them out to be.

While I’m not a music critic (and do not intend to masquerade as one), I do feel that I can comment on how the tracks are incorporated into the film with relative authority.  And in “Begin Again,” the songs play out rather like music videos, with the one exception of Knightley’s strikingly beautiful opening number about isolation in the Big Apple.  Furthermore, they never reveal anything about the characters participating in their creation (see the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” for a masterclass).

These songs reflect the larger issue with “Begin Again,” which is that it provides a surface-level treatment of just about everything it touches.  Carney occasionally proffers a profound musing on music, both its art and its commerce, but never really explores them fully.

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REVIEW: Captain Phillips

21 01 2014

From the outset of Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” there is a conscious attempt to mirror the film’s two leading men, the titular cargo ship commander played by Tom Hanks and the Somali pirate Muse humanized by Barkhad Abdi.  Where most films would try to draw attention to the gulf between them, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray bring to light the comparisons few would ever make.

Phillips and Muse rally their troops in the same way, command authority similarly, and follow the scripted narratives their societies have written for them.  They’re explicitly paralleled in the structure of the script as well as in Greengrass’ visual language of “Captain Phillips.”  It leads to a provocative line of mental questioning, but the sort of political allegory for which they aim winds up slightly unfulfilled.

It feels like an appropriate cherry on what I view as an unofficial, non-consecutive trilogy for Greengrass.  This series of interrelated movies is composed of 2006’s “United 93,” 2009’s “Green Zone,” and 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” all of which are critiques of contemporary American power and its narrow-minded exercise.  It’s yet another outsider’s critique of the currently reigning global superpower, which you can choose to listen to or dismiss.

The least of the three, “Green Zone” is a rather obvious criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq under some rather dubious pretexts.  “United 93” might seem like a straightforward cinematic presentation of an important historical event, but it uses the ill-fated flight on 9/11 for the self-destructive ends of America’s myopic worldview.  In his treatment of that film, Greengrass described the hijacking as a “hermetically sealed world disrupted by a savage and violent act.”  The premise of his “Captain Phillips” sounds like a riff on the same thought, which makes the films interesting companions.

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REVIEW: Please Give

12 12 2010

Thanks to Best Picture winners like “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” today’s moviegoers are accustomed to thinking that movies that tackle issues have to be massive, sprawling dramas with big implications.  Euthanasia, racism, and poverty are big social issues facing the world today, and these movies have tackled them in such a big, brassy way that most audiences think that movies with such relevant themes have to be this way.

Yet on the comedic flip-side of the coin, there is Nicole Holofcener, who writes movies about issues just as important but with the scope of your average person.  Her latest feature, “Please Give,” explores money, greed, and guilt in today’s society as it affects four people in different but profound ways.  Full of wit and humor, the movie is delightfully pertinent to just about anyone in 2010 as it probes for answers to questions we often find ourselves asking everyday.

There’s nothing monumental about Holofcener’s latest study of money and society, but she builds the narrative from characters who are interesting and compelling down to their core.  Upper class New York couple Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a furniture business, managing to stay on top of competition by purchasing antiques from the children of the elderly who don’t know the true value of the pieces.  With some of their profits, they have managed to buy an adjacent apartment, now just waiting for the elderly inhabitant to pass away.

Yet with all the spoils of money, Kate can’t help but feel torn by guilt.  She sees the homelessness in the city and feels obliged to help in some way, but she also has a family to provide for, including a daughter who will stop at nothing until she gets a pair of designer jeans.  She also starts to wonder if she and Alex’s predatory purchasing is morally acceptable.  As a result, she tries to reform her life for what she thinks is the better of those less fortunate.  However, she finds that even with the best of intentions, sometimes helping others doesn’t help them – or yourself – as much as hoped.

Holofcener raises a lot of interesting questions with “Please Give” about the nature of charity in today’s culture, and her exploration doesn’t yield many answers.  The situations she lays out aren’t exactly comforting for those who think they are being helpful to the community.  But simply by raising these questions, she leads her audience to a self-examination, precisely what movies dealing with important societal issues should do.  B+





REVIEW: Cyrus

1 08 2010

Over the past few years, we’ve seen over-the-top comedy after over-the-top comedy, and it’s been a little exhausting. But you don’t need to go into outer space or back to prehistoric times to be funny; there’s humor in the average lives of ordinary people. The Duplass brothers understand that and bring us “Cyrus,” a modest comedy that finds laughter in the awkward and trite moments that make up the days of a new couple trying to coexist with an overbearing son. In a summer filled with giant explosions and comedies so corny you can all but hear the laugh-track, it’s a very welcome change of pace.

It’s like a feature-length sitcom where the writers provide the situation and the actors are left to bring the comedy out of it. There are no ridiculous lines or scenarios to pump easy laughs into the movie; it all comes from the way someone glances at another person or a few too many seconds of silence. John C. Reilly headlines the cast as John, the seven-years divorced loner just beginning to come out of his shell as his ex-wife, played by the always fantastic Catherine Keener, is getting married again.

At a party, he makes a drunken connection with Molly, Marisa Tomei’s spontaneous fireball. But little does John know what lies ahead down the road with her – a 22-year-old son played by Jonah Hill who still lives at home and is uncomfortably close with his mother. It’s a very different role for the young comedic star, who has starred in plenty of the ridiculous comedies I alluded to above (although I generally consider him to have good taste in choosing roles). He exhibits the subtlety necessary to make the passive-aggressive antagonist wholly convincing. Hill masters the death glare, just one of many great idiosyncrasies he brings to the character.

The production values are so simple that I can imagine just one of the movie’s four marquee names cost more than making the movie. The two brothers were extremely lucky to land them all because it does lend a sort of mainstream sensibility to the film that could be a little too indie for some people without them. But the crowning achievement of “Cyrus” is not how digestible the mumblecore movement (a phrase that doesn’t register with most Americans) can be made; it’s how the combination of a well-written script and actors capable enough to understand its nuances can create comedy out of anything. A- /





F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 2, 2010)

2 07 2010

This week’s “F.I.L.M.” is Nicole Holofcener’s probing social comedy “Friends with Money.” If you look at the poster and see Jennifer Aniston and instantly think, “This movie is going to be stupid,” be prepared to think twice. It’s an incredibly, perhaps surprisingly, deep look at the effects of money and social class on four friends in Los Angeles. It rounds all the bases, touching on all the big issues that an obsession with money can bring.

Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful fashion designer who is perhaps the most money-driven of the bunch. She unabashedly and unashamedly asks people about how much money they make, how much they are donating, and how much they spend. Whether it’s because of her crumbling marriage or potentially entering menopause, she has become increasingly frank and short-tempered.

Franny (Joan Cusack) is a trust fund baby living comfortably with her husband and child. She’s a little shy talking about how much money she has, largely because of its source.

Christine (Catherine Keener) is a television writer, teamed with her husband (Jason Isaacs). Giddy from the rush of money, she decides to expand their house upwards to see the ocean without considering its effect on her neighbors. But marital frustrations begin to take its toll on her work; however, they also open her eyes to how her actions have unexpectedly affected the world around her.

Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) is their idea of a charity case friend. She’s quit her job as a teacher to become a maid. She’s single and hasn’t had a steady boyfriend in years. She still smokes pot and wanders through life with no direction or sense of purpose.

Each of the women undergoes a metamorphosis over the course of the movie’s 88 minutes. Holofcener creates four wonderfully elaborate women whose stories unfold before our very eyes. The character study is incredibly effective and entertaining, largely due in part to the wittiness of the script.

But the movie is carried by the actresses, all of whom give wonderful performances. Joan Cusack plays nothing new – the mildly insecure but ultimately warmhearted woman – but it’s a comfortable territory for her and thus comfortable for us to watch. Catherine Keener undergoes one of the movie’s biggest transformations, and she nails it with her typical pitch-perfect grace. Frances MacDormand is absolutely hysterical as she speaks her mind with no filter.

And bring on the puzzled looks – the star of “Friends With Money” is Jennifer Aniston. Her Olivia is by far and away the film’s most complicated character, and in the hands of Aniston, she is completely realized. We can buy every move she makes and feel the emotion behind each line. All you Jennifer Aniston haters out there, watch this movie. You may not be silenced, but it should shut you up for a little while.