Get Out

April 3, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

“Get Out” is a truly original horror film experience. Writer/director Jordan Peele, who has a background in comedy, is able to weave humor and satire into a striking, sometimes shocking thriller about a black man going to his white girlfriend’s parents’ house to ‘meet the parents’ for the first time.

This premise seems more appropriate for a summer rom-com; but Peele uses it as a chance to make a statement about race relations, and status in this country. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating Rose (Allison Williams) for about 5 months, and Rose wants him to come to her parents’ country house for the weekend. Chris, who is a photographer by trade, is a bit worried when he asks her, “Do they know?” She plays coy, but eventually relents that she hasn’t told them. She doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but Chris has obviously had some experience and braces himself. According to her, this is also her first black boyfriend, so Chris is even more sure that there will be an issue. Rose assures him that her parents are extremely liberal and open minded, and her dad would have “voted for Obama for a third term if he could have”. As patronizing as that sounds, it at least sets Chris at ease that maybe they won’t make as much of an issue of it as he initially feared. Chris has his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) take care of his dog while they’re gone, and they set off to the country house.

On the way, they accidentally hit a deer. This affects Chris, as he watches the deer die off in the woods by the side of the road. That along with a roadside incident with a white police officer, who seems to have more of a problem with Rose than Chris, sets a somewhat ominous tone. We think we know what we’re in for at this point–but Jordan Peele does have some surprises for us.

When we meet Rose’s parents, Missy (Catherine Keener), and Dean (Bradley Whitford), we see what Rose was talking about. Dean speaks highly of Obama, and keeps calling Chris “my man”. Missy is very welcoming, and casual. Neither have an issue with Chris being black, and Rose teases Chris about him being wrong. But there is something a bit strange: the two caretakers of the house–Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson)–are black. Dean plays this off as irony, because the two of them actually took care of his father, who died years ago, and kept them on so that they’d be employed somewhere. Dean explains that his father finished behind Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Chris laments it’s a shame his father had to live that down, but Dean brushes it off, that Owens was the best. A seemingly innocuous exchange, but it has a little more importance as we dig deeper into the story.

Eventually Rose’s brother comes, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who takes an interest in Chris as an athlete. He challenges him to a fight obnoxiously, but Chris is pulled away by the family who chastise Jeremy for being rude. Rose apologizes to Chris by the end of the night, in which Chris smirks and says, “I was right.”

The following day, Rose discovers that the family had been planning their annual big get together with the rest of the family and other friends, which means even more white people for Chris to have to try and figure out who is going to make him feel more uncomfortable. It’s some commentary about “being the only black surrounded by whites”–no matter how obsequious or polite, it still makes someone feel out of place. But there’s even more unsettling things going on at this party. Not only are the whites trying to impress Chris with their accepting demeanor, but the only black person who does show up–as a guest of an older white woman–acts strangely, and seems out of place himself.

As things start falling into place, Chris realizes he’s somewhat become trapped into this little world, and uneasiness and awkwardness give way to outright fear. He allows himself to be hypnotized by Missy, who wants to help him quit smoking–and that starts to become a problem for Chris once he realizes what they’re up to.

The film has some familiar tropes and Peele does a nice job of sending the message that he’s aware of the familiarity. So he throws a few wrenches into the plot, and mixes things up a bit. It’s a clever film, and has some biting commentary, especially because the racial undertones don’t have to do with Southern white yokels, but rather seemingly intellectual whites who try to come off as unprejudiced. I’m sure Peele has some personal experience with this, and his cynicism is well displayed throughout the film. The performances are very strong and credible, particularly Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, who really wants to just survive this crazy family weekend and get back to his life. He also has a dark secret about his past that becomes exploited at some point, creating another layer for the narrative of the film, which was already strong to begin with.

For a first time effort, this is a fantastic exercise in horror and satire, and Peele has certainly laid the groundwork for a brilliant filmmaking career. This isn’t for the squeamish–for gore or social commentary. So come in with a strong constitution, and a truly open mind, and you will be greatly rewarded.

My rating: :D

Saving Mr. Banks

January 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

“Winds in the east / mist comin’ in / Like somethin’ is brewin, about to begin / Can’t put my finger on what lies in store / But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

That’s a foreshadowing thought from Bert in the Disney film “Mary Poppins”; it’s also used as the first and last words of narration in spoken-song by the father of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to begin “Saving Mr. Banks”, a biographical depiction of the development of her novel into the film. The story goes that it took Walt Disney 20 years to persuade Travers to sell the rights of her best selling book to him in order to make it into a film. This film is about the final weeks before she finally does indeed sign over “Mary Poppins” to Disney in 1961.

But it’s still not an easy fortnight. We are first introduced to Travers as a little girl living in Australia in 1906. She is sitting by herself, possibly daydreaming, until it fades into the adult Travers sitting in the same position when she is awakened out of her trance by her agent. At this moment, she still does not want to sell her book to Disney. Even after it’s revealed that Disney has given her full script approval, and the stipulation that there be no animation in the film, she still must be convinced to go to California and meet with Disney and Co. to go through the table readings.

Once she’s there, she butts heads with just about everyone who is involved with the script process, including the song writers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak respectively). She initially wants no singing, no “twinkling”, no cavorting, nothing. It must be proper, and English. The screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) allows the sessions to be recorded while she breaks in to the table reading to voice her disapproval with everything. She meets Disney (Tom Hanks) and gives him just as much trouble. But Disney is not willing to give up. He claims he has given a promise to his children that he’s kept for 20 years that he will bring “Mary Poppins” to life.

Meanwhile, we are given a back story to Travers’ life as a girl growing up in Australia. She has a seemingly normal family, except her father (Colin Farrell) is an obvious drunk who is also irresponsible. He seems to live in a fantasy world of his own, retreating into drinking when things get too hard. He also never calls her by her given name, which is Helen Goff. He is the real life Mary Poppins–but the film version of her, not the book. In the book, Mary Poppins is very proper. But he is reckless, and while he seems to care for his children, he treats them more as if they are participants in his fantasy world than actually as his children to raise and feel responsibility for.

This presents the conundrum that is P.L. Travers. She adored her father, looked up to him, and never wanted anything to spoil the relationship she had with him. We do find out there was an actual nanny to take care of her and her sister (played by Rachel Griffiths) who happens to be her aunt. She promises to “fix everything”, but is not at all into playing games and imagination. She disciplines the children while trying to take care of Travers’ father and mother once his health begins to fail. As we see her in adulthood, she has created a cold and hostile exterior because of the tragedies she experienced when she was a girl.

The giddy child in her does come out in one scene where the writers have invented an ending that allows Mr. Banks to fix his son’s kite and realize how important his children are to him. After all, that’s who Mary Poppins was “saving” to begin with–not the children. Then it all falls apart when she finds out that there will in fact be animation, for the penguins in the film. Until you see what her father means to her, you wonder why she is so hardened and against little specific things like animation and singing. But then it all comes together as part of something she is afraid of, which is really confronting what her father really was. She uses the character of Mr. Banks as a representation (her father was a banker) and at one session at the studio, she lashes out at everyone telling them what a good person Mr. Banks is.

“The woman is a conundrum,” says Walt Disney to one of the Sherman brothers after watching him perform “Feed the Birds” alone on the piano in an empty studio one night. Obviously we know that ultimately Travers does not get her way in the end. “Mary Poppins” indeed had animation, musical numbers–and, no sequels. That’s because Travers was so upset with the final product that she never again gave permission to Disney for any of her other works, including other volumes of the Mary Poppins series.

The performances here are exceptional, especially that of Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. You can feel her pain and even her suppressed emotions as she stares blankly at nothing. Colin Farrell is fine as her troubled father, and Hanks is right on pitch as Disney, never allowing the persona of Disney get in the way of his performance. He is still just a man, and just a character, and Hanks has always had an ability to play his characters on the right note. There’s also the character of the limo driver whom Travers befriends (“You’re the only American I’ve ever liked, she tells him) played by Paul Giamatti that adds a nice touch to the story. Whether this person actually existed, I’m not sure. But even as an invention, he works well.

The story is a sad one, but the film never overwhelms you with sentimentality that it becomes sappy. Its poignancy is never compromised. That’s what makes it a strong film and a fine directing job by John Lee Hancock. It’s a nice experience to rediscover why “Mary Poppins” is such a treasured classic; and it shows that show business can be very, very hard work, especially when there’s extremely guarded source material by a very strict author.

My rating:†:-)

The Cabin in the Woods

April 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

As a fan of the horror genre, I’m always intrigued by any filmmaker who sets out to tear down the genre and build it back up. Wes Craven achieved this with “Scream” back in the late 90’s, a film that was released during a desperate era for the genre, when it had been bled completely dry (pun intended) by the saturation of slasher franchises such as “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. We were starved for something new, and “Scream” provided a fresh but somewhat all-too-hip alternative to the routine slasher genre. It turned it on its head by being more self aware, while still telling a decent story and having a fun twist at the end.

Now that we’ve been inundated with remakes and “found footage” movies left and right, perhaps it’s time for another shot in the arm. That’s at least what Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon set out to do with “The Cabin in the Woods”.

But this movie may be one of the biggest miscalculations of a genre critique I’ve ever seen. Any fan of these types of movies should see right through the criticisms of Goddard and Whedon fairly quickly. And then we are left with a very arrogant, cynical, and extremely self-serving horror comedy that neither chills nor amuses.

First misstep: the characters are too bland and irritatingly stock to be made into funny caricatures mocking what we usually find in these kinds of films. We have the dumb blond, the jock, the quiet smart guy, the homely (but insanely beautiful) down to earth girl, and of course…the stoner who turns out to be right about everything. I guess Whedon wanted him to be the “audience”, catching onto every little inconsistency in a horror story. He’s played quite nauseatingly by Fran†Kranz. I hope†I never have to see this actor in another film in my life.

The second misstep can only be described while describing the plot: take a couple of kids and have them go to a cabin in the woods (because it’s the jock’s cousin’s), and then as the story progresses, illustrate that these kids are part of a scheme by oddly button down suits who are part of some cult that sacrifices people for ancient gods that will destroy the earth if the sacrifices are not executed (ahem). Did I just ruin the surprise for you? I don’t think I did, but even if I did, I did you a favor.

The idea is that these suits are going to control what happens to the kids at the cabin. They display all kinds of creepy things you find in these types of places. Creepy dolls, creepy paintings (which came the closest to actually scaring me), and of course…Pandora’s Box. So the kids actually raise the dead and the suits then try to make sure the kids die one by one until the sacrifice is complete.

I actually liked the premise of this film because it would give you a chance to make fun of the standard horror “cabin in the woods” story while still telling a bigger story with the real horror being that if these stereotypical things don’t happen, we all die. Unfortunately, Whedon and Goddard are far too interested in being cute and clever that once we’re let in on the joke, they’re already telling you how funny it is.

I think in a horror comedy, you have a very thin line to walk. You don’t want to be too jokey, because it becomes self aware and then you take the fun out of it. But you do still want to scare people. I think one of the best examples of when it works is the original “Fright Night”. Another would be “Evil Dead 2”. I can even point to Whedon’s introduction into the genre with his own “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. But here, this is beyond self-aware. This is purely self-congratulatory. Whedon and Goddard want you to know how cool they are by throwing in a ton of horror film references (everything from “Hellraiser” to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Night of the Living Dead” to “Aliens”) and how great it is that they are being critical of†bad horror films that are full of cliches and bad dialog.

However, in their attempt to mock the genre, they simply just come off as snobs as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be honest–I love bad horror films. I love the stereotypes, the cliches. Why? Because these films aren’t meant to be film classics. They’re meant to be drive-in fodder. An excuse to put your hand around your date’s shoulder and make a move. In many cases, these films mock themselves already enough and become parodies of themselves to the point where “The Cabin in the Woods” is the equivalent of the NYU film school grad sitting in a showing of “Friday the 13th” and telling you how adolescent it is.

We get it, guys. How about instead of wasting time telling me what I already know, make your own film fun and entertaining? “Cabin in the Woods” has its own problems, too. Logically some of the steps these guys take to sacrifice people don’t make sense, and sometimes they’re too convoluted if the end result is supposed to be death for the ancient gods. Why would you give anyone a chance of surviving if it means the end of the world for all of us? Which by the way, leads to a very anticlimactic ending. All the while I kept thinking…what is really at stake for any of these characters? Can we really believe the world will end if these kids aren’t killed? What’s at stake for the kids is far more relevant and credible, and yet we already know what has to happen with them so there is no tension going into the third act of the film.

I wanted to like this movie and appreciate the level of detail that Whedon and Goddard took with the horror genre. If they didn’t try so hard to manipulate me†so much, maybe I would’ve actually enjoyed it.

My rating: :(