Review: Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele)

The horror genre has had a massive upswing in recent years. Films like The Babadook (2013), It Follows (2014), and The Witch (2015), have added new narrative and aesthetic flourishes to the genre, and rejuvenated its artistic standing. With this new revival also comes a newfound appreciation for allegorical narrative: these films aren’t just scary as hell, but they have something to say apart from simply spooking you.

The new horror comedy Get Out is one of the shining examples of this type of film. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, of the beloved sketch comedy show Key and Peele, Get Out deftly mixes humor and comedy, as well as providing vital and cutting commentary on race relations and the depiction of African Americans in film. It’s easily one of the most inventive, enjoyable, and important horror films in recent years.

The basic framework of Get Out is one that has been told many times over: a black man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is going with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) in a potentially awkward first meet-up with her parents. She assures him that her parents are incredibly liberal and that there is nothing to worry about. This is seemingly the case when they arrive, as the parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), are welcoming are polite, albeit with more than a more than a few awkward race-related exchanges. However, something does not seem quite right with the black servants the family has around the home.

Get Out is expertly paced throughout its run time. It starts out slow and steady, building with hints of eeriness, and menial uncomfortable exchanges. As the secrets behind Rose’s family are revealed, the film becomes increasingly pummeling in its anxiety. By the time the big reveals occur, and the climax begins, these feelings reach a critical level, and the jaw is left agape, both from the shear originality in the directions the story takes, but also from how genuinely effective it is in captivating its audience.

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The themes and moods that this film juggles are finely balanced as well. Get Out is a sincerely scary film, but it different ways than usual. The cinematography effectively captures Chris’ isolation in this house through grim and claustrophobic set pieces. The music is effective as well, consistently eerie, but never bombastic. But thrills are absolutely not the only areas the film succeeds. It’s actualy quite funny. Chris’ friend Rod (LilRel Howery) a TSA agent who is left to babysit the dog, is pitch perfect comic relief. He acts as a vehicle for what would be standard audience responses to the film. His exuberant and animated responses to the events of the film as he seeks to help his are not only hilarious, but provide a brilliant layer of self-awareness to the film.

The area where the film really shines however, is what it has to say about race. Low-hanging fruit would have been to go after the backwoods, redneck brand of racism, but instead, the film tackles the benevolent racism of white liberals, and does so in such a way that is immensely creative. The racism extends from casual character remarks like how the father unwarranted mention that he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have to a family friend specifically mentioning he knows of and likes Tiger Woods. This brand of racism is put in high gear in this film to terrifying levels, but also in a way that turns the horror genre inside out.

How often does the black character live in a horror movie? How often is it that they are the ones fighting for survival on their own? Chris as a character is unique not only for a horror film, but films in general, never fitting in a stereotype, always aware, and acutely aware. His actions in the final moments of the film take what is the usual aspects of horror films and turns them around. The final scene is absolutely unforgettable, in that it forces you to look the current conditions of not only film, but society as a whole. It is one that is simultaneously brilliant, hilarious, and incredibly satisfying.

As a film at any point in someone’s canon, it would be a fantastic one, but for a debut it is astounding. Jordan Peele proves that he not only has the to write both hilarious comedy, and effective horror, but also make a powerful statement doing it. If Get Out really scares you, you are encouraged to take a better look at our current society and see why exactly that is.

9.2/10

Review: Don’t Breathe (2016)

We are in a horror thriller renaissance. Beginning with The Babadook in 2014, films like It Follows, and The Witch have brought horror back out into the light. Though Don’t Breathe doesn’t really have the artistic depth as these, writer/director Fede Alvarez (the 2013 Evil Dead remake, also great) includes enough creative twists, and effective suspense to make Don’t Breathe another winner.

The premise seems absurd at first; three robbers attempt to break into and rob the house of a blind old man, but this old guy is a lot more prepared than the bargained for, and it leads to a fight for survival. You make think that with such a small, confined setting, that the plot wouldn’t really work, but it’s very effective. From the initial break in, a long tracking shot covers the whole area of the house, highlighting items that will be important later. It’s a strategy that gives the film a feel of a game: the house is the board, and the cast the players. The rules are established and the blind old man (Stephen Lang) and the robbers (who include Evil Dead’s Jane Levy and Goosebumps’ Dylan Minnette)  are left to duke it out. The mechanic makes for some really effective jump scares, and some really intense scenes, including one where the robbers are hunted in the pitch black basement. Other standout scenes include one inside an air vent, and a handful of visceral fight and chase scenes that, in terms of suspense, and occasionally terror, work very well.

Amidst this already creative set-up are some twists that will really take you off guard. The real secrets of the old man are revealed about halfway through, and they could not have taken me more by surprise. The air of unpredictability, and the blur between who is in the right and wrong just serve to add to the entertainment value of the film. There are some shortcomings though. The tight confines of the film sometimes make plot stretched out, and occasionally the action tips over towards the absurd. The ending also is a little bit out there in terms of believability, but not so much as to bog the film down.

The horror genre has been in a slump for a while, but I am incredibly glad to see films like Don’t Breathe reviving it again. Whether it be for artistic merit, or just for a casual scare, there’s clearly room for entertaining, creative ideas still floating around. I’m excited to have more creative horror films takes me off guard.

8.3/10

 

Review: Sausage Party (2016)

Sausage Party is a film that is way better than it has absolutely any right to be. A love child of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who have had their share of hits and misses over the years), the film raised eyebrows from the moment it was first conceived. The concept of a very hard R-rated, 3D animated movie about foul-mouthed supermarket items, at first glance seems novel, but vapid. This is occasionally true, but Sausage Party, provides just enough substance to back up its ambitiously offensive humor.

In your average, everyday supermarket, everything from hotdogs, buns, bagels, and potatoes, are sentient and long to be bought by humans, who will take them to the great beyond (where they’re sure nothing bad happens to food), and have wild sex with each other (yes, I know). This belief is shaken when a jar of honey mustard (Danny McBride), is returned to the supermarket traumatized. This leads the main hot dog, Frank (Rogen), hot dog bun, Brenda (Kristen Wigg), and their friends on a quest for the truth.

The plot, while often feeling contrived as a way to get animated foods to be profane, is bolstered by its purposeful plot. It functions as a religious allegory, which at least gives it some weight to the profanity. The swearing does become numbing for a while, but the film goes from 0-100 real quick in the last twenty minutes. I won’t spoil too much, but it involves the villainous douche (yes, a literal douche is the villain), a food rebellion involving bath salts, and the single most graphic sex scene you’re likely to see in any movie this year. It’s this insane climax, coupled

The cast for sausage party is surprisingly dense, with regulars like Jonah Hill, James Franco, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, Craig Robinson and Paul Rudd all present, as well names like Edward Norton, Nick Kroll, and Salma Hayek showing up. each play an often rather clever character, such as a Stephen Hawking-esque gum in a wheelchair, the “nonparishables” including a twinky, native American fire water, and a box of grits, as the ones who invented the concept of the great beyond. The movie is rife with these clever food jokes, and references. Apart from the clever bits, a majority of the films laugh rely on shock humor. The juxtaposition of the cartoony animations, mixed with extremely graphic “killings” of the food, is often pretty effective. Sometimes, however, it can be really trite. Shock humor can only go so far before the novelty wears really thin, and the argument that Sausage Party rests its laurels on food swearing and fucking start to peak through. This is especially apart when the hot dog, and several other foods smoke weed through a kazoo. I mean come on.

Still, thanks to a decent, pointed premise, some really clever food jokes, and some genuinely transgressive, offensive humor, Sausage Party manages to be a pretty entertaining trip, and way better than it should be. I wouldn’t mind seeing this kick start a trend of more adult-oriented animation.

7.5/10

Review: Suicide Squad (2016)

Anticipation was hot for this one. The DCEU had pretty rocky ‘start’ with the critical failure of Batman v Superman a few months ago, the internet became a firestorm, and the stakes for the next entry, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, were immediately higher. This was supposed to be the film that finally gave the DCEU its footing, set it on course, and quell the overheating fan boy fears. Does it? Nope.

I will admit that the advertising for Suicide Squad was nothing short of effective. Nothing was spoiled, and it did a great job introducing the ridiculous amount of characters, and setting the admittedly unique aesthetic of the film. The reason I give a special thumbs up to the ads is because the final result matches very, very little of the potential quality in them. From the opening scenes, in which Amanda Waller (Viola Davis in probably the best performance of the movie) introduces each member of the squad in an extended and stylized sequence. It’s a contrived scene that goes on quite a bit too long. It’s followed by a scene that sets up the main villain in what seems like a break-neck 90 second sequence. These pretty much set the pace for the rest of the film which varies from way too goddamn slow, to absurdly fast.

Another big ole problem is the script. I couldn’t tell you how many dopey one-liners and clichés nearly made my face fucking implode. There are so many. Some of them land, mind you, with Will Smith’s Deadshot (amazingly) and Jai Courtney (also incredibly) being the most tolerable out of the bunch. The plot itself, though, is paper thin. The villain wants to destroy the world with a blue lazer that shoots into the sky and collects debris. The stupid, unexplained points are covered with some pretty obvious lamp-shading (that is the deflection of absurdity in a plot via acknowledging its absurdity. Will Smith makes jokes about how there’s trash floating in the sky, and a silly remark about how Amanda Waller survives the encounter with the villain to cover up the fact that they make no fucking sense. It’s the type of lazy ass writing that pervades the movie throughout.

Back to the characters. Will Smith is fine, Jai Courtney is fine, and Jay Hernandez as El Diablo is probably the biggest surprise, in regards to the fact I enjoyed watching him on screen unlike many of the others. Margot Robbie plays a disappointing Harley Quinn, who’s only purpose seems to be a sexy comic relief, while Jared Leto’s Joker doesn’t even reach that level of relevancy. He feels like an afterthought, as no scenes he’s in effect the overall plot at all. It’s like he’s there purely out of fan service. He never feels threatening either, and instead exists just as a high end thug. Also in regards to this squad, there are an absurd number of stereotypes. The Asian has a Katana, the Australian has a boomerang, the Hispanic is a gangbanger, Killer Croc is a black gangster stereotype (for some reason???) and a militant white guy leads the way. It’s a setup that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Finally, Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress is a downright shit villain. Her big final climax scene near the end is a clusterfuck of CGI, and bad acting. She has this overbearingly goofy attempt at a villainous accent, as well as this even goofier evil dance she just walks around doing. What should have been threatening was more downright cringey.

The soundtrack in this movie is also an outlier in terms of being godawful. Every stereotypical vanilla movie rock song from CCR’s Fortunate Son, The White Stripe’s Seven Nation Army, and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap what used at every opportunity. Then Eminem and Kanye West show up out of nowhere too. This type of post-production decision, along with the janky pacing, and seemingly unnecessary and misplaced joker scenes that make me think that the studio is behind these fuck ups. David Ayer has proven himself to be an able-bodied filmmaker. And there’s definitely the makings of a good film somewhere in here. Several of the characters are entertaining, a handful of action scenes are pretty fun to watch, a few of the quieter scenes work pretty well too, and tons of potential is visible with Harley Quinn and the Joker.

The problems visible in Suicide Squad make me think that the problem of the DCEU lies mainly with Warner Bros’ meddling. The same issues (pacing, script, characters) were all present in Batman V Superman too. It’s becoming a big problem at this point. I want to be excited for Wonder Woman and Justice League next year, but the studio has to get their shit together if they really want establish themselves and (eventually) stack up to the Marvel juggernaut.

4.9/10

 

 

Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)

Swiss Army Man is most likely going to be the best movie you’ll see all year  in which Paul Dano rides Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse as its farts propel them across the ocean. Don’t let the absurd premise repel you; this is a genuinely great film that, underneath the coat of body humor and slapstick, is actually pretty poignant and wonderful.

Seemingly stranded on a island, a destitute Paul Dano prepares to hang himself, when he notices a corpse on the beach, which gives him second thoughts. He ends up taking the corpse with him as a form of company. It’s soon revealed that the corpse is in fact sentient (?) and they continue their adventure back to civilization, which the corpse’s erection pointing them in the right direction.

But the absurdist, juvenile humor is only the outer coating of this film. Dano, in a humorous fashion, has to reteach Radcliffe’s corpse what it means to be human, and what it is to live. Some of these exchanges, especially one where Dano’s character creates a setup of a bus to simulate riding on it for Radcliffe and meeting a girl. It’s silly, but it’s also surprisingly warm.

The absolutely wonderful cinematography and soundtrack help bolster the melancholy atmosphere. There are some beautiful scenes and shots in this film. One in which Radcliffe rescues Dano from drowning in a hilarious slow motion sequence. And the soundtrack from the Manchester Orchestra which is often just silly ramblings, is still so pretty and atmospheric I can see it being one of the best of the year.

Despite being occasionally self indulgent (carrying on a little too far with the introspective dialogue) Swiss Army Man, surprisingly really works. Swiss Army Man is even one of my favorite movies of the year so far. It should be a testament to the originality of films today that, even if your idea is stupid and bizarre, Just go with it. The result could be great.

8.1/10

Review: Finding Dory (2016)

I’m going to go ahead and be frank: Finding Nemo is not nearly one of my favorite Pixar movies. I understand that people adore it, and it brings everyone to tears, and whatever. I can acknowledge that it’s a beautifully animated sprawling story, full of heart, and great for kids. It may be because I was subjected to its viewing an innumerable amount of times on slow days all the way from grades 3-8, but Nemo doesn’t hold up from 8-year-old to 21-year-old me nearly as well as, say, Toy Story, or, Monsters Inc. That being said, Finding Dory, a sequel 13 years in the making, doesn’t capture nearly as much of the imagination or soul of the first.

The animation is still beautiful, as is expected of Pixar. It’s colorful and vibrant. The fish move like they’re supposed to and light shines through in lovely ripples through the ocean. The animation is never a problem. It’s the script that suffers here. The story is the exact opposite of Finding Nemo. Instead of Marlin out to find his son, Dory is out to find her parents. Except while Nemo’s plot feels like a sprawling, monumental cross-ocean epic adventure, Dory is confined almost entirely to a single location, and that sense of adventure is lost.

While Nemo’s plot remains relatively grounded in reality, with the dangers of predatory ocean dwellers, and human interference ever present, Dory goes more the silly route. New characters, such as an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) and a whale shark and beluga whale (Kaitlin Olsen and Ty Burrell respectively) are all goofy and very likely to appeal to children, but one-note. Hank the octopus helps Dory search for her parents in the Marine Life Institute with increasingly absurd uses of his camouflage, managing to disguise his way through a secured facility, roll himself to a stroller unseen, and even drive a truck. Yes, an octopus drives a truck. This change in tone isn’t a bad thing per say, but when the sweet moments do come, such as when Dory finally reunites with her parents, they’re not nearly as effective as they could be. These moments are cute (especially the flashbacks with a baby Dory), and will bring a smile to your face, but they won’t move you to tears like say Wall-e or Up.

Of course, as expected, some jokes manage to land and draw smiles, others are recycled and tired. Finding Dory isn’t a bad film at all. It’ll keep the kids occupied and entertained for 1.5 hours. But it’s middling Pixar, sitting at a fresh spot on the shelf amidst the likes of Brave, Cars, and Monsters University.  The feeling that this was the best thing the writers could come up with after over a decade leaves a lot to be desired. At this point in the year, Disney Animation Studios looks to have the animation category already in the bag with the vastly superior Zootopia and the promising Moana later this year. When it comes to Pixar’s catalogue, or children’s animation in 2016, you can do better.

6.9/10

Review: The Neon Demon (2016)

The Neon Demon is the continuation of Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s series of stylized, ultraviolent thrillers that began with Drive in 2011. Drive surprised the hell out of me when I first saw it five years ago, taking my high school self completely off guard with its kickass neo-80s retro lighting and soundtrack, mixed with bouts of realistic and gruesome violence that brought waves of joy to my teenage face. Drive remains one of my favorite films, but The Neon Demon manages to struggle only about halfway up that ladder.

The Neon Demon delves into more surrealist territory in terms of story, telling the tale of 16-year-old runaway Jessie, and her nosedive into the dark underbelly of the modeling world in LA. While Jessie makes her way up the ranks quicker than most, the other girls notice, and it becomes clear that Jessie’s beauty may not be completely of this world. It’s an obvious allegory to the cannibalistic, dangerous nature of vanity in the modeling world that sort of works, but the pacing throughout the film is an issue. The first three quarters or so of the film are relatively subdued and uneventful, albeit with a constant drone of unease. It becomes tiring until around the 50 minute mark, when the subtle, eerie atmosphere very quickly shifts into a holy-shit-what-the-fuck-did-I-just-witness drop into insanity. The shift is (intentionally?) jarring as hell, and is almost effect. Instead the end result is whiplash at the sheer velocity things go from 0-100. The gross outs are indeed gross, but they’re also silly and absurd, garnering more laughter and raised eyebrows than genuine appreciation. One thing’s for certain is that , you’re probably not going to see another film with a scene of spontaneous lesbian necrophilia.

While the dopey story holds it back, Refn’s aesthetic is no less intriguing than it has been in his previous films, though occasionally a bit more self-indulgent. As the title suggests, the lighting is often bright, flashy and intense, which scenes ranging from dark and deep blues and pinks, to a full scene in strobe, and a giallo-esque chase scene. It’s a style that works, but overstays its welcome. A runway scene that is a series colorful flashes and trippy mirror shots with a black background lasts almost ten minutes. The words “okay, we get the point” will run through your head more than once. Also similar to Refn’s past films is the presence of a killer soundtrack, easily the best aspect of the film. Cliff Martinez, who also did the score for Drive, creates another awesome series of synths that do a great job of selling the dark, foreboding vibe of the film.

It’s a shame, though, that these great aesthetics can’t keep The Neon Demon from being held back by it’s heavy-handed, poorly-paced, and thin story. Possibly what keeps Drive leagues ahead of Refn’s last two films is that someone other than Refn wrote it. While he really has a knack for setting an atmosphere, perhaps it’s better to let someone else put the pen to paper next time.

6.4/10