Review: ‘Get Out’ a creepy, comical examination of race

“Get Out” is a film for everyone.

No, that doesn’t mean you should take your kids to see it. Rather, first-time director Jordan Peele brings us a film that is as fresh and smart as it is purely entertaining.

The genius of it all is that you can take it both ways, or just one – take your pick. Do you a want to turn your brain off to a thoroughly satisfying thriller, or engage with a movie on levels that are incessantly thought-provoking?

At a time when the pickings continue to be slim for quality horror and directors are looking for new ways to keep the audience awake at night, Peele pulls a 180 with the genre, blending scares, comedy and social commentary with a dash of searing realism. Bloody and hilarious, “Get Out” paints themes of racial tension and privilege in shades of neon when many other films might settle for a more subtle palette.

Daniel Kaluuya is Chris, the boyfriend to Allison Williams’ Rose Armitage, an interracial couple who shouldn’t seem out of place in 2017. At least Rose thinks so, as she tries to appease Chris’ nerves about going to visit Mr. and Mrs. Armitage, and the way they might react to seeing their white daughter with an African American man.

But Chris’ apprehensions begin to manifest themselves in ways that are so blatant it’s hard to believe Peele isn’t being too imaginative in the early going; he’s putting a microphone on a portion of American society that holds universal prejudices as unacknowledged as they are offensive.

Leave it to Peele – who, in a way, has been preparing this movie for years through his work on “Key and Peele” – to take the filter off that engrained prejudice, before taking the film to unexpected and crowd-pleasing extremes.

Peele isn’t tongue-in-cheek about the subject matter; he goes all in, beginning with an expertly-directed single-take prologue sequence that bluntly foreshadows the territory “Get Out” will eventually veer into. If subtle social statements in film are winks, “Get Out” is 90 minutes of cattle-prodding to the gut.

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The film is strongest when it goes all out on its horror and comedic elements. In one early sequence, Rose introduces Chris to multiple very privileged white men who don’t hold back on their impressions of him. “Black is in fashion,” one proclaims to Chris, before he tries to find solace in the only other Black people in sight. He soon comes to realize there is something off about that demeanor as well, making him stick out in ways that are uber-uncomfortable.

“Get Out” is suspenseful in ways we’ve seen countless times before, but Peele has such a talent for interweaving searing, smart satire wherever he can that there are several moments that invite both feelings of tension and laughter.

It’s a bit hard, early on, to discern the right moments to do either, but the audience will know soon enough when to fully play into the joke.

The film also works for those who don’t watch their movies experiences with an intellectual perspective. “Get Out” stands out as a tight and taut thriller in its own right, with creepily menacing performances that almost get to be too much to bear before LilRel Howery – playing Chris’ best friend, Rod Williams – provides bellylaughs of comic relief.

It’s a testament to Peele’s craft that the film’s satire on assimilation and ostensibly universally-understood cultural divides comes across not as a call to action, but an emphatic wake-up call to the social situations of those that we might not even not we are marginalizing.

And it makes those statements in a way that is so universally entertaining, that the real horror might just lie in those messages not being recognized at all, until we place it in the context of our own lives and, potentially, our own prejudice

 

“Get Out” is rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references. 

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Directed by Jordan Peele

2017

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Review: “Lego Batman” is endlessly funny, sweetly sincere

 

Perhaps Hollywood really is at the point where Lego-ified franchises understand their characters better than their grounded, live-action counterparts. “The Lego Batman Movie” certainly makes that case.

And if we are at that point, moviegoers had best get comfortable with seeing more and more of their favorite cinematic icons get the brick treatment, if these films continue to be as smart as they are hilarious. If the success of last year’s “Deadpool” relied on taking jabs at itself, “Lego Batman” is a total onslaught of self-deprecating humor.

The concept would have been ridiculed a few years ago, yet here we are. Nine years after receiving the best big-screen version of the Bat in “The Dark Knight,” and less than a year removed from washing the sour taste of “Batman v. Superman” out of our mouths, we have the delightful and delightfully self-aware “Lego Batman Movie.”

A spinoff of a breakout character from the breakout animated hit from 2014, “Lego Batman” is hyper, overattentive little brother to “The Lego Movie,” a whirlwind of everything that universe has to offer (and indeed, beyond the realm of DC Comics) that dares to step out from its big brother’s shadow.

A year after being confused and frustrated by “Batman v. Superman,” “Lego Batman” comes along and shows that some in Hollywood still understand the brooding superhero.

As much for adults as it is for children in both humor (a surprising amount of which is very mature) and substance, “Lego Batman” dwells on the lonely aspect of the hero’s life – the quiet contrast to the colorful high of fighting Gotham crime. With his own theme song to boot, of course (though it’s nowhere near as euphoric as “Everything Is Awesome”).

The film boasts an incredible array of actors lending their voices, including Will Arnett as Batman, Michael Cera as the innocent and untested Robin, Zach Galifianakis as a creepily sentimental Joker, and, in a particularly entertaining “cameo,” Siri as the Batcave’s computer.

They all perform to charming effect, even when there seems to be so much happening that it’s hard to catch some of the most memorable one-liners. This movie is chock-full of them, but so much of its success relies on the endless stream of Easter eggs and references that it never feels like its overbloated with them.

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You don’t have to be world’s biggest Batman fan to catch them, either. There are jokes for fans who are only familiar with the most recent films, the entire universe, and everything in between The film doesn’t discriminate, and it demands multiple viewings to catch all the gags.

You’d probably want to watch a second time anyway, that’s how charming the movie is. Though perhaps not as contemplative as “The Lego Movie,” “Lego Batman” is just as fun, and even more bombastic. The less you know about the plot – especially the constantly surprising third act – the better the experience will be.

Arnett’s Batman is 100 percent aware of how awesome and fun he can be; in other words, he’s completely in on the joke. The movie embraces the character’s history in that way.

Even before we see anything on the screen, as Batman proclaims in a darkened theater that “All important movies start with a black screen,” we know we’re in on it too. And it’s a wonderful joke to be a part of – sincere, thrilling and oh so awesome.

 

“The Lego Batman Movie” is rated PG for rude humor and some action 

Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

Directed by Chris McKay

2017

 

Why ‘Moonlight’ deserves Best Picture over ‘La La Land’

To say it hasn’t already won the hearts of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences – and the movie scene in general – with its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations would feel like a false statement.

But if history has anything to say about it, a victory for “La La Land” in the Best Picture race isn’t a total lock. Cinephiles will remember last year, when it seemed the Leonardo DiCaprio-Alejandro Iñárritu vehicle “The Revenant” had all the momentum, before the journalism drama “Spotlight” stole Oscar gold in the biggest category.

“La La Land” is critically revered and audience-adored, and viewing it through the scope as a tribute to classic Hollywood, it would be a risky gamble to bet against it as the film the Academy names the best of the year on Feb. 26.

But here’s a case for the movie that very well surprise everyone on Oscar Night; at least, those who haven’t experienced it yet. Whether the Academy recognizes it as such or not, “Moonlight” – the $1.5 million indie project by Barry Jenkins that explores masculinity and identity in crack-riddled Miami – is the best picture of the year. And it deserves to be named the Best Picture of the year.

It isn’t that seemingly every element in “Moonlight” works so perfectly and cohesively that it feels like living, breathing poetry.

It isn’t that the film – somewhat miraculously, seemingly effortlessly – makes three very different, very unknown actors portraying one character legitimately feel like one person at three different stages of his life, a la Boyhood without the gimmick.

It isn’t that (well, ok, it’s a tiny bit this) honoring “Moonlight” as the year’s best film would serve as a stamp of recognition of its masterful nature, on a night when it will be very difficult for the drama to pick up Oscar gold in anything outside of the Best Supporting Actor race for Mahershala Ali.

It’s the fact that, while it’s so easy to watch “La La Land” and imagine it taking place in the ‘50s if you remove the iPhones, “Moonlight” is so completely in tune with its time and place and setting. Even as it takes place more around the turn of the century, its subject matter couldn’t be more simultaneously relevant and timeless.

In an age when historical dramas and Hollywood-worshipping throwbacks have become synonymous with Oscar bait, “Moonlight” instead represents something so different, so inherently human in its intimacy and relative small-scale nature that it’s almost a wonder it was recognized by the Academy at all.

The story of Chiron over three distinct phases of his life isn’t an easy watch, but a substantial part of that is because it’s made in a way that we haven’t seen very much before in film, if at all. It’s a hauntingly beautiful portrait of urban America, one that it seems we’ve been waiting on for a long time, like a distant stretch of land that we can see for years from the ocean before we final reach its lush shores.

There’s extremely little dialogue in “Moonlight,” probably as much over its entire running time as the first 30 minutes of “La La Land.” When characters do speak, Jenkins’ screenplay makes every word count, but it’s the long looks between them that speak volumes more the subject matter than any movie not from the silent film era.

Whereas “La La Land” tells a story of big dreams and the sacrifices we take to reach them in the brightest of lights, “Moonlight” contemplates much more basic urges, ones that are almost primal in their longing to answer a simple question: Who am I? And it does so without wasting nary a single frame, each beautiful shot as engrossing as anything conjured up by Damien Chazelle.

At a time when, on a political and social level, so much is being made about identity, sexuality, masculinity, and the interweaving of the three, “Moonlight” simply screams 2017, in its art and in its spirit. And it does so much in the same way “Pulp Fiction” is associated by so many with 1994, “The Social Network” earnestly captured the early 2000s, and “E.T.” the paranoid, childlike wonder of the ‘70s.

None of those won Best Picture, either.

Review: In “Lion,” an adopted Indian man searches for his family

If “Lion” was a work of complete fiction, there’s no doubt it would invite skepticism over its unbelievable plot.

The fact that this – a story about an Indian boy, Saroo, losing his family and finding them again decades later as a grown man – is a true story is astounding enough in its own right. But Garth Davis doesn’t simply rely on immense emotional appeal for his feature directorial debut. He works to make the climax as satisfying as possible, via two hours of compelling and superbly-written narrative that certainly earns its place in the Best Picture race.

Chief among the things that elevate “Lion” from good to great is the decision to make the story linear, when it could have been told through flashbacks that would have detracted from its magnitude.

And one of the reasons that works so well is the casting of Sunny Pawar, the result of auditioning reportedly 4,000 boys for the role of young Saroo who finds himself hundreds of miles from home after falling asleep on a train. Pawar is unexpectedly incredible in the role, the cries for his family as heart-wrenching as the hopeless face he adopts after wandering around Calcutta for weeks.

Simply put, his performance is more evidence that it’s perhaps time to seriously think about including a Best Child Performance in the Academy Awards.

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There’s little dialogue in this portion of “Lion,” a decision that Davis said was influenced by the poetic first act of Pixar’s “Wall•E.”

Instead, Luke Davies’ work behind the camera paints an intensely morose picture of young Saroo’s plight. The audience gets a sense of India’s vast spaces and even more vast oceans of people, as well as just how much bigger Calcutta would have seemed to a young, lost Saroo.

Eventually Saroo is placed in an orphanage, through which he would eventually be adopted by Sue and John Brierley, an Australian family looking to make a better life for one of India’s tens of thousands of children that go missing every year.

Saroo grows into a motivated young man played by Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame, having taken on the accent of his adoptive family. When a particular detail of his childhood finds its way into Saroo’s life – despite the presumed cultural and geographic barriers – he begins to obsess over finding his family, though it’s a slow internal mission that he initially rejects.

It’s at this point in “Lion” that it becomes thematically compelling, with Davis exploring Saroo’s mindset of someone torn by the guilt of separating himself from his family and struggling to justify calling Australia home when he increasingly sees his Indian brother everywhere he goes.

The film’s cohesiveness also falters a bit in this middle act. While we feel like we are with Saroo at every pivotal point of his life as a lost boy not knowing which way to go to return home, there isn’t as much of that connective tissue with Patel’s Saroo.

In one scene he is satisfied with his decision to not try and find his family, and seemingly not much time later he has quit his job, a man struggling with his identity while falling asleep on Google Earth trying to find whatever landmarks he can to create a virtual route home.

It doesn’t detract too much from the film, though. Patel and Rooney Mara (playing the part of Saroo’s girlfriend who pushes him to find his family) turn in great performances. Nicole Kidman is particularly powerful as Saroo’s adoptive mother, no doubt channeling a certain part of herself in the role – Kidman herself is an adoptive mother, which allowed her to bond with the real-life Sue Brierley.

Kidman’s might be the most praiseworthy performance of “Lion,” although the aforementioned Pawar gives her a legitimate run for her money as he carries the film’s first 50 minutes or so

The profound impact of watching “Lion” lies in Davis choosing to tell a very raw, emotional and – in some ways – straightforward story. He doesn’t invent the wheel in regards to how to tell a story, but he knows the story he wants to tell. Most importantly, he knows its an intimate one, already powerful in its conclusion.

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It lends to the majesty of “Lion” that it isn’t exactly dripping with optimism, the story also dealing with the complex relationships that come with adoption.

But what the story lacks as a bursting fountain of positivity in its middle act, its final 20 or so minutes make up for in total, unabashed catharsis, like safely letting out the deepest of breaths in an unfamiliar atmosphere. It’s a spectacular final act, the accentuation on the audience’s initial investment.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Lion” is its juxtaposition of a pixelated India on Google Earth versus the very real, endless landscapes we witness early on. But even more than simply a parable about the power of technology, “Lion” is a believable testimony to the resolve of Saroo, a rare happy ending to a very real hell for millions of Indian children.

It forces us to rethink what we may think of as being culturally isolated, and does so with a roaring sense of timelessness.

 

“Lion” is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and some sensuality. 

Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar

Directed by Garth Davis

2016

Review: Final installment of ‘Resident Evil’ as brainless as its zombies

It’s a bit of a miracle that we got to six “Resident Evil” movies.

The brainless, faithless adaptation of the hugely popular videogames set the bar low with its first entry in 2002, but it would only be downhill from there.

With “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter,” it’s more of the same that we’ve been getting for 15 years – messy narratives, recycled action, and an almost complete lack of fun. The film’s title alone suggests a long-overdue sense of finality, the last gasps of a forgettable series just waiting to be put down once and for all.

In a movie where seemingly every element is a letdown, the script is the most frustrating weakness. Despite the series being at a point where the only filled seats in the theater are the same people who have been there since the start, “The Final Chapter” begins with an excruciating amount of exposition recapping the series thus far. It’s little more than a montage that’s not far from Prezi-level quality.

From there on, there is little logic to be found for an hour and 40 minutes. That’s especially true when it comes to the film’s big baddies; they aren’t the film’s undead (though there’s plenty of that as well), but they might as well be just as brainless with how many easy passes they seem to give Alice and company. It’s like they’re begging for their plan to be halted.

Which might work in a different context, but not here. An incredible forced revelation in the final act doesn’t help the proceedings. It’s a horribly executed attempt to get any semblance of empathy out of the audience. Instead it borders on self-parody.

In many ways, it seems like the overarching problem with this “Resident Evil” entry, and the series as a whole, is that it takes itself much too seriously. But it’s hard to justify even that excuse when there is no semblance of cohesive story.

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In retrospect, most fans probably aren’t making it out to a “Resident Evil” film in 2017 for the story anyway, rather looking for mindless action and bombastic set pieces connected by the thinnest threads that logic can provide.

But “The Final Chapter” underwhelms in that vein too. The action sequences – which range from fighting zombies to zombie dogs to zombie-bat-pterodactyl creations – are so poorly directed that they feel like leftovers, a cache of deleted scenes from prior “Resident Evil” movies.

The camerawork is headache-inducing, the CGI downright cheap, and the sound editing…I refuse to believe there was any sound “editing” involved. From a technical standpoint, the movie is nails-on-a-chalkboard bad.

One would have thought that Paul W.S. Anderson – who has written the previous five films, and directed three of those, as well as “The Final Chapter” – would have decided enough is enough with the mediocrity.

Right up to its truly insufferable ending, the series never figured out what its identity was – should he have focused on compelling stories or an innovative visual aesthetic? Because “Resident Evil” was never going to be both.

The fact that the series almost never truly lies in the realm of horror was perhaps the strongest sign early on of prolonged disappointment. But refusing to ever truly be movies made for the fans is the lasting legacy of “Resident Evil,” if history ever grants it that distinction of being remembered beyond February.

 

“Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” is rated R for sequences of violence throughout

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Iain Glen, Ali Larter, Shawn Roberts

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

2016