Get Out (2017), the most hyped horror release of the year, emanates from an unlikely source – Jordan Peele of Key and Peele sketch comedy fame. On the basis of this first directorial effort, even though he initially seemed like an unlikely horror maestro, let’s hope he has a bunch more ideas stashed away because I want to see them all.
Peele has talked of being a horror fan and you can see the affection for the genre early on. A bunch of clever allusions to classic horror plant the seeds beautifully for what is to come – the unfriendliness of suburbia, a boarded up basement, psychologists with ominous skills. The film also uses (very clever) jump scares early on to put the viewer firmly on edge. This is very effective because even the ‘straight’ plot that unfurls early still just feels a little off. Adding in these sharp moments of terror only emphasises that feeling. But for all this riffing, the romantic weekend away to meet your girlfriend’s parents feels like a unique setup. Especially given how genuine the relationship between the two leads feels. And the traditional family history aspect to the film’s setup is given a wrinkle when a family anecdote about a beloved grandfather being beaten by an African American sprinter is recalled. The nature of the threat in the film evolves and escalates from a feeling of not being quite welcome, to more overt forms of mental and physical control.
Someone on my facebook posted that they were now scared of white people after watching Get Out. After my initial shock that this person was only now becoming scared of white people, I began to feel that it was a pretty decent distillation of the movie’s thematic concerns. Or concern, because racism (though different dimensions of it) is really the full focus of what is taking place, and there is a whole lot to break down on that level. Peele examines racism in the film in both subtle and more obvious ways. Which is not to say the latter are bad in any way. One of the film’s best sequences is where the film quite directly invokes notions of African Americans being property and the way that racist mindset classically manifested itself. Even just from an optics point of view, the film abounds in scenes of many white people in the frame with a single African American person. In addition, the intersection of class with racism is a focus as the film takes place in a very upper class environment. Here Peele skewers the notion of reverse racism with the most privileged lamenting some perceived physical or societal advantage being held by people of colour generally. The film never stops to make any of these points, nor does Peele needlessly draw attention to them. They are not hidden away but are organic to the story, and frankly organic enough to contemporary society that they never jar.
So much of what Get Out does well is as a result of the script, which juggles a lot of different elements very well. The racial themes are incorporated into and reflected by the plot. And it also brings to life both very grounded and quite supernatural forms of horror, without either jarring. Unsurprisingly the film uses humour well, with some very funny moments lightening the mood but never undermining it or the very real horrors of the film. There’s lots of humour but the film is in no way a comedy. Peele is adept enough behind the camera to scare the viewer in different ways – slow creepiness and visceral fast jump scares accompanied by a burst of noise. Both of these scared the shit out of me at different times, usually accompanied by the incredible atmosphere of the score, which is adept at accentuating the two very different types of horror. The performances across the board are excellent, especially from the leads Daniel Kaluuya and Alison Williams, as well as LilRel Howery as a comedy relief TSA agent. In addition to those, Catherin Keener and Bradley Whitford pull off tricky, key supporting roles as Williams’ Rose’s parents really well.
Verdict: This is an incredible film. A thematically rich riff on classic horror from a voice that feels totally new. It’s also fuckin terrifying, always a good selling point for a horror flick. It’s also one of the first screenings I attended where there was a genuine spontaneous outburst of applause during the film, which was very well earned. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
These just keep getting later and later. February was a veeery up and down month for me. I’m a pretty happy dude, so it’s not often I see 12 films I don’t like. But there was also plenty of stuff that I really dug too, and a really diverse range of cool films too. So hopefully something in here everyone will like.
- Whip It (2009), Drew Barrymore – What a great female ensemble. There are about 10 performances here I love. This film totally kicks ass too, I love it. A nice reimagining of the coming of age story, set in the world of roller derby. So charming. There’s a beautifully drawn romance on top of everything else and Ellen Page has perhaps never been better. So fucking fun and life affirming.
- Masterminds (2016), Jared Hess – Driven by a very funny, focused comedy script. Sticks nicely to the trashy late 90s conceit. Kirsten Wiig is quickly becoming one of my favourite actors. Really well performed by everyone. Kate McKinnon is a delight, though underused. I didn’t even find Galifinakis too painful which is weird. Dig how different the performances are, but they don’t jar when put together. A very fun way to interpret real-life events on screen.
- Fences (2016), Denzel Washington – Quite brilliant. Anchored by three very good performances. Early it feels a little too much like a play, as it is based on. But the central character played by Washington is such a complex one it takes hold. Feels like a deep, specific portrayal of the African American experience. We don’t directly see this play out, just the result. The result is not pretty, likeable or sympathetic. But it’s a product of these roots. The film never gives you an easy read on the character and the entire film swirls around this one deeply flawed individual. A tough watch.
- The Princess and the Frog (2009), Ron Clements & John Musker – A great retelling of a fairy tale, with some nice inverting of traditional Disney princess tropes. A city with a racial divide. Helps there to be a much stronger send of (real) place than is the norm. Feels immersed in New Orleans, with the food, locations and cool songs. Brilliantly repositions Prince Charming to also be the animal sidekick. One of the funnier Disney films. Also has the wonderfully realised camaraderie and joyful supporting characters of the studio’s best. Thankfully never becomes pastiche.
- The Book of Mary (1985), Anne-Marie Mieville – A really clever short film about divorce, but from a kid’s perspective. Different images cut together in a thought provoking way. Smart script that articulates a break-up conversation with realism. A focus on how the kid handles this, acting out like an adult. Also examines how the adults choose to relate to her.
- Pete’s Dragon (2016), David Lowery – A simple film, though at times bold in its choices and bloody beautiful. I love that there is never any doubt that the dragon actually exists. Cool for a family film to feel so deeply rooted in mythos. The CGI creature is integrated into the forest visuals seamlessly. Great exposure for kids to themes of environmentalism, deforestation, land use and ownership of animals. Occasionally there’s some dreary sentimentality and shallowness to the examination of human greed. But overall it’s a cracker.
- Medea (1969), Pier Paolo Pasolini – A funny script with wry performances help to make the labyrinthine, bemusing mythology not a deal breaker. Actually it’s almost a little charming in the end. Great location and imagery like so many of Pasolini’s films. Long stretches of silent, intriguing images as worldbuilding. Stark, lean brutality that sits alongside some almost gaudy costuming. A strange concoction that works somehow. Much of it is the joy in watching how the characters interact with the space. Didn’t really know what was going on a lot of the time. Still really dug it.
- Green Street Hooligans (2005), Lexi Alexander – There are elements here that don’t work – how the Elijiah Wood character enters the scene, contrived tiffs in the group, the family dramas and an annoying voiceover. But the positives outweigh those. Particularly the action which is shot with a great, controlled kineticism. The film is at its best when really steeped in football culture. Charlie Hunnam is really good, has a great presence.
- Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), Hark Tsui – It takes you a little while to adjust to the visual stylings. A comic book vibe. Deeply entrenched style to the film, even in just the way people move. It’s a world of a female empress and magic deer. Radness basically, with a nice note of schlock. Unique fight sequences. Almost a little silly, but at the same time engaging and a weight to them. The performances are all really good. The story is a red herring laced reimagining of the traditional detective narrative structure.
- Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013), Hark Tsui – There’s a really well realised brash cockiness to the way Dee is written here. There is perhaps not enough grounding in story before leaping into the action. Perhaps even more stylised visually than the first. It’s great fun, with a real spark to the performances. More of a sherlocky vibe than the first one – Dee has an unmatched genius and there’s even a Watson type character. Plus there’s the sea monster is awesomely (and originally) designed.
- Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011), Lav Diaz – Probably a good idea for my first exposure to Diaz to be one of his shorter efforts. Endlessly interesting, though even at this length not all that easy to make it through. Use of movement within a static frame is challenging and beautiful. No doubt I missed aspects of this due to my lack of knowledge of Filipino history/politics/culture. Strange conceit – an ethereal figure from the revolution occasionally, but not always, observes events. Haunting at times. Weaving of dreams and reality. The camera lingering on her face as she perhaps comprehends the revolution led to the disappointing modern Phillipines.
- The Ninth Configuration (1980), William Peter Blatty – Delightfully strange. Takes place in an asylum for Vietnam vets housed in an old castle. Heavy influence of dreams. Lots of off-screen voices giving them a disembodied vibe. Stacey Keach is really good. The mix of serious and silly grates for a fair while but grows on you. The nonsense of the patients is actually very well written. Darkly funny, with mania seeping out of the corners of this castle. A slog at times that really comes together. Very much a statement of the impact of the war on soldiers.
- Rams (2015), Grimur Hakonarson – Almost wordless, at least between the humans. Focuses on men with a strong connection to their flocks and the results when that is threatened. As expected with an Icelandic film, every bit of scenery is breathtaking. At times funny in a very wry, dark way with even a hint of absurdism. A very different set of stakes that we are used too as well, just a pack of sheep. But here they are of life and death importance to the characters. Very well acted and quite emotionally challenging. A rather strange mix of pathos, drama and comedy.
Not Worth Watching
- War Dogs (2016), Todd Phillips – I got basically nothing out of this, even though Jonah Hill has really turned into quite the actor. I usually like Teller too, but he’s an empty presence here. The script is kinda crass but too dry to be a rollicking adventure comedy. Also doesn’t really saying anything. Just exists in an average middle ground. Flat. You know where it’s going all along and it’s not fun or exciting getting there.
- Hail Mary (1985), Jean-Luc Godard – Too obtuse. Toying with the allegory and relationship between scientific logic and religion. Choppy and too vigenetty. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the constant biblical references, this feels like a painstakingly crafted piece of meaninglessness. Worthless really and the totally overt correlations by the end are just silly.
- The Wave (2015), Roar Uthaug – Disappointing. The start is promising, with the monitoring of the lake for any signs of seismic activity grounded nicely in science, including invoking a real life event from the early 1900s. Also some cool/terrifying imagery of them checking monitoring equipment literally inside the mountain. But the slow burn goes on too long and is too quiet. There’s not enough plot which impacts on the underdeveloped emotional leaps and the special effects are a little shoddy too. There’s some nice enough stuff in there but pretty underwhelming overall. Also struggle with these film that depict such wanton destruction.
- Central Intelligence (2016), Rawson Marshall Thurber – Anyone, even The Rock, in a fat suit is a bad way to start. And whilst there are some better moments, this is not consistently funny, or engaging on the action front. The Rock’s charisma gets the film so far, but he struggles with the silliness. Just feels too sluggish and it’s a little cringy how little edge there is to the humour.
- A Hologram for the King (2016), Tom Tykwer – Feels like an old-fashioned ‘cultural clash’ comedy. Clunky, almost crass at times. There’s some interesting supporting characters and the love story elements are nice. As is the kind of otherworldly feel to it all. But I found it to be pretty standard white dude at a middle age crossroads type of fare.
- Jackie (2016), Pablo Larrain – A hard one for me. I think structurally it’s disconcertingly put together with the non-linear approach. The journo framing device is hacky too and the script overall delivers little. Portman is undeniably powerful, but the performance is often distractingly full of affectation. Though the boldarse score is a chance that really pays off. Peter Sarsgaard gives the film’s best performance as an incredibly Bobby Kennedy. And as if John Hurt’s death was not crushing enough, he is masterful and complex here. It’s a tough sit. Constantly on a knife’s edge of an explosion of unfathomable grief that never comes.
- Heathers (1988), Michael Lehmann – Another where I loved a lot of aspects of it, but it doesn’t work as a whole. The design is ace. Really interesting sound design and the colour pops. Winona Ryder is utterly excellent too. Feels like she is conveying more than everyone else onscreen. Very much a teen film, with something slightly off, as conveyed through the style. But there’s a Burton style eccentricity here that does not work. And Christian Slater gives a very strange performance as a dreary, hateable character that drags the whole film down. A really gross, totally manipulative dude.
- Tamara Drewe (2010), Stephen Frears – A bummer given how good the graphic novel it’s based on is. Starts off fun with some good insight into the writing process. And even works as a very sad portrait on the state of a marriage. But then it starts to take itself too seriously. Also can’t make the teenager or love triangle elements of the story work as well as the novel. Really tapers off. Feels like there’s no insight beneath the soapy goings on.
- Victor Frankenstein (2015), Paul McGuigan – The Max Landis script is the main issue with this film. Shocker. We are never transported to the time and place of the film. The plot is just tepid and it feels as though there is very little reimagining of Shelley’s novel, with minimal escalation to the events. The atheist riflings that go outside serving the themes of the film are tiresome too. As for the performances, McAvoy has his moments, whilst Daniel Radcliffe is fine though playing a very muddled character.
- Sausage Party (2016), Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon – Fucking awful. A painfully obvious, desperately dull religious satire. Most of the jokes just feel like the crassest thought possible rather than containing any wit. It all feels pretty clumsy. Though there is no denying chewing gum Stephen Hawking is pretty funny.
- The Great Wall (2016), Yimou Zhang – Starts super strong – rollicking awe-inspiring adventure with a bold monster storyline and spectacular visuals. The early extended battle sequence had me giddy with excitement. But it’s all downhill from there. The film slows, I guess in order to tell some story. But it just bores. And Damon’s character gets a little white savioury. A shame that the early promise just totally fizzles out.
- Mad Money (2008), Callie Khouri – Very grounded in the financial crisis. Asks us to care what happens to this rich white woman which is pretty grating. Most interesting on the occasions that it examines the structural elements that impact on Queen Latifah’s character. She is really good, as is Katy Holmes who is really underused. Keaton plays it a little silly and having her as the brains of the operation annoys. As a heist flick it’s lifeless. A bummer, as you could do something interesting with these performers and even these characters.
If you only have time to watch one Whip It
Avoid at all costs Sausage Party