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Get Out

February 24, 2017
Get Out

Jordan Peele is best known for comedy, as part of the duo Key and Peele, but he’s been interested in horror as well. And so he makes his directorial debut with Get Out, a Stepford Wives-inflected commentary on race relations that has already earned Peele a place among the great horror directors.

The story follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) as he drives out of the city with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet the rest of her family. He admits that he’s nervous, but she assures him that her parents are far from racist. And on the surface her parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), seem perfectly kind and welcoming to Chris. Her brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is a jerk, but so it is with brothers.

Still, they’ve got a black housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and a black groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson). Dean says he knows how it looks, but he brought them on to help care for his ailing parents, and they grew so close to the family that he still keeps them on. Something in that doesn’t quite ring true, but it’s only the beginning of the creepy groundwork that Peele lays down.

A background in comedy translates very well to horror. Both genres rely on nailing a certain rhythm, and the ability to lead an audience’s attention around, guiding their assumptions to just the right point so you can upend them at just the right moment. And Peele pulls this off like he’s been directing horror for years. He builds up ideas subtly, only occasionally nudging them just enough to make sure they stick.

Of course, the other marker of Peele’s comedy work with Keegan-Michael Key has been their biting social commentary, wrapped in the velvet glove of commentary. But he’s no less incisive when using horror tropes to get at similar ideas. In certain ways, this genre works better, like when talking about the sense of dread a black person might feel around overbearing white folks, clueless about their “benevolent” racism. And he finds overtones absent from the Stepford Wives inspiration; Chris fears not only losing his will, but losing his very Blackness from too-close association with too many white people.

This point is heavily underlined by Chris’ contact with his friend, Rod (Lil Rel Howery). Within the genre, he serves as the “outside friend” who can come to the aid of the stranded victim. But he also serves as a second culture for Chris, who code-switches between his white-parents voice and his black-friend voice, with his white-girlfriend voice landing somewhere in between. In fact, one of the creepier notes is the way that Georgina and Walter don’t similarly switch when alone with Chris, and it’s creepier still to see an ultra-white affect from a cameo by Keith Stanfield.

Even this just scratches the surface of Peele’s thematic commentary, while avoiding things that might veer into the territory of spoilers. This is a legitimately great horror movie working through legitimately real fears. The only thing holding it back for me is that while I’m aware of them, they’re not fears I personally live with. But even if it’s not made for me, I can still see the greatness in it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Kedi

February 24, 2017
Kedi

Oh, to be a cat in Istanbul. Hip kitten lovers in America are just lately coming on board with the Japanese idea of “cat cafes,” where you can watch furry felines frolic as you sip your soy latte. But cats have run freely throughout the Turkish metropolis for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They show up in a number of local stories about the Prophet, leading to a certain reverence from the largely Muslim population. It may not quite be the same treatment as cows get in Hindu countries, but the feral cats have integrated into the life of the city in a truly remarkable way.

And, well, that’s about all the facts you can really say about the story without getting drily academic or stretching to make it fit a larger scope. In her documentary, Kedi, director Ceyda Torun avoids drawing heavy-handed conclusions. Despite its urban setting, this is at heart a nature documentary, studying a population of animals living as they do few other places on Earth.

Obviously in the United States and Europe, we don’t tend to let cats have the run of the place, except within our own houses. Street cats are rounded up and sent off to shelters, likely to be put down. In less-developed parts of the world, cats are left alone, but also left to fend for themselves, as any other urban wildlife might. But in Istanbul, the cats occupy a strange middle ground, making homes and alliances with the human residents, but never quite becoming pets, as such.

Torun chooses seven cats to profile, following them to what extent she can, and talking with the people who are acquainted with each one. Some, like Sarı or Bengü, are mothers and providers. Others, like Aslan Parçası, are fierce ratters who earn their keep by keeping pests away from the neighborhood fish restaurant. There’s even Psikopat, whose name barely needs translation to hint at her demeanor.

Cats, one of the people muses, are aware of the existence of God. While dogs view people as divine providers, even pet cats seem to realize people’s place in the world, and are not content with mere obedience. The implications for the age-old schism between “cat people” and “dog people” are left to the audience. For the most part, little mention is made of those of the other persuasion.

Instead, most of the film is spent in the calmness that comes while petting a cat. To interact with a creature so familiar, and yet so alien, lends itself to contemplation. The tendency to anthropomorphize and project our own human stories onto the cats is overwhelming, and what we see in them is as likely a reflection of ourselves. The people Torun interviews talk about the cats, but they tell us about the city itself. It’s a charmingly oblique way to get at the soul of this culture, itself straddling two worlds.

Of course, it’s easily possible to ignore all of this search for depth, and just treat it as a movie about a bunch of cute kitties, which is likely how most people will receive it. Go in fairly warned that your fellow audience members are likely to burst out into spontaneous coos and other affectionate noises. And go on and let some out yourself. For this movie, at least, don’t take it — or yourself — quite so seriously. The cats certainly don’t.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.

Rock Dog

February 24, 2017
Rock Dog

Heading in, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be much to Rock Dog. To be honest, the same is true coming out. But as slight as it is, the story is sweet and it never quite tips over into cinematic junk food the way many churned-out animated features can.

Based on the graphic novel Tibetan Rock Dog by Chinese rock start Zheng Jun, the movie follows Bodi (Luke Wilson), a Tibetan mastiff who falls in love with rock music and moves to the big city to chase his dream. Of course, this being a rock story, his dad, Khampa (J.K. Simmons), doesn’t understand, and wants him to stay on Snow Mountain guarding the sheep. But, with some gentle advice from the town’s resident yak, Fleetwood (Sam Elliott), he lets Bodi make a go of it.

Which then leads into the second story arc, as Bodi looks for a band. He meets bassist fox Darma (Mae Whitman) and drummer goat Germur (Jorge Garcia) in a park where aspiring rockers hang out and practice. But their guitarist snow leopard Trey (Matt Dillon) is having nothing of this rube from the sticks and messes with the dopey, eager-to-please dog’s head. After a quick “shred-off” humiliation, he points Bodi in the direction of the arrogant and reclusive rock legend Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard).

And that’s the third story: Angus just happens to be Bodi’s idol, but he lives alone in a giant mansion and hates visitors. He’d just shoo Bodi away — indeed, he tries to at first — but he owes his record label a new single, and he thinks maybe the dog can help with overcome his writer’s block.

Oh, and then there’s the pack of wolves, led by Linnux (Lewis Black), who seem to operate like organized crime within the city, but also have a long-standing desire to invade Snow Mountain and feast on the sheep who live there. But to date they’ve been held at bay by Khampa’s efforts, which brings the stories full circle. Linnux sends his henchman, Riff (Kenan Thompson) to kidnap Bodi and find out something that will help them take the village.

Any one of these arcs could provide the core of a fine little movie, and a pair of them could probably play nicely off of each other. But doing justice to all four would be difficult in any feature, and Rock Dog clocks in at a slim eighty minutes. It feels overstuffed with plot, but none of the plots feel very developed.

Bodi and Darma seem like they’re meant to have some sort of proto-romantic arc, but we don’t see enough of them together for that to get off the ground. We never see the roots of Angus’ isolation, which might give more weight to his interactions with Bodi. Even the wolves’ motivations seem haphazard; how do their designs on Snow Mountain fit with their business interests in the city? What’s so special to them about Snow Mountain?

All of these questions might, of course, be addressed in the longer form in Zheng’s graphic novel. But fitting four major plots and nearly a dozen characters into a single movie seems an impossible task.

On the other hand, Rock Dog doesn’t fall back on lazy sterotyping to develop its characters and pander to a young audience’s preconceptions. The personalities and situations are canned, sure, but they never seem to reduce a character to a demographic caricature, and that’s not nothing. The lessons are doggerel that any adult in the audience has heard a hundred times before, but none of them come packaged with problematic baggage that the screenwriters haven’t properly though through. The humor is broad and easy, but it’s never propped up by pop culture references or catchphrases, nor overly reliant on scatological references.

In fact, about the only questionable decision is a gag where Angus yells at Bodi, while the horns of passing cars drown out a couple saltier words. It will likely sail over the heads of kids who don’t already get it, so I wouldn’t be terribly worried. But it does come as a surprise in a movie that’s otherwise so benign.

With nothing much to offer adult companions, Rock Dog is hardly an instant classic. The Huayi Brothers have a ways to go before their animation offerings can truly compete with the likes of Disney and Pixar. But there are definitely worse movies out there you could show your kids.

Worth It: yes, for kids.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

A Cure for Wellness

February 17, 2017
A Cure for Wellness

Oh boy, has this one split the film community. Gore Verbinski’s return after the awful Lone Ranger is a lush, gorgeous nightmare shot by Verbinski’s Ring cinematographer, Bojan Bazelli. At it’s core a retelling of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg by way of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the lurid and gory giallo elements seem to repulse more mainstream audiences. But to a fan of the genre, this is a fine modern entry, though it falls short in its more intellectual aspirations.

As in Mann’s novel, we follow a young man on a visit to a sanitarium in the Swiss alps. But Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is not visiting a beloved cousin; he’s an emissary from a rapacious multinational corporation sent by the board to retrieve their missing CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener). Initially turned away, he returns to the village below to report back, but on the way his car hits a deer and goes off the road. He wakes up with his leg in a cast, urged to relax and recover at the sanitarium along with the other patients, and of course to drink plenty of the water drawn from deep under the mountain.

Of course, the place is obviously creepy. Lockhart finds something microscopic wriggling in the water, echoing the maggots from Suspiria, and we know right away that we can’t trust head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs). The sensational rumors Lockhart hears about the place’s history will obviously tie into whatever’s going on now, but again this is par for the course in a giallo flick.

Still, it’s only natural to want this to be more of a mystery, and it seems like that would play better into the attempt to recreate Mann’s critique of modernism. Lockhart’s corporation provides an easy target, since we’re already trained to find companies like that amoral at best. What if the story played out more like The Stepford Wives? seemingly idyllic on the surface only to reveal a dark underbelly later, after it has begun to seduce the protagonist. But there is no seduction here; Lockhart hates the place from the get-go, and his interactions with the mysterious young resident Hannah (Mia Goth) serve less to draw him in than to steel his resolve to get her out along with Pembroke.

Justin Haythe’s script is also less than coherent in its translation of Mann’s critique. The idea survives that the modern, late-capitalist world has redefined “health” as a state of sickness and need in order to drive ever-greater engagement with a system that needs consumers to exist. It’s right in the title, after all. But by painting both Lockhart’s corporation — not to mention his childhood — and the sanitarium as grim and inhumane, it fails to make a clear point. It’s possible that Haythe and Verbinski want to go beyond Mann: to admit the failures of modernism but paint his criticism as a regressive non-solution. But even if that’s the case, the movie is too bogged down in squicky episodes to really make the point clearly.

Then again, the genius of Rango aside, deep ideas have never really been Verbinski’s strong suit as a filmmaker. Striking imagery has been, and A Cure for Wellness has that in spades. The movie never misses a chance to veer off into weirdness for its own sake. Someone has to be left too long in an isolation tank, so let’s make the attendant’s distraction as outré as possible. A plot point requires someone to have an unexpected menstrual period, but a cloud of blood in a swimming pool is so much more striking than a simple mark on her bedsheets.

It’s these wonderfully weird moments that make up for the movie’s conceptual shortcomings and its sometimes confusing plot, just as the spectacle of Dario Argento’s imagination made up for stories that would be laughable around a campfire. And Verbinski’s visual talent backed by Regency’s money can pull them off with production values that Spettacoli could only ever dream of.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Great Wall

February 17, 2017
The Great Wall

Long before The Great Wall came close to release, plenty of ink was spilled in outrage over casting the white Matt Damon in a fantasy action flick about the Great Wall of China holding back an army of literal monsters. That point is only partly helped by observing that this is a Chinese-financed production directed by Zhang Yimou, and the business case is that Chinese audiences won’t show up these days without a big-name American (read, “white or Dwayne Johnson”) star as an anchor. It’s kinda racist, but it’s Chinese racism, but they imported it from us in the first place.

It’s all kind of a mess on paper, but when you look at the movie itself they actually came up with a good excuse for it. Damon’s character may resemble a “white savior” enough to get American audiences to the multiplex, but in practice he’s less an example of that trope than a skilled barbarian who learns the superior (i.e. Chinese) way. The story might be a mess with six named western writers, but it has the fingerprints of the Chinese State Media all over it. The last time I saw a genre pic set up as such a naked allegory of east-Asian communism was, well, Pulgasari.

Specifically, Damon plays William Garin, a western mercenary traveling to China in search of black powder weapons that would give him a decisive edge in his European campaigns. He and his Spaniard companion, Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), are on the run from Mongolian tribesmen when they run into some monstrous thing that William manages to defeat. Or, at least, de-foot. The next day, with the tribesmen back on their trail, they run into the Great Wall, and decide it’s better to surrender to the Chinese than surely die at the hands of the Mongols.

The wall, they learn from Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), was built to keep out the ravenous Tao Tie horde, lizard-like monsters that take their directions from a central queen. They attack every sixty years, getting stronger and smarter each time, and if they managed to capture the millions living in the Chinese capital they’d have the resources to spread over the entire world. So it’s not just China, but all of humanity that the wall is defending against greedy forces that exist only to consume and destroy (hint, hint).

And the Chinese armies are there to defend the wall with all the usual modes — legions of foot-soldiers in black armor, banks of archers in red, and of course the bungee-lancers in blue — backed up with flaming catapults and other secret tricks built into the wall itself. Of course the Chinese general (Zhang Hanyu) doesn’t want the westerners to leave and take their secret technology with him. The last European to come seeking black powder twenty-five years ago (Willem Dafoe) is even still here, though he quickly starts hatching escape plans with the two newcomers.

Of course, from the movie’s perspective, escape a very western thing to do. It puts the self first and betrays trust in one’s compatriots. Naturally, William comes to understand this and begins to work with the collective rather than for his own profit. He’s very skilled, yes, but he puts that skill to the service of the defense effort, and it’s easy to imagine success without him. The most decisive element he brings is almost an accident; the Chinese could have worked it out on their own if he hadn’t shown up.

Still, that idea is about a cùn deep. The real movie is in the action, which here is aggressively okay. The battle sequences have lots of moving pieces, as you might expect from the man who brought you the opening and closing ceremonies from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but the effect is less impressive with CGI armies than with real human dancers. And after the first couple they start to wear off. Thankfully the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome, but it easily could if it went on much longer.

It’s interesting to see what a studio system dominated by still nominally-Maoist state does with the tropes of the CGI blockbuster, but there’s just not very much else going on here. It’s pretty, which helps, but lacks the truly striking visionary style of, say, Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, another one that aimed at dumb-but-fun and landed a lot closer to that mark. Damon’s role isn’t as offensive as people feared, but that doesn’t make this one worth seeking out.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The LEGO Batman Movie

February 10, 2017
The LEGO Batman Movie

After the genius that Phil Miller and Chris Lord brought to the screen with The LEGO Movie, a follow-up was inevitable, if only to get a good return on the investment in developing the brick-animation software. Miller and Lord may have passed on directorial duties to their animator Chris McKay, and writing to a team headed by Seth Grahame-Smith, but The LEGO Batman Movie pulls off something close to that same mixture of smart and zany that made The LEGO Movie such a joy.

And while it may not have the wide-ranging scope and out-of-left-field twist of its predecessor, The LEGO Batman Movie does something that’s been needed for a long time: it disassembles the Batman myth. So to speak.

For a long time now, Batman has replaced Superman at the top of the DC totem pole, in part because he’s a lot more adaptable to the “grimdark” aesthetic that many comics have adopted in order to reassure a physically-aging but emotionally-stunted fan base that it’s still okay to read comics. I mean, heaven forfend a grown-up like something silly and fun for once. It seems hard to imagine now, but Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was seen as a dark turn, and it’s a giant party next to Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not to mention Zack Snyder’s DCEU version of the character. The push has gone so far in that direction that even Superman has to go dark and gritty.

I’d say that this all covers up the fact that the character is himself, at heart, an overgrown, emotionally-stunted man-child. Except it doesn’t cover that up at all; the grimdark Batman positively revels in it, turning “I have unresolved daddy issues” from an admission at the outset of recovery to an excuse for all kinds of antisocial behavior. They couldn’t have picked a better spokesman for that particular marketing push. And fine, if people want that sort of thing they can have it, but as we’re seeing in the DCEU it’s become a cancer that metastasizes into other properties, as if this is the only way for superhero stories to be.

Some of this, ironically, originated in Alan Moore’s attempts in Watchmen to examine superhero stories critically. He tried to shine a light on the darkness that was already living inside any attempt to fuse superhero stories with realism, but the genre responded by pouting that it liked the darkness. The LEGO Batman Movie tries the other tack: since Batman is such a perfect mirror for the sort of batfan who insists that this is actually the best version of a superhero story, let’s just show how ridiculous and immature that position is.

And indeed, this Batman (Will Arnett) is his own biggest fan. Everything comes back to him, and everything he does is awesome. But he lives alone on a literal island, sharing the cavernous Wayne Manor only with his long-suffering guardian, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). He’s so insistent on remaining aloof that he won’t even admit to having a special — if antagonistic — relationship with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis).

But that starts to change when Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) takes over for her father as police commissioner in Gotham City, and right off the bat she writes off the Bat. He’s been doing this forever, and crime is still awful. As of course it must be for the myth to continue; the script of a kids’ movie obviously doesn’t go into this, but Batman is an essentially fascistic figure, invested more in the continual struggle than any sense of progress. Sounds oddly familiar, come to think of it.

Batman responds to this criticism the way he must: by throwing a tantrum. It only gets worse when the Joker and the rest of the rogues’ gallery surrender themselves, leaving him with nothing to do but care for his accidentally-adopted ward, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). And so he acts out by stealing the Phantom Zone projector from Superman, breaking Joker out of Arkham Asylum to send him away with the worst villains of all time. Which, naturally, is just what Joker wanted; we can’t break all the tropes, can we?

Of course, doing all this in the LEGO context helps us see how ridiculous this all is, and also how fun it can be when you stop worrying about whether your stories are acceptably “grown-up” enough to enjoy. It also provides the exact sort of distance that’s missing in more “serious” treatments of the character, which get so close to him that they forget how silly the whole idea is to treat him realistically in the first place.

For all my criticism about how the character has been used recently, I’m far from opposed to Batman. But he’s better as an icon, not an ideal; he stands for the ways we end up hurting ourselves when we don’t allow other people in, and for the toxicity of traditional masculinity taken to its extreme. The LEGO Batman Movie recognizes that he’s a warning, not a role model, and does its best to take this myth apart for the kids it speaks to.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

John Wick: Chapter 2

February 10, 2017
John Wick: Chapter 2

When the first John Wick came out, it was a revelation: some of the cleanest, clearest action filmmaking ever. Not just in the impeccable choreography and the relatively staid choice of camera technique to capture it all as beautifully as possible, but the marvelous efficiency of storytelling through action. Once it got going, the action never had to stop to explain things for more than a minute or so. A whole secret society of hitmen centered on the Continental hotel spilled out without giant chunks of exposition. If I were in charge of the series, it would have continued the story around the hotel, moving to a different character’s tale each time, and maybe calling back to or even including earlier movies’ leads as supporting characters in each other’s stories.

But of course, John Wick is played by Keanu Reeves, and there’s no way the studio is going to sideline a moneymaker like him, so we’ve got John Wick: Chapter 2. It retains the stylish aesthetic of the first movie, and advances the hyperviolence — even pushing into the realm of gore — but sacrifices the techniques that really set John Wick apart from the crowd. What remains is still a good action movie, but it’s a James Bond flick plus blood splatter.

True to that Bond form, it starts off with a big set-piece, continuing from the previous film. Wick leads a one-man assault on a chop-shop to recover his car from the brother of the Russian crime boss from last time. Fifteen onscreen minutes later, the brother is the only person left alive in the place, and John returns the wreck of his car to his house in New Jersey. He re-buries his suit and weapons in the basement, intending to return to his retirement.

But of course then we wouldn’t have a movie. Soon he receives a visit from Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). John bought his retirement by giving Santino a marker. Since he came back to take down the Tarasovs, Santino wants to call it in. When John refuses, Santino blows up his house.

Winston (Ian McShane), manager at the Continental, says there’s nothing to be done. Markers must be honored, after all. So John agrees to do what Santino asks: murder his sister, Gianna, so Santino can take her place at the High Table, a sort of international crime syndicate. So John leaves his nameless dog with the Continential’s concierge (an underused Lance Reddick), heads to Rome, and re-equips himself for the mission ahead.

And this all looks great. The gear-up scene uses a series of stylish Q analogues, and the infiltration into the D’Antonio palace is very pretty. But all told it’s forty solid minutes of exposition, putting the pieces in place and explaining explaining explaining about the world rather than showing us through action what we need to know.

After Gianna is finally dead, John must escape, targeted by both her chief bodyguard (Common) and Santino’s own (Ruby Rose), since a man who had his sister killed can’t leave any loose ends. From there it’s ten minutes up and ten down, constantly dragging out story and exposition rather than getting back to the action, until the longer closing sequence.

And for all the style on display in the costume and set design, the action mostly falls short of the beautiful work from the previous movie. The first half of the closing sequence is the closest match to the full-body, wide-angle work that John Wick used to such marvelous effect, and when former-stuntman director Chad Stahelski gets it, he really gets it. Most of the other sequences are closer, bumpier work that doesn’t quite tip over into chaotic territory, but definitely moves in that direction. Other than the sprays of blood, it’s the sort of thing you can see in plenty of other action movies.

I give credit that at least each one has a clear concept. There’s the car battle, the catacombs battle, the close-in knife fight, and the “creative” battle where they pull out the goriest bits alluded to when characters tell each other the legends of the Boogeyman John Wick. The most stylish has to be the hall-of-mirrors battle, which shows off cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s technical chops, but conceptually it’s more psychological cat-and-mouse than action, and psychology is far from John Wick‘s strong suit.

Still, all this is not to say that Chapter 2 is bad per se; it’s just not as good as the first one. But then, when you set the bar so high out of the gate, it’s hard not to fall short the second time around.

Worth It: yes, if you have a strong stomach.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.