Get Out

Posted May 28, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's best, thriller

getout“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.” Jordan Peele’s political horror movie Get Out, which he describes as a “social thriller,” tells us just how the very rich (and, mostly, very white) are different. This paranoid masterpiece has also been an old-school-style horror success story, earning back many, many times its cost. It hit a nerve; it is also legitimately frightening at times, and deeply funny at others, and always both entertaining and wince-inducing. It is not, perhaps, as radical as some have made it out to be — screen Fight for Your Life or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for such people — but it’s still an electrifying achievement.

Peele reveals himself as an intuitive director early on, when our protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) arrives with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to visit her affluent parents. The parents, we are told before the trip, have not been briefed on Chris’s blackness. They are, we are also assured, the furthest thing from racists. So when they meet Chris, we wonder what subtle tics of anxiety the camera might impart in close-ups. Peele leans away from this trope and shoots the whole scene at an across-the-street distance; we hear the voices, the cloying dadness of Bradley Whitford and the patrician rich-white-lady tones of Catherine Keener. Peele is encouraging us to look beyond appearances and to avoid putting too much weight on visual cues.

The movie will likely play better a second time; Peele must have planted a thousand little Chekhov’s guns, and the performance of one actress in particular, Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid Georgina, almost demands further scrutiny. Georgina and another servant, the oddly spoken Walter (Marcus Henderson), are both black, and Rose’s dad sheepishly acknowledges the problematic optics. Rose’s parents engage in a sort of meta-narrative, commenting on the likely appearance of things as if self-awareness were itself redemptive. It’s a tried and true way of deflecting criticism about privilege.

Get Out ramps up gradually — for the longest time there’s very little blood, a drop here, a headlight smear there — and, as Chris becomes more and more menaced and baffled, the plot rolls inexorably into paranoid sci-fi/horror. Black writers trying to account for white perfidy have from time to time engaged with metaphor or conspiracy-myth; it goes back at least as far as the story of Mr. Yakub. The metaphor-myth Peele creates and parcels out bit by bit has to do with the different style of racism practiced by wealthy white liberals. Peele doesn’t say that underneath outwardly genteel white liberals are racist demons. He says that genteel white liberals can also be racist demons, side by side in one person, one shading into the other. For good measure Peele throws in a Japanese man, who asks Chris if his experience as an African-American has been an advantage or disadvantage.

That detail, like many others in Get Out, has been unpacked in thinkpieces from sea to shining sea. For a while, it was the biggest gotta-see-it-and-talk-about-it movie in too many years. Written during the Obama years, filmed when a female president seemed likely, premiering at Sundance three days into Trump’s presidency, the movie does collide productively with the zeitgeist while never abandoning the story’s more timeless horror elements — the tension of our hero trapped in a ghastly situation. The narrative goes way over the top; anyone still taking the story literally will end up on the side of the road. Metaphor and myth can also power satire, and that’s where Get Out ends up — has been all along, really. For black audiences, the true horrors on the screen are nothing new, except in movies. White liberals take a few hard shots in the chops. It’s not as if we didn’t have it coming.

Logan

Posted May 21, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book, sequel

loganLogan is the Wolverine movie they should have made all along. As it is, coming after the terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and the compromised The Wolverine (2013), it looks even better than it might have. The mean but noble mutant has been around in movies since 2000, in a variety of X-Men films, and in comic books since 1974. Logan is intended as a valedictory for this popular character (but only in movies; his services are still needed to move units for Marvel Comics), a neo-western that has more of Shane, The Cowboys and Unforgiven in its DNA than it has of most other superhero movies. It has the farewell-tour poignancy of a popular, aging baseball star taking that final trot around the diamond.

Hugh Jackman is that star; yoked to Wolverine, aka Logan, aka James Howlett, for the last seventeen years, he leans into the sad, heavy gravity of the moment, playing Logan as a slowly expiring warrior (the unbreakable adamantium coating his bones and his claws is poisoning him). It’s 2029, and mutants are on the way out; in a possible nod to Children of Men, no new mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan passes his days driving a limo and his nights taking care of his old mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), former leader of the X-Men, now living uncomfortably with Alzheimer’s. Medications control Xavier’s seizures, which, due to his telekinetic prowess, tend to paralyze anyone around.

If you’ve been following these two in comics or movies at all (I confess I tapped out a few years ago), it’s moving to see them gray and broken down, addled by pills or booze as their only anodynes. They still have some use, though: new mutants are indeed being created in a lab, among them Laura, or X-23 (Dafne Keen), a vicious little wild child with fist-claws of her own, plus foot-spikes for good measure. Logan and Xavier must convey Laura to a possibly-mythical locale called Eden, where others of her kind are in hiding from the sociopaths pursuing them. Like Deadpool last year, Logan may be based on Marvel comic books, but it carries an R rating — a fairly hard R, in which we finally see what Logan’s claws actually do to flesh and bone. Profanity is likewise liberated, not only from the surly Logan but from the heretofore genteel Xavier.

Logan comes from director James Mangold, who also helmed The Wolverine; it’s as though he undertook this project to atone for the last one, and much pleasure can be taken in the movie’s realistic substance, the creak of rusty Ford truck doors, the gurgle of perforated arteries. The script, by Mangold, Scott Frank and Michael Green, is heavily derivative, though — we’ve seen most of the beats before, and when a brutal Logan clone called X-24 joins the party, the film starts to feel overcrowded, over-villained, as though well-armed hordes with robot hands weren’t threatening enough. Logan has a few mitigating human moments — I liked the quiet insouciance with which Patrick Stewart donned a fedora — but the plotting is a bit too blockbuster-pulpy for the movie to be the cleansing back-to-basics art it seems to want to be.

Still, I must be honest and say I got misty a couple of times. “At least there’s water — he’s got water” is painfully fine as a terse, choked eulogy. And the physically failing heroes trying to protect the young and powerful from the corrupt and mutilated make for a resonant conflict visually as well as thematically. Logan could probably be shelved with The Dark Knight as a superhero film that tries to transcend genre by borrowing copiously from other genres, and by taking itself with seriousness that borders on po-faced. (Logan has the edge here with the jostling, caustic rapport between Jackman and Stewart.) It’s worth seeing exactly once, but beyond that, it’s too overstuffed — and not fun enough — to reward revisits.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

Posted May 14, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, horror, science fiction, sequel, video game

resident-evil-the-final-chapter-clipOne thing horror fans remember well from the fourth Friday the 13th film: never trust a horror sequel that calls itself “The Final Chapter.” There may, however, be a reason to take Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s word for it. For one thing, franchise star Milla Jovovich isn’t getting any younger. Sure, she can leap and shoot and fight with as much éclat as ever at age 41, but for how much longer? And did she really intend to do six of these things in the first place? As of now, Jovovich has led the longest-running female-fronted action franchise in Hollywood history (the all-time record probably belongs to Lupe Vélez and her eight-film Mexican Spitfire comedy series from the ‘40s). She can safely rest now, and perhaps focus on other projects that don’t involve throngs of ravenous undead.

You probably don’t need to have seen the previous five movies to follow this one; the story (by director Paul W.S. Anderson, who is also Mr. Jovovich) is as violently incomprehensible as the others, anyway. The gist is that the cure for the T-virus (which created the zombie outbreak) exists in “the Hive” in the ruined Raccoon City, and Jovovich’s Alice must find it (within 48 hours, of course) and release it to save what’s left of humanity. Zombies and various other critters get in her way, as well as the nefarious Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who pursues Alice and her cadre of fellow warriors. Or it could be his clone. I’m still not sure. Along for the ride is returning comrade-in-arms Claire (Ali Larter), from two of the earlier movies.

Anderson has directed four of the six Resident Evil films (including the first one), and though editor Doobie White has been encouraged to make unreadable hash out of most of the action sequences, there actually is some apocalyptic-aesthetic beauty here and there. Often, the camera pulls back and back until it surveys the wreckage of a city from a great distance or height. The rubble contrasts sharply with the antiseptic white-on-white glossy surfaces of the villain’s lair. There’s poetry, too, in Jovovich’s husky snarl of a voice — this heroine may or may not be recognizably human after facing so much horror. I think after six films and fifteen years of this, both Jovovich and Alice have earned a respite.

The movie and the franchise in general sit largely humorlessly at the action-flick table, glowering with the higher purpose of saving humankind from the rotten Umbrella corporation. The films are more “badass” than fun, really. This could be why the series has never been especially lucrative in America — even the most domestically successful, 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, only made $60 million against a $60 million cost — but has blown up overseas; this last segment cleared a mere $27 million here, but pocketed $312 million globally, becoming by far the franchise’s top breadwinner. So … maybe there will be post-final chapters? The ending does leave the door open for more adventures.

More adventures with whom, though? Separate from the live-action series, there have been animated, direct-to-video Resident Evil features; the third, Resident Evil: Vendetta, will soon menace theaters and digital streaming platforms near you. These animated movies follow other folks besides Alice, like Leon S. Kennedy, a hero familiar from the RE videogame series. (Leon also turned up in the previous live-action outing, 2012’s Retribution, alongside Michelle Rodriguez, whose sullen presence is missed here; slight lookalike Ruby Rose represents instead as a tomboy mechanic, but she isn’t around long.) As for future live-action entries, who knows? Jovovich deserves a break, but I hate to think of these movies not anchored by her agility and her growl. It’s bad enough we now face Alien movies without Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and my growing sad suspicion is that if Warner Bros. could get away with putting out a Wonder Woman movie without Wonder Woman, they would.

Alena

Posted May 7, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, foreign, horror

alena-jpgThe Swedish horror drama Alena, out on American DVD this week, is an awfully slow burn. Normally I’m behind that, but this movie makes its earlier countryman Let the Right One In seem like an explosion in a chimpanzee factory. It feels a bit padded out, perhaps because it was: It began as a 59-minute piece for Swedish TV, then got expanded a bit to feature length. Despite that, I recommend it to fans of Let the Right One In: the sullen, angsty mood is well sustained, the performances are on point, and the movie applies artsy touches to scenes that could have been sleazy retro exploitation. Well, they kind of are anyway, but it’s amusing to see them accomplished with Bergmanesque somberness.

Amalia Holm carries the movie as the eponymous Alena, a disturbed teenager who’s just been transferred to a ritzy boarding school. There she swiftly runs afoul of resident bully Filippa (Molly Nutley), the school’s star lacrosse player, whose rich dad contributes a lot to the school’s funding. Not only is Alena a potential threat to Filippa’s standing on the team, she also attracts the cool loner Fabienne (Felice Jankell), whom Filippa wants for herself. The level of same-sex yearning here may satisfy those who enjoyed Lost and Delirious and The Moth Diaries, though those films were helmed by women and Alena was directed by a man, Daniel di Grado, who seems to have jettisoned almost every male character except a fleetingly seen kid and the lacrosse team’s easily intimidated coach.

What tips Alena into the neighborhood of horror is its treatment of a mysterious character from Alena’s past — Josefin (Rebecka Nyman), who follows Alena everywhere and who is, to say the least, more than first meets the eye. Josefin seems to bring violence whenever she shows up, especially in a potentially icky scene in which another of Alena’s classmates is confined in a locker room with Alena. Is she real, a ghost, or simply Alena’s mind luxuriating in her guilt? Could be all three, though the rules of her influence on her surroundings are murky.

The movie takes its time, creates its own chilly world run by female angels and demons. Alena is both, and Amalia Holm’s performance is properly uningratiating. She makes Alena an avatar for repressed, abused youth, like Carrie White in all her iterations, or Angela Bettis’ May. Innocence of a sort is represented not by the film’s namesake but by the rich Fabienne, who doesn’t care about Filippa’s mean-girl games and who appreciates Alena’s gauche outsider aura, complete with chopped-up hair dyed black, which might be a nod to Swedish goth-geek goddess Lisbeth Salander in either of her iterations.

Alena on some level is a compilation of tropes and influences, a calling card for its first-time cowriter/director. It won’t dazzle anyone with its originality. But it’s a sturdy, carefully wrought calling card with considerable feeling for its wounded subjects, and that’s not nothing. Di Grado has a sense of compassion for these troubled girls, even the destructive and conniving Filippa. Eventually the movie leans more heavily towards drama than horror, which is fine; it’s just the characters facing up to the consequences of their actions. The horror derives from pain and grief reaching from the past into the present.

Split

Posted April 30, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel, thriller, underrated

splitThe most intriguing thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback thriller Split is something I can’t reveal — or maybe I can, since Shyamalan has recently told the press that there will be a Split sequel that also follows up Shyamalan’s 2000 cult favorite Unbreakable. What I’d like to say, first and foremost, is that the usual literal-minded sorts have gone after Split for demonizing a character who lives with dissociative identity disorder — what used to be called “split personality.” But, given what we find out, it seems possible that the afflicted protagonist, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), is no more a typical D.I.D. sufferer than Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs was transgender. Something more supernatural — dare I say superpowered? — seems to be going on here.

An enormous success at age 29 with his breakout hit The Sixth Sense before his hubris and some bad choices locked him in movie jail for a few years, Shyamalan has been working modestly and steadily back towards credibility. Split shows — as did his least-loved movies, really — that Shyamalan’s problem was never directing. He brings with him a highly welcome sense of gravitas and quietude, and every frame feels suffused with dread. Some find Shyamalan’s style tiresome, but I’ve always valued it as a corrective to the hyperbolic flailing of other directors of his generation.

Kevin, under his bespectacled and buttoned-down identity Dennis, kidnaps three teenage girls, including the movie’s heroine Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). They are meant, we gather, as sacrifices for Kevin’s as-yet-unseen 24th identity, The Beast, who disregards regular physical limitations. When you meet The Beast you might see what I mean about superpowers; if Unbreakable was the origin story of a hero, Split functions the same way for a supervillain. Back in 2000, I razzed Unbreakable a bit for its (to me) anticlimactic ending, but now I feel that assessments of both it and Split will be incomplete without seeing the end of the trilogy (to be called Glass). Usually I insist that a movie should be judged on its own merits, but in this case there seems to be a long game at hand, and why not wait to see where Shyamalan plans to take this story?

The underpopulated movie runs for a long time on the virtuoso instability of McAvoy in the several identities he gets to try on, and the contrasting survivor’s intelligence of Taylor-Joy, whose Casey, like Kevin, is the product of abuse. Every so often, Kevin — in the person of the most socially competent of the identities, Barry — goes to visit his therapist (Betty Buckley), whose study of Kevin aims to prove that the brain is capable of more power than we can imagine, to the extent of controlling the potential of the body to heal or to perform feats of strength. Is Shyamalan saying that everyone with D.I.D. is a budding mutant psychopath? No, just Kevin, although there’s talk of others with similar talents. (Maybe Kevin has a more benevolent counterpart out there, a Professor Xavier to his Magneto. The comparison is apt, since McAvoy’s largest claim to fame has been playing the young Xavier in the last several X-Men films.)

Shyamalan spent much of his thirties high on his own reputation, and he was due for (and maybe earned) a humbling stumble; get called the next Spielberg at 29 and see how you act. But how much longer are we going to hold his younger self’s ego against him? I think he’s eaten enough worms. Split is a tight thriller with Shyamalan’s usual mastery of mood, and with a dream role for any actor that McAvoy somehow — mostly — resists ramping up into camp; he finds the humanity, cracked or otherwise, in each of Kevin’s personae. Split not only makes me anticipate its follow-up but makes me want to revisit Unbreakable: If he doesn’t blow it in the last inning, the trilogy of superhero movies unfolding in the gunmetal-gray mundanity of Philadelphia could be Shyamalan’s true legacy, a quiet rebuttal to the bland vapors of the Marvel films and, Kal-El knows, the ridiculous nü-metal pomp of the DC films.

Rogue One

Posted April 23, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, overrated, prequel, science fiction, star war

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.

The Fate of the Furious

Posted April 16, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, sequel

f8In the New York segment of The Fate of the Furious, the film’s big bad remotely takes control of a slew of autonomous cars and sends them zooming this way and that, all over the congested city streets. It’s then that we see, in this context, the three most beautiful words in the English language: COLLISION AVOIDANCE DISABLED. It sure is. That could be the tag line and the credo for this entire beefed-up franchise, which, after eating its Wheaties and spending many hours in the gym, has evolved into a series of 007-style blockbusters. Yes, this movie begins (in Cuba) with an old-school race that’s about the franchise’s two biggest concerns — cars and family — but after that, we’re into another plot about someone who wants to do something globally unspeakable, and only Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his loyal crew can put a stop to the shenanigans.

But wait: Dom switches sides this time out; he Turns His Back on His Family. The aforementioned big bad, an ice-queen terrorist who calls herself Cipher (Charlize Theron), has a very big bargaining chip, and she compels Dom to do her bidding. Cipher, who likes to spout sociopath-philosophical mumbo-jumbo about choice and accountability, wants a nuke to play with. So Dom’s crew, including special agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Dom’s surly but loyal significant other Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), swing into action to save not only the world but Dom. There’s a fleeting suggestion that Dom has indeed “gone rogue,” but that possibility is batted away by Letty as if it were a mosquito. Something’s wrong. This isn’t Dom. He would never Turn His Back on the Family.

Well, maybe he does or maybe he doesn’t; I won’t give away his true motivation, though there is one grudging new member of the team: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who has tasted his own blood at Hobbs’ hands (or feet). When Statham locks eyeballs with Dwayne Johnson in one of their several fight-or-get-a-room macho displays, the two men seem millimeters away from bursting out guffawing, and finally they actually do it. While most of the actual movies (including this one) don’t quite dazzle me, I’m fond of the idea of this series — it’s unfailingly diverse and inclusive, and every so often it even winks at its ironic, amused gay audience. The icing on this film’s welcome-to-the-family cake for gays is complete with the casting of an unbilled Helen Mirren in a cameo as the hard-boiled cockney mother of Shaw and his brother. Of course, there’s not enough of Mirren here, but then there never is, is there?

But we were talking about an action movie. Collision avoidance, as noted, is disabled. Explosions occur, and finally our heroes race a massive submarine chugging along under the ice. For all that, though — and some of the excessive deep-bass festivities did tickle regular chortles out of me — the series is in dire need of cool, and Vin Diesel can’t really provide it. (He’s a much more friendly and human presence as himself in interviews.) Coolness is left in the capable hands of Kurt Russell, who returns as the narrative’s super secret agent, Mr. Nobody. Various lunkheads marinating in testosterone growl at one another, and Russell, with an amiable chuckle, gives one or both of them a calming clap on the back. At this stage, Russell has amassed so many bad-ass points the mere sound of his voice can gentle meatheads two heads taller than he is.

Still, this series gets its power and popularity from its salud, mi familia shtick, which as far as I can make out is perfectly genuine. The soul of the movie is in the tormented looks the betrayed Letty shoots towards Dom, or the longing look Dom gives a vulnerable family member through bulletproof glass, or the wild-eyed devotion Hobbs gives to coaching his daughter’s soccer team, or the slyness with which Helen Mirren manipulates her tough-guy son into doing her bidding. As Dom might say, if you ain’t got family you ain’t got nothin’.