Review: Get Out

Get Out

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is about to visit his in-laws for the first time, but he is feeling apprehensive about the looming encounter. However, these are not your average jitters associated with meeting the parents of your significant other; Chris is anxious about meeting his in-laws because they are white and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), has yet to tell them that Chris is black. Upon arrival, his sense of unease only increases, not only because Rose’s parents are inadvertently alienating him as they awkwardly keep telling him how much they like black people, but also because something seems to be terribly wrong with the black groundskeeper and maid employed by the white family. After an intense impromptu therapy session conducted by Rose’s psychiatrist mother under the guise of wanting to help Chris quit smoking, things keep getting weirder and weirder, and Chris begins to wonder if he should just get the hell out of there.

Opening with an eerie scenario that draws obvious parallels to the tragic murder of African American teen Trayvon Martin, it instantly becomes clear that writer/director Jordan Peele – who is one half of comedy duo Key and Peele – is not afraid to address the nature of contemporary racism in his directorial debut. As the plot begins to unfold, the unease the main protagonist feels is rooted in his discomfort of being a black person surrounded exclusively by white people. Drawing on his own awkward experiences in such scenarios, Peele satirizes the ignorance of well-meaning white people by showcasing how their overcompensation in terms of reassuring Chris of their acceptance of him only proves that they see him as a skin color first and a human being second. What makes this approach particularly impactful is that these white people are not your average racist caricatures; they are the overbearing liberal elite who are unaware of their own hypocrisy. By avoiding the usual Hollywood tropes of portraying racism exclusively as either being a trademark of rabid sociopaths or as something that only happened in the past, Get Out’s portrayal of everyday racism is as fresh as it is relevant.

On top of the brilliantly satirical social commentary, Peele also manages to expertly increase the more conventional type of unease associated with the horror genre. As the film progresses, the ugly face of racism is not the only element that gets increasingly unpleasant, as the nature of the plot at the core of the film is also sinister to say the least. Without ever losing track of the overarching social themes, this plot is slowly unwrapped, tipping the film further and further from thriller territory into a more conventional type of horror. This is done by slowly increasing the sense of danger and the frequency of the scares that come along with the genre. While the scares are generally rather conventional, they are largely effective and never veer into ridiculousness, resulting in a very well-balanced end product. The genre, storytelling and pacing are not alone in being well-balanced either, as the actors showcase their skills with solid acting performances all around. LilRel Howery in particular steals every scene he is in as the best friend that an anxious Chris repeatedly calls, only to receive hilarious advice that lightens the mood for both Chris and the audience at welcome intervals. All in all, nothing about the production value of Get Out ever gives away that the film was made with a modest budget of $4.5 million.

What sets Get Out apart from most modern horror is not only how it seamlessly blends satire and horror together in a way that makes the two elements elevate each other, it is also the fact that the story is told from the perspective of people of color, an underrepresented demographic in terms of mainstream horror. As a result, Get Out is an original, tense and sharply satirical horror film that not only is noteworthy contribution to the horror genre, but also bodes well for Peele’s future efforts as a film maker.

Verdict: 9 out of 10.

Review: Kong: Skull Island

The year is 1973 and Richard Nixon has just announced a ceasefire that will bring an end to the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, Bill Randa (John Goodman) – a representative for the Monarch organization – sets out to gather an expedition to explore the fabled Skull Island. Since Randa and his scientists would like to live to tell their tales of the hostile island, they recruit the no-nonsense tracker, survival expert and all-round badass James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to accompany them. The anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is also hired to help document their findings, however, her anti-authoritarian instincts tell her that she may be able to uncover some unsavory government truths whilst snapping photos. Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, the Sky Devils, are assigned as the military escort for the expedition. However, upon arrival on the island, it instantly becomes brutally clear that despite the many precautions the team has taken, they are no match for the fearsome wildlife they encounter, and thus their fight for survival begins.

While his kaiju cousin Godzilla may have the upper hand in terms of the number of movies he has stomped his way through, the mighty Kong is hardly a stranger to the big screen as there have been several incarnations of the big ape since his inception in 1933, Peter Jackson’s lengthy 2005 effort being the most recent. After 2014’s Godzilla, the MonsterVerse was announced with Kong: Skull Island being the next installment in the franchise. Avoiding its predecessor’s pacing issues, which came about largely due to Godzilla only having 8 minutes of screen time in 2014, Kong: Skull Island boasts a higher volume of tremendously entertaining action set pieces. Not only do these sequences convey the size of the new Kong very well, at times they also manage to transport the viewer back to the ridiculous, yet fun monster movies of the 1970s. An interesting visual approach is also taken by meshing the monster madness with imagery associated with the Vietnam War and the cinematic style that more or less made the many films about the subject a genre of its own, resulting in the film having many breathtaking shots that clearly show how much effort director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has put into visually paraphrasing Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in a fantastical setting.

But the visuals are not alone in mirroring the 1979 classic. While naming Hiddleston’s character Conrad is a throwaway nod to Joseph Conrad – the author of Heart of Darkness, the book that inspired Coppola’s masterpiece – Samuel L. Jackson’s character motivation directly mimics the delusions of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz. However, while the idea is interesting enough, it is never utilized to create the kind of mounting tension achieved in Apocalypse Now, so while the visual paraphrasing is good, the references to the story and its characters never amount to anything more than superficial parroting – and they are far from the only superficial elements in the film. With the exception of John C. Reilly’s likable portrayal of a WWII pilot stranded on the island for decades, the rest of the characters are horribly uninspired and hollow with not even the bare minimum of character development required to allow the audience to invest in them, making all the scenes inbetween the monster mayhem deeply uninteresting.

Then there is the editing. While not quite as bad as the singularly abysmal Suicide Squad, there are times where the editing choices in Kong: Skull Island are puzzlingly bad, resulting in cuts and even whole scenes being completely out of place. A particularly glaring example is where a human character has a random encounter with Kong with no interaction between the two whatsoever, which makes the scene look suspiciously like a storyboard someone decided was too good to not put in the film without giving any thought to its relevance in relation to the narrative. Sure, the creature scenes may be fun, but this one in particular sticks out like a sore thumb and does absolutely nothing to move the story along, thus becoming symptomatic of a film where no effort has been put into the characters – and we all know that a movie is only as good as the characters that inhabit it.

King Kong is a much-loved character for many reasons, not least because of the tragic nature of his story in itself, but also because he has always represented the environment and man’s destruction thereof. Since Kong: Skull Island cannot take the traditional route because he is already lined up to face off against Godzilla in 2020, the film makers had to find a different way to make us care about him this time, and while the idea of pitting him against a delusional Colonel Kurtz-like character was an interesting idea, it ultimately fails due to poor execution that makes the film reek of franchise setup. The only thing the film gets right are the fight scenes, and going all out with the 1970s B-movie cheese instead of trying to paraphrase superior films could have saved the film from being two hours of mediocre monkey business.

Verdict: 6 out of 10.

Review: The Love Witch*

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Following the death of her husband, the police are paying the young witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) more attention than she cares for, so she ups sticks, relocates and is soon on the lookout for new love. Sustaining herself by making love potions and other love magic paraphernalia, she meets the handsome Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), who is immediately bewitched by her magnetic charms. However, after Elaine has used her magic to seduce him, Wayne starts experiencing some odd side effects, and becomes highly emotional as a result. Turned off by her lover’s personality change, Elaine leaves Wayne in bed; but when she checks on him the following morning, he is dead. Struck by panic, she gets rid of his body and turns to magic for protection. Everything seems fine at first, but soon the police are onto Elaine, and her witchcraft is brought to the test when the charismatic detective Griff (Gian Keys) comes calling.

The Love Witch pays impressive homage to the colorful exploitation films of the early 1970s, while humorously riffing on the potentially problematic nature of those films with regard to feminism. Newcomer Samantha Robinson perfectly captures the quintessential Russ Meyer girl, looking and acting every bit the part of a purring sex kitten. The visuals are also gorgeous, not least because the film was shot on 35mm, but also because every element of the set decoration and costumes perfectly captures the aesthetic of the time. This is all due to the creator of The Love Witch, one-woman powerhouse Anna Biller, who has worn pretty much every single hat on this production; writer, director, producer, composer, production designer, art director, set decorator, costume designer and editor. It is evident from the result that Biller is a force to be reckoned with and that her film is a genuine labor of love, and the expert staging of the story leaves us in no doubt that Biller completely understands the genre and era she is paying tribute to.

Unfortunately, this level of passionate involvement in a project can also lead to a film maker failing to scrutinize their own work with any degree of objectivity. While The Love Witch is a visually stunning piece of cinema, it is obvious that Biller the director has found it very difficult to remain objective as editor of her own work, proving why directors should not edit their own films. With a duration of two hours, the film runs a good 30 minutes too long and is in dire need of cutting. After about an hour, the film grinds to a halt, its second half often dragging along at a pace where the narrative becomes unclear. Scenes that do nothing to further the plot, are left to meander on without a clear sense of direction, and this unfortunately manages to disconnect the audience from the film and negate a lot of the effort that has been made to transport us back to a different cinematic world. Also, with all the effort made to recreate the era, the choice to often use contemporary cars – which at first seems like a way to signify if a character has an outdated or a modern way of thinking – has very little impact once the self-aware commentary is dropped. In fact, the humorously intelligent commentary on the time period this type of film was originally created in all but disappears amidst the overly long second half. This is a shame, as being more consistent with this self-aware commentary could have elevated the film to something truly extraordinary.

It may be stylistically impressive, but The Love Witch ultimately suffers from a running time that is much too long. While all the talent and intent creates visuals and a tone reminiscent of Russ Meyer’s work with obvious references to Romero’s Season of the Witch, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch may achieve looking like the former, but it never quite attains the intriguing power of the latter.

Verdict: 7 out of 10.

*An edited version of this review was published in the March 2017 issue of Fortean Times.

Review: Elle*

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Paul Verhoeven has never been one for tiptoeing around violence in his movies, and Elle is no exception. The film opens with its main character, successful businesswoman Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert), being raped in her home by an intruder. Once the rapist has left, she draws herself a bath and discards her clothes. As she sits silently in the tub, blood emerges through the foam of the bubble bath, and she nonchalantly rearranges the bubbles to hide the evidence of the ordeal she has just endured. Taking no time to recover, Michèle carries on with her life as usual; however, she is determined to fight back against her attacker. She not only fantasizes about how the attack could have played out differently, she also buys various items for self-defense, and even commissions an employee to do some snooping for her. Thus the game of cat and mouse begins, and her obsession soon develops into a perversion.

This being the first film Verhoeven has made since the acclaimed Black Book a decade ago, Elle has a lot of expectations riding on it. With his focus seemingly narrowing and intensifying as he gets older, his first French language film is beautifully executed and immensely enjoyable. Having taken French lessons prior to filming to better communicate with the French cast and crew, Verhoeven shows his dedication in every scene, not only in the directorial polish of the whole but also in his grasp of the often overworked tropes of French cinema. And the tropes in Elle are many; Michèle is a brusque business woman; she is sleeping with her best friend’s husband; she cannot stand her obnoxious daughter-in-law; and her oversexed mother is driving her mad with her young gigolo of a boyfriend – and that is just the tip of the iceberg! At several points in the film, these tropes are taken to the extreme, giving the film Verhoeven’s trademark tinge of satire, and the result is delightful in all its absurdity. The acting is also exceptional, with Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of Michèle being mesmerizingly nuanced with regard to both the character itself, as well as the various types of acting she has to master by being physical, compelling and dryly funny all at once.

Whenever a film deals with the subject of rape there is a justifiable concern as to whether the subject is handled with sensationalism or respect. While chilling, the rape sequence is handled in a manner that translates as unpleasantly realistic without becoming distastefully exploitative. Additionally, the main character processes the ordeal in a relentlessly determined manner, which mirrors her general approach to life; she not only remains true to herself, she is also anything but helpless when dealing with the aftermath of the assault. What is fascinating is the way this very determination to stay true to herself leads Michèle into a highly taboo perversion. While I will not reveal how that perversion develops and plays out, I will say that it is masterfully handled and should be recognized for the uncompromisingly artful piece of storytelling that it is.

It may sound paradoxical that a thriller about a woman looking to avenge her sexual assault is at the same time a satire on French cinema, but this is typical Verhoeven. His satire may have become less blatant over the years, but it still saturates the film, and its subtle, yet consistent presence in Elle is what elevates the film from a well-crafted thriller to a truly memorable movie. By balancing darkly humorous moments with an intense story of perversion and taboo, Paul the Provocateur delivers a film that is as bold as it is entertaining, thus further verifying his status as a competent yet mischievous director.

Verdict: 9 out of 10.

*An edited version of this review was published in the March 2017 issue of Fortean Times.

Review: Logan

An aging and down on his luck Logan (Hugh Jackman) works as a limo driver, living from hand to mouth to sustain himself, the psionic mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). The trio lives in a remote cluster of buildings to avoid attention, as mutants are now a thing of the past – or so they thought. When the sinister Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and the frantic Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) both approach Logan almost simultaneously, their inquiries both concern a mutant child by the name of Laura (Dafne Keen). While Pierce wants to find the girl to bring her to his employer, Gabriela wants Logan’s help in the hopes that he will be able to keep the henchman from capturing Laura. Having no interest in getting involved, Logan tells both Pierce and Gabriela to leave him alone in no uncertain terms, but Laura soon finds her way into Logan’s life despite his reluctance, and he now has to decide how to handle the situation.

With a franchise that has been as unstable as Wolverine’s temper, Logan takes a new approach by showing us a world that is significantly different from the previous cinematic outings involving Marvel’s X-Men. However, since the grim and gritty approach to the superhero genre is hardly uncharted territory anymore, people have understandably voiced their concerns as to whether there was any good reason for Logan to take this approach or not. Many also expressed their skepticism about the R-rating the film was given; after last year’s Deadpool proved that a superhero movie can have an R-rating and still be immensely successful, people feared that Logan was merely getting an R-rating as an afterthought in order to ride the blood-spattered coattails of Deadpool’s box office success. Thankfully, neither of these concerns have any merit, as Hugh Jackman’s final outing after spending nearly two decades portraying the adamantium-enhanced anti-hero shows style without neglecting the substance. As a result, the final product is a compelling film where Jackman gets to show his range as an actor while still remaining true to the essence of Wolverine, just as Patrick Stewart also makes his portrayal of Professor X much more nuanced than before. Lastly, as the young newcomer to the franchise, Dafne Keen perfectly sells her part as a pint-sized badass, sealing her performance not with a kiss, but a constant, defiant scowl.

As for that R-rating, the naysayers’ concerns are laid to rest within the first few minutes of the film, as it quickly becomes clear that the rating is not merely tacked on to garner ticket sales. While the film is not an exploitative gore fest, the violence is still relentless and bloody without crossing over into the territory of violence for the sake of violence. This is achieved by avoiding the tropes associated with your run-of-the-mill action film and instead approaching Logan as a road movie about a group of world-weary characters that have seen enough terrible things to last a lifetime. By focusing on its own story without a myriad of callbacks to previous installments, Logan takes the time to establish its characters and flesh them out for the story at hand instead of trying to mimic past incarnations to appease fans of the previous installments. This makes the tone of the film very different compared to not only the other Wolverine movies, but also the X-Men movies in general, and it is a welcome change because it is handled as well as it is. Some may dislike this approach as it focuses on the human aspects moreso than the fantastic aspects of these characters, but you still get both action and humor, it is just handled differently than your average Marvel fare.

Those who prefer the glossy and streamlined superhero movie style harking back to the trend associated with the early 2000s may find that Logan strays too far from that formula to give them the experience they have come to expect. On the other hand, for those who want to see a complex character done justice by allowing the actor who portrays him to utilize his abilities as an actor to a much fuller extent, Logan is an outstanding piece of superhero cinema that chooses to further explore the immense potential a character such as the Wolverine has always had for the big screen. As a result, Jackman’s performance is not only impressive as his swansong in terms of playing Wolverine, it is also an all-round memorable performance in a film that is so gripping that it ultimately makes a story about mutants deeply human. 

Verdict: 9 out of 10.

Review: A Cure for Wellness*

a-cure-for-wellness

After receiving a strange letter from CEO Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), the board members of his company order the young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) to bring Pembroke back from a wellness center in the Swiss Alps, as the CEO is required to sign the last bits of paperwork for an important merger. Arriving at the wellness center, the callously ambitious Lockhart is unimpressed by the idyllic scenery; he simply wants to find Pembroke and get back to business, but he is nowhere to be found. Increasingly frustrated by the wellness center staff being seemingly unwilling to be of any help, it soon becomes clear to Lockhart that something is terribly wrong with this place. When he wakes up at the center with a broken leg after a freak accident, he continues his search for Pembroke, but his quest to find the CEO is soon overshadowed by the increasingly sinister discoveries he makes around the facility.

Gore Verbinski can hardly be considered a consistent filmmaker with flops such as The Lone Ranger on his résumé, but something he always seems to get right is the stunning visuals. Among his better work was the 2002 American remake of The Ring, which showed that not only does he know how to make a film that looks good, he also knows how to create mesmerizingly unnerving imagery, and there is plenty of nightmare fuel in A Cure for Wellness. With his latest effort, Verbinski has made an original piece of gothic horror, and despite its dark subject matter, A Cure for Wellness is another stunningly beautiful film brought about by his directorial know-how. The cinematography, editing and color grading all help to create lusciously serene visuals in deceptively soothing hues of blue, and the excellent sound design matches the imagery so well that it can almost be considered a character in its own right.

Just as the visuals have a beautiful, dreamlike quality to them, the hefty runtime of 2 hours and 26 minutes is also utilized to further create the sense of being inside a waking nightmare; not only does the runtime give the film the opportunity to drag the viewer ever deeper down the disturbingly dark rabbit hole that is its story, it also creates a sense of time being warped because we are not constantly jumping from scene to scene. Naturally, the mere fact that a horror film is this long will be reason enough for some moviegoers to give it a miss, but if you are willing to keep an open mind as you go along for the lengthy ride, there is a good chance that you will be enthralled by how the storytelling has been approached in A Cure for Wellness. By allowing the film to linger on seemingly insignificant elements, a bigger sense of mystery is achieved, which in turn makes the film that much more unsettling, even when Lockhart is doing something as simple as hobbling around on his crutches.

Even though the film does an impressive job with building a tremendously sinister and mysterious atmosphere, the final act of the film is ever so slightly disappointing because it is somewhat weaker than the preceding acts. It is not only the story that struggles towards the end, it is also because the film takes the audience to certain thematic places that a lot of people do not care to visit, not even in the name of horror. However, this is not so much due to the body horror shown in the film; that particular brand of horror was perfected by filmmakers such as David Cronenberg, and while lesser filmmakers have overused it in recent years, the body horror is thankfully only sprinkled across A Cure for Wellness at intervals that ensures it remains truly unpleasant without turning the film into another unnecessary torture porn extravaganza. But make no mistake; while the body horror has been applied with restraint, this film is not for the squeamish.

A Cure for Wellness is one of those films that split both critics and audiences down the middle. Whether you love it or hate it, the fact that the film dares to be so deliriously different is highly commendable in the current cinematic climate, where originality tends to be shunned in favor of the financial rewards often yielded by reprising that which has proved to be successful in the past. While the film goes places with its Lovecraftian brand of gothic horror that many people will find deeply unpleasant, it never stoops to the usual horror movie lows of relying on jump scares and body horror solely for the sake of the shock value it provides, and this strange piece of cinema therefore has all the makings of a cult classic.

Verdict: 8 out of 10.

*This review will also be printed in the April 2017 issue of Fortean Times.

Review: Fences

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Fences is Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Taking place in 1950s Pittsburgh, PA, Fences tells the story of garbage man Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) and his family. Struggling to support his family on a modest salary, Troy is anything but impressed when his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), informs him that he wants to quit working after school to instead focus on football training in the hopes of obtaining a scholarship based on his athletic ability. Embittered by his own wasted opportunities in baseball, Troy tries to put a stop to Cory’s dreams, and it soon becomes evident that Cory is not the only person who suffers because of Troy’s reluctance to come to terms with his own missed opportunities.

Denzel Washington is pretty much synonymous with competent cinema, and Fences only adds to his already impressive track record. Being both behind and in front of the camera this time, the fruits of his labor have yielded a film that is skillfully crafted, with direction, cinematography, editing and the recreation of the time period all being top notch. All the performances are also solid, with Viola Davis’ portrayal of Rose Maxson being absolutely outstanding. The writing is extraordinarily good, which is of course no mystery considering the source material is an August Wilson play. The characters in Fences are cleverly written, both in the sense that they are complex and multi-faceted, just as their arcs are not only interesting, but also challenging to the viewer. By spending plenty of time fleshing out the characters, their behavior and development is that much more powerful, which will at times make the viewer question their immediate impression of the various characters. This helps create the opportunity to make the viewer feel conflicted about their perception of a character’s merit and motivations, but it is through this conflict that the viewer is allowed to invest in the characters and then have that investment challenged, creating a movie-going experience that is quite extraordinary.

However, the film is by no means faultless. The main issue with Fences is that while the writing is phenomenal and the acting is incredibly competent, it is very obvious that it is an adaptation of a stage play. The setting is limited almost exclusively to the backyard of the Maxson household, which works well when seeing it performed on a stage, but it becomes rather static when it is put to film. Naturally, maintaining the setting ensures that the film adaptation remains faithful to the original stage play, and it may also be argued that by maintaining such a static setting in the adaptation, it serves as a visualization of the stagnation of the lives of various characters. However, it also means that this dialogue-driven piece of cinema has to rely solely on captivating its audience with said dialogue, and with a running time of 2 hours and 19 minutes, some viewers will find it difficult to remain engaged for the duration of the film.

Whenever something is adapted from one medium to another, a fine balance has to be maintained by managing the expectations of remaining faithful to the source material, while also making it compelling for the format chosen for the adaptation. The issue with Fences is that while it remains faithful to its source material, it is at times difficult to remain connected to the story exactly because of its faithfulness to its original medium; since different factors determine to which extent an audience connects with different artistic media, Fences is a potent piece of theatre, which manages to be compelling not only because of the outstanding writing, but also because of the energy associated with watching a live play. Adapting something written for the stage to fit into the parameters of cinema does mean compromises will have to be made, and while it is admirable that Washington has created a film that stays true to Wilson’s play, it also means that Fences at times struggles to remain compelling as a film. While there is an abundance of artful craftsmanship to be explored in Fences, the change from stage to screen does at times make you miss the days where cinema was more like theatre in that lengthy features would have a break halfway through, much like plays have a break between acts.

Verdict: 8 out of 10.