Death Note (***) is Pandora’s Box by another name

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Director Adam Wingard
Screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham,
Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe

Before we go too far in any direction, this film is not great. It’s not a giant disappointment, though. It is just a little one. Anyone who has time to accuse the filmmakers of whitewashing the original material take a long walk. They’ve already done enough in front of the camera in Japan, from where the original manga emanates. There was a time when it would have been called an homage, but everyone has to be offended these days. Grow up and just take this for what it is, a borrowed tale of a borrowed tale of a borrowed tale.

The disappointment for me is only that I’ve seen Wingard do better and not all that long ago. You’re Next is one of my favorite slasher films of recent memory, and the word on The Guest is good enough it makes me wonder why I missed it. He’s been hired to do the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong film too. Ears perked when this property he was attached to suddenly got placed in limbo. Then they perked again when Netflix picked it up and made it at full budget. One could almost feel the palpable disappointment just waiting for critics to express when the burgeoning monolith released the film in late August.

The story is quite recognizable to anyone who’s studied anything written before this date. A kid named Light (Wolff) literally has a book called Death Note drop out of the sky in front of him. He picks it up. He reads. It becomes clear through a series of screen flashes what the book wants him to know and what the director wants us to know. Write a name in the book, picture the face that goes with the name and that person dies.

The book comes with a death god, named Ryuk (Dafoe). The purpose of this demon is unclear. It seems like he wants to bust out somehow, but really he just wants the person who has the book to put him to work. He likes the rules, but he likes mischief even more. This mischief is pretty gruesome.

The movie has some good performances, in particular Stanfield as L and Qualley as Mia. Dafoe is right at home as the evil Ryuk. His brand of vitriol feels sinister and is, if anything, underused here.

They could have done better than Wolff for a leading man, but it’s hard to tell if its as much his issue as it is the writing. He’s somewhat annoying, like a more annoying Adam Goldberg, though I am not sure how he got there. Somehow he feels disconnected from the material, like he’s waiting for it to be worthy of him. Maybe its unfair, but I’ve never watched anything he’s been in twice.

If anything, they could have tethered Ryuk much closer to Light, or at least featured their back and forth more prominently. Though they take an original twist introducing the Adam and Eve element to it, in the end it serves as a distraction to what could have been much more interesting material.

I am not real familiar with manga, and there’s nothing here that draws me in. Wingard’s hold on the material seems fleeting here. It’s got nothing of the control he’s exhibited with his early work.

About that early work, I am watching The Guest now. Dan Stevens. Holy crap. Now that’s control.

(*** out of *****)

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Get Out (*****) is a throwback to another era

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Get Out – 2017

Written and Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring  Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson

The best thing Jordan Peele’s first film as director (and writer) has going for it is the soft racism of low expectations. People have blindly implied that the film is a study of racism in the liberal suburbs. While there are elements of racism peppered throughout, saying that it’s even half of what Peele is trying to accomplish is to assume everything a black director makes needs to be soaked in tales of racism woes. It is also completely missing the fact that this is a first rate thriller of epic proportions.

Chris (Kaluuya) is heading out of town to spend the weekend with his girlfriend of 4 (actually 5) months, Rose (Williams). There is a tension between them about the trip, because Rose is a white woman and Chris is a young black man. They have a conversation about this and eventually Chris is set at ease when Rose comes to his defense during an interaction with police on the way there.

Once there, the messages are definitely mixed. While her father awkwardly comes across as the liberal hipster guy who “definitely would have voted a third term for Obama,” there are enough signs around that things are definitely not as they should be. Peele is an expert at many levels here. While the peculiarities could be perceived as a racial tension between the folks who live and work there, they could also be explained away in an easy enough fashion as just people who are generally out of touch and a little goofy.

Through it all, Chris has interactions going back and forth with his friend Rod, a TSA agent who stayed back at home to watch the dog. After a strange interaction with Rose’s mother (Keener), Chris no longer has the desire to smoke, but has also begun to have strange dreams. What is going on with Chris? Just as  important, what is wrong with everyone else in Rose’s hometown?

The acting in the story is first rate.There is not one performance that doesn’t fit the mood of the story perfectly. Kaluuya is a British find who has been in enough things to be known, but not enough to be the household name that this film shows he deserves to be. His friend Howrey is delightful too, in a role that might be thankless or worse in an average thriller.

Williams shows some range as Chris’ girlfriend. How she navigates the changing situation for her boyfriend indicates someone of more depth than the role normally would entail. As her parents, Keener and Whitford work on every level. They are the people who are so smart and well off, they would be impossible to want to spend any time with even if they did like you, which it seems like they don’t. Or do they?

As somewhat strange servants in the house, Gabriel and Henderson provide the strongest current of feeling in the house. What the hell is with these two, who seem so happy and sad all at once? They provide the biggest scares just by making eye contact.

Peele shows himself to be a master of suspense in a nearly Hitchcockian way. He strikes so many chords with just the right touch, it keeps the viewer in suspense. Even if they think they know some of what is going on, there are enough elements, you won’t catch everything. This is the work of a truly skilled craftsman. I cannot wait to see what he does on his own in the future.

If you like mysteries, see this film. If you like character pieces, see this film. If you like playing against expectation, see this film. If you like being scared, see this film. If you like great movies, see this one.

(***** out of *****)