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 *****)

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Rango: flawless animation, great voice work, recycled story

Rango – 2011

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina, Abigal Breslin, Ray Winstone, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant

Written by John Logan

Rango  starts off with a protagonist acting so strangely, one can’t help wondering if he isn’t more than a little deranged.  It’s the protagonist, a chameleon, played by Johnny Depp, who is almost unrecognizable, vocally.  He’s a pet, stuck in a tank, acting out fantasy with whatever is around.  He moves from character to character without explanation or sense.  He looks miserable and happy at once.

Quite an arrangement of town folk, but something is awry

Soon enough, the status quo is interrupted.  An armadillo named Roadkill (Molina), causes an accident just trying to get to the other side.  This accident lands our hero face to face with his destiny, which he has to find by leaving the road.  Not long after, he is introduced to desert iguana Beans (Fisher).  Fisher is the damsel in distress, about to lose her farm due to lack of water.  The water is being withheld in a power grab by the mayor, Tortoise John (Beatty).  Bound to a wheelchair, the astonishingly sinister elements of Beatty’s voice work give him all the power he needs.  Where this leads has been shown a thousand times.  Rarely so cinematically beautiful, or so full of quirks.

Beatty's Mayor is sinister while seemingly harmless

Each of the characters in this film is so distinctive and beautifully drawn, it looks like it is anything but animation.  This work is so far beyond Toy Story, it is hard to believe they are made using related technology.  It is not a fair comparison, and really I am more grateful than anything.  This is where animation should be at this point.   The people designing this film do an excellent, professional job.

Inside is as crooked as the outside.

Matching the sketch of each character is a vocal work that is note perfect.  Stephen Root’s work, in particular, over 3 characters is each one distinctive of the other and working well within the context of the film.  Beatty, in with Toy Story 3 and this movie, has shown himself criminally underused in animated vocalizations in the latter part of his career.  However much he’s done (no more than this, from my research) it hasn’t been enough.

A Bad Guy with a presence...

As Rango, Johnny Depp finds a new voice, but takes a similar path.  Not exactly brave, but in no way a coward, he mines the familiar ground of Captain Jack Sparrow and Ichabod Crane.  His character is a hard one to love.  There is a distance between his thoughts and his deeds, his deeds and a shared sense of the other characters.  Through most of the film, he moves back and forth between intellectually driven self-preservation, and an absent sense of frolic.  Absent here is any sense of heroism, of course, like his characters from Pirates and Sleepy Hollow.  This time, however, he is called upon by the movie’s Clint Eastwood clone, the horribly named, Spirit of the West (Olyphant, doing a good Clint impression), to act out his story.  This leads to a decent, if brief, ending involving a bad guy, Rattle Snake Jake (an excellent Bill Nighy) and a lot of water moving through the town of Dirt.

Overall, this is a good, forgettable film.  You won’t regret watching it, especially in lifelike high-definition.  There is a disconnect between most of the characters that is hard to define.  It seems like everyone is so starved for water, the part of the brain that supplies half of their character has withered, and what is left is a collection of adorable zombies with little to no thoughts about anything but water.  Add to this, a script retread that is played with (read: quirks) but not deviated from, and you have something of a standard in the movies these days.  Everything, it seems, can be made perfect and original but the story.

(***1/2 out of *****)