I Got Five on It

Writer-Director (among other things) Jordan Peele is perhaps the most sought-after creative in film and television from the past decade with nearly every piece of work he puts his name on being an instant-hit, a seat that is well-deserved in my opinion. So Peele is not particularly someone who needs folks running to his defense, yet nevertheless I feel so particularly protective of Us when it comes to its place in his rise from tv comic to producer who has no trouble fast-tracking any project he chooses to back. Despite being a smash hit like his debut feature, Get Out, it didn’t get any of the endless awards attention that its predecessor received and all of its successes financially and critically feel dwarfed by the giant splash Get Out got… out. Particularly, there’s a contingent of the audience that found the movie’s logic or themes either hard to parse or not entirely as well-baked as Get Out.

Which is of course where I step in and confess that I am glad I rarely care what movies are about. It is definitely the case that Us is about something – class is the major target for the picture and Peele is intelligent enough to make that impossible to even folk like me trying to avoid it – but the major reason that I consider Us so astronomically better than Get Out is just so much more simpler: it’s scarier. And I mean honest to God, make-the-horror-creep-up-into-your-conscious frightening. Get Out is definitely scary and smart and funny, but it has training wheels on and a devotion to being a message movie that Us has little use for. Instead, Peele looks to flex out all the stylistic attributes of horror movies he’s been practicing in a career of hilarious parodies throughout the sketch show that boosted him to household name status, Key and Peele.

The story all of that style is in service to belongs to Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry as a child, Lupita Nyong’o as an adult and speaking of awards this should have received… Nyong’o’s snub was among the biggest frustrations of the last Oscar season) as she takes a trip with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to Santa Cruz. This bothers Adelaide intensely from a dark moment in her childhood experienced on the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk that we have revealed to us bit by bit. Just after she opens up on the experience to Gabe, the lights go out in the house and just outside the front door stands a foreboding nuclear family in crimson. When they make their way into the vacation home and corner the Wilsons near the fireplace, they are revealed to be doppelgangers of each member of the family and that’s only the tip of the scope behind what’s going on in Us which just expands on that instant mix of fears between an unknown entity so familiar to you and the violence of having your domestic space intruded upon to something just so much more draining.

From there on, it’s a mix between the cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ shadows of a living nightmare as the family are terrorized by their own villainous mimics, all three supporting actors giving their own version of a guttural non-verbal performance while Nyong’o’s own Red communicates to us with a gnarled whisper as she moves in unnervingly unnatural ways. Alongside the way the makeup truly distresses Nyong’o, Duke, Joseph, and Alex’s faces to just sap the humanity out of their doppelgangers’ faces, matching well with their primordial body language and vocal utterances. Which makes it all the more impressive that the central family (and we shall later see the rest of the supporting characters encounter) deliver two distinct performance styles: one character that is of course frustrating and flawed in all the human ways and the other being latching on to one particular trait of that character with a tenacious viciousness that propels the Tethered being – for that is what the doppelgangers are referred to – to its violent acts in a natural way.

But Us doesn’t simply get to being one of the scariest movies in a long time simply be being a perfect acting showcase for every cast member’s range. It has jump scares, perfectly timed ones with Nicholas Monsour’s pacing giving it just the right amount of pregnancy to make us jolt the way a calibrated shock should make us (and indeed the fact that my initial viewing of Us had the best audience possible – tuned in the way a great horror movie audience should be and freaking out proper – makes me nostalgic for the days of full-house opening weekend theater viewings). It has disturbing images as I brought up just the way that alarming dark red of the Tethered’s uniform costumes by Kym Barrett looks in the darkness of the Wilson’s home especially when punctuated by the rare scenes of bloodletting. The mixture of those dark blacks and reds is a big part of what brings Us this heavy mood that all the best horror movies are expected to be thick with.

Us practically drowns in that mood, only bobbing for the surface with Peele’s characteristic ability to add some dry humor to the proceedings that also let us appeal to the Wilsons as characters (Gabe’s obsession with his boat being a notable connection to that class theme while also a Chekovian device). Because Peele is such a horror buff – the very first shot of the film includes video cassettes of Night of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D., and A Nightmare on Elm Street visible; Thriller and Jaws appear on t-shirts; the location is consciously the same as The Lost Boys; a deformed character is almost certainly named after one in The Hills Have Eyes; and there are so many visual quotings of horror classics – he knows exactly the right ingredients to appeal to the home invasion thriller that this starts off as and then lets the disorienting existential horror of facing your cruel self expand like hot air to at least a scale that is just inescapable and leaves the characters trapped.

Probably the most notable element of the filmmaking that lets these chills slide down smoothly is Michael Abels’ score, indulging in all of the stock horror sounds like the screeching strings and thumping drums without feeling too much like a generic score. Particularly the manner in which it adopts a leitmotif out of the Luniz song “I’ve Got 5 on It” to turn its key down as low as possible so that the beat just translates to an occasional shudder and makes for the perfect punctuation to most of the scares to come once Us goes full-throttle throw its lightning pacing.

So it’s the tools rather than the message that truly engages me with Us, something that is the case for most pictures. It is impossible to pretend that the same broad strokes Peele and company take to give us a pure work of terror aren’t the same broad strokes that embolden its message on class and the violent divide it brings (again… it uses “I Got 5 on It” as a leitmotif and one of Nyong’o’s first scenes as Red involves her croaking a dark fairytale about a shadow receiving worse than table scraps in attachment to her body) and so you cannot take one without the other and I’d claim that Us is all the richer for having that depth beneath the surface (literally given the descent to a crypt-like tunnel that makes up the third act). It’s even understandable that Lupita Nyong’o’s ability to play both monster and hero and the unexpectedly twisted way in which Peele’s writing moves around those roles within the third act truly gets to play both sides of that presentation, including the fact that Nyong’o’s delivery of a late monologue that is in my opinion the weakest moment of the film salvages some of atmospheric cruelty of the whole picture. In any case, it’s not what I come to Us for or what I exit it praising most. I don’t care where the Tethered come from or why they are doing what they do. I only admire the way it all combines – Monsour’s cutting, Abels’ score, Gioulakis’ shadows and framing, and Nyong’o’s performance – to a heartpounding balletic climax at the end of a particularly draining horror movie experience, one that lost very little of its initial power when I saw it in theaters with a likewise frightened crowd when I re-watched it in the blackness of my living room alone.

Some of Those That Work Forces…

122963

In the third act of Sorry to Bother You, two men spend a bit blithely pondering on the meaning of some street art being used to send a direct revelation we the audience are already in on by that point. And in the middle of their discussion, the character we know to be the artist steps up in exasperation and states in a monotone “Maybe the artist was being literal.” This is so far along the film that I can’t imagine somebody needing to get such a direct message by writer/director Boots Riley, known as the radical frontman of the political hip hop group The Coup, but if you needed to be reminded that Sorry to Bother You had all the subtlety of a Bong Joon-ho or Elio Petri film (including similar attitudes on class and industry), then you ARE right in Sorry to Bother Your‘s target audience anyway, so what am I gonna blame?

For the record, I uniformly love Bong Joon-ho’s movies and pretty much the two Elio Petri films I’ve seen. So, it should be pretty damn clear early on what side I’m on regarding Sorry to Bother You‘s bravado.

It’s not just that Sorry to Bother You lays its leftist themes on thick with every step of its plot, it’s also a rare and rarely powerful thing: it is the most literal surrealist film I’ve seen since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, both of which sharing the traits that they come from wild and bizarre visualizing a world only slightly different from ours. Hell, I’d say that Riley is so much more direct in the draining effect of capitalism on the individual than Lynch in his films’ themes (deliberately of course). It might help that I agree whole-heartedly with its observations and that prevents me from finding it heavy-handed but I can’t imagine any scenario where this kind spirited clarity of vision and message isn’t compulsive and involving for a viewer, especially with the relentless mania Sorry to Bother You expresses.

124057

One way the film accomplishes a sense of a wild fever dream without being vague about its themes is in its star, Lakeith Stanfield. Stanfield has been spending much of the decade getting more and more visibility and his arguably most popular roles to date, Darius on the tv show Atlanta and a tragic bit part in Get Out, have been done well enough to sell us on his greatest strength, having zoned-out facial expressions that look like he just had the wind knocked out of him. He brings appropriate existential fear to every development no matter how high or low they take him. Stanfield makes an excellent human anchor to how ridiculous things are getting.

Anyway, Stanfield’s Cassius “Cash” Green is starting from the bottom: living out of his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland with a car so beat-up it smokes after he uses it and he has to physically move the windshield wipers. We meet him just as he gains a telemarketing job that he hopes will give him more than 40 cents for gas, but the intrusive and stressful commission-based job is proving to be an unsuccessful venture until a veteran black co-worker (Danny Glover) informs him on how to assure the people they’re calling: using an unthreatening idealized inner white voice (in Cassius’ case, provided by David Cross; I swear Glover’s sounds uncannily like Steve Buscemi but apparently it’s an uncredited sound engineer). Cassius’ quick mastery of the tactic gains him attention of his frustrated co-workers, organized by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) to revolt against their skeezy supervisors (Robert Longstreet, Kate Berlant, and a perfectly cast Michael X. Sommers). Cassius also gets those supervisors’ attention while they seduce him with the unconfirmed possibility of ascending to “power caller” level.

And it’s from here where I feel like Sorry to Bother You comes so wild that I can’t move any further up in a plot synopsis without spoilers, but at the margins of this story are the ominous presence of WorryFree, a company that blatantly imprisons workers for a lifetime of labor in exchange for not paying for your prison cot, sleeping cell, cold cafeteria food, and jumpsuits. And standing against WorryFree is the radical group Left Eye, where we learn that Cassius’ artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) aids with agitprop art in an attempt to let others know about the evils of WorryFree and its sociopathic CEO Jeff Bezos Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

avtij9v0ewxbluknauzg

Cash’s story will collide with that political atmosphere sooner than he expects as Sorry to Bother You has an obscene amount of momentum in his opening rise, rushing into his power crawl, with oh so much information being dropped in between scene transitions because we can’t wait to see ourselves at the top before the film suddenly feels like the new trials of Cash are prolonged and stretched out and his relationships become so much more strained and his conscience tugged at with no end in sight. The movie doesn’t become sluggish or sedate – it’s much too nervy and wired for that – but it doesn’t feel as brisk and the script loses sense of its structure. This only makes me relate further to Cash and his anxieties and while I certainly get the complaints about Riley’s still green handle on filmmaking, I can’t help finding this “weakness” into a strength.

And besides which I think there’s a serious underestimation on Riley’s ability as a storyteller, even from fans of the movie. Visually, he has an eye for frames that use lines and blocking to corner and box Cash in discomfort whether he’s in an extravagant chandeliered elevator, his broke car, a Fortune 500 glass office, a chill-out bar in sleepy dark blues and reds, a big mansion filled with debauched people, or a cold blue cubicle. He’s able to use sound mixing in such a surrounding and asphyxiating sense, whether the music at a party or an angry crowd of protestors. He has an unstoppable imagination on how far he can push the directness of his storytelling: not only with the white voice dubbing, but sequences that drop Cash from his cubicle into other people’s home adding to his sense of intrusion with his cold-calling or how as Cash starts coming up, Riley has his humble setting and fixtures of his garage room crack open like shells to unveil upgrades in wealth until he’s living in a clean white window surrounded high-rise apartment. And this is to say nothing of Jason Kisvarday’s set designs and Deirdre Elizabeth Govan’s costumes themselves feeling like extensions of Detroit’s artwork, like her constantly changing earrings or the transparency of the WorryFree ads’ sinister nature. The two of them provide a block-colored alternative Oakland, both in the walls and the inhabitants trapped within those walls.

Riley’s also proven to be an impressive director of performances as there’s a clear line dividing his dedicated ensemble between the evil corporate leaders embracing the ghoulish caricature they’re playing. Omari Hardwick’s Mr. _______ not as wild, but his presence is such a confident and aggressive tower of masculinity in his facial hair and suits to match and the fact that his name is constantly bleeped and almost all of his lines are spoken by Patton Oswalt helps. Hammer especially digs deep from his privileged background to add a huge layer of disconnect with every other character unless his relationship is owning them. Meanwhile, the characters we align with like Cash, Squeeze, and Detroit are so grounded and down-to-earth to be relieving company. Even the comic best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) is of more “hang-out” humor than anything else.

Sorry to Bother You

All this competence turns Riley’s other “weakness” into a strength: his refusal to keep leash on the tonal changes of the movie. It flips from hilarity to horror on and off without any true rhythm to familiarize us. The third act in particular is where the most heinous revelations of Lift are made aware to the viewer and it’s immediately followed by one hilarious gag regarding the different shades of green he paints his doors and his incredibly puerile pitch for Cash’s next move, punctuated by a claymation instructional video narrated by a naked cavewoman whose breasts the animator took great care to keep in exaggerated swaying. It’s not a strength I’m too defensive of, as it turns exhausting by the end of the film and its final note is quite a bit too glib about a situation that should be haunting, but it’s hard for me to mistake it as a crippling liability.

So is Sorry to Bother You unwieldy? Yes. But it’s not sloppy. That unwieldiness keeps the audience from feeling like their feet are planted on the floor. That’s because Sorry to Bother You doesn’t want you to feel comfortable, even if it wants you to have a good time and laugh along with its sharp and bitter messaging. Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge of contradictory intentions – scare you, amuse you, feel unreal, confront you with reality – that you wouldn’t expect a debut to succeed at, but by god does it will itself into success. If only we had more first-time directors jumping into the artform with this much bravery, regardless of how inexperienced they may be. Their experience might just be what makes them perfect for the job.

259628970-2

Ocean Man

the-shape-of-water-movie-screencaps

There’s gonna be something weird about finally writing about The Shape of Water after it had won its Oscar, as though I’m raining on somebody else’s celebration since I don’t have much happy things to say. But, I plan to eventually review every Best Picture winner and I need to get this out of eventually. And I may as well be happy that Guillermo Del Toro, decidedly one of my favorite filmmakers working today, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. It’s just not for a movie I have much love for and I’d argue it’s his most ordinary movie yet, which is a hell of a claim for a Gill-Man romance.

Besides Terry Gilliam, nobody stacks up rejected projects like Del Toro. The man collects them like Pokémon. And while the scrapping of Silent Hills and At the Mountains of Madness certainly hurt more, the hurt for his proposed romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake is still searing right there in my heart, so when the trailer for The Shape of Water came out earlier in 2017, I was pretty much giddier for the project than I’ve ever been for a Guillermo Del Toro film in my life. And then when it was announced at the Venice Film Festival that it won the Golden Lion, I was even more sold than I’ve ever been. “They gave their top prize to the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks the gill-man?!” I exclaimed to my friend in excitement when I found out.

the-shape-of-water-2017-4

So, when I walked out of the movie nowhere near as ecstatic as the folks I saw the movie with, it may very well be a part of my expectations not exactly being met (FULL DISCLOSURE: It may also be that I was suffering a numbing amount of after-work migraines in the film and chose unwisely to join them at a 10:10 pm screening), but I hope I can express well enough – against the tide of praise – why The Shape of Water only occurs to me as fine rather than great. I mean, fine should not be the way I feel after I got my romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake that I’ve been wanting for so damn long.

Except I only got it after sitting through an hour of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crash. I mean, it’s a significantly better version of Crash as directed and co-written by an actual talent and it’s theses about race and society are not as patronizing as Paul Haggis’. But they’re arguably as shallow and distanced, with little interiority afforded by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay to some characters (ie. Octavia Spencer once again having to do the heavylifting for his character with a pretty much one-sided portrayal of a dead marriage displayed 90% via monologue) and used mostly as just more window-dressing to setting the film in the racially, gender-wise, and diplomatically messy time of America on the verge of the Civil Rights. And while the argument could be made that The Shape of Water is in the end not really about these observations, it doesn’t really assuage me when Del Toro and Taylor devote more screentime to these surface level themes than the “fish-fucking” that people like to praise the movie for. And I know Del Toro is intelligent enough to work with these concepts.

That’s a lot of talking about the script without actually establishing what The Shape of Water‘s story is. The straightforward premise of The Shape of Water is how Elisa Esposito (Hawkins, a Mike Leigh alum who I’m always ecstatic to see in movies), a mute janitor for the US government-contracted Occam Laboratories, witnesses them bringing in a mysterious monster (Doug Jones, Del Toro’s reliable monster man) at the height of the Cold War insisting its danger and the potentials of winning the space race from studying the creature. And how after a time, Esposito and the Asset (as it is referred to in the film and credits) come to fall in love to the point that when the authority on the research of the Asset, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon playing an unchallenging part he can do in his sleep, though that doesn’t detract from how far he excels at it), eventually orders its death for dissection, Elisa and her friends craft up a plan to rescue and release the Asset.

the-shape-of-water-movie-trailer-screencaps

It’s pretty much fairytale stuff here and Del Toro is more than aware of that in Paul D. Austerberry’s production design of the early 1960s as a drowned-in green caricature of urban and domestic ghosts left over from the likes of American Graffiti which feels like the least creative design of Del Toro’s career since Hellboy, frankly mundane and even within the transparently sinister laboratories and the unglamorous period settings – or in the very calm and paternal delivery of the narration like lulling somebody to sleep by Richard Jenkins’ character, Elisa’s best friend and closeted advertising artist Giles (who is both the best performance in the film and the most shaded of all the characters arguably, given his very own subplot in regards to an infatuation he has and the depression brought about by the state of his career).

And yet The Shape of Water takes its sweet time trying to correct its course on tone between self-conscious social commentary, government thriller, monster movie, or broad romance and Del Toro for the first time can’t perform this function without every scene transition feeling thudded and sudden (including a huge gap in the developing relationship between Elisa and The Asset that feels rushed because of how overstuffed the social commentary makes The Shape of Water), which is why it’s no surprise that when the movie finally dedicates itself fully to thriller once Elisa and her friends decide to take action for The Asset’s survival. It’s much more focused and tighter at that point and even does more to earn the swooning final beat of the whole film than any of the slightness that inhabited the first half of the movie.

That The Shape of Water catches its footing the more it progresses as a narrative is a good portion of why it doesn’t distress me as much that I came away kind of disappointed. There are more than a few inspired elements within the film even before I feel it sticks the landing, like Alexandre Desplat’s tender score inputting delicate passions and vulnerabilities to underscore the characters’ living situations, the way that Giles is an unabashed movie fanatic which can’t help feeling informed by how much of a cinephile Del Toro is (sure, it’s part of what makes the movie overstuffed but it at least feels… real), and of course to say nothing of the wonderful texture and sleekness (slimy but not disgusting) of the monster suit Jones dons as The Asset, living and breathing and moving on its own terms and brought to life even further by post-production effects that surge lights through its body to shape a divinity into the creature and make him fascinating and scene-stealing with big round cutesy eyes to sell it as… well, a fish out of water while Jones moves with apprehensiveness and curiosity at the world around him.

It’s not a total loss, that’s just a fact. But I’d rather had a wholly great film like Del Toro has often given me than a halfway good movie. Still in the end, Del Toro will be ok and will hardly care what I think about the movie that got him two Oscars, the success of which probably ensures less adversity in his developing projects as he had faced all throughout his career. And he’s had more than enough great movies not to lose an ounce of good will from me just on account of The Shape of Water. Most of all, there’s no real context by which I could claim Del Toro was really… uninspired. The man loves making movies and feels like everything he makes comes from a labor of love. Just sometimes that doesn’t result in something every single one of his fans dig and that’s a-ok. We could do worse with our passion projects sometimes*.

*I say as I side-eye Mute.

story_bg_image-2faac00e-29cb-4107-b7f2-fb8_9tjrb8e

Severance Package

BELKO 363A1470.cr2

The Belko Experiment is the sort of premise that, unless it has an immaculately talented director behind the wheel who could balance it all, could almost only go in one of two directions – it could either be a broad comedy doubling as light satire or it could be a cold harsh and cruel picture that’s a tense watch, though not a hard watch. I don’t think a movie with this many pieces that would make us go “but how the fuck does THAT work logistically?” could survive trying to play things too straight-faced and serious.

And so James Gunn’s screenplay for The Belko Experiment ends up a double-edged sword, in how it does have a broadness to it in the mystery behind its central location – an apparently outsourced office for Belko Industries all the way in Bogotà, Colombia that is outrageously guarded with military-grade weaponry and prison looking concrete gates on the outside, though still seeing the need for indoor security headed by the casual Evan (James Earl). The also ridiculous logic behind employees agreeing to painfully implanted trackers or the building of steel doors to cover up the entire building could like wise not be entirely taken straightfaced without being a total wink at how far people are willing to go to be offered any position, though that’s just too general here already. And especially when a voice on the loudspeaker (Gregg Henry) announces to its employees that they must kill each during an allotment of time or they will utilize the explosive trackers to kill many more. It’s not hyucks, but it’s got heightened distance. If anything, the only element of the film that doesn’t seem to have an actual business atmosphere analogue is how all of the management heads, including COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn), are former military with heavy combat experience, thus having a head up on the men and women beneath them that they can kill, but overall it’s an unsubtle portrayal of competitive work environments except with physical violence instead of the downsizing and staff cuts.

And so, Gunn’s script able to sell these with enough humor behind it desperately wants to be something of a comedy and satire. Indeed, the film even includes in its large ensemble many of Gunn’s regular actors, such as Henry, his brother Sean, and Michael Rooker (Gunn remains a producer on the film and I’m sure he was slated to direct at one point). There’s also one very recognizable comedic character actor in the form of John C. McGinley. So humor is in the idea of this movie to especially sell the commentary of cutthroat office atmospheres.

And unfortunately, director Greg McLean is just not funny.

the-belko-experiment-credit-orion-pictures

Mind you, McLean is actually a wonderful idea for a movie about the brutality of others desperately shedding each others’ blood and as a result The Belko Experiment ends up working very capably as a thriller. It should be no surprise that the director of the nihilistic and overwhelming Wolf Creek is able to carry this movie’s stakes and horrors (though I’m not certain I’d call this a horror movie). Not enough to make this into a nailbiter, but given the amount of familiarity the premise of “put people into a room and make them slaughter each other in order to make a statement” at THIS point in the decade, it’s amazing to have any amount of tautness in the atmosphere at all.

And to be quite real, McLean certainly feigns in the direction of some amount of irony. It’s hard to deny that in how editor Julia Wong uses the occasional Spanish covers of classic rock tunes such as “California Dreamin'” into a rhythm for which our hearts jump on each shot and axe to the face (Wong, easily the movie’s best weapon, also has a way of utilizing cuts just at the moment of a body part giving way to the film’s not-quite-severe gore – enough to let us see the ugly viscerality of it and sell it before she cuts to the next element of the scene leaving it still fresh in our mind when we move on).

That honestly leaves the cast themselves to be guided by McLean to turn into sweaty and harried blood-covered beings who have two particular types – those who can’t grapple with this kill-or-be-killed environment or those who are eager to just step all over their peers – and the cast, mostly fronted by either John Gallagher Jr. or Melonie Diaz (as the unfortunate new recruit) all know how to turn their bodies into collapsing alarms of panic. And once again McLean, Gunn, and Wong structure all this material into several diverging storylines so that we can capture enough of the characters to make it hurt more when we see their grisly demise, the same sort of multi-narrative angle Battle Royale perfected with the premise beforehand.

Basically, it’s not reinventing the wheel and I can’t figure out anything within it that makes it a must-watch. But The Belko Experiment is not anything less than a decent bloodletting thriller as well, short enough not to outstay its welcome and shallow enough to prevent the nihilism within it from ruining our day.

the-belko-experiment-review

Send Me a Sign

65089244

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (and oooh baby do I love that title) has an unfortunate sin within it that I wish it didn’t have. Something certain people would argue is present in last year’s big Best Picture frontrunner* La La Land, but in a more direct and frankly unpleasant manner. Before I can get into what that is, I gotta lay out what it’s about.

The premise of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s screenplay begins eight months after the investigation (ten months after the crime itself) of the rape and murder of teenage Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) and setting the film that far ahead of the crime establishes it within the film as a long cold case that McDonagh is not concerned with solving. This is not a mystery. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is instead about the aftermath of a town’s lack of closure from it and the woman at the center of it all is Angela’s misanthropic hard-headed mother Mildred (Frances McDormand), who in her frustration tries to light a fire under Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by renting three billboards close to her home with a message on each one: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”.

Obviously, that’s going to inflame a lot of outrage in such a small town as Ebbing (where most of the action takes place in only three locations). It stresses the hell out of Mildred’s depressed son and Angela’s sister Robbie (Lucas Hedges) to continue to be reminded of her awful death, it infuriates Mildred’s ex-husband and Angela’s father Charlie (John Hawkes) with his history of violence and stone animosity to his ex-wife, and it especially puts Mildred on the wrong side of the largely corrupt police force. It certainly upsets Chief Willoughby despite his understanding of Mildred’s pain and wish to solve the case and in the context of a personal development that feels too much like a spoiler to let on, but it’s the alcoholic and unruly Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who takes it the hardest and tries to abuse his power unrestrainedly to make the life of anybody even slightly involved with Mildred a living hell. This is not particularly new to Dixon, considering how quickly Mildred throws his history of racially charged police brutality at him and that’s where it becomes a little less kosher for me.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri does not want to be about racism. In a town full of bigots in every corner (McDonagh’s dialogue is chock full of some very unfortunate phrasing about race, sexuality, physical deficiencies, mental deficiencies, and so on), it just so happens to have to deal with a local police station in a town where it reflects all of the flaws and problems with the people inhabiting it themselves. And unfortunately there is no possible way to make a film revolving around police officers in such a toxic environment that doesn’t identify brutality and racism without being painfully naive. That those things play as window dressing to the subsequent interiority of characters who partake in them is untimely given this day and age of BlackLivesMatter (especially since the only three black characters in the film have little to no characterization, which is just awful) and that’s enough to hold it against Three Billboards, but I don’t see that as the sum of its parts.

Me, I just happen to think it’s a really well-sketched story of three people who have to deal with grief and failure in their own ways and all three of those people are portrayed in tragic and bitter shades by McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell (preferred in that order), spitting out McDonagh’s venom like a second language. McDormand especially makes the profanities that come out of her feel effortless with a clear amount of hurt and self-preservation behind them to inform us enough of the character within her first few scenes. Harrelson and Rockwell approach their own characters from an opposing spectrum of sensitivity and vulnerability that softens the edges of their characters in a way that helps the subsequent third act feel natural and less objectionable (Harrelson’s Willoughby is absolute soft edges and diplomacy, Rockwell’s Dixon an unfortunate shit of a person).

McDonagh’s script is obviously not perfect. In fact, I would call it the weakest element of the whole film. It’s thematically clumsy on those elements and there’s missteps on its structure – such as the decision to include a flashback that doesn’t really tell us anything about Angela we wouldn’t already learn later and imbue some eye-rollingly contrived dark irony – but it’s much closer to McDonagh’s brilliant feature debut In Bruges to his merely fine sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, full of a mechanical domino effect in incidents and character motivations that ends up slowly billowing to a fire before it just exhausts itself with energy (in a very good way) in the final act and mostly keeping this up with a muted but present sense of bitter black humor for palatability and unexpected sympathy for characters that one might argue doesn’t deserve it.

mv5boduzmjm0mzcxnf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzgwodmxndm-_v1_sx1500_cr001500999_al_

And that still leaves enough praise for how McDonagh as a director works so well to keep the small scale of the town established (with the help of an ensemble that honestly has little to work with but make the best of it – Samara Weaving, Jon Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, and Caleb Landry Jones all feeling lived-in) by containing most of the primary action to three major spots, one of which must have been a miracle of location scouting in having the police station and the publicity office where Mildred rents the billboards, setting the stage for one very wild and violent long-shot sequence as well as a little experiment in paced cutting by Jon Gregory as we witness Mildred take out her fiery wrath in the middle of the night unknowing of her shocking victim. Ben Davis’ photography and Carter Burwell’s score provide a sarcastic rural Americana feel to the proceedings (including the bluest nights one can dream of with a brilliant wide shot of Mildred rushing in between two blazing fires in the middle of an otherwise vacant field) all of which give the full package to diving deep into these characters’ sense of their lives being broken by a rape-murder and their inability to find closure from it all.

In the end, it’s all the McDormand/Rockwell show and McDonagh seems to want to arrange all the best elements of his film to compliment their presence. And in Rockwell’s case especially, this depends on how your mileage may vary because it’s impossible to pretend Three Billboards does not put itself right in the crosshairs of those who would rightfully call it out as giving interiority to racists and homophobes and general bullies and we live in an age where some people might not want to see that. But there’s something pretty comforting about its willingness to see the clumsy sloppiness in anger and hate and how people just don’t know how to square with their problems. Some use it to attack and blame, some use it to abuse and beat down and Three Billboards doesn’t pretend to have an answer to that, just a very sad lens to the people who think they found it.

*While it’s probably not THE frontrunner this year – I don’t think there is a “THE frontrunner” yet – Three Billboards is certainly A frontrunner.

27-three-billboards-review-nocrop-w710-h2147483647

Every Dead Body That is Not Exterminated Becomes One of Them. It Gets Up and Kills! The People It Kills Get Up and Kill!

729f56d4070a46e3808864778336871c-horror-movies-the-dead

R.I.P. George A. Romero
1940-2017

So, it’s no secret that Night of the Living Dead is one of the movies that so viscerally changed my life as a film and that it is reserved that most esteemed seat in my heart as my favorite horror film of all time. I feel like the things Night of the Living Dead did for the genre were never bettered in the slightest since. And yet, common consensus seems to lean on its 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead being one of those rare cases of a sequel outperforming its predecessor and if I can’t really bring myself to love it more than Night, I still might just lean on the idea that Dawn is kind of the “better” movie in a sense.

Part of it is having to just come to the conclusion that, despite being some scraggly ol’ hipster who loved the genuine lo-fi work of Night of the Living Dead and the way Romero squeezed atmosphere out of every single limitation he had and from sheer creativity, Dawn of the Dead is objectively more polished and thus a lot more focused as a horror film and as a social commentary. For of course, like its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead in itself is a very dedicated commentary ingrained inside the presentation of a zombie movie and unlike Night, it does take a good amount of digging into it to find audiences looking into a mirror about how the then-alarming growth of suburban shopping malls as a hub for community interaction deteriorates human interaction and turns folks into mindless followers of blind consumerism and BTWTHEREISNOETHICALCONSUMPTIONUNDERCAPITALISM… *clears throat*.

But there’s just so much more ambition in Dawn of the Dead that Romero gets to act upon from square one that distinguishes the movie from the very first shot with a wash of bold and textured red – distinguishing itself from Night‘s black and white – that widens and focuses to reveal it was simply a close-up of the carpeted wall of a local Philadelphia news station already three weeks deep in the outbreak and shutting off its broadcast soon. It’s here where producer Francine (Gaylen Ross) and traffic pilot Stephen (David Emge) decide to steal one of the helicopters for their own personal escape, which… guys, a helicopter! Romero gets to use a helicopter and gives his characters more mobility (and thus the zombie infection more scope) than in the claustrophobic trap of Night‘s isolated house (though again… I prefer Night in that sense, I just find Dawn‘s approach impressive!).

20130730-022959

During their escape, they also pick up SWAT team member Roger (Scott Reiniger) in the middle of his brutal and consciously racist police raid of a housing project. During this raid, we get to witness the full extent of the zombification of the dead and the escalating violence in no time introduces us to Tom Savini’s landmark zombie makeup and gore – comic book greys to neutralize any details in a person’s face without losing their aged look (this becomes clearer as characters we see die and return as zombies), vibrant red blood so we know somebody is maimed and the gore is the first thing our eyes target, and an all-timer of a head explosion. The sort of violence you get in a 70s cop picture put now to a darker context that demands you reckon with the amorality of the SWAT’s fascist exercise of power on the poor and cold disposal of their bodies in a practical sense. In a moral breakdown atop the building, Roger meets the hardened but humane Peter (Ken Foree) and invites him in the escape group, thereby rounding their aimless flight out of the city.

After finding out staying in the air is easier said than done, they make their personal base out of the Monroeville Mall, a huge construct of shops and restaurants and other resources that they take much time turning into their own fortress of personal goods. And at first, it’s relatively fun as a bonding exercise to have them figure out plans and ways to maintain the whole location for a long time, but soon after it becomes frighteningly insulated and the activities they try to indulge in – now that they have everything they want locked away from the world – like Stephen and Fran’s makeshift restaurant date (with a shockingly dark punchline cut to it), just feel like attempts to pretend the world isn’t dying outside those walls, even despite Peter’s steely residence near screens to illuminating the insanity going on with psychotic talking heads and Fran’s insistence that the mall won’t last. It’s a weighty portrayal of the apathy privileged people have to others’ suffering when it’s distanced and the way that Romero shoots the even the maintenance hallways and vents with plenty of space between the cameras and characters sells Monroeville Mall as just as openly empty as the lives of our four.

2

That’s without recognizing how effectively uneventful Dawn of the Dead becomes very quickly. From the moment the news duo pick up the SWAT duo, the movie doesn’t really have a narrative object or target outcome. The characters have few places to express anything beyond sheer survivalism (though they’re all embodied by great performances) and until maybe the 2/3 moment – punctuated by a stressing waiting game turned into a headshot – their detours are almost strictly utilitarian. And so they earn the R&R they take in Monroeville, but it still feels sheltered and naive to do so in their condition and their personalities are clearly clashing enough to promise their eventual exile from the shelter they found. It’s almost the Tokyo Story of horror films in how much time you understand is wasted watching these folks try to deflect the inevitable.

I realize I’m not delivering this as humorous, but that’s one other thing about Dawn of the Dead. Its sense of levity and personality – most largely supplied by Italian prog rock band Goblin**’s iconic score overselling the eerie nature of a giant empty mall (the most iconic musical cue of Dawn, “The Gonk”, is in fact not Goblin’s creation) and a climax that precludes its intense horror and hopelessness with a disarming amount of pie fights – is what prevents Dawn from turning into an overwhelmingly nihilistic film in spite of all its observations about humanity, especially in consideration of the alternate ending it was forced to shelve due to budgetary restrictions*. And this is probably where I especially end up preferring Night as a film, because it’s fearless in selling its themes angrily and with vicious bite. Dawn still finds itself watchable and insightful due to its craft and survives the theatrical ending turning out to be the film’s only flaw.

There’s only so much you can stretch out of the budget and narrative constraints of a single-location story that demands its characters, save for Fran, refuse to evolve due to their egos, but Night already made good on Romero’s promise to deliver on that and Dawn of the Dead is the result of him trying to push it further and build as a filmmaker. When one recognizes that the driving force of the zombie genre has to be its characters cooped up, Dawn of the Dead is the ultimate zombie film to bring that out. And being made in the ultimate middle ground between the updated budget of an esteemed filmmaker but the creative freedom of an independent feature, Romero ends up with the ultimate movie to show his heart, his ideas, his glee, and even the city he came from that he clearly loved for supporting his dreams and letting him shooting in malls and airfields and news stations. There’s probably no better film to remember and revisit him by.

*Allegedly, the particular dummy needed for the grim final note of that alternate ending was considered unfinished and couldn’t be used so they just had it the target of that famous head explosion in the housing raid.
**Goblin was of course at the time collaborated with Italian giallo icon Dario Argento, who also famously helped Romero with the development of the film.

dawn-of-the-dead-1978

The Emoji Movie

ingrid2005

The arc of O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character of Dan Pinto in director Matt Spicer’s film Ingrid Goes West begins and ends with “gullible vaper who loves Batman”. There is next to nothing in Spicer and David Branson Smith’s screenplay that gives him any real sense of depth or inner personality beyond being a vehicle for the protagonist, Ingrid Thorburn (a perfectly-cast Aubrey Plaza), to manipulate in her quest for the acquaintanceship of social media personality and photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olson). And what Jackson does with the character is a frank miracle, injecting his own casual personality into such a paper-thin character in a measured sense not only to make his eager infatuation with Ingrid feel charismatic and genuine as well as the Batman element to turn from what could have read as just an annoying running gag into an endearing part of Dan’s personality, but to also make it believable that he’d be at once frustrated and willing to aid Ingrid even when Spicer and Smith’s script go way off the rails into a third act that just seems out of the realm of escalation the movie established before. Jackson turned an underdeveloped side character into one of the most enjoyable personalities in film in 2017 and that’s somebody who has the third-most screentime (possibly less).

Plaza leaves him behind in a role that Spicer and Smith are much more generous towards: given that it’s the central personality of this whole study, Ingrid’s psychology is something the viewer gets a lot more access to than is probably comfortable but the movie doesn’t demand sympathy for her so much as establish her as a mentally broken figure in a world all but happy to leave her in the distance between Instagram screens and let Plaza ride on that with the rope it gives her. And Plaza doesn’t showboat it – she knows simply by utilizing her facial muscles, she can imbue a frightening darkness to mix into her character’s sadness and loneliness. She can turn all of her wide-eyed attempts to re-assess her status with Taylor as a “friend” into both transparency and something inhuman. Her attempts at seduction towards Dan and slightly frazzled acts of “calm” around Taylor and her fatigued husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) are all sycophantic without wanting to be. And in the end, Plaza can turn this premise of cyber-stalking within desperation into a tragic portrait of a very tragic character without wanting to be on Ingrid’s side.

118012

There is however a point where Spicer and Smith try to skew the movie towards Ingrid’s sympathies in a foot-shooting way with Billy Magnussen playing a version of Freddie Miles to Ingrid’s Tom Ripley that is so sociopathic and intolerable you want to beat him to death. And there’s no way that’s not on purpose in a premise where what Plaza does is no less descipcable and dangerous towards everyone in the movie herself (she’s the one who imposes violence into the film and she does it in her very first scene). In any case, Magnussen is the closest anybody else in the still great cast comes to reaching Plaza and Jackson’s level and it still doesn’t seem to touch their work.

Anyway, I seem to have went through all that without mentioning that Ingrid Goes West is in fact a comedy. The kind of cringe comedy that makes one find themselves in the line between vomiting or laughing and, while I am in fact not familiar with Plaza’s work in Parks & Recreation, I would like to think it’s a well-known fact that she can provide comedy like second-nature to her. I also haven’t seen The To Do List, but I’d imagine Ingrid Goes West is a sober version of that premise – witnessing Plaza frequently embarrass herself and put herself in positions that could only end badly due to her lack of social development.

ingrid-goes-west-movie-3

In any case, some of that comedy wants to sharpen itself into social satire of different sorts and I can’t see Ingrid Goes West making it all the way through on those aims. It functions perfectly well in recognizing how social media – namely Instagram – allows us to totally wipe our hands clean of people needing true connections around us and how it enables self-destructive behavior in people who don’t know better. But anything beyond that loses gas, it’s not interested in finding a visual mirror to the flashy and superficial style of that online celebrity style (or even in selling the drabness of Ingrid’s life previously) and the portrayal of Los Angeles living within Taylor and Ezra is stereotyped and shallow in a manner that I don’t think the movie is really aware of (it’s only through Olson and Russell that we get a true sense of lived-in atmosphere and inner conflict within their characters).

3/4 of the main cast are all Hollywood royalty themselves and, while Ingrid Goes West doesn’t need to be self-aware like that, it leaves a lot of avenue to comment on privilege and how Ingrid loses her mother shortly before the film, but then that’s just me commenting on what the film isn’t rather than what the film is.

In the end, the cast does so much more heavy-lifting for the movie than they should but the fruits of their labor is visible on-screen. They can’t turn Ingrid Goes West into a deepened cornucopia of millennial commentary the way that the script wants to be, but they provide a group of people who do have their own lives surrounding the one perspective we are tied with that leads to more psychological juxtaposition and they provide one hell of a great comedy/thriller. If functioning brilliantly as genre piece and character study is all you can do, that’s not nothing and 2/3 is still a win in my book.

07-ingrid-goes-west

25 for 25 – Still a Better President than Trump

annexmarxbrothersducksoup_nrfpt_03-crop-promo-xlarge2

I’m a socially awkward movie lover and that means that sometimes I lift my regular delivery of certain lines from movies. My favorite one to constantly use because a lot of people think I hate them is Casablanca‘s “If I gave you any thought, I probably would”. There’s a few others that my sleep-deprived brain isn’t bothering to think up right now but I know I wait with bated breath for the moment where I can liberally quote Mifune Toshiro in Yojimbo being a great big badass. Instead, I have to opt for being the sarcastic wit of Groucho Marx (born Julius Henry Marx) in Duck Soup, tossing off lines appropriate insults like “I bet s/he’s just using that as an excuse” if a person’s significant other doesn’t show up or “He may look like an idiot, he may sound like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He IS an idiot” if somebody’s an idiot. I may very well have plagiarized the image I gave to my friends who find me a charming bundle of sardonic humor from Groucho Marx’s antics, especially Duck Soup.

And yet, Groucho’s snappy statements are only the tip of the iceberg. He’s definitely the most readily recognizable of the family comedy troupe The Marx Brothers without even opening his mouth. All one has to do is recognize his greasepaint eyebrows and mustache with a cigar in his mouth. And yet, there’s also the dim Italian caricature of Chico Marx (born Leonard) and the boyish mute clown of Harpo Marx (born Adolph). And then there’s Zeppo (born Herbert Manfred), who I find somewhat underrated as a potential straight man (though whether or not that potential was reached… eh.) There’s also Gummo (born Milton)’s existence but that’s far before the Marx’s move from stage vaudeville to the silver screen. And for a time, they actually have been on top of the cinematic comedy world working with Paramount Studios in Astoria, where they were slowly gaining more and more creative control over their pictures until it came crashing down with Duck Soup finishing their Paramount contract and they were  in their own personal hell of ingenue romance subplots and diluted comedy in MGM Studios.

Which is a shame because I don’t think Duck Soup is the height of the brothers’ career, I think it is pound-for-pound the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. And here’s where I must humbly ask the reader’s allowance for what will almost certainly be the most subjective review in this whole subjective review series. Your mileage may vary on what you might find funny and all that jazz, but I’m not gonna let up on my review of Duck Soup, it makes me laugh. It makes me laugh so hard I have to catch my fucking breath. It made me laugh so hard I have reserve laughs for when I need them if I’m depressed. I’m sure there’s some kind of stone-faced people that might not find it even close to amusing but it’s a complete grab bag of gags and humor in all sorts of forms: verbal, physical, musical number (and oh I love the lyrics to the opening sudden musical number where he happily proclaims firing squad for chewing gum or losing a gentleman’s game), slapstick. It’s almost like Groucho, Chico, and Harpo felt themselves at their biggest hurrah and so pulled out any stop they could.

ducksoup1933_73717_678x380_06022015113633

Duck Soup is just a little over an hour. That doesn’t leave much time for anything but getting to the point and when you come to think about it there’s not that many plot points to the picture. For indeed, there is obviously a plot about Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), the newly appointed “president” of Freedonia (despite not being appointed through any democratic means) being assigned to help the country out of bankruptcy, except he gets too distracted by trying to court the rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) who had him appointed in the first place. This gets him almost immediately in trouble with Trentino (Louis Calhern), the ambassador to the next-door country Sylvania. Trentino appoints Chico and Pinky (Harpo) to work as spies towards Firefly’s antics so that Sylvania can annex Freedonia and… y’know actually there is a plot. And not even one that really skips points very much, it’s all given some amount of narrative momentum by director Leo McCarey, an underrated master of 1930s filmmaking (his very Make Way for Tomorrow inspired Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story). Though I don’t think Duck Soup is a fair showcase of McCarey’s talent and ability. It’s entirely the Marx Brothers show. And I don’t think anybody’s watching Duck Soup for its plot, so very extraneous to the point that it’s pretty hard to call a movie based in politics to be a political satire in this realm of the upcoming World War II.

There is one great thing the plot provides other than a narrative anchor. In all of its irreverence and the ability of McCarey to allow it flow so naturally and coherently while stopping for lengthy brilliant cinematic vaudeville like the famous mirror scene (if you don’t laugh at this, you are dead) or Chico and Harpo bullying a lemonade stand salesman just because they can, there’s a very tight big bang of anarchy that runs its energy all the way through Duck Soup‘s 60 minutes up until the complete mess of its wartime finale where the Marxes spend the majority of the scene in one room shouting and making a fuss and acting like living Looney Tunes loud enough that you’d think they were simply at war with each other. It’s a shame MGM sobered them up because the Marxes were best when unleashed without oversight.

To end on an anecdotal note, when my friends and I attended Cannes 3 years ago, we had the damn movie playing every night before we went to sleep. You’d think that to be a sign of how much we loved it, but all four of us always fell asleep before the film had completed (given that we stayed up late). You’d think THAT to be a sign that we weren’t fans, except by the end of our two weeks at Cannes, we were are quoting Chico’s Italian accent liberally and saying “thassa goo, eh?” at any given moment. It’s like the film’s energy seeped into us via osmosis. Or we’re just entirely insensitive to the Italians. They ruined Italy after all.

Oh and one more thing: Tim Brayton on Alternate Ending opened his review of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with lamenting how that movie’s humor has been so ingrained into pop culture that the jokes aren’t as sharp anymore. Yeah, I bet that sucks.

Never had that problem with Duck Soup, but I bet that sucks.

Duck Soup


Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

25 for 25 – Psycho Killer, Qu’est-Ce Que C’est

behindthemask2

I wrote a 6000-word essay on this blog on the history of the slasher subgenre in horror films. I don’t think I need to qualify my love for that genre to any regular viewers, but yeah, I adore that trashy subgenre as a wonderful guilty pleasure. And if you read that essay (Godspeed to you), you may recall I optioned to end it on the note of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon‘s release as a small gem in the ruins of the slasher genre’s popularity.

It’s more than just a singular event in the slasher genre… I mean, not that singular, given how Scream precedes it notably as a slasher parody and the careers of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett also attempt some amount of slasher commentary, but I universally am not a fan of either of those… so I guess singular in being a much beloved slasher parody gem that I actually love and admire and find a lot of intelligence in. But it’s also the only feature film credit to director Scott Glosserman (his only other two directors credits is a documentary on Wikipedia and an MTV tv film) and writer David J. Stieve, who have spent most of the time between Behind the Mask‘s 2006 release and now in trying to will the existence of a sequel to the picture. And this is absolutely unfortunate because goddammit, it’s not just that I think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a great standout in 2000s horror, it’s also got a pretty loud enough cult following.

maxresdefault

The premise essentially functions as a 21st century version of the French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (though they’re distinctive in that BTM takes place in a movie world while MBD wants to live in the real world and thus comment more on documentaries and real-world serial killer fascinations than the horror genre itself), especially in being presented with that infamous 21st Century style of pseudo-documentary for the first 2/3: Journalism Graduates Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), Doug (Ben Pace), and Todd (Britain Spellings) invited to the New England town of Glen Echo by a man named Leslie Vernon, who intends to embody a legendary slasher for the town akin to the in-film existence of Jason Voorhees for Crystal Lake, Freddy Krueger for Springwood, and Michael Myers for Haddonfield. When they meet Vernon (Baesel), it’s surprising to find he’s a young, energetic nerd who tries to make himself as personable and approachable as possible while elaborating on both his status within the town as a living ghost and all of the good ol’ prep stuff he’s getting into for the great big ol’ slash-a-thon with his selected Final Girl Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson).

Vernon is obviously Stieve and Glosserman as one person trying to show off everything they notice and love about all those big franchises, even to the point of Vernon getting to have his own little fan moment showing off his friendship to another legend Eugene (Scott Wilson; it’s a popular fan rumor that the character is Billy from Black Christmas but nothing in the movie implies that). Meanwhile, Vernon is proud to show off all the research and work he’s been doing and involve the team in his antics.

tumblr_nbyah6ylll1tvsbvjo4_1280

And that’s more or less where Behind the Mask can actually flex its superiority in my opinion above Scream: the very premise of Behind the Mask demands that the movie call attention to so many physical leaps and inconsistencies like the ability of a stalker to catch up to running prey without breaking a sweat or the contrivances of a killer’s backstory and connection to his Final Girl. I’m imposing my own attitudes towards parodies in general, but you can’t just put a couple namedrops and an attitude of smug contempt for your genre (something BTM absolutely lacks and I love it all the more for it) and pass off your film as critic-proof satire. You need to have something to say about the genre, dammit, you need to dig real deep into it.

And Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes deeper than it even needs to. What at first begins as an invitation to join Glosserman and Stieve in their own little fake “behind-the-scenes” dissection of heightened slasher films, suddenly becomes an indictment of the genre writing new motivations for their characters and the arbitrariness of them (leading to one of my favorite jokes in the movie when confronted about Leslie’s newly concocted fiction: “A lot of what we use is CGI.”). Then there’s the really psychoanalytical stuff it jumps headfirst into in a manner that even Taylor herself feels uncomfortable with, the gender attitudes inherent in a slasher plot and Leslie insistence that Taylor needs to respect his orthodox conventions if he will allow her to continue asking him about this.

behind-the-mask-the-rise-of-leslie-vernon-old-lady

And then there’s STILL the unsubtle callout about the amorality of the slasher genre (given a much headier divide from the viewer because they’re watching a movie while Taylor and the crew are witnessing real life) and how he could be as interested into this, but this is kind of flawed in how the movie earlier answers that question preemptively with “Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?” (and again, the fact that Taylor has to be more involved than the audience shoots itself in the foot). But BTM also makes up for that, kind of, by becoming its own slasher movie in a conventional shooting manner. The first-person camera is abandoned and now we are witnessing it with an objective third-person eye (and something fun about this is how Leslie’s explanation of his plan early on mirrors a lot of the subsequent moments). And there’s obviously only so much meta-commentary to dissect from such a third act shift, but I honestly enjoy it on the shallowest level more than anything: Glosserman and Stieve putting their money where their mouth is at the end of it all and indulging in a smartly-craftey, unexpected slasher movie all the way through its third act.

I mean, I did say I’m a fan of slasher movies.

maxresdefault1

Plus, Baesel’s just a very captivating presence to be around. He’s got a casual yet off-beat energy that makes him constantly watchable and a twisted sort of subject/interviewer chemistry with Goethals that gets close to “oh boy, they’re into each other, aren’t they?”. I might go so far as claiming I prefer him to Benoit Poelvoorde in Man Bites Dog, which is a tall order as I love Poelvoorde as an actor and nothing in Baesel’s acting resume implies he’d ever do much of note again (editing, on the other hand…). And there’s such a home-crafted sense to the film that’s probably thanks to the limited resources… the New England town feels full and lived in and the area Leslie’s legend revolves around so decrepit and abandoned but still an obvious part of Glen Echo. The costume he makes for himself primitive and dusty and yet so obviously a costume that it’s all thanks to Baesel’s performance that he can actually feel like a killer underneath it (indeed one of his killings involves the literal mask being removed and it’s an understated character moment). The world within Behind the Mask feels like a slasher reality – haunting, isolated, small – guided by Vernon’s confident and eager smiles and showcases.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is the sort of fan-service I enjoy indulging in when I watch. On the surface, it’s all “isn’t this kind of great?” are horror movies with its own little allowances for visual references and callbacks and throwbacks (those who just look for visual gags will have a ball in the early first act). On the back end, just a great genre piece for night time watching. And on the inside, a pop culture inquiry on that genre for anybody who wants to unpack it all. That’s a lot to juggle and I’m not sure you CAN do so perfectly (alongside the “isn’t this kind of bad? But here’s a horror movie anyway” aspect, there’s the inconsistency in having Robert Englund act in a film where Freddy Krueger is acknowledged as a real person and really was 2006 the perfect point to comment on found-footage craze pre-Paranormal Activity), Glosserman and Stieve do it with such gusto that it’s unacceptable they don’t have more films under their belt to show for it.

At least we’ll always have this movie.

the-rise-of-leslie-vernon-6


Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

Stay Woke

Film Title: Get Out

Director/Writer Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a special sort of screenplay the likes of with I can’t remember having encountered since Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. It is the sort of screenplay where the writer wanted every single element that comes up to turn around full circle by the end of the film like Chekov’s Gun on maximum. Which leads to storytelling on paper that is rich enough to have the audience speculate on a character’s eating habits (even though Peele has gone on record claiming any possible reading of said moment is inadvertent on his part) or the motivations of its antagonists as they traumatize and assault black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) on his visit to meet the white family of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). And this is especially wonderful when a movie is as eager to function as commentary on anything, let alone racial commentary which Get Out is for the majority of its duration. Very rich and deep commentary on race that also shows off Peele’s knowledge about horror structure and how he uses it (namely the beats of The Stepford Wives, itself a commentary on gender roles). That and Peele having a great handle on the comedy to keep it from undercutting the unsettling control of atmosphere and tone.

Oh yes, despite the spoilerific marketing driving home the idea that Get Out is an all-the-way horror film from the go-to indie horror house Blumhouse, Get Out IS in the end a horror-comedy. There is a sect of its fans that argue it’s not, but there’s way too prevalent an edge of satirical surrealism and a subplot that is so often brought up calling it a “subplot” feels inadequate is so unambiguously comedic in execution (not only does this subplot have an integral part in the final act, it practically gets the last word in the movie) that I can’t imagine anybody trying to sell that Get Out is not a horror-comedy unless they feel there’s a negative connotation with associating it with comedy. Which to be fair, it could be assumed that Peele – best-known for his comedic partnership with Keegan Michael-Key – was unconfident enough in his ability to make a horror movie that he had to use comedy as a crutch, but whether or not that’s the case, it just feels like almost every single choice we see on-screen was one he had absolute control over. He certainly had that much clout as an artist today.

get-out-catherine-keener

Anyway, I mentioned the subplot of Chris’ best friend, TSA worker Rod (Lil Rey Howery), and his paranoia about the trip Chris is taking without elaborating on the actual plot as is, so let me backpedal as is. Like I said, Chris and Rose go on a trip up to what looks like it has to be an isolated New England town (though the film was shot in Alabama) Rose’s overtly rich white liberal parents neurosurgeon Dean and therapist Missy, who are given perhaps the most inspired piece of casting in the form of the wonderful Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Both of them, especially Dean, are remarkably fulsome to Chris’ arrival and it only gets worse later on when they have a backyard dinner party where the degree to which Chris is complimented and questioned on his racial makeup, how it affects his experience in America, and – most creepily – his bodily anatomy becomes aggressive and disarming and yet, shockingly, not antagonistic. In fact, the only outright form of antagonism is from Rose’s douchey masculine brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), drinking and trying to try MMA moves on Chris.

And that’s the wonderful surprise about Get Out and its tackling of racism: we’re used to a certain portrayal of racists in pop culture and media that it has to be angry white conservatives who absolutely scowl at black people are uneducated and so on, but not here. No, Peele is not interested in that but in how white liberals’ eagerness to be so sincerely helpful to the black man can be translated into patronizing microaggressions and that sometimes meaning well doesn’t mean shit if you’re making someone uncomfortable. And sometimes you can still be tone-deaf about some things, like having a black groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and maid (Betty Gabriel).

get-out-2017-3-news

The sincerity of the villains’ actions and comments is legitimate. They seem to be motivated by a fascination with black people as possibly superior beings, not inferior and a desire to… well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it doesn’t feel like the villains hate black people at all. This sort of sharp exaggeration of how people want to look progressive without much identifying a minority as an individual is eye-opening to people like me who fit exactly into the target of this movie’s satire (and the ones it pisses off… well, the less said about them, the better).

There’s two main weapons to creating a satire so effective alongside Peele’s knowledge of the horror genre and they’re kind of complimentary to each other. The first is that the cast is just perfect. Like no argument about it, every single performance is perfect. Keith Stanfield, an actor I love so much he’s the sole reason I’m willing to watch Adam Wingard’s next movie, has little screentime and yet embodies two distinct personalities (one relaxed and genuine, the other restrained and mysterious) eerily and effectively. Keener and Whitford layer cringe dialogue of out-of-touch characters with sinister attitudes and that’s before the obvious reveal of their intentions with Chris. Gabriel certainly made a memorable turn in one single scene and one repeated “No” over and over (it helps that her big scene involves a constant close-up on Peele’s call), but best in show is unambiguously Kaluuya.

Because the second thing is that Peele’s trusts Kaluuya’s reactions to everything he’s being asked and going through that Peele’s direction can play with the ridiculousness of this situation being overt and almost comic. Indeed, that’s how a lot of the inquiries – namely “would you consider being black to be advantage or disadvantage?” or “I would have voted for Obama a third time” – are presented during the day as laughable as a Key & Peele skit, especially the dinner party. Kaluuya’s reactions and disarmament off-sets it from waving aside the problematic element.

And then there are the moments at night, which are intense and on Chris’ wavelength so that Kaluuya can guide the viewer to being unnervingly helpless just from his eyes watering and his hindered movements. And the movie gets visually interesting here, with Missy’s therapy sessions being a vehicle for engulfing blacks and ominous firelit interiors.

All of this trips when Get Out goes full-throttle in its final 20 minutes as a horror film, in which case it just becomes all the sort of disinteresting Blumhouse tropes I’ve never been moved by without an ounce of self-awareness until its final beats. This is also however the moment where the audience I was in the theater with (especially my girlfriend) got exhilarated by the action taken in a cathartic way, so that may just be me. In any case, the movie doesn’t stop with the subtle race jabs (especially with how Chris escapes), the design of the Armitage’s domestic dungeon, and the overall craft of Peele’s work on this most impressive and intelligent of film debuts until the credits roll, so what can I say except gesture at the great film Peele made up until that point.

mv5bzty2njg1owetyzdmyi00y2exlwe2zjatm2uwymy4zmi2zdbjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzq4ody2nja-_v1_