Some of Those That Work Forces…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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Why Would a Democracy Need a King?

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Even with the note that I personally did not care for Kingsman: The Secret Service, the role of Colin Firth’s star character Kingsman Agent Harry Hart and the way they Dougie Jones’d* him (which would probably function as a spoiler if the marketing wasn’t so happy to reveal his return) in the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle plays a metaphor for itself: an attempt to get right back to business with the stylistic things that made it charming in the moment, only for it having trouble finding its footing even when it’s just trying to repeat the same beats as the first verse.

To be fair to The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn’s sequel to his 2015 spy movie homage adapted from Mark Millar’s The Secret Service comic book about the independent intelligence organization, it feels less nasty and reprehensible than its predecessor (I might daresay it feels so by a large amount depending on how generous I am given the day). And it gets to feel so by having nearly every awful element amount it contained in one massively misconceived scene that easily would lose a point by me if I were a rating man. Make no mistake, the stuff that occurs in the scene centered around a mission at Glastonbury Festival is pretty damn bad. Narrative-wise, it’s a horrible introduction to the capabilities of Statesman Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) as well as providing a sudden conflict of assumed infidelity between our Kingsman Agent Galahad aka Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and his committed Swedish Princess girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) that never truly gets resolved so much as just dropped. Content-wise, it has a painfully out-of-touch portrayal of 2010s youth that is the closest thing anything in the franchise came to functioning as parody and the parody is frankly unfunny. On top of which, the mission in particular requires two men to double team on seducing a young woman and place a tracker in her in a manner that outdoes the anal sex joke in the first movie in tastelessness, especially in consideration of the now-year-old Donald Trump/Billy Bush recording tapes, especially considering the juvenile manner of the camera zooming further on the tracker as it sinks into Eggsy’s target.

If I can remove that scene from my mind, it’ll be a bless up.

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Beyond that, the movie still makes a mess out of its attempt at political themes** by trying to argue that villainess drug mogul Poppy’s (Julianne Moore) attempts to kill every person who uses drugs – illegal or medicinal or whatever – in the world is bad but also makes third-act shift being anti-War-on-Drugs to turning its resolution into something akin to a “Drugs are bad” PSA with everything back to normal including the criminalization of the drug trade and addicts. And that’s only the thematic clunkiness of Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s screenplay, the narrative pacing is kind of up and down all throughout. It all feels like a first draft assemblage of moments: Eggsy being introduced to Tilde’s parents, Poppy’s sudden destruction of all the Kingsman agents and headquarters G.I. Joe Retaliation-style (leaving Eggsy and Mark Strong’s intel man Merlin as the lone survivors), the Kingsman’s contingency protocol to rendezvous with their American co-organization Statesman, and their subsequent investigation as to what Poppy is up to in her 50s themed Cambodian hideout. That’s my attempt to streamline the main plot into some sort of summary and it ignores how momentum-halting the sudden return of Firth’s Hart from the grave becomes as they discover him suffering from amnesia, the domestic issue between Eggsy and Tilde, the president’s (Bruce Greenwood) apathy to the matter despite having no true stake in the denouement in the film (which also makes it the source of most of the film’s muddled politics), or the way Channing Tatum’s charming Agent Tequila is somewhat sidelined. That last one largely hurts because of what a Tatum fan I am and how very much best-in-show he is from the moment he shows up, turning it into more of a cartoon from his wild card guntoting Texan caricature.

Tatum is not the only worthwhile performance, though. Among the stand-outs in a mostly great cast: Egerton has only gotten stronger as a screen presence from his impressive breakout in the first movie, Pascal provides a great rugged Burt Reynolds imitation, Jeff Bridges only has 5 minutes tops of screentime but can play that sort of Southern Gentleman personality in his sleep, Moore is a wonderful demented home-maker of a villain, and Elton John tore the house down in a foul-mouthed extended cameo. In fact, the only real disappointment is Firth and part of that is just that the movie can’t let him go back to his full charms until late in the game at which point it’s underwhelming and too little too late.

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Meanwhile, the main action setpieces feel like one great big repetition over and over. While they’re all digitally-cut swinging long takes that get right in on the fight to a fun ole’ needledrop without much distinction between them when you get down to it. The ones that bookend the film are certainly a lot of fun – with a cramped car-bound fistfight opening the film and a great big environment manipulating gun battle as the second to last action scene – and the film is very quick to get down and dirty in an action when it looks like one’s coming, but that only goes so far to avoided feeling diluted in style when the movie can’t be as varied in its action movie tones as the original did so well. In fact, the original did that so well, it almost tricked me into liking it. The Golden Circle doesn’t get that far.

So, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a less objectionable than its predecessor, but I’m entirely convinced it’s better. It feels sapped of personality unlike the original, it feels paint-by-numbers. In lowering its weakneses, it also ended up lowering most of its charms and strengths and while I’m not sure this is a bad thing, this movie feels like the most grudgingly obligatory of Matthew Vaughn’s works since X-Men: First Class. He’s feeding us a burger of soiled meat and telling us it’s a Big Mac.

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*Even acknowledging that Twin Peaks: The Return is not at all the source of that kind of development in bringing back a character, I hope that term becomes a thing.
**And for all the Kingsman apologists try to claim it’s the sort of movie you should shut your mind off about, there’s no way to do that with the first’s pointed attempts at class commentary and the second’s War on Drugs plot points. If the Kingsman films fail to provide any political commentary that isn’t muddled, I find that to be a consequence of execution, not intent.

25 for 25 – This Ain’t No Love-In, This Ain’t No Happening, This Ain’t No Feeling in My Arm

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When I decided to get digging into this personal series, one of the very first things that I remembered was how immediately unsatisfying my double review of Halloween and Night of the Living Dead was upon its first posting and my public pledge to return to those movies whenever I could. Whelp, I guess it’s time to pay the piper. And one of these is my favorite horror movie of all time so I may as well begin with that.

Night of the Living Dead is potentially the laziest choice you could ever make for your favorite horror film because it is so very popular and well-known and influential. It ranks up there with the Universal Monsters and Psycho as the most influential and recognizable horror film of the 21st Century, effectively shaping how horror cinema would function in all of the years to follow. And how it does that is also possibly how it finds itself snuggly close to my heart. One of these the minimalist austerity of the classical era, something director George A. Romero had absolutely no choice except to use as a tool kit for his low-budget black-and-white $114,000 production. The other is the absolutely visceral physically-minded horror that Night of the Living Dead cuts through its seemingly restrained production like a beast swooping upon a prey, the most recognizable aspect of horror filmmaking these days of slashers and torture porn and generally violent horror pictures, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre all the way over to A Cure for Wellness, even if the gore isn’t a-flowing in a particular horror movie. Given that I adore both of those sides of the horror cinema coin, the fact that Night of the Living Dead flips in between those is in the end a large part of what ensures it a spot in my personal canon. It’s not the FIRST movie to do it – Psycho, Eyes Without a FacePeeping Tom, and Blood Feast (let alone all of the Hammer studio pictures) introduced many of these practices in a more sophisticated manner – but the grimy dirt on Night of the Living Dead‘s production values probably makes it easier for me to respond to (and answers why it’s one of my filmmaking bibles as a movie). Sometimes grit and grime makes something seem more real, even if it’s as ridiculous as a zombie story.

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Indeed, Romero and co-writer John A. Russo provided the FIRST zombie story as we know it, as they were previously simply treated as voodoo hypnotized corpses pristine without a semblance to the shambling, decrepit, and cannibalistic corpses we know them as (and while the zombies in Night of the Living Dead aren’t all that decrepit, the very pale makeup gives them a sickly ghoulish look especially with the contrast of the black-and-white photography, not to mention their absent facial expressions). That first zombie story is not complex on a surface level: a group of people in the face of a plague of undead eaters sit stuck in one small house, all in different frames of mind at our first meeting of them, and we slowly watch the tension between different game plans and egos boil out until the zombies spill into the house and up the carnage. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) is our first in on the story, as she witnesses her brother’s death in a cemetery visit gone nightmarish and then follow her to the seemingly abandoned house, but she’s quickly made catatonic and unresponsive from the trauma and the main focus is the clash between African-American calm tactical-minded Ben (Duane Jones), who comes in soon after to secure the house, and the white, paranoid, sputtering, flop sweat patriarch Harry (Karl Hardman), holing up in the basement to protect his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and sick daughter Karen (Kyra Schon).

All others are merely casualties in the middle of Ben and Harry’s fight for control of the situation from two very apparently different stances and I really can’t go this far anymore without echoing everybody else on how obviously (even if incidentally by Romero’s admission) Night of the Living Dead functions as a racial commentary. There’s no way in 1968 you can have a white man and a black man so at heads, especially with the black man winning out most of the time, frustrating the white man at how he’s usurped and not be a commentary about race relations. There’s no way you can have THAT ending (which I won’t spoil) in 1968 and not be a commentary on race relations. I’m not being profound in mentioning this. It’s especially obvious that the film WANTS us to be on Ben’s side – Ben is always the most rational character in the frame and Jones is frankly the only actor who gives a performance above and beyond the basics of his character – so when the movie goes on to use Ben and Harry’s conflict for its own nihilistic ends, it’s not the way one expects or hopes.

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What violates my sense of narrative most in this film, more than the ending, more than the sudden violence used to punctuate the long drawn-out tensions (convincing with Romero’s control on the framing and editing), is the fact that the fight between Ben and Harry ends up leaving people killed no matter what. Abruptly, suddenly, with no real information to contextualize beyond a news cast that serves us exposition and an eye on how this situation is working out within the continental United States (I’ve read around on how the Vietnam War and its frank television coverage is another subject of Night of the Living Dead‘s social commentary, removing the divide American viewers had with violence going on in a faraway country and bringing right home). I don’t want to go so far as to claim Ben is wrong in the end (for it’s not a secret how cruel the film is to everyone and on nobody’s side), but he’s OUR HERO. He’s supposed to leave the film with everybody alive and well.

And he can’t save everyone the way we want him to. This is something I think Robert Kirkman has tried to utilize in his comic book series The Walking Dead (and its TV adaptation) and its hero Rick Grimes, but the problem is there’s more of a finite element in film whereas a comic book can keep adding characters on and on.

Anyway, that’s all just praising Night of the Living Dead on the narrative end without acknowledging that the real reason this movie is such a Bible to me is how it utilizes its limitations as much as it can to be potent tension regardless of how apolitical you might be. Again, this movie takes place in one house and yet Romero knows how to keep the 96-minute runtime moving with using the angle of the frame to clock out the increasing uneasiness of its characters all the way to their outright hysteria, a sense of bringing the movie out of balance visually with fear with an insistence on having the movie feel trapped or cornered with these characters, whether the angry humans or the dangerous zombies. Implication enough – with the help of the actors’ expressions – to know we’re watching something horrible and giving a sickliness to the frames of powdered white people eating Bosco’s Chocolate covered hams pretending it’s blood-soaked guts. And while the music is nothing to write home about, oversignaling the mood, the sound mix is otherwise the sort of thing that gets under your skin in its lo-fi (as it would have to be) manner. Just recently, I tried to show a friend a clip of the most infamous (and possibly violent) moment in the whole film – you know the one… with the trowel… – and she wouldn’t finish it because hearing the continuous moans and beats of the zombies outside the house door was completely upsetting to her. So, there’s your thing.

Any movie was eventually going to open the doors in 1968 – shortly after Some Like It Hot destroyed the Production Code’s power – for truly violent reckless cinema to finally enter horror culture, but Night of the Living Dead does it with a slight restraint and earthiness that both adds to the grungy disturbing elements and then harkens back to the limitations of our more classical terror works that had to make do with (albeit unfortunately NotLD does have a cheapness that makes unpalatable to some). And no other movie does it with such an angry attitude, having things to say about how ugly the world is, right down to the final beat of the film and how the credits follow the ramifications of it to the very final frame.

Night of the Living Dead didn’t open the doors, it blew them wide the fuck open. For cinema, for horror culture, and for this little 16-year-old that watched it late at night in an isolated house in Homestead, FL in 2008.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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X Marks the Spot

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So entertain me for a moment if you would, I want you to try to think back upon a time in which there wasn’t as much an overglut of superhero movies as there is now, much less the concept of the film universe except in non-film spin-offs like comic books or video games. It’s tough to imagine since movies based on comic movies were actually in existence for a long time well before you’d imagine. We have the theatrical serials of the 30s and 40s based on your favorite characters of Superman and Batman before they got their large scale feature film debut in 1978 and 1966 respectively (yeah, Burton’s film came out in ’89 and really brought out the Batmania but we forget Adam West introduced the world as we know it to Batman, however campy that Batman is). Hell, we don’t even necessarily have to stick out of superheroes to claim comic book movies an inconsistent practice, since we have Dick Tracy, Howard the DuckFlash Gordon, and so many others roaming around to varying effect.

But we weren’t so saturated with superhero films as we are now (e.g., this year has us see the release of Batman v. SupermanCaptain America: Civil WarDeadpoolX-Men: ApocalypseSuicide SquadDoctor Strange, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) to the point of them becoming a mainstay of cinema like Westerns in the early decades or Slashers in the 80s. That didn’t come from Superman or Batman‘s successes, as impressive as they were, for some reason or another. They were already cultural icons.

My personal suggestion is a 1-2-3 triple threat in the years entering the new millennium that truly kickstarted the free-for-all scramble studios made for as many comic book properties as they could get their damn hands on, knowing that even the worst of them were growing to be a money-printing industry. First, in 1997, Men in Black was released by Sony Pictures, loosely based on the Marvel Comics to a degree that I can’t entirely cover (having never read them) but I understand to be an extreme tonal shift. Yet, Men in Black became the first comic book movie ever to make half a million dollars at the box office and, while it wasn’t marketed as a movie based on a comic book so much as a Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones vehicle – the former being in the middle of his rise from The Fresh Prince into one of the biggest movie stars of all time, the latter a fresh Oscar winner – and effects extravaganza, and convinced Marvel Studios to continue its relationship with Sony Pictures by granting them the rights of a particularly recognizable superhero. That superhero being Spider-Man, which released in 2002, to even more astonishing success – making $821.7 million that overshadowed the success of Men in Black, being the first movie to ever make $100 million in its first weekend, and at the time having the largest opening gross of all time.

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And yet between those two, the real ignition underneath Spider-Man that already had studios keeping their eye on how these superhero movies did was Fox’s 2000 release of X-Men, a movie Fox had gotten rights to in 1994 after the success of the animated series in the 90s and that had – at just $300 million – promised that at worst you’d make a whole lotta money and while Spider-Man promised at best you’d make all the money in the world and then some.

Following the comic book with relatively surprising fidelity, X-Men tells the story of a race of humanity that possess a variety of superpowers, known to the world as Mutants. They are all feared and mistrusted by the rest of the world, as we witness the United States Government early in the film attempting to figure out the best and safest way to decidedly marginalize and disenfranchise them, with psychic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) being the Mutant’s sole representative to these discussions and constantly being shut-out and shut down by vehement anti-Mutant Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison). In the meantime, there is just as much in-fighting among the Mutants as there is the few Mutants that try to give a public front for America, namely Grey and her psychic mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the latter running a school for Mutants that doubles as a refuge from the alienation of the rest of the world. Xavier himself also has to keep eyes on his former partner and now nemesis, bitterly vengeful Holocaust survivor and master of metal manipulation Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Ian McKellan), who promises something very nasty for Kelly and indeed the entire world for threatening to put him through the same trauma again. And thus Xavier has the X-Men, a mutant team to keep the world safe from Lensherr’s own Brotherhood of Mutants.

It’s a very focused narrative for such a wide scope of issues that David Hayter’s screenplay tackles, based on a storyline constructed by director Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto. Especially ones so bluntly politicized as racism, runaway youths, immigration (not as easy to recognize without the foreknowledge that Wolverine is Canadian), domestic terrorism, and even others that can be applied based on the perspective of the viewer (the openly gay Singer had always approached the issue as he would homophobia while I actually found the movie to come to my life at the perfect point to acknowledge post-9/11 Islamophobia as a Muslim child, especially projected by the opening scene of X2: X-Men United). And it largely gets to clean itself up this way by focusing primarily on two points of views that I will get to later on in this review, but in the meantime, Hayter’s writing – while very mindful of keeping separate the way Lensherr and Xavier would express ideals and giving Kelly especially McCarthy-esque attitudes to exude – mirrors Singer in a manner that one doesn’t really realize until you probably have the retrospect a crapload of superhero movies since affords you: Singer’s direction and Hayter’s script is for the most part has a herculean amount of restraint, especially when you consider both have proven to be extreme fans of the X-Men comics that relished the chance to make this movie. I don’t know if it has to do with the still-shaky computer-generated imagery at the time but a lot of the story beats are grounded in dialogue between characters drawing lines in the sand than actual action setpieces, though there are plenty effects numbers to keep us satiated and stunned by what the characters can do. There are arguably two action setpieces and that’s it: the train station battle and the Liberty Island battles, both in the back half of the film (There is also the climax immediately after the latter on top of the Statue of Liberty but it is most certainly one of the times where the movie’s CGI fall most grievously apart). But there are smaller moments where the movie gets to interject some showcase of the Mutant’s capabilities and it’s almost always to the aid of the script rather than divorced from it. Meanwhile, Singer and his frequent cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel approach the film in a composed manner that compliments the anamorphic ratio of the picture without making it show off until the team gets into the Liberty Island’s head and grounds so much of the design of the movie in cold and tired blues and greens and browns without falter. This isn’t a movie that wants to pop, this is a movie that wants to feel like its in the real-world without sacrificing any of that realism. Which is probably why Hayter’s script is also so definitely grounded and to the point with every discussion, there’s no place for Joss Whedon’s quips in here (two of which survived an early draft of his and both of them astonishingly out of place, though “you’re a dick” at least made me laugh as a kid).

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Hayter’s manner of grounding the film and streamlining all these incidents into one narrative is by starting with the point of view of one character, the runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin), and deftly turning the perspective halfway through to the real breakout star of the film, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as both encounter Xavier and his School for the Gifted for the first time. Which explains why I tried to hold off talking about them for so long because, just as much as Singer’s winking love for these characters and attempts to visually sympathize with them in every manner, Paquin and Jackman’s performances are the secret weapons of this movie. Paquin doesn’t get enough love for her ability to communicate the sense of dislocation, unbelonging, and anxiety that a teenage girl forced to abandon her life would feel (as she absorbs the energy and powers of every she touches to their complete pain), with wide eyes and a coiled-up discomfort that she implies that she could turn every bit as jaded as healing knife-handed Wolverine while Jackman, in the role that not only made him a BIG DAMN STAR but also made me actually admire a character I otherwise hate in other medium (A small, hairy, smelly ball of anger? No thanks.), actively amplifies the primal nature of Wolverine’s personality in every aspect from his distrust and paranoia to his  his paternal tenderness towards Paquin by only making surface expressions with a suppression of inner commentary, implying the fact that Wolverine doesn’t want to live inside his head for even the smallest while (something explored once again in the immediate sequel). Together, they make a very relatable pair of protagonists and their chemistry makes an interesting father-daughter dynamic based on how damaged they are as characters. Early on, Rogue asks with a stir of sympathy and fear if it hurts when Wolverine unleashes his adamantium claws (a very early effects shot shows one such claw tearing its way out of his middle knuckle in bloodless speed yet uncomfortable closeness) and Wolverine responds with a resigned sadness “every time”, a moment that marks how the two of them begin to relate in their hurt.

And they’re still only second-best to what may be the finest comic book movie cast ever assembled (only rivaled by its sequel, Spider-Man, and The Addams Family), one where every single actor selected smacks of inspiration from Singer and co-producer Tom DeSanto eager to see the characters they love brought to life. Stewart – already a star for his Shakespearean work and Star Trek: The Next Generation – is a complete no-brainer, Janssen carries an intellectual air to Jean while also juggling the subtle sexuality that puts her in the middle of a romantic triangle between Wolverine and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), Davison a self-satisfied despicability in his Senator Kelly followed by overwhelming terror as he turns into a Cronenberg character later in the film, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos a mysterious and dangerous aura that makes me kind of hate what Jennifer Lawrence has done to her shapeshifting Mystique since, and even bit roles like Ray Park and Tyler Mane as Toad and Sabretooth respectively have a very physical personality to their villainous henchmen to Magneto (a repulsively inhuman athleticism to the former, an imposing stature and feral facial features in the latter) that couldn’t possibly be done without the actors they used, even given their heavy make-up work. Best in show is of course McKellan as Magneto, who takes great relish in the villainous affiliation of the character, striding into every scene with confidence and underlining it by the pathos of the character’s justification to himself of the horrors he’s witnessed and his vehement refusal to suffer once again (the character was based in the comic by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Chris Claremont on Meir Kahane and his relationship with Xavier based on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X).

The ensemble cast is not entirely perfect: James Marsden as Cyclops doesn’t give agency to an already pretty bland “Boy Scout” of a character (and Cyclops is meant to be the leader) and Halle Berry as Ororo “Storm” Munroe has every bit of acting she can spare in the role eaten up by an awfully unbelievable Kenyan accent. Truth be told, X-Men is never anywhere close to a perfect movie – the climax blowing up in the movie’s face, Michael Kamen’s score being aimlessly bombastic (I can never not think of him as more of a metal composer), the overstuffing of the cast means that Hayter and Singer need to think of some dodgy ways to put some characters out of commission (always a problem in this franchise, though Singer is at least the one filmmaker who knows how to juggle as many characters as he can). Still, X-Men proved to be successful enough in all the things it wants to do – distinguishable characters, human-based narrative, impressive fight scenes, comic book imagery – that its sophisticated subduction of style makes it an interesting hallmark for a genre and culture in film that has just begun to get noisier and bigger without an ounce of the impact X-Men makes as a film on its own terms. The idea that we can have such an unabashed fan be willing to make hard decisions and watch over his aesthetic like this, as opposed to say Zack Snyder, is part of what made the X-Men franchise work out against all odds and keeps it rolling to this day.

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