Movie reviews: Psychodrama 'Get Out' an original look at societal ills
Published Friday, February 24, 2017 6:30AM EST
GET OUT: 4 STARS
Funnyman Jordan Peele isn’t the first name you think of when you think of horror, but his new movie, “Get Out,” might change that. The “Key & Peele” star has dropped the satire that made his name in favour of scares.
College students Rose and Chris, played by Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya, have reached the point in their relationship when it’s getting serious and it’s time for him to meet her parents.
“Do they know I’m black?” he asks. “It seems like something you might want to mention. I don't want to get chased off the lawn with a shotgun."
She assures him race is a non-issue—“My dad would've voted for Obama third time if he could have,” she says. “They are not racist.” They head to her leafy upstate hometown to meet parents hypnotherapist Missy and neurosurgeon Dean (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford).
After a few days Chris feels uneasy. A police officer demands to see his driver’s licence even though he wasn’t driving the car and Dean is friendly, but strange. “How long has this been going on,” dad asks, “this thang.”
The atmosphere of apprehension builds during a garden party thrown on Missy and Dean’s estate. “It's like they've never met a black person who didn't work for them,” Chris says. Guests make inappropriate remarks and the only other African American attendee (Lakeith Stanfield) is standoffish until a flash bulb triggers a seizure. “Get out!” he screams over and over, attacking Chris. Unnerved, Chris wants to leave, but finds himself trapped, wondering if his hosts are racist and deadly, or just racist.
Back in the city, Chris’ best friend, TSA agent Rod (LilRel Howery), is worried about his friend. After a Google search or three Rod becomes convinced Chris has been kidnapped and is being used as a suburban sex slave.
“Get Out” is the weirdest and most original mainstream psychodrama to come along since “The Babadook.” The basic premise harkens back to the Sidney Poitier classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” In that film, parents played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn have their attitudes challenged when their daughter introduces them to her African American fiancé. The uncomfortable situation of meeting in-laws for the first time is universal.
It’s the added layers of paranoia and skewered white liberalism that propels Chris’ situation into full-fledged horror. In this setting Chris is the other, the stranger and as his anxiety grows the social commentary regarding attitudes regarding race in America grows sharper and more focussed.
The first hour is a slow burn, a gradual build to the weird behaviour that comes in the final third. Peele skillfully shapes the story, carefully adding layers of horror and humour (mostly courtesy of Howery) that grows to a bloody climax. The subtlety of the first hour is abandoned near the end when the movie shifts tone from a sinister Kubrickian feel to something more akin to an ‘80s slasher flick.
Kaluuya is the film’s beating heart. Williams, Keener and Whitford, who somehow make their mundane WASPy behaviour as creepy as a Facebook message from your high school gym teacher, ably back Kaluuya. Add to that Walter Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel as the otherworldly, possibly lobotomized handyman and housekeeper and you have the elements of a memorable night at the movies.
“Get Out” is a horror film—there are all manner of shocks and jumps—but like all great genre films it isn’t just that. It could more rightly be called a social thriller, a film that looks at everyday ills—in this case racial tension—through the lens of a genre movie.
A UNITED KINGDOM: 2 ½ STARS
“A United Kingdom” is a sweeping story all about love—a king’s love of country, love of people, love of his wife—set against seemingly impossible political obstacles. Featuring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as a true-life star crossed couple whose marriage causes an international incident, the movie tells a fascinating story in the most melodramatic way possible.
London, 1948. Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Pike) meet at a missionary dance and sparks fly. One whirlwind romance later, Seretse reveals that when his education is done he must return to Africa to assume the throne as king of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). “I've been thinking about my responsibilities in Bechuanaland,” he says. “I know I will never achieve anything worthwhile if I leave my heart here.”
Despite the objections of her traditional English parents—Mom thinks she will change her mind, Dad hisses, “You disgust me.”—they marry, triggering a chain reaction of events in England and Africa that threatens his crown, their relationship and the future of his country.
At the dawn of apartheid in southern Africa their marriage is seen as a slap in the face to the British government and a danger to diplomatic relations with other African nations. On a family note, in Africa Ruth is not accepted by Seretse’s relations. “It is audacious to come here,” she is told, “married and present yourself as our queen.”
Question is, can their bond withstand the pressures, both personal and political?
“A United Kingdom” has its heart in the right place. It is an unadulterated romance between a man and a woman who must fight to have their love survive. They say things like, “He scares me a bit… the way he makes me feel,” and stare at each other with moon eyes.
It is also a love story of a man and his country, a king with a deep belief in equality and change. “Independence, democracy, a new Africa. It is time,” he says.
Fine, love is complicated, especially when international politics gets in the way, but director Amma Asante paints the romance and the politics with the same melodramatic brush. A heightened love story is one thing, but when it comes to the inner workings of international affairs a little restraint might have made the story of ingrained systemic racism more powerful. Instead we are handed evil bureaucrats, secret dossiers and an almost slapstick villain in the form of the British government representative of Southern Africa, Sir Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport).
The only things missing from the performance are the gleeful rubbing of hands and a moustache to twirl.
The couple’s dilemma is real and heartbreaking but the theatrical treatment of their plight feels more crowd-pleasing than introspective or deeply felt.
“A United Kingdom” is a beautiful looking movie, with solid if histrionic performances that has trouble balancing the romantic and partisan aspects of this touching real-life tale.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS: 4 STARS
Just when you think the zombie genre has run out of ideas, along comes “The Girl with All the Gifts,” a British thriller that puts a fresh spin on the putrid genre.
When the story begins all is calm. Or at least as calm as the dystopian future can ever be. A fungal disease called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has devastated the planet, leaving those affected without free will, but with a taste for blood. These “hungries” are set to take over unless something can be done. Enter a group of children infected by the disease, but capable of advanced thought. In the search for a cure these children are studied at a remote English army base run by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close).
The children are shackled to chairs, forced to wear face masks and have no skin to skin contact with the doctors, teachers or soldiers who look after them. Despite their small sizes everyone regards them as dangerous, hungry creatures—after all they did eat their way out of their wombs!—except teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). She reads them stories and has bonded with one remarkable child, Melanie (Sennia Nanua). The youngster is as lethal as the others but is possessed of superior intelligence and charm.
When the base is overrun by “hungries” Dr. Caldwell, Helen and Melanie escape, but not before the child shows her true colours. “I did something bad,” she says. “I ate bits of the soldiers.” With the help of the world-weary Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) they make their way to London.
“Our mission statement is to gather data,” says the good doctor.
“It was until the fence went down,” grunts Eddie. “Now our mission statement is to keep ourselves off the menu.”
“The Girl With All the Gifts” borrows from George A. Romero, Danny Boyle and even from “The Walking Dead” and yet its mix of social commentary, zippy zombies and exploding skulls doesn’t feel like a re-tread.
The addition of a child, deadly though she may be, brings empathy to a world so often devoid of compassion. It also opens up some opportunities for dark humour—“Don’t play with anybody who looks dead,” Melanie is warned—that come as a welcome break from the bleakness of many dystopian zombie-fests. As Melanie, Nanua is tremendous, bringing some real humanity to a character who lives on the fringes of humanity.
“The Girl with All the Gifts” is not as outright scary as “28 Days Later” or “Night of the Living Dead,” but it is unsettling. Deliberately paced, it slowly builds to a climax that asks difficult questions about the price of survival, capping it with the chilling words, (MILD SPOILER) “It’s not all over, it’s just not yours anymore.”
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO: 4 STARS
Nominated this year for an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” draws from an unfinished book by novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet James Baldwin. Deeply personal, “Remember This House” was meant to be a remembrance of his friends and civil-rights titans Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, using Baldwin’s own words and a smattering of archival footage, the film isn’t a biography of the man but a biography of a lifetime of experiences, experiences that reverberate today.
As timely in 2017 as when the words were written in 1979, it’s a portrait of race relations in America, a place Baldwin calls, “a complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded.” To hammer home this point Peck uses archival footage from Baldwin’s lifetime as well as ripped-from-the-headlines images of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Black Lives Matter and Michael Brown.
With no talking heads, Peck relies on news footage, movie clips and archival talk show tape, intercutting them with the fluidity of jazz. Posters and graphics punctuate the narration, subliminally driving home Baldwin’s points. More striking than the visuals is the arresting eloquence of Baldwin’s words. When he makes—and Jackson verbalizes—statements like, “To look around America today is to make prophets and angels weep,” it is impossible to not to be moved by both the beauty of the language and the underlying message.
Baldwin lived at a tumultuous time but as his words remind us, “History is not the past it is the present. We are our history.”
DYING LAUGHING: 2 STARS
You may not actually die laughing from watching the new talking head documentary “Dying Laughing” but you will get a closer look into the psyche of the people who stand on stages to make us laugh.
The premise is simple. Directors Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton have assembled a who’s who of comedians—Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Billy Connelly and Garry Shandling to name just a fraction of the faces represented here—to discuss what it is like to be a comic. One after the other, in front of a white screen, they tell the kind of stories -- about being on the road, about bombing and how to deal with hecklers -- that you imagine comics only share with one another in seedy hotel rooms and backstage at gigs.
Occasionally revealing—being a comedian is “too painful and difficult if it isn’t a calling,” says Shandling while Seinfeld clarifies that it isn’t audience approval he wants but audience sublimation—occasionally funny, it is more often than not occasionally repetitive. In story after story the details change—Connelly was once punched in the face in the middle of a set!—but the gist remains the same. “You’ve got to die to get good.” “The more pain you go through the better you’ll be.” Sometimes the language is quite colourful—“Bombing feels like being slapped by your dad at a BBQ.”—but it does go on longer than it should.
Judging by the off-camera laughter during the interview segments this was a fun film to make. Too bad it isn’t quite as much fun to watch. A judicious editor, perhaps one a little less in love with the material probably could have cut this down to the bone, mining the interviews for new insight.