Thursday, March 16, 2017

Get Out

A few weeks ago Jessica sent me a trailer to a movie, saying we should go check it out. This was exciting, because although she is happy to go to movies with me all the time, it's rare that she finds one she specifically wants to go out of her way to see, so I was pumped to see what it was. Turns out, it was GET OUT. Good eye, Jessica.

I had heard Jordan Peele was making a horror movie, and knew it was called GET OUT, but I didn't know anything about the premise and hadn't seen the trailer yet. I was already sold before I saw the trailer, but even more sold that this would be something we'd have to see opening night once I did see the trailer.

So we went to the Century 16, which has upgraded to sweet reclining seats with lots of legroom, and had a nice date night.

In the intervening weeks pretty much everyone now knows that GET OUT is destined to be a classic. Everyone who has seen it loves it, it's well reviewed and it's making bank. On top of that, it's actually about something, which is nice. Turns out you can have a total crowd pleaser with a message. Who knew?

GET OUT stars Daniel Kaluuya as a young photographer about to visit his new girlfriend's (Allison Williams) parents for the weekend. This will be the first time they've met, which is nerve wrecking for anyone, but even worse in this case because his girlfriend has neglected to warn her upper-class white family that her boyfriend is black. It's okay, she says – they're not racist.

Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener play the parents in question, a neurologist and his psychiatrist wife, who offers to hypnotize Kaluuya to get him over his smoking habit. They're immediately apologetic for how bad it must look that they have black help (Betty Gabriel as the maid and Marcus Henderson as the groundskeeper) and things are a little weird and uncomfortable, but nothing that can't be written off as out-of-touch, unintentional, misguided, tone deaf, entitled, privileged racism. You know, the liberal kind.

As the weekend progresses, it turns out it's time for a big annual party Williams' parents host, and the more creepy white people who show up, the more uncomfortable Kaluuya becomes, and the more overt the passive-aggressive racism becomes. The guests seem patronizingly fascinated by Kaluuya, and the only other black guest in attendance (LaKeith Stanfield) seems strangely zombie-fied, and freaks out when Kaluuya shoots him with a flash camera. As an audience we know something's up, because we've seen the trailer, and Kaluuya is ready to get out as well, though not quite convinced he's in a horror movie, yet. To him, this is just white people being shitty, again.

There is one guy who is easily convinced this is a horror flick, though, and that's Kaluuya's best buddy, a TSA agent played by Lil Rel Howery. He's the comic relief and he steals every scene he's in. From early on he suspects trouble, but later becomes increasingly convinced that something evil's afoot, and eventually becomes the only guy who could possibly save his friend, if his friend can't save himself.

I'd say Howery was the best part of the movie, but I don't want to sell everything else short. He was my favorite part, for sure, but that's just a testament to how well written and constructed this movie is. It's such a slow burn filled with dread that once Howery's scenes comes along it's such a series of crowd pleasing moments it's hard not to love. It's one of those things where you're loving the movie for how well it has "played" you – you're not distracted by anything. The script is solid, the editing's solid, the cinematography is beautiful, the acting is great. This is a text book example of how all you have to do to please a crowd is to make a great film. Hitchcock and Spielberg would be proud.

I won't give the ending away or reveal what these people are up to, but I will say it's a very satisfying and not entirely expected conclusion. I went into this movie knowing it would be a horror satire about racism, but didn't know exactly HOW it would be about racism. Again, without giving too much away, I was surprised that the ending didn't double down on the shock value or exploitation value of racism. Instead, it followed logically from what we've seen before, down the insidious path of "liberal" racism, I guess you could call it, which is something much of the audience of this movie needs to see, something the main character in the movie sees all the time. It's a major strength of this movie but also sad to note that this is just about the first movie, or at least the first mainstream movie, to even feature the point of view of this kind of main character.

From a writing perspective I admire Peele's simultaneous craft and willingness to follow a premise from beginning to end. It's thrilling to see a far out premise fully exploited and crafted into a wonderful story when most movies either feature a boring premise, or a fascinating one that gets immediately discarded. Peele has it both ways: he breaks original ground and honors what makes a great story.

Halfway through this movie I had two thoughts. The first was, "I'll totally go see this movie again." The second was, "I know it's early in the year, but how can this NOT be on my top 10 list for 2017?" That's how good it was.

Here's another example of how good it was: I put off writing this because I didn't feel like I could do it justice. How can you talk about the issues raised in this film AND what a great film it is from an artistic and entertainment standpoint, and still do it justice? Now that I've finally written, I still don't think I've done it justice, so I guess you'll just have to go out and see it. Maybe twice.

The Lego Batman Movie

I've been a fan of Batman as long as I can remember, even before the 1989 movie. I used to lay awake at night hoping if I had to die it wouldn't happen until AFTER I finally got to see Tim Burton's masterpiece. Then, I figured, I could die and it wouldn't matter. At least I would have seen BATMAN.

Little did I know a billion years later I'd be going to see a cartoon called THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE as an old man. I enjoyed THE LEGO MOVIE, specifically Will Arnett as an egotistical Batman (in full Tim Burton/Michael Keaton mode), so I was looking forward to this one, which promised to be a star-studded sendup and love letter to all things BAT.

The movie gets off to a promising start, with an action-packed musical number featuring Batman battling an army of super villains led by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis). During the battle, Batman lets slip to the Joke that he doesn't consider the Joker his arch nemesis. The rest of the movie's plot concerns a heartbroken Joker's attempts to become Batman's arch nemesis once and for all, and Batman's struggles with intimate relationships after the trauma of his parents' untimely demise.

Unfortunately, even at under 2 hours, there's only really about a half hour of material here, so after the first 30 minute barrage of action and jokes, the movie starts to get a little stale and old and it eventually crumbles into a series of loud and visually confusing set pieces that had me wondering when the end credits were coming.

The movie also had me wondering – why Legos? The original LEGO MOVIE had a reason built into the plot why it was about Legos. LEGO BATMAN, not so much. They could have made virtually the same movie without the Lego angle and everything would have been the same. I realize it's a brand people recognize and a spinoff of another movie and so on and so forth but they could have done at least SOMEthing to write actual Legos into the plot. Right?

Still, it's not that bad if you can put up with it, and definitely has its moments, including some of the best Robin stuff that's ever made it into a mainstream BATMAN production, with Michael Cera ingeniously cast as Robin. There's also Rosario Dawson as Batgirl and Ralph Fiennes as Alfred, and there we have a cast I wouldn't mind seeing in an actual movie, instead of a Lego cartoon. Oh, well.

There's also a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo by the voice of Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face, complete with a Lego-lookalike. I appreciated this nod to the 1989 movie where Williams played Harvey Dent, but was later recast in BATMAN FOREVER with Tommy Lee Jones when the district attorney became Two-Face. I've always wanted to see Williams as Two-Face, and now I have.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Philadelphia Story

The Hollywood Theatre showed THE PHILADELPHIA STORY recently, and though I watched it during Romancefest 2017, I couldn't include it in the lineup in good conscience since I've seen it multiple times already. Still, Jessica and I went to check it out and had a great afternoon with this sweet and hilarious classic.

I first saw THE PHILADELPHIA STORY in a film studies class in high school. I've seen it at least once more since then, and now finally, I've seen it in 35mm on the big screen. It's the famous story of a Philadelphia socialite (Katherine Hepburn) on the eve of her 2nd wedding, and her recovered alcoholic ex's (Cary Grant) attempts to disrupt the nuptials by sicking a pair of undercover reporters (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey) on the secluded family home.

It isn't long before Hepburn and her family are wise to the charade and playing a charade of their own, posing perverted Uncle (Roland Young) as estranged Dad, estranged Dad (John Halliday) as perverted Uncle and wowing the reporters with a French-speaking ballerina of a younger sister (Virginia Weidler). Stewart's disgusted that he's lowered to covering what amounts to tabloid trash, and Hepburn's disgusted that her privacy should be exposed to the press. Grant's just disgusted that Hepburn's marrying a square (John Howard).

That's not totally true -- half the charm of this flick is how Grant has basically no ill-will towards anyone. His marriage with Hepburn famously ended with a physical altercation, after which he cleaned up and went sober. Now he wants her back. He's well loved by her family, and for good reason -- he's affable and charming, even in the face of dealing with her new fiancee and Stewart as an unexpected new suitor.

The movie is funny, lightning fast, keeps you guessing, and doesn't settle for just one charade after another. The charades are soon dispensed with and the various characters are forced to work out the rest of the movie as themselves, no more plot contrivances involved, unless of course you count the presence and effect of booze on Hepburn and Stewart, but I don't. Even though this movie has three major stars in the lead roles, the entire supporting cast is great, and it's as near to a perfect movie as you can probably get.

Let's not gloss over that last thing -- the leads are all huge stars, rightfully so, bringing each of their individually unique personas and energies to play. Stewart is totally believable and sympathetic as the cynical but idealogical journalist and Grant is endlessly likable as the reformed cad who wants a second chance. Rarely is there a love triangle where you like everyone involved, and that's to the credit of this movie -- it'd be too simple if one of them was a jerk. Hepburn walks a particularly rough tight rope, able to convincingly play someone who's afraid to cut loose while also being funny. To the script's credit, the Hepburn character is told she's boring and needs to loosen up, but never bores the audience -- we're with her all the way, because she's three dimensional. Sadly, that's rare.

Coffy

I first saw Pam Grier in Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN, back when I was in high school. The movie blew my mind and I was immediately impressed with her but didn't see any of her classics until later, when I was in college, trying to write a short screenplay dealing with Blaxploitation. I researched the genre and this obviously led me to Grier classics like COFFY, FOXY BROWN and SHEBA BABY.

Years later, the Hollywood theater showed a 35mm print of COFFY as part of the Grindhouse Film Festival, so I got to see the film on the big screen for the first time. COFFY is my favorite of Grier's classics. It's not as ugly as FOXY BROWN and not as boring and mainstream than SHEBA BABY, so it was great to see it on the big screen, finally.

Just when I thought I'd reached the apex of my COFFY filmgoing experiences, the Hollywood went ahead and invited Pam Grier to a screening for Black History Month. Of course I had to attend and this time Jessica came with me, so I got to share the glories of big screen COFFY with a first-time viewer. Dan Halstead introduced the movie and said it was so difficult to find a 35mm print that he finally had to appeal to a special source -- Quentin Tarantino himself. So, we got to see Tarantino's own print of COFFY, which Halstead noted was not in great condition, being an original print, but according to Grier, that's the way to see the movie: on a scratchy, abused, old print. She's right.

COFFY is the vengeance tale of nurse-by-day and vigilante-by-night Coffy (Pam Grier) who is killing and fighting her way through the ranks of the Los Angeles crime world in an attempt to rectify first the loss of her now-bed-ridden little sister (Karen Williams) to drugs and then the brutal beating of her cop ex-boyfriend (William Elliot). All of this is set to a funky Roy Ayers soundtrack, and I made sure to bring my copy of the LP in the hopes that Grier would sign it. She did!

The movie is gritty and low budget but politically minded with a huge "fuck you" attitude to the man, up to and including smooth-talking black politicians exemplified by Coffy's boyfriend (Booker Bradshaw) who would exploit their own people to gain power. But, it's never boring -- this flick is action packed and efficient, unlike many similar B-movies that get bogged down with inept filmmakers turning would-be action flicks into paceless bores. Not so, here: even if Grier's unique presence wasn't lighting up the screen, director Jack Hill would be there to expertly move things along. The movie is a little more brutal and edgy than I remembered it being, but that's okay: it's a brutal subject matter.

Grier spoke at length after the film about the entirety of her career, referring to herself as a Forrest Gump-like figure who stumbled into and out of situations with all kinds of famous names throughout the years, including Kareem Abdul Jabar, Federico Fellini, Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze. My favorite story involved Grier being invited to sing backup for Sly and the Family Stone, and ending up seeing a jam session between Sly and Jimi Hendrix.

It was a great night -- Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN introduced me to Pam Grier, so it's only fitting we got to see his print of COFFY before meeting the legend herself in person.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Romancefest 2017: Indecent Proposal

Yet another in a long line of movies I was aware of but never saw, this fourth film from Adrian Lyne for Romancefest proves to be a little bit of a backslide for him: INDECENT PROPOSAL drops back from the crowd pleasing, Oscar-worthy FATAL ATTRACTION and lands firmly in FLASHDANCE territory.

This is the movie where Robert Redford offers Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore a million bucks for a chance to sleep with Moore. Harrelson and Moore have just lost their life savings in a last ditch effort to win enough money gambling in Vegas to pay for their dreamhouse.

They accept, the whole thing eats away at them, their relationship falls apart, Moore ends up with Redford, but then Harrelson and Moore are drawn back together.

It's strange – the movie focuses mostly on the aftermath of this arrangement. While it's easy for me to believe that this kind of thing would have a big and far-reaching fallout within a married couple, it's less interesting to see how Redford, as a billionaire, continues to court Moore and how Moore goes along with it.

A more interesting film would zero in on the night in question, I think. Maybe even in an isolated environment. For some reason I got the idea in my head a long time ago that this movie took place on a cruise ship, so all 3 of our principals are stuck together, Redford makes his offer, gets a night with Moore, and meanwhile Harrelson is stuck there like a dummy on the same ship, unable to escape. Of course, that's not what happens at all, but I kind of wish it did.

Also, Redford basically turns out to be an okay person, I guess, as far as these things go, and it might have been more interesting to have him turn out to be a total creep. Or have Harrelson turn out to be a total creep. Or Moore. Instead, none of them are. It's hard to find drama among 3 pretty easy-going people.

We kind of have the same problem here as we had with NINE ½ WEEKS – we've got kind of a depraved, kinky, thrilling story but it's told with an attempt to appeal to the middle of the road as much as possible. NINE ½ WEEKS takes a few more risks, in this respect, but they're both afraid to go all out when it comes to following their own premises.

Anyway, it's kind of a bummer way to end ROMANCEFEST 2017, but there you have it.

Romancefest 2017: The Age of Innocence

I saw THE AGE OF INNOCENCE years ago, before I was really in my film buff phase and before I really knew who Martin Scorsese was. So, it was high time I gave it another watch, and what better chance to do so than Romancefest, since it's super romantic.

Based on the novel by Edith Wharton, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE takes place in 19thcentury New York among high society and stars Daniel Day Lewis as a man torn between his fiancé (Winona Ryder) her cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer) who has just returned from Europe to New York to divorce the Count who has taken her money.

Most of Roger Ebert's writing on THE AGE OF INNOCENCE centers on the fact that it's about a society where no one can say what they're really thinking or feeling out loud even though they all project what they're really thinking and feeling through body language or looks. So everyone knows everyone's business but pretends not to, and you kind of enter into society agreeing to play along with those rules. Narration by Joanne Woodward guides the audience through some of this stuff, otherwise we might miss it, since this world is alien to us.

This basically ruins Lewis' life – he makes the wrong decisions at the wrong times and never gets to be with the woman he really wants because he's playing society's games and so is everyone else. The only one who doesn't seem to care is Pfeiffer, but which is what makes her so attractive to Lewis, but she's happy to let Lewis dig his own grave, if he won't grow a backbone and stand up for himself.

Scorsese said this flick was his most violent, which is funny, since there's no on-screen gore. I guess what he meant was it's the most brutal, emotionally speaking, and I think he might be right. At least the characters in his other films, however repressed they might be, get to flip out at some point. Not so in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE – here they're trapped.

Romancefest 2017: Jungle Fever

Did you know JUNGLE FEVER is a pretty tragic drama and not really a comedy? I didn't! Until now. I don't know if it was the marketing or the kickass Stevie Wonder song or what, but I was surprised when I sat down to watch JUNGLE FEVER just how sad it was.

Here we have two movies about affairs back to back – this time around it's Spike Lee directing (and co-starring) with Wesley Snipes, who is  a happy family man until he meets an Italian-American woman at work (Annabella Sciorra) and ends up sleeping with her. The rest of the film details their trials and tribulations when Snipes loses his family, moves in with Sciorra, and both deal with racism re: mixed couples.

Being a Spike Lee flick from the 90s this is not just about white people rejecting a mixed couple. It's also about discrimination between lighter skinned and darker skinned blacks people, black women disapproving of black men dating white women, Sciorra's Italian-American family treating her like a slave, ridiculing her "weak" pre-Snipes boyfriend (John Turturro) and, of course, being racist.

There's also a subplot with Samuel L. Jackson as Snipes' crack-addicted brother and how his addiction leads him to disappoint and take advantage of his otherwise peaceful parents (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee).

As usual, whether dealing with comedy or drama or both at the same time, Lee takes things to operatic heights, with the help of an overactive Terence Blanchard score. As usual, I admired this – the most recent Lee flick I saw was CHI-RAQ, and that was similarly over the top, divisive among viewers because of it, but that was exactly what I loved about it. If you're gonna go, go for broke.