REVIEW: “Get Out”


Comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut “Get Out” has certainly reeled in a ton of high praise. The former Comedy Central sketch series star also wrote the screenplay for this wild mish-mash of genres, influences, and ideas. Peele clearly aims to make a movie that can be several different things at once, but I’m not sure any of the film’s multiple identities are all that strong.

Many have called “Get Out” a horror-comedy and that seems fitting enough. Problem is I had to strain hard to find it either funny or scary. The humor ranges from conventional to glaringly satirical. It leans especially hard into its biting social/racial satire much of which is either too silly or too on-the-nose. Then you have the horror element which teases but never fully delivers. I feel Peele is making a subconscious play intended to make us fear what the film is implying more than what it is showing. I like that idea but even it is subverted by the shaky attempts at humor and the sheer absurdity of it all.

The film starts with promise – a startling opening sequence showing a young black man walking through a (presumably) white upper-class neighborhood. It’s late at night and the young man is searching for an address. A car creeps up behind him causing him to nervously change course. The inevitable interaction that follows makes a strong statement as well as launches the story in a compelling direction.


There is a very “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” meets “The Stepford Wives” vibe from there. It starts by introducing us to a young photographer named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) who agrees to meet the rich parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). As they pack for their weekend visit Chris asks “They know I’m black, right?” Rose reassures him even tossing out that her parents would have voted Obama in for a third term. If that’s the case clearly nothing could go wrong, right?

The two travel to the secluded countryside estate of Rose’s parents (shrewdly played by Bradley Whitfield and Catherine Keener). Their visit coincides with an annual house party her parents throw for their posh, powerful (and white) acquaintances. As the collection of stiff, suit-and-gown bluebloods meet Chris they seem impervious to their racial insensitivities (we get several goofy lines about liking Tiger Woods and black being “in fashion”).

On one hand Peele is doing something crafty underneath these peculiar interactions. They actually have purpose. On the other hand it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t see through all the weirdness and (as the title says) get out of there. This is stressed even more by the groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and the housekeeper Georgina (keenly played by Betty Gabriel). Both are African-Americans who exist in a freaky trance-like state. Again, how anyone would stick around is beyond me. But to be fair horror movies often ask you to simply go with things like this.


Aside from a handful of intriguing bits, things finally begin to simmer in the final act right up until its wonky blood-soaked ending. The finale features a crazy tonal shift which is sure to satisfy crowds but felt jarring and out of sync with the rest of the film. Peele flirts with going in a more gonzo direction which would have been a lot of fun. Instead he chooses a more traditional horror route that could be taken a number of ways from ridiculous all the way to offensive.

There are several other issues that hold the film back. One is Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Yes, I know he has been universally praised, but for me he gives two very different performances. The first half of the film features a flat, low-key Kaluuya who relies on the same puzzled expression over and over again. The second half sees him open up and his performance moves from bland to superb. Other problems tie into Peele’s script. There are numerous holes in the logic and some laughable conveniences. There is also a key moment where Peele completely tips his hand too early and ends up seriously undercutting the tension in what could have been one of the film’s best scenes.

It would be dishonest not to admit to being surprised at the profound adulation for “Get Out”. I do understand why people like it. It explores some meaty themes and there are some truly interesting narrative angles. I think that’s why I found myself so frustrated at its uneven execution. I can see the ingredients for a better film sprinkled all through this one. Ultimately it’s a perplexing first feature for Peele – one that shows him to be a promising young filmmaker with big ideas but one who needs to work on his handling of them.




REVIEW: “The Girl with All the Gifts” (2017)


It seems that every year or so we get a zombie movie that attempts to bend the crowded genre in a new direction. I’m talking about movies like “Zombieland”, “Train to Busan”, and even Schwarzenegger’s “Maggie”. This year’s entry is “The Girl with All the Gifts”, a wickedly crafty zombie flick that twists the genre’s rules and packs more brains than you may think (and no, that’s not an attempt at zombie humor).

The tone is set in the opening scenes. The setting is an underground military base just outside of London. Director Colm McCarthy’s camera leads us down a dreary hallway lined with cells, one belonging to a young girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua). A blaring alarm pierces the halls and we watch Melanie walk over and sit in a wheelchair. Armed soldiers open her cell and fasten the multiple restraints. They wheel her down the hall to a ‘classroom’ with other constrained children. It’s an eerie, uncomfortable opening that lays the groundwork for us.


You see, these kids are unique – a new breed if you will. I’ll let you find out how, but they are of special interest to the military facility. Melanie is the brightest among the ‘students’ and maintains a sweet demeanor regardless of the interaction. Some treat her well, such as her kind and caring teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton). Others are cold and indifferent. Take Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close in her creepiest role in years) who basically sees the kids as lab rats. Offering a third perspective is Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine), the military leader who is constantly leary of the threat these kids may pose.

These four are forced together when zombies (affectionately called “hungries”) penetrate the facility. They escape the base and head for London but (as you can guess) finding refuge is easier said than done. You could be tempted to say this becomes a standard zombie survival story at this point. Those elements are certainly there, but the movie has much more in mind.

McCarthy along with writer M.R. Carey play with the zombie movie model and employ many of its tactics. But at the same time they seem more interested in creating moral tension between the characters by forcing them to face complicated dilemmas that don’t have the easiest answers. We too are asked to wrestle with these things and come to our own tough, murky conclusions.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than with Melanie herself. The film walks a clever tightrope in its presentation of her. On one side is the genuinely innocent, lovely young girl who we have immense sympathy for. On the other side is something dangerous, ferocious, and potentially deadly. We fear her and are charmed by her at the same time. We hear her tender, sweet voice coming from her horrifying blood-stained mouth. It’s an unsettling tension the film creates and maintains throughout. Young Sennia Nanua is a key ingredient. Her tough, committed performance is vital both to the character and the movie.

Even with its tiny budget of around $5 million, “The Girl with All the Gifts” offers up an experience that should please both those who love zombie flicks and those who want more to chew on (figuratively of course). There is enough originality to make it feel fresh and it’s plenty creepy enough to make you squirm. That’s what I’m looking for in a “zombie movie”.



REVIEW: “The Glass Castle”


While walking out of my screening of “The Glass Castle” I immediately pulled out my phone and began perusing opinions on a certain red vegetable movie review aggregate (or fruit depending on your culinary or botanical lean). I had avoided reading reviews but knew reactions were all over the spectrum. Sure enough some have heralded it as “one of the best films of the year” while others have called it “unpleasant”, “lumbering”, “tiresome”, and so on.

So where do I land on “The Glass Castle”, a film based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about her nomadic childhood and the family dysfunction she endured. I never found it lumbering, tiresome, or even unpleasant outside of when it was meant to be. At the same time its inconsistencies and messiness keeps me from embracing it as one of the year’s best.


The movie is co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton whose previous film was the intimate and tightly-made “Short Term 12”. “The Glass Castle” is much more wide-open in its attempt at covering a lot of ground. It hops back-and-forth in time stopping at significant points in Walls’ childhood and mixing them in with her  story as a young adult out on her own.

Brie Larson plays the twenty-something Jeannette living in 1989 New York City. Her determined quest for independence took her away from her harsh family situation and she now writes for a newspaper and has a fiancé (Max Greenfield). But despite her new life, she can’t completely escape the scars from her past and the internal connection to her family inspires a longing for the idyllic life she dreamed of as a child.

Woody Harrelson plays her father Rex and through every time hop we see the same complex and deeply flawed man. Harrelson is given the bigger, louder role and his performance is spot-on. But it’s the movie’s depiction of Rex that’s problematic. There’s an effort to sell him as both a charming free spirit and a despicable father. The problem is most attempts at a positive reflection simply don’t work. In fact many of the tender moments are found in scenes where Rex is feeding his children’s imagination in order to hide their poverty and/or lawbreaking – situations he is responsible for.


To go further, the negative reflections of Rex are profoundly more prevalent and overpowering. I found it difficult to see him as anything other than a violent, abusive alcoholic and a generally repugnant human being. Naomi Watts plays the Jeanette’s mother Rose Mary and she just seems along for the ride. She does nothing to curb Rex’s behavior and at times is just as abusive and negligent as her husband. There are moments where Cretton creates some genuine sympathy for these two characters, but I found myself too repulsed by their actions to be sympathetic. They are appalling individuals.

Here’s the thing, I’m fine with the movie presenting them this way especially if it’s key to the story being told. But the ending undercuts the rest of the film and it asks too much of the audience. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s here that the film’s earlier attempts at creating a compassionate side of Rex simply don’t hold weight. If more time had been given to his complexity over his repugnance it could have worked. Instead we have an element of the story that feels short changed and a final act that needed much more attention to be effective.


There is also a general problem with tone. At times it’s wildly inconsistent. Make no mistake, there are some very disturbing and effective scenes that deal with abuse. But there are also these jolts of humor, mostly involving the Rex character, that are hard to figure out. It works when portraying him as an eccentric, but not so much when the humor crosses over into the abusive scenes. At my screening I’m not sure the audience knew when to laugh. There were several instances where some people were laughing and others groaning in disgust all during the same scene.

“The Glass Castle” is a tough experience to define. It’s depiction of the dark side of Janet Walls’ painful childhood is clear-eyed, visceral and hard to watch. But it badly undersells a significant part of this profoundly penetrating true story. Larson and Harrelson are excellent and the movie’s boldness in tackling the subject matter is commendable. Despite the tonal shifts I was onboard for most of the way. But reconciling the bulk of the film with the tidy ending is something I still haven’t been able to do. I can’t help but believe the book offers up a better, more emotionally satisfying balance.



REVIEW: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”


Marvel Studios showed its true muscle in 2014 with “Guardians of the Galaxy”. It was an intriguing undertaking that required either a lot of risk or a lot of confidence. Maybe a little of both. Regardless, the gamble paid off. “Guardians” was a surprise hit and introduced a new set of players to “Phase Two” of Marvel’s cinematic universe.

But why was it a gamble you ask? I wouldn’t go as far as to call the Guardians an obscure band of characters from the comics, but they were a far cry from Marvel’s heavy-hitters. Yet they tossed in  $200 million and hoped their broad vision was established enough to ensure success. It proved to be money well spent. Audiences went wild and the box office results reflected it.


I wish I could say I was onboard the love train, but the first “Guardians” film, while good, wasn’t without problems and it left me with no lasting impression. That’s why I wasn’t gushing with anticipation for its inevitable sequel. But now “Guardians Vol. 2” has landed to equally loud applauds and equally loud “cha-chings”. Once again James Gunn writes and directs a film that works really hard to recapture the offbeat vibe of its predecessor. But at the same time there is a conscience effort to inject more heart into the characters and their storylines. Both attempts are hit-or-miss, but thankfully more ‘hit’ than ‘miss’.

All the main characters return: Chris Pratt’s Peter “Star-lord” Quill, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Dave Bautista’s Drax, the Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket, and the (barely) Vin Diesel-voiced Baby Groot. We are reintroduced to them as they take on a giant space monster as part of a deal with a golden group known as the Sovereigns. But Rocket’s sticky fingers gets them in trouble with the Sovereign leader (Elizabeth Debicki). Just as the Guardians are about to be wiped out they are rescued by a mysterious man named Ego. He’s played by Kurt Russell who I couldn’t help but constantly chuckle at not because he jokes, but because…well it’s Kurt Russell in a very…unusual role.


Gunn tosses in quite a few angles. The team gets separated, Yondu returns (via a great supporting performance from Michael Rooker), we get more about the Ravagers, Gamora’s vengeful sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) causes a stink. Impressively, all of these moving parts (plus a few) come together fairly seamlessly. That’s saying a lot because the film sports an insanely busy script. This is made more evident with the movie’s attempt to (for lack of a better word) humanize the characters.

One of my complaints with the first film is that a barely offered any backstory to the characters which truly are the heartbeat of this series. Volume 2 seeks to rectify that to some degree. There are some really nice moments that add some needed depth to this wacky band. The best ones are the smaller insights into some of their pasts which help to explain certain anti-hero ways. Peter and Gamora get bigger backstory treatments, much of which is good, but sometimes a bit on the nose. Still it all works together to feed the film’s biggest running theme – family.

It also seemed like every main character had to be given their own serious moment of self-reflection. It’s here where things get a bit stilted and sometimes downright corny. Some of these scenes work, other times not so much. The same can be said for the comedy. Yes I know the wacky sense of humor is what fans love most about these films. But much like the first one, the jokes sometimes make a splash but a lot of times land with a thud. Ultimately the clever gags get lost among the broader, lamer humor – a potty-mouthed raccoon, jokes about ‘turd’ sizes, etc.  Oh, and then there is the steady 60s and 70s music gag that Gunn milks dry. Hard not to love the tunes though.


Much like the first film, I wouldn’t call this film’s antagonist ‘cool’ or particularly memorable. But there is an effort to give this one more weight. It works…kind of. And then there is the ending – the moment when every conceivable rein is handed over to the CGI and sound team. It’s loud, frantic, and it flirts with a “Man of Steel” level numbness. Yes it’s pretty much the common Marvel formula but ‘whew’.

And yet, while issues remain, “Guardians 2” does make strides in the right direction. Attempts to make the characters more than incessant joke boxes pays off (for the most part) and despite the humor’s inconsistency there are some truly funny moments. Also the characters still pack enough charm to hold your affection. The visual effects are a treat (and there are a ton of them). But perhaps what I’m drawn to the most is movie’s cosmic setting. It genuinely feels unique among the huge catalog of Marvel movies. But even with this uniqueness, its playful tone, and fun characters “Guardians 2” follows in the footsteps of its predecessor and still misses the mark of greatness.



REVIEW: “Gods of Egypt”


You have to believe there are plenty of ingredients within Egyptian mythology to inspire a fun, sprawling fantasy feature. The gods, the symbols, and the lore seem ready-made for the big budget, eye-popping blockbuster treatment. You would think that, right? Enter “Gods of Egypt”, a mess of a movie that will instantly have you doubting that belief.

This was one of those instances where I couldn’t help but think “It can’t be that bad.” The trailers looked ridiculous and critics ripped this thing to shreds. But I grew up loving the silly, cheesy but self-aware science-fiction and fantasy movies of the 1980s. When it comes to those films I have a lot of tolerance and forgiveness. But “Gods of Egypt” is indeed bad, woefully bad.


Where to start? I don’t know, how about with the story. Writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless already have a sketchy track record having penned the glaringly underwhelming “Dracula Untold” and “The Last Witch Hunter” (and working on the Power Rangers reboot for next year). “Gods of Egypt” easily fits within that catalog although its problems are significantly broader.

The story basically crosses the paths of a young mortal named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) desperate to save his true love from the underworld and Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Egyptian God of the air whose eyes were gouged out and his throne stolen by the jealous Set (Gerard Butler), the god of the desert. Bek sees Horus as his only chance to save his fiancé. Horus agrees to help under the condition that Bek gets him into Set’s stronghold.

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So there is a decent framework for a story…kinda. Unfortunately it hardly works on any level. Sazama and Sharpless gives us one uninteresting, paper-thin character after another and their stories are as bland as the characters themselves. It meanders through waves of lame character interactions, mind-numbing fight sequences, uninspired creatures, and boring plot contrivances.

And the performances don’t help. They range from passable (Coster-Waldau), to bad (Thwaites), to laughable (Butler), to downright weird (Geoffrey Rush in a role so absurd you have to see it to believe it). And it isn’t as if the dialogue helps them. Some of the lines these actors are asked to utter are mind-boggling.


My expression exactly Gerard…

And then there are the special effects. At times it seems the script was written in service of the effects and not vice-versa. Director Alex Proyas is constantly trying to find ways for his CGI spectacle to take center stage. The visuals are all over the place. In terms of quality the effects are wildly inconsistent and sometimes shockingly gaudy for a film with a $140 million budget. That’s bad, especially since it is utterly dependent on it’s CGI-heavy presentation.

More could be said but frankly what’s the point? It’s such a poorly written mess. The direction lets the film down in scene after scene. Gerard Butler’s Nic Cage-like career decline continues. And Egyptian mythology was never so boring. I suppose you could have a “It’s so bad it’s good” type of experience, but to do so would requires a lot of face palms, head scratching, eye-rolling, and time checking. If you’re up to trying it by all means give it a shot. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.


1.5 stars

REVIEW: “Ghostbusters” (2016)


It still surprises me to see 1984’s “Ghostbusters” venerated by so many. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a fun movie with good characters, lots of big effects, and some really funny moments. But going back to my first viewing I never considered it to be the great film that others do. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t up in arms when I heard the announcement of a remake featuring an all-female team. It also may be why I wasn’t excited for the remake. Well, the crummy trailers didn’t help either. Sadly the trailers and the movie have a lot in common.

Now before I’m accused of mean, closed-minded misogyny remember, I’m no Ghostbusters fanboy or apologist. There are certainly those who have instantly dismissed the movie due to its female leads. But there are also those who have lashed out at any criticisms of the film regardless of their validity. The truth is the movie just isn’t that good. Not because women were cast. Not because of sexism.


Paul Feig co-writes and directs what turns out to be run-of-the-mill popcorn movie fare. Pieces were in place for what could have been something fun and original. Instead it follows a fairly traditional summer blockbuster blueprint – (1)origin story, (2)buildup, (3)loud, unwieldy, CGI-heavy finale.

There are moments where this new Ghostbusters shows promise. The first 30 minutes or so does a pretty good job of setting up the characters and showing how they come together. To the credit of the ladies, they do their best with what they are given, some better than others. There is also a really fun performance by Chris Hemsworth. In a funny bit of satirical gender swapping, Hemsworth plays an air-headed but good looking secretary. The film has a lot of fun with that.


As for the new Ghostbusters, Kristen Wiig is particularly good and her quirky self-effacing humor is a perfect fit for her character. Melissa McCarthy is surprisingly dialed-back and I enjoyed the calmer variation of her usual tiresome schtick. Kate McKinnon has some really funny moments but she is also letdown by the script on several occasions. Leslie Jones is dealt the worst hand from the writers. Her character is paper-thin and given some of the worst lines in the entire movie. But again, the ladies give it their all.

Here’s the thing, you can have the most committed cast, but that means nothing without a good script. Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold do a good job of developing the team’s camaraderie but not much past that. For every mildly amusing joke there are five that fall flat and some that are simply cringe-worthy. Storywise there really isn’t much to it once you get past the origin stuff. The Ghostbusters form. Everyone’s skeptical. Ghosts attack. Ghostbusters save the day. Basically everything outlined in the trailer.


Andy Garcia shows up now and then as the New York City mayor, and there is an uninteresting villain (Neil Casey) tossed in to no effect. They offer little to the story which noticeably starts losing steam about halfway through and culminates in a long, effects-heavy ending which looks good but that’s about it.

So what to make of “Ghostbusters”? While it may have been the most unfairly maligned film of the year prior to its release, it may also end up being the most overhyped movie of the year. Some people wanted the film to fail and never gave it a chance from the start. Others want it to succeed so bad that they are impervious to the film’s obvious flaws. But that stuff aside, it really is a shame. Instead of doing something memorable with the great chemistry we see from the cast, “Ghostbusters” settles for being another in a long line of mediocre 80’s movie remakes.


2 Stars