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The Post (2017)

Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Get Out (2017)

get-out-2017-2After years as a brilliant sketch comedian, Get Out is Jordan Peele’s first foray into horror, and if this gifted comic mind only wanted to make suspense thrillers from now on, that would be mighty fine. This is the first horror movie in years that left me buzzing, feeling charged and anxious, anxious to share with others so they too can feel the full effect of this live wire of a movie. It may be my favorite theatrical horror film since 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, and what they both have in common is a knowing understanding of their genres and expectations, a delicately balanced sense of tone, and a funhouse of darkly clever surprises. This is a movie rich with commentary, suspense, payoffs, and it all begins by exploring the dread-filled everyday existence of African-American men in this country as a waking horror movie that cannot be escaped.

Before even going further, I advise most readers to go into Get Out with as little knowledge as possible, which I understand means delaying reading this review. I can accept the loss of eyeballs knowing that more people will go in with an even greater ability to be surprised (I’ll avoid significant spoilers below, so fear not, dear reader).

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time. He’s worried that Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) hasn’t mentioned that he’s black. She assures him that her rich, wealthy, and liberal family won’t care in the slightest. Rose swears her parents are the least racist people she can think of. Dean (Bradley Whitford) is a retired brain surgeon, Missy (Catherine Keener) is a hypnotherapist who volunteers to help Chris stop smoking, and Rose’s younger brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is obsessed with martial arts and lacrosse. They also have black housekeepers, which Dean says he hates how it looks. It isn’t long before Chris’ sense of unease starts to make him rethink this weekend getaway and whether or not something sinister is under the surface.

landscape-1475698470-screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-41406-pmEarly on, Peele tips his hand to the sharp social and genre criticism. In the opening scene we watch Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man, walking around lost in a tony suburban neighborhood. He checks his phone for an address when a lone car drives past him, stops, and turns around, pulling up next to Andrew and idling, blasting the old song “Run Rabbit Run.” He takes one look at the situation and immediately turns around, heading in the opposite direction. “Not today,” he says to himself, clearly providing voice to the audience’s apprehension. And yet, he’s incapacitated, and abducted by masked assailants. Even self-awareness and avoidance will not be enough for this man to survive if captured within the crosshairs of modern White America. He becomes another horror victim just like we might see splashed across the news all too often.

Peele’s biting social commentary is ever-present but it never outpaces the genuine fun and entertainment from his genre storytelling. It’s a condemnation of the fallacy of a post-racial society and an exploration of the uncomfortable burdens African-Americans are disproportionately expected to bear in general. Rose’s family is all too happy to show off how seemingly inclusive they are. Rose’s father confesses, with no legitimate conversational prompting, that he would have voted for Obama a third time (trust me, there’s a lot of people in the camp, Dean). Yet he seems to enjoy awkwardly inserting recitations of “my man” while also trying to openly explain why he has eerily subservient black housekeepers. Rose’s antic brother seems to hungrily size Chris up as a physical challenge to battle, openly admiring his “genetic gifts.” Despite their self-styled liberalism and protests to the contrary that race doesn’t matter, the family can’t help but treat Chris like an other. Race “doesn’t matter” to people who have the position where it might not matter, the same going for those who elect to be “color blind.”

This stifling sense of condescension and pandering is best exemplified in a deeply awkward sequence where Chris is introduced at a party to the whole older majority-white neighborhood. One man informs him he likes Tiger Woods. Another says being black is hip. A woman squeezes his muscles in transparent lust. Another asks what the “African-American experience” is like and whether Chris feels being born black is an advantage. All through this meet-and-greet gauntlet, Chris is holding his carefully crafted smile, trying to shrug off the mounting discomfort, and being told not to make a big deal out of it. After all, these are well-educated liberals, the “good ones.” They can’t be racist too.

get-out-trailer-screen2Get Out is also an excellent example of a movie that straddles a precise tone to perfection. Peele has a carefully refined comedy sensibility, but I was genuinely awed in his ability to go from sardonically funny to creepy funny to just plain creepy. There’s an increasingly heightened sense of dread from the get-go. It’s like any other horror premise where our protagonist goes into the house they shouldn’t and combats a host of horrors be they supernatural or superhuman. In this case, the scary scenario is white people. There’s a general off feeling about the Armitage estate and this is best encapsulated with their hired help, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel). They seem to be in a robotic daze, smiles plastered to their faces, their tone of voice disquietingly calm and meticulous. Even the antiquated and culturally incongruous vocabulary they employ contributes to their unsettling vibes. Something is wrong here. There is a remarkable scene where Chris speaks with Georgina, and she hovers closer to him to apologize. Peele keeps the camera locked on his actor’s faces in extreme close-ups and he has a damn good reason for it. Gabriel (The Purge: Election Year) tries to reassure him all is normal and in one mesmerizing moment the camera fixates on her as she repeats “no,” each time a different reflection, her eyes tearing up as she tries to fight back subverted emotions. It feels like you’re watching twenty emotions and impulses fighting for dominance behind an impassive mask of compliance. Peele magnificently finds ways to keep his elements intensely upsetting while still finding room to laugh and break tension and increase tension.

While more a suspense thriller than a traditional horror film, Peele proves himself shockingly adept at a genre that I would have assumed outside his comfort zone. The shot arrangements and the natural development of tension shows clear knowledge and affinity for the horror genre; Peele knows when to hold onto a moment for extra suspense, when to pull back, and especially when to litter the camera frame with something to draw the eye. Peele has a great eye for his troubling, surreal visuals. When Chris is hypnotized and instructed to “sink into the floor” it’s like he’s falling into an inky void while his consciousness plays out on a square, like his life is a movie only he can watch from a distance. You feel the helplessness but it’s also a beautiful and beautifully unnerving image. There are a few jump scares accompanied by loud musical stings but the far majority of the movie is the overwhelming discomfort and dread marvelously kept at a continual simmer. I was squirming in my seat for long stretches and started backpedaling in others, and I can’t remember another movie in years affecting me that well. It’s partly the terrific execution of his genre elements but also partly because I liked the protagonist and had no idea what would happen to him next, which is the foundation of all horror. The last act cranks up the genre elements but Peele has brilliantly structured his script, laying out all the pieces he’ll need that provide an array of payoffs when we’re breaking for the finish line. This is a movie that knows how to satisfy all audiences, rest assured.

The actors are pitch-perfect and Kaluuya (Sicario, Black Mirror) delivers a star-making performance. He has to wear his own mask to deal with the small and large iniquities of whether or not these people are sinister or whether they’re just oblivious cretins. Chris is a black man expected to mind his manners and to laugh away the casual ignorance afforded by the oblivious privilege of others. He can never be unaware as the lone black man in a sea of white faces. It’s a position I think many people in the audience will be able to relate to and hopefully others can empathize with. Kaluuya has some standout emotional sequences where he digs deep to show the real depth of a character others fetishize or dismiss. Kaluuya is also British and you’d never know it. The Armitage family clan are each their own slice of weird. Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) is exploding with thinly veiled smarm and great comic awkwardness. Keener (Capote) is chilling in her icy WASP den mother role with her weapon of choice, and hypnotic aid, being a literal silver spoon. Williams is like her blithely privileged character stepped out of HBO’s Girls, and her flippant attitude to Chris’s perspective belies something familiar and darker. The other best actor in the movie is LilRel Howrey (The Carmichael Show) who play’s a friend to Chris that works for the TSA. He’s a reliable and reliable crude source of comic relief but he’s also our ally on the outside, and he behaves like an intelligent investigator trying to save him. I was actually applauding his sensible steps to see through the sinister conspiracy.

maxresdefault-3It’s been hours since I saw Get Out and I’m still buzzing from the experience. I was unprepared for how genuinely unnerving and invigorating the movie was as a horror thriller, character piece, but also as a trenchant social satire on race. Jordan Peele has established himself as an immediate visionary in the world of horror, taking the black protagonist who might usually be the first to get killed in a Hollywood slasher flick and widening the boundaries of horror. The real-lie horror film is day-to-day existence in the United States as a person of color. Get Out was conceived in the Obama era but has even more renewed resonance under the beginnings of the Age of Trump. I remember people saying that America now existed in a post-racial world, but we live in the kind of world that takes a call for innocent black lives to stop being executed by police officers and transforms it into All Lives Matter. It’s a hazardous world and Peele has created a marvelous movie where the insidious, ever-present force that cannot be escaped is not a maniac with a chainsaw or some cranky ghost, it’s white society itself. As the news has indicated, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland and numerous others, there isn’t exactly a safe territory to escape to. Danger and death can come at any moment as long as a larger society perceives black skin as a threat first and a person second. Get Out is a timely movie but also timeless, thanks to how brilliantly conceived, developed, and executed Peel’s movie performs. This will make my top ten list for the year. Simply put, stop whatever you’re doing and go out to go see Get Out as soon as possible.

Nate’s Grade: A

The sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005)

I had no real intention of ever seeing The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It looked to be a competent movie, horrifically clunky title aside, but I really didn’t have any interest in seeing another movie where four young girls become four young women. Then my girlfriend says she wants to see it. I think we all know what happens next. Even though I was the only male in my theater (I kind of expected this), I found Sisterhood to be a sweet and heartfelt film I was glad I experienced. It had far more emotional truth to it than I ever would have expected.

Four very close friends are about to depart for the summer. Bridget (Blake Lively) is the confidant sports star and going off to soccer camp in Mexico. Lana (Alexis Bledel) is the demure artist and is going to visit her grandparents in Greece. Carmen (America Ferrera), a bigger girl with big ambitions, is traveling to South Carolina to spend time with her long-absent father (Bradley Whitford). It seems the only one staying put is Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), an angsty nonconformist stuck stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart-esque store and working on her documentary, which she has deemed a “suckumentary.”

Before they set off on their adventures the girls discover a magical pair of pants. It seems that this one pair of jeans fits each to a T, even the curvier Carmen. The girls form a sisterhood around these magically one-size-fits-all pants. They promise to send them back and forth to each other all summer and write down any luck the jeans have imbued them with.

In Mexico, Bridget sets her sights on a hunky soccer coach (Mike Vogel). She’s brimming with confidence and flirts like a champ. Overseas in Greece, Lana meets Kostas (Michael Rady), a hunky fisherman attending university in Greece. Sparks fly but Lana’s grandmother forbids her to see Kostas. Carmen is shocked to discover that her father is planning on getting remarried to Wasp-y Lydia (Nancy Travis). It seems dear old dad has not told her everything. And Tibby is befriended by a dogged and precocious 12-year-old, Bailey (Jenna Boyd), who wants to be her assistant on the “suckumentary.”

The best part of Sisterhood is the excellence of the lead actresses. All four give well-rounded, warm, enlightened, and exquisitely affecting performances. They each get a good weepy scene and each actress nails it. Bledel has mastered the nervous stammer. She’s adorable as we witness her wallflower character coming out of her shell. Tamblyn mopes and sneers but grows the most thanks to the intervention of Bailey (Boyd is a scene-stealer if ever there were one). Ferrera was a terrific find in Real Women Have Curves, yet another intelligent and charming teen movie. In Sisterhood she gets to display tremendous anger and heartache and she sells every second of it. She is going to be a lovely actress to watch in the future. Lively is a newcomer to film even though she looks like Kate Hudson’s lankier cousin. She’s a girl that knows what she wants but doesn’t necessarily know why she wants it.

One of the smartest things director Ken Kwapis does is to keep the different story threads together. I first thought that Sisterhood would become a vignette movie, meaning that we’d get like a half hour of each girl’s adventure and then we’d travel to the next. It would have worked. But by keeping the girls’ stories intertwined we’re reminded of their bond and we can connect with them all. Kwapis even fits in some nifty scene transitions in his mostly unobtrusive direction. He lets the film’s focus rest on the characters and the performances, which are the strengths of Sisterhood.

The film seems to diverge into two storylines: the summer romances (Bridget and Lana) and the more dramatic (Carmen and Tibby). The summer romances are fun but the real meat of the movie is in Carmen and Tibby’s teary adventures. Carmen is devastated to feel that she’s been replaced and forgotten by her father. It all comes to head in a marvelous scene where Carmen cannot fit into a bridesmaid dress that fits Lydia’s rail thin daughter. She explodes in anger and pain against her father’s new family and runs off. Tibby, on the other hand, is your typical dour and rebellious teen (though in PG-land that means nose ring, colored hair, and thrift store attire). Her relationship with Bailey opens her up and the audience falls in love with both of them. The last half hour of Sisterhood hits an emotional crescendo with both storylines that will leave plenty reaching for the Kleenex.

Sisterhood sure doesn’t lack melodrama but the film is played so earnestly that you really won’t mind. In other teen girl films, the inclusion of dramatic elements like suicide, abandonment, and even leukemia might cause the casual rolling of eyes. The difference is that Sisterhood respects both its characters and its audience. This is a sincere, unpretentious movie that has a genuine sweetness that won?t give you a toothache. In fact, the most unbelievable moment of the movie is that a pair of pants would fit them all. Again, pretty good for a flick rife with melodrama.

Sisterhood is unabashedly sentimental but it walks a fine line without ever getting truly sappy like some Nicholas Sparks tale (A Walk to Remember). Usually movies of this ilk whitewash over reality and oversimplify complex issues and emotions. Not so with Sisterhood, which deals with tough issues in an admittedly soap operish way but also forces its characters to endure tough resolutions. I am clearly not the intended audience for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (I do by all accounts have a Y chromosome) but I enjoyed it all the same.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is an old fashioned, good-hearted family film that won?t make you cringe. It’s respectful of its audience and doesn’t take easy shortcuts with its story. It’s also respectful of teenagers and their experiences. The acting by our four leading ladies is uniformly outstanding. In a summer fueled by male-driven high-octane action flicks, something a little low key and sweet is always appealing when done right. This won’t exactly be a movie that will appeal to everyone, but Sisterhood is an above average and earnest take at all-too-familiar territory. Despite the clunky title, this teen-targeted weepie is a good fit for any audience wanting to feel good.

Nate’s Grade: B

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