Sunday, 7 May 2017

IN THEATRES: Get Out & Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2

Get Out
I went into this movie only knowing that it was great. I didn't watch the trailers, I didn't read the synopsis. For once, I had an opportunity to go into a movie almost totally blind.

By the way, I'm going to spoil this movie, so come back after you've seen it.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) go on a weekend trip to visit her parents, Dean and Missy Armitage. Shortly after arriving, Chris begins to realise something is not right with the family, their friends and their house staff....

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is something of a surprise. But if you view the movie through the same lens as his work on Keye & Peele, Get Out is cut from the same thematic cloth. Get Out is the perfect example of how the fundamental mechanics of comedy and horror are essentially the same.

While it is not a comedy, Peele's film does satirize one under-explored aspect of racial representation in American society: the idealization and objectification of black bodies. What Ex Machina was to female bodies and agency, Get Out is to black bodies and agency.

The villains of Get Out are not racists in the way we have learned to identify. They mythologise and obsess over black bodies, seeing them as ideals of (based off the examples in the film) physicality, sexual prowess and artistic talent. The plot of the movie boils down to white people placing their brains into the bodies of black people. At the end of the day, black people are still treated as less than human. It is an insidious form of objectification, which Peele skewers with precision.

In terms of direction, Get Out is orchestrated with a firm hand. From the opening one-take pre-credit scene, Peele establishes himself with a strong understanding of film grammar and its potential for agitating and provoking viewers into heightened emotional states. The sound design is exquisitely precise, the shots and choice of angles are designed to be completely immersive and 

The performances are uniformly terrific. Lead Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris with a level of amused detachment. Aware of the subtle prejudices he will have to contend with, he is on edge from minute one, trying to analyse his hosts without showing his hand. Once he cottons on to what is going on, his placid exterior slowly crumbles. It's an emotional arc that's been done before, but Kaluuya plays it without histronics, which makes the situation feel far more traumatic. Alison Williams has always been a little uncanny, and that slightly unsettling quality is put to good use here. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener bring a wonderfully understated menace to their roles, never tipping over into out-in-out horror movie villainy. By stripping out obvious tropes, Peele keeps the viewer off-balance. By refusing to frame his antagonists in conventional terms he deprives the viewer of an easy out.
While it does have some big scares, the most unsettling scenes in Get Out are not the obvious show-stoppers. The most disturbing moments in the film are at the level of basic social interactions: Chris talking to his girlfriend's brother; Chris meeting the guests at the Armitage's party -- all scenes in which our hero has to contend with implicit racism. Peele gets a lot out of even minor beats -- the silent auction; the housekeeper staring at her own reflection.
Ultimately, Get Out is a wonderfully unnerving experience, both on a visceral level, and as an examination of the current state of race relations in post-Obama America.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2
While my interest in Marvel is case-by-case, I am a big fan of James Gunn. Super is insanely violent yet strangely heartfelt, while PG Porn is one of the funniest web series I have ever seen.

When it was announced that Gunn was moving over to Marvel, it sounded so weird I was in. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was great -- it was funny, offbeat and created a sympathetic band of screw-ups. Some of Gunn's edge had been worn off, but not much, and it has the same offbeat empathy for its characters that his previous work had.

While I missed Marvel's slate last year, with this and Thor: Ragnorok in November, 2017 looks like it's going to be right up my alley.

When we re-connect with our anti-heroes, they are working as freelance mercenaries. After a job goes sour,our heroes are split up. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are rescued by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter's long lost dad.

Gunn deserves credit for making sure the core ensemble all have something to do. Sequels with large tasks can struggle to give everyone a reason for being in the movie. As before, Pratt's journey to learning his origins serves as the spine of the movie, but it also acts as a catalyst for the rest of the team to recognise their own familial ties -- Gamora with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), Yondu (Michael Rooker) with the Ravagers who exiled him, and Racoon (Bradley Cooper) with, uh, everybody. Drax finds a friend in Ego's innocent servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is operating on the same naive bandwith as himself.

One piece that feels a little forced is Baby Groot (Vin Diesel, in an Oscar-worthy performance*). While he is very cute and clearly a crowd-pleaser, there seem to be a few too many beats that feel like forced attempts to milk him for extra 'awws'.

Marvel does not have the best luck when it comes to villains, but Volume 2 has the benefit of a villain with a strong connection to our hero's story. Kurt Russell is, as usual, great. His natural charm is a great cover for Ego's self-centredness, and makes his casual disregard for other beings genuinely disturbing.

While the first 30-40 minutes, Gunn sprouts a couple of competing plot lines which cause the movie to feel a little adrift. Once Ego's real intentions are revealed, the plot pulls itself together. The first Guardians revealed a vein of overt sentiment previously missing from Gunn's work. Here, he hits the family theme a bit harder, and it makes for a few overt message moments which hit the nail on the head with a heavy 'clunk' (Gamora's reconciliation with Nebula is an obvious example, as is Yondu's 'we are the same' speech to Racoon). Despite this, the movie's emotional beats do ring true, and the actors manage to save these passages from feeling too didactic.

The soundtrack track was a highlight of the last movie, and the sequel is similarly eclectic. I don't think it hits the same high as the first one, but as with the original movie, Gunn builds it into the movie's text in a way that syncs with the movie's focus on Peter and Ego's relationship.

Overall, Volume 2 is a pretty strong sequel that expands upon the original's template, while deepening its characters. It might not do anything new in terms of action or spectacle, but that's not the reason these movies work. Gunn knows these characters well, and makes sure that they are always front and centre.

*To be read sarcastically

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