Sunday, March 5, 2017

Three Recent Good Movies

David Brent (Ricky Gervais) explains the various misfortunes that have struck his original "Foregone Conclusion" bandmates.  

I recently got around to watching David Brent: Life on the Road (2016, dir. Ricky Gervais) via Netflix streaming, and was pleasantly surprised by how truly good it is. Surely of greatest interest to those viewers who (like me) are familiar with writer/director Ricky Gervais' seminal BBC series The Office (2001-03), this feature-length sequel does not require such familiarity in order to be thoroughly enjoyed. The film, documenting David Brent's life ten years after the end of The Office, features zero cameos from the original series cast and only one brief reference -- to Pete Gibbons, what else? -- that would constitute an in-joke. Life on the Road stands on its own.

I therefore recommend Life on the Road to any viewer fond of British comedy and/or Spinal Tap-style mockumentaries. Indeed, Life on the Road is a lot like a more downbeat, dry version of Spinal Tap, as the self-involved Brent sets off on an expensive and disastrous vanity tour to attempt to flog life into his non-starter career as a rock musician. Everyone around him, including his hired bandmates and road manager, find him musically silly and interpersonally odious, and say so in their ongoing interview segments.

Meanwhile, Brent's own interviews highlight his socially important lyrics -- he is a clueless, unconsciously racist white man inexplicably fixated on native Americans and disabled folks -- and the big plans he's got for his musical career once he's signed to a record label.

David Brent convinces his long-suffering bandmate Dom (Ben Bailey Smith) to don an ethnically inappropriate costume for a gig. 

In addition to being quite funny -- some of Brent's songs and concert sequences are especially outrageous and squirmy -- Gervais here deploys a climactic device similar to that he used in his brilliant HBO series Extras: he gives Brent a chance at emotional, if not musical, redemption. His tour fails but for the first time since the character's first appearance in 2001, David Brent seems to actually learn something of value from his mistakes. A melodramatic ploy? Yes. Effective and touching? Yes.

As he has shown again and again, Gervais is a master craftsman of character-driven comedies like this, and his return to his best-known character is hilariously funny and surprisingly poignant. Life on the Road is definitely worth a watch.

Daniel Kaluuya's spot-on performance as Chris anchors Jordan Peele's 
must-see horror film Get Out. 

Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele) is a fun, timely, and darkly humorous horror film that is in serious contention to be the best film of the genre released this year. It really is that good. It is also rated PG-13 which means it isn't too gory and should be accessible to thriller fans.

Get Out's most obvious referents are The Stepford Wives (1975) and John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966), yet Peele borrows concepts from those films (as well as visual ideas from The Shining etc.) and makes them very much his own. There is a strong sense of purpose and authorial voice in Get Out, including many wonderful comedic moments that perfectly break the tension -- just long enough to give the audience a brief respite from the thrills. As I discussed with my companions after the screening, I am most eager to see what Key and Peele and Keanu alum Jordan Peele does next as a director.

[UPDATE: Jordan Peele tells Business Insider that he's got four more planned "social thrillers" in the works.]

Most interesting to me is Get Out's knowing yet subtle riff on the ending of Night of the Living Dead, a film that obviously looms large for any genre fan when watching this movie, since it is one of the few other horror films ever to feature a black protagonist.

Timely due to its racially charged plot and thematics, Get Out lands because it is a well-crafted, thrilling movie, with lots of pathos and humor deftly interwoven with its scares and thrills. As this incisive critical essay by George Shulman notes,
the gift of Get Out is that its humor about the absurdities of race, and its playfulness with Hollywood genres of horror and thriller, displays the possibility of facing - exposing - this horror [of contemporary structural racism] in ways that cross racial lines, and by evoking affects other than self-righteous reproach and guilt. But the question remains whether this movie can - what act, event, or artifact possibly could - undo the knowingness by which Obama-era whites protect themselves from their implication in the horror, the horror.
Indeed. I know I over-use this adjective, but Get Out is truly brilliant -- equal parts thrilling, funny, and thematically poignant without ever being heavy handed. An absolute must-see.

Yet like Shulman, who wonders whether or not liberal white viewers will see themselves included in the film's critique of white obliviousness to racism, I hope Get Out can inspire the right kinds of discussions and reflections in its white viewers. The film's point is that even those of us who attempt not to be complicit in structural racism, are. We should enjoy this film as horror fans but seriously grapple with its implications as potential anti-racists. As Schulman poignantly writes:
did whites in the audience imagine themselves as exceptions, as exempt from the portrait of whiteness in the movie? When we were laughing at the fabulous humor, and when we felt terror at white predation, did we divide ourselves from whiteness by a kind of self-protective knowingness? Is that division exactly how Obama era politics could proceed while leaving the deep structure of white supremacy intact?
These are the right questions to ask and think about.

Amy Adams gives a riveting central performance in Arrival. As with Daniel Kaluuya's work in Get Out, the key concept here is empathy

I have been a fan of Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve since Prisoners (2013), and have been eagerly anticipating my chance to finally see his latest movie, the science-fiction drama Arrival (2016). I just saw it this weekend and I was not disappointed. In fact, I would call Arrival my favorite Villeneuve film and the best science-fiction film I have seen since, say, Moon (2009).

On the basis of the first three Villeneuve films I saw -- Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario -- I would have said that the director suffers from the same "brilliant setup goes off the rails in the third act" malady as does Danny Boyle. Not to the same degree as Boyle -- seriously, look at the climactic sections of 28 Days Later and Sunshine and you'll see what I mean -- but detectable nevertheless. For example, Prisoners seems to start off as a serious meditation on the moral and emotional price of torture, then becomes a Silence of the Lambs-esque serial killer thriller in its third act. Sicario is mainly a story focused on Kate (Emily Blunt) until she basically disappears in act three and the film turns into a revenge thriller centered on a different character.

I have still enjoyed each of these movies, especially Enemy and Sicario, but I have noticed this tendency toward third-act inconsistency each time.

This problem does not exist in Arrival, Villeneuve's best-conceived and most coherent film yet. The third-act payoff is brilliantly set up from the very beginning of the film, in a "show don't tell" manner that is hook-producing and ultimately enormously satisfying. I can't give away specifics but let me just say that this film knows what its purpose is from the outset and it pays it off in an artful and emotionally resonant way.

The terrific cast doesn't hurt either. Amy Adams is especially good, and she is well supported by Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Mark O'Brien. The alien vessels and creatures are convincing and interesting, and the sci-fi thrills will remind genre-savvy viewers of analogous situations from James Cameron's The Abyss and The Terminator.

In short, Arrival is thinking-person's sci-fi with enough militaristic thrills and interesting plot twists to satisfy any viewer who does not absolutely require lots of explosions in order to enjoy a film like this (though there is one explosion). Beyond that, the film does what great sci-fi should: suggests an emotionally truthful idea about who we humans are and can be as a species and a society. Arrival may not deliver an especially profound or unique message -- it is something we've heard before for sure -- but in these troubled and divisive times, it is a timely and appropriate idea. As a recent Oscar reviewer wrote of Moonlight's much-deserved best picture win this year, "in choosing Moonlight the Academy went for empathy over escapism." Arrival goes for empathy and escapism, and succeeds at both. An engrossing must-see.

The heptopod sez: "You humans have got to get your shit together!"

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