Sunday, June 25, 2017

Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson, LaKeith Stanfield, Stephen Root
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The scariest, most frighteningly realistic part of Jordan Peele's Get Out comes early, uncomfortably zeroing in on certain stupid things that certain white people say to black people in conversations to "prove" they're not racist. With every little action and comment you squirm since their obliviousness knows no bounds, terminally unaware of how ridiculous and ignorant they sound. Some of them are probably your friends, co-workers, teachers, neighbors or family members. And on occasion, I'm willing to bet those offenders have even included you and I. It would probably be insulting to suggest that the first sixty minutes of this horror thriller places anyone in the shoes of a black man being judged by the friends and family of his white girlfriend, but it does sure give us an eye-opening idea of what he'd have to put up with. That so much of this is subtle, even subliminal, to someone not consciously looking, is possibly its most unsettling aspect.

While making no mistake about the fact that Get Out is first and foremost a damning social commentary on racial tensions in America, what's been somewhat lost in the conversation is how slyly and expertly the comedian Peele (making his directorial debut) plays that hand. That is until he doesn't have to anymore, and audiences' worst fears, heavily hinted at from the very first frame, eventually come to fruition. Even with plenty of clues where this is going, it's still kind of jaw-dropping just how far Peele's willing to take this, to the point that you wonder how a project this socially, racially and politically charged even got the go-ahead.  You could quibble about where the plot eventually ends up, but good luck finding fault in how it arrives there, building genuine terror and suspense the entire way through. "Originality" isn't a word thrown around too often these days and while there are a few familiar genre elements at play, that definitely applies here.

When black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) takes a trip with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time, she confides in him that she hasn't revealed to them his race and doubts it will be an issue. Described by Rose as open and accepting people, neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and psychiatrist Missy (Catherine Keener) warmly welcome Chris into their home and, almost right off the bat, something seems off. Whether it be Dean's overly enthusiastic boasting of having wanted Obama elected to a third term, his defensive explanation of why all the hired help is black, or Missy's insistence on hypnotizing Chris, it appears any concerns of not fitting in might be the least of his problems.

It only gets stranger from there, with an uncomfortable encounter with Rose's drunk, unstable brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), offensive interrogations from party guests, and the black live-in housekeeper Georgina (a brilliantly creepy Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) behaving like zombies. Confiding his suspicions by phone to best friend and TSA agent, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), Chris realizes he's walked into something very bad, and while he wants to stay to support Rose, common sense tells him he can't get out soon enough, as what starts as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? very quickly devolves into Guess Who's Coming to Hell?

It may not be completely apparent until the final credits just how carefully the story is set up, playing on real-life anxieties and prejudices to draw the viewer in, as for much of its running length, the people and situations Chris encounters at the Armitage house are not only steeped heavily in realism, but painfully uncomfortable to watch. It's a key component that all these interactions, as disturbingly strange as they are, aren't so outright hostile that even he initially chalks it up to paranoia or nerves. It's easy to imagine an alternate director's cut of all these scenes that heavily emphasize that since Peele's ability to let audience's see through the protagonist's eyes at the true extent of this ignorant behavior is one of his script's greatest strengths. It's at work through every interaction at that house, whether it be a houseguest trying to chat Chris up about Tiger Woods or Rose's brother's obsession with his athletic abilities, even challenging him to a fight in one of many cringe-worthy dinner table moments.

Through much of this, Chris is about as good and patient a sport as anyone could be under some pretty degrading circumstances, and little known English actor Daniel Kaluuya skillfully walks a really tight rope, trying to remain calm in the midst of deplorable treatment masking itself as mildly disingenuous hospitality. It slowly gets to him, attempting to put on a solid front for Rose, played by Allison Williams as essentially the ideal girlfriend, even as the relationship eventually carries with it this unspoken racist implication that he'd be an idiot to screw it up, almost as if he should consider himself "'lucky" to land someone like her. In other words, don't rock the boat because you're the one being judged. All these racial overtones and undertones just keep building, boiling to the surface when the narrative bomb is dropped and a full-blown, insane explanation is given for what we've been seeing.

By the time Peele shows his cards and it's clear what's happening (the details of which land somewhere between A Clockwork Orange, The Stepford Wives and Soylent Green), a shift has to come, and how well he pulls off this transition is what will make or break the movie for many. Mostly, it's a seamless one due to the fact that we've been pulling so hard for this protagonist since he walked into an already awkward situation with the best of intentions, realizing it's now a fight for  survival. And once it is, you'll again be scratching your head at how this was even made to begin with, and yet somehow Peele pulls it off, juggling sci-fi, horror, comedy and socially conscious drama as deftly as possible considering the unexplored thematic terrain.

Given how many different things are attempted, this all remains fairly consistent right up until and including the final scene, which frightens in much the same way the rest of the film does, just in a more literal context. It cleverly reminds us, in even the most extreme situations, how justified the protagonist's fear is, and how stagnantly ingrained society's view of him is. By masquerading as a horror film, before fully evolving into one, it's able to explore and tackle timely issues that could otherwise play as as a preachy sermon under more traditional circumstances. Instead, we get something that pushes the envelope just far enough to leave a lasting imprint. How much of one will have to bare itself out in subsequent viewings, which is something Get Out proves more than worthy of.  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

13 Reasons Why

Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kate Walsh, Brian d'Arcy James, Josh Hamilton, Michele Selene Ang, Steven Silver, Ajiona Alexus, Tommy Dorfman, Brandon Larracuente, Steven Weber, Mark Pellegrino
Original Airdate: 2017

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In a recent interview, actress Molly Ringwald stated that if they were going to remake The Breakfast Club today, it would just be two hours of texting in detention. While she brings up a reasonable point, I'd like to have more faith that the creative forces would never let it come to that. And now there's a reason to believe it won't. Actually, thirteen of them. Netflix's much buzzed about, controversial 13 Reasons Why (based upon Jay Asher's 2007 best-selling YA novel) shares little in common with that seminal 1985 film, and yet her seemingly throwaway comment stayed with me long after its conclusion. High school is so often about labels and hierarchy and that movie was really the first to openly acknowledge it, for better or worse.

Jock, princess, nerd, rebel. It's so simple and true that many forms of entertainment have been reflecting it back at us ever since, some dumbing the formula down while others have been admirably attempting to refine and improve upon it. At first, it appears that 13 Ways will present yet another exhaustive variation on this, as its literary roots and Selena Gomez producing credit don't exactly inspire confidence from the start. I could feel my eyes starting to roll at the prospect of such a series in 2017 wrestling with timely issues such as school bullying and teen suicide through a rose-colored "young adult" glasses.

In just the first few episodes I cringed at the implication that the doomed girl at this story's center could even have the wheels set in motion for her eventual suicide by winning "nicest ass" and having what most would consider a pretty commonplace, if admittedly hurtful, start to her sophomore year. And that was the last trace of skepticism I remember having for the remainder of the episodes, which comprise an absolute thrill ride full of twists, turns and storytelling mastery not seen in this genre since the first season of Veronica Mars, from which this undoubtedly finds some of its inspiration.

Character by character, the layers start to peel away to reveal a situation darker and more morally complex than originally perceived. And no, there isn't anyone staring at their phones since the electronic device of choice is a SONY Walkman, used by our put-upon protagonist to begrudgingly listen to the thirteen cassette tapes he's now in possession of, detailing the series of events that led to a terrible tragedy. Or, if you're counting, multiple ones.

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker
The characters we meet on these tapes most definitely can't be summed up in a single sentence or a one word description. Trampling over tropes and bucking convention, most are relatively popular and various shades of awful, with some slightly more redeemable than others. And all are vividly and brilliantly brought to life by a cast you can now collectively refer to as Netflix's Class of '17. And when the time comes for creator and showrunner Brian Yorkey to seriously tackle important issues like rape and murder, he does it, diving in head first without cutting any creative corners in seeing this saga to its thrilling but logical conclusion.

Shy, introspective loner Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) comes home from school to find a mysterious box on his porch. In it are seven double-sided cassette tapes recorded by his best friend and unrequited crush, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who killed herself two weeks earlier. The tapes serve as sort of an audio diary detailing the reasons for her taking her own life, implicating each of the thirteen people at school who will receive the box as a reason for her eventual suicide. After listening to the tapes they must pass the box on to the next person or risk breaking the chain, causing a separate set of tapes to be released to the public.

Of the recipients, Clay was closest to Hannah and is most shaken by the revelations found on these cassettes, his mind set on punishing those she singled out on them. It also puts him in the crosshairs of his considerably more popular classmates, all of whom have devastating secrets they'd rather keep buried, despite an impending lawsuit from Hannah's grieving, financially struggling parents, Olivia and Andy (Kate Walsh and Brian d'Arcy James) With no knowledge of the tapes that could potentially be the smoking gun in their case against California's Liberty High, the Bakers angrily demand answers from administrators such as Principal Gary Bolan (Steven Weber) and school counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), both of whom are put in the awkward position of legally placating them while protecting the school's academic reputation and its students in the face of unimaginable circumstances. And that's the problem. It should have been very imaginable from the start.

"Tape 1, Side A"
Star student athletes Justin (Brandon Flynn), Bryce (Justin Prentice), Zach (Ross Butler) and Marcus (Steven Silver), along with wild child Jessica (Alisha Boe), quiet, intense new kid Alex (Miles Heizer), goody two shoes Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), perky cheerleader Sheri (Ajiona Alexus) and creepy school photographer Tyler (Devin Druid) and poet/journalist Jeff (Brandon Larracuente) all have something to lose if the tapes get out. And they've all made Clay public enemy number one, knowing his closeness to Hannah and thirst for justice make him most likely to come forward to the police or her despondent parents.

Plagued by the guilt that he could have done something more and under constant threat by his classmates, Clay reluctantly listens to the tapes at the urging of his friend Tony (Christian Navarro), who may know a lot more than he's letting on. When he ejects that last tape Clay will have his answers, but it's what he chooses to do with it that could have a lasting impact on all their lives.

The series makes a strangely bold choice early on, not depicting Hannah as a "good girl" or immediately attempting to solicit audience sympathy for her. She also wouldn't seem to be anyone's top candidate for bullying, which is precisely the point. She eventually gets there on all fronts, but does so organically as small events and tiny moments start to add up, magnifying in size and scope with every episode. She's a good person, but not an instantly likable one because of the poor decisions she often makes, frequently stemming from her desire to just be liked and accepted. At times, this borders on desperation despite her best efforts to cooly play it off. It's only when she's hanging out with Clay or they're working together at the Crestmont movie theater that we're exposed to a different side.

As one character puts it, Hannah's "drama" and the writers' willingness to embrace that she's put some of this on herself, while still acknowledging she's done nothing to warrants or deserve what eventually happens, only deepens the narrative. You can almost literally catch yourself yelling through the screen for her to just stop. Who cares what people think?! And then you remember it's high school and that's flat-out impossible.

What Could Have Been: Hannah and Clay
Whether it's her family's financial struggles, the transfer of her best friend to another school, or her own insecurity weighing her down, she's most "herself" around Clay, or maybe, like him, that's just what we want to believe. Through flashbacks that run through the entirety of these 13 episodes, we start to see the growth of a friendship he wishes were more if only he had the fortitude to make it happen.

Essentially the prototypical teen, Clay is neither popular or unpopular and we get the impression that his possession of the tapes in the wake of Hannah's suicide is probably the most attention he's ever received. It's tough to depict a teen romance, or even tease the idea of one without sappiness, but this one is done just right. By refusing to put a halo on her or suit him up in armor and then denying them anything close to a happy ending, we can just sit back and appreciate how their time together is handled, lifting the simplest of "boy meets girl" stories into this doomed tragedy.

We're left with the impression that even if Hannah had lived, there's simply no way she'd end up with Clay, or even someone like him considering the head space she's at. The point of no return in the series comes when even she starts to acknowledge her issues, realizing she needs help. And it's when she reaches out to her classmates that they instead pounce like animals. Australian actress Katherine Langford's performance as Hannah starts with this wide-eyed optimism we can't imagine shifting gears until it slowly does, as she's put through the wringer in a series of events that allow us to eventually see that life and future slowly drain from her eyes with each traumatic encounter.

Gone, but far from forgotten
Langford's complimented perfectly by Dylan Minnette, projecting this stoicism and internal sadness that slowly builds into a simmering rage when he listens to the tapes and discovers just how many people could have done more to prevent this tragedy or share some degree of responsibility in it. The list becomes endless and his problems coping infiltrate every aspect of his life, leading to one of the series' most memorable visuals, as Clay hallucinates a blood drenched Hannah lying lifeless on the hardwood floor during a school basketball game.   

Whatever flaws Hannah may seem to have become minor in the broad scheme of things when we meet the subjects of those tapes and learn that her classmates, some of whom she'd call "friends" at one point, are ten times worse because they project their issues onto everyone else. Some do it consciously, others by accident, but all share culpability in how they treated her. While Clay claims that getting revenge on those who are on the tapes is all for Hannah, as his journey progresses a good enough case can be made that he's really doing this to absolve his own guilt over not telling her how he felt when she was alive. In fact, everyone's preoccupation with the drama surrounding the tapes often causes them to miss things that are right in front of their faces, this time hurting each other in many of the same ways that drove Hannah to end her own life.

It's around the fourth episode or so that the series starts settling in and finding its groove, as the format of dedicating each tape to a person who somehow qualifies as a reason for Hannah's tragic act starts ingeniously paying off. You start to realize that the first couple of inciting events set into motion a series of incidents that lead to much bigger, damaging ones that spiral out of control, a "butterfly effect" of sorts that's directly referenced by Hannah in her narration, but may as well also apply to the show as a whole. Only adding to the intrigue and mystery surrounding her death is the fact that nearly all these actors are unknowns, creating a freshness and unpredictability that may have otherwise been absent with a cast full of major stars bringing baggage and preconceived notions to their roles.

Alex (Miles Heizer) goes for a swim
Other than lead Dylan Minette (who played young Jack Sheperd on Lost) and Miles Hiezer (a former Parenthood supporting player who's unrecognizable here with a nose ring and bleached hair), it's a good bet you haven't seen any of these performers before, or if you have, wouldn't remember. We meet them as Hannah does for the first time, and as the universe of the show expands, it becomes as much about them as her.

While it would be impossible to get into all the intricate backstories and motivations behind these characters without spoiling the show's surprises, the two that most stand out aside from the co-protagonists are the reckless Jessica Davis played by unquestionable future star Alisha Boe and Hiezer's dark, moody Alex Standall. Where they start when Hannah initially meets and befriends them compared to where the material ends of taking them is kind of staggering, with both actors proving themselves more than up to the task.

While all the acting has been widely and justifiably praised, when you think of the heart and soul of the show and the possibilities of it continuing past the immediate aftermath of Hannah's death, it's Jessica and Alex who immediately come to mind as having already gone to the most challenging places, but still having story left. Of the supporting cast, Boe and Heizer's performances may just travel the furthest in helping anchor the series as something that far transcends the genre constraints it breaks free from.

Hannah with mom Olivia (Kate Walsh)
It's easy to initially be perplexed Hannah's parents' obsessive quest to point fingers at the school without the audio evidence Clay is privy to, but the more we learn of the tape's contents and how the faculty handled the info they did have, her behavior can be viewed in an entirely different different light. Kate Walsh does gut-wrenching work as Olivia, a devastated mother tired and dissheveled enough to have been to hell and back, but with an unwavering sense of justice for her deceased daughter who she just knows in her gut was wronged. As Hannah's dad, Andy, Brian d'Arcy James is more measured and logical but even he can't deny the mounting evidence and growing suspicions, as much frustrated that their inability to financially make ends meet as a family may have somehow contributed to her sadness and stress.

The adults on the series are occupying an entirely different plane of reality than the teens, frequently oblivious to what's going on in their kids' lives. It's especially true of Clay's parents, Lainie and Matt (played by Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton), frustrated by their son's uncharacteristic behavior that consists of coming home at odd times beaten, bloody or drunk, skipping school, getting suspended and having random visitors over. It's possible that for no one else at Lincoln High or any real or fictional high school this would raise as many red flags as it does for the straightlaced Clay, and they know this. They just haven't figured out the cause and how it relates to Hannah's suicide, or their relationship, which they know nothing of. Lainie's leading the charge while her more laid back husband smothers him with kindness, but her complicated link to the school and its faculty may soon make for an uncomfortable conflict of interest.

All this serves to further build anticipation for when Clay arrives at his own tape, while continuing to cast suspicions on Tony, the one person who seems to know everything about them, acting as an eyes and ears for the audience and a guardian angel to Clay. Played by Christian Navarro (who should remind some of a more likable Wilmer Valderamma), his scenes opposite Minnette are some of the best, with his character only growing in impact and importance as we head down the final stretch.  

Clay and Tony have a talk
Like a great puzzle box, all the pieces start coming together at the end, and when they do, there's a renewed appreciation for what came before and the creativity it must have taken to arrive there. And in that thirteenth episode there's an physically and emotionally brutal scene that's not only difficult to watch and more than warrants its pre-show title card warning, but proves the creators were serious and sincere in their intentions. Getting to know these characters and being taken on this journey can only lead to one place, but whatever knowledge we have going into the inevitable suicide still can't fully prepare us for it.

The direction, editing and acting from those involved in the suicide sequence truly make it a nauseating, disturbing moment that feels like it lasts for hours, as it should. That I could barely watch tells me they did their job. If this is "controversial," then we can only hope that all shows are capable of courting controversy in such a brutally honest way. It's one thing to show someone killing themselves on screen, it's quite another properly handle everything that comes along with it. We're left not thinking about Hannah Baker's suicide, but instead how achingly close she came to not going through with it if only this or that happened differently.

I don't know how we get another season without Langford or the central mystery element that drove these thirteen episodes, but we will, and its impossible to not remain curious as to how. While there are many lingering threads and questions, you can't help but again be reminded of the Veronica Mars comparisons and worry given how that series never recovered once their mystery wrapped. As a standalone project it's so impressive that you'd just hate to see something this special limp on for multiple seasons to become "just another show." The question will be whether enough was done here to expand the universe and give the numerous remaining characters enough to move forward and work off of. Then comes the bigger question: Now that we have gone through all 13 thirteen tapes, will we see or hear from Hannah again?

Hannah reaches her breaking point
That 13 Reasons was executive produced and even partially directed by Tom McCarthy, the primarily indie filmmaker behind 2015's Best Picture-winning Spotlight, comes only as a surprise in so far as our perceptions of the material's possibilities going in. He shatters them, leaving all the results right there on the screen. The editing, direction, casting, performances, music choices and every seemingly minor, but eventually crucial detail like the cars the characters drive contribute to a fully immersive experience, surpassing anything that previously carried the perceived stench of "YA." He and directors Jessica Wu, Gregg Araki, Carl Franklin, Helen Shaver and Kyle Patrick Alvarez invest this with a depth and adult sophistication that also stands as a snapshot of our times, regardless of the ages of the characters involved.

If recording and distributing audio cassette tapes seemed far off when Yorkey's novel was written a decade ago, that time has added another layer aside from its now cool, nostalgic, old school appeal. It builds this bridge between the past and the present, giving the story a comfort and universality that speaks to everyone, reminding us that for all the complaints about cyber technology and social media ruining lives, at the end of the day we still bare the ultimate responsibility for how we treat each other, in seemingly even the smallest moments.

Netflix somehow does it again, producing a season of TV every bit as worthy of entering the cultural lexicon as Stranger Things and House of Cards before it. But what's more noteworthy is the steeper climb this had due to the added pressure of being taken seriously in a genre that rarely is. It's avoided here by not making a teen show at all, but a compelling adult drama with universal themes that happens to revolve around younger characters. Of course, that's easier said than done. As for the controversy? All it reveals is that this hit a chord by not holding back and daring to ask the tough, ugly questions no one's interested in going near. Those who find that morally reprehensible or disturbing would probably be better off not watching 13 Reasons. But those who do should be warned that once they start, it'll be impossible to stop.