I didn’t enjoy Heaven Knows What, but this Safdie follow-up is splashed across the covers of all three film magazines I subscribe to, so I went out all by myself (does nobody else in this town read the magazines?) to sit too close to the screen and watch a movie where everything is shot too close-up. Felt like maybe a bad idea, and I’m not always a fan of electro music scores, and I was already aware of certain accusations against the movie, but against all odds, it’s… extremely good. The nervous energy from the close camerawork and pulsing electro plus all the lurid colors and frantic performances add up to a… not a good time exactly, but a hell of a ride.

The only time the title is spoken in the movie is by Nick’s psychiatrist. The doctor is a white-haired nemesis to Connie, conspiring to restrict his brother’s freedom, appearing early in the movie’s trailer as Connie talks about “the program [Nick] is forced to attend and how he shouldn’t be there.” We see Nick going to prison in the trailer, getting beaten as his brother races against time to rescue him, then as images of violence flicker across the screen faster and faster the psychiatrist reappears: “This place where we are now can be a lot of fun if you let it. You’re gonna have a good time,” then the title sears across the screen. It feels like this wicked psychiatrist is taking advantage of helpless Nick, the title a bitterly ironic reference to the bad time Nick is gonna have in his evil institution. In the movie itself, it took me a couple scenes to shake this idea, since the psychiatrist seems harmless and Nick is the one getting his brother into trouble then trying to get him back out, in a rapidly escalating series of near-successes. Connie is (argh) a con-man, an expert manipulator, and we follow him as our would-be protagonist, the movie barely giving us time to contemplate the havoc he’s leaving behind him, until the deep-breath relief of the ending. In fact, the title is supposed to be a reference to getting reduced prison sentence for good behavior (Connie and Nick are both fresh out of prison) and the end of the film shows the psychiatrist actually helping Nick after his villain brother is sent away.

The first thing we see after Connie “rescues” his brother from the institute is a bank robbery, wearing dark-skin masks and getting hilariously foiled by a dye pack. In the ensuing chase, Nick smashes through a window and gets busted, and Connie fails to bail him out with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s cancelled credit card. Connie then breaks the wrong guy out of the hospital – a plot twist I saw coming but dismissed as too ludicrous-obvious – then teams up with him (Ray: Buddy Duress, Holmes’s buddy in Heaven Knows What) to make quick cash for bail money. Ray was busted at an amusement park, and stashed a sprite bottle full of pure liquid LSD and possibly some money, so they trick underage Crystal into giving them a ride there, fuck with the security guard, and everyone gets arrested except Connie and Ray, who escape with the LSD-soda to the guard’s apartment, where Ray calls his dealer and finally things go wrong.

J. Safdie on the controvery:

I don’t think Connie is a racist. I think that he just knows how society functions. He knows that society is racist.

Brian Tallerico:

Connie makes choices instantly, and one gets the impression that it’s an instinctual ability that has helped him at times but will only prove his downfall on this particular night … Pattinson perfectly conveys the nervous energy of being essentially hunted by your own bad decisions without ever feeling like he’s chewing scenery.

Quiet, lumpy Joel Edgerton (fourth movie I’ve seen him in, maybe I’ll recognize him next time?) marries sweet Ruth Negga (Ethiopian, of World War Z), they just want to be left alone with their kids and their auto repairs and home building and what not, but they’re arrested because they live in a racist Virginia shithole, and forced to move out of town. The NAACP hears about this and decides to use their case to challenge federal law, hires a shaky-looking local lawyer (comedian Nick Kroll), and Life sends photographer Michael Shannon, who gets them national attention. A slow-paced, good-natured movie with a happy ending – what’s not to like?

Travis, an ace photographer and committed activist, explores his own sordid family history, which only gets more shameful as he goes on, trying to atone for the crimes of his heritage by at least bringing them to light. Travis was in the room, reading live narration and triggering clips, making the experience more interesting and confrontational. His research leads him through some truly fiction-sounding scenarios – he’s told to quit searching and is chased out of town, and eventually digs up multiple rapes and another murder. This one has been written up extensively, and more elegantly than I can manage.

A. Taubin from Sundance:

Set in the deep South, in the small town of Dothan, Alabama, where S.E. Branch, a white supremacist and Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann in Branch’s grocery store. Branch was charged with murder, but the case never went to trial and he suffered no consequences … How is it that some people escape the racism and misogyny in which they are raised (Branch abused his wife and daughters and likely killed more than one black man) and some cling to it as their reason for existence? Wilkerson doesn’t offer an answer. But raising the question — at this moment when families are torn apart by what they believe America is and should be — is more than enough.

J. Cronk:

What he found, and what we watch and listen to him deliberate upon, was not news of a single murder, but an entire history of racism and brutal violence against the local black community. Branch, he discovers, was an outspoken bigot linked to multiple instances of violence and abuse against black men and women. With only a pair of vague news clippings and Spann’s death certificate as evidence, Wilkerson proceeded to trace the entwined fates of the Branch and Spann families … The futility of this quest is the crux of the film and the aspect of the project that most plagues Wilkerson, whose narration is in a constant state of second-guessing, self-indictment, and flat-out shame at the extent of the atrocities … When, in the course of his research, Wilkerson discovers that his mother’s sister is a practising white supremacist, the film takes on an increasingly disturbing urgency.

V. Murthi:

Wilkerson isn’t being disingenuous in his emotions or approach, but some of the moves on display feel too forced to be truly effective, especially when they’re juxtaposed next to others that are above board. This is the one film I feel most conflicted about. On one hand, I’m not sure I should judge an individual’s personal, politically motivated expression, but on the other hand, I can’t lie and say that there weren’t times when it made me feel uncomfortable outside the scope of Wilkerson’s perceived intentions. With that being said, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? was one of the very best things I saw at the festival precisely because it got under my skin.

A bunch of… things. Sometimes it seemed like the movie was taking different aspects of Baltimore life/history/politics and rat life/history/infestations and tying them together into a beautiful conspiracy web, and sometimes it seems like the pieces did not fit together but he doggedly left them in the movie.

The part everyone’s talking about is the movie’s discussion of “redlining” (via sci-fi voiceover), preventing certain (ahem, black) areas of town from getting investment and development, and how the redline maps from eighty(?) years ago line up closely to today’s maps of the city’s worst poverty, education, etc. The part nobody’s really talking about is the drag racing footage, or why he takes the very effective opening title scene of a rat trying to escape a trash bin and repeats it later in the movie.

Other bits from most-to-least-relevant:

– city employee who treats rat infestations and speaks the movie’s premise (the rat problem in Baltimore is really a people problem)

– scientist who studied population concentrations by building a rat High-Rise and documenting civilization collapse

– video game footage textured with Baltimore aerial maps, giving a post-apocalyptic meltdown feeling, discussing how the universe creeps in through the seams of the imperfect 3D environment

– rat hunters (couple of guys with baseball bat and fishing pole, and one with an array of guns)

– rat’s-height roving drone cameras, both real and VR

– a couple watching TV with their pet rats

– stylistic quirks (clicking sounds on edits, piercing electronic noise, white flashes)

Relevant:

Less Relevant:

The ending, in which Baltimore is leveled and begun again, bothered Katy, who says that suddenly telling an obviously fictional story and presenting it on equal ground as the rest of the segments calls all the movie’s facts into question.

Our screening was preceded by a short talk by Sarah Jeong which started by pondering a possible plot hole in the Star Wars film series (both the jedi and the empire have “long-distance” video chat capabilities, so why do the rebels fly around with their precious plans on a physical disc?), then presuming it’s because all the best communications technologies are held by governments and regular shmoes have no access to intergalactic data transmission, ending with a plea for modern net neutrality – genius.

Jordan Smith:

Rat Film embraces an off-kilter essayistic form that digs through the city’s legislative history of systematic segregation (in its way reminding me of Robert Persons’ mournful General Orders No. 9) and rat-infested back alleys of the city’s tenements, subversively suggesting along the way that the countless minorities left amongst the wreckage of unjust codification have been little more than rats in a failed experiment run by white bodies. Meticulously researched and eerily presented by an ethereal Siri-like voiceover, Rat Film’s crushing thesis lands with a serious crunch that reminds of the death and detritus that’s been institutionalized since the city’s inception.

J. Fox:

What really gives Rat Film its charge is its interest in mapping, and in the ways that maps intervene on the world by representing them. The rat provides a convenient metaphor for the social, or at least the social envisioned as a disease-spreading mass — intellectual, economic, racial or microbial — that must be contained … When Rat Film engages a number of actual maps, from those redlining diagrams to 3D urban real estate models and VR platforms, it does so in order to stretch them to their pre-programmed limits, revealing those spots where they fray at the seams. What is left at the end is a world of precarity, one of predominantly African-American people made precarious by these instruments of social engineering, and of a world in need of new models for living.

Daniel Kaluuya (my favorite Black Mirror actor) is dating Allison Williams (my fourth-favorite Girls actress), comes to visit her parents Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford and brother Caleb Landry Jones (Antiviral) in an aggressively white suburb. At first there’s the socially-awkward but not overtly threatening kind of racial tension: dad brags about his Obama support and all the white family’s employees are black. But things get weirder after the mom hypnotizes Kaluuya and now he can’t tell if he’s being paranoid or if there’s a conspiracy, until it’s too late and he’s tied to a chair in the basement being prepped for brain surgery, so the highest bidder (blind Stephen Root) can flee his aging white body and live fifty more years inside Kaluuya’s.

A finely crafted thriller, and I’d never in a million years guess it was from the writer of Keanu. I could tell that Peele had made a super-effective movie when the white Nebraska audience at my crowded screening erupted in cheers when Allison Williams got shot (or maybe she’s just their least-favorite Girls actress as well). Betty Gabriel (The Purge 3) and Marcus Henderson (Insidious 4) play the grandparents play-acting as servants (she’s especially good – coldly suspicious then briefly vulnerable). Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12 and Atlanta, Snoop in Straight Outta Compton) is the party guest who yells the title line at Kaluuya when a camera flash wakes him from “the sunken place.” And comedian Lil Rel Howery is Kaluuya’s buddy in the TSA who gets all the best lines.

Some of the reception has focused on whether it’s a scary/effective horror movie, which is the same kind of horror-purist bickering that lowered appreciation for Cabin in the Woods and The Witch. Come on everyone, break out of your genre holes. Peele more accurately calls it a “social thriller,” and says he’s working on four more.

Alan:

One minute in, this movie that will play every mall in America makes it viscerally clear that it’s not black guys who are scary — it’s neighborhoods packed with sheltered dopes who quake at the very thought of black guys … Get Out is searing satire, with scary/comic riffs on slavery and assimilation, but it’s also a smashing crowd-pleaser of a horror film, complete with mad science, cult-like crazies and a creep-out homage to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin … But even as Peele brings the house down, we see the serious toll of all this horror on Chris’ face and body. Neither the movie nor anybody watching can take it all as a joke.

Worth the eight-hour length, which is extremely high praise for a documentary miniseries about a topic that didn’t interest me at all until all the rave reviews and awards started flowing in. Although after sitting through the whole thing I don’t have much to say about it besides agreeing with whichever critic recently said it’s greater as journalism than filmmaking. We were most interested in the pre-murder episodes, about OJ’s adventures in racist America, and how the perception of him changed, than in rehashing the glove fiasco.

A. Muredda, from his fascinating comparison of the two big O.J. movies, which ends with a giant backhanded compliment to The People vs. O.J. Simpson:

For Edelman, Simpson registers as a calculating, charismatic man whose self-written Horatio Alger myth leading up to the murders happened to coincide with critical moments in race relations in late 20th-century America, despite his near total lack of interest in politics. Sociologically astute, methodical, and committed to being non-exploitative in its paralleling of Simpson’s trial with a history of police brutality and civil rights violations dating back at least as far as the Watts riots of 1965 … each episode grapples with a structural contradiction between Simpson’s professional and personal life and the toxic racial context around him.

“You know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul towards justice has ossified in white men and women … White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country’s infinite abundance with Negroes.”

I’m not fully convinced that Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abe Lincoln is realistic – he seems too wise and charming, too capable and upright, too able to manipulate fellow politicians who ought to know better, too perfectly Spielbergian. But that kind of politics sure felt good to watch in the present day when leaders of the “Party of Lincoln” run our government like cartoon villains. This is actually covered in the film when TL Jones dresses down a spineless adversary: “The modern travesty of Thomas Jefferson’s political organization to which you’ve attached yourself like a barnacle has the effrontery to call itself the Democratic Party.” Even after all the acclaim I wasn’t sure it’d be that captivating a film, but every performance is on point, the story is true-ish and meaningful and inspiring, there’s drama and humor and it’s got the best lighting I’ve seen in any movie all year.

Opens unexpectedly with post-battle David Oyelowo talking to the president. Besides Lincoln and his wife Sally Field and son Joey Gordon-Levitt there’s David Strathairn as the hesitant secretary of state, James Spader and John Hawkes as the president’s lobbyists sent to change senators’ minds (via bribery if necessary), Tommy Lee Jones (with a hairpiece so ridiculous he makes a joke of it himself) as a radical leftist senator. Walt Goggins and Adam Driver pop up, and Stephen Henderson of Fences, and Jackie Earle Haley and hundreds more.

Soldiers sent to meet the confederate delegation:

I didn’t know who James Baldwin (writer/activist) was, nor one of the friends/subjects of his unfinished manuscript, Medgar Evers (killed for working for the NAACP to integrate schools). So I watched this half as history lesson and half as experience, taking in Baldwin’s great language and experiences, the director’s intercutting of film history (Baldwin commented regularly on the movies), and Sam Jackson’s narration in a low, very un-Sam-Jackson voice.

M. Sicinski:

Baldwin’s prose focuses on his memories and observations of these three pivotal men, but also veers into other related questions: his sense of duty to leave his expat life in Paris behind and return to America at the height of the Civil Rights movement; the historical legacy of slavery and the culture of the South; the psychopathology of the white man; and his becoming reconciled with his position as a “witness,” a man of letters in the midst of a historical epoch too often cemented by bloodshed.

Sicinski comments positively on Peck’s filmmaking – M. D’Angelo counters:

The conceit of structuring this film around Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript requires Peck to find images to accompany the words … and he does a thuddingly literal job … Most of this just isn’t a movie — it’s a visual audiobook.

Second of the oscar-nominated documentaries we’ve seen at the Ross this month. We’re almost through the O.J. doc, about to watch Life Animated, and we’ll see if we can get to 13th before True/False.

“What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?”

Memorial screening for Gene Wilder. I haven’t seen this in over 20 years, and probably that was a cropped, edited-for-TV version. It’s kind of a half-assed movie with plenty of stupid scenes, but also quite hilarious and wonderful at times.

Cleavon Little (Vanishing Point) dupes thug Mongo with a candygram:

Brooks probably carefully positioned the pen for this shot:

One complaint: Madeline Kahn’s Marlene Dietrich impression is so awful that I looked up how she managed to get cast in Young Frankenstein afterward, but it turns out she was oscar-nominated for this. Except for Picnic at Hanging Rock and I guess Shampoo, it was an extremely masculine year at the movies, so perhaps there weren’t enough entries.

Ends as a backlot romp with Dom DeLuise, of course: